Monthly Archives: September 2012

Hippos – Yay!

So, this post details something that occurred before the wedding in the first post, but chronology is for fools and communists. I won’t be shackled by your bourgeois commitment to coherence, man!

We arrived in Malawi on a Saturday, having flown overnight to Jo’burg (so called because A) I wish to impress you with how cosmopolitan I am and B) I am not sure how to spell the full name) and then on to Blantyre, where I now live. We were utterly exhausted and let customs and the journey sort of wash over us. It was only a few days later, for example, that Sarah reminded me that no-one had seen us with our passports. Someone had seen our passports, as they had been collected en masse by the deputy head, and they appeared to have been stamped, too, but at no point did a Malawian immigration official see me with my passport. Yet here I am, living and working in Malawi. Odd, no?

We’d been a bit worried about noun’s buggy/pram thing as it was late coming off the plane, but it got there eventually, as did everything else. “Eventually” is a concept I’m getting very used to here.

Anyway, the first week was a bit of a blur, and we missed the first shopping trip which was a bugger, and on the second night I introduced myself to someone I’d met, and spoken to for forty minutes previously, so that was a bit embarrassing. But on the Wednesday I went to Majete, which is a game reserve, and had a day so splendid that I would consider it top twenty of my life, and the memory of which has, so far, made the rest of our life in Malawi bearable (I’ve been hugely positive so far on this blog but, believe me, I’m building to a massive bitch fest. You have that to look forward to. All four of you)

Majete is not the most famous game reserve in Africa. Hell, it isn’t the most famous game reserve in Malawi, but it is pleasantly close to Blantyre, and so it is where we went. The drive to the park is an experience in itself. I should give you a context – we had flown in through cloud, and landed in searing heat and wall-eyed exhaustion. The drive from Chileka airport (“Chileka” is Chichewa for “cowshed”) to the school was definitely new and exotic, but not picturesque, and then we’d failed to go anywhere else for four days, so we were starved for a view. We would have been enchanted by Cheddar Gorge. What we got was the escarpment road into the great rift valley. In case you haven’t spent the last few months reading guide books to Africa, I should explain what a big deal this is. The great rift valley is exactly that. It’s great as in huge and great as in astonishing. It is a valley, forged by continental shift and the course of several rivers, which runs through the heart of Africa. It is considered likely to be the birthplace of whatever monkey-like fellows that eventually became us. And should you should ever drive, unexpectedly, over the brow of a hill and find yourself on a road winding vertiginously down a sheer cliff a thousand feet high, with what feels like an entire world spread before you, well, it’ll make an impression.

We drove for about an hour and a half from Blantyre, through suburbs and then villages. The handmade brick and tin roofed structures eventually gave way to the dried mud and thatch buildings that I’d been expecting, and reassured me, by their presence, that I wasn’t just a big old racist. Crowds of kids ran along the roads after us shouting “Bwana” and “Mzungu” (“boss” and “white man,” respectively) hoping to be given something: money or sweets. We stopped in a village on the way back and handed out some biscuits. One little girl, about ten, I’d guess, managed to grab about fifteen and pelted off, easily outrunning boys five years older than her. She has a glowing career ahead of her as a fly half, that one (though my unexpected association with the Malawi National Rugby team is going to have to wait for another post.) The poverty was shocking, and sobering. There’s no way to adequately prepare for it, and I can’t sugar coat it here. In villages not far from where I’m typing this there are people who are starving and who have no clean water or adequate medical provision. This post is about elephants, and I’ll get back to Majete shortly, but driving through the villages was an important part of the day, and it wouldn’t feel right to mention it solely as a joke about fleet footed biscuit thieves.

Anyway, Majete. Majete is huge and exists as a reserve first and a tourist attraction forty-fifth. There’s one restaurant, one shop and there’s now, something like thirty years after it was designated a game reserve, a hotel and guided safaris. We didn’t bother with guides though, we just drove into the park and followed a few of the tracks. The teachers who took us newbies to the park all said that we were exceptionally lucky and that most days in Majete aren’t as successful. I can only assume they are right, because fifteen minutes after driving into the park we stopped, got out of the cars (you really aren’t supposed to do that, but everybody does) and spent forty minutes watching a huge herd of elephants at the water. Not long after that we saw ten or so hippos sunning themselves on a sandbank in the river. We saw crocodiles floating menacingly across pools and, memorably, had a large group of baboons run chattering and screaming across the river bank about fifteen feet below us. We all decided to get back in the cars then. Baboons are scary.

