“You see the snake?” Jones asked me, pointing at the concrete floor.
The power was out in the roadside village of Sani so somehow, in the complete darkness, under a sliver of pale moonlight, a small snake was trying to get a grip on the polished concrete floor, making its way to freedom beyond the open door.
“How’d ya see the snake?” I asked, jumping up from the couch to get a closer look.
Hmm, that looks suspiciously like a, “Black Mamba!”
So named for the inky black of the roof of its mouth, this one was just a youngin’, no more than 30 centimeters in length (mamba’s can grow to four meters). And now, I’ve finally come across the most lethal snake on the continent. And perhaps the most aggressive snake in the world, known to chase after humans, reaching speeds of 11 K’s an hour – on flatland.
The snake was focusing on getting past the door when Jones came down on its head with his sandal.
“No, Jones!” I called out. It was too late. The head remained still as the body continued to wither as snakes do when they are killed.
“I have to,” he said, calling the nightwatchman over. “Now he must go burn it.”
Africans are terrified of snakes. They’ll kill ‘em the minute they see ‘em. I’ve tried many a times to explain that snakes are amazing creatures, representing the world of medicine. They’ve received a bad rap because of the ol’ eat-the-apple debacle some 5,000 years ago.
Dinner was served just after the murderous incident. Nsima, charcoal burned goat meat and steamed greens. And to think that just that morning I had found myself on a truck from Salima that had broken down forty minutes into the ride.
“There’s a problem,” Richard announced as the truck, with its 35 tons of molasses, rolled to a stop on the single-lane highway.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he climbed out of the cab and I followed suit along with the old man who had also hitched a ride.
Arriving at the Salima roadblock that morning, I noticed that the usual hustle ‘n’ bustle of the junction was now more of the quiet ‘n’ lazy.
“Why is it so quiet?” I asked Rodrick, the police officer I had asked to assist with getting a ride as far north as possible towards the Tanzanian border.
“It’s a public holiday,” he said. “Today is January 15. We are celebrating the uprising of Reverend John Chilembwe who rose against the British in 1915. They killed him. And that’s why there are no cars today.”
And here I am on the clock to beat my visa’s expiration date. I had four days to reach the border, some 800 K’s north and because of the empire’s ruthlessness I now had to wait for who knows how long in Malawi’s intense heat, shadowed by the constant threat of monsoon rains.
After an hour Richard had arrived and took me on. Forty minutes later I was trying to figure out what would be the best etiquette in a breakdown situation when hitching. Do I stay and if so, for how long? Do I just continue and if so, what is the best way to go about it?
“Hold this,” Richard said, roping me in to assist as he raised the cab to check the engine. I grabbed the wrench as he squeezed in behind the front tire. He disassembled the petrol filters, cleaned them out and put them back together.
“Try the engine,” he told me.
I climbed up and turned the key. The engine coughed and spluttered but refused to turn.
“What could it be?” Richard was, I hoped, asking himself more than directing the question to me. I know about engines like I know how a woman’s mind works – absolutely clueless.
“Maybe it’s the oil pressure?” I suggested.
Richard squeezed back out from behind the tire and checked the oil. “It is low,” he remarked. A bus was coming down the road. “I will go get some.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll wait.” But for how long? What if the nearest filling station was more than 20 K’s away? What if it was across the border?
I was contemplating hitching after almost two hours of waiting when Richard returned on the back of a motorbike. He filled up the oil and I tried the engine. It coughed. It spluttered. It spat out black smoke from the exhaust pipe but it still wouldn’t turn. I looked down the road and saw the only car I had seen in the last three hours.
“Richard,” I said, “I’m sorry I can’t help but I really need to get moving.”
“It’s OK,” he said, seeming to understand as I flagged down the single-cabin bakkie.
“Where are you guys going?” I asked the young couple.
“We don’t know,” they laughed.
“Awesome,” I grinned. “Can I come?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind sitting in the back tray.”
I’ve sat in worst places. I threw my gear in and clambered in. An hour later they pulled over.
“We’re gonna go down here to the resort,” the driver said, pulling up just outside of the village of Sani.
“Cool. Thanks a lot guys,” I climbed out. “Enjoy your stay.”
Grabbin’ my packs I began to hike down the road. Looking up I saw the dark clouds hovering, teasing me as if to dare me to continue walking before they’d unleash their watery load.
In the last week Malawi had copped enough rain to displace 60,000 of its southern residents. It seemed as though the entire southern part of the country had been washed away. A state of national crisis had been declared with the president cancelling his trip to Mozambique, instead visiting the devastated areas of flooding where whole villages had been washed away.
“Hey!” a voice called out, its owner appeared from behind a thatched wall of dry grass. “Come sit with us! We are chatting!”
