Second lives south of the Sahara

By Lauren Hasek

After 24 hours of travel in various modes of transport — some more spacious and pleasant smelling than others — I reached the northern-most border of Malawi. The minibus came to an abrupt stop and its contents, animate and inanimate, tumbled out. I followed the crowd away from the depot and past rows of informal shops that deposited us in front of a long brick building labeled “Customs.”

Vito had his back to me as I approached but I was certain it was him; he looked just like his picture. He was an unassuming gentleman whose hair silvered prematurely. His smooth, compact body had all the bulk but none of the definition of his younger self; indicative of the gym addiction that, coupled with his strong Italian name, helped him compensate for his otherwise small stature.

The rumbles -and the occasional sputter- of his espresso machine brought him to life each morning. As a middle manager, he was well-manicured and meticulous; prideful but never flashy. He was dusting and readjusting the photos on his desk, dreaming of a comfortable, corporate future, when the news came through: his company had been acquired by a larger firm. They felt that the youth would revitalize the company and traded in their employees for newer models.

Unemployment sparked a brief midlife crisis; Vito reevaluated his worth and decided to lean on his strengths — resilience and reliability. In his previous capacity, those made him ‘safe’ and, therefore, unexceptional. Vito needed to re-brand himself; he needed adventure.

That’s where I came in. I can be dangerously good at the ‘adventure’ bit, but lack a partner specializing in safety and reliability. A few wire transfers and two months later, Vito made the harrowing journey from Japan to join me in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Vito the Vitz, Watson and Lucy the Rav4s, and Starlet the Starlet, are part of a unique breed of Japanese vehicles living out their golden years in Africa. They are purchased sight unseen; selected from a scrolling set of images that feature vehicles parked on Japanese tarmac under overcast skies.

At this point I should pause to mention that my elaborate personification of my personal vehicle (and likely this cute little alliteration) prompted my mother to declare: “you need a man in your life.”

In Japan, costly road-worthiness tests incentivize disposal of vehicles as early as three years after their manufacture. The result is a surplus of affordable, gently used vehicles available for export to right-hand driving countries. This caters perfectly to the growing African middle class. Japan exports over one million used vehicles annually; nearly 20% of those to Africa. Even after intercontinental ocean freight and lofty duty fees, importing a Japanese vehicle is worth the gamble of buying sight unseen.

At eight years old, my Vito is “Malawi new;” vehicles with a manufacture date of 2007 or later are assumed to have cleaner emissions and thus qualify for the lowest import duty. In practice, emissions are low on the list of the transport concerns; the quality of Vito’s construction, and my driving, is put to the test dodging potholes, pedestrians, and unattended livestock. Occasionally he and I take a late-night spin around the capital, stopping only for a lone hyena to cross our field of vision, illuminated by nothing but headlights.

Every used car has a history. I often wonder about his (the real one, not the entirely fictitious narrative I’ve shared with you today). I’m curious what his previous owner, and the many others like him, would think of his second life south of the Sahara.


Lauren Hasek is currently a GHC fellow at the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Malawi. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.

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