“I am sliding deeper into the role of the protagonist in a fractured fairytale. Cinderella suddenly inherits a ‘step sister’ and attends the ball in her rags after her Negroid fairy godfather waves his magic wand. We shake the Minister’s hand, wish him a happy birthday and exchange pleasantries and pray he won’t ask any questions that might expose the façade.”
With Zimbabwe being our final destination, the route via Malawi and Mozambique is the only safe option due to political instability in Zambia at the time. The mysteriously inaptly named ”express” train takes 22 hours to travel the 830 km journey from Dar Es Salaam to Mbeya, the last stop before it enters Zambia. At Mbeya my compatriot, Pamela and I are still about 30 kms from the border and we discover there is no public transport. It is no time to be shrinking violets so we muscle our way onto the back of an enterprising man’s utility. He is quick to recognise the supply and demand dilemma to the captive consumers and demands a fee of USD$5.50 in Tanzanian Shillings, an exorbitant amount considering we just paid the equivalent in the train fare to get here. We have no option but to succumb to the extortion and manage to arrive at the Songwe border crossing in time before it closed for the day. However, due to spending an eternity getting bogged down in red tape at the border, we miss the last bus to any where for at least two days. It isn’t long before we realise we are hopelessly stranded. As a result, Pam’s anxiety levels are erupting because the Zimbabwean embassy in Tanzania has only given her a two week temporary visa to pass through Zimbabwe in order to reach South Africa. Utterly fed up, filthy, famished and flaming hot in the searing heat we seek shelter under the shade of a nearby Acacia tree. It has been a rough few weeks of overland travel through difficult circumstances and it has ended in tears as we sit dumb founded and ponder our next course of action. Our immediate worry was we need shelter for the night and for once things were going in our favour as we are lucky enough to score the only basic wooden hut with two sleeping cots as shelter for the night. It is unsecured, so we sleep uncomfortably on our packs and try not to think about surreptitious snakes and scorpions.
In the morning, we are eager for a wash after three days without one, but with no running water any where we make do with just a change of underwear. It is also time for another makeover. Malawi’s president, an autocratic octogenarian, and a very old fashioned one at that, dictates every woman in the country must wear a skirt down to her ankles. So our first job for the morning is to don our sarongs, the closest thing we had to a skirt in our packs. The wrap around was accessorised by a pair of well worn, dusty hiking boots. I could quite easily stand on the lonely road side waiting for our fortunes to change whilst eating unpalatable stale bread from about two breakfasts ago, but to commit fashion suicide just to stay within the local laws for all to see was unbearable. Our situation gets desperate as the heat of the day sets in and Pamela decides to hail down a passing military jeep. Lucky for us, two men have no hesitation in taking on two blonde attractive hitch hikers and agree to take us as far as they could. “I am Allen,” as he shakes our hands in turn with a deep resonating voice and a smile as wide as Africa itself. Allen is dressed in civvies and he also introduces us to his colleague, who is dressed in military garb and did all the driving.
Allen is very tall and imposing and also turns out to be a great adhoc tour guide. As we travel southwards, we stop at Mt Livingstone where there is an interesting Mission called Livingstonia, named after infamous Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone. His impact has been more significant in Malawi than any other country in southern Africa. Malawi is one of the most devout Christian countries in the whole of Africa where nearly every Malawian goes to bed with a bible by his side. On David Livingstone’s various expeditions, he was instrumental in abolishing slavery in the region and he was the first European explorer to discover and map out Lake Nyasa (Malawi) and made so many converts that his legacy is a church in every village in the country. Perched high above Lake Malawi at 900m (3000ft) we are treated to panoramic views across the lake towards Tanzania. The lake is and 580 km (360 mi) long, and about 75 km (47 mi) wide at its widest point. We then pass through a village called Mangochi where an initiation ceremony is taking place. The locals are only too happy for us to take part in the festivities.
Allen then stops at road side stalls where we buy some wooden artefacts and crafts. My naturally guarded demeanour makes me wonder if we are being groomed and eventually taken to some Middle Eastern harem never to be seen again. However, by evening we arrive at his home where we meet his wife, Shirley and their children and I abandon my dark thoughts. Shirley prepares us a wonderful Malawian meal of meat, vegetables and rice before continuing on to another unknown southerly destination. Finally, we arrive at military barracks where Allen is allowed in by security after a saluting ritual. Allen obviously works here as he had told us earlier that he is in the air force. He also mentioned how he attended Sandhurst in the UK but the meaning of this was lost on me at the time. Allen then takes us to a house at the base and it is very modern by African standards.
