An improving situation – buses in Malawi

I have had some horrendous bus trips between Malawian cities but there is a new dawn. A new company, Sososo, came into the market a year or so ago. They offer road-worthy buses which leave on time. That is not half as amazing as being allocated a seat, which really is a seat and which no-one can take off you, no matter how much bigger than you they are. These buses book up early so you need to get your ticket a few days ahead, especially for a morning bus. As well as all the luxury of a real seat, passengers are given a snack and drink. The drink (hurrah for sparking pineapple Fanta) is in a can, which is astonishingly difficult to drink from on a bouncy bus. A road-block or three give me a chance to enjoy it.

The other bus companies are reported to have sharpened up their act considerably in the face of this hugely popular new service. The older bus companies are still a little more expensive (yes, really) and that difference of approx. £1.00 is significant for most Malawians.

Another major change on this new bus is the content of the music videos. On the Axa bus, the ‘old’ ones, the videos are religious people singing hymns – unrelentingly. The bus journeys can be as long as 12 hours. On the Sososo buses the videos are mostly of young people singing and performing modern music. You still needed to wait for several hours before seeing a woman in trousers on those videos. But it did happen, eventually. Wearing trousers, for Malawian women, is a cultural issue here. Msungus (white people) can, and do, wear whatever they like. Musing for another post.

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Pillowcases (again)

Chitenjie pillowcase!

My regular readers, all three of you, will remember my distress about the lack of pillowcases in a place I stayed last year. Well, you should be careful what you wish for because these pillowcases are my fate for tonight. I had taken the precaution of taking a chitenjie (a cloth) with me and I’ll take off these pink, nylon ones and wrap a pillow in my nice cotton cloth. It’s about 35 degrees outside  at 6 pm and that is cool for here so I can’t see me sleeping on a nylon pillowcase.

I am in Karonga, North Malawi, at the lovely Kapata Lodge, which really is lovely, though with a few shortcomings. Just now we have electricity and water at the same time – a real bonus. I am charging my devices and cooling the room down with the aircon while the electricity lasts. When it stops, I’ll go out and admire the stars. I’ve had a nice shower. Hot showers are much over-rated – a trickle of cool water is all that I needed. Off to have chambo (fish) and rice now – a treat of this area, which is so close to the lake.

Tomorrow I drive back the 220 kms that I drove today. Mostly horrendous roads. Part of the road tries to deceive you into thinking you are on a good road and then you hit the caverns at speed. In a borrowed car. Sigh. At one bend I had the option of driven over a deep hole with pointy rocks or reversing towards a precipice. I chose the latter and survived.

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Generations merging and cultures not so different

I had the honour of being at the Malawian internment of the ashes of a teacher, colleague and friend, Margaret Sinclair, who passed away almost two years ago. She had been born in Malawi in 1927, where her mother, Mamie Martin, died while Margaret was a toddler. Part of Margaret’s ashes were laid to rest in Bandawe beside her mother and baby brother.

The night before, local people whose earlier generations knew the Martin’s reminisced as if it all happened yesterday, rather than 90 years ago. They had heard about the Martins and those stories feel very current and relevant. This storytelling of past relatives and their connections reminds me of how we, Irish people, deal with the past – it just merges into the present. The funeral service itself was musical (not very Irish, that) and included the whole community. After the service and speeches, the proceedings continued at the graveside. The flask was placed in the prepared hole and workmen then filled it in with bricks and concrete, mixed on the spot, and then with the displaced earth. This was a hot and dusty business but very real.

My experiences of UK funerals is that of a remoteness from the reality and a sanitisation of death. I have never thought that to be a helpful approach and always have to stop myself from going on about ‘how we do it in Ireland’. It’s more complicated than that, for sure, but those are my musings about this moving event here in Malawi.

 

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Elaborate masquerade

That’s what the buying of a bus ticket for an Axa bus in Malawi feels like. They take your money (first), then carefully note your name and phone number on a sheet, along with the serial number of the ticket. The ticket is carefully completed as if you really were being sold a seat. You are not. You are being sold the possibility of getting a seat and not even the certainty of getting on the bus. The idea that they would phone you for any reason is ridiculous – that would imply a service.

