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.
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?
(Artistic Expression is Much More Important Than Anything So Prosaic as Typesetting)
*But do the Inca eat Bara brith?
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 http://www.lakeofstars.org/ 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.
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?