Getting Licensed

It took me three separate trips to the road traffic office back in March/April before I was finally issued a learner’s permit to ride a motorcycle in Malawi. It was really frustrating. Long waits in line-ups, pressed up against sweaty bodies, sometimes only to find out I was queued in the wrong place. An extremely anticlimactic road safety test (“Which side of the road do we drive on in Malawi?” – seriously, that was it). And a heated encounter with a uniformed man in Lilongwe which led to me being thrown out of the office entirely, and told not to come back. (He wanted a bribe, and I kind of made a mess of the situation too…I just got my license in Blantyre instead.) Quite an experience.

My more recent trip to the road traffic office was much more mundane, but perhaps also more illustrative of the day to day challenges of trying to get things done in Malawi. Bribe requests here are actually quite rare (at least in my experience). Monotony and frustration, on the other hand, are quite common. Anyways, let me get back to the story – you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The ‘recent trip to the road traffic office’ in question came just last week. Six months had come and gone since my original license was issued, and the dreaded moment had come – it was time to get it renewed.

Knowing that the whole place moves at half-speed after lunch, I arrived at the office bright and early, 8:30am. Not knowing where to start, I lined up at room 3, “Enquiries”, which seemed as logical a place to start as any.

Immediately the guy at the desk told me to go down the hall to room 2. I reached the hallway leading to room 2, and found a long queue.

Is this the queue to room 2?


Five minutes later my whole ‘queue’ learns that the real queue leading to room 2 is snaking around the corner and out the door ahead of us, and we’re in a ‘queue to nowhere’. So we give up on our plan and get in the much longer real queue. Oh, and did I mention that both queues were aimed at a closed door with no sign of life inside? Well, they were. The whole thing was starting to feel like a lost cause.

Eventually, however, room 2 opened. Because I was only getting a renewal, I got shuffled to the front, along with a couple other lucky people. We each got given a form.

Fill this out and take it to room 3.”

Room 3?!?!? You mean the room I started in? Why can’t you just keep these f’ing forms in room 3? Why the long line-up for room 2, and now the re-line-up for room 3? Gaaaaah!

That’s what I said in my head anyways. Outwardly I probably just said something like “thanks”. But the frustration was mounting.

For better or for worse though, my frustrating experience was about to be abruptly ended. When i returned to room 3, the guy at the desk was telling the person in front of me that: “The system is down. Come back tomorrow.”

Being next in line, I figured I may as well try to give him my form. He took it, and told me to wait in the hall.

But isn’t the system down?”, I asked. He confirmed and told me to come back tomorrow. I still wonder what would have happened if I had waited in the hall.

Two days later I get back into Blantyre and visit the office, again early in the morning. I pick my form back up from room 3. Someone has added a stamp and a signature to it. I’m told to take it to room 5.

Room 5 has a huge lineup. I wait for over an hour, then they take my form. It vanishes into the back for a while, then when it comes back out, I’m told to pay 300 Kwacha. I pay the money, they print me a receipt, then I’m told to go back to room 3.

I turn around and walk back to room 3. I get through to the desk pretty quickly. The man at the desk takes my form, scribbles something like “please issue license” on it, then appends his signature. I’m told to go back to room 5.

This starting to seem a little ridiculous to anyone else? Check out my journey in a series of pictures:


1Step 1: Short lineup at room 3, then told to go to room 2. 

2Step 2: Collected a form from room 2 (after a long lineup), then told to go to room 3. 

3Step 3: Delayed for a day because the system is down. When I return, my form had been signed and stamped in room 3, then I was told to go to room 5. 

4Step 4: After a very long lineup wait, I paid K300, then was told to go back to room 3. 

5 Step 5: In room 3 my form was signed again, then I was told to go back to room 5.

6Step 6: After another long lineup wait, I was finally issued my license.

Wow, what a mess. You see, to me all of this could be done in one room. Basically all that needed to happen was this:

  • Customer collects a form
  • Customer fills out that form
  • Someone with authority signs and stamps it
  • Customer pays K300
  • Someone with authority signs to verify that they’ve paid
  • Customer pays another K1000
  • Customer gets issued a license

All you’d need to do is the following two things: (1) Put a stack of blank forms in room 5, (2) Put someone with signing authority in room 5. From there you’d now only require customers to queue one time instead of six times. I think it would make the system much faster, and more pleasant for everyone.

On the lighter side though, there’s the story of how I finally got issued the license. By my second journey to room 5, I was getting really tired. One thing I’ve failed to mention is that the day before I’d come down sick, and I was running a 99.8 degree fever this whole time. Not life threatening or anything, but definitely not pleasant.

On this second trip to room 5, I saw sort of an extra window in the room, obviously used for special cases, which had no lineup. Seeing that the real lineup wasn’t getting anywhere, feeling light headed, and sweating pretty bad from the fever, I decided to be a jerk and sidle up to that window. A bit miffed that I had tried to pull this, the guy at the window gave me a look, then greeted me in Chichewa. I think he figured this would deal with the situation.

Instead he got a Chichewa answer back, and lightened up immediately. This led to full on Chichewa banter (simple stuff: how are you, where do you live, etc.), during which he mercifully took my form and started processing it. By now we had a full on audience to this random foreigner speaking Chichewa with the guy at the desk.

At this point the form had got another few signatures, but it was looking like I’d have to go back to the original line to get my final license. However, the Chichewa banter was still going.

We reached a pivotal moment when he asked me if I was married. I told him that I wasn’t. Then he asked me: “when will you marry?”

The trick to Chichewa banter is to always say something, even if it’s fairly meaningless. However, my vocabulary is pretty limited. In this case, I had no idea how to say “I’m not sure when I’ll get married, because I don’t think about it that often. Maybe it’ll happen if/when I find the right person and other things in my life also make it make sense.

So, instead I just say something random. “2013. I’m going to get married in 2013.”

For whatever reason, the crowd loved this. Everyone in the room was laughing. The guy at the desk was falling over himself. Waters parted. Behind the scenes my form got processed without me having to get back into line. And, instead of people being mad, I was virtually being patted on the back on my way out, with cries of “2013” still echoing behind me. It was one of those situations that makes me love Malawi, even though I felt more than a little guilty for cutting the line. Sometimes a good fever just takes the imperative, and I’m lucky Chichewa banter was there to save me.

A final note: after I got the license, I got delayed again because I couldn’t find fuel for my motorcycle. Due to fixed exchange rate policy (in my opinion at least), Malawi is currently suffering from a major forex shortage, which has crippled fuel imports into the country. As such, many gas stations are dry. The saga of trying to accomplish things here continues…



  1. I hope you (or whoever is at your address in 4 years) gets a letter from that office in 2013 congratulating you on your marriage, and maybe also asking you to renew your license.

    All in all though, sounds super frustrating.

  2. ahh... sounds very similar to Zambian immigration offices, except instead of rooms they decided to ship me in between cities.

    "No you should not have come to Lusaka for this, you must go to the Kabwe office."

    "No that person is not serious, they do not know what they are saying. You are to go back to Lusaka office. Speak to this person."

    "No in order for us at the Lusaka office to process this, we will need a photocopy and stamp from the Kabwe office."

    At any rate... at least you got a solid marriage date down. I'll clear my calendar.

    (also... reading Zambia news... seems to have similar fuel issues - partially due to a refinery shutdown, limited fuel storage capacity, and several accidents involving trucks bringing imported fuel from Tanzania)

  3. your story made my day, just thought you should know!

  4. I also enjoyed your post! .. in a 'I'm really sorry to hear you were feeling crappy with a fever' and an 'early congratulations on your future marriage in 2013' kind of way :)