There is a competitor bus service, the Sososo bus, but when I went to book, the bus for tomorrow morning was full. Axa bus is never ‘full’, as I discovered when I sat on the floor of the bus for three hours last year, having previously bought a ‘seat’. I should have booked the Sososo bus earlier this time but was hoping for a lift so as to avoid the 5.5 hour journey by crowded and hot bus.

Having this long and laborious process for each ticket sold suggests that someone in the Axa company believes that buying a ticket means buying the right to a seat. They probably travel by car.

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Pillowcases – my red line

As some of you might agree, I am a pretty relaxed traveller, unperturbed by power cuts, lack of water, rickety public transport, confusing directions and all that. Last night I stayed with my colleague, her baby and child-minder in a lodge in Nkhamenya just inside the North District of Malawi. It is rural and there is not a lot of choice of accommodation, particularly near the trading centre.

Shower – sometimes

The lodge looks great when you drive in and meet the manager. We are shown to our rooms, where the beds are not yet made  up – it’s 4 pm. We think that they only have one set of bedding and wash it for each change of guest, hence it being the late afternoon before it is changed. The bathroom was interesting. There were taps in the concrete wall but the water was only turned on twice a day. OK. I can handle that. My room was more expensive because there was a wash-hand basin in the bathroom. OK. Well, no. It drained onto the floor but there wasn’t anything to drain except a trickle when the water was on. I had three buckets in there, two with water in. That would have been more useful if there had been a jug or large mug to use as a ‘shower’ or any other way of using the water. At least there was no need to worry about it being hot. That has long ceased to be of any concern to me!

Expensive wash-hand basin

All of that I took in my stride but …  The bed was made up and there were no pillowcases. I drew this to the attention of the person who had done the bed. She shrugged and intimated that the pillows were just like that. I then realised that this was a red line with me. I often travel with a cloth that could be used in this kind of situation but this was a brief stopover so I didn’t have one. I felt it was a point of principle anyway. When I insisted on having pillowcases she came back with two, neither of which covered a pillow. One was so torn on one side and open on the other that it was no use and the other was the wrong size and shape. In a very un-Malawian manner, I took the matter to the manager. The ‘chamber maid’ had said that this was all they had but he managed to source another pair. I strongly suspect that they swapped them from the room of a less bolshie guest. There is now a great temptation to take a pillow case with me as an ‘essential’ travel item but I will stay with the normal cloth which is more versatile.

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Great stars but electric power is great too

Here in Karonga in the far north of Malawi, there are regular, prolonged power cuts because of the falling level of the lake and Malawi relying almost total on hydro-electric power. When the lights off off the stars are wonderful – the skies are usually clear. It’s lovely to be able to see the Milky Way and wonder about the Southern sky, so different from what I am used to.

The power-cuts have a less welcome consequence in that the temperatures at this time of year are very high and air-conditioning is essential to sleeping. The hotel has a generator but it’s not possible to run the air-con units with the generator – the load would be too great. I asked if I could have a fan as my room’s electricity didn’t come on when the power cut eventually ended so it was still being served by the generator (i.e. no air-con possible).

A giant fan was brought to my room and provided great relief for a short while, till it went off. It had been tricky to plug in so I thought the plug wiring might be loose. Well …. have Swiss Army knife, will travel. I normally only use it for opening beer bottles, but it is handy as a screwdriver and I was fairly quickly able to open the plug. The fuse was askew, so I popped it back and, hey presto, the fan worked again – until it went off with a bang in the middle of the night when the generator stopped. I know that doesn’t make sense but by then it was a few degrees cooler so sleeping was possible without the fan or air-con. When people here talk about Scotland being cold, it makes me long for a cool Scottish evening. I’ll be back there soon enough and will be missing the heat of Malawi.

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Crocodile-free swim

Yesterday, while working at the Lakeshore, I was able to have a quick swim here at Sambani Lodge. I stayed at this idyllic lodge for several weeks in 2008. Much has stayed the same but the new management/owner are upgrading it, redoing the thatched roofs and, wait-for-it, they’ve installed a satellite dish. I was far too busy swimming, taking photos and have coffee (with hot milk) to check out what communication is now on offer here but it certainly includes a phone signal.

