A Study in Chichewa: Johannesburg to Lilongwe

Trying something different in this post: what follows is simply a transcript of what I wrote in my journal during my trip to Malawi last March through April, more or less unedited.

30 March

Looking out over the waters of Lake Malawi, I could very well believe I was looking out over the ocean.  I got into Malawi two nights ago, and to Senga Bay last night.  I’m a little cross for sleeping in, and missing the chance to go fishing today.   The last few days in Malawi have been a whirlwind of late travel and impromptu language lessons.

I feel a little scattered from the long journey: I arrived to Lilongwe two night ago after 37 hours on a bus, feeling disoriented and totally uninformed.  I slept in yesterday, didn’t have enough money to pay the hostel, went for a long walk to the wrong bus station to retrieve my sunglasses, which I left on the bus, and spent a long time getting my bearings in Malawi and figuring out what to do the next two or three days.  I missed the last bus to Senga Bay, so I asked the guy for directions to the mini-bus.  My Chichewa, limited as it is, has gotten me a long way.  Just being able to say, “Sindifuna, pitani” (“I don’t want, go away”) is enough for a chuckle and to make my point when the guys come to the window selling samoosas, razors, perfume, airtime, and so forth.

The mini-bus of course took forever.  We wound down and down and around the twisted rural roads of the Malawi highlands.  At a distance, the land appears wild, undeveloped.  Up close, it takes a different character: the rolling and rugged topography is a checkerboard of chimanga (maize) and banana trees.  Mud-and-thatch houses – rustic, but appearing well-constructed – are scattered amongst the fields in small compounds.  Occasionally the road would pass rows of plaster-fronted shops advertising halaal meat.  (Another of those vestiges of English colonialism, when Empire dragged hundreds of thousands of south Asians over as indentured servants to work the sugar plantations – those that weren’t driven out with the rest of colonialism founded modern southern Africa’s merchant class).  Vendors sat next to wooden poles stacked high with bags of charcoal for cooking; in the evening the men could be seen coasting down the hills on their njingas (bicycles) or walking them up the hills with the charcoal stacked five feet high.  The hills looked productive and green – it’s easy to forget that food security is an issue here.

It was near dark when I arrived to Salima.  The khombi took forever to fill, and it was full on dark by the time I arrived in Senga Bay.  One of the guys on a the khombi organized a bicycle taxi for me, and off we went into the darkness.  I was lucky he had good intentions: I had no idea where we were.  If we’d wanted to he could have easily robbed me and left me for dead somewhere.

He didn’t, and we rode along under the Milky Way, the Southern Cross a reminder of where I’d come from and just how far.  We got to Caroline’s Hotel around 7.  After some confusion regarding the price of the bed – I still haven’t mastered the conversion ratio – which feels a bit like dealing in Monopoly money – I got showered and head down from some beers and supper.

31 March

My first day in Senga Bay I went walking on the beach, away from the hotels.  Soon I was talking with a local man.  He spoke almost no English – a few basic phrases and some words – but soon we were trading Chichewa for English: nteza (groundnut, or peanut), ngwena (crocodile), chimanga (maize), ntango (tree), bezi (goat).  We took a wandering route away from the shore, winding through fields of maize and cassava and paddies of rice, across an airstrip, and past houses, churches, and shop – eventually to his house.  We met the women and children there, stayed a few minutes, and wandered back down to the beach.  The fishermen were selling their catch, so I went to speak with them.  I wanted to go fishing with them.  They consented, for the price of 6000 kwacha.  That was of course ridiculous, so I left.  My new friend and I went instead to a bar.  I bought us both a beer and struck up a conversation with the barman and another guy at the bar….who found my pathetic attempts at Chichewa amusing.

We finished our beers and left.  I told my guide I had to leave, and he told me he needed money.  I gave him 300 kwacha and we parted ways.  I spent the balance of the day hanging out on the beach, swimming (and probably getting schistosomiasis) with the wealthier Malawians who seemed to vacation there.

1 April

I was out on the beach at 7 am the next morning to meet the fishermen (not the ones who wanted to charge me money).  I was soon joined by Barnard, a slender man who looked to be in his fifties, with graying hair and tattered clothing knotted together at the shoulder.  His two sons, Sidey and Hajj, who appeared to be about my age, appeared a bit later.  We were also joined by Bweya, a taqiyah always on his head and a cigarette always in his mouth.  That cigarette never went out, even when the waves splashed up over the gunwales of the boat.

