Archive for Journal
In the far distance a plume of white smoke rose lazily into the perfect blue sky. High above the cluster of thatched baked mud brick huts a single crow flapped steadily along. On the dusty ochre coloured land Chisomo stretched, leaned on his hand plough, and wiped the sweat from his brow. His digging implement, a spade on a long handle, which he swung like a pick, was polished smooth by years of hard use. Its design hadn’t changed much since the Iron Age. He watched the crow and took in the furrows he’d dug over the past weeks in preparation for planting his maize when the rains came next month.
On the un-surfaced rock strewn track that was designated a major route in Malawi he watched a lumbering truck dragging a huge cloud of dust. Squinting against the sun he tried to see if it was the long awaited fertiliser, promised weeks ago by the government. He was behind in his digging because he’d spent two nights sleeping by the government depot waiting to buy his allocation of fertiliser that never came.
Chisomo’s oldest son, Ernest, not content to wait for the slow turn of the seasons had trapped a flock of small brown birds in a net that dawn. Roasted over the embers of their cooking fire he put four on each skewer. Now, far away on the nearest surfaced road he was selling them to rich Malawian businessmen passing in their cars.
Stooping through the low doorway of their hut Lophina, Chisomo’s wife smiled briefly as she saw him standing on the dusty brown hillside. The younger girls had returned from the straggly woodland on the barren ground with huge stacks of firewood on their heads. The youngest dropped a bale of weeds bigger than she was. As the aroma of freshly torn up weeds wafted across their open compound their cow stirred, flicked her ears and tested the air. Lophina was grateful for the cow. The government had given her a loan to buy the calf and they regularly inspected it, gave advice and inoculated it. It was now probably their most valuable possession.
More than a kilometre away the river was getting drier by the day. Lophina looked for her eldest daughter, Rhoda, carrying her own weight in water on her head.
As the sun began to set, golden behind the rugged mountains, wisps of dust along the trails told of neighbours returning from the surfaced road where they sold their vegetables to people in buses and cars. The evening haze from cooking fires gently wafted up the valley settling the community in for the night.
The girls had lit the fire by the time Rhoda poured some water into the pot for their beans. As Lophina prepared their nsima, their maize porridge staple, Chisomo returned wearily to light hearted greetings. His misgivings about Ernest’s entrepreneurial venture were completely dispelled when Ernest returned with a live chicken and some sweet potatoes. It was a wonderfully happy evening.
Early morning sunlight filtered through fluttering leaves, played on the mosquito netting. Then birdsong entered my consciousness. More than one bird. Perhaps twenty different birds welcomed the new day. Only slowly did the absence of traffic noise register. It wasn’t a busy road, but at least two minibuses packed with local commuters from the nearby township should have passed. Silence, apart from the birds and a gentle rustling of the trees, could mean only one thing. Cars and trucks queued at the petrol stations, their drivers snoozing gently waiting for the petrol and diesel tankers to arrive. Some days the petrol drought lasted only a few hours. Yet there were stories of endless lines of static traffic stranded for weeks.
Our accommodation in Blantyre was set in delightful wooded gardens. Occasionally a monkey would dart through to rescue a wayward youngster as we relaxed over breakfast. The big steel gates swung open almost before we heard the company minivan. Waving from the window Arthur pulled up grinning broadly. “Just as well I put some petrol to one side.” He laughed triumphantly, the gap in his front teeth expanding his infectious smile.
We were in Malawi to advise a social enterprise how to set up a management consultancy. All of the Malawian consultants were graduates with management training but that didn’t mean they understood the pressures and disciplines needed to run a successful management consultancy.
Travelling around Malawi by local bus to deliver training on strategic planning was familiar ground. Like our experiences in Mali and Burkina Faso the trick was not to plan the bus journey. Of course the bus left late. Naturally we drove to the depot to get another bus, this one with a cracked windscreen and dodgy gears. The first breakdown was no surprise to anyone, nor the ingenious repairs with a bit of stiff wire. When we decamped in a remote rural village the passengers dispersed without a murmur to the comfortable shade of the trees. Intrigued children in ragged clothes paused in rolling bicycle wheel rims or dragging a stick through the dust to contemplate the new arrivals in their village. With a sharp knock from a locally procured hammer the brakes released and we clambered aboard. The generous timetable still allowed us to buy vegetables thrust through the bus windows, negotiate for delicious deep fried goat offal and for the men to relieve themselves behind crumbling mud brick walls. The women had more discrete but less salubrious mosquito invested outhouses.
Lake Malawi was a breathtaking blue, sparkling in the afternoon sun. David Livingston called it the lake of stars. Here we met Tione and Frank the leaders of the social enterprise, and would be consultants, to deliver the first part of their training. They were working with local agricultural communities in the hot dusty drought ridden centre of Malawi. It was just our good luck that the most convenient place to meet was on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in Africa.
Golden rays of the setting sun glistened on the scales of a handful of large butter fish balanced on the fisherman’s dugout canoe. Several people cast an expert eye on the catch and chatted to us about the fishing, the catch and the quality of meal that awaited the successful bidder. A sigh of disappointment flickered over the fisherman’s warm face and a breath of relief passed among the buyers when it was clear we were not bidding. Our presence would double the price as surely as the recent 50% devaluation of the local currency had cruelly slashed incomes.
As the sky deepened from blue to indigo, yellow weaver birds flew to their nests and the gentle evening birdsong ended the day.
Travel they say broadens the mind. Having lived and worked in Africa, South East Asia and India we were ready to accommodate almost any new culture, custom or belief. Then having travelled to the other side of the globe we pitched up in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here the scenery looked like our native Scotland. The friendly people we chatted to almost sounded Scottish. Their ancestors were Scottish. The buildings were decidedly Scottish. Even the statue of the poet Robert Burns in the city centre was identical to the statue in Dundee. The street names had a familiar sound and the baker shops were brim full of cakes, cookies and confections from the manual of Scottish home cooking. It was rather unsettling in a reassuring sort of way.
So we submerged ourselves in a culture so completely familiar that it felt that time had stood still and we were inhabiting the Scotland of our youth. Driving along country roads the hillsides and glens seemed to be places we knew well and we expected well remembered landmarks to emerge at corners, but of course they didn’t.
A trip on the Taieri Gorge railway refocussed us on the achievements of our Scottish ancestors who carved a living from the New Zealand soil. First cart roads had been dug across the hills. Then the railways blasted inland.
Protecting the natural harbour, the Otago peninsula was home to an amazing abundance of wildlife. Here we sneaked up on seal pups cavorting in rock pools whilst females suckled their young and aggressive males guarded the rocks. Struggling up improbably steep slopes large solidary yellow crested penguins clambered through long grass. Whilst at our feet tiny rare blue penguins regarded us warily as they peered out of their nesting burrows.
The highlight was to be the huge albatrosses. Rangers restricted the number of visitors to the protected colony to minimise the disturbance of the nesting birds. We’d been briefed on the huge wingspan and their ability to stay at sea for months on end. “It’s a wonderful sight to see parents gliding on huge wings to the nest sites,” Bob the ranger told us. “They seem to hang motionless in the strong winds that continuously buffet this promontory, come back at three.” So we did. “No birds flying today,” Bob reported, – “no wind.” Still we watched a bemused albatross sitting on a dummy egg. The real one was safely in an incubator. Mind you these were big birds, even sitting still on a nest.