Sunset in Malawi: an African Memoir

The Warm Heart of Africa through the lens of Ben Sanders

At the end of a blisteringly hot day in Malawi, in a city called Blantyre, in a bar called Doogle’s, I met Darren.

We had been on the road all day, ten of us crammed into an overstuffed van for hours at a go in between shoots held under the predictably blazing African sun. Pulling into our hotel at the end of the day, I happily volunteered to guard the pile of valuable camera gear as the others checked in, knowing that this meant a cool drink and a pile of valuable camera gear to put my feet up on. I piled our equipment next to a table by the pool, and managed to order a drink before collapsing into a chair, half asleep before I even sat. Doogle’s is a sleepy little place, populated equally by locals and backpackers, where the drinks are cheap and the music is good. A century ago I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to find Hemingway drunk in a corner. But I digress. Back to Darren. As I blissfully sipped my gin and tonic, vaguely wondering if the cold glass was sweating more than I was, a voice broke the silence:

“So… how did all of you end up here?”

The voice was coming from the next table. A sixty-something white guy sat there, thickly accented voice emanating from a face that looked like creased leather underneath a greying mohawk, rounded off by a pair of blue eyes that looked like they’d been stolen from an eagle. Meet Darren.

“I…what? In a van. We’ve been on the road all day.”

Darren chuckled at this.

“No no no. Not to the bloody bar. How did you end up in Malawi? Intentionally?”

I stared back blankly for a second. I had not a clue how to respond.

“Intentionally?”

“Yah. Intentionally. Most tourists you find here set out thinking they were off to Mali or Mozambique or Malaysia.”

“Ohh. Okay, then yeah, intentionally.”

“Well that’s all-bloody-right then. I dunno why you’d come here, though. Boring kind of place.”

I sat back and processed this. It actually made a strange kind of sense. Malawi’s history, at least for the last century or so, has been fairly uneventful. On the scale of African strife, Malawi ranks in fairly low. The country is mostly farmland, with the bulk of its population concentrated not in cities but in rural farming areas. Its economy is dominated by agriculture, growing and exporting huge amounts of tobacco, rice and tea, a fact which has not changed since the days of British colonial rule. In fact not much about the place has changed since those days, with the profits from those exports going almost entirely to foreign investors and not to the impoverished Malawians. I ran this train of thought by Darren, who was busily entreating the very pretty waitress to refill both our glasses.

“Yah, mate. Very poor. Always poor. Not much war, though. Nothing here worth stealing”

This again pretty much agreed with the research I’d done before the trip. The transition from British rule to autonomy was, by African standards, fairly painless. The ensuing thirty-year dictatorship of Dr. Hastings Banda was relatively stable, and with a few exceptions free of the brutality and senselessness of many autocratic regimes in the area. Malawi had no diamonds, no significant mineral deposits, not even any forests particularly worth logging. There was no profit in tearing it apart… which I realized meant there was no profit in fixing it up.

“So…just farms, then?”

“Pretty much, mate. Farms and farmers. Takes up all the land. Bloody good land, I might add.”

Darren took a slug of his drink and chased it with a beer I hadn’t noticed him order.

“We’re damn proud of that around here. Farms farms farms. Everywhere you go-farms. People bloody damn proud of their farms and their vegetables.”

He squinted at me.

“All of it goes, though. Off to wherever”

He gestured expansively at the horizon.

“All the big farms owned by foreigners. Biiiiig companies. British, Chinese, Indian.”
We toasted to farms and farmers. My turn to buy a round.

“Okay, but what about the little farms? We saw the big plantations, tea and tobacco and all that, but what about the little ones I see everywhere? Vegetables and corn, usually. They seem way too small to not be local.”

“Everybody farms. All day. Big farms. Little farms. The little ones are people’s houses, yeah? In their gardens. They eat most of it, try to sell the rest. Damn fools, mostly. They can never grow enough to make money at it…they should really just cook it all.”

