There’s more to life than just complaining.
‘You’re quitting the good job in London and moving to Malawi?’ The emphasis of the question was on good job.
‘I am. I hate it.’ was the simple answer. The silence said volumes for their lack of comprehension. I knew no matter what the reaction they envied me.
They envied me because no matter how much they bitched about their jobs, or their bosses or their bills or their husbands, or wives, or boyfriends, or girlfriends, or whatever the hell it was they were bitching about only a second before, they were all afraid to leave it.
I was at a wedding in Donegal the week before I left. Dark, cold and sleety Donegal in early February supplied enough bitching for a year for any self respecting Irishman or women. But no one mentioned the weather around me for fear I’d ask them why they wouldn’t come with me if it was so bad.
Looking up at the blanket of blue African sky, I thought about them at home, at eight am on a dark Monday morning, in February, scuttling around each other, on top of each other, most of them trying to get to somewhere they didn’t want to be.
After a week in Malawi’s dirty, dusty and dilapidated capital Lilongwe I was happily hitting the road for South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. Cheap beer and seven days in a hotel full of American Evangelists can do strange things to your mind.
The Malawians had taken to me, like they do to everyone, and I spent most of the week hanging around taking in the hustle and bustle of the city markets, avoiding the bible bashers back at the hotel. I’d been christened with the Chichewa nickname Moto Moto which means Fire Fire, on account of my ginger hair and Irish complexion which was fast going lobster red.
‘Moto Moto, my friend come here, come here! Buy from me my friend, yes you are Moto Moto, my friend you are fire, fire. You are very firey man, buy from me!’ And I would. I’d argue and bargain for something I didn’t want, then trade insults, laugh and share a bottle with them.
I stood out from the few thousand white people in a native population of roughly ten million at the last count. It is a rough count thanks to AID’s. And it’s the white folk there to help them that I was glad to be getting away from; those who would preach brotherly love but wouldn’t share a bottle.
We had about nine hours of daylight and about 500 kilometres to cover. It seemed like plenty of time back home but we had the multiple possibilities of breakdowns, collisions, dodgy police and army checkpoints and border guards. The lack of road was a concern and we weren’t sure if the dirt road that made up the last hundred kilometres of our journey had dried out yet after rainy season. To be lost after dark was not a good idea.
But for the next nine hours the hot sun would provide the lighting for what was through my windscreen a cinematic masterpiece that no Hollywood talent could ever describe on a big screen.
We met few vehicles on the road. Most were either big, white, expensive NGO four wheel drives with only a black driver and a self-important Western charity staffer or a rust bucket of a twelve seater minibus, that wouldn’t have scrap value at home, carrying twenty people, a couple of goats and a couple of hundred kilos of Maize on the roof.
Those with the few pence to afford the bus waved and shouted friendly abuse at the heavy pedestrian traffic. Most of the kids had no shoes and I wondered how the hell they walked on the hot tarmac surface. People teemed around every crossroads market. All concentrated on their task of survival, yet acknowledging each other as they came and went.
Just beyond the road’s edge villages were dotted randomly. Nothing more than a few single room mud-brick houses topped with threadbare thatching, all facing each other with a bare patch of ground in the middle where the men folk sat.
They were thin. They were all very thin. But they were strong. They all had a purpose about them. The kids in their dirty, ragged uniforms held hands, five and six year olds barked orders at three year olds. They all marched purposefully to school.
Women carried babies on their backs, some a second at their breast, and heavy loads on their heads. They walked tall, laughing among themselves but they were weary. But all mothers grow weary. How the hell do you do it, I wondered, folks won’t even walk to the shop at home.
Beyond the villages, the endless level plains of tall grass were a deep green after rainy season and the few scattered green tree tops looked like displaced sods on a giant’s lawn.
The far off distance was dotted with volcanic hills left after the African Rift Valley spilled its guts of igneous lava to the surface hundreds of millions of years before any of us got here.
At the border Malawian police tried to nail us for the usual whiteman fines. The tiniest vehicle infringement at any checkpoint could cost about twenty US dollars while minibuses with no lights or even doors would sail past. We went through unpunished.
Zambia was doing better. The scenery was much the same but the people were fatter. Not much, but enough not to fear for tomorrow’s bread.
‘Do you feel sorry for them?’ asked Danny, a South African friend, who’d joined me for the job.
‘I feel sorry for everyone mate, even you.’ I said. It was the kind of statement that would make his Johannesburger head hurt thinking about.
The ground had dried enough to drive the last hundred kilometres by road. But huge potholes gouged out by spinning wheels in the last days of the mud made it feel like execution by tumble dryer.
Entering the park, I navigated the last few kilometres through dense high scrub of bush and trees and pulled up to the lodge at dusk.
‘Stay in the jeep!’ someone shouted.
‘Stay in the jeep, the rangers have radioed – there’s some lions near the camp,’ was the calm instruction from somewhere in the fading light.
‘Time for a beer, Danny,’ I proposed.
‘Ya, sundowners. Drive to the riverbank over there.’ He pointed to a scene that would give David Attenborough a heart attack.
With the orange plumes of the setting sun in the west glowing on its reflective surface the broad Luangwa River journeyed, meandering to the left and right, as far as the eye could see. As I pulled up at the highpoint of the bank half a dozen hippo were exiting the water about twenty metres to our left, heading off to graze the long grass in the fast falling darkness.
‘Has this fella got men hired so we can start building in the morning?’ I asked Danny after a slug that drained my beer bottle.
‘Yes, I think so,’ he confirmed.
‘What are they like, can they work?’ I asked.
‘They will start at seven thirty and finish at three thirty. We’ll make them work.’ He proclaimed.
Why do they have to finish so early? I’ll treat them right and they’ll work a full day for better money.’ I apostatised.
He looked at me dead straight and said ‘If they leave any later they may be attacked by lions, elephant or hippo on the way back to their village in the dusk’.
After reflection I thought out loud, ‘It’s still probably better than the Tube in London.’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked.
‘Don’t mind me Danny,’ I replied, ‘I’m just bitching.’