Travel in Northern Malawi

Sept. 1, 2014

This post will highlight the travel conditions in Malawi. For us in North America it is hard to comprehend how difficult it is to get around in Malawi. We have good roads and personal vehicles that can take us where we want to go in comfort. The roads are well maintained and the signage tells us the direction to our destination. At convenient intervals we have rest areas with toilet facilities and restaurants to look after our physical needs as well as supply us with more gasoline so we can continue to our destination.

village along M1

M1 going through a village

Over loaded lumber truck

Over loaded lumber truck

Women carrying loads...

Women carrying loads…






The main highway in Malawi is a two lane road the size of our rural roads, but with large chunks of road deck missing at times. The inclines into the mountains are so steep that large trucks have to climb these in their lowest gear and full throttle. Break downs are very common as the engines give out or the springs collapse under the too heavy loads.The road is shared by ever present pedestrians, women carrying heavy loads on their heads and babies on their back, men pushing bicycles loaded high with fire wood, maize, charcoal and anything else that needs to be delivered or taken home.



Minibus with broken door.

Small vans also share the road. These are used as taxis and, again, are loaded with people and goods. We in the West, can hardly imagine how stuffed full these taxi vans are. A van, the size of a Dodge Caravan, is loaded with as many as 12 people or more. Elly reminded me of an instance where a mini bus designed to carry 12 people had 33 plus luggage on top. Here's praying we'll get where we need to go! Then the space behind the back seat and wherever more space can be found is filled with bags of maize, firewood, charcoal or whatever the passengers need to take with them. A rope holds the back door closed. Sometimes the side door has come off it’s hinges and needs to be tied to the vehicle with a rope as well.

I have seen vehicles with such poor alignments that the back wheels were travelling a different path from the front wheels. Once I saw a bus that was almost 8″ out of alignment.

Battling the steep mountain switchbacks

Battling the steep mountain switchbacks

Reading the newspaper ads for vehicles for sale I saw one ad for a mini bus. It had rolled only once…. Most vehicles are maintained by road side mechanics who have had no formal training. Spotting potential problems is not a strong suit for these people. The drivers drive until the vehicle stops or is protesting so strongly that a problem cannot be ignored any longer.

sandy road 3Since the roads are in such poor shape and the secondary roads (if you can even call them that) are just modified cow paths with surfaces varying from a clay surface to deep loose sand or sharp rocks, the vehicles take an unimaginable beating. Everything rattles loose over time, and then it breaks.

New vehicles are available in Malawi, but are prohibitively expensive, the government doubles the price through taxation. Even used vehicles are very dear by the time they arrive in Malawi for sale from places such as Japan. These are vehicles that have done most of their travelling in their home country. The Malawians buy these “new” vehicles and drive

Bicycle repair shop

Bicycle repair shop

them till they won’t go any more. Tires on these vehicles are also often thread bare. I have seen the steel belts poke through the rubber on one occasion. Safety inspections are unheard of, so making a journey requires lots of prayer and an army of angels for safety.

In Mzuzu, the largest city in the North of Malawi, bike taxis are very common. There are rules for these taxis. They are allowed to travel on certain roads, but often they ignore these rules. This often leads to tragic accidents, because traffic is very heavy on these roads.

The road from Lubinga to Mzuzu is especially dangerous, thick with mini bus taxis and heavy trucks, the bicycle taxied often get pushed off the road with sometimes deadly results.

village trading centre en route to Lilongwe

Boma trading centre is the trading hub for an area.

PU with people

Public transit by private pick up.


Going to the next village.

Public transit, as in these mini busses or big, Greyhound type busses, don’t travel to every village. They sometimes only go to the “boma”, the commercial centre of the area once a day. So in order to catch this “bus” you need to be very early waiting for it to come. The “bus” can only hold so many people and when full you have to wait till the next day. After that the traveller is on his own to find his way to the village he wants to visit. This may often involve a walk of some hours over very rough foot paths, all the while trying to carry his belongings.



Rocky rural dirt road.

Rocky rural dirt road.

Burning fuel truck, driver forgot to set the handbrake.

Going on a trip to the city?

Going on a trip to the city?

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