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Malawi – The Big-Hearted People

When I got back into my 4×4 to continue the journey, Ashley asked if he could give his football ball, which was in the trunk, to his new friends. In exchange, the class representative gave Ashley their football ball, sharing the same sentiment.

Driving my Land Cruiser from Lilongwe heading towards Monkey Bay, which is at the foot of Lake Malawi, I became aware of passing more people on a more frequent basis the higher I got in the Dedza mountains. Curiosity got the better of me and I stopped at a road-side caravan for lunch and quizzed the Madala (term of respect when addressing a wise old African father). On the menu that day was Mopani worms with Matabele (thick brown porridge) or barbequed mice on sticks with Matabele.

My young son, Ashley, was traveling with me on this occasion. He ordered a plate of Mopani worms and tucked in with relish. Having savoured traditional food before he knew the best accompaniment with Mopani worms was peanut butter and politely enquired 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’s 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. His patient would dutifully drink this muti and supposedly be cured of AIDS.

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 picanin’s (toddlers) were darting here and their, chasing chickens, their smiling mother’s 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 colourful 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 about 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 and clapped hands and seemed overjoyed. The teacher then dismissed the class, telling them to play football for a while. Two young boys took Ashley by the hand and led him to their “football field”. Several other villagers joined the teacher, who fervently translated all I said. They were all enthusiastic about what they did, what they grew and were very positive about the future for their children. I felt humbled by these people who opened their hearts to me.

When I got back into my 4×4 to continue the journey, Ashley asked if he could give his football 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 football ball and remember him by it. In exchange, the class representative gave Ashley their football 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 given him – it was composed of a large bundle of plastic bags, which were tied up with string.

Back on the tarred road, I passed many plantations of what looked to be Macademia trees. As it was weekend, farm Lorries were traveling to Blantyre — it was customary for the local farmer’s to treat their labourers, 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 further up the road 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 jewellery and glistening spears. In pidgin English they asked how I got my hair to be straight and enquired as to what mud I put on Ashley’s hair to make it so “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 dishevelled appearance had led to me being occasionally 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 football ball in next to him. A promise I endeavour to keep.

Cindy Lou Dale