Best foot forward in Malawi

This article appeared in Best Foot Forward, an anthology of Australian travel writing.

It’s hard to hang on to your shoes in Africa. In a dusty village at the southern end of Lake Malawi mine are being coveted by Blessings and his pal Earnest.

Blessings is barefoot. Earnest is padding about in a torn and flapping pair of Chinese imitation Reeboks. The teenagers are working the fence along the northern end of a laid-back lakeside resort called Club Makakola, peddling carved wooden key rings through the wire to any guests who may, like me, wander away from thatched shade and groomed sands to explore the fringes of Club Mak’s fenced territory.

One flicker of interest in these rudimentary curios and I’ve been hooked. After some small talk through the wire, I’m offered a village tour which, frankly, sounds more intriguing than lounging beside the water under sun umbrellas, known locally as “gin-and-tonic trees”.

So I leave the confines of Club Mak, join the lads on their side of the fence and we set off across the veldt towards their home. Both boys, I note, are stealing frequent glances at my cross-trainers.

First up we meet the kindergarten kids. They’ve seen us coming and are clapping their hands in unison and giggling, some chanting “mzungu, mzungu” (white man, white man). For a tickle of a moment I am David Livingstone.

Blessings and Earnest lead me through a motley collection of mud huts to the village market, a collection of makeshift stalls huddled within the expansive shade thrown by an enormous mahogany tree.

Mounds of stringy, silver fish called kapenta lie drying in the sun. Tomatoes are piled like miniature cannonballs into bright red pyramids beside juicy mangoes and stubby green bananas. Unshelled peanuts lie in loose piles on plastic sheeting. Grass baskets are filled with speckled beans.

These goods look fine but there’s little commerce. A few men sit around smoking and making more roll-ups, wrapping strips torn from the local newspaper around scrapings they’ve scavenged off the floor of a tobacco barn.

On one side of the market I see the shutters are up at Allah the Great Shop. But Mrs Chiwotcha’s hole-in-the-wall has belts, bags, fly spray, knives, soft drinks, cough mixtures and a range of painkillers. Panado and Cafemol stand centre stage, like two Shakespearean characters. These are the drugs of choice in this tiny African country.

“We get too, too many headaches from the heat,” explains Blessings, instinctively rubbing his temples. By midmorning it’s 34ยบ C. I swallow another bottle of Quench bottled water and muse on the side effects of long-term Panado addiction.

We walk past more huts to another cooling tree, a massive mango planted in the centre of the village, under which the chief is holding court. Earnest indicates we should not intrude, adding a solemn shake of the head in emphasis.

The chief sits rotund and motionless, his white shirt tucked into the red, calf-length kikoyu that’s wrapped around his waist. About 30 women sitting under the tree are listening to a scrawny man in shirtsleeves and creased pants deliver an impassioned lecture. He gestures often, and emphatically, at a diagram scrawled on a large sheet of cardboard.

Blessings explains that he is a health department official, giving advice to mothers with young babies. We listen to his harangue. His audience appears quite impassive despite his animated delivery.

Negotiations

Blessings and Earnest are eager to move on and steer me elsewhere, their eyes watching my every step, glued to my trainers. There isn’t much else for them to point out actually, just more huts, some corrugated iron lean-tos and the odd emaciated dog slinking out from sight …… not what you see in the Africa tourism brochures.

My impromptu ad hoc excursion ends at a dusty hut, which turns out to be the village gift shop! Stepping into its dark interior I see a modest stash of wooden salad bowls, carved utensils, domino sets and chessboards ….. any of which I can have, says Earnest, in exchange for my shoes.

I reply that, sadly, I really do need my shoes, but instead I offer to buy some dominos perhaps, or maybe a small bowl. “Is that OK?”

“Eeet’s OK”, they both say dismissively, shrugging their shoulders in unison. Earnest is now flicking glances that bounce off my shoelaces.

I pick up a small black wooden bowl. “So how much?”

“Ah, this eez the real ebony”, says Blessings immediately.

“Is there any other?”

Blessings studies me for a moment, then cracks a huge smile; a flash of bright white enamel that pierces the surrounding gloom.

“There eez the ebony nam – bah – wan,” he advises solemnly, dragging out the words and widening his eyes then adding, almost as an afterthought, “and there eez the ebony nam-bah-two.”

Now I know that ebony is rare, a protected wood in Malawi, and guess that the bowl in question is either blackwood or some other hardwood. “And so this bowl then, how much?”

Without a moment’s hesitation Blessings fires back: “That one? Well that one, she’s a verrie verrie nam-bah-wan wan!”

I laugh at this excellent indigenous riposte. Blessings is on a roll.

“This one she’ a verrie, verrie good wan! ” he persists, “you like it too much too, no?”

What can I say? I like it too verrie much, I tell him. Blessings grins. Beside him, Earnest grins too. We do the deal. I hand over some kwacha and put the bowl in my pack. Then I tell them, no, I don’t need a wooden key ring. “It’s not bad,” I say, “but no thanks.”

“But verrie cheap”, offers Earnest, his eyes twitching, still fixated on my sneakers.

“Sorry”, I repeat, “but it’s no good for me. You see my name is Rob. That key ring says Sue. So go find a Sue.”

Spray bursts from Blessings’ lips as he snorts with mirth. “HA HA HA ….. no, no, no,” he splutters, vigorously shaking his head. Earnest now stops staring at my shoes to look me straight in the eye. It’s quite unnerving.

Earnest speaks: “Hey, you pretty funny sort of guy … where you from? Where’s your country?”

Before I can answer he continues, “We carve your name, we carve your name there!” His stubby finger stabs at the wooden disc.

