Day four

The lack of communications and connectivity is driving me wild… After three and a half days I still have been unable to get a local simcard due to time constraints, I am “not authorised to make outgoing calls” on my UK simcard, and the free internet at the hotel hasn’t worked since we arrived. My only connection has been sms’s on my UK simcard, which cost 49p each. The final straw came this evening, when I eventually asked to use the phone at the front desk to contact the UK fairly urgently, saying I would pay immediately for the call in cash. The hostess agreed that this would be possible if I wrote the number down for her. After I did this she dialled it lazily and handed the phone to me, watching the clock on the wall behind me. I was just beginning to speak to a person after plugging my way through a menu system and identifying myself, when the line went dead and started beeping.

“Hello? Hello?” I said, willing them to hear me still, but there were only beeps.
“The phone just died,” I told her, “It’s been cut off I think?”
“Yes.” She seemed unsurprised.
“Can I call them back please?”
“We are out of credits.”
“Credits? But I can pay for the call.”
“No, the hotel is out of credits. We can get more though. You can come back in an hour.”
“They will be closed in fifteen minutes. Is it possible to get them sooner?”
“No. We must wait.” She was impassive.
“Okay, then I will have to come back tomorrow morning to call. Would that be okay?”
“Yes.” She looked at me expectantly. I looked back, a little irritated.
“The cost is 800 kwachas.”
“But the phone was cut off and I can’t call them back!”
“But you spoke to them. For two minutes.”
“Yes but I could not do my business. The phone died halfway through. The call was useless to me.”
“The call lasted two minutes. I was watching the clock.”
“You spoke to them so you must pay.”
By this stage I was actually really angry, largely because she didn’t apologise or even blink, and although the price (which I can’t remember exactly) was relatively inconsequential, I decided that on principle I would try explain why I shouldn’t be expected to pay. Eventually the manager was called, I explained the scenario, and he said he would sign for the call and I needn’t pay. This was clearly meant as a favour to me. I asked if I could try again tomorrow. He said that would be impossible as his boss was way for the day…

But to move on: I’m going to be on Malawian TV! There was a big braai (barbeque) in the evening in the hotel gardens. Quite a grand event, with all volunteers, employers, “stakeholders” – including such dignitaries as the Minister of Education and his family – all present. The VSO Country Director for Malawi made a short speech, then we were all called up one by one to be named and applauded, somewhat awkwardly and unnecessarily formally. (Nobody can pronounce Nortje properly first time and it always gets a nervous laugh). A bit later the country director was interviewed for MTV and “volunteered” two volunteers to also be interviewed briefly. I was only asked one slightly formal question – “Where will you be going and how well prepared do you feel for the task which awaits you?” The true answer is “I don’t have a clue”, but the more complete – and hopefully diplomatic – reply which I gave was that VSO’s briefings have been fairly thorough, covering aspects of Malawian culture and language, and that I would have to go there and first see what is happening, how things are done, learn from the staff there currently, and then try to suggest or steer things in more productive directions collaborating with staff. All very PC, but nevertheless hopefully accurate, and sustainable and effective.

Some of us at the braai

Some of us at the braai

Dr. Rhada has a Nepalese contact in the kitchen. Not for him the fish-head stew which I inadvertently dished up, thinking it was lamb. “Don’t you worry, Doctor, it is coming. Just wait. It will come,” he assures us all. Wragtig, half an hour later a waiter arrives bearing the actual bodies of the fish, prepared in a tomato curry sauce! Later he instructs the waiter to tell his contact that we want some fruit, and presently a few apples and bananas appear. We sit around drinking Carlsberg “greens” or “browns”, enjoying our last night together before dispersing all over Malawi. Many volunteers will be alone in their placement, some alone in their towns. We all hope they will not be too lonely, and everybody invites everybody else to visit them. Dr. Rhada says he will miss us and be very sad tomorrow. I tell Dr. Rhada I will miss him too.

The braai had a very colonial feel, sitting outside under night sky at trestle tables, the weather warm and dry, people congratulating themselves for generally doing good jobs, being served by black Malawians dressed in chef’s hats. To be fair though, the crowd being served was half white and half black, which was better. One or two of the existing volunteers were particularly colonial, and the unwitting paternalistic way they spoke of Malawians reminded me of the way many white people spoke in apartheid South Africa (and still do). They gave advice about not being shy to fire your house-maid (“I had to fire two in my first six months!”), how to deal with a servant (“Best to start off strict and then soften up later.”), and how to negotiate it if your house-guard requests a loan. Then moments later, the offhand statement, “I would trust my guard with my life.”, meant to impress us and justify any manner of dealing with the poor man. Denying their very posh English accents, they exaggerate their new-found Africanness in their swagger, their dress, their cool casualness, or the way they eat (“Please excuse me eating with my hands but it’s what I’m used to after a year in Malawi. Of course I’ll have to stop it before my mum sees me when I get back to England – she’d be horrified!”). Some of us new volunteers were commenting on this, and wondered, with some dismay, if we’d be the same after a while. But we had to recognise some of them in ourselves: Most of us have come here for a bit of an adventure, and most of us (though not all) have come from fairly cushy backgrounds, unaccustomed to genuinely roughing it. And the truth is, this is hardly roughing it, nor is it likely to be. In the background we always have the knowledge that VSO are there to help, to give advice, to pay expenses, to evacuate even. We know it’s a temporary thing for us, a choice, and we can leave at any time. We can play at learning the language, without desperately needing it. Heck, if the price of petrol goes up VSO will foot the bill (if for work purposes of course)! We will be quite well psychologically insulated from the realities of those we will working with, despite the fact that superficially we may be “living it”. So maybe many of us here have come “to Africa” to connect with “the wild”, but in that respect it can be a bit of a sham. It’s still great, and certainly an adventure, but it would be a same to cheapen the reality of those we will work with by pretending that “this is it”. Maybe though we can at least do something useful.


1 Comment »

  1. Claire Watson said

    Hi, enjoying reading your blog and all the comments left on it. Just about couldn’t make you out in the ?? staff photograph but then i thought who is the guy in the bright orange shirt. Lo and behold its Gareth
    Claire x

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