Tuesday, September 8, 2015

An Iconic Image of Africa--The Crowded Flatbed--George's Post

A.   An Iconic Image of Africa

Located along Malawi’s western border with Mozambique, Ntcheu, a cultural and historical center of the Ngoni tribe, straddles the M-01 highway situated about at the midpoint between Blantyre and Lilongwe, roughly 160 kilometers or 2 and a quarter hours by car, from each, absent unusually heavy traffic and delays due to accidents.  When traveling between the two cities, we usually stop at the Puma fueling station in Ntcheu, to break up the trip, use the Western style bathroom, and top off the fuel tank.  We try to avoid night driving in Malawi because it is so stressful.  Many local drivers drive without lights—either because the headlights have burned out or are busted or they believe it saves battery power.  For an hour or so before dusk, and at least two hours into the early evening, both sides of the highway serve as the major arterials for moving Malawians of all ages who are walking or biking between the market towns and villages along the M-01.  When it is dark, seeing foot traffic and bikers is difficult, especially if they are wearing dark clothing.  The highways have no street lights to cut into the darkness. 
It is not unusual to come abruptly upon cars and trucks left stalled in the highway, since break downs are common, because many drivers operate poorly equipped and ill-maintained vehicles.  Lines of broken limbs are strewn in the lane, rather than safety reflectors or lights, to alert oncoming traffic of the break down.  For reasons we can’t explain they rarely pull such vehicles off to the side of the highway, even if there is room.  The edges of the paved roads are ragged, abrupt and broken up, so straying off line can be extremely dangerous.  The M-01 is the main road between Lilongwe and Blantyre, so it attracts all of the traffic—intercity buses, mini buses for local traffic, four-wheel axle trucks, flatbeds, vans, trucks and cars.  Some, especially the larger trucks, carry heavy loads and travel slowly, especially when laboring up the hills.  To make decent time, it is necessary to overtake the slow-moving traffic; otherwise, the length of the trip would become almost unbearable.  During the daylight hours, passing the cars is not much of a problem, but at night it is nerve wrecking, especially if a line of slow-moving vehicles has backed up.  Visibility is poor, the lanes narrow, the high beam lights of oncoming traffic blinding.   But, without doubt, the most stressful aspect is the presence of the constant stream of bikers and villagers walking on the edges of the road.  Passing requires constant attention and steady hands to avoid strike walkers or sliding into the lane of the car or truck being overtaken.  
Early in September 2015, Carole and I, together with Seth and Ryan, were returning to Blantyre after a short vacation at the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, and pulled into Ntcheu about 6:30 p.m., a half an hour after dusk, for our customary stop at the Puma Station.    I was not feeling particularly charitable, tired after getting up early, annoyed by the late start from Lilongwe, and anxious about the prospect of driving in the dark for the next couple of hours.   While there, an open flatbed truck pulled into the Puma Station for fuel and a brief stop.  The back was overcrowded with people, bags, suitcases, bundles and packs, in the way only possible in third world countries.  As the truck readied to leave the Puma, its ragtag group of passengers broke out in song, singing some well-known African tune, with its distinctive beat and cadence. 
Anyone who has spent much time in Africa immediately recognizes the image of crowded trucks carrying passengers from one town or village to another.  We have witnessed similar scenes everywhere we have gone in Malawi—trucks carrying chitenge-dressed women to funerals; flatbeds transporting villagers from one town to another; trucks pulling out of Blantyre carrying day-workers back to the outlying villages.  Each is one of the iconic images of local life that somehow captures much of the spirit of the African experience.
But just what is about this scene that is so quintessentially African.    Africa is about communal life.  Rarely do you find individuals living alone.  Instead, they live in households—usually in a small home with a couple of rooms--with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends.  They do this for companionship and support, but also to share or cut their living costs.   It is not uncommon for a large household to gather around one major wage earner, who somehow supports, with auxiliary aid from the others, the entire group.  But their communal experience goes far beyond living in common households.   At least in the townships making up Blantyre and Lilongwe, the small homes are located in clusters, with small local small markets and businesses, and sometimes a maize mill.  Everyone knows ones’ neighbors.  The children play together; the women look after each others’ kids[1] and join together to form community banks, the men play bawo—a local board game; congregate and talk, and help one another shaping and burning bricks, constructing walls and building homes.   When one is sick, one’s neighbors come to visit.  When one goes to the hospital, hospital visits are considered obligatory.  Funerals and marriages are the major life events, involving entire communities, and consuming full days. 
No doubt some of the travelers were friends or family, but we imagine many were anonymous travelers, who simply found themselves travelling on a common road late at night.    Yet, they clearly found comfort in being together and sensed in one another a feeling of commonalty.  Each was probably in pretty much the same situation--no one better than the other, all dealing with pretty much the same trials; money was tight and needed to be spent carefully, and the night to come would pretty much be the same for each—a hard seat, a bag to lean against, a bumpy ride, a chilly evening—worthy of a wrap, and hours to go before arriving home.   
Yet they were not despondent or downcast.  They were patient, unhurried, and unfazed by the lateness of the hour or being crowded together or sitting on bags or on the floor of the truck.   Malawians have learned patience—they wait patiently in queues, are not upset when they have to wait, and tolerate delays.  At the same time they manage to be surprisingly upbeat, positive and full of spirit.  Intuitively, they find outlet for their feelings in song and music.  As with African Americans, music and dance are near to the hearts of Malawians, sentiments that likely find root in the common experience of both in pre-colonial Africa.   

[1] Indeed, often one sees very little children standing or sitting by themselves, or leaning on a common wall, without apparent supervision.   Similar scenes would never been seen in the United States—where supervision is obvious and usually one to one.  But the scene belies the reality of the situation—within line of sight are usually a number of adults and young people, some likely related to the child but not all--casually doing other things—sometimes just resting--but who, in a minute, would converge to help if a problem were to arise.