I’m done, defeated, the stupid mzungu. The boys have won. My key ring order is agreed; names are spelt and written on a scrap of brown paper, after which we stroll back to the beach. Earnest is certainly living up to his name, ever ready with raised eyebrow, pointing at his chest, nodding his head, eyes dancing over my shoes.

I explain once again that I really do need my shoes and that I can’t take them off and hand them over. I tell them I have no other shoes and point out that, while Earnest at least has something on his feet, poor Blessings is barefoot. I appeal to their sense of fair play saying, “I can’t give a pair of shoes to one and not the other.” Besides, I add, my shoes are too small. These won’t fit their broad feet. No way!

On hearing this the two lads stop, look down at their own feet, and then again at my shoes. The truth is evident. Their expressions are heart-wrenchingly downcast. I consider handing over some kwacha in lieu of shoes, but decide against it.

What Blessings and Earnest truly desire are brand-name shoes, the real thing, not cheap Chinese fakes. They can’t afford such shoes or even find them in Malawi, but they do know the difference. That’s a sign of the times.

A brave new world

For Blessings, for Earnest, and indeed for everyone in Malawi, it’s a brave new world. It’s less than a month since the death of Dr Hastings Banda, the nonagenarian despot who treated the country as his personal fiefdom for 30 years. All food production, distribution and prices were controlled by two of his private companies. The people were serfs. Life was medieval.

Banda had kept Malawi firmly under wraps. The self-professed “benevolent” dictator established his idea of morality. He banned “depraved” Western influences such as long hair and miniskirts. He stifled all opposition, often by force, his wishes put into effect by members of the Young Pioneers, an overzealous and violence-prone youth movement.

But now the man is dead and Malawi, still hovering mentally in the 1960s, battles to come to terms with the vagaries of multiparty democracy, while also coping with the economic tail spin of the late 20th Century. The local currency, the kwacha, is now in free fall against the US dollar. Prices have soared but pay packets are no fatter. Health services are crippled and crime is increasing. Malawi’s new president Bakili Muluzi and his United Democratic Front have a battle on their hands to win the hearts and trust of the people.

It’s not easy. Following a bumper crop in 1996, too little maize has been planted this year and an El Nino-induced drought further increases the likelihood of chronic food shortages. Despite having the biggest mango and avocado trees on the planet, Malawi remains poverty-stricken and hungry.

There’s certainly some dissatisfaction with the current political dispensation yet, for international tourists who are now beginning to arrive in numbers, there’s little sign of ill humour in the streets. The Malawi smile is famous. The country now markets itself as the “warm heart of Africa”. And, despite their impoverishment, the people live up to this image.

Street hawkers tout carvings with enthusiastic good will. Visitors to rural villages are besieged by excited, prancing children. Wherever I stop on my journey beaming faces immediately appear at a the car window offering fruit or perhaps a bowl of fried bronze mannekins, the greasy, local equivalent of gourmet spatchcock.

Malawi is a tiny country compared to its neighbours, Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and Mozambique to the east and south. Yet it packs considerable punch. Although landlocked, it has its own sea, Lake Malawi, which stretches 600 kilometres down the Rift Valley and covers a fifth of the country. The lake is said to contain more fish species than any other inland body of water in the world, among which are tiny, vividly coloured mbuna. These are the main attraction for scuba divers and snorkellers.

Other water sports such as skiing and sailing are also available at the handful of small resorts scattered along the sandy shores of Lake’s Malawi’s southern tip. Sports fishermen can hunt tiger fish, catfish and lake salmon. I opt for just a few days R&R at Club Makakola, where I meet two affable youngsters with an itching for fine footwear.

Impasse and farewell

My heart is heavy. We’ve reached an impasse at the gates of Club Mak. But I can’t simply say goodbye and walk away, so I promise Blessings and Earnest that I will send them something once I get home. The instant dulling of their eyes says they’ve heard this one before. But they scribble their names and village address in my notebook anyway.

Early next morning we meet at the agreed time by the fence and they hand over two carved key rings. We again make our farewells and they leave, their eyes still lingering on the shoes that got away.

A few days later I am further south at Ku Chawe Inn, a small hotel tucked into forested slopes on the Zomba Plateau south of the lake. A 1000 metres below, but now hidden by cloud, lies the town of Zomba. The previous evening I’d sat at the hotel bar, still thinking about Blessings and Earnest while absorbing a Malawi G&T and a vista of vast plains that spread east towards neighbouring Mozambique and the grey foothills of the Mulanje massif.

It’s a new dawn and the sound of sweeping accompanies the early birdsong. Mist hugs the land, obscuring any views beyond a colossal mango tree, rows of red canna and the clipped green lawns in the inn’s gardens.

A gardener beneath my window is sweeping an outdoor chessboard clean of fallen leaves. He moves deliberately from square to square, shuffling between the carved wooden pieces. The regular swishing of his grass broom and his irregular movement across the board serve as a ready metaphor for the country’s spring-cleaning, its realignment and coming of age.

Once back in Sydney I make good my promise, bundling some T-shirts and shorts around two pairs of running shoes. The air postage to Malawi is horrendous, but sea mail will take so much longer, months even, with even less guarantee of the package arriving safely. I send it care of Club Makakola, with a covering letter of explanation and the names of the two boys and their village.

Do Blessings and Earnest ever get their shoes? I really don’t know ….. but I like to think the parcel did eventually make it. Should you, the reader, ever visit Club Makakola on Lake Malawi, then please see if any of the fence hawkers are wearing decent cross-trainers – real num-bah-wan ones, not fake.

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