(due to the very homophobic culture of Malawi, I apologize for not using many actual names in this story. Google works as well here (albeit much slower) and I do not want to compromise what is happening in any way. Thanks for understanding)
We arrived in Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi on Sunday evening around 6pm. It had just gotten dark and the Ilala was running more than 10 hours late. It was Louis's birthday and I knew that Jack had called ahead for a birthday cake. I also knew that the SGN online was now going to be a day late being uploaded and I hadn't even 'experienced' the web connection. I was tired and overwhelmed.
Jack had also reserved us the 'prime' double hut over looking the beach at Big Blue Star Backpackers. Louis and I moved in, excited, but in many ways so disappointed. We had just come from spending 3 nights at Mango Drift on Likoma Island. It was one of the nicest backpackers we had experienced anywhere. We looked at each other and Louis groaned, 'this is a dump'. It is important though, if you don't read much further, that out of all the backpackers lodges in Nkhata Bay, Big Blue became my favorite for many reasons. There are places with better ambience, bars, and restaurants. Some like Myoka Village are 'a beautiful fantasy' on the lake and a partiers favorite. Butterfly is somewhat in need of some repair, visually stunning and has a great clientele. Its owner AJ who is so community supportive became one of Louis's most enjoyed people during our stay. We spent time in all of them, and during the last number of days, Louis stayed at Myoka and I at Big Blue and the final night at Big Blue.
After celebrating Louis's birthday with a big chocolate cake in the Big Blue bar, I excused myself to get online to start work. The connection worked, but was so slow, so tedious. I downloaded the files, one by one and edited them to html as they were downloaded. What would take 12 to 17 minutes to download in Seattle, would turn out to be about 5 hours of downloads in Malawi. I was prepared to stay up and get it done. Then the web connection died after about 3 hours. I went to bed ready to start again at 7am when Jack would arrive and open the office.
I was up at 6:30 in the morning and I was ready to meet Jack at the office at 7am. I worked until around 2, when I got the site live and could somewhat relax. Unable to download the SGN's pdf files and large picture files had limited the content of the paper on line, but I did feel accomplished that all the stories were online. I would work on it for the next couple of days.
The rest of the day we explored Nkhata Bay with Jack. Visiting the ATM first and then walking around in the business area of the town. Describing Nkhata Bay is difficult. The business area with shops, restaurants and bars is compact, dusty and so typically 'African'. It is a vendor's paradise both on the streets and the many small roughly built shops. There are a few larger stores, such as Peoples where we would buy the basics such as water, soap, juice and toothpaste. (We very soon learned that the water in Nkhata Bay is pumped from the lake, filtered and treated and quite safe to drink which we did.) Not an attractive place from our 'western' tastes.
On the other hand, Nkhata Bay was like a tropical paradise. The beaches, even those close to town and the backpackers were visually stunning.
On Tuesday, some friends staying at Myoka Village invited us to join them on the free water tour, including snorkeling with all the colorful tropical fish in the lake (the ones you buy for your freshwater aquarium), swimming and diving from the rocks, spending time at a beautiful beach playing local games and volleyball with the locals and the highlight, feeding the fish eagles. Fish eagles are birds very similar to our bald headed eagle, but larger. We would throw small fish, threaded on a small bamboo stick out from the boat. It wouldn't take long for the fish eagle to spot it and dive only a few yards from the boat. Truly awesome.
Wednesday I spent much of the day on my own exploring the beaches and villages up the lake from Big Blue. It is important, I would say most important, if you are going to get any sense of the people in Malawi, is that almost everyone greets you as you pass. It is a continuing dialog of 'Hello, how are you? I'm fine and you?' This custom will either totally endear you to the people of Malawi or you will just get so overwhelmed you might just want to get away from everyone. In addition, the kids in Malawi, as a whole are fascinated with the Muzungo (white person). Where ever you go they are always calling out, 'Hello, how are you' and after you greet them they will usually run from whatever they are doing around their homes to run out and play with you. Often, both boys and girls love to grab your hand and walk sometimes fairly long distances with you holding tightly to your hand. And to make things even better, so many of the people including some of the kids, can speak quite good English. And if you watch, you will find parents laughing at their kids and you in the whole fun and joy of it all.
