Friday, June 17

Two months in Malawi: Matola

Every terrible thing I have ever written or said about matatus I take back. I want them again because, somehow, Malawi discovered an even worse form of public transportation.

Malawi and its people are poorer than Kenya. The capital is not available here to buy a fleet of minibuses for the minor cities, and even if one made the investment, there would not be enough people who could pay for a ride to make it a profitable venture.

For the most part, this is not such a problem in Mangochi. The city is small, no more than four kilometers across at its widest. You can walk across it in a half hour. If you are in a rush or need to transport packages within the city, a bicycle taxi will suffice. If you need to travel to Lilongwe or Blantyre or another major city, you can take a bus.

It is, however, a problem when you want to make only a short trip outside the city to one of the villages, too far for a bicycle and too short for a bus. For these instances, Malawi provides the matola. A matola is a Chinese pick-up truck. The bed is shallow and long. Men stand just behind the cab and grab onto it or sit on the sides. Women sit in the center with their knees to their chests. Because the matolas that leave Mangochi go to villages over fifty kilometers distant, many of its riders pack a month’s worth of groceries and fish that they don’t have to make the trip too often.

The matola departs when it’s full. This is a floating number, higher now because of a national fuel shortage that has forced operating costs up, depending on just how large the passengers are, how many of them can be forced to stand and how many supplies are being transported. I rode a matola with Demetra that fit thirty people in the bed, not including children, infants and supplies. The police at the checkpoint didn’t care. They wrote the driver a ticket for having an expired sticker in the window and waved him on.

Of course the matola will stop to pick up every person who waves it down from the side of the road because that is another paying passenger. Unless it is a light load, there are a few seconds of hesitation when the matola stops as the current passengers try to figure out how to arrange themselves to make room for one or two more.

Riding a matola is pure terror. It is open air, and there is nothing to hold you in. You can never keep more than one hand on the cab because of how many other men are pushing to take their own hold on it. The sides are less than an inch wide on top and provide no balance at all. Fortunately the drivers are aware of their passengers’ precarious position and are less insane than those in Kenya, but you are constantly aware that it would not take a very small bounce or very sharp turn to make you lose your balance and tumble out or into someone else and knock them out. When I ride a matola I am constantly making plans on how I would jump out and curl to save myself if it takes the bend too fast or stops too suddenly for another passenger.

And that is why I bought a bicycle.

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