People and Goods Packed Alike: Risky Journeys of Rurban Malawi
In some parts of Malawi, apart from minibuses, small cars are used as commuter vehicles, but the problem is that the operators usually exceed the limit number for passengers and the cargo capacity in order to increase profits.
Our reporter, Suwira Wanda, finds that corruption between the police and the operators of these vehicles is rampant, leading the law enforcers to pay a blind eye to this dangerous tendency.
Suwira takes us to the lakeshore district of Salima which has a population of more than hundred thousand people where she discovers that people there seem to value the economic returns of using such vehicles over the safety of their lives.
Salima is a busy district - both during day and night.
In a district where fishermen, tourists, businesspeople and many others converge, transport is of critical importance.
Unlike elsewhere where minibuses are the common form of public transport, here and a few other town centres, saloon cars are mostly used because they seem to be efficient and affordable. But the demand for affordable transport brings with it safety concerns.
At the heart of Salima Town Council is a place called Senga Bay stage. From this bus depot, men, women and children jump into these taxis to get to different places for business, leisure or pleasure.
A vehicle meant for five people takes as many as 10 or 12. Sometimes other passengers even sit in the boot or on the rooftop! And there are heaps of cargo on board, too.
Some of the cars commonly used are Toyota Sienta, Toyota Noah and Honda Freed. In fact, any car involved in this business, regardless of its make, is simply referred to as a Sienta!
Peter Chiweyo is a taxi driver who operates between Senga Bay and Salima town. He says he is compelled to deliver a specific amount of money, commonly known as target, to his boss, the owner of the car, irrespective of whether it is a good business day or not.
Because his tendency breaks the law, he also has to spare some money to bribe the police along the way.
For him to reach his target, he has to drive as many trips as possible with as many passengers as possible.
“Honestly, we are very exploited, we pay the daily assembly fee, the call boys… and on top of that we are also forced to pay something [money] to traffic officers,” he says.
Another taxi driver, James Posiyano, like many other passengers here, is aware that the tendency of cramming passengers into vehicles is a safety risk, but claims he has no choice if he is to make ends meet.
He claims traffic police insist that you pay them money even if you have not committed any traffic offense.
“Had it been that you're not bothered by the police when you're carrying the required number of passengers, I believe all this wouldn't have been a problem; the problem is that they know all taxi operators here and one cannot pass the checkpoint without giving them something,” he explains.
Posiyano further discloses that they pay K3000 to traffic police officers, K1500 to passenger touts and K1000 daily town council fee, so at the end of the day they do not have enough to deliver to their bosses.
The problem is that most of these cars are not roadworthy, and when an accident happens casualties are huge.
To continue plying the unroadworthy vehicle on the road, or to continue overloading the vehicle on a particular day, what the driver has to do is to acquire a general receipt, commonly known as GR, from the traffic police which costs K10000. Ordinarily, it means the driver has been booked for an offence and has to pay that amount of money in fine.
On the contrary, this receipt is used as a certificate to operate on the road throughout the day because every time the driver shows it to the traffic police, they are let through a checkpoint regardless of whatever.
An article by the Derrick Law Firm Injury Lawyers of the US states that passengers in a car have the responsibility to ensure their safety.
It further advises that a passenger must not fully entrust his or her safety with the driver and must keep a reasonable lookout for unsafe habits or conditions of the vehicle and the driver.
So, should we say that Malawian passengers are not aware of such roles and responsibilities?
Peterson Sunduza resides at Nsangu in Salima district. He explains how the tendency of exceeding vehicle capacity continues to get worse despite laws prohibiting it being in place.
“The way taxis operate here is very scary. You see a small Sienta with firewood inside and people are also squeezed in there. It's very bad; there's no respect at all for passengers’ welfare, and you'd agree with me that most vehicles that travel from Salima town to Senga Bay are in a very bad condition which is also a challenge to the owners as well,” he says.
Liwonde in Machinga is another place where this tendency is rampant. Businesswoman Maureen Madona is one of those that use these taxis.
She believes using this mode of cheaper transport is necessary as a means of cutting the cost of doing business.
“We have established good relationships with the drivers who agree to pick us from where we stay to our place of business. We allow them to pick other people along the way because we understand it cannot be only us in the vehicle as they also have to make profit,” she explains.
We found Aisha Lupanga getting off a Toyota Sienta in Machinga. She says the sitting arrangement in these taxis is horrible and wishes things could change.
“You can feel the panic when you board the vehicle. We understand it’s very risky, but with the way things are at the moment, all we care about is to get to our destination on time,” she says.
In Neno, Chairperson of the District Road Safety Advocacy Group Samuel Njolomole believes the problem is interlinked with social economic challenges that most Malawi are going through.
He suggests if the government found long lasting solutions to the current socioeconomic challenges, it would lead to behavioral change.
“For the people of Neno, behaviour change is a gradual process considering the situation the country is in. We cannot talk of behavior change when the environment we’ve created for our people is not conducive enough,” he explains, referring to people’s quest to get on with their daily activities at the cheapest cost possible due their low levels of income.
Corruption at Play
For the Road Safety Alert Foundation, the malpractice goes beyond drivers and passengers.
Joel Jere is the foundation’s executive director and believes that corruption among some traffic police officers is fueling this behavior.
“Another issue is to do with corruption; most of our police officers are corrupt and there’s also a need to review the current Road Traffic Act as the country is now more advanced,” he says.
Here further says the system of GR should be tamed as drivers deliberately break the law, knowing fully well that they’ll pay the required amount and be let to proceed with their respective businesses.
It is difficult to understand how this tendency happens in full view of the police, and other law enforcers like the Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services. So, the conclusion is that the drivers bribe the officers.
What are the police saying on the matter?
Peter Kalaya, the National Police Spokesperson, admits the country has registered quite a huge number of avoidable road accidents.
“The laws of the country clearly state that any individual who is involved in corruption should be prosecuted. It doesn’t matter what position you hold in society. Corruption, whether in the form of a bribe or anything, is illegal and unacceptable,” he explains without explicitly admitting corruption in the police rank and file.
Different studies, including some by the Anti-Corruption Bureau have put the police in Malawi amongst the most corrupt institutions.
Angela Makwecha, spokesperson for the Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services, admits that exceeding vehicle capacity is a big problem with most commuter vehicles, particularly in town centres and rural areas.
But she believes through public awareness campaigns and continued law enforcement, the problem could be reduced.
“Some Malawians do not have the power to fight for their lives; they wait for the authorities to act before they exercise their right to safety. We need to remind them that everyone has a role to play in this,” she says.
High Economic Costs
A statement from the Malawi Police shows that road accidents in the country dropped by a meagre 4% in the first half of this year.
In the first half of 2022, the country registered a total of 2728 fatal accidents compared to 2627 cases recorded in the same period this year.
The annual police report also indicates that 565 people died in 476 fatal road accidents last year alone.
Statistics from the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe shows that Malawi lost K394 billion to road accidents in 2022 which is about 3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.
That is a huge loss for a small economy like that of Malawi.
Most of these accidents, police say, are caused by human error, and exceeding vehicle capacity is one major challenge.
The responsibility for safety should not rest with drivers and the law enforcers only. Passengers, too, have a role to play, at least to quote renowned US writer Eleanor Everett.
“Safety is not a gadget but a state of mind.”