Published: February 19th 2009September 6th 1993
With Zimbabwe being our final destination, the route via Malawi and Mozambique is the only safe option due to political instability in Zambia some 15 years ago. The mysteriously named ‘”Express” train takes 22 hours from Dar Es Salaam to Mbeya, the last stop before it enters Zambia. At Mbeya my compatriot, Pamela and I are still about 30 kilometers from the border and we discover there is no public transport. It is no time to be shrinking violets so we muscle our way onto the back of an enterprising man’s utility. He is quick to recognise the supply and demand dilemma to the captive consumers and demands a fee of USD$5.50 in Tanzanian Shillings, an exorbitant amount considering we paid the equivalent to travel the last 840km. We succumb to the extortion and manage to arrive at the Songwe border crossing in time before it closes for the day, but after passing through the long bureaucratic maze, we miss the last bus to any where for at least two days. It isn’t long before we realise we are stranded and Pam is in a panic because the Zimbabwean embassy in Tanzania has only given her a two week temporary visa to pass through Zimbabwe in order to reach South Africa. Utterly fed up, filthy, famished and flaming hot in the searing heat we seek shelter under the shade of a nearby Acacia tree. Tears culminate the rough past few weeks of overland travel in difficult circumstances and we sit dumb founded as we ponder our next course of action. Oddly enough, we are lucky enough to score the only basic wooden hut with two sleeping cots as shelter for the night. It is unsecured, so we sleep uncomfortably on our packs and try not to think about surreptitious snakes and scorpions.
In the morning, we are eager for a wash after three days without one, but with no running water anywhere we make do with just a change of underwear. It is also time for another makeover. Malawi’s president, an autocratic octogenarian, and a very old fashioned one at that, dictates every woman in the country must wear a skirt down to their ankles. So our first job for the morning is to don our sarongs, the closest thing we had to a skirt in our packs. The wrap around was accessorised by a pair of well worn, dusty hiking boots. I could quite easily stand on the lonely road side waiting for our fortunes to change whilst eating unpalatable stale bread from about two breakfasts ago, but to commit fashion suicide just to stay within the local laws for all to see was unbearable. Our situation gets desperate as the heat of the day sets in and Pamela decides to hail down a passing military jeep. Lucky for us, the driver dressed in civilian clothing has no hesitation in taking on two blonde attractive hitch hikers and agrees to take us as far as he could.
Allen turns out to be a great personal tour guide. We stop at Mt Livingstone which provides panoramic views of the massive expanse that is Lake Malawi. We pass through a village where an initiation ceremony is taking place. The locals are only too happy for us to take part in the festivities. Allen then stops at road side stalls where we buy some wooden artifacts and crafts. My naturally cautious demeanor occasionally makes me wonder if we are being groomed and eventually taken to some Middle Eastern harem never to be seen again. However, by evening we arrive at his home where we meet his wife, Shirley and their children and this softens my suspicions. Shirley prepares us a wonderful Malawian meal of meat, vegetables and rice before continuing on to our ambiguous southerly destination. Finally we arrive at military barracks where Allen is let in by security after a saluting ritual. Allen obviously works here as he had told us earlier that he is in the air force. He takes us to a house at the base and it is very modern by African standards.
We must’ve looked and smelt as bad as we imagined as Allen suggested we have a shower but then remembers that the water system is broken and apologises. ‘I’ll arrange to get it fixed’, he said purposefully as he left us to our own curiosity. Meanwhile we had military personnel coming in and out, laden with clean linen, towels, food and even offered to wash our clothes. A huge military truck pulled up outside and four soldiers climbed onto the roof. There is all kinds of banging and clanking going on and after half an hour a soldier knocks on the door and announces ‘the water has been fixed, you may now have a shower’. It becomes apparent every one treats Allen and his new friends like gods. When Allen eventually returns we offer him some money, if only to pay for the petrol, but he refuses to accept it.
‘I have an official function tonight and would like to invite you girls to accompany me’, requests Allen. ‘Of course, that would be lovely’, we reply in excited unison. Like naïve teenagers just being asked out on a date, we screeched to each other ‘oh my god, what are we going to wear?’ Hard core back packing through Africa requires the ruthless culling of any glad rags, so fortunately Allen, being a typical male, tells us not to worry about what to wear. However, despite the back packer ruse, I am a deep rooted fashionista and still worry about the sassy circumstances and dig up the cleanest matching T-shirt for my sarong. The real crowning glory to the current attire is the daggy pair of sandals, still marginally better than my hideous boots. Allen left us again to prepare for the evening.
After spending ages in the glorious shower and getting ready, we waited for Allen’s return. Pam takes the opportunity to snoop around the otherwise unused, sparse house. ‘Hey, come in here’, she yells. She points to the label on a lone cardboard box. ‘Attention: Colonel Allen Ghambi’ it read as Pam waits for my reaction. I stood there with my jaw gaping and eyes widening. ‘God, I wonder where we’re going tonight’, I exclaimed. Allen returns and we get into a chauffeur driven car and begin to interrogate Allen with our newly acquired information.
‘So Allen, you obviously have some standing in the Malawian military, what is it that you actually do’, I asked. He confesses he is the highest ranking officer in air force section of the Malawian Army. Allen trained at Sandhurst and stories of flying Maggie Thatcher and other international VIPs around this very small countryside are also told to us. I am now humbled in his presence and am not feeling worthy of his special treatment after what he had just said, but nonetheless filled with nervous excitement as we pull up outside one of the finest resorts I had ever seen.
The unmistakable African rhythmic beats are pulsating, and a sumptuous, colourful display of food is spread along the entire side of the swimming pool which is lined with softly lit tea lights. Large trees loom overhead as the recently invented fairy lights are threaded through it. I look around in awe, feeling like the leading lady in a fractured fairytale. Cinderella attends the ball but her Negroid fairy godfather has no idea about ball gowns. Allen points in the direction of men, dressed in well tailored suits, seated at the head of the festivities. ‘There is the Minister of Defence, he is the President’s right hand man. ‘It is his birthday today’, Allen informs us. Pam and I exchange glances in an unspoken realisation this is actually his birthday party, and undoubtedly paid for by an impoverished population. Allen then makes his way toward the Minister and announced ‘Sir, may I introduce Adrianne and Pamela, they are the daughters of the Australian Minister of Defence’. I already feel extremely embarrassed at my lack of formal attire, but the lie further exacerbates my shame. The same accent and both of us being blessed with blonde hair is a convincing claim we are sisters and it wouldn’t be likely anyone would question this fact. However, keeping an international VIPs façade is difficult to carry off when one is not used to an ‘A’ List, air kissing lifestyle. I feel indignant at Allen as we shake the Minister’s hand, wish him a happy birthday and exchange pleasantries, praying he won’t ask any questions that would expose us. I wonder what the local sentence is for imposters. We promise to pass on our regards to daddy and continue with our sister act as we meet the rest of the entourage. It isn’t long before we forget about the little lie and, for once, live in the moment and enjoy being the centre of Caucasian attention at the Minister’s "official"gala occasion.
After an evening of feasting, frolicking and new friends, we are escorted a short distance to a beautifully appointed room in the early hours of the morning. I slide between fresh, clean, crisp sheets. My head finds the softest pillow imaginable as I slip into a dream-like surreal state, I think this must all be just that, a dream, and I keep waiting for the bed bugs to bite and for the rats to start rummaging through my back packs. Of course, it didn’t happen, instead I dream of my love affair with the Malawian people, their generosity, kindness and slightly corrupt nuances.