Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 7

Lilongwe (Malawi) - Salima (Malawi) - Senga Bay (Malawi)

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 19 was a lesson in Africa, poverty, and bicycling.

First the teams of racers made their way by bus from Lilongwe (the capital and one of the two major cities of Malawi) along the highway toward Lake Malawi to Salima. Then one member of each 2-person team was dispatched on a bicycle as a local “taxi” to carry a pillion passenger across town.

Along the way, even one of the racers who had visited Africa before was surprised by the poverty they saw. Why was that?

Were the racers seeing the poorest parts of the country? No, not at all. Tourists rarely do, in any poor country, because the poorest places are typically poor in part because of poor access to transportation. Paved roads in sub-Saharan Africa are few and far between. By definition, anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa visible from a paved road — even in the “bush” between towns — is a highly privileged place. Proximity to a road, even an unpaved road if it’s passible to trucks and buses, gives significant advantage over locations hours’ or days’ walk from any road.

Along the route of The Amazing Race 19, as in other places I’ve been in Africa, poverty made itself visible along the highway most conspicuously in forms of locomotion. The paved Lilongwe-Salimi-Lake Malawi highway is reportedly one of the country’s best. Yet the vast majority of the traffic visible along the road in the scenes broadcast on the race was on foot.

Bus service was available: We saw that the racers were riding local buses, not tourists- or foreigners-only buses. But most people couldn’t afford even the cheapest motorized ride on any bus or truck, and weren’t riding animals or bicycles but walking. Those lines of pedestrians along every road, walking to cover long distances (often while carrying heavy loads of cargo) are one of the most typical sights of Africa and indications of local poverty.

Poverty remained visible in the form of local transportation the racers experienced in Salima. I’ve often seen motorbike or tricycle-rickshaw taxis, but rarely two-wheeled bicycle taxis. The existence of a bicycle pillion-passenger “taxi” industry suggests both that many people can’t afford a bicycle of their own, and that the bicycle taxi owners can’t afford to upgrade their vehicles to faster motorbikes or to tricycle rickshaws that can carry several passengers at a time, or much more cargo than a two-wheeler. (The big drawback of two-wheeled “taxis” is the difficulty of balancing on the pillion with a large pack, much less with more than one piece of luggage.)

Is Malawi much poorer than other African countries that US tourists are more likely to have visited? To some degree, yes, but I don’t think that’s the explanation either. Most of the people in every sub-Saharan African country are very poor.

What may be more important is that Malawi is a country with relatively few rich people (unlike, say, South Africa), so the enclaves where poverty is out of sight are smaller, and even wealthy tourists are more likely to get out of this “bubble” and to encounter the ways of life of more ordinary people, or at least to see them from their vehicles as the racers did.

It’s all too easy to forget how little relationship what most tourists see has to the reality of life for most local people. Wealth or poverty, of course, is only one of the possible differences. Destination resorts, like “gated communities” for wealthy locals, work hard to keep reminders of what life is like for their staff out of sight and out of mind for their guests.

The isolated locations of safari “camps” inside parks or reserves where most housing is forbidden serves a similar purpose, so that many visitors on wildlife tours — probably the largest segment of tourists from the USA to Africa — have almost no exposure to African human life. If they encounter poverty briefly, they are likely to see it as an exception (as it is on their visit), and not to be alerted to the normativeness of African poverty.

One of the potential advantages of bicycling as a mode of travel is that it can take you off the main tourist routes and, because it is seen as a vehicle for the less wealthy, may break down some of the social barriers between rich foreign visitors and poor local hosts. The best account of travel in Malawi that I’ve read, for example, is in Dervla Murphy’s The Ukimwi Road, in which she recounts her solo bicycle trip, eschewing paved highways and their truck traffic (and the large towns through which they pass) for unpaid side roads (and the people who live and travel along them), from Kenya to Zimbabwe.

Fences and gates, however, aren’t the only possible dividers between local life and what visitors see. Geographic segregation between economic classes is routine almost everywhere, including the USA. Economically mixed residential neighborhoods or business or shopping districts are the exception.

The tension between rich people’s desire to have low-wage labor close at hand and their desire to keep poor people’s lives, homes, and communities out of sight of the rich has played out differently in different places and times.

One extreme has traditionally been India, where it used to be impossible for even wealthy foreign tourists to avoid encountering poor people. I remember riding in a motor-trishaw from upscale Connaught Place in downtown New Delhi to the international airport at night between rows of “street sleepers” along the verge of the highway, and seeing families living in the shrubbery planted as ornamentation around a jogging path at the base of a high-rise condo tower in Mumbai. This is changing: India is increasingly following the model set by the USA and Brazil (as brilliantly described by Teresa P. R. Caldeira in City of Walls) of “gated communities” and increasing fortification of the divide between spaces for the rich and those for the poor.

The other extreme has traditionally been South Africa. Black people were present everywhere as workers, even inside White people’s homes, but a key goal of apartheid was keeping them otherwise out of sight of White people. Looking down from an airplane, a character in André Brink’s masterful novel, An Act of Terror, describes the view from the air between Capetown and Johannesburg as follws

Far below the desolate brown land rolled past, with the shadow patches of drifting clouds, geometric patterns of hills and plains, the ancient water marks of an inland sea. Now and then the double stain of a town: houses on large square plots set in a grid of broad streets; and to one side, apart, the identical matchboxes or the conglomeration of shacks and shanties where the blacks lived. How clear and exposed the anatomy of apartheid, he thought, like the skeleton of an animal picked clean by vultures. Visible even from 10,000 metres up: we here, you there.

When I read this just before leaving for South Africa, I took it for hyperbole, and assumed this description was becoming obsolete. But a week later, when I flew over South Africa for the first time, I found that apartheid was still visible from 30,000 feet, just as Brink had described, even a decade after majority rule and the end of legally-mandated segregation,

Describing the continuation of her journey in her next book, South from the Limpopo, Dervla Murphy complains repeatedly about how, in South Africa, she had trouble finding food and lodging because only the tiny White “dorps” — often too small to offer any services — were shown on most maps, while the ten-times-larger Black townships with which they were inevitably paired weren’t shown on maps and were deliberately located just out of sight of the White community or the main road, and could be found only by asking Black passers-by.

A tourist with a car might simply have driven on to the next larger town, never knowing what was over the rise. But someone on a bicycle, for whom that wasn’t always an option, had to search out the hidden reality of the “locations” where most of the people in these regions live.

It’s an extreme case, but an important reminder of how selective and misleading the picture we get of a country as visitors may be, especially if we follow the road most travelled.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 6 November 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Good assessment. I have lived and worked in many developing countries as a development worker. Your analysis of the "road less travelled" is quite correct. However, you may have missed another aspect, the treatment of citizens by their own governments. In many under developed countries corruption of and by the administration is a major factor in how things work out.

Specifically, in Llilongwe, there is a de facto gated community just across the street from the "best" hotel. It is populated by government officials and ex-patriot workers, many of whom are public servants from the former colonial power who are seconded to Malawi as part of aid programmes.

In any case, when you reach Lake Malawi, you can have a swim!!

Best, Barry

Posted by: barry, 21 November 2011, 01:31 ( 1:31 AM)

I have commented on the "lake and disease" issue on the other Amazing Race Malawi entry and for this one...@Barry: hmm, I expect you won't permit me to make sweeping statements about you online based on the fact that you are someone who can not spell the word "expatriate". In the same way, I hope that you will not continue to encourage the writer of this blog in generalising about Malawi just because things there do not work the same way as in Europe/America...

Posted by: TJ, 29 December 2011, 12:42 (12:42 PM)
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