Archive | March 2011

Sierra Leone Civil War Truth and Reconciliation Data

During the years of 1991 through 2002, Sierra Leone experience one of the most chaotic and gruesome civil wars in the history of mankind. In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front attempted to overthrow the Momoh government with the support of Liberian despot Charles Taylor. The RUF immediately took control of the largest diamond producing areas of Sierra Leone and led the country on a downward spiral of chaos and destruction. No less than 20 armed groups fought for control of various sections of the country, waging wars largely not between each other, but on local civilians, men, women and children. Bloody and disgusting stories of killing, hacked limbs, rape, forced sexual slavery and forced recruitment of child soldiers made minor news in the west, but decimated local communities and has had severe implications for Sierra Leone’s development to this day. It is a truly embarrassing and shameful period of human history.

Following the end of the civil war, the Parliament of Sierra Leone established the “Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to record and investigate the widespread atrocities committed by militant groups during the war, assess responsibility for the war and hold the criminals accountable. One very important aspect to the Commission’s work, was to conduct numerous interviews with victims and victims’ families to record and quantify the vast crimes committed during the conflict.

Total Number of Violations by Type


The dataset contains records of more than 40,000 individual victims. It lists the age, sex and occupation of the victim, the date and type of atrocity committed, which group committed it and the location of the event. The data are a frightening record of human depravity and indifference to the life and welfare of the weak.

As in nearly every conflict human history has ever known, violations during the Sierra Leone Civil War covered a wide range of human rights abuses and violent acts, almost exclusively waged against civilians. The most common types of violations were forced displacement, abduction, arbitrary detention and killing. least common were forced cannibalism, drugging, sexual slavery and forced recruitment into rebel groups. We can likely assume that all groups in these lower categories are under-represented in the data due to stigma and continued marginalization.

Ranking of violations by mean age.

Types of crimes against civilians varied by age group. Older individuals were much more likely to experience crimes involving destruction and theft of property, the forced taking of territory through displacement, extortion and killing. Younger individuals were more likely to fall victim to sexual crimes, drugging and forced recruitment. The age distribution of victims by gender was very different. Male victims tended to be much older than females (see gallery for graphic), though there were some female victims that were over 100 years old. Neither distribution accurately reflects what one would expect the age distribution to be in Sierra Leone, suggesting that victims of particular age groups were targeted with specific aims in mind.


Principal Components Analysis

First two PCAs

Given the large number of variables in the data, I sought to decompose them into two or three distinct groups in order to discover predictable groups of violations which might occur alongside one another. It is possible that some violations occur alongside one another. For example we might assume that sexual slavery would occur alongside rape and thus create a group of sexual crimes. Principal components analysis is a data reduction strategy which finds statistically correlated groups within large data sets. Social scientists, medical researchers and geneticists often use PCA, because their datasets include often massive numbers of variables.

Using princomp() in R, I found evidence for two or possibly three distinct groups. The first included most of the variables, but specifically those relating to property crimes, displacement, killing, abuse and extortion. We could potentially name this group “Terror Against Civilians” and look at it as a general group of common (but no less horrific) crimes against civilians waged by militant groups.

The second group included drugging, sexual slavery, forced recruitment and forced, labor. Rape, interestingly, rested between these two groups. As the variables in the second group are primarily violations involving the young, we could call this, accordingly, “Crimes Against Children.” These would include the sexual enslavement of young girls and the drugging and forced recruitment of young boys to serve as soldiers in warring groups.

Really, the distinction in crimes against civilians in Sierra Leone, was the difference in the age of victims. Older victims were more likely to be targeted for their property, social status as chiefs and leaders and to be displaced for territory. Younger victims were valued for domination, as sexual resources and as a pool of new soldiers for what would be otherwise very small militant groups.

Regardless of the type of analysis, the Civil War in Sierra Leone is one of the most disgusting chapters in human history. Presently, we are seeing a similar narrative being played out in the Ivory Coast, where an election dispute has turned into a regional civil war, with thousands being displaced, killed and abused. The United States and the world community as a whole has, hypocritically, turned a blind eye to the problems in the Ivory Coast. If the conflict continues, the Ivory Coast could very well be the next Sierra Leone.

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Academic Freedom: R.I.P.

The Wisconsin Republican Party was so threatened by a recent blog post and NY Times op-ed from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon, that they filed to recieve copies of all of Cronon’s emails. Cronon detailed connections between the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the present Republican administration in Wisconsin, who seek to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights, and ultimately reduce them to the status of poorly paid interns.

