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Malawi Beginnings – Blantyre, Malawi

Malawi Beginnings
Blantyre, South Malawi

Before landing on the Blantyre Jetport tarmac in Malawi, my travel belt displayed only first world notches: England, Italy, Germany, New Zealand. I barely remembered the bustle of the Bahamas and the waterfalls of Puerto Rico from childhood trips. In short, I was a greenhorn; or as some people have it, spoiled.

I would not be tagged as such, however, so I planned my 2002 trip to Malawi with an irrational amount of care. I knew continental weather patterns. I bought batteries. I printed out map after map. I bought my ticket 10 months in advance. I packed for a month long trip in one little black rolling suitcase that I could pick up and carry if I had to, and a small backpack. Hours were spent rearranging. Items were tossed aside when priorities changed, often due to burgeoning knowledge of weather patterns: my flashlight was replaced by a bottle of sunscreen. A sweater took the place of three T-shirts. Socks were mostly abandoned. Film became a priority, and thus the Tylenol supply was reduced. I was vaccinated completely, and when a power outage compromised my refrigerated oral typhoid vaccine, I repeated the entire course just in case. My medicine chest was a triumph: prophylactics, antibiotics, pain killers, sleep aids, large tubes of steroid creams, gauze, medical tape, the works.

My first trip to Malawi was not quite what I had expected -- and that's a compliment
My first trip to Malawi was not quite what I had expected — and that’s a compliment
The friend whom I was visiting, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed at a mission in southern Malawi, emailed me the day before I left. I paused between re-rolling pairs of underwear to read the short message: BRING CHOCOLATE AND A BOTTLE OF NICE SCOTCH FOR THE PRIESTS. I ran to the drug store, bought three boxes of Hershey bars and a box of Ziploc freezer bags to pack them in. At the closest liquor store, I discovered that their bottles of nice scotch only came in large portions. No problem. After all, the email said “priests,” plural, so more was probably better. I’d just have to make room. Back home, two skirts, three notebooks, a fistful of pens, a small photo album, my jar of Aveda pomade, and a swimsuit were all removed to make room for the new booty. It was zipper-pop tight, so I reduced the size of the towel I was told to bring from bath to dish. Finally everything fit comfortably, and I could carry it all at once without groaning.

My flight left JFK at a comfortable 10:00 a.m. I was at the airport by 7:30, so I checked in, got a window seat, had both bags swabbed for plastic explosives, and still had 2 hours to kill. I called my mother, my brother, a cousin, and three friends to say goodbye. I was starting to get nervous and also slightly weepy. What if this was to be the final time I set foot on my home soil? What would I remember? Who would remember me? Fifteen minutes of similarly paranoid thoughts. I watched airport CNN and stared at my fellow passengers. Who were they? Why were they going to Africa? One man was dressed as though his safari vehicle would be meeting the plane: khaki cargo shorts, khaki vest with numerous pockets, belt with some kind of teeth on it, Crocodile Dundee hat, English accent. I was intrigued. Do all white people dress like that in Africa? How did the English ever manage to colonize Africa? More silly thoughts, then the first boarding call.

I wish I could tell you more about what it feels like to fly 20 hours straight, but I don’t remember much of it. I had great hopes of beginning my first novel. Instead, I read the fifth Harry Potter book for several hours and then slept the rest of the time, thanks to my superior planning and advanced medicine supply. Looking back, I really prefer it that way. If I had had more time to form preconceived notions about what the world would look like when I finally deplaned in Blantyre, I might have turned around in Johannesburg and flown right back home.

Blantyre was a three-hour flight from Joburg, and the entire trip was very sunny. I think it was a morning flight, but I can’t be sure. After 28 hours of traveling, I had no idea what day it was, much less an accurate sense of time. When the flight attendant told us to prepare for landing, I glued myself to the window for my first glimpses of Malawian soil. I had an image in my mind from online photos: tall, golden grasses, elephants moving in herds, rivers filled with hippos, huts.

It’s not that I didn’t see any of that. I did, after a week or two. But my first impression of Blantyre was that it looked just like the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. Red clay as far as the eye could see, scrubby brush, paved roads, stores. What??

