Sunday, January 11, 2009

Second week – in Blantyre I

I consider Tuesday, January 6 my second full week in Africa. It is also the day I left Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe for Blantyre its business and NGO (non governmental organization) capital of Malawi. It is also the oldest European settlement in the country. I hope to visit Zomba – Malawi’s colonial capital until shortly after its independence from the British – during my 4 month stay here. I did not see much of Lilongwe – except for the Old Town part where I stayed and patronized. The first president, Banda, made it capital and used Apartheid South African money to build road and governmental buildings. I’ve heard there isn’t much to look at but I will make the effort the next time I go through the city.

The bus trip down to Blantyre from Lilongwe was pleasant, taking a total of four hours and half. The scenery (until the bus stewardess – yes you read this right – sort of like being on the Hampton Jitney) was interesting and pleasant until the conductoress (?) played a Whoopi Goldberg movie, Sister Act II. And it was subtitled! I’d seen the first movie years ago and never saw its sequel. The story setting took place around 1993 – oy, flashbacks of hair, clothes, the lingo –whew. The scenery outside the bus was much more interesting than Zambia. Malawi though its land is a tiny fraction of Zambia -100 miles width and distance about the same as east-west Pennsylvania I think, has a larger population of 13 million than Zambia’s 11 million. The villages were plentiful – some nicer or shoddier than the next one - and like Zambia, mixed huts with concrete structures, and thatched roof (bamboo I think?). And so many farmland – with the success of fertilization coupon scheme pushed by the government there’s been a surplus of crop vegetables. However vendors and some government officials exploited it, overcharging farmers and peasants, and there are still pockets of poverty all around. Those who did not benefit I suppose. The fields look so fertile that one could swear that valleys, boulders, and even mountains sprang up. Eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley runs through most parts of Malawi so it’s rare not to miss a mountain or valley peak when you’re in the city.

Having grown up among valleys it was very pleasant for me to stare into the scenery through the bus window. As opposed to the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States smoothed by the glaciers, the Rift Valley seemed to be more random and sculptural.

Blantyre, the largest town in Malawi, definitely qualifies as a small city with many shops, restaurants – African and Western, and Chinese – businesses, banks, lodges and hotel. I have not ventured into the markets like the one Allen and I went through in Lusaka. I saw few mazungu people along with Indians and Arabs but not until I went to the (new) Mall south of Blantyre, to another town of Limbe. I’ve never seen so many Africans with mazungus, Indians, Muslims (both African and Middle Eastern) and Arabs in one place. One department store called Games was full of every other person of race or color. Games reminded me of K-mart and Wal-mart. It would have been a scene in an American city populated with different kinds of races and creed, but the security guards checking receipts and purchases wore military style uniform (down to high topped boots and color bars on shoulders) with Security Guard tailored into their uniforms made it distinctly African in a way.

The deluge of rains continued – my second night in Blantyre and first at Grace Bandawe, I woke up to a strange sounding thunderstorm. The thunder seemed to choke or drag on itself every time, like a rumbling straining to boom. Like belching without the consequential release of a burp. I think Friday was the worst I’ve been stuck in so far. After a day and a half of heavy gray and white clouds, the rains were finally released. I had left the mall and gotten onboard a minibus moments before the first drops fell. The bus made a stop at a large truck refueling place, with a large and flat canopy. The rain created curtains of water spilling down the sides – every few minutes, a wind would blow the water onto us. Many people – riders and pedestrians – huddled under the canopy waiting for the rains to pass. The more of us grew, the more irritated the security became with us. We were blocking the minibuses and large trucks. The guard with an energetic german shepherd wearing a muffler not unlike the one worn by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of Lambs, each time he yelled and corralled us into one side, the dog would echo him by barking insanely. Both the guard and the dog’s eyes appeared to be crazy and twitching, bloodshot. The thunders were booming and sometimes it felt like someone was banging the canopy roof. In a short time, leaks from the roof formed and eventually people shifted around forming holes where the leaks dripped (or flowed). For a long while it appeared that the leaks continued to form here and there. Nearly an hour later, the rains became lighter and people began braving to go out. I gave up on waiting on a minibus with my destination (and breathing in all the petrol and diesel fumes) – I walked to the hostel. I'd misplaced my umbrella. Again.


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