‘Chatting’ in Africa means ‘We’re drinking and smoking.’ I could do with a break. I walked down and placed my gear on the dry earth before sitting down with Jones, Jacob and Happy. A bottle of locally made katchasha, a drink I had sampled in Zambia (if taken on an empty stomach can burn a hole. Its so strong you can run your car on it) was poured from an old motor oil bottle. They topped it with a bottle of coke and passed me a shot glass.
We went through the motions of who, where from, married – “Why not?”, kids – “Why not?”, what profession and I tuned their ears to my philosophy and moneyless ways. I only intended to stay for an hour. But pretty soon I was drawing them a map of Australia, marking the five states and two territories, the capital cities of each one, the surrounding oceans, listing the unique animals, explaining about marsupials and answering their questions about the western world and trying to come up with a solution for a major problem that Africans were having in their schools.
“How do we get the girls to finish school?” Jones asked me. “When they reach fifteen they get pregnant and don’t finish.” Jacob was nodding in agreement. Both men were teachers and were genuinely worried about this growing problem that no one seemed to be attacking.
“Education,” I said. “Everything comes down to education.”
“We teach them about condoms,” Jacob said, almost despairingly. “But it doesn’t help.”
“Explain that it’s fine to date and be in a relationship,” I offered, “but that it’s important to finish school first. There’s always time to have kids. It’s not a race. Finish school, maybe go to university and use condoms throughout the whole time until you’re ready to have a family.”
They nodded, wheels turning in their drunken heads on how to tackle the subject.
Four hours later, as I played Ol’ Red, smoking Malawi Gold and helping to polish off the second bottle of katchasha, I was happily aware that I wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
“I will give you a nickname of Hamlet,” said Happy, the Rastafarian sitting beside me, declaring me to be his new best friend.
The clouds that had been shadowing me all day finally ripped open, dropping their payload.
“Tonight you will stay at my house,” Jones announced. He attempted to pick up my gear, managing to get it all on, almost toppling over from the weight of it. “I could not walk a hundred meters with this,” he exclaimed.
“I’ve done 10 K’s,” I grinned as some elderly gentlemen had joined us.
“This one has been selling weed since 1969,” Jacob said, pointing at the white-haired madala (term of respect for elderly). His apprentice had given me two bits of bud as a gift which I had passed onto Jones to roll so that we could all smoke.
As the rain subsided and the guys began to go home, Jones led me to his house where the black mamba attempted its escape and I was fed and provided a room to sleep in.
“In the morning I will escort you to the road,” grinned Jones. “Have a goodnight, brother.”
“Thank you for today, brother,” we hugged and I slept blissfully, trying not to think that perhaps the baby mamba’s mother might be lurking about.
Breakfast is white bread with margarine which I force down out of politeness as I hate both products. Jones then escorted me down the road.
“I’m gonna keep walking, Jones,” I said. “You still have time to go to work. Teach the kids about Australia and condoms.”
We hugged and I kept on trekking. The road, for the first time in the two months I had been in Malawi was quiet. Although people were walking and bikes were being ridden between villages, there were hardly any vehicles.
I hiked about 2 K’s before I heard the slow rumble of a large truck. I turned to see the double-B 1940s Mercedes lorry. I flagged it down and it stopped, taking the length of a runway to come to a halt.
“Where are you going?” I asked the grinning young driver.
“Dwanga,” he said. After my usual spiel he said the magic words, “OK, let’s go,” and I climbed aboard, joining three other passengers in the first trailer. We rumbled along at about 10 K’s an hour. We stopped in Nkhotakhota where I spied Richard’s truck.
Brown, the driver (seriously), instructed me to join him in the cab for the duration of the ride. He had bought chips and shared them with me along with a bottle of Sprite. An hour and a half later I was dropped off on the outskirts of Dwanga.
Thanking him, I hiked through town to get to the other side. The heat had reached its offensive level and I stopped for a break in the shade of a large fruitless mango tree. It then occurred to me that the mango season had come to an end in Malawi.
I watched as grey, menacing clouds came in for the kill.
I grabbed my gear and continued to hike, hoping that by looking pathetic and wet I’d get a ride. A small truck pulled up. The tray was full of agricultural chemicals.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Nkhata,” said the old driver.
Sweet. That’s 200 K’s off my day. The usual spiel given, I threw my gear on the sacks and sat on them in the rain as the cab was full.
20 K’s later we pulled over. “Ngala,” announced the driver.
“Cool,” I said. Please keep going. The rain intensified. The driver tapped on the window, signalling me to get off.
“You said you were going to Nkhata Bay,” I frowned.
“Ngala,” he articulated the word.
Thanking him, I grabbed my gear and found shelter with 20 other guys under a thatched roof where chips and goat intestines were being deep fried in oil that looked like it could fuel a rocket ship.
I chatted with the driver of a parked taxi as a Toyota Tarago pulled up. “Where are you going?” I asked the driver.
“Nkhata Bay,” he said. Then I realised he was a bus.
