Zambia deposited me at Chipata and gave me a parting gift of thieving moneychangers, the parasites that they are. Tired and with a mind elsewhere I went to change 20 Zambian Kwatcha (AUD$3) into 2,100 Malawian Kwatcha. One fixer changed the money whilst his friends distracted me with questions about the bike.
The guy gave me 210 Malawi Kwatcha (AUD$0.50), effectively ‘forgetting’ a zero and we said our goodbyes. Gone were the easy days of dividing sums by ten and seven. I lost a pittance in hindsight, but my dented pride was pathetically worth much more. My maths would have to improve in a country where I have to divide everything by 527.
From the sparseness of Zambia, Malawi was a breath of fresh air that filled the lungs with an eagerness of zigzagging through a country known as ‘the warm heart of Africa’. I was sceptical about a phrase mostly quoted by lazy travel writers, and my first impressions had me wondering. It was hard to imagine what’s warm and welcoming about hundreds of children as young as three outstretching their hand for money and shouting ‘give me’, but the more I stayed in the country the more I liked it. I concluded that kids are kids. Back home they graffiti trains and throw rocks onto expressways. In Malawi they beg. After a day of constant begging I became tone deaf to their abrupt demands, substituting them into something more pleasurable that in my own mind would see me get less frustrated (see below).
Give me money!! = Top of the morning to you young sir
Give me your bike!!! = Wow, you are travelling the most noble of ways. Chapeau!
Fuck you = I love you
The first night I arrived in a small village unannounced, smelling of sweat and seeking permission from the local headmaster to sleep in the school. Fifty children soon amassed, cajoling me to the headmaster’s house where I was hastily refused permission.
Gasper made me sleep in his home.
I set my tent up in the backyard as Gasper’s wife heated water over a fire for bathing. He then helped me erect my tent and we sat underneath a tree talking about life in Malawi. After noticing some caged pigeons in the distance I asked if they were pets? I swear he laughed for a good fifteen seconds.
‘No these are for eating. Do you eat pigeons in your country?’’, he asked.
After explaining that plagues of pigeons roam freely around my CBD without fear of being served for dinner, Gasper looked bemused, if a little shocked.
‘So there is free food everywhere and no one eats it?’ he genuinely asked.
‘Correct’, I replied.
His ear piercing laugh, knee slapping and subsequent translation to his wife suggested this anecdote was just another example of white people doing strange things.
‘Ahhhhhhhh Mzungu ”, he said softly before chuckling again.
I went to bed with a full stomach thanks to Gasper’s wife and rode out the next morning ready to repeat another day in the saddle.
I turned my wheels north in the direction of Tanzania, realising that there were no more diversions or meandering lines, rather a more progressive direction to Cairo. Cycling became more purposeful, more directed and more enjoyable as I passed through the rural countryside, fielding constant shouts of Mzungu from literally thousands of children enjoying their school holidays.
The roads were surprisingly empty from motorised transport and my bicycle brethren and I enjoyed a cycling nirvana rarely experienced in Africa. Subsistence farmers dotted the landscape and sold their produce by the road. Women wore bright clothing and gave the biggest smiles whilst simultaneously balancing large loads, consisting of everything from firewood to a satellite dish.
Everyone was happy and relaxed.
I entered another village just before dusk and spoke with the chief. Expecting to be the first foreigner staying here – literally in the middle of nowhere – I was surprised to find out six years ago,, two men spent a few months here. The chief quickly scurried off and returned with a photocopy of a passport of one of the visitors. I saw an elderly white male from Texas who reeked of missionary motives. Colonialism again, I thought.
Conversations continued later that evening and whilst grilling goat back straps on a fire Isaac asked, ‘Andrew, why are you always staring into the fire?’
I tried explaining the mysticism that often arises when looking at one of human’s greatest discoveries, and how that a simple flame can lift your spirits, or take you to another place. But this fell on deaf ears, as my companions didn’t quite ‘get it’; completely understandable for a community that uses fire like we use our smartphones.
What was of more interest to the village was how I was inconceivably 28 without a wife, a small army of children and a house. They began to sound like my mother. I asked Isaac why Malawian’s have such large families and he emptily responded that many children ‘don’t live very old’, suggesting perhaps he has personally felt the pain of losing a child. The child mortality rate of Malawi fell gradually from 347.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1967 to 55.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016.