The Greyhound Bus
I had to go to Lilongwe this week. Lilongwe has been the capital city since 1975 when the ‘president for life’ Banda made it so. Presumably because it was because he dreamed it was destined, or it looked nicer than Zomba as a backdrop to his ‘approachable yet poignant pose’ or some such mad-dictator logic. Hastings Banda was one of the fathers of Malawian independence and quite forward thinking about some things, like women’s rights, education and having roads. But, like most men who remain in power for too long, he got more paranoid and murderous as the years wore on, descending into the kind of ‘I’m going to ban songs that annoy me’* megalomania that led to the disappearance of about 6,000 people. I find it difficult to have a conversation about politics with a Malawian, despite the democracy and free press of today, because the habit of fear is ingrained. This makes me further appreciate growing in a country in which, despite having to put up with the likes of Thatcher and Cameron, I can call them a cabal of underdone reptilian anal glands as loudly as I want.
Lilongwe itself was dull – I’m sure it’s a lovely city, full of life and colour, but all I saw was the bus stop and the inside of the Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi. In the UK, you fill out a form, send it to the NMC, and then they register you. To be fair, they usually take >8 weeks to do this, but you can occupy yourself with whatever you want during this time – eating coal and selling homemade matches to feed your family for instance. However, in Malawi, things are done with style. Rubber stamped, paper heavy, dance of bureaucracy gone insane style. In this, my first of at least three visits, I spent nearly 6 hours in the building, in order to hand in a form and pay a KW20,000 fee (about £30). Having the form accepted was merely a matter of a chat about my life, my intentions in Malawi, my favourite Archangel, and ‘my goodness aren’t you a little hot sat in this windowless office in 35°C heat, wearing a heavy polyester midwives uniform for over two hours.’
After this is was off to pay, to the clerk’s office. At one barred window-counter, set at about 160cm high which meant I had to jump with every other word, I told them I wanted to give them my fee. I went to another, identical counter to give them my address in staccato hops, then to another counter to hand over the bouncing cash. Then back to the first counter for my stamped and signed receipt in triplicate. It got even more exciting when I tried to buy The Nursing Code for Malawi, which involved giving the KW800 to the young man at counter one, receiving a receipt, and being told to proceed to (ominous voice),’ROOM 37′. In Room 37, I handed the chit to an older, more resigned looking man. He smiled sadly at me, handed me an empty mug and then disappeared for 45 minutes. On a brief trip to the toilet I peered in at the room opposite, where he sat, knee-deep in a deluge of paper that was spewing out of a gigantic cupboard, rocking quietly.
So that was my first, surreal, visit to Lilongwe. Getting there, however, was a refreshingly expedient experience. I decided not to drive, knowing my immense skill at getting lost in a street I have lived in for years, let alone a strange new country with no road markings. There are few road signs in Malawi because people pinch them for roofing, which leads to the local councils drilling holes in them to ‘prevent’ this**, leaving them looking like they have suffered heavy shot-gun fire.
So I took the bus. The Axa Blantyre-Lilongwe Express, Executive Class (Unlike Delux class, some of the windows open and you get a warm Sprite). The driver, showing great determination and vim, stopped for nothing. The body count was a sandy-coloured mongrel, a little Shar-Pei looking thing, numerous chickens and a goat. In justice to him, he did bib his horn for the goat, they are quite valuable. I was surprised about how upset a 18 tonne bus hitting a small dog at 70mph made me feel, and not just the bump/crunch and the splatter. Squeamishness is not a trait compatible with someone who regularly washes amniotic fluid out of her bra. Neither am I a huge animal rights person. It’s not that creatures are off my love list, just that for me, they come under ‘people’, and I’m not through all of them yet. Also, I will quite happily eat anything dead that can be grilled or cooked in a sauce. In my life I’ve been fond of a couple of dogs, but really, rabies aside, I don’t know what to say to a creature with such an enthusiastic attitude to its own faeces.
So to my surprise the untimely but mercifully quick death of this little dog, really affected me. I found myself shaking and crying into my tepid soda. It took me a while to realise, but it is because I feel so vulnerable here too. I am so grateful that I am treated with such friendliness and welcome by most Malawians, made more miraculous to me because after two years visiting pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood, I know damn well how little succour immigrants get in the UK. But still I feel alone and far too visible. And I miss the thing that grounded me, that made me turn my gaze outwards and my heart upwards; I miss my friends.
And now with permission: The Picol!
* Apparently he banned ‘Cecilia’ by Paul Simon, after a rocky love affair with a woman named Cecilia.
**You just need to nick two and make sure the holes don’t line up.