Malawi Transportation Encyclopedia

OK, so this is a bit of a stand-alone blog I’ve been putting together in my head for a while now, so I figured I should post it. The key bottleneck has been getting photos for some of these, since taking out one’s expensive camera in the middle of a sketchy bus station isn’t always a good idea, but I managed it. Transportation is always one of the more interesting experiences in getting around Malawi (or anywhere in Africa), so it’s probably good to give everyone a sense of how things work over here. Thus, some key transportation options are as below.

The key theme for pretty much all of these is PATIENCE. The concepts of efficiency, punctuality and effective time management don’t always resonate strongly with people in Malawi, and so one has to adapt to things not happening quickly.

Buses (full size):
Pretty standard mode of long distance transportation anywhere, although in Malawi the catch is that with the exception of one bus company, there is no set schedule for when the buses leave. The bus leaves when it is full, and not before. Full by the way means every seat filled along with all the standing space in the isle filled as well. So if you’re getting on the bus at a bad time, say late morning or early afternoon, you could be waiting there on the bus for several hours in the hot sun before it actually gets going. Once it does get going, the whole concept of an express bus is foreign to them, and they will stop anywhere and everywhere along the way to drop people off, pick people up, let people off to take a crap in the bushes, stop so people can buy food from the street vendors, etc.
It is an excellent way to see the whole cross section of Malawian society though. On two occasions while traveling on one of these buses we had travelling preachers on the bus who gave an impromptu sermon, followed by passing a hat around and asking for contributions, then singing church hymns. Basically it’s about 50% Sunday church service and 50% travelling snake oil salesman (the flashiness of one of the guy’s ties was insane), but quite interesting regardless.

Big bus at the station waiting for passengers

Minibuses:
These are pretty much the backbone of public transportation in Malawi. Essentially they are extended minivans that have four benches in them in addition to the front seats, meaning they can take fifteen passengers (children don’t count) in addition to the driver and the conductor (he lets people on and off). Fifteen is thus not the maximum number of people that they can fit on, but rather the minimum number of people that need to be on the bus before it sets off on its destination. They will always find room to pick up more people along the way. As with the big buses, there is no schedule and they leave whenever they have enough people on them.
These buses get used both for intercity transport and for transport from smaller villages and towns into the big regional centres. There’s usually a set price that is known to regular travelers, but if they see an opportunity to price gouge someone (i.e. an unaware foreign traveller), they will definitely take it. The minibus drivers all compete with one another as well, so more than once I’ve had arguments break out over who gets my business. Luggage is always an interesting issue since there is very little space set aside for it. Usually it will end up on people’s laps or under the seats. If it’s a particularly problematic piece of luggage (really smelly fish or live chickens), then the conductor may charge extra for that.

Minibus that is slowly filling up with people...

Matolas:
Otherwise known as ‘the back of a truck’, these Matolas tend to pick people up on highways, not very well travelled routes or other very outlying areas where there are basically no other options for transport other than walking long distances in the hot sun. As with all other Malawian forms of transportation they cram the maximum number of people that they can on to these trucks in order to maximize profit, so the key is to find a spot in the truck that allows for some sort of hand hold and perhaps being able to sit down.
Due to the number of family members reading this blog I will decline to give a number as to how many times I’ve needed to make use of this mode of transportation, except to say that I’ve kept it to a bare minimum, and only when there aren’t any other alternatives.

Matola loaded up with supplies. These also carry passengers

Border-Border Taxis:
Standard four door sedans that have a bit of a unique set-up here in Mwanza where I am based. Basically, the Mwzana town centre is spread out in an extremely linear manner along the highway, making it not particularly easy for people to walk from one point to another. So there are a whole bunch of privately run taxi cabs that take people back and forth along the highway anywhere between the police border checkpoint and the Mozambique border (about 7 or 8 km apart) for a flat rate that USED to be 50MK per person but due to fuel issues has now doubled to 100 MK . REALLY convenient for getting around although as with everything else they do pack as many people in as they can (up to six passengers per car plus the driver).
Bicycle Taxis:
Similar to the Border-Border taxis in that they are for intra-city or intra-town transportation, except these are bicycles, not cars. They have a second seat built on to them sort of above the back wheel where someone can sit, and sometimes little handlebars as well extending from the back of the main set. You pay the owner of the bicycle a little bit of money, like 20 MK ($0.15), then he peddles really hard up the hills and doesn’t use his peddles (or brakes) at all on the down-hills and gets you to your destination. Helmets are not worn, and it’s always an interesting adventure swerving around holes in the road, pedestrians other people on bicycles and vehicles!

Bike taxis waiting for passengers

Trucks:
Basically a necessity for travelling significant distances off the main highways. Only the main highways are paved in Malawi, and once you get off those you get pretty quickly into what can only charitably be called roads. Packed dirt and rocks that start washing out at the slightest bit of rain that are very difficult to get around in the dry season and are pretty much impassible in the rainy season. Four wheel drive, really good suspension and a skilled driver are thus absolute necessities to get around the rural parts of the district, and even then it’s stressful and nerve racking. This is a photo of the District Water Office’s truck, which runs on diesel, is new and is in good condition since it was provided as part of the UNICEF support that the district receives.

The District Water Office's truck for the field

Motorcycles:
See the above description for an assessment of why Malawi’s roads make these necessary. Basically small little off-road motorcycles that can carry two people that are also really useful for getting around the district. Not as much range as a truck, but pretty light on fuel, which is a major asset in fuel starved Malawi. Similar to the truck, the water office has two motorcycles which were provided to it by UNICEF, so they are in pretty good condition…

One of the district's two motorcycles

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3 Responses to Malawi Transportation Encyclopedia

  1. Dave says:

    Hi Kevin. Great blogs. Transportation sounds challenging. I hope the you don’t miss your flight on the 28th!

  2. Lynne Paulsen says:

    Thanks Kevin for the interesting summary of transportation in Malawi. Looks like the Water District’s vehicles are the way to go, but I imagine you have to compete for the opportunity to use them. Driviing under those conditions you’ll probably find driving on snow and taking our relatively uncrowded buses easy once you get home. Although our bendy-buses have been blocking traffic during the odd snowstorm coming down the hill in Barb’s neighbourhood, as they are not made for Calgary winter weather conditions. See you in early Janusry.

  3. Tom Knott says:

    Time Travel Travel Time. The past is behind you, the future forward !!
    I like the Toyota Hilux Diesel pickup – #1 in the world – My Toyota salesman tells me the Cdn market is too small to import them, othewise, I want one.
    Seasons Greetings – Prairie weather mild and nearly snow-free – You’re doing a fine job – keep up the good work
    Uncle Tom.

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