It wasn’t just the big-ticket beasts that impressed, though. There were also wonderful moments where we saw impalas through trees or nyalas in groups. There was an amazing bird, easily the most beautiful bird I’ve ever seen, and one we still haven’t identified (Newman’s “Birds of Southern Africa” is in the sea freight, so I’ll get it in December.) There was also the simply remarkable fact of being in Africa. The landscape was utterly alien. I mean, Switzerland and Norway don’t look much like Gloucestershire either, but this was a genuinely visceral shock. A case in point being the trees. Trees, surely, look the same wherever you are, but the bizarre whiteness of the ghost trees, and the intimidating bulk of the baobab takes some getting used to. Anyway, I can’t describe all this well enough, so here are some pictures, all of which were taken either by me or by a friend on that day in Majete. I warn you, I’m in some of them. They will also be the last photos not taken with a phone that appear on this blog for a while as,like I said earlier, our camera is broken. Sarah was carrying it at Majete and got some beautiful shots of impalas and stuff. She spent the whole day thining she’d lost it, but she never had. It wqs always in her pocket. Which is where it was when she, literally, fell down a mountain at the end of the day. She was remarkably unscathed. The camera wasn’t.

A herd of majestic heffalumps

Sarah fell down the hill behind us shortly after this photo was taken.

Amazing bird. Currently unidentified.

Sarah took this out of the window of a moving car, which is pretty cool.

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Wedding photos

Massive bruiser in striped shirt is, unfortunately, me. God I'm bald, too.m

The little girl had just handed noun back to Sarah after his round of cuddles. Her name was Louisa, and she was lovely.

Sarah going up to hurl her money in the basket. The dancing girls are lined up on the left of the shot. One of the little ones is Tito’s youngest.

First post – servants and weddings

So, we’ve been in Malawi for two weeks now, and I’ve been teaching for one. Now would seem like a sensible time to offer some observations. Unfortunately, I seem incapable of ordering my thoughts into any sort of coherent response. It’s all “Hippos – yay! Mosquitoes – boo! Poverty – yikes!” at the moment.

I think I’m unlikely to manage a decent narrative with a beginning, middle and end, for some time yet, so let me start by telling a story that happened over the last few days. If nothing else, it’ll introduce some of the people who are likely to feature in these ramblings.

Tito is our housekeeper. I’ve never had a housekeeper before and was ambivalent about having one before we came. I have, after all, survived this long sans butler, and felt I’d probably be able to rub along here as well. However, it was made clear that it was an expectation that we keep on the staff that our predecessors had employed, and nobody wants their first action in a new society to be putting someone out of work. Long story short, I now employ a housekeeper – Tito – for three days a week; a gardener – Yonas – Monday to Friday and two security guards – Frank and Izack (that’s how he spells it) – every night.

We tried to work out the correct wages by considering what they were paid by the people who lived in our flat before us, and applying the devaluation sums, and carrying the three and God knows what else, and eventually we ended up giving them all a payrise. This is fine, as the going rate for people to work for you in Malawi is, to a British sensibility, really quite shockingly small. Tito, for example, earns 22000 Kwacha per month for three days work a week from us. This works out to about fifty quid. Tito is, by some way, the best paid of our employees. We could, of course, pay more, but we are easily the most generous employers in the school, and the conversation I had with Tito about his wages consisted of him being happy with the first number, which was me checking what he’d been paid last year, and then me having to argue him up from that position. I think he thinks I’m insane. At any rate, Tito is a friendly presence, a charming man and an extraordinarily good ironer. I like that he’s in the house as, although she’s made friends quickly, and seems to have a really quite bustling social life, I was still worried about Sarah being alone all day with the baby. He also goes to the market for us and, though I suspect he isn’t a really top class haggler, he certainly gets better than the mzungu prices we’d be charged. So, all worked out well.

Last week, after we’d known him about ten days, Tito gave us an invitation to his daughter’s engagement party. We were touched, obviously, and accepted. We were concerned about what to take as a present, however. You want to be generous, but not showy, and there are presumably cultural expectations. These sorts of things are a minefield for me in Britain, as I don’t pay attention, so you can imagine how at sea I am in Malawi. We asked about, and nobody seemed to know what an engagement party might consist of. Sarah, a Scottish woman who works with me but is married to a Malawian, said she thought it was a thing that only middle class Malawians might have, and that that didn’t really fit with Tito being our housekeeper. If it was a wedding, then that’d be easy – you’d take money, but she didn’t know what to do for an engagement party. Mwayi, one of the teachers in my department who is Malawian, said she’d never heard of an engagement party, but that if it was a wedding you’d take money. Joanne, my next door neighbour and colleague who employs Tito for the other two days of the week, and who lived in Malawi as a child, said that if it was a wedding we’d take money. We took money.

