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Published: January 5th 2008
A graceful meal
Serving some first class greasy grub in Salima. Mama Grace knew how to keep the punters coming.
Narrow strips of sunlight broke through the badly constructed walls of the shack - which according to its’ sign - claimed to be a RETSULAUNT
The floor consisted of evened out cow-dung, a greyish-brown sense of cool, on which I lay flat on my back, trying to soak up as much coolness as possible.
Outside the day was sweltering and languid. The men of Karonga
sat chattering on rickety benches in the shade while the women sat in the belching sun outside the rice mill, with their heavy sacks of produce. Aili
lay next to me on the ground and was already fast asleep. She was just as exhausted and over-heated as me, if not more.
The kind owner of the “retsulaunt” walked barefoot back and forth a few inches from my head. She had a freshly shaven head and a swaying walk, and she dished up large portions of rice and beans to a trickle of Africans
entering her shack. She made an approving click-sound with her mouth every time she received payment for her food.
From an opening in the wall (that probably was a window although it lacked both glass and shutters), I heard
No space to waste
A beautiful bicycle shop in Lilongwe's old town. All the business in the city is run by Indians. They're tricky to deal with, but the best bet in town to get anything of quality.
two boys whispering.
Apparently they found us very amusing - two “whites” sleeping on the floor, among greasy pots and pans, in their neighbour’s restaurant.
I could hear the boys point and laugh at us, but I was too tired to neither greet them nor chase them off.
We had only cycled some 90km up till then, but it felt like we’d cycled the whole length of that dried-chilli shaped nation (some 1500km), in one go.
Another six weeks of Africa had passed, another African country was “done”. I did my best to focus on our journey, to try to analyse what we’d experienced, but I was too drowsy and everything just blurred.
Did I like Malawi
or not? I found it hard to say.
Outside a small boy was barbequing bananas on an up-side-down turned bonnet. With a sizzling hiss he let them sink into the furiously spitting oil.
The south we clearly didn’t like. The begging frenzy that happened every where we cycled was one of the most annoying things we’d experienced in Africa thus far. Hordes of rabid kids hunting you while screaming: AZUNGU! GIMME MANNI!
Rufus Mboleli had inherited the art of mending wrist-watches from his father and had an admirably large collection of small springs, wheels and other nameless parts of clocks. Blantyre.
To hear it once or twice a day is fine, but to hear it continuously for a week, that’s very tiresome.
Half the population is under 15 years old and 95%!i(MISSING)s uneducated and poor. There’s nobody to stop the children from harassing us, on the contrary most of the women teach their children to beg from the Muzungus
as white people are referred to here. Malawi is definitively the most backward nation in Southern and Eastern Africa and it has the lowest GDP per capita in the world.
The Malawians emitted an air of inferiority that I found hard to break through. Something the foreign aid dependency certainly has a lot to do with. Even during the autocratic rule of “Mad Kamuzu Banda
” from the 60:s to the 90:s he encouraged donor-dependency by inviting every single aid-organisation, in attempts to embezzle yet more money. The result is clearly visible today with Lilongwe
(the capital) having the biggest ex-pat ghetto in the Southern African region. If that prodigious amount of Western
nationals working for different international NGO
’s in Malawi would have been Malawian citizens, Malawi and not Namibia
would have the worst income equality in the world.
Everyday life by the lake
Washing the maize-meal shifter in the sunset. Cape Mclear.
With all these NGO’s in their brand new 4x4 swishing past the many poor villages on the main road connecting Lilongwe to Lake Malawi, it’s no wonder that the gap between this rich elite’ and the poor Malawians they’re there to help is getting wider and wider. Sowing more and more envy, frustration and inferiority among the locals and alienating the NGO’s from the populace.
As we then cycle past the villages on our slow pushbikes, sweaty and tired, all the frustration and prejudism the locals have built up against the Muzungus are released upon us. Seldom had I felt such a cultural and intellectual gap between me and the locals as I did while cycling in Southern Malawi.
The north was very different.
There the begging madness ceased and just a few individuals a day (like everywhere in Africa) instead of the roaring hordes, would beg us for money, sweets, pens or whatever else it is the big overland-truck companies hand out. People dared to greet us on an equal level and we found more common ground.
Undeniably we were back on the backpacker trail again, Malawi being the bottle neck on the
A sick foot?
Pastor Halfwell Gumbo had been sick as he was born, thus his name. He hadn't been sick during his last 54 years nevertheless he would be known as Half-well for the rest of his life. Gumbo means "Foot" in Tomboka, and was a common name for the Tomboka speaking tribes of the north as they fled the Zulu expansion in present day South Africa a few generations ago.
well-trodden path from Nairobi
down to the Cape
. Luckily the campsites in northern Malawi was segregated with the overland-trucks staying faithful to their campsites while the independent travellers choose randomly among the rest - being slightly clustered on a few well recommended ones. For us it was a blessing to meet some like-minded fellow travellers to compare experiences with and share some good advice. (Thanks everyone we met for making our stay in Malawi so great.)
