A Travellerspoint blog

Monkey Gland Sauce with Kuche-Kuche

The Malawian Christmas

I couldn't quite choose which story to tell from Malawi, so I decided to do a small snippet of our first week here.

17.12. Chipata, Zambia.
We spend the first day of our trip browsing the hardware stores of Chipata. Amazing how many hardware stores there are in a small village. We want a plastic cover for our tent; there are none. One shopkeeper offers us a bunch of plastic bags. We thank him and move on to groceries.
I find a pasta sauce called monkey gland sauce, and force Hanna to get it. I'm quite excited- I mean, in which marketing department brainstorming session was it decided that Monkey Gland Sauce would be just the name for a pasta relish?
At the campsite I check the ingredients, and am sad to note that there is no actual monkey in the sauce. We go to bed early, with a clear sky. Maybe we don't need a plastic, after all, we muse.
At 9pm it starts raining, and it doesn't stop all night; at 11.30 we finally give in, and call the owner, standing outside in our soaked pyjamas, and get him to open a room for us. Everything is wet, and we fan out our books and clothes to dry. I've never been so happy to pay for an overpriced room.

18.12. Lilongwe, Malawi
Early morning, and the previously sunny Chipata is damp and grey. Drinking our morning coffee, we decide to hitchhike to the border. As we cross, we meet a tour group and I strike up a conversation with a German couple. It works, and we get a free ride to Lilongwe, two hours further east.
The hostel is nice and cozy and it's nice to meet new people. We go our for a beer, and I choose a Malawian brew called Kuche Kuche. I spend the rest of the evening thinking what Kuche-Kuche might mean.

19.12. Liwonde National Park, Malawi
It's still a few days till Christmas, and we want to see a national park, and some animals. The bus station is un-African; it's pleasant and organised, and no one hassles us. Lilongwe is a provincial, sleepy town, and the bus station lacks the manic chaos of Lusaka, where a tourist gets pulled by the wrist into buses they don't want. It leaves only fifty minutes late.
The ride to Liwonde is beautiful. Scenery is usually impossible to describe, and hard at best; southern Malawi is an odd mix of South America and the Scottish highlands. Full of rolling green valleys, and suddenly a massive mountain rises up from nowhere, the sheer cliffs damp with dew and little thatched huts and barefoot kids dotted along the bottom.
When the bus arrives to Liwonde, we are surrounded by people. The park entrance is still a further 8 kilometers away, and it's raining. I look around for a taxi. A young man grins and pats the back of his bicycle, which is padded. This is the taxi, madam. Oh well. This is a first.
In the evening we cook the monkey gland sauce, which is very nice with our fish.

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20.12. Liwonde NP
It rains, rains, rains. I don't have any waterproofs, I don't have long trousers. Actually, I don't even have an umbrella, come to think of it. The park is beautiful. The lodge has no electricity and has an incredibly romantic feel to it. We are right by the Shire river, with towering mountains on one side, and a marshland on the other. We go on a canooing trip, and I marvel at the silence. Occasionally, a hippo surfaces and yawns, but there are no other sounds. Antelopes stare at us and we stare back. The scenery is full of dozens of shades of green, and I never want to go home.

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21.12. Lilongwe
I have a theory; the smaller the African bus station is, the more confusing it is. We're up early, and stand at Liwonde station, but cannot move- we are surrounded by conductors, all with conflicting information; the bus is coming later; the bus already left. The bus is here, but it's full; the bus only goes tomorrow. I swat people like bees out of my way, and choose a bus. It gets us to Lilongwe in record time.
We arrive to realise it's Sunday, and everything is closed. None of the ATM's have money in them. We pool our cash and buy some food, and at the hostel, we pool our change and buy a few kuche-kuches.

22.12. Mzuzu, Northern Malawi
There's certainly a routine now- alarm goes off at 6am, get up, pack bag, pay up, walk to the bus/train/taxi, get on, sit for hours, get bored, get tired. This is not a holiday, this is backpacking at it's toughest. At least I finally agree to buy a raincoat from the local market in Lilongwe, but only after haggling so long the vendor is willing to pay for me to go away.
I'm getting grumpy, but still stare at the fantastic plateau we drive through. Northern Malawi is even more stunning and dramatic than the southern part; more sparsely populated, full of blue mountains that stretch on to Tanzania and Zambia, with little valleys in between that grow tall, proud-looking pine trees, and a single straight road which cuts through the middle.
We always bet on the arrival time, and today, I win a beer with my pessimistic bet; we arrive an hour and a half late, and I'm tired, tired, tired.

