Ola Uduku Writes: 24 hours in Lilongwe
Arriving in the dead of the night there was not much to see at Lilongwe Airport. The trip to the city was a long, quiet drive on a single lane road with not much to indicate what the city would deliver. Hotel check in suggested this might be a ghost destination in a ghost town with large edifices and pretensions of grandeur.
Later on at 7am in the morninig however, the city began its reveal. My hotel room at the Umodzi-President hotel set in the grounds of the lush green Umodzi Park gave the perfect vantage point of the modernist icon the Malawi Reserve Bank building (c. 1964 but who designed it? – apparently an exact copy of a building in South Africa), and also a view out to the Mausoleum to Malawi’s first president Kamuzu Hastings Banda.
The Malawi parliament Complex also got a detailed view from my Umodzi vantage point. More curious was the conference complex which forms part of the Umodzi Hotel – Park setting, and I suspect this might have been or is the setting for presidential and other political rallying in days gone by. Post-covid it seemed an empty stage set for a drama yet to unfold.
The field research trip that brought me to the city began in earnest later on that morning, not before a after a hotel room battle with climate and media control as both remote devices had only Chinese ideographic character instructions to follow. The Umodzi Hotel Park and facilities had been built through a Chinese arrangement…
So the trip began in earnest, a visit to the first point of call meant a drive past the Malawi National stadium complex, a gift of the Chinese Government, certainly worthy of international architectural merit. Close by a gated community also developed during the stadium’s construction and now a high-end housing estate.
Lilongwe owes its masterplan to the dark days of apartheid and its layout is credited to South African planners who projected the segregation of residence by race and buffer zones to what had become Malawi’s capital city. The hard trace of this layout very much structures 21st century Lilongwe. Poorer Malawian and increasingly trans-African communities live the farthest out to the city centre whilst former European only (now mainly elite African) residents and Asian communities live the closest to the city centre.
Local housing in Lilongwe despite sharing distance issues from the CBD, is certainly different from West Africa. ‘Formal’ housing uses much more burnt clay brick than in West Africa, locally made bricks are used for the majority of housing with ‘crittal hope’-style windows predominating glazing options. Corrugated Iron, and formed aluminium roofing as in West Africa predominate with an absence of asbestos or other cement fibre sheeting types. Building crafts and trades also seem particularly well established on the ground, might this be because as a landlocked country all importation is expensive and local labour is more valued. The other thought might be that the ‘grip’ of South Africa’s emphasis on non academic ‘technical/service’ education for non-whites has led to a better skilled and trained local technical workforce.
Transportation-wise also sustainable transport gurus might be in seventh heaven, the humble bicycle seemed the main form of transportation in many neighbourhoods with a locally welded handlebar for passengers to use. A range of second-hand imports also could be seen gracing the streets. Faster and more efficient than cars and cheaper than motorbikes given the exhorbitant cost of fuel.
Great efforts were being made by Lilongwe local government and at national level to deliver services to all communities. Sanitation and water projects abounded. Contracts had interestingly been given to several international contractors including in a case we came across a water hydrant project for poorer neighbourhoods, run by a Chinese contracting firm.
This seems to be in keeping with the Chinese involvement in the development of the Lilongwe highways projects and future interchange. Not to be outdone there has also been investment by the Japanese in the Lilongwe International Airport upgrading and expansion project, with some interesting architectural results.
Viewing Lilongwe in a day was going to be a hard call, let’s say that it is certainly a green city and one that seemed genuinely peaceful and friendly. Its key problems seem to stem on a poor transportation system, predicated on the apartheid zoned settlement city which means that there remains very little interconnectivity to neighbourhoods and a non-existent prioritised public transport system to the city centre where unsurprisingly all the jobs remain located.
Foreign investment in the infrastructure and buildings in Lilongwe is truly international it is quite clear to see. If this was a former British colonial city, the trappings thereof are rapidly disappearing. Aid seems to come in many forms and many directions, the ‘Global East’ certainly being emergent. This investment seems now to be getting ‘grounded’ in infrastructure projects including a housing estate for the Chinese in Lilongwe close to the Presidential palace and the Chinese Embassy, a symbol of Sino-African friendship.
But to end as I began, my last stop was again to view the Malawian investment bank, a night time shot didn’t fail to impress. 1970s African modernism at its best.
Good night Lilongwe…