Socks so soft in London

I stepped off the aeroplane at 5h45 at Heathrow yesterday morning, smack into a bracing cold breeze, unexpectedly refreshing and pleasant after months of sweaty heat. Later though, after walking outside in London for a few minutes, covered in layers of shirts and fleece and jacket, I soon longed for some warmth again and the freedom of a simple T-shirt. I got caught in the early commuter traffic on the Tube, everybody wrapped up similarly in coats and books and iPods and individual purpose. At the same time in Zomba, in another world which seems quite unreal now, people were sauntering and cycling along unhurriedly under the trees, stopping, greeting, smiling and shaking hands, yelling across streets and markets at each other, wheeling and dealing, with the sun was shining warmly on their backs. After a mere six months in Malawi, I want to wave or nod or raise eyebrows at most people who I pass, acknowledging their existence and communicating that everything’s just fine, “chabwino”. That doesn’t really work in London, nor I expect in most of the UK. P1040776 Over the man next to me’s shoulder I read a headline in the Metro which momentarily held his attention, “Rare African meningitis kills mother in six hours”. Africa gets such bad press! It’s not that the reporting is untrue – there are many nasty bugs and problems in Africa – but it is so one-sided and sensational. This headline serves only to confirm the exotic fantasy of a savage and unforgiving continent. I fancied the man gave a knowing sigh and cynical shake of the head as he turned the page to read about the latest M&S Meal Deal. Then I glanced up at the advertisements inside the train, one of which smugly glorified living close to work and far from home. This struck me, freshly back from a country where work takes firm second place to family and friends, as utterly absurd and bizarre, and it took me a while to work out what the advert actually means. I’m still not sure I’ve understood it correctly.

P1040756 Are they serious??

At my friends Robyn and Jaco’s house, the only real evidence of the passing of time, convincing me that I hadn’t just popped off for six months in a time machine, is the growth of their twins, now 18 months old and freshly covered in their lunch. They grow cuter every time I see them, and more mischievous as their mobility increases. I laugh at them for a while and then notice two power sockets under the kitchen table. My first whiff of thought is to check if the sockets work, which one does not take for granted in Malawi. Of course they do, how fantastic, I remind myself, and plug my laptop in. Robyn asks me to keep an eye on the twins while she grabs a quick shower. I can hear the toddlers mumbling and babbling and playing behind me, and nod assent, though my attention is on my laptop which I’ve  just booted up. While I type the address into my internet browser, I am already thinking about what I can do while the page loads up. I remember I must find my dirty washing.  I press Enter and immediately, before I have a chance to move, there’s a gmail page on the screen. My momentary irritation that it must have reloaded an old page from the cache switches to astonishment when I see that it’s current. Incredible. How does anyone get any work done when the internet is so fast? My washing would have to wait. I read an email in silence, still amazed. But something gnaws at my brain – something is not right, not sure what. Oh, yes, the silence! What happened to the contented squeals behind me? Am I not supposed to be looking after the kids? I panic momentarily, get up and rush out into the corridor. I can hear them in the lounge, where I left my backpack lying eviscerated on the floor, surrounded by dirty washing and sundry gifts. Somehow, with lightning speed and ruthless stealth, these twins had wordlessly communicated their common intent to get the hell out of the kitchen and explore while their P1040769mom wasn’t watching. I find them sitting in my dirty washing, having uncovered and unwrapped all three of my Lindt chocolate slabs, which had been deeply buried and meant for friends. They are munching away, blissfully satisfied. How long had this all taken? Maybe a minute, two at most. How can anyone get any work done when the kids are so fast? My email would have to wait. I rescued what I could of the chocolate and coaxed them back to the kitchen. Later in the afternoon I do get to do my washing, and the result is incredible. After six months of washing everything by hand in plastic buckets, during which time the relentless onslaught of dirt, sweat and dust slowly eroded my resolve and will to bother wearing clean clothes at all, the washing machine is almost miraculous. My socks come out so clean and so soft, I can’t help but stroke them for a while. That evening in an effort to do something Malawian, I make goat stew, using 2kg of goat hunks bought in Brixton market for £5. Quite delicious, but nevertheless the source of much doubt and fun-poking from my vaguely alarmed hosts.

So that was my first day back from Malawi.




  1. Maureen said

    Hey Gareth!

    Hilarious take on getting back to the ‘real’ world. If you could call it that. I don’t think that is the right word for it, but there you go. I really understand what you mean about washing in a washing machine! Oh the joy! I must say, there are many good things about being in the land of industry.. as you have mentioned, soft clean socks, hot water from taps and flushing toilets and oh yeah, no bats.

    So anyway, I finally got around to checking out your blog and clicked on what is allegedly my blog and oh oh… It’s not me! Someone else has a ‘malawi with love’ blog, but mine is on wordpress, not blogspot. I think you will find that that appears to be from a peace corps volunteer. Anyway, I have not updated mine, so there is no new news on there.

    Speaking of news though! I am about to embark on a foray into the Australian interior. Yep that’s right. I’m going to live in Central Australia (aka – the desert). I just found out this week that I have a job there (one of the ones I applied for in Malawi). It’s with the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs working on waste and resource issues with Aboriginal communities. Another challenge! I figure, I’m up for it post Malawi.

    Keep in touch Gareth and enjoy settling in with clean soft socks 🙂

  2. Rob said

    A most soft-looking pair of socks. You look very proud!

  3. I am not certain where you’re getting your info, however good topic.
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