23.12. Livingstonia
The plan is to spend Christmas at the Mushroom Farm, an eco-retreat in the middle of the Northern nothingness, few kilometers outside of Livingstonia. The farm has a compost toilet, a solar-powered shower, and it's set on a cliff overlooking lake Malawi. Unfortunately it is a ten-kilometre hike up a nearly vertical mountain. There's no transport, so we stock up on water and start hiking up. Of course, it's the first hot day since our arrival, and after a kilometre, I'm gasping for breath. After two, I want to throw myself off the cliff. A man appears from nowhere, and offers to carry my ten-kilogram bag for five dollars. Five dollars?! A ridiculous amount, I tell him, and hoist the bag back on my shoulders.
At three kilometres, I am dying but the scenery is stunning; the clouds hang next to us and it's getting cooler. Just when I think I'm done, a car comes up around the bend; it's an open-backed truck full of local people, bags, children and chickens. They manage to fit us in, and we get lost in the sea of people, bumping along the road, occasionally losing a bag or two.
The eccentric owner welcomes us, and we pitch our tent up right next to the cliff. The view is amazing. Tomorrow is Christmas, and I'm tucked away in the remotest part of Malawi.

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Christmas Eve at the Mushrooom Farm
We had our morning coffee served to us on a terrace overlooking the valley. The terrace borders on the edge of the cliff and I can see the sheer drop down; I like being up high, so I sit there, sipping coffee and feeling like a lady from the colonial times, enjoying her mid-morning refreshment.
Few more people arrive, and we have red wine together by the fire as the damp evening sets in, swapping travel stories.
Santa doesn't come, though.

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(very drunk fred passed out outside the tent)
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(Mick dancing, poorly and drunkenly)
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(Carrie sitting on the coolest eco-friendly toilet I've ever seen)

Christmas Day
It rains the whole night, and we sleep restlessly, patching up our tent using our raincoats. Exhausted, but determined to see Livingstonia, we hike up the remaining five kilometers uphill from the Farm. It is an odd town; built by the British some hundred years ago, it has a massive church, a museum and a hospital (on top of an almost inaccessible mountain) but only a very few residents. We sit at the steps of the Stone House, a grey, empty building and wait for the fog to clear and the rain to pause, and feel like we're Nicole Kidman in The Others.
On the way down, a group of kids follow us, and sing old Beatles songs to us, giggling furiously.
Mick, the very extrovert owner of the Mushroom Farm, slaughters two ducks and cooks us a massive Christmas dinner. We have a small but fun group; three Brits, Loren, Nick and Carrie, Eric, an American, and of course myself, Hanna and Mick. We laugh more than we eat, and by the log fire, Mick dreams up new cocktails for us to try. The mountains go pitch black and we cannot see anything. At two am, we crank up the volume on the small stereo, and take turns to DJ. We have an air guitar championships, and Carrie and I arm wrestle, and in the end, we decide we all win, and get another drink. We dance around the bar until 5 am until we can't drink anymore, and everyone falls asleep. It's been a good Christmas.

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(Fred partied a LOT)

Boxing Day, Nkhata Bay.
We sleep for an hour, wake up to the rain, and throw our things together; we can't really be arsed with packing, so we end up with a bunch of plastic bags full of random belongings. Mick needs to drive to Mzuzu, so he gives us a lift, and probably saves our lives. I sleep the whole way. I feel each of my 29 years and 9 months- not that I'm counting down to my 30th birthday. Not at all.
Another bus, another change of scenery, another hostel and town. We are finally at Nkhata Bay, where I am meant to do absolutely nothing for the next eight days. This is a totally new world, a world of beach parties, sunshine, fruity cocktails and lots of backpackers. I am astounded; there are more white people in the hostel that I've seen in the last four months put together. It is nice though, but what gets me most excited though, is that I have an actual bed, in an actual room. Maybe even some sleep.

Posted by Ofelia 02:09 Archived in Malawi Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Almost Rosey

When the shock of living in the ugliest city in the world had finally settled in, about two weeks after I arrived to Lusaka in early September, I started counting down the days until I get to go travelling. At first, it seemed like ages away; three and a half months. I gritted my teeth and thought, right, I need to get something out of this experience. So I stayed, and counted the days. Three months, I get to go travelling. Ten weeks, two months, I can leave. A month, that'll go fast. Three weeks, two weeks, anyone can do that. Now, its mid- December, people at home are going on company Christmas parties, snogging people they don't even like, singing horrible 80's Christmas hits and buying stuff they don't want or need. And I'm sweating in a cramped internet cafe that drums bad African pop music, has a broken fan and a smelly guy next to me. But it doesn't matter. Because tomorrow, I'll be gone. So for the first time in ages, I feel fine. Almost rosey.

