Africa 201


News: I am scheduled for an eight-day trip to the most remote villages, beginning tomorrow.  These two villages do not yet have choirs, so we will be starting together from scratch.  I may or may not be away for the full eight days. This seems like a good entry to leave up for a time.  After this trip I will have visited all the villages in the Manda Wilderness, though I still have one choir left to see: ironically the one closest to the lodge, Mala, which had to reschedule due to school conflicts.

JUNE 11: This day began early, with the slow boat Miss Nkwichi leaving the lodge at 5:30.  Supplies were arriving from Lichinga, so the boatmen would need to use the large boat in order to bring the fourteen car batteries used for solar power at the office as well as all other groceries and office supplies.  All these will have to be transported by hand from the truck at the top of the hill to the boat at the bottom.

There was a big windstorm last night (the dreaded kumwera wind), and the waves were extremely high.  At one point, the boat crested an eight-foot wave and plummeted.  I knew the boatmen were experienced, but I had to turn to them and make a slack-jawed expression as a “joke.”  They laughed hard, and I figured if it didn’t bother them, it shouldn’t bother me.  I was just grateful I don’t get seasick.

We picked up my guide for the day, Mr. Marcos, in Utonga.  Marcos is traveling with us because with the length of time and distance of this trip we have many supplies and need an extra person and backpack.  It will be interesting because of his part of the language “triangle” here.  The lingua francas here are Nyanja, English and Portuguese, but it seems nobody speaks all three – only two at most.  Thus it is that I speak English and beginner-intermediate Nyanja, but extremely limited Portuguese.  Marcos, on the other hand, speaks Nyanja and Portuguese, but extremely limited English.  This is how it goes here, and one switches languages seemingly at random, but actually based on a complicated system based on location (English is more prevalent on the lakeshore but nearly absent inland), race (almost nobody speaks Nyanja to me upon first greeting) and age (children learn Portuguese in school but only by rote and with limited understanding).  It doesn’t take long to get the hang of the whole affair, but this is the first time I will be traveling for a while with a companion who does not have much of the English side of the triangle.  It should be interesting.

From Utonga, the lake inexplicably calms down – the lake is notoriously fickle like that.  We dock at Cobué at approximately 7.  Because the boat will be there the whole day as they wait for the supplies to arrive, they put anchor at a different spot than usual, a rocky shallow with no natural docking point close to shore.  We have to jump in and wade to shore.  I am glad I packed my sandals so I could wait for my feet to dry before I put on my hiking boots.

From the shore, we hike uphill to the waiting spot for the chapa.  Chapas here are the size of box trucks but with a pickup truck bed in the back.  This back area is where the cargo is carefully placed and the people get in as best they can.  The waiting spot is just outside the porch where I have watched the two tailors working so many times before, but their store is not open yet this morning.  There are many people sitting at the porch, so I grow a bit nervous as to how many of us will be in the chapa.  After waiting an hour, the truck pulls up.  As it turns out, many people are simply there to make cargo transfers or just to gossip.  Once people coming from points north unload from the truck, a very few people put cargo in, including one man who throws in a backpack with a live chicken tied to it.  I am feeling lucky at the paucity of passengers!  Our backpacks are whisked away, but I am told the chapa won’t be leaving for a while, so there is no sense our getting in at the moment.

Marcos and I have some errands to run in town anyway.  The Farm at Nkwichi will be having a luncheon for staff and volunteers this coming Sunday, and Lily has asked us to pick up what we can from 2 kilograms of rice, a kilogram of beans, a half kilogram of salt, onions, and five green tomatoes to ripen over the week.  We are also to look for cornhusks [gaga] that serve as supplemental chicken feed in the region.  Gaga is a very rare and valuable commodity this time of year, and rumor had it that there was a large supply in Cobué at the moment.  As it turns out, rumor was mistaken. 

