Body in Motion

Annual Leave
August 27, 2009, 11:19 pm
Filed under: roads

In this corner of the world, about a month of annual leave seems to be the norm. I just got back from mine to discover that apparently humans aren’t the only ones who need to take a rest to keep up their job function.

I recently discovered that the breathalyzers the police department uses in their Friday and Saturday night checkpoints have gone for recalibration – more or less all at the same time and for not less than a month.

For those of you familiar with the traffic patterns in Lilongwe, the Saturday morning cars in the ditches or run up on the middle of round-abouts aren’t surprising, they blend with the mid-morning sun, awaiting their now-babalas owners to retrieve what is left for the salvage yard.

Rumor has it that when the breathalyzers were donated by some unsuspecting donors, Members of Parliament removed them from the streets, finding the issue a bit too close to home – but this is mostly heresy. Mostly.

Now we are used to the post-last-call texts that go out, leading friends away from the checkpoints lurking in the dark.

Which brings me to my question: If life with breathalyzers in Lilongwe involved more than the occasional weekend bang-up, what will happen while the breathalyzers are on leave? Will their be a larger roadside rubble pile to start the weekend off right? Or were the checkpoint warning networks so effective that not much will change?

All I can say is that the last checkpoint I went through caught a nice snapshot of my sober friends pulled over for a minor traffic infringement by some very not-sober cops. Breathalyzer, anyone?

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February 26, 2009, 9:22 pm
Filed under: roads, travel, Zambia

Before we even left Lusaka for Vic Falls, we’d heard the road had a bad patch. It was really more like 2 bad patches: one ‘diversion’ from the under-construction original road which consisted of a lot of rocks surrounded by a little dust, followed by a return to the original but not-yet-repaired road which was about 50-50 potholes to tarmac.


It was all a little too reminiscent of my first trip to Zambia…

On Monday morning, we left Vic Falls to head back to Namibia.  We didn’t want to go back the way we came through Zim because the election results were due to be announced any time, and because the visas are ridiculously expensive. Since the Kazungula (Zambia-Botswana) Ferry was still down, we decided to head to Sesheke, where there’s a ferry directly back to Namibia.  We’d heard the road was bad but we had a 4×4 so we decided to give it a shot.  It took us about 5 hours to go 200km (or about 25mph the whole way).  We finally made it to Sesheke, only to discover that this “more reliable” ferry was also not running.

The locals insisted: It’s not broken! Just that someone forgot to tie it up and now it’s stuck on the other bank, run aground.

Sure enough, we could the ferry beached on the other side of the river in Namibia. No one seemed too fussed since dug-outs canoes continued back and forth. No one but us -3 American girls- and an 18-year old Afrikaans trucker driver.

We stayed the night at a restcamp run by a man I can only describe as the reincarnation of David Livingstone.  An aging British doctor married to a young Zambian, he lived out his days catering to those trapped by the ferry in a place that couldn’t have seemed farther from everything.

The next day we stopped by the police station to see if they knew wo we could speak to about the ferry.

“Ah, yes. There used to be a ferry manager who was very good. The ferry was always running” Nodding from the others. “But he died.

“And then the next manager. He was also very good.” More nodding. “But he also died.”

“Do you know who’s running the ferry now?”

“Oh, he just walked past!”

“Do you know where he went?”

“Ah, not sure. But you know today’s a public holiday…”

Right. Public holiday so of course, no one works.  As one of my companion’s pointed out on more than one occasion, it was like the beginning to a bad movie.  Fade out, fade in and there we were sitting in Shseke 10 years later…

We slowly headed back to the riverbank and back to our Afrikaans trucker driver friend. As it turned out, he had the number for the Kazungula Ferry which was suddenly up and working.  A little sorry we had to leave our new Sesheke friends and wouldn’t be around to see who would finally get the ferry off the Namibian rocks, we made a mad dash (as mad as it can be at 25mph) back to the other ferry before it closed for the day.

I’ve heard the Sesheke road was done up a few years ago and they’re working on the Vic Falls-Lusaka road now, though it’s unclear when it will be done. But at the end of a long and bumpy road, Victoria Falls is certainly worth seeing.


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October 3, 2008, 5:07 pm
Filed under: colonialism, culture, development, drc, music, roads, travel

When the Malawian dust alongside the road fades to the Mozambican, it’s hard to notice the difference. But as soon as you pull into Mocuba, the first town on the Mozambican side of the border, the mud road widens into a dilapidated boulevard and the once-graceful Colonial Portuguese buildings lean their roofless walls into one another. Only the cathedral survived the war in-tact.

Mozambique is like a cross between Lebanon and Congo, with trees growing tall out the tops of long-abandoned buildings amongst the empty remnants of a polished town. The fingerprint of post-Colonial war is the common thread, with handicapped children playing the parts on this mock-up set of a thriving settlement.

Once you reach the coast though, all bets are off. The Mozambican character is so unbelievably unlike the Malawian. For as much as the war played a role in this place’s development -or lack thereof- the Mozambicans are full of life, music and style. Both men and women wander the streets on a night out with a background of Portuguese dance music lulling the body into a smooth glide over the customary jaunt.

The war feels farther away here though supposedly there are still landmines in the surrounding hills. There is a generation who missed school and literacy rates are staggeringly low.

That being said, Mozambique has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. With broad freshly-tarred roads expanding before the eyes, you can’t help wonder what the Malawians have against street lamps that the Mozambicans don’t.