One day Louis and I were at a beach watching the younger boys swim and dive off the rocks. It amazed me that most wore bathing suits although there were quite a number without. We had just finished our picnic lunch and I told Louis I was going swimming as it was very hot and humid and I was most interested to see what would happen when I took off all my clothes and went swimming with the boys. They all watched as I took off all my clothes at the waters edge and got into the lake. I swam over to the large rock that perhaps 20 or so were standing on. They all ran out to watch me swim over. At first I played with them hiding under the edges of the rock. That led to my splashing them as I hid. Cultural differences are so unknown and here I thought they would retaliate in a water fight. Finally after about 30 minutes of sheer fun, one boy started to go after me, then the next and next. After 10 minutes, most of them had joined it and I felt drowned and exhausted. And we were all laughing so hard.
On Thursday, Louis and I explored the other backpackers' lodges spending sometime in each of them to have a drink and something to eat. As we walked across town and up the hill on the other side of town, again the beach boys and the 'peddlers' were always trying to sell you something or chat. I loved it and would take every opportunity to chat about where they were from and what they did while Louis would take off as though he was being pursued by a swarm of bees. We were also somewhat on a mission. We were off to meet AJ the owner of Butterfly Backpackers and a prominent supporter of the Nkhata Bay community.
Off to meet AJ, we want to help or are we being scammed?
Let's backtrack to last week. We had met Azibo on Likoma Island the week before when we visited the family of the 1 year old albino child Jack was helping. We were spending time chatting with the parents and I looked over and here was this incredible boy, perhaps late teens, early 20's looking at us, with a smile that completely enveloped you. I started a conversation with him having no idea at the time where this was going to take our travels and affect my life, perhaps for a very long time. More about this to come.
Louis and I had talked for years about helping or adopting one or two children, possibly from Africa, possibly orphans whose parents had died of AIDS. It was one of those things that you really felt you might like to do, but in reality you have no idea how to do it and you just let it slide. Now suddenly we were being smacked with the reality of it.
As a reader of our 'adventures' I really want you to be aware that we were 'aware' of being scammed. You can be scammed here in Africa so easily, all the way from the money changers and all the similar stories the 'artists' have to get you to buy their artwork. So many orphans, so many poor - and in reality so, so, so true but maybe not true of the 'scammer' working you.
More of the story leading up to visiting AJ
Last week Azibo walked with us back to Mango Drift, taking us to a Shaman and the cathedral on the way. When we got to Mango Drift we asked him to stay for a drink (coca cola for him and couple of beer for us) and dinner. We learned that he was from Nkhata Bay and was on Likoma Island with his grandfather to help him fish. I learned that he had been orphaned 7 years before when one of the minivans (like the ones we always travel in) had a crash and his parents had died. His baby sister had survived. In summary, he had not gone to school for two years as he had no financial support to pay for school. We also learned that he was fishing with his Grandfather to make a living. He earned 200 Kwacha a day ($1=150 Kwacha)
The next day Azibo showed up and we spent the day together. Some of it was teaching him to swim. Most of the people, including the fisherman do not know how to swim. And except for some lifejackets which looked 40 years old in a bin on the Ilala, I had not even seen a life jacket. We heard stories of boats even capsizing near the harbor and almost everyone would drown.
Needless to say, Azibo fascinated me. We spent some time, the two of us, sitting on the beach. I questioned him with some of the most difficult questions I could think of, and was always amazed by his response. His responses always seemed to be from the 'heart'. I asked him where he got his incredible teachings. He said that when he was quiet, it just came to him. All that I knew that if I was being scammed, he was probably the best at it of anyone I had met in my life.
We meet AJ, the owner of Butterfly Backpackers
I had a fairly long talk with Jack about his program of help for orphans through his Joy Foundation. He suggested that I meet and chat with AJ, the owner of Butterfly Backpackers. She was well known in Nkhata Bay. We were lucky, she was at Butterfly when we arrived and we were soon sitting and chatting about her life, Butterfly and the work she was doing and then we talked about Azibo. AJ had come from the UK, and along with her backpackers, she, her locally born husband and young daughter had become well known for her community support. Again, it was like we were just going down an already rehearsed path. Seemed she knew Azibo very well, if he was the same Azibo. He had worked at Butterfly for a while and AJ had spent a good amount of time with him. We also learned that his story was true, he had been fired from his job by AJ for just taking off (he went to a funeral for an Uncle and has not notified AJ) and had a reputation of being somewhat of a comedian with the tourists at Butterfly.
We learned way more than we had ever expected and also that AJ would be willing to help coordinate any support we might like to offer Azibo. We had decided that if Azibo did arrive on the Ilala on Sunday as planned, and after spending more time with him, we would sponsor him to return to school. In retrospect, I had no idea of the Malawi bureaucracy and the people I was going to meet in the following week.
Friday, we relaxed and I mentally prepared myself for the SGN files that would usually arrive on the server around 3:30 in the afternoon. Today they were on time and I settled in for my marathon.