Next errand.  Marcos understood that we needed onions, but there were no onions at the market.  I also mentioned matimati [tomatoes], but he did not seem to understand me and was not looking for those.  It was just as well, as I could see there weren’t any.  Many stores were still closed, but we did find a vendor who had rice, though nowhere near as luxurious an amount as two kilograms.  We cleaned him out of rice and beans, and he charged us 160 meticais.  Lily had given me money, but unfortunately the lodge only had a 1000 meticais note (about thirty dollars).  I knew trouble was coming when I handed that over.  “Pepani" [Sorry!]  I said.  Ah, no problem, he assured me, but he and his family could be heard scouring the house to find money for change.  We had already wiped him out of rice; were we going to take all his change, too?  He brought back part of the change while the family continued to look for the rest, so Marcos took the change we had to go and get the tomatoes.  I had to explain that they should be green tomatoes, but I had forgotten how to say “green” in Nyanja (some colors are verbs, and green is one of them: “to be green,” which must then agree with whichever of the sixteen possible noun types and numbers is relevant), and I didn’t know the Portuguese word for  “tomato.”  I would just have to resort to PortuNyanja: “matimati verdes!” I called out as he disappeared into another store.  My vendor soon returned with the change: no meticais, only kwacha.  Shortly thereafter, Marcos came back… with five cans of tomato paste.  I had no idea how to explain what we had actually needed or how much, so I gave up.  Maybe somebody at the lodge needed tomato paste.  We gave our goods to the boatmen to take back with the rest of the supplies.

While we were running errands, the chapa had gone to Julius’ beach and had come back with many bags of rice in the back.  These are fine as places to sit, so that seemed well and good.  As we came back up to the tailors’, the chapa went down the hill where we had just been and pulled up near a different store.  Here they got some more unwieldy cargo of unknown items covered in tarps.  Now it lumbered back up the hill and seemed ready for passengers.

At that moment, people began appearing as if from nowhere, thrusting items up toward the man who was packing the chapa.  He had a rope dividing the back into halves, and he was putting all the cargo in the back.  Clearly the front was going to be for passengers.  I began to panic.  More rice bags, large sacks of clothes, suitcases, a head- and footboard for a bed, all these and more got loaded and re-loaded.  I was very relieved to see that our backpacks always made their way back to the top of the pile, since of course my pack had my solar collector inside it, as well as my iPad, tucked inside the solar bag for some protection.

Next, it was time for all of us to get in.  I do mean all of us!  Three women with their babies took the floor bed, as did an older man who must have been at least seventy-five and as thin as a rail, dressed up in an old suit complete with bright purple shirt and a tie.  The floor bed seemed to be the place for women, infants and the elderly.  One of the women with a baby also had her own grandmother of about seventy gripping her arm tightly, a chitenje covering her face either from fear or to avoid carsickness.  She would stay in that exact position for the duration of the ride.  The men then began to climb on, all avoiding the cargo area as much as possible, sticking their feet into the floor bed under the women but sitting on the sides of the truck or carefully on the edges of the rice bags.  I was sitting on the edge of the truck on the driver’s (right hand) side. Last to arrive was one of the few overweight people I have witnessed here, a middle-aged woman who wedged herself into the very center of the floor bed.  The other women pulled their knees up and the men including me simply allowed her to sit on our feet. She had to endure a few mildly disrespectful joking comments, which she simply chose to ignore. There were twenty-three of us jammed into an area half the size of a small box truck.  Just as the chapa was leaving town, two more fishermen jumped on the back and climbed in to make twenty-five in all.  There was no place for them but the cargo area.  One man took a large plastic bag of usipa [a small fish like a sardine that is dried and then eaten whole] and set it right on top of my backpack.  Then he put his feet on it, though not his weight.  Around 9 o’clock, the driver honked and restarted the engine.

With that, we lurched forward.  The first part of the “road” from Cobué is potholed and rocky.  Bridges sometimes are at the same level as the rest of the road, sometimes not.  The drivers speed up to almost 40 miles an hour when the road allows, then slam on the brakes when they come upon a bridge, large pothole or stray chicken or goat.  It is not possible to look forward around all the people to anticipate when these sudden changes in speed might happen; we simply slide into each other from side to side, back and forth.  I gripped the edge of the truck with one hand, and the man next to me threw his arm around me to steady himself. I was happy with this because it made me feel less likely to fall off the truck.  The man on the other side put his left hand under me for stability.  With all the jostling, the old man in the purple shirt had been shoved up against the driver’s cab, his knees literally touching his nose.  He simply sat there like that, facing backwards and making no sound.  I looked over at the mother with the gripping grandma.  Her baby was wrapped in a chitenje, sound asleep.  Its head was bouncing back and forth, forward and back.  Grandma kept her face covered.  The larger woman reached for her purse and pulled out some roasted nuts and began eating.  Eating or drinking in public among strangers is extremely rude here; one never knows if others have had anything to eat that day, so it is considered an unseemly flaunting of one’s good fortune.  She must have been very hungry to have done that.  Needless to say, sitting on the edge of a pickup truck while going over spine-numbing bumps and ruts is – well – uncomfortable for a man.  I found the whole experience excruciating and just wanted it to end.  I was trying not to look it, but many people were talking about the azungu and laughing.  I can only imagine what I really looked like.

