Sendo takes us through some of the challenges of getting transport in Malawi, and offers suggestions
I watched my seven-year-old nephew packing thirty match-sticks into the window of the tiny toy bus he had received from me as a gift. Apparently, these were his ‘passengers’. As I watched in disbelief, he calmly took out more matchsticks and piled them into the already full bus.
Never mind that he was misusing precious match-sticks when we were not even sure whether we would have electricity that day. What really rankled for me was that I had chosen the tiny bus with care, and there he was, just piling those match-sticks in, regardless of the damage he was doing. When I finally retrieved my power of speech from wherever it had been hiding, I talked to him about the abuse, both of the matchsticks and the bus. His response? ‘But Auntie, a minibus is never full.’
My nephew’s response reminds me of what happens on our roads in Malawi on a daily basis. Our current transport system is run by individuals and not the government. Anyone can provide transport as long as they have a vehicle. Public transport in Malawi comes in multiple forms, including buses, taxis and trucks.
In buses, customers are packed very closely together. Although there is currently a rule that buses should seat a maximum of three people per row, it is not well- enforced well and is thus not followed. If customers protest against this uncomfortable set up, they are either ignored or insulted into silence by the conductor. When the bus is very full conductors even resort to standing during the ride. This makes the person closest to the conductor uncomfortable as the conductor is leaning on them.
Bus drivers also transport cargo such as bags of produce and other such bulky items. This leads to customers sitting uncomfortably, since they are sharing an already small space, with bulky items such as bags of maize. In some instances, the bus drivers give free lifts to friends and make them stand during the ride.
Forcing each other into small spaces is a perfect breeding ground for verbal and physical altercations. I once boarded a vehicle where the driver had given a lift to a friend. We were already over-packed when the journey begun but the driver kept taking in more people. Customers kept complaining at having to share this small space. A fight broke out between the friend of the bus driver and a passenger. Leading to the conductor and the friend attempting to choke a passenger. Eventually the fight ended.
Lewd men benefit from this seating arrangement as they can grope women with ease and share close proximity with female bodies. Women are forced to lean against these lewd men, or let these men lean on them.
Competition is stiff in bus depots and stages. To ensure they get many passengers, bus drivers hire call boys. These call boys (grown men) often coerce customers by physically forcing them into their buses, in some instances verbally intimidating and insulting customers if they refuse to comply. Physical intimidation includes dragging customer’s belongings, physically blocking customers from entering other buses and the like. I have even seen call boys grab an infant from a mother in attempt to force the mother to enter a particular bus. Their physical intimidation is also mixed with sexual harassment and theft of passengers’ luggage.
Most public transport drivers drive recklessly, with little to no understanding of road rules. Every day they endanger their passengers. There are also occasions where is some bus drivers abuse substances and drive while drunk. In addition to this, most drivers work long hours and are often tired when their morning shift begins. The very structures of buses are dilapidated, unsafe. All this is a perfect cocktail for road accidents.
The rich can afford reliable transport providers such as coaches which are renowned for comfort and reliability but the average Malawian must rely on public transport. The majority of public transport providers do not follow a strict schedule. Their primary goal is to make as much money as possible. If at a given location, their bus does not have many of its seats filled, the driver will not start off. This leads to excessive delays. One can wait in a bus for four hours before the bus starts off. A four hour journey could take eight hours because of frequent stops to pick up more customers. This is inconveniencing for most. It can lead to people missing a relative’s funeral or being late for work or an interview. It is also life threatening for those rushing to the hospital who cannot afford other means of transport. Also at risk are people who end up stranded at a bus stage or depot because they have arrived at night even though they started off in good time.
The unreliability of public transport system created a vacuum that is filled by any vehicle owner who wants to make cash. All one must do is stop their car at a stage and people will get in it. For the same price as a bus, without the risk and unreliability. In such informal set ups there are no safety checks. Women have been raped by such transport providers. Unfortunately it is difficult to trace these transport providers as they do not belong to an association.
Buses want to make as money as possible one each trip. They want to pack as many people as possible in small spaces. This leads to larger bodies being squashed even more than smaller bodies. In some cases, passengers refuse to sit next to a fat person. In other instances, bus drivers refuse to carry fat people because they will disrupt their business strategy of cramming as many customers as possible in small space. This is unfair and discriminatory.
The majority of Malawians rely on public transport, but in most cases these services cannot be assessed without incurring financial hardships. Transport costs in Malawi are high. This stretches the gap between the rich and the poor. Poor people are unable to take jobs far away from where they reside because of high transport costs. And if they do take up such jobs, the people are forced to walk long distances. The same applies to school children going to schools that are far away. Additionally, people with less money are forced to carry their children on their laps to evade high fares. All this is done in an already congested bus.
I once travelled with a woman who had a 10 year old child on her back. From the looks of it, this child could not stand or sit on their own. This woman sat in a congested bus. Unfortunately the only seat available in the bus was one where the occupant had to keep getting up to let other customers get off and get on. So each time this happened she would stand and move her 10 year old child from her back to her the front, cradling her as the customer passed. The conductor was unsympathetic to this woman’s plight and did not assign her a new seat that wouldn’t have as many interruptions.
The solution is to nationalise the current transport system. If this is done, it will be operated to service the community and while ethically making profits. The prices will be cheaper and a majority of Malawians will be able to afford them. Since government will have monopoly and set ethical standards, private transport owners will have to comply with these standards.
How would this solve the problem of the mother with a paralysed child you ask? She would get a comfortable seat and be able to seat her child comfortably without having to move her child at every stop. The fare would be low and the vehicle would be one that is suited to carrying multitudes of people.
Some might argue that all that is required are reforms and reinforcement of reforms. A culture of corruption within law enforcement agencies undermines enforcement of any laws. The rule that obligates all public transport systems to only seat three customers per row is not reinforced yet it has been in effect since 2005.
The open secret is bus structures were not meant to transport people the way they do. The small space makes it difficult to manoeuvre yet it is required that people shuffle around to let other passengers get off at their stops. If transport was nationalised, we would have buses shuttling people across small and long distances. This would increase comfort and avoid all the congestion related problems.
If this is to be done successfully then the nationalised transport system will have to be punctual. It will have to adhere to its programme nor matter what. The employees will have to get good wages. The vehicles used for transport will need to be maintained so that they are always in good condition.
For this to truly work, fares would have to be paid at another place that is not on the bus. Otherwise then the drivers and conductors would have the power to act like conductors in the current system.
Maybe some people are reading this and wondering… What about the thousands of people who currently make money via provision of transport. If these people have the proper training, they can be employed as drivers and conductors by the government. And get a decent wage without bullying customers. Alternatively, they can be secondary transport providers, while government remains the primary transport provider.
If we have any hope of bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, we have to dismantle our capitalist transport system and have one that serves the people. One that serves all Malawians. That way, perhaps our fate will be better than that of my nephew’s match-sticks.