Malawi Day 1

The arrival to Lilongwe was welcome but uneventful. The driver, Patrick was there to pick me up from the airport and take me 5 hours south to Blantyre because Air Malawi’s planes are grounded due to a failure to pay their lease. The road trip along the main highway of Malawi is long, but it affords me a view of the gorgeous (albeit treeless due to massive deforestation) countryside and of rural life in Malawi. In a country of 15 million people living in a state the size of New Jersey, you can expect that there is not any large space of land that doesn’t have at least one community of people.

99% of the vehicles in Malawi (and perhaps all of Africa) are bought used from Japan. Combine a 100,000 mile vehicle with the decaying condition of the now overused roads, and you have one beat to shit car. While passing through Zomba, one of the rear wheels of the truck came flying off and shot 50 feet into the air. Our good fortune allowed it to happen in the middle of a city and at night. If it had been the day, someone would have certainly been killed by the flying wheel. Had it been on the “highway”, we would have certainly died, as these drivers like to do almost 90 on the worst roads imaginable, past hordes of bicycles and goats that constantly wander into the middle of the road.

In an incredible African moment, 20 guys came out of the nearby truckstop and jacked the truck up on pieces of cement and managed to reattach the wheel armed with nothing but a crowbar and a rock. We had to cannibalize the lugs from the existing wheels, leaving us with a wheel held on by only three lugs on less than ideal posts. The trip that would have taken an hour, took us 6 as we could only do about 5 miles an hour all the way back. All the while I was praying that we wouldn’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere, having to wait until the next morning for a ride.

Every two kilometers or so, we had to stop and tighten the lugs to keep the wheel from falling off again, and every time we’d stop, drunken soccer fans would wander out of the darkness like zombies to see what we were up to, all to the soundtrack of the World Cup blaring out of an ancient TV speaker. One gentleman, drunk off his ass, decided to demonstrate his knowledge of English obscenities while I took care to keep an eye on the starving dog wandering up to see if we had any food. Patrick would make sure to stop in areas where we would have limited contact with zombies, but, as I mentioned before, there are people in every corner of Malawi. After about 10 repeats of this situation, we finally made it to Blantyre and I was able to call my three day trip over.

One thing I had forgotten, is how every conversation, no matter how mundane or serious, is punctuated by incredible laughter amongst all parties. In 10 hours all the way back to Blantyre, in what should have been an event for serious concern, I don’t think there was more than 10 minutes where someone wasn’t laughing hysterically.

On the way, we stopped through Patrick’s wife’s home village where he is building a home. Apparently, Malawian men must build a home for their wives in the village of their mothers in law as a condition of marriage. This is in addition to the home that they must build in their own village and the home that they must maintain in the city to be able to work. So Patrick must have three homes on one salary. He proudly showed me his brick home, and explained that he made all the bricks by hand, as all Malawians do and then paid $80.00 to have a brick mason put them up. 20 children from the village came out to see probably the first white guy they had ever met and proudly practiced their english. This is an absolutely incredible place, full of vast quantities of human kindness and warmth. Malawi is truly deserving of its name, “The Warm Heart of Africa.”

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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