Monday, 18 July 2011
We left Tom’s village early this morning, headed to the village of Collin, another Peace Corps volunteer whose site is just a bit further back towards Kasungu along the tarmac road. Before leaving, we stopped in at Happy’s Tea Room (a tea room run by a woman named Happy) for some Malawian tea, which is served with one part tea, one part milk, and two parts sugar. We were then off along our way, beginning the journey in an extremely crowded flatbed truck, which was transporting a rowdy football (soccer) team, among others. Then, at a crossroads, we transferred to minibus. As usual, this minibus was painfully overcrowded – in fact, there was actually no room at all, even by Malawian standards, so the driver simply had us sit on the rear fender, with our legs hanging out the back, bags on our laps, and holding on for our lives. The problem (the only problem??) arose when we had travelled a few kilometers or so, when we reached a police roadblock.
Although it’s standard practice to pack minibuses and other transports well past their capacities, Malawian law does, in fact, prohibit the practice. The police were obviously not pleased with our driver, and they instructed him to get out of his bus. He crossed the road, paid a bribe in plain sight, and returned to tell us to walk up the road, just out of sight of the police, where he would pick us up again. We agreed, but only for a discount. Maddeningly, the driver said no, even though he had given us the ‘mzungu’ price to begin with. We reminded him we were doing him a favor, and he relunctantly agreed. Yes, jam-packed transportation is certainly the overall theme of this trip!
Bribery here in Malawi is usually a problem, and it has recently been made worse by severe political problems. In the past several weeks, several major donor countries have stopped aid, which constitutes the bulk of revenue in this poor, tiny, landlocked country. The reason is not completely clear to me yet, but as far as I can tell, the government is up to some shady business, and I probably shouldn’t discuss it publicly anyway. However, what I can say is that there are major shortages of fuel and other commodities, since foreign exchange has been cut off – there are no U.S. dollars to buy goods at the moment. The government is raising taxes to compensate, quite dramatically (e.g. a loaf of bread went from 100 Malawi kwacha one day to 140 the next, last week -- an increase from about $0.65 to $0.90, quite a drastic change for a family earning a dollar a day or less). There are demonstrations planned, in fact, for Wednesday, and we’re glad to see that people are reacting to all this mess, hoping it doesn’t turn too ugly.
At any rate, we arrived safely in the early afternoon at Collin’s house. We needed to pick up some veggies from the local market for dinner, and despite warnings from Tom against the idea, I decided to bring my camera. As we were buying our tomatoes, a group of 3 small children asked if I would take their photo, and I agreed. Well that set it off – almost instantaneously, and out of nowhere, there were 30 children surrounding us, screaming for photos. They followed us through the village, eyes fixed on the lens, doing flips and summersaults and walking on their hands, and when I showed them the photos, they screamed in astonishment, nearly at the tops of their little lungs. That was fun, but the next time I need to pick up some groceries here, the camera stays home…