Travel Writing Awards Entry
Africa, Africa, Africa. The continent of Africa conjures up vibrant images of elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards and rhinoceros roaming free. When I first arrived in Malawi and hopped on the bus to Mozambique I spent most of the day scanning the horizon searching for a glimpse one of the big five. The big five animals, listed above, have always held a fascination for me. I have seen them in zoos and even rode an elephant in Thailand, but have always wanted to see them in their natural habitat. As I bounced along in the back of the public transport vehicle my anticipation of viewing one of these majestic creatures helped keep my mind off the agony of traveling by public transport in Malawi and Mozambique.
When I arrived at the bus stop, I should have realized how tough my adventure was going to be. The bus stop was basically a large dirt field with numerous trucks, cars, mini vans and heavily used vehicles of various sizes and shapes. As soon as I was dropped off by my taxi I was instantly surrounded by people either trying to sell me something, or trying to take my bag. As in most third world countries there is no real way to determine who really wants to help you with your luggage and who really wants to literally take your bag. Every traveler in this situation should be advised to never let anyone take your luggage without finding out the proper etiquette of the country or region. In some places it is safe and may be an insult to turn down help when it’s offered and in other regions its just plain smart to turn down any help offered.
As I looked around at all the people, and mass of vehicles, I realized that without help I would never be able to make it to my destination. My original intention was to spend a few weeks with my daughter, who lives in a small northern town in Mozambique called Lichinga, but due to flight restrictions the closest airport was in Lilongwe, Malawi. My daughter informed me that it takes about 12 hours to travel between the two areas, but failed to inform me that this was under optimum circumstances and with the convenience of having your own vehicle. Yet knowing I would need help, and being the loving daughter that she is, she sent along a local friend of hers to help me navigate my way.
Gazani was one of the people working with my daughter building an orphanage and he would soon become my trusted advisor and friend. Not only did he speak the official language of Malawi, English, and Mozambique, Portuguese, but he also spoke a few of the African languages of the region. As I stood there at the Malawi bus area surrounded by crowds of people, I tried to explain that I really did not need any help. After a few minutes of this I realized that I was definitely out of my comfort zone and in need of some real help. Suddenly out of know where my true savior pushed his way through the crowd smiling brightly at me. I still do not know what he said to the people around me, but as soon as he spoke all the crowds parted away from me like Moses and the Read Sea.
By and far the people in Malawi and Mozambique are very friendly and helpful, but like any country there are those who will take advantage of you, especially if your are a foreigner or a tourist. Just before this trip I had spent three weeks in South Africa where a number of people told me that the people of Malawi were voted the friendliest people in Africa, and now I can confirm this since I have experienced it first hand. The country of Malawi is still considered third world, but the current government has been making efforts to build Malawi into a major agricultural player, not just to feed its own people but the other African countries as well. The capital of Malawi, Lilongwe, has a fairly decent infrastructure and was a lot cleaner than other third world countries I have been to. However the rest of country still has a long way to go when it comes to public transportation.
To say that we found a bus from Malawi to Mozambique is quite an understatement. Our bus was an old beat up mini van that was designed to carry 8 to 10 people, but to make more money they usually cram in 15 to 20 people and that includes their luggage and “other passengers” which I will describe later. We were the last ones to get on the bus so the only seats open were in the back. I usually do not mind the back seat, but when you’re flying down an old asphalt road at 80 miles an hour with virtually no suspension, every bump sends a sharp jar from your feet to your head. It would have been more bearable, if I had not aggravated an old back problem working on a mission’s project in Cape Town a few days previous. To top it all off there were five people crammed onto my seat with no room for my luggage which I had to carry on my lap. My only saving grace was the small lumbar support pillow I bring with me while traveling, which can be blown up and put behind your back for support.
My first ride on this journey lasted for about 6 grueling hours. We arrived at a small village where the road turns off towards the Mozambique and Malawi border just after night fall. My faithful guide, Gazani, talked to a few people and found us a little room with a few beds. From the rest house we walked, in the dark, down a dirt road for about 10 minutes and found a small restaurant. It really wasn’t much of a restaurant since all they had been what I think was chicken, or maybe goat and Sema (called Shima in Mozambique and Pop in South Africa). Sema is basically ground corn that’s mixed with water to form a thick pasty meal (like thick mashed potatoes). It really doesn’t have much of a taste but it is cheap and forms one of the basic staple foods for much of Africa.
The next day, before dawn, we found another crowded bus and drove for about 3, hours to the border. When we arrived at the Malawi side of the border we were once again mobbed by people selling things and talking loudly in at least five different languages. As soon as we entered the gate into the customs office people suddenly disappeared and we were left alone. The exit from Malawi was pretty painless and all we had to do was show the agent our passports and fill out an exit form. When we left the immigration office my fearless leader informed me that he had hooked us up with a first class ride to the Mozambique border.
