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.

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Tanzania: Car Jackers!

Many months later, fleeing from the dark, we would remember these dazzling steps along a sandy ridge in the Sudanese desert. At midday we had tramped away from the quivering road to an old fort on the dunes. Among the crumbling ruins we found a hovel concealed in the shadows of the fort’s walls. A man clothed in rough cloth became visible in the doorway; he beckoned us inside. Slowly, hibiscus tea simmered on coals and he watched us. He murmured gently as it boiled, “on your road you have a danger, you have to move as one.” He said, “you see it first and run. Before the time to chase, you run, all in their place and all eyes forwards.” The hermit hissed as he spoke. Quietly finishing our tea, we spat back the hibiscus petals that fell into our mouths. We did not make sense of the man’s words until the day we were chased.

 

Broken Brake line (Photo AV)Tanzania was in bloom as we crept up behind the lonely blue hulk of Kilimanjaro. The rocky Mwenzi peak looked like the prow of a great ship, wrecked on an atoll in a wide green sea. A smattering of snow at the summit was a rare and melancholy sight, simply because it bears such cruel comparison to Hemingway’s“impossibly white” mountain of a few decades earlier. In Tanzania the borders of game reserves are less well defined than in Kenya. Elephants scuff the bark from the trees at the side of the road and impala flee, bouncing across the plains, from the roar of our engine. We found our camps by pushing a path from the road into the 10 ft elephant grass to fall asleep with the rustle of crickets and the barking snarl of leopards. At Lake Challa we climbed down 100m of steep jungle to jump from rocks into splendid blue water in the crater. In Moshi we tried to sell our old tyres. We were discovering that they were worthless, even in Africa, until we met a man plying a trade in recycled shoes made of tyre rubber. This was particularly opportune as Bas was woefully undershod subsequent to a disastrous flip-flop blowout a few days earlier.

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In the sparsely populated interior of Tanzania, our route took us through several vast national parks, this gave us all a great sense of moving through the real Africa, the wild, empty Africa of Livingstone and Stanley. We traversed hundreds of kilometers of green bush, red dirt and sunsets stained violet by the rising dust. In the Mikumi national park we came across a male water buffalo grazing a few metres from the road. In person they are enormous, like a huge cow, reinforced for Africa, with heavy crescent horns and a square frame of thick muscle. Rich got out of the car to photograph the placid animal when another, very different, bull arrived from the bush. The second had a broken horn and a face covered with scars and bitterness. He took an immediate dislike to Rich and dropped his head low to scowl through his thick brows. We shouted to Rich to get back in as the animal was clearly spoiling for a fight. While buffalo damage to the car might be a fun story, buffalo damage to Rich would be difficult to explain to his mother. Rich could not reach his door so leapt onto the back ladder and scrambled into the window as the bull feinted a charge at him.

Angry Buffalo (Photo DN)

Angry Buffalo (Photo DN)

This was an incident that prompted the development of a system for unexpected hazards. Should we need to get out of a situation quickly and someone is trapped outside the car they must climb to the roof, rather than gamble on the temper of any of our fickle door mechanisms, and then slither down into a window while the driver makes good the escape.

We have a system for communication from the roof as well. This was developed after a surprise elephant encounter in thick woods (the person on the roof had no means of telling those in the car that they were eye to eye with a grey wall of angry wrinkles).

When parking Tess we have learned a rhythmic tapping system from a pair of parking wizards in Istanbul. This has now been expanded to include other signals. Two taps for stop, three taps for go, and a continuous frenetic rapping for “an elephant is about to pull my head off!”.

