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A New Perspective: Biking in Central-East Africa

by Paul Siebert

Paul is an avid rider and guest contributor to ZappaWheels. Read more about his story.


Hello bike commuters,

I wanted to inform you that I am now living in Lilongwe, Malawi and continuing my work with the Peace Corps. It is an exciting position and an exciting place to be in the world. I intend to write a series of posts about Lilongwe in regards to bicycle community and bike culture. My first article is meant to give you a sense of Lilongwe's layout and the bicycle community that has developed around it. Through this series, I hope to promote bicycle awareness in Lilongwe as well as relate the bicycle experience here to you, wherever you are located.

-Paul


The picture above is of the largest city in Malawi, Lilongwe. Despite the deceptive corn field foreground, Lilongwe is a city of 1 million people and every year it grows. Lilongwe's design initially began in the 1970s. The new Life President, Hastings Kamuzu Banda decided to move the capital from Zomba, an old colony city, to Lilongwe. Before he did, Lilongwe was a town of around 20,000 people in 1966. It was the perfect clean slate to build Malawi's new great capital.​ Roads and infrastructure could be designed to fit the needs of the soon-to-be booming city. That is to say designed with the automobile in mind and the bicycle in the rear view mirror.


​During the 1970s the US was still all in the roar of automobiles and highways, but Malawi was a small country that had automobiles only available for those at the top. ​Situated in Central-East Africa in the Great Rift Valley, Malawi is landlocked, hilly, and has limited mineral resources.


Malawi is a very mountainous and hill country located in the Great Rift Valley between Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Map from Ezilon Maps.

Life President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, as with most African leaderships emboldened by Independence, had envisioned an expansive modern metropolis for Malawi. The personal automobile was the transportation method that President Banda believed would insure his vision came true. He designated the city to have pockets of development situated between vacant land. The presumption was that this vacant space would quickly be filled by business people and home owners, allowing each part of the city to be connected... but still in 2017 it lay structureless and as cropped filled as it has for centuries.


These gaps and spaces in development have made practical bicycling difficult. For most, distances between residential homes and business or governmental offices are vast. It isn't uncommon for bicycle commuters to tell me their commute is 45 minutes to an hour each way. Many of the roads are in need of repair and the narrowness at times forces cyclists use mud footpaths adjacent to the road to make room for automobiles.

The Rise of Bicycle Taxis

Even with the deck seemly stacked against the bicycle commuter, they still survive and in many case thrive. They survive through hard work, necessity, ingenuity, and cold hard economics. Whether it is the bicycle the 10 year old student down the road uses to get to school, the pop-up bicycle maintenance stands that litter the city, or the bicycle taxis that get people from point A to be B, bicycles keep Lilongwe and Malawi going.


Elijah poses for a photo as he waits for customers to ferry on this bicycle taxi.

Elijah, seen above, stands poised ready for customers to taxi to nearby neighbors, shops, and even hospitals. He is one of hundreds of bicycle taxis that litter Lilongwe's peri-urban landscape. For the most part, bicycle taxis, like Elijah, are found at commonly used transit intersections. Customers will get off of the public minibuses and request transit from Elijah to their next destination.


Elijah tells me most of his riders are going to area 49, a residential neighborhood about a mile away. The roads through the neighborhood are bad, so public vehicle transport doesn't frequently go into the neighborhood itself. The price, he says, is negotiable. "It all depends on how far you want to go." a distance of 1 mile might go for as low as $0.30 or as high as $0.50. Is there a hill along the way? How much time will be spent on a paved road? What are you carrying with you that might add to the difficulty? Elijah isn't really indecisive or not transparent about his pricing though. He just doesn't have a meter or some app to calculate the price. He does it all himself.

Bicycle Taxis (or commonly called "garbaza") are often personalized and are required to have an identification number like a license plate. This is one is "ABC No: 13"

When I asked how much Elijah usually expects to make in a day, he's hesitant and says it all varies day to day. His customer base covers just about any one. On Sundays he'll see lots of church goers. During the week, more business folk, those grocery shopping, and even students to and from school. For the most part, bike taxi operators make a good living relative to fellow Malawians. Bicycles are a big ticket for the average family to buy, however if a family does buy one is usually shared amongst every member of the family. A child might ride the family bike to school, a parent might take it to work, or an uncle might spin down to the market and pick up tomatoes, but whoever doesn't have the bicycle knows Elijah will be there to help them.

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