ALEC receives funding from a wide range of shady groups including the American Nuclear Energy Council, the American Petroleum Institute, Coors Brewing Company, Texaco, Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, VISA, Exxon Mobil, the National Rifle Association, Amway, and, of course, the infamous Koch Brothers.

William Cronon

One would assume, of course, that upon recieving the emails, smear professionals will scan the entire data base for scandalous tibdits that, when taken out of context, will ruin Cronon’s credibility. The results of this Republican led data mining experiment will be used to generate a case to fire him as a state employee or, at the very least, publicly make his life completely miserable and unlivable.

Cronon is like anyone who might read this blog. Given that many associated with this blog are at least in some way connected to either academic institutions or free thought and expression, I believe that we all have much to worry about.

Cronon’s recent experience reminds me of the recent arrest of political science professor, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga of Chancellor College in Zomba, Malawi. Dr. Chinsinga, referring to the at that time recent political uprisings in Egypt, pointed out that Malawi’s ongoing problems with fuel shortages, food insecurity and the lack of foreign exchange could one day prompt similar uprisings in his country. Word reached the office of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who had Dr. Chinsinga arrested at his home, detained and questioned for hours.

The state has little to no legal grounds on which to prosecute Dr. Chinsinga. However, his arrest and detention are clearly intended to intimidate, defame and publicly humiliate a potential critic of an political group determined to hold on to power.

Rather than sow the seeds of true democracy, Mr. Mutharika and the Wisconsin Republican Party have sowed the seeds of totalitarianism, taking points directly from the playbooks of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. Those three are certainly extreme examples. It is doubtful that the WRP will send Cronon for reeducation, nor have Cronon killed. However, the precedent is already there. Given the ugly, extreme and polarizing nature of modern day American politics, if intimidation of public citizens is to be accepted as fair political game, then it is only a matter of time before intimidation turns to true retaliation.

In contrast to the United States, faculty at Chancellor have gone on strike to protest Dr. Chinsinga’s detention. Malawian students have taken to the streets to demonstrate in favor of academic freedom and the public expression of criticism and independent thought. Students at Chancellor College have endured violent repression by police, multiple riots have ensued and arrests plentiful. To my knowledge, American students, like many Americans, are disturbingly quiet on the subject of political suppression of written dissent.

Libya: Crisis and Hypocrisy

Recently, a few people have asked me in private emails for my opinion on the recent US actions in Libya. I am, of course, happy that someone cares what I think about anything, but rather than send out individual and identical emails, I will respond here though I think my views contribute nothing new to the recent debates.

I am not an expert on North Africa, or on matters of US foreign military policy. However, the recent actions by the Obama administration are, to me, simultaneously confusing and completely expected. The Obama administration has repeatedly stressed that actions in Libya are to protect the Libyan populace from heavy handed retaliations by Qaddafi’s forces. Qaddaffi is no Mubarak. Mubarak refuses to die for a seat of power, Qaddaffi would kill every single living being in Libya before ceding the leadership of Libya.

Recent events in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain and less recent events in Iran provide ample evidence as to the lengths that repressive Middle Eastern government will go to suppress dissent. To this end, the US has no choice but to involve itself, as promoters of democracy and freedom (and the mid-east’s biggest customer). This of course, assumes that the goal is to prevent governments from slaughtering their own people. Actions in Libya send a clear message to other North African/Mid East governments that world players such as the US, Europe and, to a lesser extent, the impotent Arab League will not tolerate politically motivated domestic bloodshed by oppressive leaderships. In this view, the actions in Libya are noble.

However, the incredible hypocrisy should be self-evident. First, the Arab League is made up of heavy handed states and repressive states that the action would attempt to dissuade. They offer up initial support for the actions in Libya, but then back off when public opinion sways against them. This, of course, prompts one to wonder what the Arab League wants. Perhaps thee states merely wish to distract the conversation of widespread unrest from their own countries so that they can repress dissent with impunity. Perhaps they wish to indicate to potential rebels that this is what will happen when you rise up against your masters: your country will become the next Iraq. One wonders if, as the pattern has been in the past, the states of the Arab League merely wish the US to do their dirty work for them. The Arab states wish Qaddaffi out, as they wished Saddam Hussein out, the blame rest squarely on the Americans, and the Arab League can wash its hands clean. It’s clear that the relationship of the Arab states with the US is complex and that Arab states must maintain a balance between what supports their economies and placating angry public opinion, but one has to wonder whether we’ve been drawn into some duplicitous endgame.

