Once Mozambiquan, forever smitten

Mozambique

 

(Photo: RWH)

(Photo: RWH)

In Mozambique, ghosts of Portuguese and Swahili settlers wander amongst faded colonial grandeur, unnoticed. The inhabitants of the remote north have quickly returned to the lives that they lived for hundreds of years before the colonists arrived. The only memories of the old times are the Portuguese language, the food and pastel mansions crumbling among the mud huts.

 

Over several hundred kilometers the road from southern Malawi to the Indian Ocean deteriorated from tarmac into a mud track, furrowed and ruined by rainy season run off. Villages became less frequent until we found ourselves driving through thick tropical forest bare of any kind civilization. This was a welcome change after seeing nothing but hand-ploughed land since the Sahara desert. It did not really strike home how densely and universally inhabited Africa has been until we found a place that wasn’t. Camping in this thick jungle was not easy. We had to pick a path through the thorn bushes, creepers and giant car-trap spider webs. It was worth it though, to sit tight around our campfire, to listen while distant drums beat from a wild Africa that flowed out wide and black beyond the flickering light.

 

Find Bas in the elephant grass (Photo: DN)

Find Bas in the elephant grass (Photo: DN)

Driving so far away from civilisation was exciting but came with a little apprehension. What would we do if something happened? What if the car died or even worse, a crash? The road was white sand and stones, flat and unused but blighted with potholes that could swallow the car. Driving at midday is the most treacherous. The sun sits high overhead and casts a flat light that renders all the bumps and holes in the road invisible. It was under these conditions that we lost control of the car. At 40mph a sea of potholes materialized from the blinding white road and knocked Tess into a skid. The back of the landie drifted out wide on the carpet of small rocks. Bas pulled it back but we swung out the other side even more violently. For 150 yards we skated across the surface, each exaggerated skid brought us closer to flipping over. The rubber of our tyres squealed under the strain and the luggage flew around possessed. One by one we lost our cool and started to scream in fright. Bas wrested control of the steering and ditched the car over the edge of the road, down a gully into tall grass where we rolled to a halt, every one breathing hard.

 

Bushmen (Photo: RWH)

Bushmen (Photo: RWH)

We stepped out of the car, a little shaken. Rich crawled underneath to assess the damage. Nothing seemed wrong. We couldn’t believe we had been so lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view. Tess creaked back up the embankment onto the road and set off again towards the coast. As we drove, my mind was filled with imagined scenarios. People say that above the bandits, the terrorists and the wildlife you are most likely to come a cropper in Africa as a result of the roads. They are right, and what would one do if it happened miles away from the nearest civilisation. Our near miss brought the reality of a serious injury or massive mechanical failure into sharp focus. Would we have enough food? Who would go for help? Someone would have to walk to the nearest village for assistance and it would likely take several days, longer still for the people waiting with the vehicle. It seems there is a reason the road less travelled is not, well, more travelled.

 

Ibo, a tiny island a few miles off the North Mozambique coast at Pemba, was our destination. At the end of a sandy track, too bright for my cheap sunglasses, were a large baobab tree and a driftwood kiosk selling cokes. We left Tess in the hands of the kiosk man to guard and took off our shoes. Wading through the mud into the shallow mangroves we approached a dhow bound for Ibo. Ibo is an abandoned colonial holiday spot scattered with decaying buildings. White sand and sharp crags of black volcanic rock encircle the island. The atmosphere on Ibo is very much that of island life. Nothing happens too quickly, everyone knows one another and there is no crime.

 

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

On our second day in Ibo a small boat took us out to snorkel at a shallow reef. The water was a warm, blue world. The coral was dotted with great wrinkled clams that snapped shut in a fizz of bubbles when I touched them. I have never scuba dived and this underwater landscape was a new experience for me. It was thrilling to dive and mingle with the marine creatures imagining for brief moments that I was allowed to be one of them. I wore myself out chasing bright little fishes through coral corridors. They flitted easily away from my pursuit like sparrows escaping a hawk.