It’s a whirlwind of cultural collision;, making it difficult to believe two places could share such a lengthy border. But Lake Malawi, the pride of the western shores, is hardly heard of in Mozambique, where the Indian Ocean glitters for over a thousand miles. It’s hard to say what has formed the diverging character of these two neighbors: the sea, the Colonial powers that occupied them (a culture of modest tea-drinking Scottish missionaries versus one of stained glass cathedrals with Mediterranean wine), or simply the innate differences that form the character of two siblings, close in age but nevertheless, far apart.

The dust of the road crossing back into Malawi obscures the lingering taste of fresh prawns and it’s not long before the smell of the sea is gone from the nostrils. It’s only the fingerprints whose touch remains, with a Cathedral standing tall, amongst the battery around it.

The Face of a Dollar a Day
April 6, 2008, 4:27 pm
Filed under: africa, bednet, children, cholera, development, driving, health, malaria, poverty, roads, water

Since I was little, Sally Struthers has been asking us to sponsor a child somewhere in the world who is living on less than a dollar a day. I’ve been working in Africa for the better part of the last ten years and have become accustomed to what I see in the village -where most African still live- that once made me stop and think. Six year olds taking care of two-year olds. Kids running around with swollen bellies full of parasites and orange-tinged hair – a sure sign of malnutrition.

In the countryside after the rains, the fields are full of green green crops and overripe mangoes lie rotting on the ground, and I can’t help but wonder how people here can be so poor. The soil is volcanic and fertile. But it’s malaria season, flooding has brought cholera to the surface, and bridges to health centers have washed away only to be rebuilt after an interminable period of time.

Here in Malawi, 133 of every 1000 children born dies before they turn 5. Amazingly, this figure is down from 189 deaths in 2000. Forty-six percent of children are stunted from malnutrition, and only 64% make it through enough school to considered be literate. Over half of Malawians live on less than a dollar a day.

I was in the bush last weekend, face to face with a young man speaking decent English with a good head on his shoulders. He has 2 small children, his wife has passed away. His salary comes out to a bit over a dollar a day, making him just slightly better off than many others in the village. But averaged across his small family of 3, he and his little boy and girl are each living on about 35 cents a day. Even if his kids don’t go to bed hungry, any extra cost -a minibus ride to the health center, a few secondhand clothes- will seriously set them back.

Progress is made slowly, but today out of each thousand born, 56 more children than at the beginning of the decade make it to their 5th birthday. Each step, however small a stride in keeping those most vulnerable alive, is bringing us closer to a world in which a child can grow up to earn more than a dollar a day.

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10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa
March 18, 2008, 5:28 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, driving, electricity, roads, travel

I recently discovered that a friend of mine who’s never been to Africa before will be moving to Malawi with the Peace Corps in a couple of months. In honor of his impending arrival, I give you The Basics: 10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa.

10. There are children everywhere: in the village playing, in the city begging, in the river washing (a few of them are in school, too).

9. There are people everywhere. People live life  outside from cooking and washing to socializing and working. And if you’re over 18 and still alone in the world, they want to know why you’re not married/reproducing yet.

8. Not matter how far in the bush you are, you can always find a cold beer. And 5 guys waiting for you to buy them one too.

7. The following items are considered legitimate supplies for vehicle repair: twigs, cardboard, tree sap.

6. Toilet paper in public restrooms is about as scarce as Democrats in the current administration.

5. The phrase ‘time is money‘ has no meaning. Be prepared to spend most of your time waiting for a bus/your lunch/your bill/a meeting/change. Note: change will never come. If you overpay for something, that’s your problem. The overage will be consumed by the business.

4. Never assume anything. This includes but is not limited to ‘yes’ meaning ‘yes’, ‘no’ meaning ‘no’, ‘I understand’ meaning ‘I have processed what you said and will act upon it’, a right indicator meaning a right turn, a business being open during regular hours, or a confirmed reservation meaning your hotel room/restaurant table/plane seat will still be there when you arrive.

3. Traffic laws are optional. (What’s the difference between a drunk driver and a sober one? Only the drunk driver goes straight, the sober one goes around the potholes.)

2. Electricity is optional. It generally goes out when you’re about to cook dinner. It will take between 10 minutes and 3 days to come back on and will blow out your speakers with a power surge when it does. (What did Africans do for light before candles? They had electricity!)


1. Just when you think you finally have her figured out, Africa turns around and bites you in the ass. But hell, I still wouldn’t live anywhere else — for now.

Under contruction
October 19, 2007, 8:15 am
Filed under: development, roads, water

It was a trap, I was sure. Lure unsuspecting traffic into the round-about and then, with no warning, block all the exits. Ah, construction.

Still being relatively new in town, with my two known routes to work blocked, I wandered out of the traffic circle in a new direction. Down the block, around the corner, and through a maze of driveways: past the BP station, around the cafe, under the bridge, past the other BP station and around the corner to the office, not totally sure I could repeat in reverse. But now it’s been like that for a few days and I’m starting to get the hang of the new bends in my road – and the dirt tracks, slightly off-road.

The icing on the cake was last night when the city’s central water main broke. While I have no idea as to what actually happened, I can guess it might have had something to do with the road maintenance drilling. To my great surprise, the water came back on only a few hours later — not at all like Congo!

It’s been like this since I arrived, constant road maintenance, particularly in City Centre near my office. I suppose I should thank the road crews since it’s forced me to learn the back way around to the supermarket. But mostly, I notice that maintenance is happening. Sure enough, there aren’t many potholes in the roads around town and the tarmac is fairly even.

For now, I’m looking forward to the next few years of smooth cruising.

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