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Shirts, Shouts and Township

We Buy Material to Get a Shirt Made and Encounter Scenarios in the Bank, Malawi 26 January 1996
Our sixteenth day in Malawi, this follows-on from Shocking News, the news that Hilary’s dad had died. We carry on today, to buy cloth and take it to the lady who will make it into some shirts for us. Penny and John meanwhile have a difficult meeting with the trustees.
We go to Lilongwe New Town where we buy some material for shirts in an Indian-run shop. We could have haggled in the market but we are running out of time – too much to do in the time allotted.
Then back to the house to collect So-fire’s rucksack for she is going to take the bus to Mzuzu. We see the same smelly-armpitted American who was our companion on the bus yesterday; he will be Sofia’s companion for the journey today.
Sofia thinks she’ll be OK – she’s travelled far and wide, including a recent third-class rail trip in Zimbabwe where the people on the seats opposite were drinking shake-shake and getting increasingly merry. Sofia was a bit concerned but did not have to be, the Zimbabweans spent the entire night singing, ‘Jesus loves me’ and the like – the equivalent of the Old Mill by the Stream Nellie Dean, Zimbabwean drinker’s-style.
(We had discovered at Sambani Beach what shake-shake is. In essence it is maize an millet left to ferment in water, and drunk in its fermenting state before it has gone off. The bowl is shaken to get the sediment agitated before and during drinking.)
We left Sofia and her bags at the bus station and went back to the mental handicap place where we’d bought materials yesterday, to buy some more and then we go to the SOS Village where Mark the driver takes over the wheel and drives us to his home village to see his mum.
The township. The white and grey house on the right could have been Mark’s mum’s house, it certainly looked very much like that.
The car will only go so far as the road gets too muddy so we walk the rest. Not too badly stared-at because we’re with Mark. Shed houses, mud, children, and maize growing in every available open space.
Mark’s mum’s sitting room is not all that different from those of poorer working class London families of the 1950s. It helps being warm outside though. Some old armchairs covered with ripped fabric. A table with a dusty ghetto-blaster (would have been a wireless in the old London days). A bookcase (that is different from 1950s London). Some religious pictures on the wall. No knick-knacks (also unlike the 1950s).
Mark’s mum has had thirteen children and looks about 30. We show her our material and she memorises all the instructions – we hope. Her English is very minimal, so we have no idea what she is thinking really. Mark could translate into Chichewa but she seems to understand without that. She and Mark seem overwhelmed and delighted by what we will pay to turn cloth into shirts. 75 kwatcha (£3) per shirt; 150 kwatcha (£6) for a women’s suit. Penny advises us on amounts and fixes the prices with Mai (Mai seems to be either mother or Mrs or madam, or possibly any of those).
We shall see our material again next Tuesday – maybe.
On the way back home we stop at the bank to change some dollars. The foreign exchange counter is hogged by three men paying in briefcases full of money. A lady comes to tell the cashier that he shouldn’t be accepting this, that they should have queued at the paying-in counters like everyone else. Charles the cashier mumbles that he’ll soon be through. The men tell the lady that they will kill her if she doesn’t shut up – in the friendliest possible tone of voice. Charles does not look a happy boy when we get to him.
Behind us is a group of overlanding Aussies, all grubby and sweaty, in direct contrast to the great majority of Malawians. All part of the image of pioneering and travelling overland, but they look terrible.
A black man at the next counter is looking like he is about to flip. Something about exchange rates. He is American, much lighter-skinned than the average Malawian. He wants things to work efficiently like they do in the States. He begins shouting and doing his nut. We think that perhaps he works for Africare, the black-brothers’ aid agency. [Next political . . .]
Then home for a drink on the khonde, produced by James. James seem to be a chief from Bandawe, who now makes tea, washes, cleans and irons underpants for the white man (and woman). James is not unusual, many South Africans are moving north to Malawi, where their old lifestyle can be upheld.
So-fire, who is by now in Mzuzu, has been told by Godwin when she visited some time previously that there are many educated and experienced Malawians living abroad; if they come back they either lapse into poverty as their meagre Malawian salary has to be shared with their extended family, or they may get spirited away almost as soon as they leave the airport if they seem to pose a threat to the political staus quo.
Godwin also says that many Malawians lend money to their colleagues at high interest rates and with high risk. There’s an element of pre-1940s London about this.
We wonder how So-fire is coping with Lead Fart in Mzuzu, for So-fire is an intelligent girl. We did warn her however.
The story continues with The Aid Train.


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