Give a guy a green

My wife gave me a colour­ing book. On the front of the book was the word ‘Malawi’.

AQ: Australian Quarterly - - CONTENTS - DR JACK BEST AO

The colour­ing starts very in­aus­pi­ciously in the Blan­tyre Air­port when the thrice-weekly South African Air­ways (SAA) flight lands with 100 bags miss­ing. For­tu­nately our red suit­case has sur­vived. The un­lucky will have to wait for two days be­fore the next SAA flight comes. Many shades of frus­tra­tion emerge.

Soon we have passed though the line of sway­ing, chant­ing ladies who we can colour in their blue and white chiten­jes at the air­port door. They are not singing

for us but for the men in their white shirt and black trousers who come be­hind. We ink in Mor­mon for these men.

The colour of metal­lic sil­ver is hard to find on this pal­ette, but once found we can adapt its use to a grey feath­ered man – a zinyau – who is pranc­ing along the road­way be­side the air­port twirling his two ma­chetes. “Bad man,” says our driver, Ken­neth.

Then off we go through the blur of south­ern Blan­tyre sub­urbs, with their mud brick houses and bare clay soil. It is at the end of the dry, win­ter sea­son,

and the rivers are low, the land a wash of red ochre with a few trees strug­gling to present any green­ery.

It is still early af­ter­noon and the tem­per­a­ture is com­fort­able and will re­main that way into the night. We are stay­ing on a tea plan­ta­tion in the south of the coun­try. In some of the vil­lages it is mar­ket day and the roads are thronged with peo­ple walk­ing, peo­ple on bi­cy­cles, mi­to­los, jam-packed with peo­ple and goods, trucks belch­ing diesel fumes. There is a black and tan haze ev­ery­where.

This is a coun­try where brick-mak­ing, burn­ing off, and the re­duc­tion of wood to char­coal are a part of daily life. Black is a much-used pig­ment in Malawi.

But so is green – the green of bot­tled Carls­berg beer, which is man­u­fac­tured

in Blan­tyre. We pass the large fac­tory com­plex – ‘Giveaguyagreen' is its cheery hoard­ing mes­sage.

And so too is blue. Blue is the colour­ing of all the plas­tic in which the peo­ple wrap goods, un­wrap, and dis­card the bits and pieces ev­ery­where, colour­ing the land­scape in bright, plas­tic pol­lu­tion.

We press on and grad­u­ally the string of vil­lages gives way to hills cov­ered with man­i­cured slopes. De­pend­ing on the light, the green varies from emer­ald to a shade re­sem­bling pea. For the colourist, it is a chal­lenge as the road twists be­tween these in­ter­lock­ing tables of tea plants; we are at about 1,000 me­tres above sea level which, given the mild­ness of the cli­mate, makes for ideal tea grow­ing con­di­tions.

The green varies from emer­ald to a shade re­sem­bling pea. For the colourist, it is a chal­lenge as the road twists be­tween these in­ter­lock­ing tables of tea plants. The house could be coloured as ‘lived-in’ – all colours muted by time.

In places, tus­socks of planted Gu­atemala grass peer through the tea – pro­tec­tors of the soil and de­stroyer of ne­ma­todes.

This area was recog­nised back af­ter the First World War when a Scot called Kay set up a tea plan­ta­tion of nearly 900 hectares here in South­ern Malawi. It is to this es­tate, called Satemwa, and Hunt­ing­ton House in the mid­dle of it, that we are headed.

We pass a line of men pluck­ing tea leaves and plac­ing them in shoul­der bas­kets. Here both men and women share the load un­like, for in­stance, the tea plan­ta­tions of Sri Lanka near Kandy, where the ter­races are so pre­cip­i­tous that goats, let alone women with heavy bas­kets, would be hard pressed to cling. Malawi has been more con­sid­er­ate to their work­ers in the way the tea had been planted.

When we reached the House, have been wel­comed and have ad­mired the man­i­cured gar­dens trimmed with flowering bushes and trees, we are shown to our room, the very same as the orig­i­nal founder of the es­tate used to sleep from when the House was built in 1935 to when he died in 1968.

The house could be coloured as ‘lived-in' – all colours muted by time.

Tak­ing to bed to re­ju­ve­nate from the long flight and drive, I'm soon sleep. I awake in the late af­ter­noon to find that when I try to turn on the lights, there were none.

It is a strange sen­sa­tion to wake up, con­fused, in a com­pletely silent world with no elec­tric­ity to help ori­ent you.