It turns out that Tito is middle class. There were clues, actually. He speaks English, for a start, and most Malawians of his generation don’t, and he owns and wore a suit to come and ask if we’d keep him on. Tito has seven children, we found out at the party, and his eldest is either a nurse or a doctor depending on who you ask (Tito said nurse; Jane, Tito’s daughter said doctor) but everyone agrees that he is college educated and working at a hospital in South Africa. Tito has achieved this by working, as far we can tell, as a cleaner and housekeeper all his life. He’s damned good at it, too. So yeah, an impressive man.

Anyway, despite Tito being middle class, and so raising the possibility that this was a bona fide engagement party, it was in fact a wedding. Or at least a wedding in all but name. I should explain. Malawi is a very religious country. Every Malawian that I know has a church that they attend every week. Religion is also much more openly discussed here, and people are more than happy to ask you if you go to church, and where you go to church, and why haven’t you gone to church? This is aside from the growing Muslim minority who, in the way of religious minorities the world over, seem more devout than they might be if they were in the majority. So, a devoutly monotheistic, Abrahamic country – but with some surprising additions. You see, what we attended on Sunday was, in essence, a tribal wedding. It was described on the invitations as an engagement party but it was definitely a wedding. There was dancing and costumes; there was ritualised theatricality; there was much giving of cash and there were spoons (more about the spoons later.) The bride and groom will live together afterwards and, according to Jane the actual, Christian wedding will take place “at some time.”

The ceremony we saw on Sunday was loud and frequently baffling. There were two people taking the pastor/MC roles and they seemed to be having a lot of fun. Their job was to call people out of the crowd and exhort them to throw money into large baskets at the front, whilst shaking their arses. At one point there were a collection of ten dancing girls, in ages ranging from about six to about eighteen, all in traditional (ish) dresses, dancing slowly down the makeshift aisle. Their dance included stirring an imaginary pot with a large wooden spoon. Then the dancing girls all walked into the crowd and presented the spoons to people chosen as special friends of the family. Sarah got given one, and blushed and gushed in gratitude at the little girl who presented it to her. Tito beamed at us. It was really special. We all went up to the front at some point or other to give money. Sarah went up with the other spoon bearers and had the MC mock aggressively shout “1000 Kwacha” at her, which she gleefully threw in the basket. She wasn’t shaking her arse enough for my liking, but you can’t have everything. She almost certainly would have given more (1000 mkw is about two quid) but felt she had to do what she was told. I put about five thousand in the basket when I went up. I shook my arse. My favourite bits of the ceremony were the ritualised theatricalities of it. Samuel (the groom) walked down the aisle first and was grabbed by member of his family anbd hidden in the crowd. When Lyness (the bride) came in she had to search through the crowd to find him, and then they kneeled before each other and had a bit of a cuddle. Later the groom’s family all pretended to mock the poverty of Lyness’s (actually very beautiful) dress and they grabbed her and bore her off. She returned about ten minutes later in a gold dress with a gold fabric crown, now suitably attired to join their family.

It was a really lovely day. I’m sure that the fact that we are rich mzungus wasn’t completely absent from the impulse to invite us; after all, they’d have had to be stupid not to have thought of it, and stupid these people definitely are not. But there weren’t very many white people there. In fact there was only Sarah, noun and me; Joanne and Ian from next door and the women who employ Lyness at their travel agency. Also, Tito seemed genuinely pleased that we’d come.

Noun was, as you can imagine, an enormous hit. White adults are a commonplace in Blantyre, but a white baby is still a pretty remarkable thing to see. At one point some women asked Sarah if they could hold him, but he’d just woken uip and was a bit grizzly, so she demurred. I wasn’t given the chance to say no by the five ten year olds who ran up to me and said “can we look at the baby?” I was in the process of replying in the affirmative when they grabbed him out of my arms and started passing him around, all taking it in turns to cuddle him. He loved it, the tart.

There are some photos knocking about that Ian took, as we don’t currently have a camera. Sarah broke it falling down a mountain in a game park. More about that later. I’ll try and get hold of them and put them up.