Posts Tagged ‘Malawi’
This is the one and only picture I’m going to post from this trip to Malawi. The trip was short and the work was intense and there was very little opportunity to explore Lilongwe in the few days I was there.
‘Exploring’ is logistically difficult in Lilongwe anyway. I have always enjoyed taking myself off when in a new place, with a camera if possible, to just walk and to watch and explore.
But Lilongwe is not an easy place to do this. Everyone and no-one walks. And that all depends on where you sit upon the spectrum of wealth. On the one hand, Lilongwe is full of people walking, Malawi is full of people walking. All walking along a road somewhere, or pushing a bicycle, wheels buckling under the weight of the load being carried – stacked crates of vegetables for the market, sack upon sack of Nsema, pregnant or elderly relatives.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, no-one walks. The roads are full of giant 4×4 vehicles, powering round potholes and on towards the other stratosphere of existence.
There was a chronic fuel shortage whilst I was there which meant that lines of vehicles were left abandoned for days at petrol stations throughout the city in the hope that when the fuel lorry finally did arrive to replenish the pumps, they would be fairly near the front of an impossibly growing queue. There were ‘Petrol Watch’ Facebook groups set up, alerts went out that petrol was due imminently at a certain location, or newly arrived at another, and suddenly half our workshop participants vanished in the chase for fuel. Two or maybe three hours of waiting and finally you’d have a full tank. All that effort, all that anxiety and expended energy, all for a single tank of fuel!
There were queues for sugar too. Rationed to four bags per person, the sugar queues were set up outside the main shopping centres and kept orderly by security guards. The highest denomination of bank note in Malawi is now worth less than £2 and yet, to eat in a restaurant, to buy basic food stuffs at a supermarket, take a taxi into town or stay in a hotel – these all cost almost the equivalent as in the UK. Very few places take credit or debit cards so, imagine heading out for an evening to eat as a party of six and making sure you have the equivalent of £120 in £2 coins in order to pay for the evening. In Malawi it’s not £2 coins but 500 Kwatcha notes, in bundles the thickness of a household brick. Western purses are not designed for carrying the Malawian Kwatcha.
On the morning I was leaving, I did finally go for a walk. I stepped out of the Lodge I was staying in and walked along the road to the main shopping mall about half a mile away. There are no pavements, so everyone walks ON the road, body swerving the 4x4s as they body swerve the pot holes. A western woman walking alone along a main road is quite an unusual sight in Lilongwe and it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. I felt a little exposed and vulnerable, more so than I was expecting.
Walking back to the Lodge, the man in this picture stopped me and asked me for money. On the spectrum of wealth, he was clearly not at the end with the giant 4x4s or indeed with the complaints about how much Kwatcha is stuffed in one’s purse.
He was immaculately clean and well-dressed and was sitting in an improvised wheel chair, unable to walk. He had an air of defiant pride about him, and the way he asked me for money was as if it was both my duty and responsibility to agree, which I tacitly did.
I nodded, smiled and asked him if he would mind if I took his photo, turning this into a crude currency of exchange and he accepted. But he didn’t smile back. Not once. He remained defiant and proud. I respect him for that.
In the past 10 days, I’ve taken off 9 times and landed in 6 different countries. I’ve had a brilliant week of work in Malawi and a conference presentation in Antwerp.
I’ve spent more time than I ever want to again at Nairobi airport and know more about the Machiavellian world of competitive flower arranging than I ever thought possible.
I filed past the coffin of the late Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, drank Belgian beer with the coolest girls in Antwerp and almost went the way of Mama Cass in Paris, choking to death on a ham baguette.
I’ve returned with a suitcase full of honey and Gin from Malawi, Speculoos spread and some very salty licorice from Amsterdam and of course, chocolate from Belgium.
Hmm, what to cook with that little lot!
Relating to my previous post on Things like other things, this picture either proves or disproves my theory. I will leave it up to you to decide.
Funny thing I discovered the other week. If you lie in a dark room and press the palms of your hands into your eye sockets (not too hard, mind, if you’re trying this at home) the interior world of your eye starts to transmogrify into elements of the exterior world around.
So for example, the landscape of the iris, with its myriad of networked capillaries starts to resemble the cracked earth of Bolivian salt flats or the arid clay of a drought ridden river bed. The soft tissue around the pupil becomes a breathing anemone or spongy, multicoloured moss. The star spangled tingling cause by minor blood loss to the brain begins to look like constellations in the night sky.
(honestly, the more I write this, the more bonkers I think I sound – there were no drugs involved I can assure you)
Anyway, it got me thinking about how nature reflects back elements of ourselves in unexpected places as well as reflecting other seemingly unrelated things. I found myself exploring this notion a little bit whilst in Malawi. How elephant skin magnifies the patterns in our own skin but also resembles the texture of ancient tree bark. How the branches of a leafless tree can look like a map of our own spaghetti arteries and veins.
