Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Picture Worth 1000 Words

The bus is called the Country Commuter and, aside from the National Bus Line, it is the way that the majority of Malawians travel over long distances. Even if the bus passes only once a day, people will wait rather than take a passing minibus, knowing that the bus fare will be up to 100 kwatcha ($0.60) less.

The bus pulls into the depot and vendors flock to the sides. This is the Salima bus depot and the offerings are relatively meager: mostly foodstuffs hoisted to customers’ windows by outstretched arms and sticks. But, from the window of this same bus in the Lilongwe bus depot, a person can buy almost anything: cell phone units, kitchenware, shoes, purses, and even bras.

The man whose back is covering the CO is making a sale. It is conducted like this: The customer on the bus indicates what they wish to purchase and holds up the bill which they will be paying with. The vendor then searches for change, often running to find a friend with some money who he will pay back later. The vendor then offers up the change along with the item to be purchased. Then the customer pays. The system is there so that the customer, who is stuck on the bus, doesn’t get cheated by a vendor who absconds with their money. But I have found that vendors are often more honest than their prospective buyers; before I learned the correct order of a bus window transaction, one boy chased my departing bus through the station to deliver my 10 kwatcha change.

Most of the items for sale at this bus are food. Common traveling food includes hard boiled eggs with salt (one man I bought from had ingeniously individually twisted small packets of salt in newspaper), sodas, boiled or grilled corn on the cob, fried pockets stuffed with potatoes or meat, and various forms of fried dough, the most common of which is a slightly smaller than fisted-sized ball. The dough is mixed in 30-gallon plastic tubs by women who spend all day dropping balls of it into pots of boiling oil. Jesse and I call these doughy snacks “donuts” and I have been known to consume three or four over the course of a long bus ride. Eating donuts is always a bit risky- sometimes I end up with a tasty morsel to which someone has generously added sugar and other times I get a stale mouthful of grit from the side of the road.

Even knowing that the donut will be eaten right away, the vendors always serve their food in a little blue plastic bag (seen here on the donut stick farthest left) and always tie them in such a way to make reuse impossible. These bags are everywhere: stretching under the weight of nuclear hot chips, filled to the brim with tomatoes, rice, or beans, but mostly littering the side of every road and footpath. The importation of plastic baggies has done more for the pollution of the African continent than anything else.

The vendors all have something in common. Have you noticed? They’re all men. Rarely have I seen a girl or woman selling wares in bus depots even though it is the women who cook most of the wares.

The woman in orange is about to board this bus. She has already secured a seat and knowing that the bus will not leave for several more minutes, is not overly anxious to board, given the long hours seated that lie ahead. She is wearing her best dress, cut in the fashion of West Africa, a style only fifty years ago brought to Malawi. Ironically, this style of dress is now called “national wear” and every woman who can afford one owns one. The woman’s orange dress is new; the back zipper stills stays up.

Despite the prevalence of secondhand rejects sent by the bagful to Africa, clothing is astonishingly expensive. My students (who are from families who can afford education) generally own one or two nice outfits, their school uniform, and a few chitenjes. Young children walk around in an assortment of oversized and holey garments because it’s just too expensive to bother clothing them.

For example, let’s count shoes. In this photo, three people are wearing shoes, five are wearing sandals, and two are barefoot. Outside the gates of the bus depot the proportion of bare feet rises dramatically. Shoes are simply too expensive for most people to buy. Jesse recently had to purchase a new pair of tennis shoes, but after three days of scrounging the market with superior bargaining skills, was unable to find a pair of used shoes for less than $30. Clothing is just as bad. After rooting through a pile of shirts on a tarp on a dusty street, the price is still the same price as a thrift store in the United States.

There is no luggage storage below the bus. So where to put the bags? Usually the first row behind the driver is reserved for bags which are piled high with no regard for the order in which their owners will get off the bus. However, once the first row is technically full there is always room for a few more precarious parcels which usually end up toppling into the aisle. There is also a shelf over the seats which some brilliant engineer designed so that a sharp curve will land the contents on the head of the person sitting in the aisle seat. On every bus there’s always an older lady who is determined to shove her burgeoning chitenje-wrapped basket onto this narrow shelf. But, no matter who gets on the bus or what they are traveling with, space is always found.

So that’s the bus depot. You can see deep blues and hot pinks, fancy dresses and undistinguishable rags, babies and crones, teachers, rappers, and feather-clad lunatics, just by sitting on the cement bench of the depot for a day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scene At A Distance

I have a feeling that my impressions of Malawi are warped by the fact that I live next to a tarred road. Most roads in Malawi are dirt roads and most dirt roads are actually little more than bicycle and foot paths from one village to the next. This becomes obvious as soon as one gains a little elevation and is able to look down on the crisscrossing web of traces laid down between thatched roofs and fields.

This time of year there are no leaves, except in those few places lucky enough to be tended by a man and a watering hose. Now that the pesky vegetation is out of the way, I can see all of the villages that were hiding behind the corn fields and bushes that line the road. Wanting to get a sense of how many people actually lived in our little lake-side neighborhood, Jesse and I set out to hike to the top of the highest point in the area before the temperature climbed too much higher.