 

Shallow reef snorkling trip (Photo DN)

Shallow reef snorkling trip (Photo DN)

Our boat chugged slowly through the chop as we returned from the reef, our skin drying slowly in the low sun. All of a sudden the Captain shouted to us from the wheel, the engine rattled and cut out. Warm and a little dazed I pulled my fins on and bowled out of the boat. The cold water broke on me with a start and everything was suddenly silent and black. The open sea was cold, dark and deep. Alone for a few seconds before the others plunged in beside me, I was taken by a trace of fear. Perhaps it was the chill, or the deep unknown beneath me but it felt unnatural after the shallow, colourful reef. Quickly a shadow passed below me, easy and swift. It banked left and joined three more shadows. Each beat its tail hard and then whipped off into the blackness. They came again, this time closer, slowing as they passed. There were four dolphins batting though the water, wet pebble eyes considering me as I floated.

 

I kicked hard to get close. They did not flee, they flanked me slowly as if to encourage me to come with them. Arched streamlined backs, they began to dive. Snatching a breath I dived down with them and almost imperceptibly the nearest glanced back at me, noting that I had followed. The four strong bodies spiraled deeper and deeper. I could not keep up. I returned to the surface, panting.

 

Several more times they passed us; we were awkward in their world. They urged us to play, but our sluggishness disappointed them. After a while they left us to find better sport and we returned to the boat. Everyone was vibrating from the encounter, speechless and yammering at the same time. The interaction was magnetic. A simple, good-natured relationship had developed in only a few minutes between each of us, alone in the dark sea, and a pod of dolphins. The experience was alien and yet wonderful. As we set out for home we saw the pod coursing ahead through the water. The furthest of them leapt out of the surf sending a fan of droplets from its dorsal fin that caught the light.

 

At dawn the following day we returned to the mainland. The dhow sailed nimbly through the shallow mangroves bringing island women and their wares to the market in Pemba. Huge cloth wrapped baskets and nylon sacks filled the small boat’s hull leaving only the edges for numerous passengers to jostle for seating above the spray. The bright and beautifully patterned clothing of the Mozambican women was striking in the dawn light. The lines on their sun-weathered skin were also worn well.

 

Mozambiquan Fishwife (Photo DN)

Mozambiquan Fishwife (Photo DN)

The road south from was smoothly graded, prepared by the Chinese for the construction of a new highway. Natural gas has been found off the coast so Pemba will soon be the newest raw material exploitation centre in Africa. This will probably lead to a brief explosion in the tourist industry on Ibo and surrounding islands. The property will be bought up and converted to luxury hotels for the gas company employees. In a few years the gas will dry up, the industry will leave and the island people will once again return to their small, quiet lives.

 

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

In Ilha do Mocambique the contrast between old colonial majesty and island tradition is also stark. The main square is cobbled black and white like the streets of Lisbon. The tessellated motif imitates the pattern left in the dust after island women have swept the earth in front of their door. The market brims with fruits we had never seen before, breadfruit, flat bananas, sun-dried mangos. At the seafront young men skip up the streets from the fishing boats with the catch of the day, sharks in their arms and rays on their backs.  Old ladies hunch over charcoal fires cooking red snapper on skewers. Tongues of flame lick the spiced fishes, drops of lemon spit and crackle.

 

Our fish supper (Photo AV)

Our fish supper (Photo AV)

With a huge tropical fish for our dinner we left Ilha and drove down the coast. A few kilometers after the last village we made a way through the bush to the beach and lit a fire.  After a brawl with numerous large purple spines and several punctured fingers our meal was scaled and ready. The fish cooked on the wood fire while we lay watching the southern constellations track the sky. These shapes that had been so foreign to us now seemed like home, more so even than the northern stars since roofs have become a rarity. As we waited for our dinner we mused, even fretted a little about how much the trip has changed us. We have occasionally entertained worries that we would not easily reassume our old lives. After eight months speaking almost exclusively with each other, how will we converse with people whose opinions, habits and characteristics are unfamiliar? How will we kick habits like walking barefoot through the middle of town or showering only twice a week?

