Minibus capers in Lilongwe

While I’m in Lilongwe visiting the psychiatry wards at Bottom Hospital (so called because it is not the Top Hospital), I’m staying again at Paul and Sarah’s, a lovely hospitable Irish VSO couple. The minibus this afternoon from town centre to their house in the suburbs was interesting. In the taxi rank next to Shoprite I walked up and down looking for the bus with the “49” sign in the front window, indicating the area the bus is heading to. All of Lilongwe is divided into areas, like any city, but instead of giving them names, like Newlands or Marchmont or Hampstead, they’ve got numbers, which are difficult to remember. Are Paul and Sarah in Area 49, or was it Area 47?  Easy to make a mistake. And the numbering system is fairly random, with no apparent ordering. The general consensus is that each new area which was populated got the next consecutive number, as there is a trend for the lower numbers to be nearer the centre. But Area 49 and Area 47 could be on opposite sides of the city, so the distinction is important. Anyway, as I walked up and down the taxi rank, I saw one minibus which was especially decrepit, banged and dented, with dirty smeared plastic sheeting hanging over the door in a poor attempt at a window. It was with some relief that I spotted my minibus marked “49” parked behind this poor specimen. After climbing in and sitting in the near empty “49” for about five minutes, we were ordered out and told that in fact the one in front was the next “49” bus to be leaving. There is no point protesting, so I just clambered off the nicer bus with the others and into the wreck in front. This minibus, like most in Malawi, was battered and scraped inside, and most vestiges of panelling or plastic covering on the sides and floor had long since disappeared. The sliding door, as with many in Malawi, was operated by pulling a wire inside the door, as the handle had also broken. Two bare wires hung sadly from the ceiling where the light used to be. As I took my place and sat on the seat second from the back, it became clear that the seat and bus were attached to each other only in the most modest sense of the word. The conductor, a confident man with an insincere smile, tore the ugly hanging plastic sheet off the sliding door, crumpled it up and stuffed it next to the back seat of the bus.  Out of the corner of my eye, above my head, I noticed blackness, and turned to see that a large patch of the ceiling cushioning had been burnt away, leaving charred black metal underneath. Such vandalism for passengers to burn a bus! I thought. But then I saw that the metal frame of the minibus, at the back above the rear window, was also black and melted, and had evidently been welded together a few times, poorly. It was ugly, but probably functional. P1040544 Slowly the bus filled, and we were soon on our rickety way. I was surrounded by young women in suits returning from work in Capital City, Lilongwe. After a few minutes on the road, the conductor, seated next to the door, turned round to collect payment as usual. I paid my K100, as this is what Paul and Sarah had said it would cost. Others paid similarly. Soon after the payment was collected, though, I noticed an excited chatter amongst the women around me, and then found myself in the midst of a shouting and yodelling mob. They were hurling vitriol and anger and abuse at the conductor, which I took to be a bad sign. Was the bus not going where it was supposed to? Had the conductor been indiscreet with somebody’s sister? I asked the lady next to me, and she explained emphatically and in excellent English, “The price is 80 kwacha, but he still wants to charge us 100.” This was news to me. The others nodded vehemently in agreement, and continued shouting “Eighty kwacha! Eighty kwacha!” They also chattered amongst themselves, bouncing the outrage around until it gathered enough momentum to be hurled at the conductor again. The conductor was a man of few words, perhaps cowed by the yelling, and muttered a few sentences, but mostly shrugged his shoulders and made no sign of giving any change back. He just turned his back to us passengers and sat forward with his arm out the window of the sliding door, catching the breeze in his hand. The businessman sitting in the back corner of the minibus caught my eye, and we laughed. Then the woman next to me saw me laughing, and started laughing herself, interspersed with chanting “Eighty kwacha!” The outrage was tinged with some humour as well evidently. Then in the midst of this chaos, as the bus was negotiating some especially large potholes in the road, the door fell off. It fell off in a single sudden neat drop, but dragged along next to the bus, as the conductor still had his arm through the window. P1040542It scraped and sparked as it dragged, and the conductor now looked just a little bit flustered. The bus erupted in laughter and ridicule, the woman next to me joyfully explaining to me, “Malawi! Malawi! This is Malawi! Ha ha ha!” The driver slammed on the brakes and the driver and conductor then tried to re-fit the door. First they considered putting the door inside the bus, but this clearly wasn’t going to work. Then they forced it back into place, but the conductor was standing outside. I don’t know whether this was planned or not, but the conductor, with everyone’s money, ran off and we never saw him again. For the rest of the trip the driver had to get out at every stop, run round the bus and tediously open the sliding door. The businessman in the back corner couldn’t wait this long and jumped out the window at his stop. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, punctuated only by regular drops into potholes, my seat lurching sideways relative to the minibus chassis with each crunch. The atmosphere inside was buoyant and satisfied, as the minibus conductor had clearly got what he deserved as far as everyone was concerned. Everyone chatted, laughed, and assured each other that he was overcharging. In fact this was true, I found out that evening, as that very morning the minibus association had reduced fares following a drop in the petrol price. Although most Malawians were aware of this, could we imagine that the drivers themselves didn’t know? I think not. Anyway, none of us in the bus got our twenty kwacha change back again.

P1040556The announcement that caused all the fuss…
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1 Comment »

  1. Maureen said

    A great description Gareth of the madness that is the mini buses in Malawi! By the sounds of things, you had a particularly crazy adventure that day 🙂 Very funny and I can just imagine it

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