Crazy commute to Lilongwe

Raphael Mweninguwe is forced into a close encounter with the notorious township ‘taxi’

It was a chilly, beautiful morning when I left my house in Lilongwe to catch a minibus to my office, about 8km away in the centre of Malawi’s capital.

My car was in the garage for repairs. Which was hardly surprising as the road leading from Area 36—the township where I live—is dusty and bumpy in winter and muddy and bumpy in summer. Either way cars struggle to negotiate the route.

The state-run bus company, Shire Bus Lines, closed down in the Nineties when the economy was liberalised and the buses couldn’t keep up with the “competition”—the privately owned and usually unroadworthy, unlicensed and uncomfortable saloon cars that ply their trade between Area 36 and Lilongwe town.

It was a five-minute walk from my house to the bus stop, but before a minibus arrived, one of these saloon cars pulled up.
It was full but the driver said to me, “Tiyeni achimwnene khalani kutsogolo”, meaning “Let’s go, my brother, and sit in front”.

This was my first time in one of the notoriously old, smelly and dangerous private “taxis”. A vast woman already occupied the front seat.

“Where will I sit?” I asked the driver. “There’s already someone in front.”

Achimwene mukupita kapena ayi? Amakhala awiri pamenepa,” he replied reassuringly, “My brother, do you want to go? Two people can sit on this seat.” I squashed in.

The back seat was carrying four passengers instead of three. One person sat in a squat position, not even on the seat.

The driver started the engine by connecting two wires. The ignition did not exist. A key did not exist. I was jammed between the huge woman and a five-litre jar of petrol. This jar acts as the car’s petrol tank, with a pipe inserted that feeds fuel to the engine.

As we drove to town we passed many people walking—some were running—to work. This was a bad, but not an unusual day. Traffic police had set up a roadblock to check if cars had the necessary paperwork—starting with a driver’s licence.

The moment our driver saw the police up ahead, he screeched to a stop. We all disembarked and he refunded half our MK50 fare. Before he could run off, the police spotted him and his car was impounded.

There was nothing else to do, so I joined the walkers—another first for me. As we marched towards town as if to fight the enemy, the few legal motorists still on the road left clouds of dust behind them that found nests in our clothes.

Women who had dressed up for work and relaxed their hair hid their faces by covering them with cloths or zitenje.

On my way home that evening I couldn’t believe it when I saw the very same car that had been impounded by the police that morning back on the road, ferrying passengers. I ran over to the driver and asked him what had happened. He just shrugged: “This is our town, my friend, and the police are just human.”

The earlier roadblock had been dismantled and the journey of the old, dilapidated cars continued—as usual without certificates of fitness, licences, working lights or much else. But with no state bus service, neither the drivers nor their passengers have much to lose.

As one woman commented as the Phwetekere car she was travelling in was towed off by police: “It’s a situation we have lived with for years. The authorities should leave it alone.”

Raphael Mweninguwe is an award-winning journalist and media consultant based in Lilongwe

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