I’ve avoided going to Africa until now. I’ve always found it condescending how people gush about the lovely people and how simple life is. Apart from the fact that these friends are westerners questioning their own comforts and caprices, they are nice people, the type who see the good in everyone. Frankly, I’m too cynical, and often look over a kind person’s shoulder in search of the hidden snag. And so, I was afraid that, unlike JF, who falls into the former category, I’d be disappointed. Worse still, I was afraid to be proven right. Neither happened. I’m back at home for a few weeks now and exotic memories warm the cold French winter, but I am contented to know that the Africans I met, regardless of their poverty, are as good and as bad as the rest of us.
On our first night in Lilongwe we booked a reasonable hotel. I wanted to be eased in slowly. It was the only thing we’d reserved, apart from flights, before we landed. The Lonely Planet mentioned a bar called Harry’s, and considering that’s the name of my local pub at home in Donegal, we had no choice but to go there. The taxi took us to a barn, in what seemed to me the outskirts of the town, but which was the centre. I never really got a feel for the city. We were staying in the old centre apparently, but it was a pell-mell of eighties style malls. We hoisted ourselves up on the bar stools and asked for two greens (Carlsberg). If there’s one thing myself and JF are very good at, it’s figuring out the best and cheapest local beer. I asked the black man behind the bar if he was Harry. He laughed and pointed to a tall, skinny and formidable white man on our side of the bar. ‘French and Irish, that’s a complicated combination!’ Harry winked and turned the TV on to the Ireland vs All Blacks game. ‘If the Irish win you can buy me a whisky’. They didn’t and he bought us plenty of gin and tonics. Malawi makes a good gin and hence the night became like a dream, where I was sitting on an armchair outside watching JF and his new friends roaring with mirth. I found it difficult to move my bones never mind my lips.
The next morning, pushing scrambled eggs around my plate, I was surprised and a little anxious when the waitress handed me a slip of paper with Harry’s name and number on it. ‘Good Morning Madame. Harry will be here at midday to take you for lunch.’ ‘Quoi?’ I looked wide-eyed at JF. I had no memory of making any such arrangements. ‘Ah oui, ba oui, I forgot to tell you. He’s taking us for lunch.’ Harry collected us in his pickup and took us to The Duck Inn about an hour outside Lilongwe. He kindly shared a magnum of French wine with the party, which was magnanimous of him, considering he recounted how I called him an arrogant English man the night before. We ended the evening with Rita and Philippe, finishing off every last bottle of alcohol they had and Rita trying, and failing, to show me how to dance like an African.
‘Today the adventure begins’ was our mantra from that day on to our last. And the mornings usually began like this:
‘Is there a bus to Senga Bay today?’
‘Yes, there’s a bus to Senga Bay.’
‘Great, what time does it leave?’
‘Does it leave at 10am?’
‘No. Before that.’
‘It’s left already.’
All we knew was that we needed to get from A to B, but how was always a mystery. As JF well noted, nothing seems to work as scheduled but there’s always a plan B, especially if you can pay for it. Malawi, as the distances are short and the roads are in good condition, is a good introduction to Africa, as all the guide books said. The first few days in minibuses and matolas were a novelty for me, but after hours of cramped traveling with no control over our timetable it soon began to wear off.
The minibus system is efficient, if you’re not in a hurry. It only leaves when it’s packed with people sitting, standing or slumping. The longest day travelling on the same chapas was from Lichinga to Cuamba in Mozambique. The night before had been one of our wilder nights, we went to bed at 10pm. While JF was looking for the shortest queue to get cash from an ATM I ended up talking to a prisoner officer and his friend. They asked us if we needed a drink, we looked thirsty they said. We got into their car and they took us to a secret little bar in the back streets of Lichinga; Philamon did not want to be spotted drinking in his uniform. From there, he and Symitone took us to see the airport (we still don’t understand why), a basketball game, an insult competition and dinner in another bar. JF took part in the insult combat and he was surprisingly good. Arguing with me for the last many years has obviously paid off! It was Philamon’s aunt or cousin or mother, her status changed with every beer, who cooked. Grilled juicy chicken, matapa (cassava leaves in spicy peanut sauce) and xima, a mushy white cassava-based staple. That was generally all we ate in Mozambique but it was always fresh and mostly tasted very good.
The next morning therefore was a little difficult at five o clock. We walked for an hour on the red rusty roads of the city looking for the bus station. I asked directions at every corner as JF pretended he wasn’t with me, which was pointless considering we hadn’t seen any other white people in days. I was convinced everyone was sending us on a wild goose chase. ‘Where is the bus station please?’ and whoever I asked flipped a hand, lazily, one way or the other and said ‘that way.’ We found the station without as much as walking one hundred metres in excess, JF pointed out with an annoyingly knowing smile. He reminded me again that I needed to trust people.