Sure, I have to come back in January. Sure, I need to work another couple of months. But in a way, it's not worth thinking about. What I want is a Malawian beach, a few beers and a nice Christmas with my friend; my thinking does not, and cannot go beyond that. Maybe a cocktail at new year, and a few cool backpackers to create a party. I don't know. All I know is that with every passing hour that puts miles between me and Lusaka tomorrow, I'll feel better. The Great East Road stretches endlessly beyond Lusaka; at the end of it, Malawi. I need this. It's time to put some fun in my life again.

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Posted by Ofelia 02:09 Archived in Zambia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Token White Chick

Maybe I'm a bit naive, but I never really paid much attention to skin colour in general in Europe. I was certainly never particularly aware of being white. It's not like I looked in the mirror and thought, right, I'm a white girl with blue eyes and brown hair. I never had to; I live in a world where being white is prevalent, dominant; you don't have to categorise yourself, because you are a part of the vast majority. Just pay attention the next time someone is described to you; you'll often hear thing like, "yeah, you know Nazneen? She's the pretty Indian girl who sits next to Fred....yeah, Fred, the black guy with glasses?"
But have you ever heard someone say "you know Maaret, the white girl next to Fred?", because it simply doesn't matter that I'm white; I live in a society where being white is the norm, and therefore I've never been aware of my skin colour. I can't help but wonder if I'd grown up as a bangladeshi girl, even in such a multicultural world as London, would I be more aware of what I look like?

In Africa, I certainly am. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't remind me of my colouring. Comically, most people feel the need to point this out to me, as if I might forget otherwise- no shit, I really am white? I am? - but the conversation often ends there. That's it- they have nothing to say to me as a person, it's just that I stand out. Like I said, I've spent my formative years in a multicultural society, so never once have I sat in a coffee shop in Lusaka thinking, shit, everyone here is black- how exotic! I've never been particularly swayed one way or the other by the fact that I'm in a predominantly black country, but that I'm white- that's a big deal for locals here. And quite understandably so.

It's late afternoon, and the bus station is heaving. There must be three to four hundred buses in various stages of loading and unloading passengers. They are all identical and blue, with no numbers or destination plates to distinguish them from one another, just lazy drivers asleep on the front seat and frantic conductors fighting over passengers. It's hot. My skirt sticks to my legs and I'm working my way through the labyrinth of exhaustion fumes and fruit vendors. I'm also trying to shake off a persistent man, who cannot believe his luck- he's found a white girl in Kulima Tower bus station! This is not a white person place; nowhere in central Lusaka is. He doesn't really have anything to say, or to sell, but he simply follows me, shouting, "hey, white man!". Absurdly enough, this offends me. Not the shouting, but that he is calling me a man, and there is certainly nothing mannish about me. But I'm used to the bus station and I cross over it quickly, a hot frying pan of metal and sweat. A conductor approaches me. Kabulonga? No. Chelston? No. He is at loss. These are the white people places; he has no other destinations to offer. I help him. Chawama. Chawama? Yes, Chawama. He checks to see if I'm sure, and shrugs, and points me towards a bus, quickly filling up. I choose a seat next to a woman with a baby- I always sit next to women. A man sits on my other side. His clothes are worn, but clean and meticulously ironed, and he has a kind face. We leave, I collect the notes from my neighbours and hand in the cash on behalf of the entire row. Why are you going to Chawama, asks the man with the kind face. Are you working on a project there? No, I answer, I live there. In Chawama, he says. In Chawama, I confirm.
He takes a moment to consider this, and we ran into heavy traffic heading out of the city. The driver is having none of it; at the intersection, he cuts diagonally across, driving through a petrol station, over a small hedge and the sidewalk, and joins the main road. No one bats an eyelid.

In Chawama, a group of drunken men leer at me, and one of them tries his luck. Again. I flick him my middle finger and an evil stare. He knows not to touch me- that's cultural understanding for you. The woman who keeps a roadside stall selling veggies sees me, and starts to bag tomatoes even before I reach her. She stops at two and I tell her to add more. Oh yes, you have visitors with you now, she says. They know everything about their token white girl. I stop at a small store to get eggs, and a small boy (no lie) sees me and bursts into tears. His mother and I start laughing, and as I take a step closer, he starts to positively wail. We are in tears of laughter, and I forget what I needed, and buy a coke instead.

