A Tambuku Parable
The ride from Chitimba to Mzuzu (it is very close madam, less than two
hours) takes six hours. We sit crammed into the back of a pick-up truck,
with 35 loud and cheerful Malawians. I am sitting at the very back, facing
the front, and every time the truck hits a bump (which is constantly), I am
thrown into the air and down again, my back slamming painfully against the
metal wall. I am flanked on either side by grinning men who perch
precariously on the back of the pick-up truck, seemingly unconcerned about
the fact that we are hurtling along a rough road and there is nothing
holding them in.
As people come and go, I am able to shift so that I am no longer so
dangerously close to the edge. I sit, first on a bag of grain, then on a
bag of green mangoes, and banter with a soccer team from Chikengawa. They have
just lost a game in Karonga, but that is only because the other team had the
home field advantage, of course. A gap-toothed white-haired man frowns and
mutters as person after person sits on his package of fish, wrapped in brown
paper. He glares at a boy and snatches the package out from beneath him,
holding it protectively on his lap for a moment before laying it down again,
right at my feet. The acrid smell of sweat and fish mingle, stinging my
eyes and nostrils.
We stop frequently and wait, wait, wait, until people begin to complain,
sometimes in English for the benefit of the mzungu: “Why do we delay?!?”
Then, with a sputter of the engine, the truck lurches forward and we are off
again. Every time we stop, the truck is surrounded by people selling
mangoes, fish, casava, bananas. Money and food exchange hands, and then
fruit is passed around the truck. Babies are also passed from person to
person, and first Anne and then I cradle baby David in our arms, and he
looks around with big black eyes.
People climb on and off the truck, dragging themselves into the cab, hanging
off the side, hopping off onto the dirt road. Anne exchanges riddles with
two men and a woman, who discuss each one in Chichewa. Scratchy Malawian
music blares from a radio balanced on an old woman’s knees.
“Tell us a story, one from Malawi,” Anne asks a young man sitting beside
her. During our trip, we have become collectors of stories, legends and
half-truths. A new story is a treasure to be recorded, tucked away, enjoyed
and shared. In a soft lilting voice, the young man tells a Tambuku parable:
A goat, a dog and a cow always take public transportation. One day, the
goat gets on the bus, and asks how much the fare is. “50 Kwacha”. But the
goat only has 30 Kwacha, and as soon as the bus stops, he jumps off and
bolts. When it is time for the dog to descend, he only has a 100 Kwacha
note. The man has no change, and there is no time to argue, so the dog
leaves without his change. When the cow leaves the bus, he has the right
change. He hands it to the man, and steps off to stand by the road. The
dog now realizes that the man has change for him, but the bus has already
left, and the dog chases it in vain.
Many years later, the goat, the dog
and the cow no longer take the bus. But still, whenever a bus passes, the
goat runs away, the dog chases after it, and the cow stands confidently by
the side of the road.
The bus is your life. What will you do? Will you run from responsibility,
will you chase after what could have been, or will you stand confidently and
know that you have met life’s challenges well and fairly?
I sit and smile, and make a silent pact with myself to always be a cow.
watch the sunset from the truck, and first one, then a thousand glittering
stars appear in the sky. Finally we arrive in Mzuzu, and three men hop off
the truck to help us with our bags. As they argue amongst themselves and
with the driver about the best place for us to stay and the best way to get
there, everyone in the truck reaches out to shake our hands and to wish us a
safe journey. A night watchman who works at the gas station where we are
stopped insists on escorting us to a guesthouse. (You are strangers. It is
dark. Come, I will escort you). Exhausted and aching, we gratefully accept
and follow him to warm, soft beds. The night is good.
About the Author
The travel bug bit Stephanie Lemieux at the tender age of two, during one of many family road trips. Since then, she’s studied in Brazil, fallen in love with Scotland, backpacked through Eastern Africa and worked for a non-profit organization in South Africa. She’s also travelled extensively in the US and in Canada, where there is – as her sister so eloquently put it – “a whole lot of damn trees”.