The Race to Mzuzu

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

“Please stand still,” the bored looking immigration officer pointed a gun at my head. It buzzed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Temperature test for Ebola,” she answered.

“Oh. Do I have it?”

“No. Go ahead.”

We were racing through the Malawian border post so as to reach Lilongwe by 5pm in order to catch the bus to Mzuzu. Travel in Malawi, however, turned out to be quite quick; somewhat dangerous, definitely, but certainly quick. For us, it was the country of minibus travel: cheap, dirty, packed to the brim, yet always space for more, reckless, rowdy.

“The routine was: the driver speeded, swerved, stopped, dropped one person, picked up two, sped away leaning on his horn. Whenever he stopped, there was always some element of petty quarrelling, someone with no money, someone asking him to wait, somebody yelling ‘Hey I’m walking here!’ Women pressed themselves against the minibus, offering peanuts and fruits … And when the driver began to go much too fast I wondered to myself again: why am I risking my life in an overcrowded and unsafe jalopy being driven by an incompetent boy?”

Paul Theroux is a master of descriptive travel writing, but I found myself disagreeing with his views on these ‘death traps’ in this instance: while he swears never to enter one again, I actually found them to be an entertaining and fair method of transportation. Firstly, unlike the usual taxis, where, as an mzungu, you always feel as though you’re getting ripped off, minibus taxis charge everyone the same equally cheap price, such that you know that you’re getting the same treatment as everyone else.

And while they are reckless, yes, there’s something rather quaint about speeding along pot-holed roads, bags packed on your laps, knee in another mans crotch while the armpit of another is several inches too close to your nose, the landscapes of Africa flashing on by. This is partly because I hate actually feeling like a tourist; despite my skin colour, I ignorantly wanted to be seen as an African travelling Africa, and I think this method of transportation helped achieve this, at least in my own eyes. Then again, I’m probably (definitely) just delusional, given the prevalence with which my accent slides into a British twang and constant sunburnt redness of my skin.

All that aside, we caught a ‘death trap’ from the Malawian border to Lilongwe at 3pm, having been told that the taxi should take 90 minutes to get there. Packed in the far corner, trying to stuff some dry biscuits into my mouth, I was able to twist my neck such that I had a good view of the passing scenery.

The dusty roadsides were of a darker red than that of Zambia, scuffed up by men strolling around with nothing to do on a weekday afternoon while the woman flashed all sorts interesting looking snacks at our pale faces. We stopped aplenty outside random village clusters of huts and brick houses, resulting in constant checks of my watch as we edged closer to 5pm. The background was lush, green and full, tall palm trees leering over trampled plants.

We passed a small school just off the main road, the classes of which were taking place outside: 3 groups of around 50/60 children each sat uniformly under different trees, which provided shade where a building would traditionally do so. To my intrigue, we also passed a number of seemingly spontaneous football pitches, with the most imaginatively makeshift posts – these consisted of basically anything they could find, from bent wooden sticks to piled bricks, bus stop signs to heaped clothes; the pitch was always red and dusty, without a single blade of grass, creating a tornado effect around whatever disorganised game was going on at the time.

We managed to make it to Lilongwe just after 4 30pm, but, as a further complication, it was rush hour in the city, the kind of which I had never seen before: it seemed to indicate a movement of not just hundreds of cars on the street but hundreds of people, tapping cars as if drums as they all walked by so as to assert the fact that they were going a hell of a lot quicker than your stationary vehicle. I was sure there was some sort of event or parade or protest going on; it was utterly manic, a head-spinning mass of pressed bodies in littered streets. It was loud and overwhelming.

The seconds continued to tick by as we started to contemplate the reality of having to spend the night here. The panic must have been evident on our faces, though, as we were soon informed that a local on the minibus, who lounged calmly in his cramped chair, was also catching the same bus. He said he’d take us to the right place, and his demeanour should have relaxed us, though we still fretted under the admittedly ridiculous assumption that the bus would leave on time, belying our, or maybe just my, attempts to blend in as a supposedly experienced African travelling through my home continent.

Predictably (how did we not foresee this?), the bus didn’t leave on time. As we finally clambered, sticky and hot, out the minibus taxi at just after 5pm, the bus stood in the centre of the bus station, where a station manager sat outside the main door taking payments and writing receipts. Thankfully, as we hoped to get to Nkhata Bay, on the shores of Lake Malawi, as soon as possible, it looked as though we could spend the night in Mzuzu, a short two-hour ride from the fabled resort.

