Rebecca Jacobson
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Why You Do Not Tell Your Mother About Your Mode of Transportation

October 19, 2009 @ 8:51 AM | Permalink

“They say no vehicle in Malawi is ever full,” a friend told me last week. Indeed — commuting in Malawi has been a most intimate experience. Though the omnipresent minibuses are designed for 10 or 12 passengers, they typically carry upwards of 16 or 17 folks, not including infants, gargantuan potato-filled sacks, and any number of live chickens. For my first two weeks here, I rode minibuses only for short-haul jaunts across Blantyre, doing my best to ignore the baler twine holding the door together, enjoying informal Chichewa lessons, and perfecting the art of clambering over knees, groceries, and small children. But after this past weekend, these short trips now seem like small peas.

The 100-mile journey from Blantyre to the southern shore of Lake Malawi takes about three hours by car. Our voyage lasted a full six. For the sake of dwindling attention spans, I’ve compiled six highlights from the four-leg (Blantyre to Limbe to Zomba to Mangochi to Nkopola) adventure.

1. Bribing our minibus driver to chase another vehicle bore no fruit. Thoko and I tried our darndest to make up for our late departure from Blantyre, but our friends Charles and Tawonga were off. Taking curbs and potholes at such zippy speeds, however, proved quite exhilarating. I checked in Limbe to make sure my bum had arrived intact. It had.

2. No matter how potholed, even by Malawian standards, the stretch of road from Limbe to Zomba proved, I found the hour-long ride glorious. Wind whipped through the grimy window as I bounced on the sticky red vinyl seat and soaked up the landscape, which turned lusher and greener as we approached Zomba. Had this been a movie, a contemplative song about the beauty of youth would have spun in the background.

3. And who was there in Zomba, waiting for their minibus to fill? Charles and Tawonga. They badgered us for our tardiness but then welcomed us into the back row, where we shared a greasy, paprika-flecked portion of fries. Thoko finally had his wish, the crew sitting four wide and making noise and nonsense in the backseat.

4. Not that the minibus needed us for nonsense. We took a poky pace, halting every quarter hour to drop or pick up passengers and pack in fresh loads of cargo, including a massive knot of shredded tire rubber and enough two-by-fours to construct a small house. We bought fruit through the window at each stop, juicy, tough-skinned masuku and tiny, sweet bananas.

5. Right before sunset, police at a roadblock fined our driver 5,000 Kwacha, about $35, for overloading our minibus. A recently passed law limits minibuses to three people per row, which is obeyed about as often as it snows in Malawi. As soon as we were past the roadblock, the driver continued to collect additional passengers. Have to recoup your losses, right?

6. After disembarking in baobab-studded, whitewashed Mangochi, we deserted the driver who told us his bursting minibus, already holding 20, could squeeze five more. We instead rode the last 22 kilometers in the flatbed of a vegetable truck. In a reassuring show, our driver and his cronies stopped at one point to buy drinks. I pushed visions of doom aside, nestled in among the wilted lettuce and turned my gaze up to the stars, searching for constellations, flipped upside down in the vast southern hemisphere sky.


Posted on 10/21/2009 by

Angela Allen

Terrific. Great ending again. aa

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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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