When I arrived from the UK on a blistering, arid August afternoon the first thing I noticed was the vibrant sunshine and searing heat as I stepped off the aeroplane. Obviously I was shattered after a twenty four hour journey but nonetheless excited at finally arriving in Blantyre albeit a little anxious about what to expect. I had never been to Malawi or Africa for that matter. I am embarrassed to say that most of my prior knowledge of the country was from watching the news on British TV, knowing that Madonna had adopted a child from the country and reading some blurb in a couple of guidebooks.
Yet, if I had read up on Malawi and studied a few heavy text books, would I have still ventured here? I’d like to think so.
The airport was small, tatty and quite frankly uninviting. The Malawian officials herded people into an appropriate queue for passport control and as I ventured up to the desk I prepared to say my first phrase in Chichewa, “Muli Biwanji!” – “Fine” was the reply, as the women gestured me through. What a disappointment, to have spoken to my first Malawian, who replied in English!
The airport porters swarmed around me, insistent that they take my luggage out to the waiting minibus. They unnerved me and I felt very protective of my belongings but eventually gave in to their persistency, only then to feel embarrassed that I had no kwacha to offer in recompense.
Outside in the car park I was able to gain my first view of the country. A young girl was walking bare footed along the perimeter fence with a small child, about a year old, tied to her back with chijendi. She was beautiful with large doe eyes and glistening skin under the blazing sun. I guessed her age must have been twelve or thirteen and I immediately wondered if the small child was hers or if it was common for siblings to carry each other. Our eyes met and I felt uncomfortable but was not sure why; – did I reek of wealth with my luggage and clothes, or was it because I was white?I did not know it at the time, but this feeling of awkwardness was going to return many times during my stay.
The minibus journey was both exhilarating yet terrifying. The words ‘God Hopes’, was ironically written on the bonnet: I was squashed in with four other passengers, together sharing two seats, feeling very claustrophobic. It seemed that there was no limit to how many people the minibus could hold. We spluttered along with no seat belts, a cracked window screen and only our bags to cling onto as we swerved around the traffic, pot holes and numerous pedestrians. I concluded that minibus travel was a luxury for most people as the road to Blantyre was heaving with people walking in all directions. I was acutely aware that I had broken into a sweat as I was unsure where I was going and how to get the driver to stop. We passed what I believed were the suburbs of the town: squat, sprawling, square brick houses with a mixture of corrugated and straw roofs.
Outside there were women sitting using giant mortar and pestle vessels to pound maize, men transporting towering stacks of firewood precariously on a bike and so many children, playing football, sitting under the shade of trees or running around kicking up the dry dust. It was difficult to take the view as the speed limit of the minibus was either fast or extra fast.
Eventually, accompanied by a fanfare of horn honking,we entered the town of Blantyre where I recognised the clock tower, an ugly, bent incongruous concrete folly. It was evident that some effort was being made to spruce up the main drag with attractive landscaped roundabouts but it could not detract from the cracked, almost non-existent pavements, the dark and uninviting steel clad shops and blue plastic rubbish bags strewn through the streets.
The minibus pulled into a narrow alley and as all the passengers alighted, I assumed this was the last stop. Dragging my luggage along the kerb I headed towards my hotel and was able to soak up the bustling atmosphere of office workers, hawkers and shopkeepers going about their business.
As people nodded or smiled at me, my spirits lifted. I asked myself if I had perhaps been too critical. It was a beautiful day, I was in a different country and was about to start an exciting new chapter of my life.