Driving in Malawi

by Donald Schell

I had an extended religious experience driving in Malawi. It only dawned on me after several days of driving what I was experiencing. Trying to remember, understand and write about it, some previous experiences of strangers and crowds made new sense. The experience was persistent but quiet. I want to tell you about it, and hope you’re willing to ride with me for a bit here as I find my way.

Last month I was working as a volunteer driver and photographer for my wife’s organization, Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance. Ellen is GAIA’s International Programs Director. For most of the year she works from the U.S. communicating with a remarkable network of GAIA staff in Malawi Africa via Skype and email. She insists the fifty or so of them “really are the program people,” which is GAIA’s strength. And part of what makes that communication and collaboration work is her annual visit of some weeks with GAIA’s Malawi staff and their work.

I was looking forward to this return trip to Malawi – my fourth and Ellen’s twelfth, and was excited to have assigned tasks as a driver and photographer. I had big expectations of the photography work and as that unfolded, I wasn’t disappointed. Watching people, events, and places with camera in hand moved me toward a contemplative engagement. I was privileged to photograph holy moments, and capture parts of courageous and compassionate stories.

I’d also figured I’d enjoy the driving. In San Francisco, I frequently bicycle and leave the car home. In the city, I think drive safely, but my mind is on best routes through traffic, whatever I’m traveling to, and I may be listening to NPR as I work on both. Bicycling is much more focused, not tense, but alert in a different way. It’s not just survival. Bicycling in the city I sense the human presence of other riders, drivers, and walkers more than I do driving. Cycling in the city asks a rider to be present to others, to give them will, faces, and intention, to be present to specific anonymous human beings under the persistent threat of being hit by a car or hitting a pedestrian. On the bike my interactions with cars, other bicycles and pedestrians have more prayer and human communion to them than just “Lord keep me from getting hit.”

Outside my day-to-day city context, I really enjoy driving. Country driving, particularly driving winding roads and hilly terrain I sometimes touch something contemplative, perhaps riding a flow that moves through land and living things. And driving in other countries (and on the other side of the road), I’ve long been intrigued at the communication (the traffic language?) I must learn to drive in another culture.

In the fifty-one years since I got my driver’s license, I’ve driven back and forth across the United States eleven times. I’ve also driven in France, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, and El Salvador. When we lived in Idaho, I enjoyed driving our old Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck on ruinous dirt roads to remote picnic and camping destinations. And on two of my three previous trips to Malawi, I’d done extended driving stints. I knew driving there would be interesting, challenging, and satisfying work.

Before my kilometers and hours driving in Malawi last month, I had just glimpsed possibilities of spiritual practice or religious experience behind the wheel. Each day driving last month, I noticed more and more clearly something godly or graceful was happening to my heart and mind as I was driving. My hair-raising, exhilarating experience of the one mind and body of gathered humanity put heartbeat, stride, sweat and glance to a glimpse of the mind of Christ (or communion of saints?) in random human gatherings.

Malawi has relatively few tourists, but it’s a beautiful and deeply hospitable country, proudly describing itself as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” NGO workers, missionaries of various kinds, and international business people would agree. Almost seventy percent of the country is Christian (with very high church attendance and participation). Twenty-five percent of the country is Muslim (also high participation in services). And five percent are described as “other,” including traditional African religions and a global smattering of Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus. Compared to newsworthy problem-spots, Malawi’s religious mix is stable and neighborly.

Early mornings and very late afternoons, it seems that the entire neighborly population of Malawi is on the road. In California when we say “on the road,” we mean we’re “going somewhere,” probably driving a distance.

In Malawi, people, bicycles, animals, trucks, minibuses, and cars drive, wander, cycle, and walk, all literally “on the road,” living bodies, moving vehicles, clicking hooves and rolling wheels on the tarmac. Because it was a British colony, Malawi traffic drives on the left and traffic circles are far more common than “robots” (Malawi’s name electric traffic lights) or STOP signs.

This poor and mostly rural country is also one of the most populous in Africa. In a non-urban setting, population density means that wherever you travel through Malawi’s open, undulating savannah, grasslands, brush, cornfields, occasional huge trees and jagged rock outcroppings, you know there are literally thousands of mud brick houses just out of sight from the road. Wherever you go in Malawi people are on the move.

The people, bicycles and vehicles that jam Malawi’s roads are on the road in greatest numbers when it’s hardest to see them – just before dawn, sunrise, late afternoons and dusk. In the pre-dawn and dusk darkness, some drivers don’t use their headlamps. What does break the darkness is a near equatorial sunrise and sunset, blindingly beautiful light.

Through a village center (as the highways do) at any time of day you share the road with people and all kinds of wheeled traffic – walking, bicycling, ferrying wide loads on bicycles, double-riding “bicycle taxis,” driving and riding jam-packed mini-buses, and piling into and out of the back of pick up trucks. Big, heavily-laden long haul trucks, Land Rovers and BMW’s, NGO four-wheel pickups like ours, tiny, travel-weary Toyotas, and tractors pulling trailer loads of freshly harvested tea push. Each pedestrian, cyclist, or driver is inevitably part of this steady flow and we all must ease, pause, and slide our way through it.

Traffic isn’t frantic or even hectic, but it is dense and complex. In my previous visits I’d come to think of driving in Malawi as participation in a conversation with hundreds speaking at once. There is no single voice apart from the humm or whirr of voices. We walk or drive or cycle through a complex human field of intention in motion. The stakes are high and everyone knows it.

Other than the common understanding of how to negotiate a traffic circle (give way to traffic and if you’re going on through make your way to the inner ring of traffic), the traffic seems anarchic. Who has the right of way? No one knows and few try to establish it. Which side of the street belongs to pedestrians or bicycles? Both. Where do people cross the road? On their own, unique line toward their destination. It’s not surprising that Malawi’s traffic fatality rate is the second highest in Africa. What did surprise me moment to moment, and seemed genuinely miraculous, was how few near/misses we saw.

Every successful transit through a jammed village, each lane and timing negotiation passing or being passed by a big truck when you’re also sharing the road with a goat, a couple of freight bicycles, a bicycle taxi, and mini-bus is a miracle that counts on some human connection and something like common mind among the several minds and intentions I’ve just named and could see.

There’s far too much going on at once to be able to calculate or plan reliably. You’ve got to observe everything…and judge nothing. That was the point that started to seem prayer-like and had me thinking a lot about the differences between and among observation, judgment, discernment, critical opinion, and simple interpretation.

Occasionally driving in the U.S., I will quietly vent a frustration or negative opinion about another driver, a pedestrian or, if not their person, an action that someone has taken. Driving in Malawi we (everyone on the road) seemed to know that there was no time for judgment, no time for rule-generated rights of way. Moment by moment, driving choice by driving choice, in a primal way, we were caring for one another, putting all our attention into the good of all of us. Because none of us could afford even a moment to frame an opinion of another, because no one wanted anyone to get hurt, we were moving with compassion, with love. Though it was just barely or intermittently conscious, this random assembly was “us,” all the distinct eyes and minds and independent agency negotiating (reconciling?) our way forward. One body, one mind, one Spirit.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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