Thursday, August 26, 2010

Malawi: African Time

And so I arrived---alive and well and with all my luggage---and was properly oriented to the dangers of darkest Africa. Still jetlagged, I departed once again---this time for Mzuzu (in the north of Malawi) and my friend Jean’s wedding. Getting there was an experience in “African time.”

I should state here that I know plenty of Malawians (and people of other African nationalities) who are perfectly capable of telling time and keeping to a schedule. So I generally think that “African time” is bunk. But . . . I also can’t deny that time and schedules have a different meaning here, and even the most well-educated, professional, Westernized Malawians can have a rather elastic interpretation of time.

And so, on that Thursday, I was to be picked up by an embassy driver at 7.30 am so that I could cash a check before I departed. The driver did not arrive until 9.30---and only after several calls to my contact to check on his progress. I had intended to leave for the bus depot at 10.00; that got pushed back to 11.00. At least the driver for the guest house arrived on time to pick me up to go to the bus depot. Then he dropped me in the wrong place for the bus. Fortunately, someone who was also going to Mzuzu got me to the right place. Unfortunately, by the time I figured out that I was in the wrong place and got to the right place, the bus that I wanted was full---not even standing room. So my new traveling companion and I went in search of another bus.

A note about buses in Malawi: In recent years, Malawi has expanded its options for public transportation. When I first came to Malawi in 2003, coach buses were few and far between and had limited runs, usually overnight. We mostly traveled by minibus. Now, Malawi has two large bus companies---the National bus and the Axa bus---that run more or less on time (i.e., the buses generally depart within an hour of their scheduled time). In addition, a number of other companies run what are known as “local” buses---coach buses that depart when they are full and make more stops than the National or Axa bus. Then, there are the minibuses, although my impression is that most people only use those for short distances anymore.

Because we had missed the Axa bus, we boarded one of the local buses. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. We finally began to move around 2.30 pm, but only went from one end of the bus depot to the other, where we waited some more as the conductor tried to push a few more passengers onto a filled-to-capacity bus. After much protesting by the other passengers, the bus finally departed the depot---and went about 2k to the petrol station. Apparently, there was a problem with the tire. For whatever reason, they couldn’t resolve the problem at the first petrol station, so we went to another. And then another. We didn’t actually leave Lilongwe until after 3.00 in the afternoon---which was about the time I had hoped to arrive in Mzuzu.

I've decided that Malawi's naional motto needs to be changed from "The Warm Heart of Africa" to "The Place Where You Wait."

We finally get on the road. I had been told by several people that the trip to Mzuzu would take four, maybe five, hours. These people must only travel by car. We didn’t arrive until about 9.30 that night. Mind you, I was still very jetlagged and now hungry, filthy, and very annoyed---and very sticky. At one of the stops along the way---the Kasungu depot---I gave into hunger and thirst and bought a Coke and some peanuts. I then promptly spilled the soda all over me---my tote bag, my pants, my fleece jacket. Thank goodness that chitenjis are very absorbent! (And that I was carrying mine with me.)

But the trip did have two bright spots: My friend Jean was at the depot to greet me when I arrived, and I found that one of Jean’s nieces---whom I had known when I was in Zomba two years ago---was on the same bus (we were on the same bus for more than seven hours and only realized that we knew each other when we reached the depot!). So at least I didn’t have to wait alone at a dark bus depot.

I was thrilled to see Jean again---we hadn’t seen each other for two years---and to meet her husband-to-be, Joshua.

Joshua drove Jean, Ethel, and I to the house of Jean’s friend, Ellemes, where we would spend the night---and I would spend the rest of the weekend. Also staying at the house was another of Jean’s nieces, Gwen, who I knew from my previous stay. (Among others---it was a very full house for the weekend.) We had tea, caught up, shared photos, ate a late dinner, and finally fell into bed.

The next day was the beginning of the wedding festivities . . .


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