Travelmag Banner

White girl on a Malawian bike

Wandering around Malawi, the local people are always yelling and calling things at me. The most common is “Mzungu! Mzungu!” or “White person! White person!” but yesterday, the calls were different. “Mzungu akwera njinga” was the most popular. One man riding in the back of a passing truck even called, “Mzungu, you are crazy!” This second one sounds a bit mean if you didn’t understand the first call. “Mzungu akwera njinga” means “white girl on a bike!”

That’s right, I’m now the owner of a brand new bike.

In Malawi, feet are the main mode of transportation. It’s cheap and effective, but since it’s not particularly fast and the ability to carry heavy loads is limited, the next most popular mode of transportation is the bicycle. Cars often cost more than a decent house in the area, so they are very scarce. Bikes, on the other hand, make up the vast majority of the wheeled vehicles on the roads.

Bicycles are used to transport everything. Only about half of the bicycles found chugging down the roads have only one person on them. Many of them have two people, one in the seat and a second on the metal platform over the back wheel, but I’ve seen as many as five people on a single bike (one of the seat, one on the platform with a child on their back, and another person on the bar between the seat and the handle bars with a child on their back). Bikes are also used to carry 50-kilo bag of maize, 200+ kilos of bamboo shoots, bundles of hay, and live, hog-tied goats.

The only place to buy a bicycle in Monkey Bay is at the hardware store. They only had three models available, two for males and one for females. They tried very hard to sell me the female bike, not only because I’m a girl, but because the female bikes don’t sell here. Without the high bar between the seat and the handle bars that distinguishes a male bike, there is one less seat and much less room on which to balance things. Since I don’t plan on sharing the bike with four other passengers and I don’t plan on tying live goats to it, I had no problem buying a female bike. It was a few thousand kwatcha cheaper for me and it saved the men at the hardware from returning the bike, which was one of five female bikes they received by mistake.

My bike is a Chinese-made “Humber.” The locals have renamed this style a “black bike” because all Chinese-made bikes are black and almost all black bikes are Chinese. They only come in one male and one female style, so they are able to distinguish the styles by color. A “black bike” has red and gold pinstripes and comes with a bell, fenders, a tire pump, a tire lock (with a key!), and a small, portable bag of tools. It sounds pretty fancy, but all of the parts are of poor quality.  Some bikes were also missing a few pieces even though they were all brand new, so I made sure mine had everything before I left.

The men at the hardware told me that the price of the bike was higher because they had assembled it, but calling it “assembled” is a stretch by any standard. The pieces were put together so they resembled a bike, but the screws were not tightened, the tires were not inflated, and the brakes were simply taped on, making them useless. I managed to convince the guys to lower the price back down to the original cost since I would have to bring it to a local mechanic for assembly anyway.

At the mechanic, I was quoted a price much higher than the men at the hardware told me it should cost. I grumbled about the inflated price, but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I agreed to pay it. As he set to work on my bike, I asked it I could photograph him working. He agreed, but laughed and told everyone in the nearby stalls. The children playing in the area heard the shop owners yelling the news to each other, so they came to watch.

Josephy sets up the new bike

The mechanic who worked on my bike is named Josephy (since all Chichewa syllables end in a vowel, most English names have vowel sounds added to the end to make them easier to say). He is 26 years old and has been a bike mechanic for three years. Before getting this job, he worked as a grocer with his parents. He likes having a job, but wishes he could be a driver. He has already received a full driving license, but positions as a driver are scarce, especially in this area, where there are few vehicles to begin with. He told me that he would love to move to another country with more jobs if he were ever given the opportunity, but he loves living in Malawi because it is a peaceful nation (I’ve heard it compared multiple times with Switzerland).

As I snapped off photos of Josephy working, more kids gathered around him, hoping to get in one of the pictures. After twenty minutes, Josephy got annoyed with them and asked me to stop taking his picture so the kids would leave him alone. I heard him talking with one of the older kids and I understood enough to know that they just wanted their picture taken and would leave afterward. They didn’t know I could understand a little of what they were saying, so I asked the kids if they would let me photograph them. Immediately, they ran up to me and fought each other to be in front. I don’t like when they fight because the younger kids always end up hurt, so I told them that I would photograph them one at a time.

No line formed, but they all somehow knew who would be photographed in what order. They posed for one photo before melting back into the group of kids, letting another take their place.

With the kids calmed, Josephy was happy to let me resume photographing him. He worked on the spokes of the wheels, showing me how to tell which ones were bad (the ones that creak or pop out of place when pulled were all replaced with spares). When the spokes were finished and the rims straightened, he checked the tubes inside the tires only to discover one of them had a large hole. He told me I would need to buy another, but when my friend came by to check on how the bike-building was going, he took the tube back to the hardware guys who sold it and convinced them to give me a new one.

With the tires taken care of, he began to work on the handle bars and the brakes. When he got to the pedals, he completely took them apart, hit them with pliers, pipes, and a few other tools before putting them back on the bike by banging the chain guard and the bike frame a bit. There was an awful lot of banging considering the bike was brand new and still wrapped in protective cardboard when I got it.

Call that a tool kit?

Finally, after more than an hour and a half, Josephy declared that the bike was ready to ride. When I paid him the 700 kwatcha (200 more than the hardware men promised me it should cost), one of the children gasped and started chatting with the others about the high cost. “Eeeee! Kwambiri!” “Yikes! Too much!” I gave him a look to let him know I understood. The “mzungu” price is often much higher than the “normal” price. Josephy had promised me that he wasn’t charging a mzungu price, but when the kid reacted as he had, I knew he had lied. It bothered me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I can’t change the color of my skin and I can’t change the way people react to it.

I sat and chatted with Josephy, showing him and the children all the photos I had taken of them. The kids pointed and laughed and called out the names of everyone they saw, amazed by the impeccable likenesses of their friends on the camera screen.

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I tried to pedal the two or three meters to the road, but the sand was too deep. I pushed it up onto the pavement and hopped on. The bike shuddered violently under my grip. The pieces of the frame are not as perfectly fitted as those of the Western bikes I’m used to. The seat, which is a hard plastic cover on three very pliable springs, wobbled dangerously under my bottom. After two of three pedals, I slid of the back of the bike and landed hard on the shelf over the back tire. The seat had fallen off.

Josephy and the kids were watching me battle with the rickety bike and they saw me fall. As I wheeled the bake back into their midst, they laughed harder and a few imitated me when they thought I wasn’t looking. A few turns of the wrench and I was back on the bike, swerving treacherously across one lane of the road as my bike convulsed beneath me. Luckily, no cars were anywhere near. By the time the first car passed me a few miles down the road, I had already wrestled the bicycle into submission (except when I was forced to ride through a few piles of sand that had formed on the pavement). People along the road, mostly children, yelled at me as I passed. “Mzungu akwera njinga!” They wanted to make sure all their friends saw such a funny sight.

Six kilometers later, I turned down the dirt road that led back to the lodge. I had been planning on walking the bike down this road, but the sand was compact enough in some places that I could ride easily enough. When I hit patches of deep sand, I could feel the tires sink and slide, but I managed not to fall. Halfway down the road, a group of small children ran from their houses and ran along side me and raced me until I managed to pass them down a hill.

More by Stefanie Giflio on her very excellent blog.

When I pulled up to the lodge, my shirt was soaked with sweat under my camera backpack, but somehow, this “crazy mzungu” had miraculously survived her first ride on a Chinese-made African bicycle.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines