No One Here But Us Bipeds

Leaving behind the context in which you understood yourself inevitably leads to new discoveries about who you really are. The things that are fundamentally important to you are more visible without the coating of things you enjoyed (mostly vices) and the lifestyle preferences that you had (vices and Buffy). Further, you encounter that which bring out your darkness, the ‘you’ that exists without the cytoplasm of control, the membrane which keeps you looking a normal shape with all the inside bits inside. You find out what makes you collapse on the bathroom floor and howl.

I feel threatened just by how visible I am here. There are very few white people and although nearly everyone is extravagantly kind and courteous, I do feel like I’ve accidentally gone out naked, or wearing Lyra’s bunny ears (again). Of course, when people get to know you, superficial differences recede, and I am happier just for having a few friends and knowing enough people to say hello to, in the gym, the local Superette, and around our little part of town called New Naperi. I made friends with an incredibly old lady called Doris, who had a sign in her garden saying she would like empty bottles to put her homemade beer in*. Her house is on the way to Lyra’s nursery, down a little loop of a road that cuts out the scary-no-pavement-highway, so we pass by most days. We met her when Lyra, Luka and I turned up with a wheelbarrow full of wine bottles, left by the previous residents.  Apart from the fact that she now thinks I am an alcoholic, we get on very well, and I look forward to passing her gate and exchanging pleasantries with her every morning.


Lyra Lizard and Luka Lizard

Another locus of familiarity was climbing Mount Soche yesterday, which was a refreshingly Yorkshire-like thing to do. Pottering up a hill with some shortcake biscuits and admiring the view, before retracing our steps and eating a massive Sunday lunch. Though the lunch was tasty-bok and rice rather than beef and puds.


On top of Mount Soche


The view from Mount Soche, looking North.

It is not just by my appearance that makes me stand out here. Manners are culturally proscribed and subtly nuanced; classical anthropology would describe them as the outward performance of an internal knowledge system. For instance, picking up a passing child who is totally unknown to you and kissing him/her is normal in Malawi. It makes my heart stop every time someone does this to Lyra and she gets absolutely furious at the invasion of her personal space. I have now learnt the perfect Chichewa for “I’m really sorry my daughter bit you, would you like some Germolene for that?”. But the very notion of personal space is not universal, and nor is the expectation that a small child will have strong feelings about what it will permit; both of these things are singularly European, rooted in our reverence for the ‘individual’.

I have also discovered that being satirical because someone is blindly following a protocol, despite the ironic consequences of their actions, is really rude in Malawi. Though this is still obligatory in Hoxton.  I know this because you can’t leave a shop here without having your receipt stamped. They don’t check your bags, they don’t look at the receipt, and they don’t have any in-store security, but you can’t leave without that stamp. So, after 45 minutes of trying to find some cream crackers, whilst your child is screaming because the lady behind us asked her if she was a fairy and it should be obvious to anyone that she is in fact a ‘pirate-fairy-baby-cat’, and just as you have remembered the essential thing that you came in for and it is now too late to go back and get, you have to stand in line to have a rubber stamp applied to your receipt, for absolutely no purpose. This causes a confused scrimmage at the exit through which the shoptlifters can blithely carry out crates of beer. I have failed to be anything other than sarcastic about this and every weekend I leave the store in the certain knowledge that I am a massive bitch.

Even the Malawian fauna is challengingly different. Thus, two nights ago I was sitting on the bathroom floor, clutching a can of Doom**, weeping uncontrollably and making that funny sound between mooing and screaming that only the truly terrified can create.  I have always known that I’m a bit funny about things with more than eight legs. Up to and including eight is fine, I am the honorary Holberry Gardens ‘creature’ catcher, and have often chuckled smugly to myself whilst carrying a pretty spider on my arm out from Jaymi’s house, as she stood on a chair and gibbered. There is also the drunken ‘chasing the frog’ game that we play every August, when the neighbours pond spawn has hatched and the little slippery hoppers get into the front room. Here too, I’ll happily fence cockroaches the size of tuppeny bits with my fish slice, for the last of the pancake batter.

But not centipedes. Or millipedes. They were always dealt with by a swift trowel to the middle and then hastily buried with a vow never to dig there again. But in Sheffield, they were tiny and only in the garden. In Sheffield, they weren’t 8 inches long and in my bed.  A whisper away from my face. I don’t know if they bite but my god, I have never, ever felt so physically afraid. In order to prove (to myself) that I am not a massive Jessie, may I put on record that I’ve jumped out of a plane, been chased through a rainforest by bandits with rifles, dealt with massive haemorrhages at homebirths, piloted solo a small leaky narrow boat down the Thames in flood, and faced a line of riot police whilst handcuffed to a man in a tiger suit. The latter was during my activist/Greenpeace days and not an advert for ‘New Militant Frosties!’.

None of these experiences even come close to how I felt on Saturday evening, sharing my pillow with so many legs. Jody well meaningly suggested we buy me a toy horrorpede in order to ‘get me used to them’. I, very unwellmeaningly, told him where to stuff his can of Doom.


Some of the fauna is brilliant, we met this gentleman on the way down Soche.

*The local brew has the consistency and taste of porridge. Because it’s made from fermented porridge.

**Southern Africa’s favorite Pyrethroid.

Africa Calling

I don’t think of myself as a technophobe, I’m probably a bit out of date but I get the basics and after an adult life of exclusively dating (and finally marrying) geeks, I can even stop my eyes from glazing over when someone mentions Linux. But I have always hated phones; their limitations don’t make up for their convenience in my emotive world. Hearing Chanje’s voice makes the fact that I am not with her worse, not better. Though, as she has previously texted me in the kitchen from my attic bedroom to bring her wine, this does not always apply. I don’t mind other people’s phones, if my companion starts tapping away, shoulders rounded and thumbs angled, I think, ‘oh good, I can daydream for a bit.’ This last especially so since I had Lyra – daydream time is a precious commodity once you (mistakenly) teach your child the power of speech. What I find intrusive is what they do to my own concentration, taking me out of the conversation, thought (nap) or work (nap) I was in the middle of, and forcing me to engage with something else, even if I don’t answer the call. Thus, I hate my phone ringing and this is never a reflection on the caller. I suppose I am a very ‘here and now’ kind of person.

In the UK, we have very prescriptive mores about phone use. One would never take a call in a job interview, or during sex for instance (well, excepting rule 34 and by mutual consent). Further, every couple of months, when there isn’t enough exploding in the world news or national commentary on random acts of jingoistic ball kicking, a journalist trots out with the story ‘children now spend 97 hours a day on screens and are resultingly less intelligent than demented gerbils’.  I refer the reader to for perspective on this one.

The culture of phones here is very different. The mobile phone has revolutionised life in Sub-Saharan Africa. The difficulties most people here face are not because of their poverty, but because of the last 500 years of poverty and exploitationWhen Iceland went bankrupt in 2008, after a century of prosperity, I’m betting that they still had gloves in the hospitals, roads that stayed where you put them, and lattes. In Malawi, there was little infrastructure to enable other services and industries to develop. There are very few landlines here, one train track (riding the family of tasty-boks that live on the sidings would be quicker) and only enough electricity generation capacity to keep us lit up for about half the week. Though if you go a couple of miles down the road to Sunnyside, where the Vice President lives, the power mysteriously stays on. But mobile phones are a paradigmatically different technology from the infrastructure of the age of industry. Masts cost little to erect, don’t require much more than a dirt track you can get a jeep down, and handsets are now very cheap.

Mobile phones have made everything possible. You can do your banking with them which is a very good thing, as the cash machines never work and nowhere takes cards. Even if you don’t have a bank account, you can pay other people, pay utility bills, buy things in shops, get public health advice, order a matola-taxi or even, if you still have the energy, call people.  It is democratising, to the point that even if you are not on the grid, you can still pop down the local shop and charge your phone at “God is Hope Barbers and Battery Charge”. People can run businesses with a reliable way of contacting and billing their customers and suppliers and you can always make sure your family is safe.

So mobiles have been a massive boon to the Malawian economy. But being English, with the rule-bound, polite to the point of inanity personality that such an origin entails, I find the way people use phones here a little unsettling.  My dislike of the invasion of my whimsical musings seems churlish compared to what some Malawians will stop or drop to get the phone. It is normal to answer the phone whilst driving, and then suddenly break whilst in the fast lane of the only dual carriage way to find a pen. Or stop the car in the middle of a roundabout to text (this is not hyperbole).  At least he stopped, I guess.

When I was being interviewed by the Senior Nurse at the council, she answered her phone part way through and had a fun chat with someone for over ten minutes, twirling her hair round a pencil, then digging in her desk draw to find a cake recipe. But the most astounding one by far was yesterday at the College of Medicine Sports Centre. The very lovely gym teacher who, whilst leading a ‘cool down’ after circuit training, managed to get his phone out of his hip pocket whilst holding his left foot in his right hand behind his back and continued to demonstrate stretches to the class whilst talking.  I laughed so much I fell over, foot still in hand. Then the whole class erupted at the picture of me, laid on the floor, crying with hilarity. So finally, the amused instructor had say he’d call his wife back as he couldn’t hear her over the noise of everyone laughing at the prone white-girl, with her mad hair sticking out, laughing at him.


(not that it’s relevant to the story, but this was the view from my porch yesterday evening. mmmmm)

P.S. I would be very grateful if some of you regular readers, and I know you’re there because I’ve just figured out where the metrics are on WP, would be very kind and make me feel loved by following the blog. I promise not to spam and not to post more than twice a week. It’s just that the ‘9’ followers is a little sad, especially when you know that two of those is my mum, who keeps forgetting her email password and making herself another account. It’s just over here at the top (mum) ——->

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.

Phoebe and ChanjePhoebe and Dave

And now with permission: The Picol!

nicol lyra train 1

* 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.

Stars in Their Pies

In many ways, living in Malawi is not that dissimilar to living in Sheffield. Apart from the added 20°C, life is human. We get up, run around the house naked and shouting, find clothes, eat breakfast (toast for Lyra, omelet and chilli sauce for me). I go to work, come home for tea, chase Lyra wet from the bath and naked and shouting with pyjamas, and sometimes we see our friends.

What is different, is what happens when normal life is interrupted. If Bevan’s welfare state was a safety net big enough to catch the country, woven from the dreams of socialists, then the Tories welfare state is a slightly deflated old bouncy castle that smells of cat wee. With deformed and laughing gargoyles on the flaccid battlements. But either way, it is still a soft landing. Here, there is just a big canyon with lightning blasted twisted trees at the bottom. Yesterday, as I was watching the oven burn it occurred to me that if I couldn’t put it out then that was that, the house was going to explode. There is no fire-brigade or ambulance service here.  Still, with my well thought out n1 trial, I have conclusively proved that the oven cannot reach the required temperature (warm, warm, warm, warm, on fire, wet) to bake bread.

Similarly, when we were at the Lake, I watched the local kids playing by the shore, swimming, diving splashing and laughing. It looked like a magical childhood. But look for a little longer and you notice that about 1 in 10 of them have swollen and distended abdomens, which can be a sign of being very unwell due to a high parasitic load. I don’t know why some people can keep their parasites under disciplined control and others develop organ damage, but most of the Lake kids will be fine. Some will not. And being western, and being a clinician, and being a bloody interfering liberal activist, I thought, shouldn’t we be doing something for them?

I investigated a little and In fact there are many good programs, both NGO and local, to try to combat Schistosomiasis and other charming parasites (don’t go there, don’t google it). But again the problem is systemic; we are never going to stop people swimming in the Lake, but without an overarching responsiblity for sewerage, without raising living standards enough to provide domestic washing and cooking facilities for families, without functioning primary care, we will never interrupt the life cycle of this flukey little trematode.


(You get there with good intentions, hot and dusty from the long drive, then you see this….. and figure, what’s peeing blood in two months compared to not going for a swim right now. Pass the Praziquantel.)


(The Lake of Stars Malawian Arts and Music Festival, photo’s by Lyra Pallotti)

So, finally, the Lake of Stars Festival, which was immense. Apart from a little tango with the police due to a slightly dented bumper, and an ‘excess of chocolate pancake’ induced Lyra vomiting incident whilst in the sling, it was a really relaxing weekend. There was some great Malawian music, I liked the all female soul-funk “Daughters Band”. There was a large Scottish contingent too (Stanley Odd and others) and I enjoyed eating breakfast on the beach listening to some proper Glaswegian accents debating the quality of the pies. I even saw some people I knew from Knockengorroch, but was too covered in vomit to say hello. There was children’s theatre and acrobatics, and best of all, the whole thing was on the beach. Swimming, music, a few beers and definitely no more chocolate pancakes ever. La Dolce Vita.


(Phoebe and Lyra watching some improv theatre at Lake of Stars. Wherever I go I cannot escape postmodernist self-expression. At least there was no one smashing a double bass and sobbing this time. Dave Murray-Rust, you know what you did.)

“Liwonde – The Place With All the Necessary Facilities”

Driving is a singular way to experience the world – at speed in a (more or less) straight line. Like watching Palin’s Travels on fast forward, over-dubbed with the sounds of swearing and tooting. People focus in on the road, especially here when there are only a few major arteries and the rest are goat tracks. Since the dawn of agriculturalism, markets have sprung up around paths that became roads who grew up into highways. Writ large, trade routes have changed both human history and geography itself, creating covalent cultures (the Welsh eat chocolate*) or causing sweaty men to blast huge tracts through Panama.


(The M1)

I’ve gained some confidence in driving in Malawi, though I should introduce to you Nina, my beaten up Nissan. Ostensibly a ‘four wheel drive’, but due to the vagaries of the gear box, often an ‘no wheel drive’. There are really only two kinds of cars in Malawi, jeeps and matolas. Jeeps range from the beat up ‘no longer useful as an ambulance’ cars like mine, to shiny white Toyota Cruisers. They are mostly owned by rich Malawians and the occasional Mazungu. Matolas are much more homogenous, they are Toyota Hiaces with tardis features as extra. They are how nearly everyone gets around here, fitting about 10-20 people in, depending on their love of personal space, and they go both around the city and between the towns. They are held together with sheer will, love and plastic bags and invariably have a cheerful and apparently non-ironic message about how “Only God Knows” (how we will get there in this machine tied up with string”) or how “God is always right” (but maybe he should have taught me a little more about traffic priorities).

Indicators are more of a conversational piece than a method of indicating directional intentions. Some cars don’t have any, some use them to say hello or indicate right to say ‘please overtake me’. Sometimes cars have their hazards on because they are part of a funeral cortage or because they are having a really nice day. Traffic lights very rarely work, and when they do people ignore them because they are expecting them not to be working. The police will flag you down at least twice on every journey, sometimes to check your licence but often just to say hello. Potholes are a misnomer, these ones are trenches, often at least a few feet deep, sometimes with goats sleeping in them.


(The Traffic is Terrible)

I love the egalitarianism of the roads here though, no one would assume that they had right of way over a bicycle (and no one has the right of way over a tasty-bok and her tasty-kids). Also, everyone hitchhikes. On the way to and from the lake I picked up lots of people. A Baptist preacher was the first, I got a lovely text from him the next day; storing up some blessings on that one in case Voltaire was wrong. I also gave a lift to an Imam, lots of young men on their way to work, and a family with very cute and frilly little girls.

I also picked up a mother and daughter who were going to the hospital in Mangoche. The daughter, in her early 20’s or so, was so frail she couldn’t walk, probably from advanced TB but it could have been many things. I carried her into the hospital,  her mother was elderly and there were no wheelchairs or stretchers. She couldn’t have weighed much more than Lyra. A lot of the excess morbidity here is not because the diseases are in themselves untreatable. The big killers, HIV, TB and Pneumonia are all old friends to the medics, but most people like this young woman, present so late their chances of survival are greatly reduced. Most of this is cost and access, the first thing the old lady said when I stopped for her is that she didn’t have much money (people often pay a little to get lifts when hitching), worried that she wouldn’t be able to get all the way into the town with her daughter. A lot of hospital treatment in Malawi is free, but not all the medicines are and most importantly you have to be able to spare another member of the family to go into hospital with the patient, to feed, clean and care for them. So who’s going to cook, wash, look after the kids or go to work if you’re being a ‘guardian’? The road here is a hard place, sometimes.

And so I drive places, with much courage and stoical humour. Because of Nina’s clutch related foibles (second gear! always an adventure!) and her bad temper at 15-17mph (the natural resonance of the windows, which promptly fall out), negotiating this post-modern adventure in roads is one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I have ever done.

This is what I have learnt so far from the roadside in Malawi; that the public life of a town is always by the road, and that roads make towns which make people. On a lighter note, the previous winner of the ‘Weeb Award for Humorous Town Signs’ was the little valley from whence I came, Hebden Bridge.  But Liwonde (title) just made it to the top of the list, I mean, what more information could you need?

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 13.57.36

(Artistic Expression is Much More Important Than Anything So Prosaic as Typesetting)

*But do the Inca eat Bara brith?

The Affirmative.

Another week has flown by, mostly involving me sat at my ‘desk’ (slightly broken coffee table and a camping mat) getting back into thesis mode.  My overriding impression of Malawi is still how very kind people are, to the extent that most people find it very difficult to say ‘no’, as it is considered very rude. Because of this, most requests are put in a very circumvential way, such as, ‘if you happened to have any biscuits in this shop, it would be very interesting to see if they fit in my shopping bag? Thank you! And maybe my money would look pretty in your till? Thank you!’. Unfortunately, because of my still very limited Chichewa, despite my best efforts, I still come across as a three year old standing in the middle of a sweet shop yelling ‘I WANT CHOCOLATE’ (which I do, if anyone fancies sending me some…).