The plane parked parallel to the terminal. I didn’t get a clear view of the airport until I stepped outside and climbed down the wobbly stairs to solid ground. The building was white stucco, paint peeling. Grass in the cracks on the runway. I saw motion and looked up. On the roof of the airport, hundreds of people (these were Africans!) were waving to us. A row of little girls in front all had on pink dresses. I did a quick calculation. Maybe… fifty people on the plane? And they were mostly white people, which in my struggling, weary mind made family connections seem illogical. What were all those people doing up there? OK, I was definitely not in Georgia.

I went through customs, which turned out to be a doorway with a sign saying “Customs” hanging over it, and went over to the baggage claim area. There were ten thousand bags everywhere, of every color, shape, size, and brand. We had to climb over and pick our way around them. I will never know why they were all there, because immediately a man was directing us to another doorway. “Go get your bags,” he said, pointing out to the doorway. We crossed through and found ourselves back on the runway beside the plane. We trudged over to its open belly and waited for the men unloading it to drop our bags out onto the concrete below. Good thing I bubble-wrapped that scotch.

My friend met me in the front hall after I had dusted off my bags and found my way outside. After a cheerful greeting, exclamations of “that’s all you brought!?” (I swelled with pride), and general movement toward the parking lot, I asked her what the people were doing on the roof. “Oh, people like to come watch the planes land. They dress up and everything. It’s a big deal.” The first thing I learned about Malawi is that technology is viewed as borderline miraculous, something to be celebrated.

Father Owen, one of the mission’s priests, was waiting for us in a faded red Toyota pick-up truck. My friend introduced me by name, which was met with politeness, and then with the tag “the girl who brought the scotch,” which was met with unmistakable joy. Owen was a rugged Scotsman with bright blue eyes and a wicked sense of humor. The first thing he did after we piled into the truck was prank me.

“Ya see all those women by the side of the road in yellow shirts?”

Indeed, I saw many women in yellow shirts lining the airport exit ramp.

“Your friend ‘n I arranged for them to come welcome you to Malawi.”

“Really??” I gasped. “Wow, what a wonderful surprise! How thoughtful of you.”

The second thing I learned about Malawi was that ex-patriots spend far too much time dreaming up ways to make fun of the naïve and uninitiated.

My friend poked me. “Not really. The yellow shirts show the women’s support for the current political party. The presidential election’s coming up next month.”

Oh.

The first place I visited in Blantyre was a strip mall. I kid you not. There is one strip mall in Malawi, and it happened to be my first local sight. On the way from the airport to the commercial part of town, I noticed a huge billboard by the side of the road. The chunky face of an African man in a rust-colored suit towered over me. “President Muluzi warns you about the AIDS virus! Be safe!” the sign screamed. This puzzled me. I thought AIDS was spreading so rapidly because of a lack of education, or a refusal to confront the problem; but this billboard seemed to contradict all those Economist articles I’d read. I was later to understand that the AIDS situation in Malawi was much more complicated than I had thought from my Western perch.

We had pizza and beer for lunch at Ali Baba’s Pizzeria, and then we went grocery shopping at the adjacent Shop-Rite, Malawi’s only grocery chain. The grocery store was cool, organized, and offered impressive variety. The cans on the shelves were stacked impeccably straight. When I took one down, a man ran up behind me to reshuffle the rest back into a perfectly smooth facade. Lesson three: Malawians like straight rows.

Thus far, Malawi didn’t seem so unfamiliar. In fact, if I had left that day, I would have returned home thinking that Blantyre was a lot like the Atlanta suburbs after all. As it turns out, Blantyre is unique. Malawi has other cities, of course, like Lilongwe and Mzuzu; but no other area in the country is as commercially developed. Most grocery shopping is done at roadside markets; most food is cooked over open fires; pizza is altogether absent from the local diet. My first impression of Malawi was, looking back, highly abnormal. But it did give me enough confidence to be hopeful. A lot is possible there, even though so much of the country is incredibly poor.

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