 

Skills we have learned which are indispensable here will quickly become useless back home. The capacity to sleep soundly in a hut that is crawling with spiders as big as your hand will no longer be necessary in Cornwall. The ability to gather wood, build a fire and cook a fish on it will also seem distinctly obsolete when we cast our mind back from the queue in a fish and chip shop. Perhaps the most difficult thing will be to reintegrate with western opinions. There is a marked difference between the acceptable topics of conversation in Africa and at home. In Cornwall a few eyebrows might be raised if we try to argue the benefits of restoring the ivory trade, discuss Mugabe’s commendable achievements before the economic collapse or the futility of charitable work in Africa. On the other hand it will probably be good for us to learn to keep our opinions to ourselves occasionally. The fish was great.

 

Wild camping on the coast (Photo: RWH)

Wild camping on the coast (Photo: RWH)

In the morning we lifted our mosquito nets to see the sun creeping into the world over the brow of a shimmering silent sea. The earliest fishermen were scudding along the horizon in their shallow bottomed sailing boats as we paddled about in the water. It was difficult to leave such a lovely scene but like on so many other perfect mornings we packed up and set off to the next destination on our journey. We were heading to Chimoio where Alki would find her bus to Tofu in the south of Mozambique. Alki would leave the trip for a couple of weeks to go on scuba safari, pursuing giant manta rays.

 

On the road to Chimoio our clutch failed, the first major mechanical failure of the trip and real disappointment so close to the finishing line. At the side of the road, in the midday heat dismantling the master and slave cylinder. We succeeded only in making the problem worse however as we were unable to put it all back together. The only solution was going to be to remove the engine or drop the transfer box. As we did not relish the idea of doing this at the side of the road we decided to attempt to drive without a clutch until the next big town to get it fixed. The next big town was Mutare in Zimbabwe.

 

After dropping Alki at her bus we departed for Mutare making quite a scene. In order to set off we had to push the car up to first gear speed. Then like a bobsled team we were to run alongside the moving vehicle and leap into our seats. What actually happened was Bas and I both went for the same door, in confusion I trod on Bas’ flipflop tripping him onto the tarmac. I then jumped for the door, hit my head on the frame and bounced back out to join Bas on the tarmac. These antics were viewed by large crowd of market goers and pedestrians who all dutifully cheered and jeered our ridiculous display. There was a similar farce at the Zimbabwe border crossing. The border is on a slight incline so we recruited the help of the surly border soldiers. They reluctantly put down their AKs to throw a their weight behind Tess, who choked and jerked into gear and pulled away leaving them in a cloud of black smoke. Welcome to Zimbabwe.

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We’ve Done It!

Late on the evening of the 10th of June, exactly nine months after the team set off from Perranporth, the Cornwall to Cape Town expedition arrived in Cape Town. The punters of Long St, central Cape Town, found their evenings interrupted by the arrival of a large red Land Rover, complete with three foot Kudu horns on the front, firewood piled on top, and POLICE in large letters on the side. They may have wondered why the occupants appeared so elated. Scarce did they know that this was their 21,758th mile, their 30th country, their 243rd day.

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

We would like to thank our families, friends, and everyone who has made this trip possible. It really has been one of the best experiences of our lives and we could never have achieved without the help we have received.

Please keep popping back to read the rest of the story about how we made it to Cape Town. It’s a fair old yarn. And don’t forget about that big red ‘Donate’ button on the right of your screens!