Maldeco Hill, as we have been calling the 500 foot mound just north of our favorite little town, had what looked like path weaving up the side inviting Jesse and I to take a jaunt to the top for a view. We set off the main road, walking over packed dirt between mud huts seemingly set down at random angles. Some huts were appended by grass thatch fences which almost gave privacy to chitenje-clad women working to hang their laundry or cook an early meal. Other huts sat exposed in the middle of the road, with children lounging in the shade of narrow porches.

Our trespassing produced a few “azungu, halloo!”s and “giva me money”s, but not nearly as many as usual when we venture on foot. Several times we have been followed by a gradually growing entourage of 3-to-4-foot munchkins, who I have tried to dissuade by whirling suddenly and chasing them (which exacerbates the problem) or ignoring them (doesn’t work- we’re still so much more interesting than anything else happening). However, now that my Chichewa is better I’ve found that a combination of “musatsate!” (don’t follow!), “pitani kunyumba” (go home), and in desperate situations, “CHOKA!” (piss off!) will work every time.

Usually the kids are just looking for something to do. A wave hello, an exchange of greetings, or a short game is what they're looking for even though the request always comes out as “give me money”. I’ve appeased the begging boys in front of Peoples grocery by letting them play with my bicycle helmet. However, on a recent outing to visit a nearby resort, one little boy resorted to a money-getting tactic that I had not yet seen in Malawi. At the urging of his friends who hung back in the shade of their house, an 8-year-old boy approached the side of the dirt road as Jesse and I were walking by his house. He immediately started limping excessively and, with a poorly hidden grin curling the side of his lips, began saying, “ndidwala, ndidwala” (I’m sick, I’m sick). Obviously a hoax. I decided to show him that we were no ordinary passing white tourists. Hands on my hips I whirled around, bent down and made as if to chase him, growling, “Bodza!” (a lie!). He ran squealing back to his friends, leg miraculously cured. He didn’t managed to swindle us out of a few kwatcha, but I think he got what he was looking for, a little interaction with the foreigners.

On our way through the village surrounding the base of Maldeco Hill, we encountered neither disabled boys nor crowds of followers, only a few women gathered at the water pump who gave us curious stares as we passed. When we reached the base of the hill we were greeted by an incongruous artifact. The path up the side of the hill which we had spied from the tarred road, had resolved itself into beautiful white cement sidewalk set at an angle up the hill which no ADA regulation would ever deem acceptable. It even had standard sized curbs, an almost obscene waste of cement in a country where it is so expensive that only the government and NGO’s can afford to build with it.

From behind us I heard a shrill cry, “azungu!” Turning around, I saw the little girl who had yelled at us. She continued to yell, but didn’t come any closer, so not knowing what she wanted, Jesse and I continued up the hill. Her yells became louder and more detailed, but still completely unintelligible. Her concern was so earnest that my mind began to make up scenarios in which we were climbing the forbidden hill and upon returning would find ourselves chastised by the village chief or accused of witchcraft. After voicing these concerns to Jesse, his logical reply was, “Yeah, but then why would they build a cement path up to a secret ritual site.”

Still puzzled by the existence of our walking path, Jesse and I debated its origin as we began our hike up the sidewalk. “Looks like the government had some aid money that they didn’t know what to do with.” I said, while the little girl still carried on in the background.

“Possibly, but I think it was built by some NGO committed to improving public access to wilderness,” Jesse replied.

“In Maldeco?” I gestured to all of the surrounding huts, “Hardly wilderness, but I guess there are still some trees here. No, I think it’s a path in commemoration of some volunteer who died of malaria and used to love to climb this hill.”

No, Jesse and I have not become at all jaded about the use of aid money in this country. We finally reached the top to be greeted by a beautiful view and at least a partial explanation of the cement walkway. Two cell towers sat perched atop the hill and the path led right to the gate. Zain (the African cell carrier) had built the path, but with the existence of a perfectly serviceable road (which we followed on the way down) we still had no idea why they had wasted so much money on a cement sidewalk.

The view from the top was fantastic. On one side, the cliff plunged into the brilliant blue of Lake Malawi, dotted with fishing boats and lined by an undulating white sand beach. On the other, the shore was covered by a kilometer-wide swath of huts and gardens, giving a staggering view of the population density along the lakeshore. Behind the layer of human habitation ran a carpet of monotonous greenery (which we later learned was a tree plantation) and behind that rose a line of low mountains waiting for Jesse and I to explore. The dry season was starkly evident from this pseudo-aerial view. Every surface: bushes, trees, and huts were brown, as if they had risen fully-formed from the dust which surrounded them. Baobabs clawed their naked branches against the sky, but their magnificent size was made comically small from our viewpoint atop the hill. I was astonished by the number of Baobabs dotting the spaces between huts. Walking along the road I never realized that these trees made up the majority of trees growing in this area.

Sometimes, I get wrapped up in school, looking at the faces I know, passing the shops and huts on the side of the road that all are so familiar now. I forget to distance myself and look at my surroundings as the outsider that I am. It’s scenes like the view from the top of Maldeco Hill, seen at a distance and appreciated as a whole, that remind me over and over that, yes, I am in Africa. But, the hills stretching away from the tarred road and the paths leading back to unseen villages also remind me that my experience is only a small sample of what life here can be.