We sat on the chapas from 6am to 8am, waiting for it to fill up. Outside the driver and his conductor were hawking for customers, shouting the destination and the price. The sun was coming up and the dusty heat was beginning to make the eyes water. Young children sold soft drinks and doughnuts; bananas and mangos through the open windows. The conductor packed chickens and ducks under our feet and strapped bags to the roof. No-one seemed to care that we were the only white people on the bus. When the bus for fifteen people was filled with about forty-five we took off at a fierce speed on dirt roads for the next seven hours. I had a young mother breast feeding her son beside me. We were so close the child’s head would fall on my lap and her elbow jabbed my ribs with every bump. My knees were wedged like intertwined fingers with the man in front of me. Nobody seemed to mind so I tried to relax. I looked over at JF who gets a sore back driving ten minutes to work and he looked serenely ahead of him. ‘Since when have you become so damn patient’ I growled. ‘I’m not patient, I’m stoic’, he replied. I wanted to hit him, and after the long and painful trip, I probably did, verbally. Another reason I wasn’t so keen on going to Africa was that JF had been to many countries on the continent before with his ex-partner. It’s bad enough spending hours on a cramped minibus with someone who starts every sentence with, ‘the last time I was in Africa….’, but having him babbling about stories with his ex-wife became too much in the hot and smelly heat.
We travelled many days and hours in such buses, some journeys were harder than others depending on the seats and the amount of passengers. We took bikes, motorbikes, boats, trucks and pick-ups. We even ended up in an ambulance when we needed a taxi.
The most stressful adventure for JF was in a small fishing boat across Lake Malawi (50 nautical miles), which is ironic considering he crossed the Atlantic in a sailing boat. I wasn’t stressed at all. It was Nkhata Bay and the ferry we had planned to take to the other side was not running that day as we had thought. It was broken too, so it wasn’t clear if we’d ever get the ferry. On the lakeshore beach we saw the fishermen coming in from their night fishing and went to ask around for a lift. Two young guys bargained a price and we said we’d think about it, so we went for a beer. I wasn’t too keen on them, they were already steaming drunk on gin at nine in the morning. Soon word spread around the village that two mzungus (white people) needed to cross the lake. Different boatmen came to us at the bar to offer their boat and their services. We had become interviewers looking for the right candidate. I had a good feeling about Frank and his son Winston and so we arranged to meet them at our hotel to talk about a price. At this point I believed JF and I were of like mind regarding the plans. They came, we gave them half the money for petrol and arranged that they’d come and collect us at four the next morning.
‘Did you see the boat Úna?’
‘Did you notice it was full of water?’
‘And you’re not nervous about crossing an empty lake for seven hours in it tomorrow, with those guys?’
‘I don’t understand you at all sometimes. You get nervous with me when we sail but you’d go anywhere with those guys.’
‘Really? Just like that?’
‘I never used to be nervous sailing with you at the beginning either. And then I got to know you.’
They arrived at six, by which time I was losing my nerve. We had to then wait till nine until the ATM worked again before setting of. The crossing was pleasant. We read and slept and swam and talked. JF woke up every two hours to bail out the water, I was glad he did, but Frank and Winston didn’t seem to notice. I hadn’t realised that we all had been a little nervous until we got closer to Likoma Island. The relief of seeing our destination and waving to a few fishermen in hollowed out trunks, the first we’d seen in hours, was palpable. Winston started to joke around, the serious Franck cracked the odd smile and JF started to talk again. As usual, we hadn’t booked the hotel that we had read was on the island and so we were delighted to see a friendly face behind the hut bar on the lakeshore.
‘Hello my friends. Where did you come from today?’
‘Nkhata Bay, the other side of the lake.’
‘Really?’ and he tried not to laugh ‘On that boat?’
‘Yes! On that boat,’ JF nearly roared and ordered two beers.
It really felt like we had reached paradise, the adventure accentuating the pleasure. Our room was a little hut by the water. We swam by sunset and snorkelled before our breakfast in the morning. It was our last night in Malawi and the electricity went off at 8ish like it had done every night. It didn’t matter. We were used to going to bed early by then and we had a candle lit spaghetti Bolognese dinner on the shore with the other guests who were also mzungus. That night, in crispy clean sheets and guarded from mosquitos with a high falling net, I tried to articulate my feelings about Malawi to JF. It’s a poor country and when we were there people were going hungry, for the want of water. The rainy season takes longer and longer to come and when it does it often results in floods. Many of the hotels we stayed in were of a high standard, run by white people for white people. The beaches and the prime land is bought by expats or white Africans, many of whom we met, it seemed to me, luxuriated in a sense of superiority. I took JF’s silence to mean he was enthralled by my rant and I waited impatiently to hear what he had to say. I looked over at him lying flat on his back, his hands rising softly with his snoring chest. I elbowed him roughly, by accident, before falling asleep to the sound of the Malawi lake water lapping for the last time.
