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Embarrassed by the Masai

New Shirts and a Cunning Wheeze, Malawi 30 January 1996
Our twentieth day in Malawi. This follows-on from Leftovers to the Dogs. We collect our shirts from Mai, travel to the airport in the fire engine, and have made plans to avoid too close proximity to Lead Fart.
We are travelling back to Europe today. The aeroplane leaves this evening. This morning, we must go and see whether the lady who is turning our cloth into shirts and dresses, has done so.
Yes, she has. We go out to the township with Mark the driver, always best to be accompanied to the township because for one thing it is almost impossible to find your way around and for another to go alone would possibly be dangerous and certainly would attract questions and attention.
Mark’s mum has made the clothes. She has sat for the weekend at her treadle sewing machine by the open window, for there is no effective artificial light in the house, and has sewed the cloth into shirts and dresses. Beautifully sewn, and in fact I am still wearing one of the shirts from time-to-time fourteen years later.
We thank Mark’s mum and praise her and pay the agreed sum, and everyone seems happy, not least Mark. The cloth has a smell of woodsmoke about it, as well it might for there is no chimney in Mark’s mum’s house, but that gives it for us a pleasantly ethnic feel.
But there is no silver lining without a cloud. Penny and John have discovered that Mark has been seen using the SOS minibus as a bush taxi, filling it, which in Malawi means overfilling it, with paying passengers to make a bit of extra money on the side for himself, so after this jolly journey to see his mum is complete they will have to tackle him about this and tell him that if he is seen doing that again, then he’s out. He’ll take it with a knowing smile, for sure.
We have learned to our horror that Lawnmower and Lead Fart are travelling down from Mzuzu by bus today and will be on the same flight out of Lilongwe as us. Gawd! Don’t worry, says Penny, ever the efficient administrator, I’ll phone KLM and tell them you need to have seats on the aeroplane well distant from each other. You can’t do that. Yes I can, no trouble, look I’ll phone them right away. Which she does, and everything is arranged.
Hilary, Penny and me all set for a jolly ride in the fire engine, while Lead Fart and Lawnmower look on longingly.
Lead Fart and Lawnmower duly arrive and after tea served by James, to Lead Fart’s evident approval, we are all taken to the airport by John in the fire engine. We could go by car, but Penny wants to come too and there are only five seats in the car, not to mention all the luggage. So we agree that John will take Lead Fart and Lawnmower in the passenger seats of the fire engine, and Hilary, Penny, I and all the luggage will travel on the pickup back. It doesn’t look like rain.
Lead Fart and Lawnmower seem a bit peeved to be given the least-fun option here, but they are not given any real choice in the matter, and we in the back have a very jolly ride to the airport, smiling and waving at everyone we pass, who are not used to seeing white people travel this way. John looks after Lead Fart in the front. What a brick!
There is a minor difficulty for us at the airport with a stroppy customs official. He seems to be concerned that we might be taking kwatchas out of the country, which seeing as how they are pretty much worthless anywhere outside of Malawi is not something we, or anyone else for that matter, seems very likely to do. But after a bit he deigns to let us go, and we get on the plane.
We are near the front of the economy class, along with a fair sprinkling of other, predominantly white, people, some of whom have boarded at Lilongwe and some who have been on the aeroplane since Lusaka. The rear two-thirds of the plane is empty except for just two people: Lawnmower and Lead Fart, in their seats surrounded by emptiness, about half way down.
Penny had explained, fibbingly, that she had phoned KLM to try and get us seats together but the plane was well-booked and that had not been possible, so she had had to settle for seats apart, but at least she had got each of the couples sitting together as a couple. Good old Penny!
We said to Lead Fart and Lawnmower before the plane took off that their position surrounded by emptiness did seem a bit odd, but perhaps the plane was going to fill up at Nairobi. And then we hoped that it would.
At Nairobi the plane did not appear to be filling up. Some people got off and others got on but they were all occupying seats at the front of the plane in the vicinity of where we were. One couple in front of us even decided that they’d be more comfortable spread out towards the back and went and sat there.
And then, just when it seemed that the engines were revving up ready for us to go, onto the plane trooped about 150 Masai tribesmen, tall, thin, in their traditional ceremonial robes and carrying staffs with tassels on. They occupied all the seats at the back of the plane except the two containing Lead Fart and Lawnmower, who were booked there. And so we then did the long nighttime leg to Schipol, with Lead Fart and Lawnmower completely surrounded by Masai tribesmen.
Quite where the Masai were heading for and why, we have no idea, and quite whether Lead Fart and Lawnmower twigged the wheeze, we are not sure either, though we rather suspected that they did.
At Schipol we were changing to a different plane from Lead Fart and Lawnmower, as they were carrying on to London and we to Manchester, so we pretty immediately went our different ways, and we sat watching the crocodiles of KLM hostesses in their pale blue uniforms, each stewardess pulling a small wheelie suitcase behind them, and we pondered on whether there were actually lots of such crocodiles, or just one going round and round in circles.
And so ended our trip to Malawi, though I have written some afterthoughts.


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