Big Brother’s African Brother #42: Bladders of steel are required when travelling on ordinary buses

Bladders of steel are required when travelling on ordinary buses

Lilongwe to Blantyre via Zomba
September 2002

The general opinion was that there wasn’t an express bus to Zomba, so we
were forced to take an ordinary bus. This turned out to be a gruelling
seven and a half hour journey in oven-like conditions, roasting inside the
battered tin can bus. Every Malawian we met insisted that the journey would
only take four hours. Even a Malawian I sat next to, smiled at me and tapped
on his watch, saying four hours when four and a half hours had already
passed sitting on the bus.

The bus driver was kindness itself, reassuring us that our backpacks would
be perfectly safe behind his seat and finding us the last two seats on the
back row. Initially, we were paranoid as we could not view our bags. This
fear proved to be unfounded.

Ordinary buses are not for the faint hearted. Apart from feeling as if I
was being slowly char-broiled, standing in the aisle is allowed, so everyone
is squashed against each other, forming a human sandwich.

Ordinary life is conducted through the bus windows at the countless stops –
live chickens, fish, cabbages, onions, cakes and chips are haggled over.
The etiquette for buying a live chicken is to stuff it into a plastic bag
beneath your seat, therefore subduing it for the rest of the journey.

Even on express buses, there are no scheduled toilet stops – Malawians have
bladders of steel, the only chance to spend a penny is if the bus stops at
an actual bus station, a rare occurrence. The penalty for a toilet
transgression is that you lose your seat.

One of the most amusing things about travelling in Malawi is the shop names
– we passed ‘No Profit In Jealousy Barber Shop’, ‘Slow But Sure Grocery
Store’ and Tom’s favourite, ‘K.K. Boys And Girls Spare Motor Parts’.

Eventually we rolled into Zomba, sweating like pigs – I swore that I had
lost half a stone in fluids in the sauna-like conditions. We headed for the
Ndindeya Motel, treating ourselves to a superior room for MK 960 including
breakfast. After an uninspiring chicken curry lacking its core ingredients,
i.e. chicken and any curry flavour, I reflected that even though we had
stopped at small villages on the way, I had not witnessed the scenes of
desolation and famine shown on the news bulletins back home. This was one
of my major concerns about visiting Malawi. I have not seen food shortages
– whenever the bus stopped in a village, there was a mad frenzy of trading
all kinds of food stuffs between the locals. We often joined them by buying
soft drinks, samosas and chips. I have always bought my fruit from street
stalls and not supermarkets. I’m not saying that I wanted to be confronted
by starving children or amputees, punished in a horrific way for stealing
food, but I can only speculate that the famine is concentrated in places off
the beaten track. I urge travellers to buy from the local markets to spread
the wealth.

Zomba, formerly the capital of Malawi, is a sleepy backwater situated
beneath the Zomba Plateau. Few white faces are seen here, except for an
influx of UN personnel and aid workers, swanning around in swanky Toyota
Landcruisers. The town is jam-packed with Government administration
buildings and ministries. Considering that Zomba was devoid of tourists,
it surprised me when the children greeted us with “Give me pen, give me 100

The mystery of the express bus service to Zomba was finally solved. There
is indeed an express bus, but only from Monkey Bay. Luck was on our side
when we arrived at Zomba bus station to find an express bus to Blantyre
ready to depart.

Our kamakazi bus driver was on a mission to get to Blantyre as quickly as
possible; we overtook other vehicles at breathtaking speed, clipping the
edge of the tarmac road and nearly running over cyclists.

Blantyre is the ‘commercial capital’ of Malawi with little to recommend it
to travellers. We could only get a dorm bed at Doogles Backpackers (MK 420), situated on the door step of the bus station.

Lunch in Blantyre was a tasty affair at ‘Home Needs’, a South Indian run
outfit. Masala dosa (a savoury, spicy pancake) with cassova chips was
delicious. We could overhear the conversation of the neighbouring table in
the restaurant. Aid workers were chatting about the famine and their
perception of it. They confirmed that the famine is extremely localised in
villages we have never even heard of. This explains why we have seen no
evidence of it.

Tom is disgusted that in this day and age, people starve to death, not
having anything left to trade for food. There are so many on the border
line, having the bare minimum to eat. Locals would gather pieces of wood to
sell as firewood on the side of the road, other enterprising individuals
would buy a bag of bread rolls from a bakery to sell for a meagre profit to
passengers in passing buses. For locals to not even have this option of
making a living was scandalous. As a traveller it means facing the daily
dilemma of what to pay for local food and goods. On the one hand, you feel
you should pay more because you have the financial resources, but on the
other it starts a dependency; locals hike up the prices knowing they can
sell to tourists, leaving the rest of the locals unable to afford the higher

Our Mozambique transit visas have caused us endless grief due to the
official in Lilongwe dating them for Sunday, when we wanted to travel on
Saturday. The staff at Doogles kindly phoned the Mozambique High Commission
to query the entry date to see if it could be changed. The answer was a
resounding ‘no’ – if we attempted to travel on Saturday, we would be turned
back at the Mozambique border, stranded in no man’s land.

We met another British couple, leaving for Mozambique, who were quite
scathing about overland trucks. Their opinion was that they should be
banned from travelling round Africa. They had a stereotypical view of
massive piss ups every night and school mistressy tour leaders – not that
far from the truth then.

I have little affection for dorms, having no idea what dorm etiquette is,
i.e. when is it acceptable to turn the lights off and go to sleep? This
dilemma was solved by a spaced out South African who claimed a bunk bed,
promptly rolling into it and turning the light off at 8:30pm.

We had a fitful night’s sleep due to a number of factors. A German couple
in the bunks opposite us were a nightmare; one snored like a warthog, the
other visited the toilet twice using our bunk to balance on to reach the
ground, regularly indulging in coughing and sneezing fits for good measure.
Mozzies whined in my ear as the bunks had no mosquito nets and the South
African got in on the act by emitting hateful gases at regular intervals.
Dorms suck!