October 24: Biking and Car-Bike Culture in Lilongwe

For the past three months I have been using the city’s abundant supply of minibuses to get to and from work. They are convenient in the sense that the pick-ups and drop-offs were basically at the door to my house and work and they cost approximately $1 each direction. The one downside is they are very cramped. Imagine a Jeep with three people in the front seat, four in the back seat, and a modified trunk area fitted with two short benches along each window (facing each other) where three people sit on each. Add everyone’s bags, baskets, parcels, buckets, babies, children, chickens, ect and you have got one packed (and hot!) mode of transport!

I have recently moved to a new area of the city in which the bus routes do not line up well and has a bit less traffic, so I have decided to start biking to work! I was pretty nervous to head out Monday morning for my first time, as I was concerned about the heat, the hills, my lack of fitness at the moment, the quality of my bike, getting my bike stolen, the poor road quality, and the drivers who are ready to run over pedestrians.

Right at the start of my journey, as I set off down the big hill from my house my bike starting shaking, clicking, wiggling (aka I was thinking “its going to fall apart!”). Luckily there are guys stationed throughout the city who repair bikes and cars on the side of the road. There was one I knew of about a kilometer away.

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An hour and $6.25 later my bike was tightened and had flashy new pedals.

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While my bike was working a lot better – this unplanned pit-stop now had me timed to bike at mid-day – aka in peak heat. Although it was indeed hot — ride was smooth.

Upon arriving at work, I was surprised to learn from my co-workers that I had made the right decision to not take the short-cut through the open field behind my building. Apparently there are thieves in this area that are known to push bikers off their bikes in order to steal them. THANK YOU and NOTED!

The ride home was also good despite one key error. One cannot go from the ‘shoulder’ of the road and back as they please. In many areas the ‘shoulders’ of the road are just dirt with huge crevices, and the distance up to the asphalt (tarmac) can be as much as 6 inches. After a bit of a skid as I rode over this hurdle, I decided I will ignore the shoulder and stick to the road from now on!

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I was curious to experience what the car-bike culture in Lilongwe would be like. I am used to Canadian cities the drivers tend to express feelings like bikers annoying, that they crowd their space on the road (or in the wrong space), are dangerous,  ect. In Lilongwe however (based on a week of biking) it seems as if bikers are more respected, and their need for space on the broken roads is better appreciated by drivers. I also think the reality in Malawi is there are just more obstacles on the road people, animals, ect and so drivers are paying attention for these obstacles and are not as annoyed by them as much as Canadian drivers who expect the road to be for cars only. This was a particularly pleasant surprise considering the impatience most drivers in Lilongwe have with pedestrians.

After my first day biking I began to feel a lot more comfortable since I at least having a better idea of what to expect. But rule number one in Malawi, expect the unexpected. On my second day on my way back from work I pulled onto the road (aptly named) Presidential Drive where I had the entire road to myself. Since it was only 2:30 pm I thought perhaps I was beating afternoon rush hour. But the police lining the sides of the road quickly made me realize something else was up. Then I was asked by an officer to get off the road. He explained the President of Malawi was passing. Sure enough – 1 minute later was a procession of 18 cars including police, sedans, and army trucks. A minute later I was back on the road with the hundreds of cars that had been held up at the check points all along the way.

I am looking forward to many more bike rides in Lilongwe!

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4 responses to “October 24: Biking and Car-Bike Culture in Lilongwe

  1. Wow, love the pictures showing the cravases on the side of the road. Biking in Montréal is crazy with the cars that do think they own the road, but just as you do, you need to take your place on the road, which can be tricky in Malawi. Keep on riding you are doing great, everyone needs to do the same and experience the best human travelling way, BIKING!! 😉

    Like

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