Zomba on a Saturday

Today I went into town. We live in Matawale, a suburb just on the outskirts of Zomba town. A ten minute walk and a five minute minibus ride for K70 – 30p – gets me into town. I greet the locals with the brief opening we learnt a few days back, and it really works. The routine dialogue is followed pretty much verbatim every time:
“Moni achemwale/abambo/amayi/achimwene” – “Hello young woman/man/woman/young man”
“Moni …”
“Muli bwanji?” – “How are you?”
“Ndili bwino. Kaya inu?” – “I am fine. And you?”
“Ndili bwinonso.” – “I am also fine.”
“Zikomo.” – “Thanks. [And lets now move on to business.]”
This is cursorily rushed through, sometimes without even slowing down if walking past each other. I suppose it’s not that strange – we greet people like this in English also, but here it is done routinely.

Walking to the minibus...

Walking to the minibus...

In the centre of town I walk around coolly, backpack on shoulder, trying to look like I know where I’m going and have done this a million times. My repeated tripping and stumbling on the uneven pavements, ditches and potholes probably breaks the illusion. Probably also my walking back and forward over the same place again and again doesn’t help. And maybe the fact that I look insanely pleased with myself every time I run smoothly through the dialogue, so that eventually I’m greeting almost every sucker I walk past. Oh, and I’m white – a mzungu – the only white person I see the whole afternoon. People stare a bit, and some kids come out to follow me, amused when I “muli bwanji?” them. People are friendly, and smile.

Freshly fried chips

Freshly fried chips

The town centre is bustling and untidy, the square concrete shops decorated with painted signs advertising their business, iron bars covering all the windows. One does not need much to set up shop it seems: an “electrical specialist” with a permanent sign turned out to have an old radio, some plugs, a few garden implements and a hubcap.

We need to buy some basics for our house, but I am particularly looking for a mobile phone with simcard, and internet access. (A cheap genuine Nokia phone can be bought for about £20, locked to a network. The network makes its money by charging exorbitantly high rates for pay-as-you-go top-up cards. There are no contracts. It ends up being very expensive for the poor Malawians.) The internet cafe closed before I get there, and I can’t find any place to get the phone deal, despite asking a number of people. What do they usually do to get a phone? The guy at the company offering wireless internet access from home (very expensive but I think worth it) is friendly and wants to sell me the necessary USB dongle, but they are sold out and may get some in next week, or the week after, maybe. Come back and see.

Tailors in the market

Tailors in the market

I am thinking of cycling in to work, as are Steph and Pennie. Zomba is slightly hilly (less so than Edinburgh), and cycling should be quite feasible. Most of the bicycles I’ve seen are Dutch-style in the sense that they are heavy and have no gears. They are African-style in the sense that they are shiny and have no brakes. The guys hurtle down the road utterly unable to stop or slow down apparently. (Don’t worry mom and dad I won’t be doing any of that!) One shop sold a selection of new bikes, though a generous interpretation may be that they are very new and not yet fully assembled. The spokes are all loose, some falling out, and the rudimentary brake pads have limited travel, stopping a full centimetre short of the wheel. I pointed this out to the guy there and suggested that the brakes didn’t work. “Ai don’t worry,” he reassured me, “The brakes they will work after a while.” I walked on. Buying a bike in Zomba may be more challenging than we had expected. [Edit: I have subsequently seen that most bikes do in fact have brakes, but they do not work very well.]



One item I also need is a wall socket for my room. In the market, I am looking at some extension leads while trying unsuccessfully to look disinterested. Two guys are trying to impress me with the outstanding quality and workmanship. From their opening price of K2000 I barter them down to K1100, and buy two for the house. Not bad I reckon. I mention that I’m interested in a wall socket. After some confusion during which they offer more extension leads and adaptors and plugs, I walk on to find some fresh produce.

Buying food feels much simpler, the prices are more predictable and reasonable, and the quality of the produce is really good. Lots of onions, tomatoes, cabbages, more potatoes, beans, pulses, gnarled lemons, dried fish. The produce is stacked into neat piles or small heaps, and sold accordingly.

Dried fish of all types

Dried fish of all types

One of the vegetable sellers is fixing a battered bike in front of his tomatoes. I ask him if he knows where I can buy a bike, or if he wants to sell his, but instead he offers me a pile of tomatoes for K50. Then I feel a tug on my shoulder. It’s the guy from the previous stall, now having located a wall socket. It looks pretty good, but he wants K3500 for it. He goes down to K2000 (£8) but won’t go lower. Alright, I think, that must be the price for this electric stuff here. I buy it and walk on – co-incidentally, into the electrical section of the market! And only a moment too late! I ask a guy selling the same wall socket how much it is.
“1000 kwacha.”
“I just paid 2000 for one of these.”
“Yes, 2000.”
“No, that is stealing. That person is bringing down the good name of Malawian people.”

The next guy I checked with was even more offended on my behalf:

“How much is this wall socket?”
“800 kwacha.”
“I just paid 2000 for one like this.” I’ve been had, I think to myself.
“Yes, 2000.”
“Ai no!! Where is that man? That is a crime! Do you know that man? Let us go and find him!”

I leave the market a bit disheartened but a bit wiser, and notice a stall on the way out selling extension leads like the one I bought earlier.
“How much?”
“500 kwacha.”
Ai ai ai.
(This evening that same extension lead got so hot it melted and shorted out with a massive spark while cooking supper. At least now I know where to get a replacement cheaply!)


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