Sunday, July 6, 2008

I made my first solo drive on Thursday.

Around eleven in the morning I headed for Lilongwe. Our daughters and niece were flying in with the widow’s group from Johannesburg at 2:00 on Friday. I was fighting the flu so I drove down a day early rather than do the roundtrip in one day.

Kathy booked me a room at “Area 3.” “Area 3,” I contested, “is the name of a place not a residence. It’s like calling a hotel ‘Watertown.’” “That is the name of it,” she said with a look that said “you are looking for normal, now?”

Sure enough after the 4 and half hour drive I went to the Baptist Guest House in Area 3 and asked the gatekeeper, “where is a place called ‘Area 3?’” He pointed around the corner.

Like most guest houses in Malawi it is nice but basic. At guest houses they don’t use levels like the hotels. Malawian hotels provide lots of options. For instance at Korea Garden (a favorite haunt) there is: premier, executive, gold, silver, and bronze. I have stayed in every level but premier, but some day. . . .

The next morning after breakfast I spent a few hours doing blog stuff at a local cafĂ© in a strip mall. It’s a Lilongwe thing. Someone, it would seem, from California has sold them a basic set of blue prints for an anchor store and set of shops. As only architecture can I forgot I was in Africa after about an hour of drinking coffee from a press pot and hooking up to the internet with a wireless account with my laptop.

Next came a mature move: I fueled up with diesel even though I had more than enough to make it back to Mzuzu. Jodi McGill kept saying after each time she bought something, “when you see things you will need you buy them because you never know when they will be there again.” Well, the North is now out of diesel until maybe Tuesday so I am very happy that I got the unneeded fuel on Friday.

At the airport I hooked up with Sam and Grace who were there to greet the ladies. They had a painting done in their honor, welcoming the “Queens of the US” sporting some handsome elephants. You got to love Malawi at moments like these.

Being an hour early we headed to the “viewing deck.” There we found countless school children there for a field trip of watching three flights take off and land in three hours. Lilongwe is not JFK.

When the flight was more than ten minutes late I slapped my knees and said, “that’s enough for me. If it’s going to be this late I’m going to leave.” As I stood up Grace started to panic a bit. I shouldn’t take pleasure in being the Ugly American but I do.

The South African flight carrying our “cargo” arrived but alas most of their luggage did not. Standing in a crazy “queue” with the fatigue of intercontinental travel and wondering what this all means is not the best “how to you do” but it’s not a bag introduction to Africa. Smooth and flawless is not applied very often here.

Once outside customs with hugs and photos taken we started the loading process. A few days ago we had a custom rack built for the McGills van so all the ladies luggage would fit. With the missing bags we were actually able to haul all the goods that arrived.

Beka, our niece, and Zoe, our youngest daughter, had the happy glow of standing in Malawi for the first time. It also didn’t hurt that they were one of the fortunate who got their luggage. I wish I had been allotted a bit more time to appreciate watching the two of them and the other ladies try to process the assault on the senses that is landing in Africa, but no sooner was the van packed that we waived goodbye to the widow’s group and hit the road for our five hour drive.

Given that it was now four o’clock didn’t bode well. That meant a fair portion of our drive would be in the dark. Heading out my only hope was that the holiday weekend would include time off for tobacco trucks. While that is nice thought I am sure the reason the road was somewhat empty was because almost every gas station in the central and northern regions was out of fuel. Hence we made it home in record time and with maybe a half dozen tobacco trucks altogether.

As we drove Grace took some calls from Sam who is driving the ladies group. No luggage was now compounded with a mistake in their accommodations. I have all confidence there was a moment of “now what?” Yet, as it turned out, a Hanukah miracle occurred and their hotel of choice Korean Gardens who had no room for them a month ago now-miraculously- had plenty of room. (Maybe another benefit of the fuel shortage.)

Calling them today I heard lots of cackles and laughter. They spent the day at the Crisis Nursery in Lilongwe and there were “many tears” according to Liz Bonisteel. Tomorrow they depart for the Shire River and a day of safari. It will be an intriguing way to start their journey. “You will get two radically different pictures of Malawi,” I told Linda Potter on the phone.

As we settle in today up north it was nice to see Kathy with her “girls” as Ethan, Dave, and I just don’t provide the kind of conversation which satisfies. Chelsea and Zoe also were quick to bond and now share a room. Mostly though it feels like we are into “phase two” of the sabbatical.

Abiding is much more complicated than I figured. Fuel shortages and presidential prayer services were not “in the cards” I had envisioned. But nothing about abiding has been what I thought it would be. But at least it’s consistent.

July Sixth is Malawian Independence Day.

The country is 44 years old- or young. With only three presidents to date, a handful of paved roads, and an economy in the world’s bottom five its hard to know which ones defines it better.

