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