Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Minibuses (or Matolas) and the informal sector


They are the informal transportation used by the public in Malawi. Informal, in international development term meaning that is not under control or licensed by the government. Informal sector is the economics of those unable to afford the license and maintenance required by the government. Or, the government does not have resources – in the case of this post – for public transportation. Many times, especially in countries in Africa, parts of Asia, South America and even smack in the Chinatown area of New York City where illegal sweatshops sewing Louis Vutton bag duplicates thrive, informal is the way to eke out a living. The informal sector considered the grey market I believe.

Based on my observation, Malawi tolerates the informal industry such as the minibuses because it is the only way the majority of people can afford to pay MWK 50 a ride (or .34 cents in US money) to travel to their jobs, homes, and errands from a distance of miles – or kilometers (therefore contribute the growing economy by doing errands and being employed by whatever means). However due to safety issues, Blantyre places random traffic police spotchecks to ensure that the minibuses aren’t stuffed full of people or vendors carrying produce that can compromise not only the safety but for sanitary reasons. Once, I had the pleasure of sitting (or squished) next to a vendor holding a large uncovered homemade metal bucket full of sardines stinking up the bus.

Most of my experiences riding a minibus are good, but there are occasionally bad rides. It depends on how well the driver and the conductor care for their bus. Sometimes I would appraise the conductor and driver before boarding (or choose not to). Petrol and diesel are expensive, so the conductor would shout out through the window try to recruit riders out of pedestrians and bypass the three people to a row regulation. A minibus can hold three to four rows of seats and one or two rows contain an extra seat that folds out into the crouch/walk space. Each row can seat up to five people depending on how big or thin the passengers are. Small children usually sit on their parent’s lap to make room for others. Once in a while, a minibus would drive by with a conductor’s backside sticking out of the window. I have seen police halt a minibus or two at a time and force the excessive passengers to de-board, and inspect produce if a passenger is carrying any, checking whether the items were properly packed. The driver can face fines. Once or twice I’ve seen a minibus eject some passengers or passengers with produce if they see a police checkpoint ahead of time.

Riding a minibus is the top adventure I’ve encountered so far. No, I have yet to visit a nature park and observe lions, hippos, or hyenas in action like the Animal Planet on TV (Nicar is disappointed in me and now questions the accuracy of the cable channel). The wildest animals I have seen are geckos on my wall or ceiling in my hostel rooms in Lilongwe and Blantyre, and snails outside. Oh, there’s crows and a couple varieties of birds. Back to the point – I’ve a couple bruises from some seat hinges that stuck out, and a very surface scrape on my forearm because people do not wait for you to get on or get off. I’m glad I had a tetanus shot before leaving the States. I still haven’t oriented my physical space – I still bump my head, occasionally slip and/or stumble getting on and off. The motor of the minibus is between the driver’s seat and the front row. Some buses cover it with scraps of rug while others don’t. It can be hot to the touch and my shins have been cooked once or twice. If I’m lucky, I sit on the side or in the middle row, for optimal view of scenery so I know when to get off.

Sunday night, my colleague Charles and I were changing minibuses having arrived into the city centre from a Blantyre suburb. One minibus appeared questionable. Charles was confirming if this was the correct route and he had one leg inside. The driver (an immature one) slammed the pedal and the minibus shot backwards. Charles was able to skip and hop out to avoid becoming a road kill. The minibus went in full speed reverse up the street and a minute later shot down back to us, into a screeching halt (well I didn’t wear my hearing aids but I imagine it did screech). Strange. The conductor beckoned us to climb in, and Charles was wary and put a foot in. Either the driver didn’t check or didn’t care, stepped on the pedal again, and jerked forward. I snapped a sharp HEY! at him. Charles climbed inside and I made eye contact with the driver as I climbed in, daring him with my stare to pull that on me.

Soon as I found my seat – the driver hit the gas. He is the most undisciplined driver I’ve seen so far. On the average bus, the conductor would communicate with the driver and their coordination works well. The conductor tends to be in charge of how the bus move and stop, I’ve noticed.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Lisa said...

OOOO good girl, get tough and nasty! :)

It's interesting you mention Malawi's informal sector. I had a different perspective until I read yours.

Here in the Philippines, they have tricycles, jeepneys, buses. They're all regulated and licensed by the government. Well. Sort of. They're licensed yes (as in having proof it's a jeepney and the route it runs), but there's a certain kind of license they would have to get if they want to charge the government rate (which is 8 pesos (17 cents) per first 4KM i think) and if they do not, then they can only charge between 6 to 7 pesos.

So here, I'd consider the informal sector to be tricycles and jeepneys and the formal sector being buses and private drivers (you'd be surprised how many of them are around!)

But according to your definition, that's wrong. Hmm.

Ah well. I'm assuming from your pictures, you are able to wear tank tops? If so, LUCKY!!! Here, highly highly recommended to use short sleeve shirts (altho if at beach, tank tops would be ok) and I get even more HOT than if I wore tank tops. *sigh*

And Filipinos love their jeans. How the heck they manage? I dont know!

1/21/2009 7:13 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I agree with Lisa - give 'em the eye. I'm glad you are checking out the vehicle and driver before you get in. Vehicular accidents is the number one reason for death and injury for foreign travelers (especially when traffic runs in the opposite direction). So do the police take bribes, Kate?
I love your colorful descriptions!

1/23/2009 10:37 AM  
Blogger Kate O. Breen said...

Lisa - up north where there are less cars (poorer, obviously) there's more bikes for hire, licensed and the passenger seats are colorful and jazzed up!

Jeans here too many people wear - I can't wear them but very occassionally at night when the temp is much cooler.

1/26/2009 2:53 AM  
Blogger Charlotte said...

Ahhh ... out here our minibuses are called matatus and yes, I've had a few harrowing experiences on them ... Once I was on one with a few other PCVs and we hit another matatu, and then sped off. That was interesting to say the least. I've had also had the "conductor" they call them touts out here ignore my request for a stop and dropped me off a kilo or so away from where I wanted to be ... heh!

Glad to see that you're doing well down there in the South! :-)

Talk to you soon!

1/27/2009 12:14 PM  
Blogger Gael said...

I won't be sharing this post with your grandparents until you're back home again ;>)

1/27/2009 6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also loved your description. In Guatemala the vans of public transportation are not a concern for the police. They are either registered or it is not a concern. People are packed in. The definition of full does not exist in the minds of the drivers and their assistance. Only when I crossed the boarder did they car what produce was in the car. Mandy

1/27/2009 9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kate, fyi Matola is not a Minibus, it is akin to the word "hitch hike" in the English language i.e. informal lift.

1/30/2009 6:24 PM  
Blogger Jenika said...

Hi Katy,
Nice post. I'm 99% sure that minibuses pay taxes. I once saw a bunch of them held up at the NAC in Lilongwe because they had skipped out on payments!
Hope you're having a nice time :)

3/11/2009 2:28 AM  

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