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The Vice-President’s Wife Deigns to Call

At the SOS Children’s Village, Lilongwe, 13 January 1996
Our third day in Malawi, on the second we had visited the SOS Children’s Village, and today we do so again, we meet the vice-president’s wife; and Barbie and Ken who might take over the running of the village; and we learn a couple of words of chichewa.
Today Hilary is running a training course at the village and we had planned to visit Lilongwe market this afternoon, this plan gets thwarted when the wife of the first vice-president of Malawi decides to postpone her planned 9am visit until the afternoon.
We all assemble to see the performance that the children have planned in honour of the visit of the wife of the first vice-president. She arrives over an hour late, which we are told is the norm in Malawi, though it’s probably actually the norm worldwide for rather mediocre people who want to show they are important, thus unwittingly demonstrating precisely the opposite.
We watch a performance of plays and songs about ‘EDSI’ (AIDS) and ‘Johnson’, which is a Malawi-accented English rendition of ‘Don’t Smoke’.
Then Mrs vice-president gives the children some cakes and they are told they can watch a video (Malawi has no television).
We go for tea with a couple of Afrikaners called Marti and Gerald, or Marti and Jirrald, or, according to Penny from her girls’ school slang perspective: Barbie and Ken; Barbie with make-up extending to the inside of her earholes. Barbie and Ken want to take over the running of the village when Penny and John leave in April, but everyone except John is suspicious of their motives; they are running away from the new South Africa and seem to like above all the idea of a big house with houseboys. John seems unconcerned about this.
Barbie and Ken ooh and aah over the little black children in much too sentimental a way, we cannot decide whether it is insincerity or they would do the same with baby monkeys. We are tense with Barbie and Ken.
So why is John, of all people, so sanguine about this. John who treats everyone with respect and bland equality and who will see through a charlatan without even needing to put his glasses on? We come to learn why, about which more later.
Having bid goodbye to Barbie and Ken we go back to Penny and John’s house for another jolly dinner, and more info about Malawians, AIDS, and aid, both of which seem to be Malawi’s greatest problems. [Next political . . .]
Before dinner, John throws some sticks into the garden for the dogs to retrieve. One of his three dogs is a pit-bull terrier, named Einstein, and John gives a demonstration of how, once Einstein has got hold of a stick in his teeth, he will not let go even though John takes hold of the other end of the stick and swings it round and round his head, Einstein still gripping the other end and being swung round and round in high circles. Einstein loves this game, it is his party-piece. The only way to get Einstein told let go of the stick is for John to tell him to drop it. Doggies love to obey their master. Creepy.
By listening to Mrs vice-president and the children, we have learned to say yes and no in Chichewa. Yes is eh, and no is uh uh. (I've since looked this up. says that yes is ee, and no iyaya, so we weren’t too far off.
Chichewa seems to have no distinction between L and R sounds, so when speaking English Malawians use these interchangeably. Someone tells us that he burned his arm when he sripped and put his hand into the file.
The story continues with A Day at the Seaside, Malawian Style.


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