I have recently had the opportunity to ride my bike through Malawi and wanted to share some insight on the integral role of bicycles in Malawi and other African countries.
On arriving in Lilongwe I had my first taste of the bicycle culture of the country on seeing a bicycle with a bunch of chickens dangling by their feet from each end of the handlebars, being expertly ridden through the traffic. From Lilongwe, my sister and I cycled down to the edge of Lake Malawi at Senga Bay. On our way down we passed many a cyclist coming the other way with a load of either charcoal, in long sacks, protruding about a meter either side of the saddle, or a stack of wood, piled as high as the rider’s head on a roughly made platform.
We came into Selima, the unofficial bicycle capital of Malawi, at dusk and witnessed a very special scene as the bicycles began to outnumber every other form of transport on the roads, with bicycle taxis ferrying people up and down the road to get dinner at the street markets. As the light faded the bike lights came out and we found ourselves coasting down a road populated by nothing but a sea of illuminated bicycles. It was really special to, for once, be a bicycle traveling at the same speed as all other traffic on the road.
Fun fact: It cost 200 Kwacha to catch a bicycle taxi 2km, which equates to R3, and many were seen carrying a lady and one or two children or a gentleman and his livestock at the same time.
We passed through Selima again the next day, and by daylight it was no less special to witness how almost everything in the town runs on bicycles, from the bicycle taxis and load carrying bicycles, to the modified bicycles used for milling corn, or driving a belt to power some form of machinery. There were also bicycle repair stalls on every street, as the majority of the bicycles we saw were pre-seventies era, single speed, solid steel framed bikes, the repairs were basic with the main issue being a buckled wheel or a faulty drive chain. Tools I saw being used included a detached bicycle fork mounted to a post and used for wheel truing, and a trusty hammer, normally applied with force to the vicinity of the crank to solve any number of problems.
As we ventured through Malawi we had many special encounters with fellow cyclists, from being raced by kids on a bicycles with unaligned wheels, to being assisted with repairing a puncture by a passing cyclist on more than one occasion, and simply seeing the state of some of the bikes that were still used and treasured as an invaluable part of life.