“I don’t have money,” I said. Explaining my ways we continued to stand in the shelter. Finally the rain stopped. And although the sun still remained behind the grey walls in the sky, sunshine appeared in the form of John, the bus driver.
“I’ll take you to Nkhata if you play me a song at the end of the ride.”
I vigorously shook his hand, almost popping his shoulder. Although buses in Malawi stop for every single person on the road to see if they need a ride, John drove fast enough, only picking up those whose mind he seemed to be able to read, knowing they needed to travel some distance.
About 30 K’s short of Nkhata Bay we pulled over. “Unfortunately,” John began, “I have no more passengers.”
“I understand,” I said. I thanked him and played Bob Marley’s, No Woman, No Cry, drawing two more guys to the show. They happened to be the driver and passenger of the orange bakkie that was of the political party – The People’s Party.
They took me about 20 K’s further down. As soon as I hopped out and hiked to the junction I spotted a white sedan speeding by. I wasn’t quite at the road but I figured I’d stick my hand up and signal the direction. To my surprise, the car pulled over. In it sat two English girls, newly arrived in Malawi heading to,
“Nkhata Bay,” they said.
I gave them all the tips I had on the place that was home to me for my first month in Malawi. Where to stay (Mayoka Village), where to eat (Kaya Papaya, Take Away Palace, street-side chips) and things to do.
They dropped me at the all-to-familiar roadblock heading up to Mzuzu. I chatted with the stall owners when a truck pulled up with an empty trailer. The driver climbed out of the window as though it were the General Lee. I explained my situation.
“Put your stuff in,” he said as he went off to chat with a friend.
The passenger door was opened by pulling on a rope. A soldier inside helped me with my bags as I climbed up. As we trucked uphill, some folks signaled the truck to pullover, indicating a load of massive sacks of recently harvested bananas that were now coming into season.
The driver assisted
By the time we hit Mzuzu the sun was setting. I wasn’t far from Joy’s Place, a backpacker’s hostel I had tried to barter with when I was travelling with Hope. They were full at the time and I hoped that this time I might be able to get a bed.
“Unfortunately, all the beds are taken,” said Joy. “But if you have a tent, you can pitch it in this space,” she showed me the spot between the dog’s bed and the bathroom.
“Sweet,” I grinned.
I was served with a huge bowl of stir-fired noodles and dumplings. Later that evening I played my first solo gig since Hope had left for Namibia. The majority of the crowd were American Peace Corps volunteers that didn’t seem to pay much attention except for one eager kid and a Dutch couple, Jasper and Lisa who had heard of me through Maya and Victor, the Swedish sibling duo that had climbed Mt Mulanji with Hope and I.
The next morning we walked together to the main road. Lisa gave me two bananas and we parted ways. I hiked down to the same road I had taken to reach the Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge nearly a month ago. Two kids approached me.
“Where are you going?” they asked.
“Tanzania,” I said, spying the oncoming truck. The kids turned around, noting the truck’s number plate.
“Tanzania!” they said excitedly as all three of us waved our arms like madmen to flag it down.
It came to a screeching halt and we ran down where I opened the passenger door, hoping he was going to, “Tanzania?”
“Yes,” the driver grinned widely.
“Can I ride with you?” I asked.
“Yes, let’s go.”
Thanking the kids, I ran back to grab my gear and clambered aboard.
That’s right. I left my bags by the side of the road – everything – and ran to the truck that had taken a runway’s length to pull over, spent a few minutes chatting and ran back to where my bags still sat where I had left them – untouched.
Cause that’s how it should be. It can be.
And it is.
Denis, the driver, is originally from the Congo. “I moved to Dar es Salaam with my wife and kids for work,” he began his tale. “I have three sons. I had five but two died from electrocution.”
“You like Congolese music?” he asked, thankfully changing the subject.
“Sure,” and he blasted the cabin with the poppy reggae. Coming from the Congo, Denis also speaks fluent French. We exchanged pleasantries in the little French that I know as he skilfully floored the truck.
“Empty cargo,” he said when I asked about his load.
The further north we rode, the more crowded the roads became with people walking, riding bikes, herding cattle and goat. Also signs asking the inhabitants not to defecate in the streets. Malawi is the most densely populated country in Africa and there isn’t a road without people on it.
An hour before we reached the border Denis spotted the cow in the middle of the road that was debating which direction to take. It decided to try and get under the truck’s wheels. Denis swerved, cursing in Congolese, blasting the horn while I was finding religion, glad that we hadn’t hit not just the cow, but miraculously, no one else that was on the road.
“Merci merci beaucoup,” I thanked Denis when he dropped me at the border.
I mentally prepared myself for the hustles of money exchangers and taxi drivers as I had my passport stamped out.
“Zikhomo kombini,” I thanked the immigration officer in what would be the last time I would use Chichewa.
Now it was on to Swahili and country number 14.