Each year at this time the current president spends the holiday in one of the three regions. We were lucky as his rotation fell to the North this year. Rev. Nkhoma kept rattling off something about an ecumenical service and how we needed to be here on Saturday.

What he was talking about was the equivalent of the President’s Prayer breakfast- although there was no buffet in sight. In essence, the President was coming to Mzuzu for the weekend and a key event was a worship service headed up by none other than . . . Rev. Nkhoma.

Kathy and I arrived at Mzuzu University around 9:30 for the 10 o’clock service. We drove right past all the armed guards and reporters. Parking the car we kept being directed toward “the Hall.” Soon enough we were seated in a large hall that looked like a big event was about to happen. You could easily pick out the dozens of security guards. They were buff and looked very well fed.

Walking in the draped door a man rearranged some seats so Kathy and I could sit down along the “red carpet.” (It was actually red.) In a matter of minutes I was having a Malawi moment. The fellow who helped us find our chairs was a kind of head of communications and publicity for the government. After the polite exchanges recognizing that we were the only white people out of 10,000 I was being given a fascinating description of how the freedom of the press has developed since Banda’s time.

It turns out the President after Banda, Mulawezi (1994-2003), wasn’t ready for journalists to actually transcribe his comments. After reporting the details of one speech where Mulawezi told all the civil servants “join my party or lose your job” the fellow sitting next to me was encouraged to leave the country. I use the term “encourage” loosely. He only returned two years ago after eight years in Senegal. (I forgot to mention he went to high school in Long Island and college in LA.)

About this point in the conversation we could start to hear the shouts. The throng of people lining the road into university were shouting and singing. President Bingu was in the house.

The more than three hour service that followed was a bit more of a choir extravaganza and preach-off than “presidential” event. And I must say that is okay by me. Yes, it was a bit long, but the idea that the president was there to listen to the more than a dozen choirs and three different sermons in as many languages was something that sparked my imagination: what does it mean to lead such a people?

Kathy kept saying over and over, “I can’t believe the President of Malawi was just right there.” And he was. He walked right next to us and gave us an eye lift “hey, how you doin’” kind of look. And I must admit that when the introductions were being made I had a bit of pause when our names were mentioned as honored guests.

After all the singing and praying was done we ran into Rev. Nkhoma in the parking lot- read open field. He was beaming and reiterated our need to be at the big rally at the football stadium tomorrow. “We will be there,” I said enjoying the swirl of chaos that is Malawi.

Yet the real benefit of all this hoopla and hours of prayer and song is that Mzuzu got a paint job. We have lines on the streets! If its not moving in Mzuzu, it has a coat of white paint. Some people don’t like this kind of spruce up arguing it should just be that way. I am not one. Whatever reason it takes to get the lines going down the middle of the all too narrow roads is a good enough reason for me.

Mzuzu Market

The central market of Mzuzu is what I imagine the complex tunnel systems the Viet Cong used if the top were take off. A spider web at least has an obvious pattern. This is a tightly woven set of low slung wooden shanties that hold everything you need but may not be brave enough to purchase.

I have purposely not taken Kathy to the meat and fresh fish market that can be reached by a twist in the shops, a kind of wrong turn. The first time I wandered in there I almost lost my lunch. It was not just the smell; it was the squishy ground and bloody aprons and the meat and seafood almost ready to fall off the slimy tables. I wondered when Jodi McGill, who took Kathy into just about every shop, bakery and grocery in the whole town didn’t take Kathy back there if such a place was just better left unsaid.

Outside of this wrong turn, the central market has a strange beauty. Walking through it this afternoon I smiled considering my delight in just being there. The stacks of produce, the shoes hanging all in a row, the heaps of dried fish, and, my favorite, the chaos of the entrance with its blaring music and deals being made by “traders.” The open area in the entrance, a kind of plaza, is like the Sam’s Club section. Here bulk is being offered.

Carrying a camera felt a bit intrusive. I wanted pictures, but this was life not a photo shoot or a tourist attraction. But then the calls went out. “Take me.” The digital camera ever proves a joy here as I just turn the camera around and the shop keepers smile and say “thank you.”

One of the small fish mongers asked that I not turn my photo of his shop into a “cartoon.” I still don’t know exactly what that means. When I showed him the photo of his fish in a can he seemed satisfied that this was not “cartoon” material.

My favorite though was a woman who wanted her picture taken as did her husband, but she didn’t know how to pose. After asking me to take her picture she just kept working.

Leaving the market with our bounty of vegetables, eggs, fruit, and two more dried twig brooms for Mr. Mpala, our groundskeeper, I felt like we had our store for the coming storm. Walking to the car the fellow with a very dirty rag who moves the dirt around on your car while you shop was just finishing. I gave him fifty kwatcha (thirty cents) and he was happy. So was I.

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