Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Helen Lunn
“I seem to have a chicken” he mumbled apologetically “would you like it”.
I had never been greeted in such a way before, and, rather confused, I answered yes. When, three hours later, there was still no sign of the bird, we settled for another dose of rice and gunge.
I had been on Likoma Island for four days. It was a beautiful place, eight hours by boat from the mainland in the middle of Lake Malawi. My plan had been to catch the down boat one day, spend three days on the island, then catch the up boat back. My visa was nearing its end and there were other places I wanted to explore before I left the country.
Likoma village was up a hill from where the boat landed, but it was worth the climb. It was beautiful to look down on the lake, and the village itself was lovely. At least, so it seemed to a visitor who was free to leave. Materially people were poor, and the diet was bland and monotonous. For children the place was a playground. The lake was clean and safe and the sun shone. There were no cars. School mostly happened outdoors. People lived a hand to mouth existence, though sometimes women would take a boat to the next town to sell food and handicrafts. They made a bit of money from the few tourists who came to the island.
We tourists agreed that Likoma was lovely for a couple of days. We swam in the clean, warm water, one of the few expanses of water in Africa free from disease or crocodiles. We were happy to eat simple food, sitting on the floor. The water we were offered tasted burnt and smokey, but we knew it was safe. Paraffin lamps made a welcome change from the harsh glare of fluorescent tubes, and paraffin lamps didn’t have power cuts. The whole feel of the place was warm and welcoming.
I started each morning with a walk to the hospital, as I had foolishly allowed some mosquito bites to become infected. They needed squeezing and dressing. He said that they would get better, but urged me to return to the mainland soon. He was satisfied when I told him that I was booked onto the next boat down.
The next morning Steve, one of my fellow travellers, came to the hospital with me. He was surprised to have woken up on the floor, his shoulder throbbing with pain. The night before he had dreamt of being involved in a fight, running away from knife wielding thugs. So vivid was the dream, and so great his need to escape, that, even though he was asleep, he had thrown himself through his mosquito net- there was a large hole in it to prove it. His shoulder was dislocated and the same doctor who had squeezed my spots told him that he also needed treatment on the mainland. Steve was a little frustrated, being unable to swim or play volleyball. At least the sun shone and he was able to enjoy that.
The next day we were ready to leave, and packed up all set for the boat. We thanked our hosts and said our farewells. We weren’t worried when the boat didn’t arrive, having got used to “African time”. The jetty was busy with potential travellers, chatting happily, untroubled by the delay. The mood changed a bit when we were told that the boat was not coming at all that day, and no one knew when the next down boat would be. There was a problem with the engine. “The boat will leave after it has arrived,” we were told.
While most people, after some grumbling, accepted that they were not going anywhere, there was one woman who had good reason to be unhappy. She was due to marry in a few days time, and her future husband should have arrived on the boat. Her family were pressurising her to have the party anyway. The goat was bought, the venue booked, they could not afford to cancel. The tourists were pleased that they would witness a Malawian village wedding, though not an entirely orthodox as the bridegroom would be absent. The bride tried to make the best of it.
We wondered vaguely what had happened to the chicken. The next day the man sidled up to me again “I still seem to have that chicken” he said. Musing as to what state it would be in by now, with some hesitation I agreed to relieve him of it. Some minutes it arrived, very much alive and kicking. I felt feebly squeamish about killing and preparing it, but a man who had just finished his time in the Israeli army had no qualms. He barbecued it on a tent peg and we lit a fire. It was delicious.
We were glad to have stayed for the wedding party and the chicken but the boat’s delay was now causing concern. Other people were coming to the end of their visa too, and Steve and I wanted to get to a hospital. Drastic action was needed. I heard that a police boat was coming. If we asked nicely there might be space on it. Steve and I knocked tentatively on the chief’s door. We talked for a long time. Eventually he said he could fit us in, all six of us. We were very happy. Likoma was lovely but it was even more lovely to leave.
The next day we happily tumbled into the boat, tightly crammed. It was much quicker than getting there, but much less comfortable. We were glad to be back on the mainland, and Steve and I went in search of the hospital. We had had enough island life to last us for a while.