First day in Malawi, and getting there

I hate the overnight flight from London to South Africa. The seats are small and uncomfortable, one doesn’t sleep, and one is stuck tight for 11 hours, legs stiff and feet swelling. I’ve made this flight many times now, but this time there was the odd tantalising sensation of being delivered so close to home in Cape Town, only to be rerouted back up to Lilongwe.

It was thus that I entered the arrivals hall of Jo’burg airport in an almost delirious haze from lack of sleep, exacerbated by the hangover effect from a belatedly effective sleeping tablet. Dumbly following an interminably long queue to get a boarding pass for the flight to Lilongwe, I was aware of entering a large stark hall, with only two bored clerks opposite, working behind a counter with place for eight. The only adornment to this ugly functional space was a daring abstract artwork on the opposite wall, its curving black and grey shapes breaking the surrounding monotony of straight lines and hard edges.
I desperately needed a strong coffee, but clearly the unhurried scanning, stamping and printing behind the counter meant I’d have to wait a long while. A portly Zimbabwean man wearing a cream jacket and a bowler hat and clutching a bottle of Famous Grouse asked me if I knew anything about past-life regression, going on to explain that Jesus was just a man. Not knowing whether the incoherence was his or mine I nodded politely.

The queue edged forward, the counter eventually in full sight. In an effort to distract myself from my throbbing feet, I gazed up above the counter. From the middle of the artwork jutted a frayed electric cable, ending in an unruly tangle of copper. “Brilliant! Genius!” I would have exclaimed, had I been in the Tate Modern, the tangle undoubtedly then a bold metaphor for man’s confusion and frustration in the modern world. But here, in the arrival hall of Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo International Airport, it became grimly clear that I was gazing at the sooty shadow of an electric sign that had recently caught fire and been removed.

I was called forward, and my boarding pass to Lilongwe handed to me with a smile. The next queue was equally long, but far more pleasant as I serendipitously found my two VSO colleagues who were on the same flight, and also working in Zomba. We introduced ourselves and chatted, complaining about the very last minute aspects of some of the arrangements. Both Steph and Penny are clinical psychologists, and until two days ago weren’t sure if they were coming. (As a note though, the organisation by VSO has generally been excellent, but more on that later.)

At the Kumuzu International Airport in Lilongwe (considerably smaller than Edinburgh Airport), we were greeted by a friendly greying old gentleman, wearing a suit and making small bows and thank-you’s as he cursorily checked our passports – a bit like leaving church. Lively African music wafted through the arrivals hall, punctuated irregularly by the Windows “exclamation error” sound. The first billboard I saw was for VISA credit cards, encouraging us to spend money, as ably demonstrated by the five smiling white people on the poster. Later adverts starred more demographically representative black people though. We were met at the airport by Margie from VSO, who informed us that there were in fact 18 VSO volunteers on the flight! So much for feeling special. These VSO deployments to Malawi happen three times a year. Customs, passports and tourist visas were all handled my Margie, who authoritatively waved us through customs and past the inevitable group of enthusiastic Dutch tourists talking amongst themselves, complete with bikes.

The dusty tarred road into Lilongwe from the airport is lined with people of all ages and sizes, walking, cycling or sauntering in both directions along the verges. There is little sign of any hurry. Some looked on in curiosity or waved at our van-full of captive white people staring back at them. The landscape is dry, dusty and sparse, with scrub vegetation and, impressively, still some trees. We passed informal traders bustling on the roadside, followed by more permanent huts selling fat brightly coloured sofas, iron security gates, furniture, and – tragically – coffins.

Coffins snapped from the minibus

Coffins snapped from the minibus

Many coffins were being shaped and planed on the roadside as we watched. We counted at least five of these “coffin makers”, some with very ornate and probably expensive coffins outside. Try before you buy? Signs varied from the plane and simple “Coffin Makers” to the gently euphemistic “Place of Last Respected Abode: Casket Makers”. This was a bit of a shock, though should not really have come as a major surprise in a country with an HIV rate of 12%. Nevertheless, these bold but casual adverts of death in the midst of such liveliness was sobering.

For the next four days we are in Lilongwe, for ICT (“In-Country Training” – another of VSO’s many acronyms), staying in the basic but functional Msamba Catholic Centre. Painted concrete floors and frilly bedspreads. Please make sure that you have booked a place at Msambe Catholic Centre by phone, letter or massage, recommends the sign inside, suggesting that the centre may be more racy than it appears. I am sharing a room with a portly, good-natured and brusque but endearing emergency-medicine doctor.

outside Msambe Catholic Centre

outside Msambe Catholic Centre

“I am Doctor Rhad###(very long name)####, but you can call me Doctor Rhada,” he introduced himself formally. “May I ask your good name?”
I told him my name, but he nevertheless calls me simply “Doctor”.
He went on: “I have worked in India, Kosovo for the UN, and of course Uganda.”
“Of course….” I nodded deferentially.

There followed a short welcome, briefing, and supper. We are 18 volunteers starting in Malawi now, ages ranging from around 25 to 50, mostly long term placements of two years. The three mental health placements in Zomba, including mine, are for four to six months only. Other areas covered include HIV policy and awareness, teacher education, logistics, and food. The guy involved in food is working in the north of Malawi, hoping to help with the setting up of a workable dairy industry. There are some dairy cows up north apparently, as well as milking and pasteurising equipment, but not enough cows or logistical expertise to make sure that fresh milk routinely reaches further south. This was partly evidenced by the fact that there is no fresh milk at the centre, only milk powder.

After supper, I found Doctor Rhada in our room standing with his laptop plug in hand, bewildered that it would not fit into the Malawi socket. “But how can it not fit? Why?” he asked, genuinely puzzled. I explained that he needed an adaptor, but he was only properly satisfied when I showed him my European adaptor from France and how it goes between the plug and the socket.

The next challenge to present itself was in the men’s toilets, where two of the three toilets had no water in the cistern, and three of us had already unwittingly used them. I thought we shouldn’t panic, and reminded the guys that this was exactly the sort of scenario which our VSO weekend training in Birmingham had prepared us for. Demonstrating flexibility and adaptability as per our VSO job requirements, we found a bucket in a storeroom and filled it from the shower nextdoor. Job done. And flushed.

Thus ended the first day in Malawi, triumphantly.

Malawian woman outside Msambe Catholic Centre

Malawian woman outside Msambe Catholic Centre


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