The beach is of white sand, the water is warm and shallow for a long way and the place was deserted. On my next visit I must carve out a few days to come here and enjoy it again. Meanwhile it was a lovely interlude with a dear friend in an otherwise packed schedule. No crocs were to be seen but they wouldn’t be here anyway as it is not near the river mouth and it’s not the right time of day for crocodiles. That might sound like a know a lot about crocodiles but I only know enough to be safe! After that I drove back to Mzuzu in a much shorter time than the outgoing 2-hour journey. I am getting used to driving here. Maybe.

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Taxi ride – a multi-faceted experience

After a five-and-a-half bus journey from Lilongwe, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

After a five-and-a-half bus journey, which should have taken six hours, had the driver been even half cautious of human life, I arrived in Mzuzu in the North of Malawi. Coming off the bus as one of the few white people, I was assailed by taxi drivers wanting to take my bag. Oh no you don’t – I’ll carry my own bag and negotiate a taxi fare when I am safely down these treacherous bus steps.

So, I agreed a reasonable fare very easily and my driver took my bags and put all three in the boot. He instructed me to sit in the front and then agreed a fare with a Malawian couple and they sat in the back. They needed a ride to a minibus as they were continuing onwards – brave people to do that in the dark on Malawian roads. The car only started by jump-starting. This was difficult in the crowded conditions of Mzuzu at that time. He got a push from folk nearby and from his male passenger. However, he then needed to stop for fuel. I should have got out to video that experience. The petrol station was jam-packed but the driver was able to jump-start it even in reverse in a tiny space, with help from passing people again. I was glad that my fare might go a bit towards fixing his starter motor or whatever was wrong. That bit of the experience took me back to my early driving days when you had to be able to jump start a car in order to use one in the country.

Once we have dropped off the lovely, brave, onward-going couple, we headed to my lodgings, which were not far (mercifully). On the way the driver asked what I was doing and where my husband was.

This is a fairly common line of conversation here. When I confessed to not having a husband (note to self: don’t make that mistake again), he got very excited, introduced himself as Abdul and shared that he didn’t have a wife. He then asked if I would marry him and was very insistent that I should. When I demurred, as you would, he strongly requested my phone number. I gave him a wrong phone number which he promptly dialled, getting an innocent bystander, of course. He was quite dumped that I was not accepting him. Fortunately, we were then at my lodgings and I could escape his earnest attentions. How does this man keep any customers? Maybe they are not single women. Why can we women not be more direct in responding to outrageous attentions like this?

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Lovely bedroom

On my first day here in Malawi I am staying in the Kiboko Hotel in Lilongwe, which is unpretentious but perfectly comfortable. I have been upgraded to an executive room and what fun the bed head is with these huge camelions keeping watch on me. Eeek! They are not that big in real life, nor very common in Malawi, I believe.

The wall hangings are beautiful and I am particularly impressed by the framing. It’s lovely to be in Malawi among the warmest-hearted people on the planet. Sure their communication systems don’t work well but their welcome is very real and they are very proud that their country is known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’

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Arriving in Malawi

After a smooth, but long, trip via London and Johannesburg, the arrival at Lilongwe is very pretty, at least on the outside of the building. Inside it’s not so good. There are four processes for immigration. First the visa form must be authorised and no-one asked for all that supporting evidence that I had compiled. Next you must pay the visa fee of $75.00. This takes ages but does produce a receipt. Then the visa itself gets written by hand and stuck into the passport – very pretty. Finally, you are in a queue for immigration and that’s all done. It only too 45 minutes or so.
In the baggage hall there are trolleys (good) but my luggage is not there (bad).

A charade is then played whereby it is pretended that there is a system for locating it and ensuring that it will come tomorrow. In fact, I will just go back there tomorrow and personally look around the luggage hall for it. Without it I cannot go on with my work here so here’s hoping.  Yup. Found the luggage the next day so on with the plan. Sorry the jackaranda tree is on its side!

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