Next, the reaction of Congress to the actions of the Obama administrations goal could not be more hypocritical. Particularly disturbing has been the screaming from the Republican establishment which unanimously supported the cowboy administration of the Bush years which spent money with abandon, laid out no clear objectives to any military actions from 2001 to 2008, and actively called those who spoke out against illegal invasions of Iraq, secret prisons, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. traitors against the state, unpatriotic and un-American. Yet now, the right has seen the light, and believes, after years of interventionist, imperialist and often violent foreign policy, it is now best that we sit on the sidelines in the Libyan crisis. Has the right all of sudden seen the errors of its ways? Pshaw. If Bush were in office, they would be praising him and a demigod of foreign policy, merely seeking to return the United Sates to its former glory as the sole imperial worldwide superpower. I may not agree with the actions of the Obama admin either, but this chapter is by far the most nauseating to me, at least as nauseating as witnessing a Democratic establishment sheepishly vote in favor of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, despite the clear fraud of his claims.

The actions of the Obama administration thus far, are completely legal under the War Powers Resolution of 1973. He need only notify Congress within 48 hours (which he did) and constrain actions to a 60 day window. Yet, this legal loophole does not absolve President Obama from the vast sea of hypocrisy of the United States and its benign and enabling treatment of dictators who kill their own people. Where has the United States been for the past 30 years of Robert Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe where he has repeatedly slaughtered his own people in order to suppress rightful dissent against his disastrous regime? The answer to this disconnect is clearly that of oil. Zimbabwe has nothing that the United States and Europe want, whereas Libya does. In this way, Obama raises the specter of his miserable predecessor, wantonly flexing his muscle to further US economic interests in the name of human rights and freedom, while enabling and encouraging the suppression of freedom and human rights elsewhere.

So, what is my opinion? In a nutshell, the Obama administration has bitten off way more than they are willing to chew. The plan in Libya is, to me, as a non-expert, poorly envisioned and dangerous. Is Obama a new Bush? No, that much is clear. The Obama administration’s lack of decisiveness and unwillingness to own up to its violence sets them apart from that of Mr. Bush, which drunkenly threw their military muscle around the world with few regrets. Rightists may take the Obama administration’s lack of focus as a sign of weakness, I consider it as a sign that they have considered the potential consequences. This doesn’t absolve Obama, but rather, is vastly preferable to the past alternatives.

Traditional Medicine in Malawi

Herbal medicines

In Africa, western medicine often has to compete with it’s indigenous counterpart. Traditional herbalists have long offered medical services to the ill, treating a variety of physical ailments and offering help to the injured and sick. Some merely offer herbal services, but others offer assist in the treatment of spiritual illnesses. Diagnosis of disease however, is a holistic matter, where practitioners look into the spiritual nature of the patient to discover answers to the type of ailment and the strategy of treatment. If ones looks hard enough, one can find herbalists on the outskirts of public markets. Often though, they wait by the entrance to standard hospitals, offering there products to anyone who passes by. Where western medicine fails, herbalists readily provide.

Many readily discredit herbalists and traditional medicine, but its my view that the characterization of fraudsters and hacks are undeserved. Herbalists often come from a long blood line of traditional doctors, and recipes are handed down and modified from father to son. Both of the herbalists I spoke with indicated that they first learned their trades from their parents or relatives.

Herbalists in Malawi are licensed to practice by the Malawian government and their legitimacy formally preserved. The Malawi Medical Practitioners and Dentists Act of 1987 protects the rights of traditional healers and herbalists to practice their trades in Malawi, assuming that life is not threatened:

“Nothing contained in this act will be construed to prohibit or prevent the practice of any African system of therapeutics by such persons in Malawi, provided that nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize performance by a person practising any African system of therapeutics of any act which is dangerous to life.”

Herbalist outside Machinga Hospital

Medications are intended for a variety of conditions, a few of which I list here. These were the medications which appeared in the short video I shot below:

1. Kuthenta Mapadzi – Medication for aching joints and feet

2. Mauka – for pain in urination, likely due to urinary tract infections or sexually transmitted infections

3. Konjzela Mphamvu – an aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement medication

4. High blood pressure medication

5.
Back pain

6. Burns on the hands or body

7. Any type of problems at all, it appears to be an aspirin like medication

8. Chibayo – for kidney problems

9. Kudya Kanzanza – medication for diarrhea

10. Eye problems

11. Njohka – for cases of intestinal worms

Herbalist license

Not surprisingly, most of these medications are for chronic conditions associated with aging. Medical service in Malawi, being as rudimentary as it is, likely cannot accommodate more serious chronic diseases. Thus, herbalists provide some level of relief for desperate patients. I asked the gentleman if he treats malaria, a disease readily treatable with western pharmaceuticals. He readily said no, that when patients come to him with malaria, he sends them to the local health facility. With the exception of basic pain killers and some anti-helminthic meds, none of his treatments were for commonly treatable conditions.