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

The Two Sides of Malawi

It was with some urgency that we set out towards Malawi. The ‘Administrative, Budget and Planning Board’ that had been threatening for some months now to meet had finally congregated in the Tanzanian equivalent of a greasy spoon, yielding some worrying conclusions. We were seven months through a nine month trip. We still had 5,000 miles and five huge countries to see. We had spent 60% of our entire budget in the initial two European months. Dan had no trousers left…

We set off for Malawi post haste, determined to make the most of our time left on this continent. Our first decent tarmac road for days meant we could creep up to our top speed of 55 mph. This turned out to be a bit of a terrifying experience. Something had changed, worked its way loose, or worn out, something we had missed despite our daily checks on the car. It wandered across the road like a distracted cow, correcting direction as violently as if it had been spooked. Safe as to say that handling isn’t Tess’ strong point at the best of times. In a car that takes a half turn of the steering wheel to produce any effect and only has three brakes, one of which intermittently seizes on, our movement was something akin to a drunkard with his legs tied together. This 500 mile leg also proved too much for our drive shaft, which had been protesting thanks to a disintegrating universal joint. The team took a relaxed and very protracted lunch as we dropped the drive shaft off, managing to replace old joint with new thanks to a forward thinking quartermaster and the best of Land Rover tools: a lump hammer.

The long and winding road  (Photo: RWH)

The long and winding road (Photo: RWH)

All of this didn’t make for a relaxing drive. We approached the Tanzanian-Malawian border late at night, predictably finding a huge steel gate proclaiming it closed. We found hawkers, tinkers, fixers and beggars, spectral shapes melting out of the grimy darkness, their outlines sharpening against the greasy light of burning paraffin wicks on the market stalls as they approached to grasp and knock at our windows. We were exhausted from being on the road for days, from a string of washed out camps in soggy sleeping bags. We retreated into a nameless hotel and paid over the odds for a slice of foam and an icy bucket of water.

Dry slumber, sweet coffee and the emerging morning sun revealed a town reborn. The spectres were friendly today, distinguishable as individuals, helpful Christians. After so long on the road, it still surprises us how the body’s basic needs influences perception so much. We were ushered into Malawi with smiles and without the need to pay for a visa. At the many police road blocks, we were greeted with friendly but stringent adherence to the law, and a peculiar eagerness to exhibit Malawi’s beauty to tourists. One officer in particular stands out. He bounded eagerly to our window and enveloped our hands in his that were clad in white cotton. Eyebrows arched, eyes sparkling, he leaned in and, as though he had only just clapped eyes on it himself, asked us “Have you seen our LAKE!?”

Lake Malawi  (Photo: RWH)

Lake Malawi (Photo: RWH)

The very north was lush, the road a raised cob through endless flooded rice paddies, a hangover from Tanzania. People padded along the road, dried mud extending up their ankles like socks covering their bare feet. Sit-up-and-beg bicycles meandered along, sugar cane, firewood, or children clinging to the back. Before long the road began to rise, and we found ourselves in a completely new landscape, where huge rounded tors pushed up from great expanses of planes. Woodland appeared, hardwoods of size and density that we hadn’t seen since Europe. Although it had lost none of its strength, the sun had begun to cast shadows at midday again, and no longer dropped like a stone at its setting. We were southward bound, and Capricorn was closer now than the Equator.

Our goal was Zomba, a small city which had been the British colonial capital back when Malawi was Nyasaland. It is a green and leafy settlement, full of parks, croquet lawns, tea houses, botanical gardens, a golf course, and even a gymkhana club. Modern Africa has had its way here too, however, and the streets writhed with the movement of minibus stands, maize sellers and wooden stalls, all bustling to the cracked music of the local bars. We were here to run a feasibility study for an international research study, and would be staying in a district hospital a few miles outside of Zomba.

As a traveller or backpacker you could be forgiven for thinking Malawi is a progressive, developed African country with a flourishing economy and good infrastructure. It would be easy to navigate from hippy hostel to plush lakeside campsite, experiencing the beauty of the country and the company of those Malawians lucky enough to work in the tourist industry. In reality, Malawi has one of the least developed economies in the world, highly dependent on aid and IMF/World Bank input throughout the ‘00s. 70% of their export revenue is raised from tobacco sales, the price of which is dwindling. Despite having a multi party democratic political system, the international community has expressed repeated concerns over senior level corruption and human rights breeches including illegalizing homosexuality, freedom of speech, and censoring of the press; there is only one television station, and it is government owned.