On our way to the Lake last week we stopped off at a hotel that Jody remembered from living here 15 years ago.  It was near derelict now, a small collection of huts on the banks of the Shire river, with a swimming pool full of scrub plants and no guests; Think Filey Butlins in midwinter, only with more Hippopotomi. Since we’d driven up, Jody asked on the off chance if there was any breakfast going? ‘Yes!’. Someone was dispatched to the shop for egg and potatoes, a tin of pre WW2 coco was dug out and the ants and monkeys were partially evicted from the one hut still with a table. The Nali (Malawian chilli sauce, yum yum yum yum) was placed reverentially in the middle. Half an hour later, egg and chips for 2. Of course, since we were paying for our breakfast (about £2.50), there is a motivation to say yes, but I’ve found even with simple things like asking directions, people will never say that they can’t help, to the extent stopping other passers by and phoning their friends if they aren’t sure. I’ve ended up in some interesting places this way, but it’s always an adventure in Chichewa.

Having ventured out of Blantyre, the thing that has most surprised me is that Malawi looks just like it does in the pictures.  This may seem self-evident, but then think about how UK cities are portrayed – London is not inhabited soley by women in heels and chic bat-wing gillets striding purposefully down Liverpool Street with a mobile clamped to their ear and a skinny-flat-white in hand (ok, there are a few, but you have to look for them). Sheffield is not entirely populated by old men in flat caps eating whippet pies. But Malawi looks like all the pictures I have ever seen of Africa. Children in brightly coloured clothes, women balancing big plastic buckets of water on their head, athletic looking goats (Tastyboks) wandering about in the middle of the road.  I wonder if it is about the nature of the gaze versus the author – I mean that English people take photo’s of England, advertisers, tourism managers, artists, and so we get to say how we want to create ourselves – what kind of cities we want to appear to be. Whereas the vast majority of representations of Africa available to the rest of the world, are not created by Africans. I’m not making any kind of realist claims for the photos of the babies on their mummies back (looking thin if it’s a charity appeal or fat if it’s a report on how well the WHO are doing), but it is interesting. Comments and musings please.

On the note of babies on mummies backs – whilst slings are increasingly common in the UK, and ubiquitous here, Lyra and I caused quite a stir at the market yesterday. I put her in the sling on my back as she was tired and the market floor was awash with *stuff*. In our 10 minute shop for avocados (the best I have ever eaten) and pumpkin, we got a spontaneous rounds of applause and about two dozen belly laughs – no one had ever seen a muzungu (white person) with a child on their back before. Lyra sat there happily eating an apple and didn’t notice, but once I’d stopped being embarrassed, the sight of peoples jaws dropping was funny. Several people even asked us kindly to stop so they could take a photo of us on their phones – we’ll have our own LOL site before you know it.

We are off to the Lake of Stars music festival today which takes it’s name from the fishermen on Lake Malawi, who sail out at night with lanterns in the prow of the boats to lure curious tasty fish. Its a beautiful sight, I’ll ask Lyra to take a photo.

The Secret Life of T Shirts

Lyra and I have now been here in Blantyre just over a week, and we are slowly settling in. I have yet to put my thoughts into any order, I am just a collection of observations and serious missing of the people I love most. Here, in traditional anthropologist field note form (a list), are the points of interest for this previous week:

1. Everyone is immensely polite and kind. My normal over-exuberant friendliness is somewhat hampered by my very slow and clumsy Chichewa.  However, I have proudly mastered the paragraph long greeting, that is the necessary ‘hello’ to anyone you may meet. It roughly translates as this: expression of concern for your state of health on waking? thank you! health during lunch? thank you! condition of your children’s health since yesterday? thank you! and yours?  thank you! [repeat].

2. All cheese tastes like suspicious cake.

3. I am very very lucky and extremely wealthy, whilst I had  always (except first thing in the mornings) believed the former, the latter is a big shock to me. It wasn’t quite the same bumming about doing vaguely useful/fun things with all my tat in a backpack when I was 20. Whilst the disparity in wealth was obvious, I wasn’t living it. It wasn’t me at the top of the massive inequality skyscraper but some faceless industrialist or ex-pat. Now it is me living here, with such investment in my education behind me and the freedom and resources to do pretty much anything I want to, and the lovely family next door to us lives in two (very small) rooms. It’s breaking me a little bit.  I don’t yet know how to be helpful in this situation; working out how to be kind and also respectful is tough. Especially at present, when my mental cultural map is still hand drawn in crayon.

4. All those T shirts your mother threw away in your childhood have found their way here. All those promo shirts for forgotten product tie-ins, rubbish bands and nerdy referential slogans are still at large. I saw this one guy with a really sharp suit jacket and a T’shirt for ‘Being Human’ (old C4 sit-com about a vampire and a werewolf sharing a nice flat in Bristol with a ghost). I’ve seen several small boys in Rainbow Brite and Cabbage Patch tops too. Can someone back home GPS tag a Moshi Monster shirt and we’ll see where it is in 10 years?