The border crossing into Malawi was, thankfully, uneventful. Immediately, it became apparent that the few bicycles we’d started seeing in southern Tanzania were probably evidence of the Malawian influence, because the roads were suddenly full of people riding along on anything from old penny farthings (OK, I exaggerate, but they were very clapped-out looking old bikes) to newer mountain bikes with knobbly tyres. We’ve had one or two close encounters of the unwanted kind with these bicycle riders. As Glyn puts it: ‘Lots of bicycles, not a lot of balance!’ One young chap was riding along, hands folded over his chest, clearly miles away and deep in thought. I reckon it was the sound of the bike that stirred him from his revery, and when it did, he got the fright of his life. First he swerved left, then right, then he did a wiggle that I can’t describe; all while Glyn tried to respond accordingly and aim his motorbike where the bicycle wasn’t. It was a close call, but he made it, and I was there to see the boy’s face which, if he’d have been white, would have been ashen as the driven snow!
Another of the hazards on the road has been the copious amounts of mangoes which are grown, sold and consumed in this country. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ripe mango. I’m particularly partial to dried mango, as colleagues back home probably know. But I prefer my mango on a plate, or in my hand. Not all over the road. It’s amazingly slippery stuff, so we have both been riding with eyes on stalks here, trying to avoid both the unripe green ones which lie, whole, on the road, and the pips and skins that are discarded near to the stalls where people throng to buy and sell them.
Another feature of riding through Malawi are the number of indicators that the country is experiencing an AIDS pandemic. It’s not been noticeable in any other country that we’ve ridden through so far, but here there are signs everywhere, if you care to notice them. Firstly, there’re the many orphanages signposted along the road. Then there are the signs for carpenters and joiners whose first choice of product to advertise is the coffin! I find this really weird. But we see them everywhere. And some have names that make you want to laugh even as you’re feeling deeply moved inside by the implication of the proliferation of these roadside vendors. Signs like ‘Comfort Coffin Carpentry’ and ‘Heaven Bound Coffin Makers’ I find both funny and poignant in the extreme.
Aid agencies, not working in the health sector, also clearly abound here. I’ve seen more than 20 signs for a Farm Income Diversification Programme, acronymised to FIDP, which is being supported (presumably funded) by the EU. It’s the EU flag that catches my eye every time. Cynically, I have to wonder how much the signs all cost and whether or not the money couldn’t be put to better use on the actual project; but I guess I’d never have known about it if they weren’t there. More cynically, I really want to know what motive the EU has for encouraging Malawians to have piggeries! I may be looking for devils where there are none, but after hearing that the Japs sponsored the Valley of the Kings visitors’ centre in Egypt just to get the Egyptian vote for whaling, and asking myself why the Chinese are being so kind as to build Ethiopia’s roads, I just can’t help myself. It’s a fascinating world we live in, that’s for sure!
On the plus side, we made it to Lake Malawi! This has been one of my must-sees for a while now, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped that we stayed a whole day longer than planned, in a lovely lakeside beach hut which would not pass any kind of health and safety inspection in the UK, but was perfectly adequate for our needs. The gaps in the reeds which made up the walls and roof were actually quite welcome, as the midday heat is quite intense and they allowed what little breeze there was to come through into the room.
That was at Nkhata Bay, in the north of the country. We also stayed in the south, at Senga Bay, where we opted to sleep in the tent. It was equally as hot here though, which probably contributed to the build up of a terrific thunderstorm which hit that evening. Accompanied by bright flashes and very loud thunderclaps, some of which made you jump involuntarily, the deluge was something to behold. Sadly, the little tent has seen better days, and it leaked a bit, which didn’t help us settle in for the night. But as with many African thunderstorms, almost as soon as it started it was over and we finally got to sleep with the sound of water dripping off the branches of the tree above us and plopping onto the canvas.
As you might imagine, we have enjoyed a number of lovely beach walks. What I’ve particularly enjoyed has been seeing the locals carrying on with their daily business on the lake shore – fishing with lines and nets, cleaning pots and pans with the sand from the beach, sitting atop some of the rocky islands offshore and washing clothes in the natural cavities there; all of these have been intriguing to watch from a distance and savour as examples of Africans using the resources to hand as a means of existence. Also, as Glyn always reminds me, it always feels more relaxing to be at rest when someone else is working. He’s usually referring to hearing a lawn mower or people playing cricket while you laze on the grass on a hot summer’s afternoon; but I had the same sensation here and have thoroughly enjoyed it.