Traders in potato chips, tee shirts and postage stamps
I look around me dubiously. On the bare dirt ground in front of several rough brick shelters stand a couple of BBQs and some metal trestles. I inspect the chips on one of the tables with a critical eye. The tables look clean and there are no flies around. The chips seem well cooked, crisp and golden. On the recommendation of our guides, we have pulled into a roadside stall manned by several young Black Africans and the inevitable crowd of children. Jan and Eddie insist the fried potato chips for sale are very good. As we hesitate, Jan leads the way, buying a generous helping. Martin and Graham summon the courage to follow suit, while I take a photo of the transaction, certain that without Jan and Eddie’s example, we would never purchase, let alone eat, food from such an operation. The chips taste delicious and we suffer no problems afterwards.
We have crossed another national border into Malawi, our fifth country after South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Everything seems accentuated – more people on the roads, more police check points, more frequent villages, more trading of charcoal, firewood and crops. We enter Malawi near the capital, Lilongwe, and head towards the long narrow Lake Malawi, following its western shore north. Malawi shapes itself along the lake, wedged between Mozambique in the south and east, Zambia to the west and Tanzania in the north and east. The Great Rift Valley runs north-south through the country with the lake to the east of the valley.
Another ex-British colony, known then as Nyasaland, Malawi gained its independence in 1964. Of course the British heritage continues to have advantages for us – English is widely spoken and its people drive on the left hand as we do in New Zealand. It is one of the world’s poorer nations, with a large rural population dependant on subsistence farming. Many of its people struggle with problems of low life expectancy, high infant mortality and the prevalence of HIV/Aids. But they are a friendly welcoming people.
From my vantage point in the land rover, I view the green lush landscape dotted with crops of sorghum, millet, cassava and sugar cane. Sixteen million people live in this narrow strip of land. No wonder there are people everywhere. They walk along the side of the road, carrying their firewood, charcoal or market purchases. They crowd in the back of large lorries or small pick-ups; they peddle their cycles laboriously up the hills, laden down with heavy burdens. There seem to be so many more than in Botswana or Zambia.
We stop on the roadside for lunch, setting up our chairs and table on the rough ground, but before we can begin eating, crowds of children materialize, gathering around to watch the muzungu. Perhaps they are hoping for a gift of sweets, but we have made the conscious decision not to offer such, for the children have no way of cleaning their teeth, and we also don’t want to encourage the hand-out mentality. I cut up several apples and offer them around.
At each police check point we slow down and each time we are waved through. Mind you, the judder bars we saw in Zambia at each end of a village continue in Malawi and they ensure a drop in speed. Nevertheless, I encourage Martin to drive with care, for our guides have warned us that in Malawi, you don’t pay a fine on the spot. Instead you go before a court. This could delay our journey considerably, especially in the weekends, when we would have to wait till Monday morning for an open court. We see a speed camera in a 40kph zone on our way out of Lilongwe, and take comfort in the fact that, according to Eddie, it is one of the only two in the country.
We stay four nights right on the lake, the first two at Kande Beach and the second two below the mountain top town of Livingstonia. At Kande Beach, Judy and Graham take the opportunity to go on a village tour, but Martin and I are lazy and decide to spend the day relaxing – reading, swimming, an iced coffee in the camp ground café, walking on the lake shore. The lake water is warm and a little murky after the recent storm and heavy rain, but we enjoy the dip and the scenery, with numerous dugout canoes on the beach or in the water. The Lonely Planet warns of the dangers of bilharzia, caused by parasites in freshwater lakes entering the skin and passing on to the bladder or bowel. Our guides think swimming in Lake Malawi should be fine, but, just in case, advise us to take a simple medical test when we return home.
Martin's always friendly to whoever is around. He greets and chats with our adventurous neighbours, Gareth and Kirsty, who have their name, Aussie Overlanders, painted on their vehicle. They have shipped it from Australia to Durban and are now travelling through Africa.
Just occasionally Martin’s outgoing sociable nature gets him into trouble and one such incident takes place at Kande Beach. He meets an entrepreneurial young African on the beach who is very keen to sell him some tee shirts with a printed design of his choice.
“What about the words ‘Cape Town to Nairobi’ and a map of Africa?” Martin asks. “Yes, yes,” says the young man, and he persuades Martin to part with $7US as a down payment. The shirts are to be delivered at 5.00pm on our last evening when the rest of the money will be handed over. Five o’clock comes and goes, six o’clock, and still no shirts. We conclude that it is all a hoax and Martin has been had.
“Oh well, I only lost $7. It could have been worse,” he says. And we laugh it off. Then in the darkness at 7.00pm, the camping ground guard appears at our cabin (yes, we have upgraded for the Kande Beach stay) with Martin’s trader in tow, wanting to finalize the transaction. He indeed has two tee shirts and they are printed with a map and the designated words.
“Let’s have a look at them in the light,” says Martin, his suspicions roused. “Hey, this one is not new; look, the collar is frayed.”
“What’s the printing like?” I ask, fearing the worst. We stare at the poorly executed art work.
“I am not paying for this,” Martin tells the entrepreneur, where upon he dissolves into a shaking mess of imploring entreaties.
“Please, mister, please, mama, you must pay me. I did what you asked. I went to the market and I bought the tee shirts and I paid my friend to print them.” Out flows his sad story, with copious theatrical hand waving and much pleading. We wilt before his outpouring of self-pity.
“We’ll give him something,” I say to Martin, “otherwise we will never hear the end of it. Twenty dollars?” Martin nods to me.
“You are lucky to get $20,” Martin tells him. It’s only half of what he wants and he begins to object, then thinks better of it, accepts the money and departs. We realize we are late for dinner in the camp café, and we slink into our seats, too embarrassed to explain what we have been doing. Later in the trip, when we have had time to laugh about it as part of the African experience, we show Graham and Judy the shirts; they have a clothing business in Australia and they know about fabric printing. They agree that the quality is sub-standard. We dispose of the incriminating items somewhere along the way.
On the road to our second camp stay along the lake, we stop in the town of Mzuzu, a pleasant place with wide clean streets and gardens down the middle. I go to the post office to post some cards we have written to the grandchildren in NZ and Turkey. When I see the large size of the stamps and number I need to purchase, I tell that clerk that there isn’t enough room and they won’t fit in the allotted space.
“Oh, I can fix that,” he says with a grin. He proceeds very carefully and neatly to layer them on, one on top of the other, with just the price of each stamp showing. I think to myself that he has obviously had experience with his country’s large pictorial stamps and has done this before. I thank him for his efforts.
What a contrast there is between the town’s Shoprite supermarket and the outdoor market across the road. The supermarket is modern, not too different from those at home. Perhaps it is one of the string of supermarkets in southern and central Africa owned by an Indian South African.
We are the only whites in the outdoor local market, covering a large corner lot of bare red earth. As we wander along the rows of items for sale, spread out on sheets of plastic or woven matting, the women shyly smile and the men are happy to answer our questions about the crops or the fish. I ask some of them if I can take photos and all agree, though I notice at home a man pointing at me as if he is unhappy with the camera. A cute plump baby sits beside his mother’s stall of potatoes and cassava. I ask if I can take his photo and she agrees. But Baby objects, bursting into tearful loud cries at the strange white face in front of him. Mother laughs, and picking him up, produces a breast from beneath her frock, and the little one is happy again. Malawi is a very different from home, but babies are the same the world over.