Exiting Blantyre’s small, relaxed airport, a round-faced man emerged from the gathering of touts and drivers, “You need a taxi?” he asked confidently. The last of the twilight was fading as he slowly negotiated the road, weaving around pedestrians and minibus taxis. From the street side markets, it was clear that paraffin lamps and candles were the common currency of luma here.
As taxi drivers are wont to do, he told me of the problems in Malawi. Foremost were the chronic fuel shortages – which explained the leisurely pace we and all the other traffic drove at – every driver had learned to drive with a light, fearful foot on the accelerator. The queues at the filling station we passed bore testament to the shortages, and I reckon Malawian drivers had grown weary of the excitement of driving on empty.
I had previously visited Malawi’s capital a couple of years ago, and while walking around the city saw that every fuel station had long queues of people with plastic jerrycans waiting to get fuel. Police with batons and rifles were there to quell unhappiness that might spill into unrest. It did not look great, and so I decided, as part of my contribution ease Malawi’s fuel problem to walk everywhere.
It was quite liberating – usually I choose to walk strange cities/towns as it gives me a chance to feel the place, but here I was kind of forced to walk, because even when I tired or felt I was running late for a presentation, taxis were impossible to find. Lilongwe is a larger city than one imagines – and has great natural areas interspersed with housing. Obviously, I soon got lost and thus met an elderly man – a farmer – whose truck bringing in his rice crop had run out of fuel some ten kilometers short of the city. He was in search of a friend to help him get enough diesel to get to the market. As we walked along hard-trodden dirt paths at a swift clip, we chatted about life, economics and agriculture. Despite pouring sweat, it was a fantastic, but certainly not efficient for a country trying to make its way.
On my latest visit – in late June, with the chatty taxi driver – Malawi’s largest city Blantyre seemed to move in slow motion, despite the energizing winter temperatures. The driver turned out to be a Kwela musician, and he regularly toured overseas with the band his late uncle had started. Yes, he was forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet. What to the casual observer is a city with a pleasantly laid back, slow motion feel to it is in reality the skin of an economy more in stagnation, and an exhausted population, worn down by decades of bad governance. Malawi is one of Africa’s poorest nations, and 75% of its people live on a dollar a day. The state is reliant on tobacco exports for what little forex it earns, and needs buckets of foreign aid to keep it afloat.
The taxi driver expected worse to come: the President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government had recently kicked the British ambassador out for criticizing the President’s authoritarianism and human rights record (a cable leaked by Wikileaks to save the people of the world). Bingu, as the papers here call him, had, additionally, proposed a zero deficit budget. You know, if there is no deficit, there is no need to be reliant on colonial bastards to top up the budget. The colonial bastards responded by suspending aid indefinitely. When I walked the streets and suburbs of Blantyre on this trip, I saw people on the edge of the precipice, just making do, each face showed desperation barely held in check. It was depressing.
Typically, as the financial situation has worsened for the people, the leadership has grown more restrictive of individual freedoms – for fear of the Egyptian disease of people power moving south. As a loose coalition of civic groups and opposition parties prepared to protest, the state began a campaign to suppress them, according to Malawian blogs.
Anyone with an ounce of sense feared the worst, and this week it happened – for the first time in Malawi’s post colonial history people took to the streets to protest against their government.. Years of rage at uncaring and incompetent governance poured out and Bingu sent in the army to quell the unrest, saying the protesters were driven by Satan. To date, some 18 lives have been confirmed lost, as Africa’s warm heart bleeds on her dusty streets.
pictures may be purchased at http://gregmarinovich.photoshelter.com/gallery/Blantyre/G00002qsztYKGNQk