Oh, how mys­tery builds. How­ever, the mys­tery col­lapses when I call out to my part­ner and she emerges, cam­era in hand, around the far side of the ve­randa. She laughs at my sit­u­a­tion and in­forms me that there will be a power outage un­til 10 pm that night. This is a com­mon oc­cur­rence in Malawi and although the House had its own gen­er­a­tor it was miss­ing a vi­tal part to make it work.

So colour the din­ner in dark­ness with flick­er­ing blobs of red and am­ber sig­ni­fy­ing can­dles and hur­ri­cane lanterns. The cognoscenti have head­lamps, as does the son of the founder who comes by later in the evening to say hello. He in­tro­duces him­self as ‘Chips' Kay.

Chips is 85 years old and has grown up in Malawi. His ac­cent be­trays a Cape Town school­ing and he says he did not speak English un­til he was six years old. Even though he is a small man in an off-white shirt and trousers, his is the de­meanour of all white chil­dren born in what was once called Nyasa­land but, since 1958, Malawi.

He has lived through the tran­si­tion from colo­nial au­thor­ity to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and pros­pered. He re­mains most prob­a­bly Bri­tish, although he is slightly an­noyed that the Malawi Gov­ern­ment have not given him cit­i­zen­ship. So he lives here some­what as an out­sider.

Chips knows a lot. He tells us that win­ter rains are es­sen­tial for good tea, as is the al­ti­tude. I won­der if I drew blood from him whether it would not be the colour of tan­nin.

In the morn­ing the ba­boons caper across the lawn and rock lizards slide along the ter­race con­crete. Salmon pink is the colour of malarone, the tablet we take each morn­ing since malaria is en­demic to Malawi and we are tak­ing no chances even in the dry sea­son. Our de­fences are re­in­forced by re­pel­lent and mos­quito nets over the bed at night.

A tea plan­ta­tion would not be authen­tic with­out be­ing in­vited for a tea tast­ing. The tea tast­ing fac­tory is a set of ob­long build­ings in what can be called ‘work­ing white', so as to give the im­pres­sion that the tea that we shall drink has been cre­ated in a hy­gienic at­mos­phere.

The fac­tory is work­ing full bore, the heat re­quired to dry the leaves is pro­vided by fur­naces fu­elled by blue gum logs cut from trees that for­est cer­tain parts of the plan­ta­tion.

Brown is the tea in its var­i­ous shades, although we are in­vited to spoon teas la­belled white, green, and black. Fa­mil­iar names like Earl Grey, Lap­sang and Oo­long are men­tioned – and the

last tea is red. This is hibis­cus tea, but no­body likes the taste much.

In the af­ter­noon we mo­tor down to­wards the Mozam­bique border. Malawi is like a gash in the Mozam­bi­can body. It is the com­mence­ment of the Rift Val­ley and later in our stay we shall be stay­ing on Lake Malawi, a gi­gan­tic spread of wa­ter, along the line of the Rift, in­creas­ingly ac­com­pa­nied by the moun­tains to­wards the Tan­za­nian border.

But, for now, we are in the south of the coun­try, with tea plan­ta­tions giv­ing way to mixed farm­ing. Corn and sweet

potato crops be­gin to in­ter­sperse the fields of tea. The mar­kets re­flect this hor­ti­cul­tural di­ver­sity – mango trees, paw­paw trees, and ba­nana trees are in abun­dance.

Slowly, out of the haze, Mount Mu­lanje looms – a grey mas­sif of gran­ite ris­ing to 3000 me­tres. Of­ten its sum­mit is wrapped in cloud; to­day, it is framed against a pow­der blue sky.

We are driv­ing up to the base of the moun­tain, colour the land­scape brown

So colour the din­ner in dark­ness with flick­er­ing blobs of red and am­ber sig­ni­fy­ing can­dles and hur­ri­cane lanterns.

It is a strange sen­sa­tion to wake up, con­fused, in a com­pletely silent world with no elec­tric­ity to help ori­ent you.

and tawny, the green of the trees with flashes of red and pur­ple. The jacaranda are be­gin­ning to flower. Would-be guides, flour­ish­ing wooden poles into which are burnt the name of the moun­tain, tout their ser­vices.

That night we stay at a Lodge on the Shire River in the Ma­jete Re­serve, which has been cre­ated to re­store wildlife to this part of Africa. The park re­put­edly has the Big Five (buf­falo, ele­phant, leop­ard, lion and rhi­noc­eros) but we do not see any on our way in.

On the drive into the Re­serve, there is a sable an­te­lope, with its black striped face and curved horn, the tan im­pala, and many wa­ter­buck with their circle on their back­side like a tar­get. Ba­boons and warthogs abound. A metal­lic grey shape leaps across the road as though the kudu was jump­ing over the moon. Har­te­beest have del­i­cate brown and black colour­ing – care­ful not to mix on the pal­ette – and stand shyly watch­ing the car go by. The ev­i­dence of ele­phants is ev­ery­where.