 

We have many and varied systems for coping with the problems that have arisen so far on the trip. One is a system of co-piloting Tess in the worst of off-road conditions. The navigator uses a map and an old shabby sat-nav with an African tracks program to give the driver real time guidance on the contours of the road ahead. We have a code for communicating the location of approaching holes, rocks, mud, deep sand etc. The system allows us to effectively use six eyes instead of two to scan the road ahead. In addition to saving us from several catastrophes when we had no head lights the “six eyes is better than two” approach allows us to pretend we are racing in the (as yet un-realised) Cornwall to Cape Town Rally. _DSC0919

Before leaving Tanzania for Malawi we visited Ruaha national park. As we arrived the sun rose over a hill and shone silvery on the surface of the river. The waters of the Ruaha wind long loops among giant granite shards that burst roughly through the rolling green landscape, polkadot with Baobab trees. Being off-season and fairly remote we had the park to ourselves. We lost the day following elephant and antelope over some of the most breathtaking scenery we have encountered on the trip so far leaving the park long into the greying twilight.

Ruaha River (Photo DN)

Ruaha River (Photo DN)

 

Conversation bubbled through the car as we rumbled along the ruined track away from Ruaha. A few kilometres from the park gate we came across a pickup flashing it’s hazard lights in the narrow track ahead. Our voices lowered as we noted that there was no way past them. We could not think of a reason for a pickup to be on this isolated road and car-jackings being prevalent in this area, we paused a hundred metres short to investigate. I took the binoculars from the dash and focused on the distance. “There are a few men standing around the pickup, they have guns!”

Bas pointed out calmly, “everyone has an AK here that doesn’t mean very much”. “True” I replied, “but this is different, they aren’t slung over the shoulder like a rusty farm tool, these are on a short strap across the chest, and their hands are on the grips”

 

There was a hush in the car. “We should wait a little, to see what unfolds before we approach,” said Rich “Maybe turn the car around incase we need to get out of here quickly.”

 

Bas got out to help Rich to turn the car without dropping a wheel into either of the ditches running along the sides of the dirt track. Tap tap…tap tap…tap tap…TAP. “That is enough we will make it around”, said Rich.

Bas crept down the track to check on the pickup again. As soon as he raised the binoculars he started shouting, “they have seen us turning, they are after us!” At that moment the distant engine snarled to life and began burning towards us in a cloud of red dust.

 

Bas ran back down the track towards us, “go go go they are coming.” He leapt onto the ladder at the back and beat out the emergency rhythm on the bodywork to show he was aboard and we should bolt. As we gathered speed on the rough ground Bas scrambled up onto the roof and held tight. He cast a backward glance at the headlights that cut a swathe through the darkness behind us then slipped in through the passenger window.

 

The track flew around several bends and straightened. Rich threw a furtive look back in the mirror. The lights were gone. They must have given up. Maybe they knew we could not go back through the park gate. We were penned in. We consulted the map and found an older route away from Ruaha Park. The old road returned to the main track after 60 km. We had to take the old road and hope that we could reach the junction faster than they could or they would head us off. Minds set, we raced away though the high grass and low branches; this path had not been used in a long time.

 

Our spotlights shone a yellow corridor in the obscurity. Rich drove among the potholes and corrugations faster than we had ever dared before. The only sounds in the car were the raking branches, spitting stones and barked instructions. “Pothole 1…Rut running 2 to 3…Wooden bridge 300…Wet ford 100m”. My heart was beating tight as a bowstring as we approached for the crossroads.

 

For 90 minutes we drove, all eyes pinned on the road ahead, Hole 1 to 2, Rock 3, All silent. All stock-still. The sound of the car shaking itself apart on the ruined road jarred. Rut 3, Rocks 2 to 3, Ford, may be wet

How far is it, 17km.

Rock 3, Ditch 1, Soft Sand for 50m, 3km now

We peered into the distance, eyes bloodshot now from staring, the junction appeared. It was dark, too dark to see if anything waited for us there. We approached at ramming speed and skidded through the junction without stopping. No one saw the pickup, but who could say in the dark. We drove on for five kilometers, regularly scanning the mirrors, nothing. Still not safe, but we were forced to stop for respite. Rich’s white fingers were peeled from the wheel and he was thrown in the back to recover. It was another hour before we reached the nearest town. Lights and people, at last. The tide of adrenaline receded slowly over a jittery beer and we collapsed into a motel to sleep.