As we got on the bus I called ahead to a backpackers in Mzuzu.

“Hello – do you have space for 3 tonight?”

“Uh, hi. Yes we do. What time?” A gruff European voice answered.

“Well we just got on the bus from Lilongwe. So we will be in Mzuzu around 11pm I think?” It wasn’t intended as a question but it certainly came out as one.

“Ha!” The European’s laugh echoed down the phone. “Are you on a local bus? I will see you closer to 2am…”

This didn’t fill me with hope, given that we’d been on the road constantly since the previous morning at 8am. “Oh,” I must’ve sounded disheartened. “Is that fine? Will someone be up?”

“Yes that’s fine, someone will be up to let you in,” I thanked the European, unable to place his accent just yet, and hung up.

Once settled on the bus, I learnt that the man next to me was called Aubrey Mugala, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture in Malawi. He was a well-dressed man in his 30s, softly spoken, incredibly friendly, and took as genuine an interest in me as I had in him.

He told me about the importance of farming in Malawi: it is a big part of their economy, and he “is trying to help farmers, and make their produce more sustainable.” It was interesting to hear his passion on the subject, and his excitement at the possibilities for the industry going forward: “as of next week Monday we will be handing out coupons to all the farmers, which take the form of subsidisation,” he told me, proudly.

He gave me the brief history of Malawi, from independence in 1964 to the depressingly typical African dictator story, and currently to the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party – “they are anything but democratic,” Aubrey laughed.

“Malawi is not going in the right direction. The economy is in trouble; donors have stopped helping us,” sadness was now tinged in Aubrey’s voice.

“But should you be relying on donors? Are they not just self-interested and self-serving?” I asked.

“Maybe. But we still need them. We are not strong enough and we don’t have the leadership to improve by ourselves. We still need help.”

It was a sad assertion resulting from a sad history that plagues many African countries. Earlier this year, Western donors froze aid worth around $150 million after Malawi’s government was hit by an all too familiar corruption scandal. Rather than kick them into gear, this only seems to have worsened the problems in the small country: as recently as November 19th, police in Malawi used tear gas on students and school pupils, including children ages less than 10, who were protesting against the government’s failure to pay their teachers. The sad reality indicted in this is that the protests themselves show an eagerness, a desperation even, from the younger generation to learn and enable a better future for themselves and their country; once again, the leaders let their people down through sheer single-mindedness and selfishness. “I want to go to the UK at some point,” showcasing the prevalence with which many Africans see a better life for themselves overseas. “But I have a farming degree, and that is not in demand there. It is more in demand in Botswana and South Africa. So we’ll see.”

Aubrey spoke further of the friendliness of Malawian people, a trait certainly reflected by him. He pointed out landmarks on the way, such as Parliament and the tobacco factory, and continually kept me updated as to how far away we were from Mzuzu. “Don’t worry, it is not all that far now,” he would say, affectionately.

Once we had reached Mzuzu, between 11pm and midnight, much to my delight, Aubrey asked for my notes journal. “I want to write down my name and address. In case you need it someday.” I thanked him, got off the bus (again, even at this time, accosted by taxi drivers) and that was that.

The promptness of the goodbye, and his last words to me (‘in case you need it some day’) got me thinking about all the people I have already met and the people I have yet to meet on this trip. How do you say goodbye? Too often I say “see you soon” in the full knowledge that I will never see them again. They are a travel memory, short and memorable if only in the pages of my scribbled journal, a story I can look back on but a face I will struggle to remember. Do I send a postcard? Would he even remember me? Or was his offer of ‘if you need it some day’ simply a showcase of good manners? The goodbyes were always too short and always too vague.

After choosing one lucky recipient to be our taxi driver (it is often a combination of our choosing one and them forcing themselves upon you), we arrived at Mzoozoozoo Backpackers, close to midnight, to quite a peculiar scene. An old rusty gate was rolled open, and we dragged our bags into a run-down reception to find three old codgers, an empty bottle of whiskey, plenty of empty beer bottles and a huge amount of cigarette smoke. This was obviously the most effective way of staying awake and awaiting lodgers, we thought to ourselves. As we walked in, surprised grumbles were made and chairs were scraped back, and we were asked if we wanted beers before any introductions were made (they soon realised that they’d in fact already run out of beers). Still, despite our desperate need of a lie-down and their clearly intoxicated state, we sat down for a chat.