Once I reach home, the breathless shopkeeper runs after me with two eggs. He smiles. You forgot these, he says, silly white lady.

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Some scenes from Chawama. The bottom one is my local pub, which we almost share a wall with.

Posted by Ofelia 02:08 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Danish Pig Fest in Lusaka

Last Friday morning, I had just finished reading the newspaper, biased and poorly-written like every day, and was wondering how I should spend the remaining seven hours of the day, when our director walked in.
"Maaret. We've been invited to the Danish embassy for a formal lunch. It's their development aid programme, which is turning forty as a project, and they're having a party."
"A party? Today?" I said, and looked down at my old T-shirt, and rubbed my eyes, trying to remember if they had any traces of make-up left. I had a slight flash of panic. Everyone else would be in polished high heels and in lipstick that never smudged, and I would stand there, in my grubby sandals and shorts that had worn thin and colourless from the constant washing and drying in the sun. "Why didn't you tell me about this yesterday?"
He waved his hand indifferently as though this was a totally unjust and ridiculous question.
"If you want to come along, it starts at two. These are Danes, so they'll probably party it up until quite late." He was enthusiastic, and took great pride in having visited Denmark and was excited about the prospect of meeting what he called "the Vikings".
"But anyway", he said, looking at me up and down, "we have plenty of time. You are free to go home and get changed". Wow, thanks.

I took a taxi home and back, and wondered about the Danish dress code. I had no idea, really. I knew formal was, of course, formal, and embassy people even more formal compared to normal formal. But in Zambia, traditional dress was usually OK too, so panicking and not really knowing what to do, I changed into my chitenge dress and slapped on the make-up I hadn't yet managed to lose, before racing back to the school.

Of course, in a true Zambian style, we arrived an hour and a half late, just as the drama performances and speeches were finishing. I made it directly over to the open bar, and it wasn't until I was holding on to a wonderfully cool glass of white wine that I looked around. And noticed something. I tapped the director on the shoulder.
"Hey. No one else is in formal dress. In fact, they look like they've just finished digging a ditch in the Northern Province." It was true; everyone was in shorts and T-shirts and holding up sticky babies and pints of beer. And I noticed something else.
"This is not the Danish Embassy. This is a Danish charity of some sort. Charities are always far more informal."The director didn't seem too bothered, despite his suit and tie. I looked around for food. There were some scraps lying around on a few plates, but there was nothing to suggest a formal lunch had been had. I turned back to my colleague. "What exactly did the invitation say?" He just kept staring into the distance, lazily, and suddenly I felt so irritated I wanted to smack him. I asked him again, a little more forcefully. He sighed.
"The invitation said they have a programme and they're having a lunch and a party for it. I can't remember. Lunch or dinner." I grabbed a sweet-looking Danish girl and asked her. She told me they had two functions, an informal lunch and a formal dinner, with different crowds. Great. I had no idea which one we'd been invited for, so I decided to quickly grab another glass of (free) white wine before we'd have to leave. People were drifting out, and suddenly, the director decided it would "probably be OK" if we waited until the dinner started at 7pm. I looked at my watch; it was 3.45pm. I felt mortified- we looked like two scavengers who were willing to wait three hours for free food, as everyone else left, the music was switched off and tables and flower arrangements were being scurried back and forth. I gratefully accepted a glass after glass of wine, and tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. Unfortunately it's very difficult when you're wearing a bright red, hugely flared traditional African dress.

Finally, embarrassed enough, I disappeared into the function room, and found a library, mostly full of books in Danish, but also, oddly, European travel guides. I found a Lonely Planet Britain, from circa 1980, and was shocked to see they still recommend the same pubs and bars as they did when I was born; proves what I thought- these guides never get updated, or if they do, it's always by some twat from middle of nowhere America or Australia, who's only been to the place for a week and gets a kick out of being an authority on it. I flicked to the description of London, only to get more irritated- "A dirty, expensive and crowded place, albeit with a few sights." I shoved it back in it's place, noticing that one of the authors had a Finnish surname. Bloody Anglophobes, I thought, and felt a small but particular bang of homesickness.

People finally arrived, we watched some more dancing, a comedy show and I had one last drink for the road. This was the first wine I'd had since leaving London, and it tasted fantastic. The dinner was quite grand (or maybe not so grand, but I've been in Zambia for three months, and anything that is not maize or a maize by-product tastes pretty wonderful to me). I felt tempted to photograph the buffet table for Marianne, but resisted. The table was full of meat, mainly pork; bacon, ham salad, pork chops and sausages of all sort. I giggled to myself, the crazy girl in the huge dress. There was something so Danish about the food that just by looking at it, it would've been possible to determine the nationality of the organisers. When the last ambassadors started winding down their dancing around 10pm, we called a taxi to take us back to our respective compounds; it seems that even hard-core party animals such as the Danes find Lusaka less than inspiring.

