Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the borderlands.

                            In the middle of Africa, somewhere!
We had already walked 45 kilometers since leaving Malawi's northern borderpost with Zambia yesterday. Where were we? Oh yeah, in the middle of Africa, somewhere. Our mission—to march to the Zambian town of Tunduma where we hoped to catch the TAZARA (Tanzania Zambian Railway) to Dar es-Salaam but that was still another grueling 45 kilometers walk from here.
This morning it was still raining when we got up at 4 am. We were a grim-looking lot of mzungus (whiteys), grubby to be sure from lack of a shower or running water for that matter. Michael Collins and his buddy Phil Macken, both from Australia, diminutive California beach gal, Loy Sheflott, the lanky lad from Zambia cum erstwhile guide on this sortie, Peter, and yours truly, from the wilds of the Canadian Rockies. 
We did not have time to doddle for breakfast, we set out at first light at around 5:30 am. As we walked out of the hut we had crashed in for the night, we talked amongst ourselves wondering how the locals managed to eke out a living on these borderlands without electricity. Somehow they seemed to survive with virtually next to nothing for subsistence or sustenance.
As was to become routine during this trek, we got caught in a few downpours along the way. We had no umbrellas but a few of us had hats. Michael had a huge floppy white hat that made him look more like a grumpy cricket umpire than a hiker. 
Depending where we were, the track was either tree-lined or had been cut down for farming. We did not have time to doddle. We were on a schedule. Besides we were on a mission of sorts—to get to Tunduma come hell or high water, and judging from the deluge we had experienced in the past few day—perhaps the latter.
After a two-hour march, we came to a short-cut that supposedly would take us to the main road between Lusaka and Tunduma. Our trek changed direction again as this short cut would save us time, something we were short of. Instead of boarding TAZARA at Tunduma as originally planned, we could get on at the Nkonde station, which was closer. Peter had been told that we could catch a lift from here and it would be only 30 kilometers to Nkonde rather than the 50 kilometers we had been walking to Tunduma. This time, I did not pull out my Michelin map, we just trusted Peter—besides, and he was from here. After a brief discussion amongst ourselves, we chose the short cut as we were running out of time. The next TAZARA train was tomorrow!

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There were no trappings of modernity here. Despite the dire poverty that existed, we were amazed to find the occasional plots for subsistence plantings of sorghum, bananas and maize. It was quite verdant. It was here that we came upon a village at 8am. We had not taken any breakfast so we were starved after hiking since dawn. Peter acted as our intermediary and asked a village lady if we could get some food and boil us some water. She obliged and cooked us delicious fresh cobs of maize from her garden, plus boiled water for some much needed tea. We all gave her some kwacha (Zambian money) as we still had some in our food kitty, plus the Aussies gave her some Air Qantas lapel badges for her kids.
After this brief repast, we headed back out on our lonely trek. Fortunately, it was not raining and we enjoyed cool and cloudy weather for our continuing march in the bundu. Phil reckoned we were doing 6 kms/hr and after another two hours of marching, we took a well-deserved breather. With no place to sit down or catch our breath, we would simply just slump down on the sodden earth, drink some boiled water and chat with each other during our short breaks between marches. I think we were delirious.
The bottom photo was taken many days earlier when we stayed with the South
Africans at Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi. This was before our Nyika Plateau safari.
All photos courtesy of traveling companion Phil Macken.
Phil took a picture of us at one of our rest stops. I had collapsed at the side of the track. I laid against my pack, stretched out on the road. My yellow Banff Centre t-shirt with bandages on my toes. Michael, complete with white umpire's hat sat contently a few feet away from Loy who was busy writing up her journal, and both of them sat on the dirt track. Peter seemed oblivious to fatigue and was just as happy to stand. Loy shared some hard candies she had tucked away in her pack. That really picked up our spirits and we set off again until lunchtime.
Phil and Michael were usually ahead of me as if they were late for something—they always set the pace. Diminutive Loy was often engaged in some long-winded conversation with long-legs Peter but she was a real trooper. Even the macho Aussies warmed up to her company and to be truthful, there could not have been a better group of travellers to do this arduous trek with.
As was my wont, I often lagged slightly behind the two Aussies who set a hard pace. Just ahead of me on the track, a mother stood off to one side. She had walked from her hut to see these strange talking mzungus who were walking to Nkonde. What a commotion. With her back to me yet cradling her baby, she was too busy watching Phil and Michael who were just ahead of me. As I approached them, I greeted them in ChiChewa, the local language. This startled both her and the baby. As they swung around to see me, the baby let out a horrific scream. The mother also shrieked then turned and ran back to their hut. This just supports my theory that they had never seen a mzungu up close and personal before, especially a bearded one.