We pushed the boat out into the surf and the men began rowing.  Negotiating the waves looked like serious business.  My companions seemed reluctant to let me help – probably a good instinct given my natural clumsiness.  Eventually they let me help here and there: pulling in the nets (difficult, for the mainlines were near sharp enough to cut your skin, and the finer lines were delicate enough to be easily torn), or rowing the boat home.  The nets were balanced between styrofoam floats and little disks of stone.  Their catch was meager, but nonetheless the compelled me to photograph each fish they brought in, no matter how small.

It was late in the day when I got back to shore.  I had to book it if I was going to get back to Lilongwe.  I negotiated a matola (lift) and hustled back, arriving just as the day’s light was fading.

2 April

Long, beautiful bus trip north to Nkhata Bay today,  Looking out over the endless rows of rolling hills and distant mountains, with young guys literally crawling over me to get down the aisle, I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing now for anything else I could be doing now.  The bus was crowded, but we had seats and didn’t have to stand crowded in the aisle like so many.

3 April

We missed the boat to Zulunkuni today.  Or, rather, we made it on the boat only to learn that the trip was expected to take 12 hours.  No thanks.  The aqua khombi, as I dubbed it, was maybe forty feet long and ten feet across the beam, powered by a little outboard motor.  It had a trellis over the top – at least there was shade – where the luggage was thrown.  Loaded down with who knows how many people – fifty? – the boat rode low in the water and moved slowly.

There was a couple – German, I think – who was clearly not emotionally prepared for the challenge of African travel.  Sprawled across the bench occupying the same space that three people could have sat in, the man futzed with his stupid Canon SLR.  “That’s not gonna work for me,” he chided me when I trapped his foot between the pillar and my back.  (Meanwhile, I was squatting on a can of kerosene.)

We made the decision to jump ship just as the skipper fired up the engine.  We were a little disappointed at not making it to Zulunkuni – by all accounts, it is BEAUTIFUL – but the day turned into a relaxing one back at Mayoka.

6 April

Back in Lilongwe.  Spent the whole day on the bus coming back yesterday.  One more night in Malawi, and I catch the overnight to Johannesburg at 5 am tomorrow.  Time for the last term before I go home Stateside.

At the market today, one of the vendors tried to sell me two wooden carvings of rhinoceros.  I told him two was too many, for the rhinoceros is endangered.  “My friend,” he said, “You are ridiculous.”  When I passed at a distance later that day he smiled and waved at me.  “Ridiculous!” he called, “My friend, how are you?”  I returned his smile, and waved.

7-8 April

Next time, I’m flying.  The 36-hour bus ride was worth it – once.  Once to see the land change, once to see the people change with it (and not to change, details blurred by the movement of the bus, like some film played out on the oversized plate glass windows of the bus).  Once to get my passport stamped at those frontier border crossings, where people are shepherded by languid rivers and rolls of barded wire, and by police officers and soldiers with mismatched Kalashnikovs.  Once to smile at expressionless bureaucrats stamping passport after passport.

These border posts were dusty and set in the middle of nowhere, their square angles and linoleum floors at contrast with the round architecture and mud-and-thatch construction of the houses that dot the countryside around them.  Pictures of heads of state and old maps of Africa (on one, the Democratic Republic of Congo was labeled as Zaire) crooked on their hangings, adorn the walls.

Most of the traffic consists of big rigs: lumbering beasts of steel and diesel hauling God-knows-what across the hinterlands – the Malawian drivers I was talking to were taking wheat husks from Malawi to South Africa.

“They don’t have wheat husks in South Africa?” I asked.

“They have!” one responded.  “But they want these.  I don’t know why,” the other provided.

The trip took forever, but I passed through some of the most gorgeous country I have seen: tiny villages perched on hills and nestled in the green valleys, grasslands and proper forests extending without limit, it seemed.  Through each village we passed, herds of boys drove herds of cows about while women washed clothing in the rivers, their naked children cavorting about.  For hundreds of kilometers through western Mozambique, the tar road wound up and down the highlands, unintersected by other roads.  The bus drove slowly over the washboarded road, often taking to the shoulder to avoid gullied out stretches.  Indeed, in places pavement seemed like an afterthought.  Huge granitic peaks spring from the rolling hills like the spines of a crocodile.  We passed the mighty Zambezi in western Mozambique, and the Limpopo between Zimbabwe and South Africa.


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