Attending clinic  (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

Attending clinic (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

From a medical point of view, Malawians born today can expect to live to 50 years, if they make it beyond 5 years old; 8.3% won’t. The HIV/AIDs prevalence is 10%. The maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. CRADLE, the study with which we are working, aims to help tackle the last of these problems by determining if a nationwide blood pressure monitoring service for pregnant mothers would reduce mortality. It would aim to identify and treat those mothers at risk of pre-eclampsia, a condition which can be identified by high blood pressure in pregnancy, and can progress to eclampsia, which can be fatal for both mother and foetus. Our job was to work out if running such a service in Malawi was a possibility.

As it turned out, this feasibility study led to our best experiences in this country. Guided by Grace, a hugely hospitable battleaxe of both Malawian and British citizenship, we bounced around the country side, visiting rural clinics and health centres. Tess was integral to our work, as most of the tracks were used by a four wheeled vehicle only once a month, bound for the very clinics we were visiting. Elephant grass encroached on both sides, and we crawled through villages and past markets seldom seen by outsiders. Cyclists would swerve into the long grass at the site of us, staring nonplussed as we passed, apologizing furiously.

Health education at the beginning of clinic  (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

Health education at the beginning of clinic (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

The clinics themselves are often run in the village church, Malawi being 80% Christian. Invariably, tens of women and children gather under a tree outside, waiting for the health workers to arrive and deliver an educational talk to begin. Then they all line up to be seen by respective professionals; all nurses and clinical officers, no physicians. Family planning, infant vaccinations, maternal advice and monitoring; all bases were covered in these multipurpose clinics.

We were surprised by the clarity of organisation of healthcare here; the system for information gathering and auditing is really impressive. The facilities themselves of course suffer from under investment and under staffing, but the whole sector seemed to have a positive ethos for development. We wondered if this was a legacy of Dr Hastings Banda, the British trained GP who led Nyasaland to independence and ruled Malawi under a one party system for 33 years. We are hoping to feed back or assessment to CRADLE in the near future.

Towards the end of our stay, we received an invitation from the District Health Officer to visit him in his office. We were assured this was a great honour, and indeed the security and establishment suggested as much. Ushered into his office we were greeted by a portly man of short stature, who rose from his excessive leather wing-backed chair to extend a well manicured hand from within his rather ill fitting suit. I was reminded greatly of the Fat Controller, if any of you can remember Thomas the Tank Engine. This was a ceremonial handover of the blood pressure monitors that we had smuggled across Africa in the back of our car, originally intended for the CRADLE project in Ethiopia before they had pulled out of that country. There were many smiles, many handshakes, a few photos, and we were ushered out again.

The District Health Officer  (Photo: RWH)

The District Health Officer (Photo: RWH)

The time had come to leave Zomba and the excellent company of Grace. The Administrative, Budget and Planning Board had been unable to agree on whether we should go to Mozambique or Namibia, and so we had compromised by committing to visiting both. Although geographically inconvenient, especially given our time and budget deficits, this solution would also afford us the excuse of driving through Zimbabwe and Botswana. As it turned out, visas for Mozambique require letters of invitation and confirmation of accommodation booking, both of which had to be ‘drafted’ in an internet café before application. Having successfully duped the embassy, we set off towards Mozambique, skirting south along the crystalline shores of Lake Malawi. Tess still wandered across the road, but given the state of the roads in Mozambique, we didn’t expect to get above 40mph the whole way.

Dancing with Demons from the DRC

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A huge plate of chips-a-myeye weighed heavily as we stepped among the crumbs of broken concrete in another filthy trucker stop town. We arrived at our chintzy bed and breakfast, the “Triple J Hotel’s” [sic], and were about to turn in when Bas noticed music coming from a dimly lit building across the road. I was sent off to investigate while Rich, Bas and Alki remained. I found the building lit but empty and the music resonating from still further away so I pressed on into the solid black night. Cat’s moaned as I picked my way between warped shacks and squalid passages. After walking for much longer than planned I found a tiny square covered by a ragged tarpaulin and hemmed on all sides by surrounding buildings. The music bounced and roared in the tight space. Yellow glare from a single bulb cast faces into shadow, fusing a mass of black bodies into a single dark beast dancing, shouting, writhing and fighting in celebration.