To be fair, we must have made a quite a spectacle with our grimey shorts and t-shirts on, muddy running shoes, strange packs and equally strange foreign speech. I looked down the dirt track that led to her hut where she was standing. I smiled and waved at her hoping I hadn’t traumatized them. My fear was ill founded as she just laughed and smiled back but the baby continued to howl well out of my earshot. A line by legendary Nigerian jazz musician Fela Kuti came to mind—‘I waka many village and we are in A-fri-ka’.
So I waka, waka, waka,
I go many places, I see my people
Dem dey cry, cry, cry,
How many, how many, how many
I go many places, I see my people,
Dem dey cry, cry, cry,
I waka many village and we are in A-fri-ka
Around noon, we came to another small village where Peter talked to a woman who offered us her hut, plus some boiled maize and water for tea. As per this trek, we would ask our women hosts to boil drinking water for us as a precaution against catching typhoid or cholera. We enjoyed a short break, rekindled our sagging spirits, filled our belly and hit the road again.
Perhaps we were entering the area where the Wankonde tribe lived. ‘Nkonde’ means ‘banana’ and in the olden days, the locals used the banana tree for roofing, fuel and the fiber for weaving their blankets. There were certainly bananas available but we saw mainly maize and sorghum.
At about 4pm, we could not believe our eyes. Coming towards us was a truck. That picked our spirits up. We stopped the driver momentarily to find out where he was going. He said he was going to pick up some villagers back where we had just come from, then he would return and pick us up.
We could not believe our luck. We all collapsed in a heap, under a tree on the side of the muddy track until he returned. Between stops, we had walked for seven and a half hours or roughly 40 or more kilometers since dawn. All in all, Phil calculated that we had walked approximately 90 kilometers since leaving the guesthouse in Chitipa yesterday morning.
About 45 minutes later, the truck returned. It was already crammed but we did not care and were ever thankful of a ride, albeit a crowded one. He drove us to the turn-off. We were now standing on the highway that connected Zambia’s capital Lusaka to its most northerly border post, Tunduma. However, we had already decided earlier that we would catch the TAZARA train at Nkonde station. It was a mere 45 kilometers away. We were so close we could smell it!
We were already planning what we would do once we got to Nkonde. We had not had a proper shower since leaving Chitipa guesthouse. We also wanted a decent meal, some real cold drinks and our own room. We waited at the turn-off thinking we could catch a lift to Nkonde in no time. Well, we waited and waited but no lifts were forthcoming. A few vehicles went by but they were full and they could not take any more passengers. Then it started to pour on us. We sought shelter under a tin roof but still no lift. It was 6:45pm, pitch black and the rain still coming down in buckets—we’d had enough and called it quits for this day. As my mother would say, ‘tomorrow was another day’. The day our train would come!
Peter managed to find us another hut to stay in for the night. Despite just falling short of our goal, we still had done pretty damn well considering what we had been through in the last few days. We found solace and comfort in our group that had become tight-knit since forming back at Nkhata Beach. We joked amongst ourselves and realized how we had endured everything that nature and travelling had thrown at us. We also counted our blessings having affable Peter as our guide and intermediary—not sure where we would have been without him. Who knew what tomorrow would bring— just another adventure?
In the shelter of this small hut, we brewed some tea, boiled some maize and Loy cooked up our meal with what was left from the food kitty: some rice, some soup mix, and some tinned corned beef.
Top picture: My only time fly fishing, in Malawi no less, and a lot skinnier in 1984. This was taken earlier on our safari of the Nyika Plateau National Park.
Lower picture: Loy getting ready to start our trek through northern Zambia. The African woman was our gracious host for the night in her hut. Photos courtesy of Phil Macken.
After a hot day of tramping in the wild, I never imagined how a cup of hot water could taste so good. We were so thirsty we could not even wait for the hot water to cool before drinking it. Mostly single moms inhabited most of the huts we ate or stayed in. Where the men folk were is open to speculation. The moms were left to fend for themselves: tending their fields, washing their clothes and cooking meals for their kids who, for the most part, sat around in stunned silence, watching four mzungus and Peter eating meals with their fingers and sleeping in their hut.
Mothers might be lucky to have a paraffin hurricane lamp to provide light to do their cooking by. Nevertheless, the walls of the hut and the roof were blackened with the soot from the fire and the cloying haze caused by the foul-smelling paraffin lamp. Out here, wood was at a premium and we did not want to burden our hosts anymore than need be. They were grateful for the few kwacha that we gave them.