Jack and Louis are threatened and accused of being Gay
I was taking a break from the website and we were having dinner. Suddenly a beach boy named "Cheese-on-toast" (the beach boys take on names so tourists can easily remember them) was rapidly walking through the dining and lounge area looking for someone. We had encountered him when we first arrived and were in the town having lunch with Jack. Cheese-on-toast saw Jack from across the street and yelled at him, challenging him and wondering why he was back in town, telling him that he wasn't welcome and this was his country and Jack was to leave immediately. We learned from Jack, that when he had previously been in Nkhata Bay and running Big Blue Star, Cheese-on-toast had often been drinking and was causing problems at the backpackers. Jack had banned him and eventually Cheese-on-toast had spent some time in jail. He obviously disliked Jack immensely and did not seem to be a very well balanced person.
As Cheese-on-toast ran around the backpackers, Jack asked him who he was looking for. He was really obstinate and challenged Jack and told him that Gay people were not welcome in Malawi and he wanted fight with him. He kept trying to provoke Jack into hitting him, when Louis, much like a bit bull, stood up to defend Jack. Cheese-on-toast then labeled Louis as Gay (probably because of his navel ring) and then challenged him too, threatening him with harm. Cheese-on-toast then went into the backpackers bar and surprising to us, was served drinks. Although Jack was now in charge of the business he was reluctant to create a larger issue and wanted the owner of the bar to call the police.
The whole affair was complicated. Malawi has such draconian laws towards gay people, Jack had no work permit and the police, though helpful before, could certainly make things spiral into a worse situation than we had.
I went back to building the website and Louis came to inform me he was moving to a different backpackers as he was nervous with Cheese-on-toast still on the premises. I tried to stay focused on work and told Louis that I was at work and his problem would have to wait.
Around 7pm we had a power failure. Although nothing new for our African experience, it did make me feel uneasy. I then was able to talk to Louis and agree we would move in the morning. We actually spent a wonderful evening (except for Louis and Jack who were both obviously shaken) with friends we had met, having dinner and drinks all with candlelight, overlooking the water and having great conversations.
On Saturday morning I woke up around 6am and clicked the light switch. Still no power. My heart sank. I showered (Big Blue is amazing with its hot showers and nice clean stalls and toilets which always work) and went up to the office to great Jack at 7. We ordered coffee and suddenly about 7:15 we heard the electronics in the office start to beep and I knew we had power. It was a full day getting the SGN online. Louis packed up his things a moved to Butterfly. I arrived after I had the site online.
A walk in the villages in the hills, wondering if Azibo was going to show up
Sunday morning arrived and I decided I would like to spend much of the day exploring the villages up the hill from Nkhata Bay. I think Louis was delighted. He was lakeside, on his lounger, taking in the sun and had no inclination to walk up the hills in the hot sun, high humidity and chat with people. We had also left Big Blue and moved to Butterfly. We had asked Jack to send Azibo to Butterfly when he showed up. I was also intrigued with what the interaction between AJ and Azibo was going to be.
Anyway, I headed out up the hills up behind the town and took some well-worn paths, not having any idea where I was going. Taking the paths was somewhat like walking through people's yards. I used my well worn mantra of 'keep doing what you are doing until you find you made a mistake and need to make change'. My walk was not a 'mistake'. I chatted with a local 'assemblyman' who was 74 and had been in his position for over 30 years, I had kids following and chasing me. I stopped and chatted with families, fathers and mothers and even a couple of grandmothers. The feeling never changed. In retrospect I would say it felt like that kind of dream you might have where the whole world is your friend and everyone you meet is your friend and it feels like you are one big family. And you can't make sense out of anything.
Eventually a young man about 20 approached me as we were walking up a steep path. We chatted for a while as we walked and I learned he was going to a village football match (soccer) and did I want to come. Soon I found myself with the 'Stars' from the village across the valley, getting dressed and ready for the game with the village team I was now in. Like everything in the dream, they suddenly felt like my team, and like a dream they loved getting their pictures taken and went out of their way to include me.
I told them I could only stay until they won their first goal. After watching some world cup games in Joburg I new this might be much longer than I wanted to stay. I left after they were losing 0 to 1. On my way down the hill near the town I meet two guys and proceeded to have a hour and a half conversation with them. It was a conversation with such depth and awareness I didn't want it to end. Unfortunately, it was around the time my Blackberry died and I found out later that one of them had got his wife to prepare a dinner party for me, she emailed me and I missed it. A moving and somewhat sad end to an incredible day.
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