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To Mzuzu on the Bus

A Bus Ride to Mzuzu and Our First Meeting with Lead Fart and Lawnmower, Malawi 22 January 1996
Our twelfth day in Malawi. This follows on from Of Dogs and Tears. We go to stay with some of Penny’s relatives in Mzuzu and we travel there by bus, and we get introduced to Lead Fart and Lawnmower, who will be significant periodically in the rest of our stay in Malawi.
Today we are taking the bus to Mzuzu. First we go into town in Lilongwe with Penny and John to change money at the bank, buy postcards, and buy some malachite to take home. We bargain a little and buy bracelets and earrings for 500 kwatcha – eleven bracelets and a pair of earrings for £22, seems OK to us. Then a man tries to sell us a further five bracelets for a price dropping to 80 kwatcha. Should have bought them. ‘Oh, spit!’ cries Penny in her girls’ school English. ‘Oh, spit.’ Penny reckons we could have got the lot for a quarter of the price and that we’ve been done.
Then we pack the bags and drive with Penny and John to the bus station. We watch the combi vans pull up, the sliding door opens and about a hundred and fifty Malawians tumble out. These are the local buses. Most of the minibuses are Toyotas, often the sliding door does not close properly having pressed on too many bodies too often.
The Mzuzu bus arrives and we bundle on, getting ourselves a rather collapsed plastic-covered seat for the four-and-a-half hour journey. Our tickets have seat numbers on them, but we are not too surprised to find no one taking any notice of them.
The bus drives through the embassy district to the Capital Hotel to pick up business-type Africans in suits and deodorant. Then to the airport, then off down the road at full belt: 5mph up hill and 95mph down, hooting cyclist and pedestrians off the road, occasionally being obliged to slow down for an ox cart or turning Carlsberg lorry.
We pass two checkpoints where soldiers get on the bus to check passengers’ credentials, one of these checkpoints is right alongside the Zambian border. At this stop, people get off to buy hard-boiled eggs, barbecued maize and cooked chicken. Drinks and crisps are available in the bus from the smiley steward. Coke for 3.50 kwatcha per bottle (15p).
The road becomes much more deserted of people as we climb through wooded hills – on one of them a paper-making venture.
It starts to rain, giving the African passengers the excuse to close all the windows and so steam up the inside of the bus, making everyone feel sleepy including, we rather worryingly suspect, the driver. Certainly he had not changed the tape lately. Music has been played in the bus the entire journey. It started off all right with blues, then degenerated through smoochy piano to end up on Country and Western. Aargh!
We arrive in Mzuzu in one piece thankfully, to be met by John and Gillian and Lead Fart and Lawmower. Penny and John had warned us about the latter two and they were right.
Lead Fart and Lawnmower were visiting from the UK. They had first stayed with Penny and John in Lilongwe and were now with John and Gillian in Mzuzu. During their time in Lilongwe they had gained the nicknames of Lawnmower and Lead Fart (unknown to them, we hope and assume). Paul, aka Lawnmower, had something wrong with his face, which had caused Rusty at the SOS Village to remark that he looked like he had been run over by a lawnmower. Jane had got her nickname from Penny, whose girls’ school English had remarked that when you talked to Jane everything you said went down like a lead fart. So they were Lead Fart and Lawnmower.
Lead Fart tries to get every conversation round to the mundane, primarily to prevent it from getting out of her not substantial depth. She can be quite rude about it – all done in a supposedly upmarket south-of-England accent.
The first evening we were in Mzuzu they were discussing why a Malawian car mechanic, who had been on a course in Bedford including some work at the Vauxhall plant in Luton, still can’t fix a car with any evidence of commitment to the project. I suggested that perhaps he was there in the 1970s, when there was a fashion for sabotage of anything smacking of official systems. ‘We didn’t sabotage things in the 1970s’, announced Lead Fart indignantly. To which the answer was: ‘I know you didn’t dear, you weren’t a bloody motor car mechanic working for Vauxhall Motors, were you!’ But the damage is done before I get a chance to respond, the thread is broken, others rush to her rescue and change the subject. Any whiff of intelligent conversation killed. On the other hand: ‘Oh, what pretty flowers. Aren’t they pretty flowers!’ keeps her going for hours.
So the evening was made bearable largely on gin and tonics. At least Mr Lawnmower is not too bad, just rather boring, not surprisingly really since he commuted from Dorking to London every day for forty years for the same company.
The story continues with Florence Nightingale Wasn’t a Nun.


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