Shadows in the dark

Malawian roads at night are hazardous. After a morning of reviews, summaries and reflections (VSO style), all the volunteers and employers had a last lunch together, followed by heartfelt goodbyes and good wishes, and a final trip to pick up extra supplies. VSO has thought of most practical things, and supply a foam mattress, cooking plate and fridge (and other smaller sundries like mosquito nets and water filters) to everyone. Our employer, Zomba Mental Hospital, had kindly sent the clinical nurse manager, the HR manager, and a driver to meet us and drive us back to Zomba. Tagging along with them was a detective who used the opportunity of a ride to Lilongwe to get details of a case he was working on.

Everything must go!

Everything must go!

So it was a tight fit in the hospital’s double cab bakkie! We left Lilongwe with seven people squashed into a double cab (the senior nurse sitting on the lap of the HR manager in the front, four of us in the back), with three mattresses, a fridge, multiple bags, backpacks, an iron, boots and the driver’s sister on the back. It would be a four hour ride down to Zomba.

Potatoes by the bucket

Potatoes by the bucket

At the first stop, a roadside market selling “Irish potatoes”, I made the mistake of trying to buy six carefully chosen potatoes from a large bucket, supermarket-style. The seller looked at me and shook her head in amazement. I could only buy the whole bucketful. The hospital HR manager graciously gave me a quick tour of the art of buying potatoes by the bucket, each bucket 400 kwachas (about £1,50 or R20). On the road again, Steph’s phone rang and it was Dr. Rhada, saying he was depressed and missing us already. The next stop was at the large market near Dedza, on the border with Mozambique. The market spans both sides of the road, Malawi on the left, Mozambique on the right.

Mozambique side of the market near Dedza

Mozambique side of the market near Dedza

(For some way the road itself is the border, with families straddling the road quite happily, according to the detective who sat squished next to me.) We stopped on the Mozambique side because it is apparently cheaper. Loud, fast, frenetic this was, and a little intimidating. The HR manager gave me another quick tour. People are keen to have their photographs taken here.

These potatoes are mine.

These potatoes are mine.

A guy standing on a truckload of potato sacks demanded to be photographed, and a shy dignified older woman approached me half-heartedly offering peas, but eyeing my camera and evidently wanting a photo. When I refused the beans she looked me in the eye, then at the camera, and nodded. I took her photo, showed it to her, and she was beaming! I wished I could have given her a print for herself there and then.

We left the market, and drove on into the dusk. Which brings me back to my first point: Malawian roads at night are hazardous. The road itself is tarred but narrow, with no verge and no road markings or cat’s eyes. There are certainly no street lights. So merely finding the road is tricky at times. Many cars – maybe a third – have no working lights. On both sides there are throngs of people walking in both directions, crossing without warning. Cyclists pedal lazily on the edge of the tar, moving onto the gravel sometimes if they see you coming. Drivers sit on their hooters as they approach the cyclists – to let them know they’re there, or to indicate anger – who knows? Pedestrians and cyclists rarely wear anything reflective or light-coloured, so are basically the same colour as the night. Finally, add to this busy scene the low-hanging smoke from the innumerable fires in the surrounding veld, and you understand why VSO recommends that volunteers plan to get to their destinations before dark. Shapes emerge slowly from the pallid brown-grey smudge lit by the car headlights, and it takes a while to distinguish tree from person from cow from bicycle, then a bit longer to work out what speed and direction they’re moving. It was a memorable ride.

Cute kiddies

The house which the hospital has organised for us three volunteers is very large – and very bare. Four bedrooms, one of them en-suite, a large kitchen, garage, dining room, and massive bare living room. There are three toilets and two baths, an extravagance undoubtedly available only to the very wealthiest Malawians. The HR manager, when we asked him how they had found such a house, puffed with pride and explained that “We made advertisements in the newspaper, looking for a house of this standard.” He particularly emphasised “…of this standard”, evidently pleased with our gasps of admiration. The HR manager, and the other Malawians I’ve met, have without exception been warm, generous and smiling. They are unfailingly courteous to visitors like us, as Prof Samu explained at the VSO induction, habitually sacrificing their own comfort for ours. “We Malawians are good people,” the Prof said, “but sometimes others can take advantage of our generosity.” He went on to explain that just because a Malawian gives up his bed for you to sleep in, “it doesn’t mean he likes sleeping on the floor!! Don’t make that mistake!” It was a clear admonition to us Westerners not to trample on their good nature. But back to the house. The house comes with a night guard and a day guard, supplied by the hospital. (Guards are pretty standard practise here it seems.) This feels a bit odd, especially as our guard, Vincent, sits in the corner of the large living room. I asked him if he wanted something to read, but I had only a limited selection in fact to offer him. In the end I gave him The Economist from last week and a book by Laurens van der Post about his exploration of Nyasaland (old Malawi) in 1949. Hey, that’s all I had, and Vincent accepted them appreciatively, asking if they were his to keep or to borrow. Steph, Penny and I sat in the dining room eating the take-aways which the HR manager had gone to fetch for us (unasked), while Vincent leafed through The Economist in the corner of the living room. Very surreal.

Our living room, Vincent on the left.

Our living room, Vincent on the left.

My own room is very bare, and a bit depressing actually. There is a single electric socket sulking loosely in the wall which works as long as I maintain pressure on the switch, so not enough to charge anything up. I’ll need to pull it out and fix it. The house, though large, solid and very clean, is a bit shabby, with cracked or missing window panes in places, mosquito meshes broken, cupboards loose on their hinges, single globes hanging from ceilings, paint sloshed carelessly over boundaries, grouting unfinished. (Not sure if I should say that – the generosity evident in getting this house is magnificent, but I’m trying to paint an accurate picture.)

Although I’ve used the phrase before, even half-seriously when visiting home in Cape Town from Scotland, I now understand much better what “culture shock” means. This afternoon and evening have been a bit unsettling and I feel well out of my “comfort zone”, made worse because I’ve been almost unable to contact any friends or family since arriving in Malawi five days ago, with no immediate prospects of this changing. I am still completely dependant on transport from others. Hopefully I’ll get a simcard and internet access tomorrow, and with luck a bike on the weekend.


1 Comment »

  1. Tom said

    It takes getting used to but you’ll soon be accustomed to doing things in pace with ‘African time’.

    Things you must eat while in Malawi:
    – Cashew nuts (used to be very cheap and widely available)
    – Mangoes (biggest sweetest ones I had ever tasted)
    – Papayas
    – Mushrooms (also the biggest I’d ever seen)
    I’m however not sure when any of the above is in season, but the locals will know.

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