Malawi. No, it isn’t one of the Hawaiian islands. It’s not an island at all. It’s not where all the trouble is in northern Africa. It’s in the warm heart of Africa. It IS the warm heart of Africa.
I’ve seen a lot of Africa, mostly in the south. I’ve seen the townships and squatter camps in South Africa. I’ve been to villages in the hills of Lesotho. Malawi was not a big surprise to me. But still, the landscape devoid of modern convenience made a deep impression on me. In three weeks, my work partner and I were near only two filling stations, and only one of those deliberately. It was out of diesel fuel. Luckily, we had fuel enough to make the two-hour trip home to Embangweni.
Some places that did not have the luxury of a petrol station were at least equipped with minimal electric service. The term “artisan” has a special meaning for a welder working with a makeshift transformer connected to a pair of pliers, repairing bicycles and fashioning sturdy bicycle carriers from “rebar” (concrete reinforcing steel). Endless fields, tilled by hand with the ubiquitous African hoe – a flat piece of iron fitted to a handmade handle – were being readied for the new crop of maize (corn). Cassava was already much in evidence. I did see a tractor or two near the larger cities. Otherwise, a team of oxen seemed a luxury. There are oases of modernity – timber and rubber plantations, cities with TV, cell phone coverage, paved streets and petrol stations. Just a few.
Where there was electricity, the welders also provided another modern convenience, courtesy of their transformers: battery charging. The well-to-do in some villages beyond the reach of public utilities sported various radios, barely within reach of a transmitter, sometimes fitted with quite creative substitutes for the original electrical configuration. Boys, especially. In those circumstances, it was surprising but encouraging to note the degree of awareness of the news of the world, including the current state of the US election proceedings. On one occasion, winding through the back “roads” seeking a well site, we came upon three gentlemen with one bicycle, two large loudspeakers, and a bulky sound system, headed for a wedding celebration. Since they were known to our Malawian guide, and their destination was similar to ours, we provided transport for the heavy equipment and two men. The cyclist made his own way.
We always made a point of carrying snacks and treats for our Malawian helpers (ourselves, too, as we were seldom near eating establishments of any kind). We tried not to be too obvious in consuming our goodies in the presence of those with whom we were not equipped to share adequately. It wasn’t always possible. One day at lunch break, I was eating from a pack of snack crackers and one cracker fell unnoticed into the dirt. Unnoticed, that is, by me. An old woman nearby snatched it up, much as a sparrow goes after a bread crumb. I couldn’t resist offering her a whole packet. She took it and all but ran away from our gathering to her hut. My guess is that the crackers wound up as the featured appetizer along with that evening’s serving of sima and vegetable sauce. I don’t know why she ran. Perhaps it was to spare me the embarrassment of having none to share with the mass of people, mostly kids, that gathered there, as they did whenever and where ever our truck was stopped for more than a few minutes.
And on the subject of snacks, the favored item everywhere is the “coke”. There was nothing we could offer to our Malawian helpers (two very nice and very able ladies, Maria and Dalles) preferable to cokes. When we visited people in their homes, or sat at a school celebration luncheon or dinner, nothing was served before the cokes were distributed. Cokes were mostly really Coca-Cola products – Fanta in various flavors was very popular. Often in the bush, it was necessary for us to find a wide spot in the cowpath we were driving on, to permit the passage of a 5-ton Coke truck bringing stock to the village merchant-entrepreneurs. In Zambia, bicycles loaded with ten or more cases of bottles shuttle back and forth from Malawi to bring the preferred (cheaper?) Malawian version of the beverage around the official border posts into the country. Coke smuggling revisited.
In all these things, I saw joy. Children with nothing much more than a rag on their back and a stick of sugar cane to chew, smiled, laughed and screeched with joy when our truck came into sight. They ran after us as we’d leave with no more apparent reason than to be the last to wave goodbye. Some pursued us for “sweets” but that was clearly not what motivated the majority.
When a well was completed and the water flowed and God was thanked, Maria led the villagers in song and dance. Maji xxxx . (water something). Truly joyful celebration. Clean water. No more typhoid, cholera, dysentery, dying babies.
We gather by the truck to accept their gifts – a chicken, stalk of bananas, basket of beans or cassava. We are all filled with joy.