This is not to say that herbalist medications do not work. In fact, I am positive that at least some of them do. In contrast to more ambiguous forms of care, such as spiritual healing, traditional medicines cannot be completley ineffective. The ingredients in at least some of the medications are likely the same ingredients of more expensive factory produced meds. Studies of traditional medicines have been performed in the past, but it has only been recently that western practitioners have begun to take them seriously. The anit-helminthic and anti-diarrheal meds likely work to some level. I know that marijuana is commonly used throughout Malawi as a means of controlling nasuea during malaria episodes in adults. By probably no coincidence at all, traditional herbal meds to treat malaria in Tanzania contain cannabis.

Herbalist in Limbe Market


My conversations with both of these men revealed immensely proud and professional medical practitioners. Both of them readily and openly discussed their craft with me as clinicians and not as charlatans. Neither one attempted to sell me any type of medication. Perhaps if I had gone to one complaining of some physical ailment, one might have. As with western doctors, there is no sense in treating those who are not ill.

Interesting to me was the method of packaging and sales, which follows a western paradigm. Medications are packed at pills, given at particular dosages from clearly marked containers. While the methods of pharmaceautical creation and diagnostic strategies may be as they were before Colonialization, the practice has clearly been absorbed into a standard western paradigm of licenses and packaging. In my experience, most things in Africa, from medicine to music to religion, are a fascinating reinvented mix of indigenous and western, producing something new and old at the same time in contrast to merely adapting new ideas to sell to a local population. Malawians, while in some ways very conservative, are in other ways a very curious and inquisitive people, eager to explore and integrate new ideas into everyday life.

Below is a short video I made while conversing with an herbalist in the Limbe Market last month.

Movie of the Week: Congo in Four Acts (2009)

The Democratic Republic of Congo, despite having a fertile landmass the size of Western Europe and a trove of natural resources that dwarf giants like the United States, ranks as one of the poorest countries on the planet and has been the home of one of largest conflicts in human history. The DRC (formerly Zaire) rarely makes more than a passing mention in the Western press, an afterthought in a world of wealth which is indifferent to the plight of poor countries.

Congo in Four Acts” is a series of four short documentary features about the DRC, made by Congolese artists and writers. Teams traveled to the DRC in 2008 and provided training and support so that Congolese could express that which directly concerns the citizens of the DRC.

Western filmmakers will always see the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa through western eyes, a filter of amazement and disgust, informed by culturally entrenched attitudes and western modes of thought. The result often overlooks the very real concerns of the African citizens themselves, which are often much more immediate than the larger issues of weather conditions and international politics.

“Congo in Four Acts” takes the viewer through the devastation of the DRC health “system,” an unfunded series of health providers providing basic health care and maternity services. Patients must pay for services rendered or be confined to the hospital until someone can pay for them or collateral produced. “Ladies in Waiting,” directed by Dieudo Hamadi, follows the hospital staff as they attempt to extract payment from impoverished patients, many of whom are the spouses of civil servants whose salaries have not been paid for months. Even a woman who bore a child of rape is confined in the hospital until she can locate the man who raped her so that he can pay. It’s a heartbreaking picture of a bankrupted government and the failure of a fee-for-service system (a system promoted by the Western powers in Africa) where most people have no means of earning cash.

“Zero Tolerance,” also by Dieudo Hamadi, tells the story of victims of rape, an endemic problem in the DRC. For years, the DRC military and other militant groups have used rape as a weapon of war. Militant groups routinely recruited young boys as soldiers and acclimated them to a culture that viewed sex as a tool of power and military strength and women as mere objects to be had. “Zero Tolerance” follows two boys who gang raped an older woman and sexually mutilated her, their arrest and an interview with desperate parents hoping to spare their children the horrors of a DRC prison. Also featured, is an older man, who rapes and brutally beats a local woman, who later dies of her injuries. Telling is the inability of the perpetrators to recognize their crimes and extent to which they attempt to manipulate the power structure to discredit their victims and assure their innocence.

