Thursday, April 09, 2009

M1 between Blantyre and Karonga

It is the longest route in Malawi by coach bus I think. Including stops in towns and two layovers (1-2 hours), the trip took about 14 hours. If we took a minibus it might take two days or more and valuable time would be wasted. We, Project Advisor Mbewe, MANAD Executive Director Byson, Haji the interpreter, myself, and a last minute addition, Malonji a Board member set off in early evening and reached Karonga the following morning. Not all went as planned – due to miscommunication (mainly me) I went to the wrong bus station. When the 5pm departure passed and difficult SMS (Blackberry is so much easier) failed to unite me with the others, I decided to take an available bus that was leaving the following hour. No way was I missing out on MANAD’s third and final baseline survey trip. I texted Euphrasia I would be meeting the team in Karonga, and she replied, promising to inform me of the lodge status. My bus left around 6 30 pm and made stops through Zomba and Liwonde. In Dedza, around 10pm or so, I was nodding on and off. Someone shook me awake and it was Euphrasia. I could not believe my eyes, thinking it must be a dream. Euphrasia indicated that I must get up now and go with her.

Confused, half asleep and babbling how she can possibly be there in my bus, I gathered up my things and followed her out to her bus. Byson later told me that he watched the whole thing through the windows from their bus. My head was lolling around with mouth open, and when Euphrasia woke me up I stared at her and went back to sleep. Euphrasia shook me awake again and I was half asleep following her out. We were very fortunate. Their bus had a flat tire and took some time to fix it. The group kept an eye out for my bus, certain that I would catch up. After the flat tire was replaced, they asked the driver to wait a little longer. When they thought they spotted me, Haji yelled through the window until a man replied. Haji asked if a muzungu woman was on the bus and an affirmative was shouted back, he and Euphrasia went to get me. We were happily reunited. She was terribly relieved to see me in one piece.

We went back to sleep, and waking up from time to time whenever the bus made a stop. Once or twice, everyone in the bus had to exit and wait outside to allow the police to check inside and the cargo. All major towns – district capitals I think – have police checkpoints for smuggling purposes. The bus reached Mzuzu at around 5am, the last major town on the route for a two hour layover. We munched on some things, went to the toilet, slept some more. With a fresh driver, the bus departed for Karonga our destination four hours away. A couple hours in, Lake Malawi – my first glimpse – slowly began to come into view. Chitimba, a lakeside town took some time to reach. M1 crossed through the one of the biggest part of Great Rift Valley and the 20 minute drive downhill to the lakeshore was rather disorienting. So many turns in the road, barely long enough for the coach bus to complete each turn. Left, right, left, right, left, right. I cannot imagine driving down that road. Looking at the valleys by the Lake you can almost read that the ancient waters carved them into its present day state. The Northern Lakeshore of the Lake Malawi is the most mountainous and stunning. From our lakeshore lodge in Karonga, we could see Tanzania’s Livingstone Mountains across the Lake – that is where the Lake narrows and taper off. A number of villages depend on the lake for fishing – many, many sardines were being dried on tables (stinky), and the chambo fish (very tasty) hauled onto the shore and sold either smoked dry or fresh out of the water. We arrived at Karonga around 11am feeling very out of sorts and anxious to find a lodge to unload and freshen ourselves up to begin working.

Karonga to Blantyre

It was very uneventful ride back. We had a successful survey over the week and it was hard work. We left Blantyre Sunday evening and arrived on Monday morning in Karonga. For Chitipa, the second town in our survey trip we left on Wednesday afternoon and returned Friday afternoon. On Saturday, we left at noon and did not arrive to Blantyre until around 4 30am. The day before, we rode a four hour trip on a pick up truck on an unpaved road from Chitipa, an isolated town out northwest from Karonga near the Zambian and Tanzanian borders. Before reaching Chitimba to turn off across the Valley, the police checked the bus but we were allowed to remain inside. Euphrasia who was across the aisle from me, remarked that a dog had some fish in its mouth and is running away. From my side, I observed a somewhat lighter skinned man and woman opening the cargo under my window, showing the police their stamped papers and gesturing at whatever was inside. I described the scenery to Euphrasia. She said they are probably Tanzanians transporting their goods to sell in Malawi.
The zigzagging route up the Valley was not as hypnotic as the way down, and for a split second I spotted a Yellow Baboon monkey by the road. That was when I had just put my camera away. Darn darn darn darn.