The re­serve is still a young creation and ev­ery­body is still learn­ing, but poach­ing is os­ten­si­bly con­tained. The rangers are drawn from the sur­round­ing vil­lages and there­fore can guard against sub­sis­tence poach­ing of im­pala and other an­te­lope. How­ever, the Mozam­bi­can border is por­ous.

Nev­er­the­less, Ma­jete re­serve is a les­son in ‘re-creation' in a 70,000 hectare fenced ‘park'. The orig­i­nal

We are driv­ing up to the base of the moun­tain, colour the land­scape brown and tawny, the green of the trees with flashes of red and pur­ple.

Her face was African but her skin was a white paste. Her eyes were screwed up against the sun. She seemed alone.

wildlife en­vi­ron­ment was driven to ex­tinc­tion thirty years ago by poach­ing and in­dis­crim­i­nate hunt­ing; vir­tu­ally noth­ing re­mained, ex­cept a few hyena –and hu­mankind. Res­ur­rect­ing such an en­vi­ron­ment re­quires care­ful man­age­ment, es­pe­cially as­sur­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate se­quence and num­ber of each par­tic­u­lar species added.

Then there are oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly the “small cats” (e.g ser­vals, genets, African wild cats), that have re­turned to the park with­out be­ing de­lib­er­ately in­tro­duced. How­ever, the wildlife that will be the last if ever in­tro­duced will be Cape hunt­ing dogs. They are too in­tel­li­gent and their abil­ity to hunt in packs wor­ries the rangers, al­most as much as the worst preda­tor of all – us.

At night in the Lodge, I can hear the hip­popota­mus grunt­ing at night, and there are croc­o­diles in the river.

Then there is the or­phan bush­baby, res­cued from near Lake Malawi, a lemur­like crea­ture, which vis­its the din­ing area reg­u­larly for its treat of peanut but­ter and jam be­fore van­ish­ing back into its habi­tat for the next few days.

The bush is dot­ted with yel­low trees – jack­alber­ries and fever trees – where in the lat­ter case the trunk has a beau­ti­ful, if vaguely olive, tint.

But it is the star ch­est­nut that catches

the eye. This tree has a com­pletely white trunk and branches, as if it has been re­cently painted and there should be a sign hang­ing from it say­ing as much. Our guide says that the white cov­er­ing acts as a sun­screen to pro­tect the tree.

White is un­ex­pected in Malawi. I re­call our car crawl­ing through the mar­ket day crowd in a vil­lage just out of Blan­tyre, when I saw a healthy brown mwana be­ing borne in a kikoy wrapped around the mother's neck. My gaze trans­ferred to the mother. Her face was African but her skin was a white paste. Her eyes were screwed up against the sun. She seemed alone.

It was the first time that I have seen an al­bino African. I had heard the ghastly sto­ries of al­bi­nos be­ing killed and the re­mains mu­ti­lated; and else­where of dis­crim­i­na­tion where al­bi­nos were os­tracised and driven out of their vil­lages.

The im­age passed by as the car threaded its way through the mar­ket. I rep­ri­manded my­self that we had not stopped and I had not got out of the car and pressed money into her hand as some col­lec­tive guilt re­sponse for how we have treated al­bi­nos over the gen­er­a­tions.

Yet I re­flected on what such a to­ken ges­ture would have done? Would I have

un­nec­es­sar­ily drawn at­ten­tion to this wo­man, who was seem­ingly un­no­ticed amongst the throng? The as­sump­tion that I had im­me­di­ately made about her be­ing a vic­tim may or may not have been cor­rect. I may have had an im­me­di­ate feel­ing of grat­i­fi­ca­tion in pro­vid­ing her money, but that wo­man would still be an al­bino liv­ing in an African com­mu­nity.

For right, or wrong, I knew noth­ing of her cir­cum­stances. I must find out more of how al­bi­nos are treated, not only in Malawi but also else­where.

It was time to close my colour­ing book.

AU­THOR: Jack Best AO is a for­mer Chair of the AIPS and a pub­lic health physi­cian with an in­ter­est in ru­ral health. Through a lo­cally-based sup­port pro­gram he, to­gether with Ja­nine Sargeant, pro­vide as­sis­tance to a num­ber of young Malaw­ians liv­ing near Lake Malawi, who were born with al­binism. This on­go­ing as­sis­tance was prompted by their ini­tial visit to Malawi two years ago.

IM­AGE: © Ja­nine Sargeant 2016

IM­AGE: © Ja­nine Sargeant 2016

IM­AGE: © JJ Hoef­nagel-wiki

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