Saturday, 8 March 2014

In which I reacquaint myself with Africa

‘I was reading the Book of Genesis last night, when I came across the words...’

If I had needed any confirmation that I was in Christian Africa rather than near godless Europe, it was contained in that conversation opener. The words were spoken, not by a local cleric or earnest missionary, but by the half-educated security guard as he leaned over the desk towards the hotel receptionist. So much, so unsurprising.

Having been away from the continent and the country for the best part of a year and a half, I have been constantly delighted by the once familiar. 

For example, the little groups of people walking for miles along country roads, here being viewed through a rather smeary windscreen..

The idiosyncratic and literal translation of local words and phrases:

‘How was the night?’ I was asked first thing in the morning. (Well, dark, long, quiet….)

‘It’s been raining,’ I said on another occasion, attempting some small talk.

‘Thank you,’ was the response.

And again: ‘Good morning,’ said I.

‘I’m fine,’ came the answer.

What else has amused and endeared? The complete absence of any proof reading, or any suggestion that it might be necessary, even on the most public of media.

‘I love my Lord Jesus, oh the holly one,’ sang the school girls on Malawian national television, not just once but for twenty subtitled verses or so. Did NO television producer even notice? Or perhaps they did but didn’t think that spelling mattered. But then, again, perhaps it doesn't, and the more anally retentive of us should just get used to it.

What else have I missed? The volcanic peaks thrusting through the plain, the Malawian equivalent of Arthur's Seat. The small traders on every street corner. The high-pitched howling of the dogs at night. 

Curious children peered at our vehicle when they saw my white face. 'A mzungu! A mzungu!' they cried. I haven't heard those words for a long time. If you stop the car or, even better, take out the camera, they cluster around excitedly.

I had forgotten quite how slow the pace of life was. Good when it gives time for chatting and neighbourliness, but infuriating when it involves failing to even glance at one's watch, no matter that most are the size of small dinner plates. Our first meeting started an hour late. Lunchtime stretched for an interminable two and a half hours. But then, food is important.

But what is new to me? My first words of Chichewa, perhaps: Kashi buku (cash book), a key phrase in the training on financial management which my colleagues were carrying out.

I have also not seen such an abundance of wild flowers since my childhood, nurtured by the precious rain. 

In the countryside around Dedza there were tall daisy-like flowers of every shade of pink from modest near white to salmon, lining the road - itself a familiar potholed red. Yellow and red dahlias were growing wild.

However, there are more serious reminders of how different our two continents are. The rainy season is coming to an end here…. And so is the food. For people in Malawi, most fresh food is seasonal. There is hunger out in the rural areas and stocks of maize are low. Indeed, the President and her entourage have been touring the affected regions distributing handouts. (And therein lies a story, of course, but not for this post.) The harvest will come in due course, but until then, people remain hungry.

No chance of the spoilt western visitor enjoying any of the much anticipated mangoes, melons and pineapples then. No, avocado and bananas are the only fruits – and, yes, I was offered a fruit salad that consisted of just that combination.  Indeed, I am banana-ed out. I think four a day is my limit. Even my fish came covered in bananas today. I was reduced to the prosperous ex-pat’s solution: over-priced supermarket apples imported from South Africa.

Nevertheless, despite its problems - and Malawi has many of these just now - it’s good to be back on the continent. And it’s also good to be writing the first post of an almost entirely new blog.

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