We took the classic MS Ilala
(a steamer chugging up and down Lake Malawi since the beginning of time, almost) to the two islands of Chizzimulu
. The islands where located just a few kilometres from the Mozambican
coast and the both offered unrivalled lake-side laziness. The inhabitants were among the friendliest and happiest peoples I've met in Africa and crime was close to eradicated. We sampled Malawi Gold
and enjoyed watching the traffic (There was about 15 cars on Likoma Island, while on Chizzimulu there were none.). Like this the rest of northern Malawi continued, smiling people begging you to take their portraits, picturesque villages with looming mountains in the background and the azure-blue waters of the lake splashing on
The jetty at Nkothakotha. We raced her from Lilongwe to catch the boat heading north but apparently missed it with4 days??? Next to the jetty was a very interesting house built by an Israeli architect, that now was used by a squatting family.
the villagers’ canoes.
Regrettably I lost the memory-card with all my photos of northern Malawi. As I realized the pictures were gone I felt I wanted to fly back home and I couldn’t stop thinking about the pictures for months. As I contemplated them they all grew into Pulitzer-price
winning front covers of National Geographic
, which hurt even more.
They were portraits of concentrated fishermen mending their nets using their feet; tired dogs and arguing kids; Soldiers building a chicken-cage with twigs; Mama Mary
with her firstborn son “Noise
” on her shoulder;a woman singing from the bible, with her holy book clutched in her hands; the early morning commotion as MS Ilala arrived at Nkatha Bay
; a police officer in front of the table of crime on Likoma Island (with crimes such as: “Indecent speech
” and “discrediting behaviour
” being major ones.); the kind nurses that cleaned my wound after a dog bite; and of course a shot of the mangy dog and its three week old rabies vaccination certificate (that I prayed wasn’t falsified.). It's hard to accept when things that you are extremely attached to goes missing. Maybe I was supposed to learn something important from this,
Sketch of the Sisters of Fatimah
Resting in a muslim school, cracking jokes with the young teacher-trainees. They told us the pro with getting a muslim husband was that he wouldn't drink, the con was that he would do his best to get a second wife. North of Marka, somewhere, nowhere.
but so far all I've learned is frustration.
I had at least four flies on my body. No wait, it must have been at least seven, with closed eyes I tried to count the pest but they continuously kept on moving. I raised my hand to chase them off my face, but as soon as I laid my arm to rest they were back walking on my forehead, my cheeks and my lips.
Never leaving me alone.
Never understanding the concept of “privacy”.
My thoughts went back to the seemingly possessed hordes of beggars chasing us in southern Malawi. To times when I’d felt like Mungo Park with his Martini-Henry rifle, just before he (thankfully) was shot.
In the neighbouring countries, Tanzania
and Mozambique one could truly feel that the populace knew where they were going, that the nations were heading somewhere and that there was a great sense of pride, ambition and enthusiasm. That I could not say about Malawi. All the coddling by the Western Aid & Donor-circus had stifled any form of entrepreneurship, inventiveness or aspiration (except when the local fishermen took the mosquito-nets handed out to by US-Aid
To cool off in the middle of the day, nothing beats the lake. A small fishermen village some 100km north of Nkothakotha.
children from malaria - and used them as fishing nets.).
It felt to me like huge parts of the population had given up and settled into their roles as “poor helpless Africans”. Some might argue this is because the country has been blatantly misgovern since independence by incompetent and corrupt leaders, but then again, that goes for all the African nations and they’ve still succeeded better than Malawi. This country really didn’t make any sense to me, at all.
Aili had awoken.
Just by rising form the ground she chased the staring boys at the “window” on the run, laughing and screaming yet more. The men eating maize porridge with their shovelling hands, where now laughing and pointing at us.
It was still too hot to cycle, but we had some 45km to ride to the border and we wanted to reach it before it got dark and the border post closed. Besides, we wanted a fair last chance of contracting Bilharzia
in the lake before we left the country.
As we jumped on our bikes the small boy with the makeshift grill persistently tried to sell us some bananas. An old woman outside
Hard Working Men
Zomba sunrise. Zomba used to be the capital during before independence in 1964, but had then lost its status as a city and been downgraded to a town. It was still my favourite city in southern Malawi.
the rice mill saw us trying to fend him off and as we were leaving she hastily told the rest of the women about what happened.
As I cycled off I threw a glance over my shoulder at the women.
There they all sat, dressed in their colourful kangas with babies tied to their backs, chattering loudly with their toothless smiles, and pointing and laughing at us as we cycled away.
I could but smile.
After all this was Africa, the continent I’d probably spend the rest of my life never fully grasping; the best place in the world to get both frustrated and fascinated at the same time. And I knew that in a not to far future I would be back home in my comfy sofa looking back on these six weeks in Malawi, and the only word that could possibly spring to my mind then would be: Mesmerizing
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