Tosh in Senga Bay, a friendly and audacious young father, had explained the selling of land to us. Until recently the tribal chief distributed the land among his people, or to outsiders who proved their worth in the community. Now however, the chiefs are offered an unrefusable sum of money by foreigners that they sell off the land, leaving local people with nowhere to live. Tosh shook his head with regret as he was telling us this, but conceded also that he makes some money himself acting as an intermediary between buyer and seller. We sat on small seats on the dusty road drinking our greens in the local bar. Tosh had just taken us around the long tables by the lake where shoals of tiny fish, usipa, are left to dry. All passer-by’s stopped to have a look at the TV before the electricity cut for the night, kids wanted their photos taken and my e-cigarette was the funniest thing they had ever seen. I agreed with them, all I wanted myself was a real smoke.
In Cóbuè, the first village we stayed in Mozambique, on Lake Malawi, didn’t look that different from across the water. Later walking around, we noticed a grand but neglected church in a square, an echo of a not so distant colonial past. Thick electricity poles crisscrossed the scorched earth, again a subtle but important difference between the two countries. There was a street with shanty shops blaring music late into the dark, selling sweets, vegetables and hardware goods. There was no running water though and the next day, seeing a teacher waving her stick at a rowdy crowd of kids under a tree hit home. The children were bare footed and some had swollen bellies from malnutrition. We sat awhile as if we too were in class, getting nervous we’d be asked something difficult. A 4×4 whizzed past and covered the whole scene in a cloud of red dust. Maybe the discernible gap between rich and poor was what put me always slightly on edge in Mozambique. People seemed less shy accosting us for money and at times others tried to do us out of a few dollars. When we confronted them though, they’d smile and pat us on the back telling us not to worry.
Mozambique Island too was full of contradictions. Only us and the odd scraggly cat wandered the Stone Town, on the north of the island. This was once the administrative capital of the country which the palace, the fort and the oldest European church on the continent give credence to. Apart from the musty grandeur of the past the town was dead. Makuto Town on the south, in contrast, was moving to the beat of a busy everyday life. Fishermen shouted out the price of their colourful fish on the beach while punters bantered them down to their own prices. Children walked with plates of samosas and fruit on their head. They walked silently but seemed to sell with their eyes. A wink and a nod and the deal was done. Women pounded maize between houses in the dark alleys with ferocious energy, or maybe anger.
We had dinner on the island with Sara and Jimmy, a Portuguese woman and her Mozambican boyfriend. Her mother was a schoolteacher there before moving back to Portugal. Education was bought and not earned she explained, which breeds corruption. The droughts of recent years were not the only cause of the lack of food. Her boyfriend remained silent as she told of how he voted in the last election. Before leaving in the morning he was going to vote for the new guy who was going to change the system, but when he came back he admitted he had voted for the status quo. ‘Not only the family but the extended family rule how business is still done. Jimmy’s cousin was presiding over the casting votes and warned him that if he didn’t vote for the ruling class his life would be made difficult’. ‘Life is tough enough,’ she said, and ‘so what can you expect?’ ‘One thing leads to the next’ she continued, ‘people use mosquito nets to fish now because they can’t afford the real ones. The problem is that they catch all the small fish leaving no food for the big fish. There isn’t even enough fish to eat anymore.’
Our last night in Maputo exploded in an electric storm, the likes of which I’d never seen before. We stepped off the sidewalk into a dingy little bar, a street or two behind the fort, just before the torrents of rain started. It was the cheapest, but worst beer we’d had in Mozambique. ‘Nevertheless Úna, the girls at the table beside us were very friendly’ JF commented. ‘Indeed’ and I shook my head in disbelief. It was only later, as we huddled in doorways to shelter from the storm JF noticed that the only other souls out were women in short skirts and knee-high boots. They wondered if he wanted to come in from the rain. They were very friendly indeed.
I haven’t become one of those people who, after spending two weeks in Africa, come home declaring their lives have changed. The ground didn’t tremble the moment I pressed my foot into the dry soil. Nor did spending time in the company of many friends we met, who were full of joy and humour despite their hard lives, make me want to change anything about my own. But it is true; I have a desire to go back again. Apart from their recent colonial history, not so different from my own, which is only a blip in their long narrative, there is a myriad of cultures and traditions and languages which are exotically colourful compared to mine. When I was there I felt like I was drawing back a curtain, but behind that curtain was another one and another and on and on. It was like unwrapping a present with infinite layers of paper, never getting to what’s inside but loving the anticipation all the while. And that’s magic.