Kiripi Katembo Siku directs two features, one on the rotting infrastructure of Kinshasa and the other on women forced to work daily breaking rocks in the open sun for a mere $.25 a day. Kinshasa routinely floods during the rainy seasons, exposing underground power lines and dissolving ancient rubber wire encasements. Exposed wires traverse the landscape. Brave local residents daily repair exposed wires by hand, risking their lives in order to provide power to local merchants who depend on it for their livelihoods. Children play around hot wires laying in pools of water and local residents complain about the unwillingness of the local government to provide even basic services.

Poverty forces women to work in the rock quarries to support their children, as husbands have long ago left or died in warfare or of HIV. They are poorly paid, yet their labors keep the DRC elite wealthy through sales to Western mineral dealers. It could be said that the western powers encourage the desperation and chaos of the DRC. Chaos allows business to dictate the terms of mineral commerce in the DRC, minus the annoyance of a strong government which regulates prices and working conditions.

Hamadi and Siku goes where no western journalist could ever go. At first, I was unaware that the film was made by Congolese and kept wondering how the filmmakers were able to easily shoot on the street. It is often risky for a Westerner to even take a simple photograph in Africa, and even if one does take one, the stares of the surrounding people change the dynamic of the photograph itself. It becomes less a photograph of Africans, and more a photograph of Africans staring at wealthy white people. What was more impressive, was the level of access that Hamadi had to her subjects. It is clear from the film that her subjects feel comfortable opening up regarding their plights, hiding nothing in their heart wrenching stories of violence and pain. A western filmmaker could never get this level of honesty in interviews.

Northeast Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Reporting: Dead and Missing

Table of total counts by prefecture

I have been collecting the daily counts of missing and confirmed dead in my daily read of Asahi Shinbun. As of today, the Asahi reports that there are a total of  9737 confirmed dead, and 16,423 reported missing.  Miyagi Prefecture has experienced the largest numbers of dead and missing, while Iwate and Fukushima prefecture also have very high counts. Fukushima has a much larger number of missing compared with reported dead than any other prefecture, likely because evacuation zones around the Fukushima nuclear power plant do not allow access to aid in locating bodies.

Upward trends in both (see figure below) have been seen in all three of the hardest hit prefectures in the past two weeks, although the trend in confirmed dead and missing appears to be slowing. Miyagi Prefecture, however, has been reported ever more numbers of missing persons. As of now there are more than 25,000 people reported either missing or dead. Without running any formal analyses, I would expect that that number would level off to approximately 30,000 over the next few days, assuming that Miyagi Prefectures trend stabilizes within that time. 

Ratio of missing to dead

The number of missing continues to outpace the number of death confirmations, likely due to bodies being washed out to seas, buried under rubble, and the limits of relief crews who are focused on helping the living cope with the loss of home and livelihood. Overall, there are nearly twice as many missing to confirmed dead, although, as noted above, Fukushima Prefecture has an exceedingly high disparity of missing to dead. As Miyagi Prefecture’s reporting of missing has incresased relative to a stabilizing trend of death conformations, the ratio of missing to dead has also increased.

Given the incredibly high numbers of dead and missing, it is only chance that has spared the larger urban centers of Chiba and Tokyo from what would have been devastation on a scale not seen since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. This does not minimize or diminish the incredible toll that this disaster has had on human life and on the families who have lost loved ones, friends, home and livelihood. Japan will have numerous challenges lying ahead in its future.

Trends in reported missing and confirmed dead

The Economy of Minibuses in Malawi

On a free Saturday, I travelled to Limbe, a place I was told never to go, from downtown Blantyre. A series of minibus changes took me in the true market center of Malawi, where miles upon miles of jury-rigged stands sell just about everything you could ever want, at least within the confines of what can be bought in Malawi. The public transportation system here is a complex network of private mini-bus owners, who all have their own routes which they travel daily. I cannot express more my enthusiasm for the African mini-bus.

In true African fashion, there is no set bus schedule; you just wait somewhere and one will show up. Business is so brisk that countless bus owners will drive the same route, meaning that your wait-time usually doesn’t exceed more than 30 seconds. Where the Brits failed to institute a true public transportation infrastructure, the Malawians (and all of Sub-Saharan Africa) have stepped up themselves to create an efficient and working transportation network that, despite its haggard and ramshackle appearance, works incredibly well, almost better than anything comparable in the US.