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Our director doing a dance. It was a bit like watching your dad dance. Cringe-worthy.

Posted by Ofelia 02:07 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Conversations With Cultural Differences

"Do you have a boyfriend?” The very young man sitting across from my desk asked. It was silent, except for the rain pouring down; a very damp, grey Tuesday afternoon, and it reminded me of autumn back home. Our yard had started to flood, I noticed. I kept typing, and thought for a moment. Usually my standard lie would’ve been along the lines of “yes, I do, he’s back home in England/Finland, and when I get home, we’ll get married”, but for some reason, I wanted to see where this was going. The question seemed reasonable; not flirty, as he was almost young enough to be my son, but genuinely interested. I snapped the lid of the laptop shut and looked at him."No, I don’t”
"Really?”
"Really."
"I think you should."
"I think I should too."
"Well, why not?"
I thought about this for a while. “There’re not really that many decent single men in London. Really. I’m just the age where most guys are either already married, or have girlfriends. Or if they are single, there’s something wrong with them.”

He thought for a moment. "But you seem like a nice girl, and there's nothing wrong with you!"
"Actually, I’m a bit of a bitch, totally neurotic and argumentative. And I’m not a girl- I’m a woman pushing thirty”
He laughed. Maybe he thought I was joking.
"And do you have children?”
"No I don’t”, I said. He looked astonished.
"No one’s wanted to have children with you?”
I laughed. In Zambia, everyone wants children, all men, and all women. Preferably many, as anything less than three is just pitiful; a person over the age of twenty-five being childless is just unheard of. Many families have children from previous relationships, and even single women all have at least one child, after a “certain age”. I tried to explain.

"See, a lot of men don’t particularly want children. We live in a city where there’s just too much to do; they don’t want to come straight home from work and start changing nappies. They want to down pints with their mates in the pub. Or if they do wants kids, then they put it off so long that their girlfriends, who are around the same age group as they, leave them for someone who does want children with them, and then the men hit forty, realise that they do need to start thinking about having kids, panic, and have them with a twenty-five year-old who is never going to get them.”

He looked confused. Poor boy, he was probably sixteen, seventeen at most, he’d never left Lusaka, and although he was a bright kid, my rant had just confused him even more. He digested the information for a bit, and spoke.

"Here in Zambia, if a girl and a boy like each other, they get married and have children. This is what we do. So it is not like that?”
"No, it’s not”
"But why not? What else do you need?”
What else indeed? I had no idea; I was the worst person to ask. All I had were a few broken relationships, and most of them years ago, from another era when I was still a bit more optimistic about life.
"You need a lot of things. You need to want the same things. Like, if the other person wants a family of six and a house in Watford with a vegetable garden, and the other a flat filled with flat-screen TV’s and wine racks in Mayfair, then really, it’s not going to work.”

And then I felt bad. Most of these kids can’t really decide where they’re going to live, or what job they’re going to take, let alone choose between vegetable gardens or wine racks. Most of them had no options; I felt like an idiot. I forgot who I was talking to; I could’ve quite as well been in All Bar One with Marianne or Kate and preach to them.

But he looked at me, beaming.

"Well, I know who I want to marry. In a few years, that is. I want children, but not too many. Maybe three, or four, if my wife wants four.”
I smiled. “I hope it works out for you”
"Yes. I just want to finish this course, and get a good job, maybe at one of the hotels.” He stared out of the window and into the rain. “Maybe as a waiter. Maybe someday I could be the head waiter. But anyway,” he shook himself and got up, “I hope you don’t have to deal with so many choices in the future.

It was a peculiar thing to say, but after he left, and I watched him get soaked as he trudged across our school compound, it made sense. I thought about all my friends, and their jobs and boyfriends and husbands and their kids; their problems in finding a place to live, or indeed, choosing where to live, and all the problems that went with having a life in England. I knew it wouldn’t last very long, but for a while I felt envious of this young boy with a straightforward future ahead of him. I watched him disappear around the corner.

I flicked my laptop back on. I had some work to do, so I could finally leave Lusaka one day, go back to my wine bars and to the people who looked straight past you on the street and to the conversations with Kate and Marianne. I smiled to myself and drew up the curtains. And just like that, I got over it.

Posted by Ofelia 02:02 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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