I wasn’t so sure about this. Earlier in the week we had been to Mvuduwa Village, a tiny community that had been involved in a World Food Programme effort to slow the spread of deforestation by introducing a simple clay stove that greatly reduced the amount of firewood needed to cook with. As the rest of the team shot and interviewed and was generally productive, I wandered around the village taking pictures and generally poking around. It was a small place, a few houses stuck in the middle of a sea of cornfields. I was absently taking pictures of corn when a very excited farmer ran up to me, gave me a bone-crunching hug, and posed like superman for a picture. He started talking very fast, switching freely between English and Chichewa. Our driver, Hastings, who happened to be nearby, explained to me that he was proud of his fields, that they were very profitable. The farmer, whose name I later learned was Damian, began pointing to different plants in the field, chattering away in Chichewa and grinning ear-to-ear. With Hastings translating, I discovered that there were actually four different crops being grown in the same field. Corn was the primary crop, and its stalks provided support for some type of bean and shade for what appeared to be small pumpkins, and there was cassava planted underground in between the rows of corn. I was impressed. I chose not to voice this to Darren, who was taking advantage of the pause in our conversation by watching the waitress sashay around his table clearing drinks. He caught my eye behind her back and grinned, and then promptly ordered another round. Hemingway would have loved this guy.

“Okay, so you’re not a bloody tourist. You meant to come to Malawi. You wandered in here with a gang of beautiful women. And your footrest looks too bloody expensive to be proper luggage. So what are you all collectively doing here?”

I explained the basics of our trip, that we were journalism students working in conjunction with the World Food Programme and that we were making news pieces for our school’s cable station. Darren found this to be hilarious.
“News? Mate, this is Malawi. There’s no news here. We just go on as usual.”

Darren filled me in, in a roundabout fashion, on his personal history. He’d been born in Cape Town, South Africa, and when he was three moved to Malawi, where he’s lived ever since. Darren spent the bulk of his adult life trekking around the bush in every corner of Africa, claiming to have worked in fifty-two out of fifty-four countries on the continent, as well as a few that weren’t countries anymore.

“Been in Malawi a long time. Terrible place, this. Actually it’s a great place. The best place. But it’s falling apart. Slowly. All the time. Bit by bit. Nothing much to be done about it.”

He frowned at the empty glass on his table, which by now was pulled up next to mine. I waved to our waitress. We sat for a few minutes, taking in the bar and the pool and the view of Blantyre behind it and green fields beyond that. It was solidly dusk by now, yellow and orange creeping slowly into the corners of the sky. I thought about what he’d said, about what it must be like to watch your home slowly decay from what amounted to simple neglect. It didn’t seem to me, though, that the Malawians were simply watching hopelessly and just surviving through a slow decline.
The first shoot of our trip had been at Nanyowa Primary School, a rural school participating in a World Food Programme initiative called Purchase 4 Progress (P4P), which helps rural farmers sell their crop. In this instance, P4P had partnered the farmers in the area with a local school, ensuring that the farmers were able to sell and the students able to eat. Here I met a teacher called Mazunzo Pichesi, with whom I had a long conversation about the value of education. “When you have nothing” he said, referring to education, “every little piece makes you better.” In addition to the standard reading, arithmetic and English, he taught his students practical skills they could use to help their families. Things like better agricultural practices, raising chickens and cattle, business skills. “This way, even if the students do not finish their school, they will have something that will help them. Perhaps some that do finish will become teachers. Then they can help more young people. That is what I hope I can do: to inspire the students. To learn, but also to teach.” He asked me about my teachers, if I had perhaps been inspired by them. I hesitated, realizing that I’d spent the bulk of my life up until that point in one school or another and at least half that time griping about it. I finally managed: “I… I think I was. I’ve studied history, mostly, and I think maybe my teachers inspired me to go and see the places I’ve studied.” This was met with a broad smile. “Good. Then someday you must teach this to your children, and if you are very lucky, your students. Now come! It is time you met my family!” And I was immediately whisked away to a house behind the school where indeed, I was introduced to his wife and twin sons.

