Malawi Update: Safari Zone

So behind on posts right now, mostly due to super spotty internet connections. However, I was able to go to the Liwonde National Park the other day, just about 80 km north of here. It’s an amazing peek into what Malawi would look like if it didn’t suffer from extreme overpopulation, deforestation due to the heating needs of 15 million people, and the devastation that large scale tobacco and tea farming have wrought on the landscape. Without the very profitable whitey tourist trade, I doubt that a paradise like Liwonde could even exist at this point. It’s said that while God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, the African people were so endeared, that he let them stay.

Liwonde park is a 500 square miles wildlife sanctuary which provides home to hippos, crocodiles, impala, ibex, warthogs and the magnificent African elephants. You have no appreciation for the immense size and power of these animals until you sit 50 feet away from a 50 year old male African elephant waging a testosterone psych out fest with a Toyota Land Rover. To add to that, you can get within 50 yards of an elephant breeding group and witness the incredible amount of food they must consume to stay alive.

Hippos are everywhere. It’s easy to see why Malawians fear them more than any other animal around. They collect in clans that could potentially span the entire Shire River, which is the main river that run through the southern part of Malawi which drains from Lake Malawi and the surrouding mountains. They are extremely aggressive and protective of their young, likely due to the constant threat of massive crocodiles which infest every part of the Shire.

Bike taxis

Liwonde is entirely accessible to rich whiteys who rent vehicles to drive in, but difficult to access if you aren’t so financially endowed. Getting from Blantyre to Liwonde, requires that one ride just about every method of transport besides airplane and horse. I managed to hitch a ride with some folks from the Malaria Alert Centre on top 500 pounds of freshly painted steel window in the back of a creaky Land Rover over the Malawian “highway” from Blantyre to Zomba. Then, one has to take a short minibus ride to Ulongwe, where you can catch a bicycle taxi for the 16km ride to the park from the “bus stop”. Pretty much anybody with a bicycle and a little upolstery can start their own taxi service in Malawi and cart people just about anywhere in the country. The travel agent attempted to talk me out of the bicycle ride, but I firmly made it clear that it would be an absolutely amazing idea to ride 16km through rural Malawi on a bicycle. If I had my own bike, I would have done it myself.

After the park, I got the pleasure of a four hour minibus ride back to Blantyre. I did the calculations and figured out that it would have been faster to take a bicycle back to Blantyre. I feel, however, that a person has not truly lived until they have taken an extended ride on a Malawian mini-bus. For those not familiar, the minibus is usually a converted Toyota minivan, formerly used to cart children to and from a swimming pool somewhere in anywhere-Mura, Japan. They have a terrible safety record, are in generally poor repair, are uncomfortable and often seat more than 25 people in a space designed for 10 in order to maximize profit for drivers and benefit to riders.

In Malawi, the minibuses are central to the Malawian economy, linking every habitable area across the country. They connect not only shoppers and people going about their daily lives, but also serve as the thread that keep the complex patchwork of Malawian society tightly woven. It takes 4 hours to travel 80km from Ulongwe to Blantyre. Part of the reason that it takes such an inordinate amount of time is that the minibus driver must have a conversation with friends and aquaintaces at every stop, in addition to riders having to get out and take items to relatives along the way and make greetings to friends and family who might happen to be hanging out at one of the many markets along the side of the road. Old beggars seeking money must be attended to and kindly taken care of, and children must be watched out for as they approach the bus to talk to whatever relative might be riding inside. In a country of 15 million people, it is amazing that Malawians have so many connections in so many geographically separated areas.

Riders of the minibus come from all walks of life and the bus spares every effort to accomodate their needs, which can include making space for mothers to breastfeed babies, large, 100 pound sacks of maize and charcoal, live chickens, suitcases, wealthy and poor persons alike. Women range from poor mothers picking up stocks of sugar cane to sell along road stands in their villages, mothers with multiple numbers of small children and women on their way to weddings, church and engagement ceremonies dressed in exquisite hand made formal attire. Jokes and laughter abound within the minibus, and everyone is treated as a good friend in the cramped quarters of the bus. It’s truly incredible.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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