Mzuzu, again the two hour layover – we were restless, wanting to continue the trip. We sought out some food, toilet and newspapers. The major bus stops never have books or magazines. The shop stands sold food and electronic items such as DVDs, CDs, radios, even large TVs. Insane. A deaf man met us at the stop, a friend of Malonji’s from Lilongwe who is a college student in the area. I met him briefly when I was in Lilongwe at the end of the second baseline survey trip. From the bus, I watched a man, assisted by two men struggle with a large load of charcoal to load it on top of a coach bus. I even videotaped them with my camera. The man, achieving balance of the load on top of his neck, climbed the ladder attached to the rear of the bus steadily. Upon reaching the top he leaned over to let the load roll off. Eventually they loaded four or five large loads of charcoal on top of the bus and tied them down.

The bus left half an hour late and made a couple unscheduled stops along the way. Like the trip to Karonga, the bus lights were turned on whenever the bus made a stop to drop off or pick up passengers. Peddlers selling variety of food and occassionaly socks and toothbrushes would crowd around the entryway into the bus or raise their wares into our windows for us to see. Being a muzungu I sometimes have to beat them away. The bus was full, unlike the trip to Karonga and there was no room to stretch out to sleep. We were sleepy and cranky in Lilongwe, another long layover at 11pm. Upon arriving to our stops in Limbe and Blantyre, we quickly dispersed to our homes desperate for some solid sleep after two days of hard travel.

The budget did not allow us to fly to Mzuzu and Karonga to save some time and energy for work, but we did get a taste of how far it takes one to travel up north and observe the changing environment from the densely populated southern region to sparsely populated north. And the northern region is the least developed with more dirt roads and tiny shops packed with everything one can buy from ladies underpants to biscuits to bleach liquid in one store.


Blogger Nicar Bocalan said...

you look very suspicious in your new profile pic. You remind me of Ace Ventura from his second movie "When Nature Calls" :)

4/12/2009 12:06 AM  
Blogger MCC Brazil! said...

Can you believe how rules are different in Africa? That Euphrasia could ask for the bus to hold on while they waited for the white lady on the other bus? And she was able to get on and get you off! Oh my! I can imagine how shocked you were to see her.

I love your writing, Kate. I'm right there with you in your adventures.

4/12/2009 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Cathy W said...

I have a World Vision sponsored child in Malawi. I am a Teacher of the Deaf in Australia (I'm Mild HoH; brother prof Deaf). He has asked about teaching Deaf - I am sending him the Auslan/NZSL/ BSL manual alphabet. Can you pls mention in a blog whether the MSL alphabet is two-handed? Or British based? South Africa used to be, but now ASL/ single-handed seems to be used on TV. Possibly Dominican /Irish influence, I don't know enough!! Can't access your email to ask direct.
Have been to Malawi and have loved reading your blog. Thankyou
Cathy W

4/13/2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger Kate O. Breen said...

Hi Cathy -

Good question about the manual hand ABC. Malawi uses the one handed ABC just like ASL. It's supposedly influenced by the missionaries. Hope this helps. Any other questions, don't hesitate to ask...

4/14/2009 7:00 AM  
Anonymous Cathy W said...

Hi, Kate,
Thanks so much for the quick reply! And from the middle of Africa - techology is great! I will include the ASL single-handed alphabet in my letter as well, so that my WV child can have both plus understanding that sign languages are not all the same. (I've already explained they are real languages - I imagine there would be a fair bit of ignorance re MSL etc). He is in Chata. Once again, thank you for answering my question. Cathy W

4/14/2009 11:02 PM  

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