To my surprise his first class ride was in reality only two teen age boys with bicycles, but these were not just any teen age boys with bicycles. These were what I would later refer to as “super teen age boys” with bicycles that had metal racks on the back. I refer to them as super teen age boys because they were able to pedal on rough dirt roads for five miles up hill without stopping, and that was with a two hundred and twenty pound man and his suitcase balancing on the back. As we rode along Gazani informed me that this large strip of undeveloped land separated Malawi and Mozambique to form a no-mans land during the Mozambique civil wars. It seems that since the war only stopped some ten years ago, the governments decided to keep it to serve as a buffer between the two nations if disturbances ever erupted again.
When we arrived at the Mozambique side of the border there was only a small metal gate across the dirt road, and a very small building in major disrepair that served as the immigration office. The first thing I noticed, other than the humble surroundings, was that no one spoke English anymore. Again Gazani came to my rescue and helped me interpret the immigration officer’s demands. It seems that to enter Mozambique you have to purchase a Visa which costs about fifty dollars for a 10 day stay. The only problem is that they did not want to accept their own money but wanted it in either American dollars or Kwacha, which is Malawian money. This is the only country I have ever been to where a customs agent refused to accept their own countries money. After paying my money, filling out a few more forms, and having my passport stamped, we were back on the bicycles and on our way to the nearest town.
The bus area had the same ambiance as Malawi’s with the exception of fewer people selling things and the surrounding buildings were in a state of major disrepair. It seems that Mozambique (especially the north portion) is one of the poorest regions of Africa and has not been high on Mozambique’s priority list for rebuilding since the war. The other thing that changed was my bus turned from a mini van into a small truck.
The trip to Lichinga was supposed to take four to five hours, but ended up being almost twelve hours. This was because the truck stopped every ten minutes to pick up or drop off more people. I am just thankful for the chance to sit up front instead of the back. At one time I counted over 28 people in the truck including all kinds of bags, luggage, chickens, cans of gasoline, bicycles, dogs, goats, food, sacks of grain, and many other items. At one point in the journey I saw two guys with a very large and very live pig hogged tied over a large pole standing on the side of the rode. To my amazement the truck driver stopped and appeared to actually want to pick these guys up.
When I stepped out of the truck I was totally flabbergasted at the number of people and items already in the truck. There was five people sitting on the roof, a whole line of men sitting on the sides of the truck (some had one leg in and one leg outside the truck), a mass of women and children layered on top of all the luggage, and now the men and the pig were sticking out the back tail gate. I lost count at about 28 and was wondering how the small truck was going to carry this many people and items the next 70 kilometers especially over this very rough and hilly dirt road. Again to my amazement the truck fired up and begrudgingly began to make its difficult journey once again.
We passed by probably one hundred or more different little villages along our way. Each village to me looked identical and was made up a scattering of small grass, brick or mud huts with grass thatch for roofing. There were no signs of electricity, running water, pavement, stores, gas stations, cappuccino stands or any other form of what we would consider necessities. The only necessities I saw were their houses, a few small food and drink stands and the surrounding agricultural endeavors and livestock. As we drove through numerous lush valleys, hills and small mountain ranges I began to realize that the local population has existed for thousands of years without, what many would consider, “proper” living conditions.
As we drove along I began to ponder on who had the better life. I wonder how many of these people look back at their lives and are filled with remorse and regrets. Are people in more affluent societies better off than those who live out in the African bush? Is life only fulfilling when we have the capability of fulfilling every whim of humanity? Do those in first world countries really have it better than those in third world countries? When answering these things I believe it is important to remember whose perspective or whose yard stick we are using. As a person who has had the opportunity to travel through close to 30 different countries I have to wonder if any country of people group has the answer as to who lives a better or more fulfilling life. Can the executive of a large corporation say to the farmer that they have a better life because they make more money or live in a bigger house? Can the mother of three driving her kids to school say to the mother of three walking her kids to school say she has a better life because her kids don’t have to walk? Now I realize that people who live in true poverty or under suppressive governments suffer problems that you and I probably never will. However when our basic needs are fulfilled it is up to us to find fulfillment in our various living conditions whether we live in the wilds of Africa or in the wilds of New York City.
This truth became blaringly obvious to me as I got out of the truck and saw my beloved daughter standing under an African setting sun awaiting a hug from her old and very tired dad. If you are still wondering if I saw any wild animals the answer is no. It seems that most of the larger and problematic animal life has been relegated to various reserves around the continent and do not exist in large numbers in the wild. This fact was no concern to me by this time since the only thing I needed was a place to sleep and a daughter to visit.