Despite the apparent chaos of the mini-bus “system”, there is a method to this madness. Buses must line up at “stations” where people transfer routes. Buses are not allowed to leave until those who came first have already embarked. It’s a self-policing system. Bus drivers who attempt to leave out of turn are summarily scolded by other drivers on break and told to wait. Most important is respecting order on “the line.” Buses congregate in main hubs such as in Limbe or Blantyre, enter the queue and wait their turn to begin making their routes. Line managers are present to make sure that order is maintained and that no bus exits out of turn. Walking through these areas is harrowing. Buses lurch and move everywhere. You can get lost in the middle of this densely packed mass of white minibuses.

Locally in Blantyre, travelling by minibus is exceedingly cheap and efficient although frequent trips to the gas station slow one down. They mostly operate on the “cup of gas” philosophy of Pilipino guerilla director Kimlat Tahimik. Bus drivers get enough gas to get them through their route, make some more money, and then get a little more, stopping at dedicated petrol stations which cater almost exclusively to minibuses. In the event of the frequent gas shortages which plague Malawi, public transportation grinds to a screeching halt and the money ceases to flow.

Bus routes in the United States are created by planners, whose goals often do not include actual demands by ridership, but rather cater to the broad and self-interested political goals of planners and developers. In Malawi, although roads and highways were created by governmental administrative powers, the lack of transportation planning has resulted in market driven network of convenient routes, fueled by rider demand and actual connections between residential area and market centers. Minibus operators will quickly respond to changes within the market, creating new routes on the fly. Everyone is in search of new opportunities to make money and will respond accordingly.

People on the street are well familiar with the routes, and can tell you the series of changes you need to make to get to whatever destination throughout the country. It’s a free-marketers dream, though governmental bodies have stepped in to control gridlock by restricting minibus transport through certain areas. Responding to a series of grisly accidents, the Malawian government has instituted rules guaranteeing that minibuses respect a maximum of 28 people per bus. Police regularly enforce passenger limits. Police checkpoints are common throughout Malawi and minibuses are common targets.

Prices may have settled to an optimal equilibrium based on what locals will pay, but it doesn’t appear that there is any bidding for jobs. Standards set by the Malawi Minibus Association insure that all buses offer standard prices, but almost all drivers offer the exact same discounted price to insure that fares don’t start walking instead. Competition through extra services is non-existent. There are no air conditioned minibuses, no special sound systems, you don’t pay extra for a bus that doesn’t spew black smoke into the cab. Most of all there is no competition through aesthetics. Every bus retains its original boring white delivery style, or the markings of whatever Japanese old folks home it served in a previous life.

The minibus system is an entirely privately run, minimally regulated, independent contractor based capitalist system, similar to the ways that taxi companies run in the United States. Entrepreneurs own a fleet of buses, and drivers pay a flat daily rate for each bus. They get to keep everything they make beyond the daily rental fee. While there are a limited number of minibus entrepreneurs, there doesn’t seem to be any hint of competition. Resources such as gasoline may be limited, but customers are not. The concept of a “market share” is almost unheard of here but the minibus industry in Malawi is exclusively Malawian. While every other business in Malawi is foreign owned, there are a few that are rabidly protected. It was told to me that if a foreigner were to start a minibus company, no one would ride it, the buses would be vandalized and the operators would likely become the victims of violence.

It’s been said that Americans are the most entrepreneurial people on the planet. This is, of course, absolute nonsense. Nearly 95% of Americans work for someone else for a fixed hourly wage or a steady paycheck. More than 90% of Africans on the other hand, are self-employed. People will create goods on a scale unheard of in the states for sale at local market centers or along the highway systems. People will sell just about anything that can be sold, and offer whatever services they can, to capitalize on unmet market demands. Malawians will work 24 hours a day if they have to; poverty dictates that no job is to be turned down, as another might never come again. Even a call to a sleeping taxi driver at 4 a.m. will result in not a single complaint and a dependable ride at a regular price.

Most notable is the important role that the minibus plays in keeping Malawi’s economy and culture moving. Not only does the minibus connect people all over the country with markets, work opportunities and general transportation, but the very fabric of Malawian social and family connections are tightly woven through the routes of the minibus transportation system. Goods are happily delivered to family members and friends through the help of minibus drivers, who often are on first name bases with their passengers. Drivers will go out of their way to deliver some charcoal to the grandmother of a random passenger, sometime at great personal loss. Messages and social connections are secured through the constant contact drivers and passengers have with friends and family at the hundreds of stops littered throughout the country. It may not be the fastest means of transport for long distances, and the roughshod driving of minibus operators may be the bane of regular highway drivers, but the importance of the minibus cannot be denied.

Here’s a short video I made about the Malawian minibus:

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