How a monolithic baobab face planted itself in the ground somehow somewhere down the ages and continues to grow upside down for ever more – roots becoming branches, branches becoming roots.
Well you get the picture…
And if you don’t, I’ll post a couple more pictures that may or may not make me make sense…
I had a dream the other night that I spotted what I thought at first was a bed bug on the duvet (why I had bed bugs on my mind we won’t go into). But it was travelling at such speed across the duvet, I realised it couldn’t be a bed bug and must be a tiny money spider instead.
When I looked more closely at it though, I realised it was a tiny monkey, the same size as a money spider, galloping (do monkeys gallop?) across the bed. However, there was something odd about its feet. It looked like it had little puffs of white cotton wool attached to each of them.
When I looked even more closely though, I realised that tiny little puffs of cartoon smoke or clouds were appearing each time one of its feet touched the duvet.
I like this picture I took in Malawi of a monkey and her baby a lot. She was sneaking down a hotel corridor trying to make her way to the breakfast buffet without being spotted by the staff. I liked her cool stare, getting the measure of me before deciding that she could probably still make a run for the cereal and fresh fruit despite my proximity. She didn’t make it. Not this time anyway. No doubt she’d come back and try again. It was a daily battle of wills between man and monkey up on the Zomba plateau.
These women were stood on the back of a flatbed truck in the grounds of the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre singing the most beautiful music.
The grounds of the hospital are busy – large groups of ‘guardians’ are crowded together on every spare grassy area there is in the hospital grounds – sleeping, eating, washing and cooking on the verges. Patients rely on their guardians to wash, feed and care for them as this level of care isn’t ordinarily provided by hospital staff. Can’t be provided by hospital staff – there just isn’t the manpower or resources for this type of care.
And death is so desperately prevalent that each time one of the wards dies, the guardians all gather together and sing the most beautiful songs as they escort the body to the morgue. It’s very moving to see. And to hear.
I remember when I got back from my first trip to India when I was eighteen, the first thing a friend said to me was,
‘Did you find yourself?’
To which my knee jerk response was,
‘I didn’t know I was missing?’
I was thinking, while I was in Malawi, about that other great cliche that ‘Travel broadens the mind’. Essentially, as with all cliches there is a kernel of truth in this. If nothing more than the fact that travel, when done right, expands the reach of your experience, introduces you to people with cultures, traditions, habits, attitudes, beliefs that are like mirrors tilted at different angles to the ones you are accustomed to.
You can learn a great deal from this, mostly about yourself and a little bit about others. When you tilt the mirrors back to the way they were, life is different because of what you now more broadly know and is enriched by the experience.
Travel should be like taking in a great big inhalation of pure oxygen – expansive and heady – the mind broadening experience of the cliche.
But every great inhalation of fresh air requires some kind of subsequent exhalation of stale air. And it occurred to me how shrunken it is possible to become about places and people, especially amongst those who you could argue have just ‘stayed too long in a place’. The broadening of the mind becomes little more than a much larger library of sticky labels with which you can apply to people.
The funniest thing someone said to me on this trip was: ‘You know you’re being very British about this and actually also very Pakistani’.
Your catalogue of stereotyping stretches wider but your shutters can remain firmly locked down.
You risk becoming the person in the back of a Cairo taxi.
I worked in Cairo for a couple of years teaching at the British Council and each day I took a two pound taxi ride to work in the morning and a two pound taxi ride back home in the evening. Generally speaking taxi drivers were happy that this was the going rate, but every so often you would find yourself face to face with a hostile driver demanding double or even triple this amount.
One evening I got in a taxi for my journey home. The taxi driver was really friendly, asking me a lot of questions about my time in Egypt, my experiences in the place, welcoming me to his city. I was wary, to be honest. My experience had been that the friendlier the driver, the more likely there was to be a hideous confrontation at the end of the journey over money. So I was curt. Polite but disengaged in my responses, bracing myself for the fight that was likely to ensure.
When we reached my drop off point, I had my two pounds ready to hand over. But to my surprise and to my great shame, the driver refused to take any money from me. ‘You’re a guest in my country and I want you to know that you are very welcome here.’ My house was on his way home anyway and he didn’t want anything for the trip.
I felt utterly terrible. For having prejudged his kindness as a ruse, for having been so unresponsive and unengaged by a simple gesture of friendliness. This was the moment, in the back of that Cairo taxi, that I realised that it was probably time for me to leave Egypt.
When you find yourself exhaling rather than inhaling, that you’ve lost that sense of wonderment, then it’s probably time to move on. Africa, and more specifically Malawi, is still such an unknown and curious place that for me it is a two week gulp of neat oxygen – long may that continue.