As I relayed all of this to Darren, a smile played across his face.

”Sounds like a bloody smart man, this teacher. A good man, too. Malawi’s full of those. Idealists. Bloody good people we have here. It’s a terrible thing, mate, watching a place you love fall apart. Some people are just…willing to fight it. Do what you can, try to live well, and watch a few sunsets.”
“Sunsets?”

“Sunsets. Bloody sunsets!”

He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder where there indeed was a spectacular sunset that had completely escaped my notice. I stared for a second, wondering how I had missed it so completely. Darren followed my train of thought.

“You’ve been so caught up talking about your teacher and your farmers and all the things wrong… you didn’t notice that, yah?”

“Uh… yeah. Wow.”

“That’s the thing. People around here stop and look. Things like mountains. Trees. Green fields. Bloody sunsets.”
He was right. I had actually experienced this firsthand a day or so before. The village of Nessa is high up on Mount Mulanje, nestled in a valley cut in half by a waterfall and a roaring stream. We were there to interview farmers about an agricultural diversification program designed to boost soil integrity on the steeply angled slopes of the valley, preventing landslides and increasing crop yields. Predictably, as the crew bustled about being productive, I wandered off to take pictures. I clambered down to the stream, jumping from rock to rock trying to get cool pictures of then waterfall. I quickly realized that I was stranded in the middle of a river, unable to get back across the way I had come. I began trekking upstream, trying fruitlessly to find a way up the riverbank. Eventually, some of the villagers gathered around our cameras at the top of the bank noticed my predicament and mounted a rescue. I was pulled out in a maneuver that involved jumping at a boulder I had no hope of reaching the top of and being unceremoniously dragged out by the scruff of my backpack like a wet puppy. My rescuers, laughing uproariously, led me back towards the crew until one stopped and indicated I should follow him. We walked out onto what could be very loosely described as a bridge, and the man pointed behind me and said, in English: “This is what you came looking for.” I turned to find myself staring up into the most incredible view of the valley, the waterfall gleaming in the sun and directly above me. It was exactly what I had been looking for.

Darren was in the middle of a long description of his favorite sunset, which could only be seen from a certain spot in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, from the porch of a bar he used to own.

“Lovely, mate. Just lovely. Sun so big you couldn’t tell which direction it was setting, just…light. Everywhere. Every direction. Flowing around like it’s alive.”

He raised his glass. I blinked. It was dark by now. Some enterprising member of our trip had removed my footrest, hopefully to somewhere safe. I raised my drink to meet Darren’s.

“Never stop chasing sunsets, mate.”

And then he got up and left.

I wasn’t, and still am not quite sure what to make of my conversation with Darren, but from what I can tell it was quintessentially Malawian. The people of Malawi, at least in my brief time there, seemed to accept easily the harsh realities of their lives. Not in a fatalistic way, in a manner that might describe a defeated people resigning themselves to some unpleasant fate, but rather in a very practical fashion. The general attitude seemed to be that acknowledging and accepting the problems extant in Malawi was logically the way to go about addressing and solving at least some of them. I feel the need to end this recounting with a quote not from my friend Darren, but from our driver, a cheerful man named Hastings Perry. On the last day of our trip, Hastings, who had been with us practically every minute of every day helped us unload our bag at the airport, offered us all a hug, and then said:
“What you are doing, what you did is good. It is good to go out and talk to people, to hear the stories. There are many problems in the world. It’s like…fighting. Fighting someone in the dark. You can never tell where the next blow will come from. But you must fight.”

I can only hope that the work we did will bring Malawi a little more light. One day I’d like to go back and see for myself. But until then, I’ll just keep chasing sunsets.


http://www.montclair.edu/


Montclair State | New Jersey
04.29.2014

Ben Sanders

Ben is an international man of mystery. He likes his whiskey neat and his plane rides without turbulence.