We must’ve looked and smelt as bad as we imagined as Allen suggested we have a shower but then remembers that the water system is broken and apologises. ‘I’ll arrange to get it fixed’, he said purposefully as he left us to our own curiosity. Meanwhile, we had military personnel coming and going, laden with clean linen, towels, food and one soldier even offered to wash our clothes. A huge military truck pulled up outside and four soldiers climbed onto the roof. There is all kinds of banging and clanking going on and after half an hour a soldier knocks on the door and announces ‘the water has been fixed, you may now have a shower’. Feeling very uncomfortable with the VIP treatment we offer Allen some money when he returned, if only to pay for the petrol, but he refuses to accept it.
‘I have an official function to attend tonight and would like to invite you girls to accompany me’, requests Allen. ‘Of course, that would be lovely’, we reply in excited unison. Like naïve teenagers just being asked out on a date, we screeched to each other ‘OMG! What are we going to wear?’ Hard core backpacking through Africa required a ruthless cull of any glad rags, and evening wear was certainly off the radar. That was my first lesson in “what to pack”, always pack something dressy. Allen, being a typical male, tells us not to worry about what to wear. However, despite the hardened backpacker ruse, I am a deep rooted fashionista by nature and fret over the circumstances I find myself in whilst digging up the cleanest T-shirt to go with my sarong. The crowning glory to my bleak attire is a daggy pair of sandals, marginally better than my heinous, hiking boots. Allen left us once again to prepare for the evening.
After spending ages in the glorious shower and getting ready, we waited for Allen’s return. Pam takes the opportunity to snoop around the otherwise unused, sparse house. ‘Hey, come in here’, she yells. She points to the label on a lone cardboard box. It says Attention: Colonel Allen Ghambi as Pam waits for my reaction. I stood there with my jaw gaping and eyes widening. ‘God, I wonder where we’re going tonight’, I exclaimed. Allen returns and we get into a chauffeur driven car and begin to interrogate Allen now that we are armed with newly acquired information. ‘So Allen, you obviously have some standing in the Malawian military, what is it that you actually do’, I asked. He confesses that he is the highest ranking officer in Malawian Air Force and regaled us with stories of flying with Maggie Thatcher and other international VIPs. Allen trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and I am now humbled in his presence and am not feeling worthy of the special treatment after what he had just said, but nevertheless, I’m still filled with nervous excitement as we pull up outside one of the finest resorts I had ever seen.
The unmistakable African rhythmic beats are pulsating, and a sumptuous, colourful display of food is spread along the entire side of the swimming pool which is lined with softly lit tea lights. Large trees laced with threaded fairy lights loom overhead. Allen points in the direction of some dignitaries, dressed in well tailored suits, seated at the head of the festivities. ‘Over there is the Minister of Defence, he is the President’s right hand man. ‘It is his birthday today’, Allen informs us. Pam and I exchange glances in an unspoken realisation this is actually his birthday party, and undoubtedly paid for by an impoverished population. Allen then makes his way towards the Minister and announces ‘Sir, may I introduce Adrianne and Pamela, they are the daughters of the Australian Minister of Defence’. I already feel extremely embarrassed at my lack of formal attire, but the lie further exacerbates my shame. The same accent and both of us being blessed with blonde hair is a convincing claim we are sisters and it wouldn’t be likely anyone would question this fact. However, keeping up appearances is really quite difficult to pull off when one is not used to an ‘A’ list, air kissing lifestyle. I am sliding deeper into the role of the protagonist in a fractured fairytale. Cinderella suddenly inherits a ‘step sister’ and attends the ball in her rags after her Negroid fairy godfather waves his magic wand. We shake the Minister’s hand, wish him a happy birthday and exchange pleasantries and pray he won’t ask any questions that might expose the facade. After some more small talk we excuse ourselves and promise to pass on our regards to ‘daddy’ and continue with our sister act as we meet the rest of the entourage. It isn’t long before we forget about the little lie and, for once, live in the moment and enjoy being the centre of Caucasian attention at the Minister’s ‘official’ gala occasion.
After an evening of feasting, frolicking and befriending, we are escorted a short distance to a beautifully appointed room in the early hours of the morning. I slide between clean, crisp sheets and my head sinks into the softest pillow imaginable as I slip into a dream-like surreal state. It must be just that, a dream, and I keep waiting for the bed bugs to bite and for the rats to start rummaging through my back pack. Of course, it didn’t happen, because something good always comes out of something bad. That night I dreamt of my love affair with the Malawian people, their generosity, kindness and slightly corrupt nuances.