Body in Motion


Village in a city
October 8, 2007, 9:28 pm
Filed under: blantyre, driving, lilongwe, namibia, superstore, windhoek

Being a New Yorker and having spent the last two years in a city so large, it was of indeterminable size (best guess on Kinshasa: somewhere between 6 and 10 million), life in Lilongwe is dramatically different. For starters, if you didn’t know where City Centre was, you wouldn’t know you’d driven straight through the middle of it.

Lilongwe, despite only having about 600,000 residents, is about as sprawling as African capitals get in the sheer sense of distances between anything of significance. To get to a friend’s house in an adjacent neighbourhood, one more or less has to drive through the bush.

Case 1: Just the other night on the way home to Area 43 from Area 10 (they are next to each other and I’ll come back to this), I saw a snake in the road. For those of you who may imagine Africa to be one endless National Geographic special, this may not seem strange. But from personal experience, I’m not used to seeing safari-life 500 meters from my house – although I’m told it’s not uncommon to see hyenas in residential areas.

Case 2. When I asked my gardener where he lived, he said Kauma Village. Oh, I thought, he must commute into town everyday. But no, his village is in one of the ‘Areas’ a few away from mine.

Case 3. Driving at night in Lilongwe is something akin to trying to tie your shoes while blind-folded. There are no streetlights to be found other than the occasional floodlight outside someone’s front gate, even on major thoroughfares. When driving at night, there are two scenarios: fumble your way through total darkness, your headlights like a dying flashlight when faced with the depth of the African night or be blinded by the brights of an oncoming vehicle and pray that your instincts guide you forward, avoiding both oncoming collision and veering off the road entirely.

Which brings me to the key question about Lilongwe: Why are we talking about ‘Areas’ and why is #10 next to #43? Blantyre, Malawi’s longer-established economic capitol about 4 or so hours to Lilongwe’s south has neighbourhoods with proper names. Of course, Blantyre is said to have lots that Lilongwe doesn’t: dance clubs, more and better restaurants, and of course, the illustrious Game, which I first came to know and love when living in Windhoek, Namibia. I have discovered that Game, a South African chain fairly similar to Target (a true resemblance, unlike the last superstore comparison I drew), is what Lilongweans, both expat and native, truly pine for. Any trip to Blantyre involves multiples requests for everything from a bottle of Pantene shampoo to a box fan.

But back to Lilongwe. Lilongwe was made Malawi’s capital in 1974 under the country’s first president, Dr Hastings Banda. My understanding is that the Areas are numbered in the order in which they were developed, rather than geographically. Dr Banda, whom I’ll no doubt come back to at some point, apparently demanded the city be as spread out as possible with winding roads instead of a grid. The idea behind such design was to make public gatherings (read uprising and protests) to be as difficult as possible to organise amongst the people. Why Dr Banda would be concerned about crowd control is a story for another day.

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[…] Village in a city …clubs, more and better restaurants, and of course, the illustrious Game, which I first came to know and love when living in Windhoek, Namibia. […]

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[…] as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a […]

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