The Road

Dated: 11 Mar 18

Roads. Something so ordinary which we take for granted. They are there and always have been. Here that’s not the case, well not for tarmac roads anyway. Life ebbs and floods along their course. In the mornings and again in the afternoons, one of Africa’s great migrations takes place on a diurnal basis, the school run. Children in pristine uniforms fill the road and in the afternoon the tide turns and they back track along it’s course, dragging their feet and looking slightly more tired, slightly scruffier but hopefully a tad wiser. Schools line the roads and there are almost as many as there are churches of every denomination you can think of (and many that you can’t).

The road, and I say this singularly as normally the other roads are dirt not tar, is the life force of the region. People literally live their lives on and along side these great blemishes on the landscape. Their livelihood depends on it, be it selling charcoal, running the grocery shop, bike maintenance or mechanics. Each village or hamlet has a miller, the revolving din can be heard reverberating out of the shack which is flooded with a fine haze of flour issuing out on to the street in thin puffs. The women carry this fine sustenance in open buckets or dishes; one trip or nudge and it would go everywhere. I can barely carry a cup of tea without spilling it, let alone walking with one balanced on my noggin.

For children not in school it’s a playground. Mothers in the UK would have palpitations if they saw the kids lying in the busy road or dashing to and fro. Groups of what look like toddlers to me congregate and walk to school in little gaggles, always looking so shocked and wide eyed as the bearded white man speeds by; stranger danger. Those children not attending class drive herds of cattle which dwarf them or sit atop of a cart dragged by two begrudging bulls. Canes or stones are used to get these beasties on the move.

Bikes are the pack horses of Africa. 3500 BC, somewhere on the Kazakhstan steppe, horses were domesticated allowing, for the first time in history, for human to travel not only past their horizon but more importantly with speed and goods. Trade was born. In the modern day Africa bikes are fundamental to households. I would be interested to know what proportion of the GDP can be attributed to pedal powered trade.

They are constructed of sturdy stuff; steel racks with the addition of do it yourself wooden scaffolding supports three or four sacks of charcoal, and at up to 100kgs a pop it’s the equivalent of having the England front row planking across your bike. Live goats are strapped down and taken to market, or what looks like a small forest of logs towers over head. The ideal wife here is a skinny one. Yes, it’s an advantage if they are a good cook (sorry to stereotype – there are definite roles here) but being slim of waist is most desirable, for often your wife will sit on the bike rack with a child swaddled closely against her back with child number two standing on her knee or a large bucket full of flour or some other tradable.

I’m in my next country now and will soon be swinging north along the shores of Lake Malawi. My first night I stayed in a community health centre the village of Namitete in the west of the country. I quickly go about my usual routine of setting up the tent and prepping for tomorrow and just as the last peg slithers into the soil I’m offered to stay in the reception; just once I wish they would save me the charade of pitching camp if they intend on generously offering shelter. I’m directed to quite an exposed laundry room to clean up, with suds in my beard the sister spots me and almost twists my ear as she drags me to a shower, tutting to herself. Shower quickly turns to dinner, apparently I don’t scrub up to badly. Etwel, a male nurse and my room mate for the night, (I got upgraded) joins as well.

Before dinner, us boys sit chatting in reception, going over the usual topics when a squealing pig is manhandled past by four youths. Two at the front pulling and two raising its legs like its in a wheel barrow race. I hope that’s not on my account, and yet another reason why vegetarianism is an appealing option. To the horror of Etwel and the sister at dinner, ravenous, I get my hand stuck in as soon as I’m given a mountain of nshima with a sprinkling of inswa (flying ants). Silly me, I forgot about grace.

Etwel is one of the first people in the country to be studying optometry and returns to his original profession in his time off to put him through university. He’s an extremely likeable chap and has a great rapport with the patients. It’s a maternity unit so I’m glad I’m not kipping on the reception floor. There are multiple births most nights, which explains all the school children, and as I hit the hay at nine Etwel is mid delivery but has time to bid me goodnight. He was shook in the early hours for another birth.

Following my night on the maternity ward I B-line for the lake. Lake Malawi is to Malawians as machu picchu is to Peruvians. Its been described to me as the lake of stars. I was expecting to screech to a halt to take it in, perhaps I would marvel at its majesty and I would be inspired to spontaneously break into poetry, but you see no sonnet before you. Alas, it was a tad underwhelming; it resembled the sorry excuse for a pond my parents have in their back garden, albeit a tad grander in scale. I’m sure the streams of sweat stinging my eyes and the fact that the hills had sapped my will to live didn’t help.

I cant believe I complained about the kids in Zambia and their enthusiastic greetings. Here in Malawi they are the ‘give me money’ magpies. I can only assume they learn this in school as they all cut straight to the point. Institutionalised begging does not bode well for the educational system here. Fortunately, it’s just the younger ones and they seem to grow out of it. The sister told me that education is the only way to escape poverty here; do well in school and go to university or spend your life on the road or in the adjacent fields. A depressing thought to finish.

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