Thursday, 18 August 2016

Travelling around Malawi

I'm off to Malawi again in a day or two and expect to do quite a bit of travelling over the next couple of months. I love exploring and have travelled more or less from the extremes of the north to the extremes of the south of the country. I know that this time I will be very well looked after and have absolutely no concerns about my safety.

Some of you may recall however, that it hasn't always been like this. Indeed, back in March I posted an account of a nightmare journey I had experienced working for another organisation.  I have since removed that post, not because it wasn't true (it was, every word of it) but because I have since received an apology.

Usually travelling in Malawi is a pleasure. The landscape, dotted with volcanic mounds, people and villages, is stunning. The main roads are remarkably good, mostly built by the European Union. Even difficult journeys can be rewarded with lovely scenery, as these photos show. The stretch between Karonga and Mzuzu is particularly impressive. On the left is a fishing village with tables laden with tiny fish drying in the sun, part of Malawi's staple diet.

However, despite the beauty of the roadside views, Malawi has one of the highest accident rates in the world, caused largely by inexperienced drivers, unexpected potholes, alcohol, vehicles with no lights, cars which are falling to bits, pedestrians, animals and cyclists wandering unpredictably across the road. My one and only Malawian traffic accident came when a ramshackle taxi deposited itself, and me, upside down in a ditch somewhere near Bunda. And don't even mention the side roads, made of hard red earth which turns to dust in the heat and sticky mud in the rain, pitted with potholes and seasonal watercourses.

Nevertheless, I'm not a coward when it comes to travelling and have experienced my fair share of tricky situations over the years, and not just in Africa.

I remember a ride in a service taxi from Damascus to Amman, for example. We had paid for the entire vehicle to avoid being squashed by the additional paying passengers who normally pile in. To no avail. Our driver kept stopping, people kept pushing in and I was squeezed into the very middle of the back seat.

As we approached the Jordanian border, the men on both sides of me began to produce packets of contraband cigarettes which they proceeded to secrete around my person. My husband sat in the front seat oblivious to all this, engaged in stilted conversation with the taxi driver. As fast as the fags were tucked into my clothing, I removed them again. When we reached the border, we were told to get out of the car, taken for questioning, held for a couple of hours and then, fortunately released, my tormentors remaining behind to enjoy incarceration in one of President Assad's many jails.

Without a doubt, my worst travelling experiences have been in Cameroon. I have sat rigid with fear while drunken or drugged vigilantes wielding spiked clubs held us up at unofficial roadblocks, and my younger son tried to argue us out of trouble. I have ridden pillion on motorcycle taxis as they bumped for mile after mile through the bush and across dried up water courses to the remote village where he lived. I have watched in horror outside the airport in the capital Yaounde and in the bus station in Douala, its second city, as gangs of muggers with dead eyes circled round us, stretching out their hands for our luggage as we waited to be picked up. They were confronted by my husband (a different one this time!) doing his best to inflate his chest and plant his legs into the ground like the rugby prop he once was. Our first journey by road in that country was in a ramshackle bus with a driver high on drugs, speeding along at ninety miles an hour down a dirt road, bouncing over potholes and swerving from side to side to the squeals and imprecations of the passengers.

It was in Cameroon that I first came across the NGO rule that if one is in a traffic accident, one should never stop even to attend to casualties because of the likelihood of being lynched by furious mobs of local villagers. Both in Uganda where we used to live and in Malawi, community emotions can be quite volatile, witness the many recent murders of old people accused of being witches. In Uganda there was a shoot-out in our local supermarket car park following a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) incident.

You may have read that in April the motorcade of UN Ambassador Samantha Powers was involved in a traffic accident in Cameroon in which a seven year old was killed. Her car was driving at 60 mph along a road lined with villagers. Powers came under significant criticism because her car didn't stop although we heard later that an ambulance accompanying her did assist. To deal with potential unrest, the USA government paid a substantial sum in cash, handed over 'two cows, flour, onions, rice, salt, sugar, soap and oil' and promised to build a well for the village. Cameroon's government also paid over a large sum of money, so did the UN and so did local aid organisations. A terribly sad event but one with a bizarre panicstricken international aftermath.

I am not a coward, therefore, when it comes to driving across unfamiliar countryside, but I do know what the risks are. And always, in Africa, there are the pedestrians and the cyclists to which, in Malawi, we have to add oxcarts and donkey carts. All that becomes much worse if one travels after dark, which no responsible NGO ever asks you to do.

In fact, no one at all drives in the dark in Malawi unless absolutely necessary. The roads are full of shadowy people wearing dark clothes, black and brown cattle, dark kamikaze goats, deep ditches, dark potholes, and unfinished sections of roadway: all surrounded by mile after square mile of dark bush, with occasional mud-walled huts with grass roofs and barely a light to be seen. Huge lorries may thunder by, blinding drivers with their undipped headlights. Few of the cars you come across will have their lights on at all as that would waste petrol. None of the cyclists use lights. Broken down cars and lorries may loom out of the darkness. The prospect of a breakdown or accident in the middle of a remote area can be nerve-racking.

If you add wild stormy rain to darkness, you can really be in trouble. Rain in Malawi is not genteel Edinburgh rain but heavy drumming African rain with forked lightning. The route from Lilongwe to Karonga, the M1, is renowned for the difficulty of the penultimate stretch: zigzagging hairpin bends down a steep mountainside. It has to be tackled in the light. On our way north, we passed Elephant Rock as twilight began to fall. There was nowhere to stop, just miles of dark forest. Every so often I sent my husband in Edinburgh a text so that he could keep a track of where we were. Having gone north, however, we knew we would have to return along the same road, the famous M1.

However, those are the bad times and even they come to an end. There are many wonderful experiences and many interesting things to see. On our way back to the capital, our driver bought mushrooms from a young girl as the side of this completely empty road.

But the land isn't really empty. By the side of the road there are women doing their washing in the rivers and spreading t over the grass to dry.

Every so often you come across a roadside market. This one was run by a cooperative of women, who gathered around the cars brandishing baskets of avocados, tomatoes, oranges and potatoes.

Maize and pulses of various kinds are piled up in plastic bowls.

At major crossroads, you come across the African equivalent of the motorway service station. Young people wave grilled meat from unrecognisable animals threaded on skewers made of maize stalks. You might want to make sure whether you're about to eat scrawny chicken or bony mice before making your purchase.

As we travelled south that day, the rain clouds gathered and the sky became overcast. Night fell but we continued to drive, two or three hours stretching ahead of us before we eventually reached Lilongwe. Yes, the M1 is certainly a road we won't forget in a hurry.

Which is where a car was involved in an accident the day after we travelled along it. The driver, manager of a local business, travelling after dark, stopped the car when he realised he had hit a cyclist. Aware of the implications for his own safety, he started to run, though he was caught and badly beaten and his car was set on fire. Fortunately the police arrived just before matters could get even worse.

There but for the grace of God.......

If you have enjoyed this post, you may also like to read the following one:

On the road to Dedza

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