We met Jim, old codger #1, in a wheelchair, and unable to speak much more than a mumble. He was Zimbabwe-born and South African-educated, before living in Zambia and then moving to Malawi, where he’s been for 24 years. He used to own Nkhata Lodge, a nearby backpackers, but was still in the area because “the bitch hasn’t paid me out yet.”

We met Nick, old codger #2, a UK-born ex-traveller who had himself settled in Malawi 20 years ago. He was probably the drunkest and therefore the most talkative of the lot, boasting about stories from South-East Asia, Africa, Australasia and South America, all of which he used to travel by hitchhiking and then working for food and accommodation. As we walked into Mzoozoozoo, Nick had greeted us by saying “you’re all animals now,” before flashing us a vicious grin. He owns the lodge on the less popular of the two islands on Lake Malawi, Chizumulu Island, and took a particular liking to Adi whom he swore at in Hebrew for a while. He settled in Malawi for its “simplicity and calmness.”

Jim and Nick were typical old codgers in that they spoke to each other through tired insults, none of which were subtle in any way, characteristic of two people who’d known each other for a very long, an awful amount of that time spent just in each other’s company waiting for lodgers to come across their hostels.

Finally, we met Gerard, old codger #3, who owned Mzoozoozoo and was certainly the quietest of the three. He was the owner of the gruff European voice to whom I had spoken to earlier on the phone, which turned out to be a Swiss accent, with which I am not particularly familiar. He has been in Malawi 16 years.

We made our excuses and went to bed, noting that we were the only ones staying at the hostel that night, and found Gerard in the reception again the next morning at breakfast, listening to the BBC on the radio and looking as gruff as his voice sounded. Here, we heard a little more of his background.

He had lived in Zimbabawe and Kenya after emigrating from Switzerland, but was chucked out of Mombasa when someone bribed an immigration officer to do so on account of drug-use and other offences (“bullshit” became his favourite word on this topic). From there, he moved to Malawi, taking over the ownership of Mzoozoozoo 14 years ago. We learnt that his wife and children, though I’m not entirely sure if she still is his wife, were back in Switzerland.

“I am leaving the zoo at the end of this year,” Gerard told us. “I decided yesterday. The rent is too high and business isn’t good enough, as you can probably see. You are the first customers I’ve had in a while, and there are too many employees.”

“So did you decide this before or after I called,” I laughed, trying to lighten the mood a little.

“Before,” he grunted, not a hint of humour in his tone. “I went to Switzerland for a year a while back because my father was dying, and a Korean lady called Joy looked after the zoo in the meantime. Now she has taken over Nkhata Lodge [I put two and two together and figured that she was the ‘bitch’ that hadn’t paid Jim out yet], and she has taken all the customers.”

When Benny asked about his marketing techniques, Gerard shrugged: “always relied on word of mouth, really.” It seemed that the age of technology had passed Gerard, along with Jim and Nick, without waiting for them to catch on. As such, Gerard’s Mzoozoozoo, as well as the hostels of the other two, had been left floundering in the dust.

In all, the impression I got was of a quiet, sad and lonely man in a quiet, sad and lonely hostel, for his lodge reflected his state: it was old and falling apart, and looked as though it had not changed a bit in the 14 years he had been here. The rooms were simple, not a bad thing, and it was cheap, but the buildings were cracked and in need of a paint job, and the interior needed revamping; it felt cold, uninviting, a stopover (like what we used it for) as opposed to a place where you could actually spend some time. It was hard to blame anyone but Gerard for the zoo’s demise: if you don’t put the effort in and refuse to keep up with the developing demands of the industry, then you will fall behind and business will turn south.

Gerard did perk up when he spoke of his post-Mzoozoozoo plans, though: he is building a house on candy beach on the shores of Lake Malawi, where he plans to grow fish eggs, which apparently sell at 150 Euros a kilogram. While he says it will be sad to leave the zoo, he says it is time to move on. It was a point that we all agreed on I think. With that, still before 10am and without much fanfare, we packed up our things and moved on out, heading, excitedly, for Lake Malawi and the promise of a few days relaxation.