After forty minutes of one of the bumpiest, hilliest, stop-and-goingest rides I have ever had, we were finally there – wherever “there” was.  It was actually a T-junction of two roads where we were to wait for Mr. Joe to join us from work he had been doing in Mandambuzi.  I jumped out as fast as I could, once I got myself extricated from the human jigsaw puzzle.  The driver told me he wanted 100 meticais for the two of us.  But the merchant had given me only kwacha in Cobué.  “Ndilibe meticais,” I said – I don’t have meticais.  He gave a disgusted look and said that it would be 1500 kwacha, then – a substantial rise in price, since the exchange rate kwacha to meticais is 10:1.  It should have been only 1000 kwacha.  Still, there was not much we could do about it, so we ransomed our luggage for the fee.  The truck drove off, leaving us at the junction with several bags of rice and two women and two children who seemed to live at the house there.

The women found my being there in the middle of nowhere, really, a source of immense amusement.  They were asking Marcos in Nyanja why I had not simply driven my own galimoto [motorcycle or car] wherever we needed to go, and they were doing a sort of driving dance to indicate how I might have driven down the road.  Marcos let them know that I spoke Nyanja, which appeared to tone down their dance a bit.  “Ndilibe galimoto kapena ndalama,” I said.  “Ndipo, ndine mwamuna wopanda nzeru.”­ – “I have no vehicle nor money, and apparently I am a man with no intelligence as well.”  As I had hoped, they liked this reply very much, and we were friends after that.

It was at that point Marcos realized he had forgotten his tent on the truck.  There was not much we could do about it at that point, other than to ask the women if they could let the drivers know about it when the chapa returned the next day.  They said they would.  Now we could only sit there and wait for Joe.

We waited for about an hour as the day warmed quickly; it was almost noon.  Marcos told me in PortuNyanjEnglish that we should go look for a bicycle so he could go down the road to find Joe.  We went to the first farm down the road where they did indeed have a few bicycles.  After the usual lengthy introductory formalities, and the equally lengthy explanation of what had happened that day, why we needed a bicycle and what we would do with it, the family readily agreed to hand over one of their most expensive possessions to two total strangers. 

Marcos walked it down their path to the road and was just about to mount it when who should come from the opposite direction but Joe, on a bicycle.  He had hiked for two hours from Mandambuzi, had gotten weary and had done exactly what we had done, borrowed a bicycle from strangers.  We turned back, returned our bicycle with thanks to the family; now protocol demanded that we explain what had changed our plans and what would happen since our plans had changed.  We then walked back to the junction.  A small boy of about eight had magically appeared.  Joe explained where he had borrowed the bicycle.  Yes, the boy knew the place.  Go and return it, then, Joe told him.  One does not ask children to do something here; one simply tells them to do it and they do it, even for complete strangers.  The boy hopped on and began pedaling, a boy unknown to any of us returning an item that might cost upwards of a half a family’s annual salary to people who had loaned it on faith to a total stranger.  This is NOT uncommon here at all; how is it that people are more generous and trusting the less they have?  We turned around and began walking the other way.

I had worried that the road would be mountainous, but it turned out that the chapa had done all the climbing and that we were now in a wide, flat valley.  Not quite road, not quite path, but extremely good for walking.  All that worry for nothing.  After a three-hour, seven mile hike, we were in Mcondece.

A journey that began at 5:30 in the morning ended at 3 in the afternoon.  I had covered about thirty miles by boat, chapa, with a bicycle and on foot, using Nyanja, English, Portuguese and pidgin.  I had had one of those small bananas to eat the entire day thus far. In other words, one month after arrival, I had spent at least one day living as does a local resident.

Joe and Marcos pulled off the path.  We were at the hut where we would stay in the yard for the evening.  This was the village of Mcondece.    
A cassava field and farmer's buildings along the mountain valley path.

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