 

As I watched, a white eye from the depths of the beast fastened on my white face and a stillness spread from it. A legion of eyes turned to see me while the mud-caked sound system continued its lonely crashing beat. Moments passed and I began to imagine a flicker of hostility in this dark well of eyes when the body of a woman leapt across the light and grabbed me by the arm. She dragged me roughly beneath the tarp and smiling, danced me to the middle of the crowd. The instant she did so the mass dissolved into individual bodies and danced with me.

 

As I jumped and stamped along with the rhythm of bare feet beating the packed dirt my dance partner was dragged away into the crowd by a thick arm. An African buffalo of a man replaced her and danced for a short while under the glow of the bulb without breaking my gaze. As I tried to turn away to dance elsewhere he took me by the hand and dragged me out into the shadows at the edge of the music. He spoke to me quickly in a language I didn’t recognise and tried to drag me away down an alley between two buildings. I resisted but he was strong and I was lead down three or four backstreets.

 

Suddenly we stopped and the man stared at me showing a muddle of fear and anger that I could not differentiate. He then pushed open a sheet of corrugated steel in a doorway and turned on a light to reveal a heap of sleeping bodies covered in soiled blankets. He crashed around waking all, to show them the guest he had brought. He told me his name, Nicko, and pointed to his mother among mire of fabric. She blinked her tiny wrinkled eyes as Nicko buzzed around her explaining my presence.

A friend of Nicko’s was able to translate. Nicko was Congalese, his father had had his arm cut off with a machete, then been killed by the army. These people were all refugees from the war in the DRC. Nicko returned from his mother and told me urgently that I had to leave. He said I must not dance at this celebration I must stay here in the room with the refugees and his mother until it is over as it is not safe for me. I suggested that it would be perhaps better if I left altogether and he agreed.

 

As I walked back towards the party I saw that Bas had followed the music as well and was to be seen dancing with gusto in the midst of the crowd. He had clearly become worried that I was having fun without him or perhaps had been kidnapped, in that order of importance. I pushed through the crowd and was forced into further dance offs. I danced along and tried to keep up with my being passed from person to person like a new toy. Eventually I was able to get a word in Bas’ ear. “I am not sure we are particularly welcome here, I think perhaps we ought to go” He looked around. Outside the dome of dusty light there stood a semi circle of men watching us, arms folded and brows low in the dark. “I see…” whispered Bas back at me. We began edging our way towards the alley that we had arrived from but our way was blocked. Several people were carrying the body of a man towards the centre of the dirt floor. They lowered him to the ground and people started fanning this, seemingly unconscious, man with their clothes. The man began to convulse on the floor, kicking his legs out and arching his back while people feverishly wafted their jackets at him. A young man in a clerical collar, silver jewellery and dark sunglasses approached. He took hold of the fitting man firmly by the head and began loudly repeating a prayer in Swahili. The man on the floor was soon rid of his demons and leapt to his feet. Four more people replaced him on the floor and commenced fitting and writhing to the visible delight of the crowd. As the priest wrestled with them I noticed another white face in the crowd. Rich too had surrendered to his fear of missing out and followed us. While the crowd was engaged by the miracles being wrought before their eyes we slipped away towards home.

 

Nicko caught us before our escape was complete. He crushed us in turn across his thick chest as he bade us an earnest farewell.  He proudly told us he used to be a driver before he was forced to flee the Congo. To prove this he pulled his wallet from a pocket and opened it. The small nylon wallet was almost bare. It contained no money, no photos, no scraps of paper or receipts. There was only a single card bearing the words “RDC – Permis de Conduire”.  I wondered why he carried the wallet with him at all. A fugitive’s few possessions are still possessions I suppose.