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fuel queue norms

6 August 2011

[This post begins a series of posts I hope to be making from Malawi as I work on a couple of research projects.]

Today we got lucky. I was in a car with a friend, who was picking someone up at a filing (gas) station near the Lilongwe Bus Depot. As we pulled into the filling station, we realized that we were behind a fuel tanker. We got excited. The sight of fuel in Malawi–not to mention the sight of it literally a car length ahead of you–is pretty incredible. We shouted out the window, “Is it petrol?!?” The guy motions for us to park the car at another pump and we wait for the tanker to offload the fuel. Our vehicle is the first vehicle at the pump. This is rare: usually, when people hear that fuel is coming, they take their vehicles to filling stations and park them there to be the first in line when the tankers arrive.

As more people become aware of the tanker, cars start showing up. People carrying jerrycans start forming queues at certain pumps. I contemplated buying a jerrycan and getting it filled so that I could get some in the vehicle that is supposed to take me and the team to Zomba tomorrow (at the time, it was sufficiently far away that driving to the filling station would have only meant wasting fuel to sit in a line sufficiently long enough for the tanker of fuel to have already been distributed before your turn). The person we were meeting at the filling station found a place that would sell small, 5-liter jerrycans for 150 Kwacha each (1USD=150MWK). I bought four.

the four 5-liter jerrycans I purchased from a vendor near Caltex filling station, Lilongwe Bus Depot (taken with my phone's camera)

I stood in the line for nearly two hours. Half that time was spent waiting for the tanker to offload the fuel, the other half waiting in line as the jerrycans in front of me (and some vehicles) would get their fuel. The line I was in wasn’t very long — there were probably 8-10 guys in front of me, none of them requesting more than 20 liters.

I was surprised initially at the orderly nature of the lines. No one seemed to be jumping the queue, jerrycans were lined up one right next to the other on the ground, and people were generally very respectful and even friendly to each other. That didn’t last long.

Just before the tanker left, a group of nearly 20 men came running towards the station with jerrycans. (We suspect they were waiting at an alternative station and got word of the tanker at Caltex.) Instead of falling in line behind those of us positioned at one of the pumps, they formed a second line at a different pump. Some people in our line decided to go to the other line. (In the end, these guys were smart or lucky — that line moved lots faster and started pumping much earlier.) Even cutting the jerrycan lines in half, they were still long.

the men/jerrycans in line ahead of me, Caltex filling station, Lilongwe Bus Depot (taken with my phone's camera)

At one point before fuel started pumping, someone got out of line, taking his jerrycan with him. We all shifted forward. Someone else left. Then, as we began to shift forward the first man that had left returned and tried to slip his jerrycan back in the line. This move generated a lot of debate. There was about 10 minutes of discussion about the fairness of leaving the line and returning and what the man should have done and how he had lost his chance. The debate got heated, though the pastor next to me did a pretty good job keeping the peace. In the end, those of us in line behind him didn’t kick him out of the line.

After fuel started pumping and jerry cans started moving, I unscrewed the caps of the 4 jerrycans I had. A man jumped from out of nowhere to say that one of those was his. I just gave him a puzzled look and continued to move my jerrycans forward. He then tried to pick it up, at which point I took a firm grip, looked him straight in the eye, and told him he was mistaken. A new debate ensues, this time with me at the center of it. Of course, I’m the only woman in this line, and the only azungu. When Malawians in line start to say that those four are mine, he pleads that they shouldn’t side with me because he’s a Malawian like them and I’m just an azungu. I share a few choice words and with the help of the person we were meeting at the filling station to begin with, the guy decided to leave me alone.

As we continued to wait our turn, various people in line [or not] would jump the queue. Only once [that I saw] was the line-jumping blatant. More frequently, a line jumper would pick up his jerrycan and walk it over to a truck that was filling up and put the jerrycan in the truckbed as if it were part of the same transaction.

It was more challenging for vehicles to jump the queue. Drivers were vigilant about not leaving space between their car and the one in front of it. Still, some cars would enter via the exit and reverse up to a pump.

In a situation of such scarcity, it’s not surprising that people would find ways to maneuver into a better position. What I wanted to know more about were the norms of dealing with such maneuvers. I saw that in some instances, there was debate, and in the end, some agreement about what to do. But in other cases (particularly in situations where vehicles entered via the exit), people were silent. If willing to fight about a jerrycan that holds 5 liters of fuel at the most, why say nothing when a lorry needing orders of magnitude more fuel jumps the queue?

For another story on fuel queues in Lilongwe, see The Former Optimist’s blog post. I especially like this picture and its accompanying caption:

from TFO: "the President gives a bit of a proud smirk as he looks down upon the lowly man who has to cue for fuel, if there's any at all, while he drives around in his motorcades of 30+ vehicles"

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Monica permalink
    6 August 2011 3:11 pm

    Back in July, there was always a police officer present at every filling station when fuel was present, in order to prevent fights and queue-jumping. Has that changed? Also, back in July it was illegal to fill jerry cans, so I guess they’ve relaxed that rule also.

    • 6 August 2011 3:16 pm

      There was no officer at the Caltex in Lilongwe we were at today.

      There was an injunction against the MERA announcement that jerrycans couldn’t be used. Still, some filling stations (at least, I’ve heard the ones in Zomba) will require that you have a permit that shows you are allowed to fill jerrycans. I mean, without jerrycans, it’s really difficult for people with generators or maize mills. At the Caltex in Lilongwe, no one was asking for permits, and I can’t imagine how much longer it would have taken (or how many more staff it would have required) had they checked that each and every person had a permit.

  2. 8 August 2011 11:51 am

    I am actually surprised that you saw cops, Monica. In Zomba I was always amazed that there were NEVER any cops at the filling stations. One thing I noticed by the end of July (in the North at least) was that cops started getting on peoples cases about jerry cans (and really, it seems like the over-use of jerry cans is driving the black market).

  3. starfish permalink
    9 August 2011 1:25 pm

    I have to say I have had such varying experiences queuing for fuel in Blantyre. I really think that a lot of it depends on how organised the filling station is in manning the queue. I have found petroda to be really good at this. When I have queued (a couple of times a two different stations) they have had extra staff who have made sure that the queue has moved in a very orderly manner for both cars and jerry cans. Then I have been in queues where it has felt really, aggressive with groups of young men pushing other people out and insisting that their jerry cans are filled first and refusing to let anyone through.


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