A June 2004 trip
to Malawi by ThisOldHag
Quote: A vast land with strange rituals and a fearless, optimistic people
As with everywhere, human population pressures have meant that most the big game species are now restricted to game reserves and national parks. Although these reserves are not as famous as some found in other East African countries, they offer comparable and excellent game viewing.
My young son, Ashley, was traveling with me on this occasion. He ordered a plate of Mopani worms and tucked in with relish. Having savored traditional food before, he knew the best accompaniment with Mopani worms was peanut butter and politely inquired if the Madala had a jar secreted away somewhere. The Madala considered him sternly for a while and then grudgingly produced a small bottle from beneath the counter.
The Madala told me that in the next village, which was near 20km away, there was a tribal witch doctor that had "powers" when throwing the lotaola (bones). The Madala claimed the lotaola spirits spoke with the Sangoma and told him which potion to mix for his patient, who would dutifully drink this muti and supposedly be cured of AIDS.
That would explain the purpose in their stride, I thought. I was fascinated at their blind belief and decided to see for myself.
I found the village, off the beaten track at the end of a single lane of soft red sand. There were many reed huts built close to the Baobab trees, with immaculately swept earth around them. Little picanins (toddlers) were darting here and there, chasing chickens, their smiling mothers looking on whilst pounding maize.
I knew this was where the Sangoma held court, as several large groups of people had gathered to one side of the village pump, patiently waiting to be summoned. The local women were a colorful and noisy explosion of skirts and plastic containers. They shrieked with hilarity at the gossip being told.
I parked my vehicle and ventured out amongst them. They were kind and friendly, and the women adored Ashley, who squirmed under their touches whilst they clucked over his blonde hair.
I came across a village school, with its classroom beneath the trees. The teacher smiled when he saw me and gestured that I approach. He spoke fluent English and translated what I said to his pupils. I introduced myself and Ashley and told them why I was in their country. They laughed, clapped hands, and seemed overjoyed. The teacher then dismissed the class, telling them to play soccer for a while. Two young boys took Ashley by the hand and led him to their "soccer field." Several other villagers joined the teacher, who fervently translated all I said. They were all enthusiastic about what they did and what they grew, and were very positive about the future for their children. I felt humbled by these people who had so little but offered all and who opened their hearts to me.
When I got back into my 4x4 to continue the journey, Ashley asked if he could give his soccer ball, which was in the trunk, to his new friends. He took his ball and ran over to the pupils, who were standing under the trees waiting to wave us a farewell. He told the teacher he wanted his friends to have his soccer ball and remember him by it. In exchange, the class representative gave Ashley their soccer ball, sharing the same sentiment. Beaming from ear to ear, Ashley told me about the ritual trade and then showed me the ball they had played with earlier that day – it was composed of a large bundle of plastic bags, tightly bound with string.
Back on the tarred road, I passed many plantations of what looked to be macadamia trees. As it was weekend and farm Lorries were traveling to Blantyre -- it was customary for the local farmer’s to treat their laborers, and their families, to a day out in the town once a month. They were all dressed for the occasion and overflowed the Lorries. Beaming, happy people, obviously excited at the day’s prospects, waved excitedly as I passed.
Apart from the friendly people, I noticed Malawi’s little villages had curiously worded signs adorning shops and other premises, some of which I found mildly amusing – a chemist called "Dealers’ Drugstore," a shoe shop called "Buy One Get One Free," a haberdashery named "You Sew and Sew," an out-of-business furniture store, in the middle of nowhere, aptly named "Suite F.A."
I boarded an overnight steam ferry, leaving Cape Maclear and bound for Chilumba in the north. Sitting with my feet up against the decks railings, I relaxed with an ice-cold beer whilst Ashley and a newfound friend played on the deck.
At Chilumba, I disembarked and drove towards Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. A long road traveling through some of the most picturesque African villages I had yet seen, part of the route passed through a private game reserve, where I encountered a group of Masai warriors riding bicycles. Their red robes flowing behind them in their slipstream, their spears clutched in one hand, and with the other ringing their bells in greeting as I passed.
A little farther along, I pulled in at a roadside stall. The Masai cyclist soon caught up and also stopped for a drink. They were awesomely tall and dignified-looking men in brilliantly bright robes, elaborate hair plaited and dyed red, huge holes in their earlobes, splendid jewelery, and glistening spears. In pigen English, they asked how I managed to make my hair to be straight and inquired as to what mud I put on Ashley’s hair to make it "white."
Approaching Dar Es Salaam’s city outskirts, I passed hundreds of cyclists. I paused at a busy cross road and was fascinated to see a cyclist in a giant bird costume passing in front of me. Ashley was beside himself with excitement, yet there was no reaction from the local Africans to a huge bird cycling through their town.
On arrival at my hotel, I decided to immediately freshen up, as my disheveled appearance had led to me being greeted as "master." So I had a shower and put on a dress, hoping this would prevent any further confusion.
Overlooking the Indian Ocean, Ashley and I watched a spectacular sunset from our hotel balcony. Lost in thought, I contemplated the journey ahead and reflected on the people we had met earlier.
Later, whilst tucking Ashley into bed, he asked when we would return to Malawi. "I want to go back there mummy."
I gently smoothed his hair and whispered, "I do too, my boy. One day, one day soon," and tucked his plastic bag and string soccer ball in next to him. It’s a promise I endeavor to keep.