Depending on the size of the hut, the moms and their children would sometimes sleep in their own hut and leave us to sleep in the cooking one. Moreover, our sleeping with the family might have caused embarrassment for the mom as these were traditional African villages. A mother sleeping in a hut with three mzungu men and an African would set tongues a wagging. Most likely our presence was already a topic of conversation in every hut.
Nevertheless, tonight we were all crammed in close hot quarters, sleeping fully clothed, but were too knackered to complain about body heat, odour, and snoring. On this night, we shared the hut with the family, and a chicken with her half a dozen chicks. My main concern was catching malaria, as there was no place to hang my mosquito net at night. We all slept soundly nonetheless.
Under these grueling conditions, I could easily imagine what the great Victorian explorers—Livingstone, Burton and Speke—had encountered during their expeditions into the African continent. Albeit on a lesser scale, we were ourselves undertaking a journey into the unknown. Except for the kindness that Peter bestowed on us poor mzungus, we were on our own, against the elements and against time. Likely without Peter, we would not have made it to here on time.
We were all a bit grotty from the trip but what could you do. The only chance of a shower was a meager pail of bracing cold water to wash with. Our shower stall was a couple of huge yellowing banana leaves stretched over a lower limb of a tree where we could slosh water on our dirty bodies. We used the same shower pail to wash our sweat-stained clothes.
It did not help matters that it was the rainy season, so there were occasional cloudbursts, which soaked us through to the skin. At times, that felt refreshing but I wondered if these sudden cloudbursts, that had completely soaked my camera case, might cause my camera to rust.
We did appreciate the rare cool breeze but it only heralded the onset of yet another cloudburst. For the most part, the track was dry and the heat unending. I did not realize until later on while washing my sweat-soaked clothes that, to my horror, my rugby shirt and matching shorts had faded from where I had been carrying the pack. It made the back of my shirt look like it had a bull’s-eye on it. The Aussies had the same designs on their clothes. We must have looked a sight! I can’t blame the villagers for being suspicious of us.. They may even have thought at first that we were mercenaries. At best, we were most definitely a motley crew.
During our trek, we had passed several villages where the locals likely had not witnessed mzungus walking about in their bundu. Any mzungus they might have seen were probably ‘whiteys’, or rich expat NGOs driving by in their new 4X4 Land Rovers, but never on foot. News of our appearance most likely spread from hut to hut, village to village, and may have been the topic of conversation for quite some time. In our haste, we were oblivious to all of this.
One might assume that the villagers here in this part of Malawi/Zambia, or in any part of Africa for that matter, have done the same type of long-distance travelling that we were doing—walking, the most basic form of locomotion. The truth is that many locals may have not ventured even to the next village, much less to Nkonde. A Kenyan Luo, for example, from Homa Bay on Lake Victoria may go to Nairobi for schooling or for business, but not for the sheer pleasure of travelling. Not that you could say what we were doing was ‘pleasure’. Many other locals may of course not feel safe or have absolutely no reason to venture beyond their own thorn tree boma (hut). This may have been true for most of Africa in 1984. 
More to the point, trekking across this lonely part of northern Zambia, which was really off the tourist track then, was in many ways, uncharted land. For the local villagers who viewed this area as their bailiwick, our casual walking by their front door was perhaps almost tantamount to someone sauntering through your living room to get to the house next door. In a way, it was an invasion of their property and their communal way of life. No wonder they walked down their short pathway to catch a glimpse of us four strange mzungus talking and laughing in a strange tongue on their home turf.

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After a restless night wondering if we would indeed make it to the train on time, we woke up at 5:30am on this, hopefully, our final day. Peter had been assured that there would be a bus leaving this morning. If we missed this bus to Nkonde, then we would miss the TAZARA train, and we would be stuck there until the next train came four days hence. We said our goodbyes and were on the road by 6am.
As usual, we were the centre of attention for the townsfolk as we stood around waiting for the bus. I suppose haggard-looking mzungus carrying their own backpacks out here in the bundu shocked the locals. We certainly were the ones out of the ordinary. Again, we talked amongst ourselves about what would be the first thing we would do when we got to Nkonde.
Wonder of wonders as our bus finally arrived at 8am as Peter had foretold. We quickly boarded and found some seats. We slumped in our seats, we didn't care what we looked like, we were bone-tired and just happy to be sitting down on seats for once. 
Even though it was a bitumen road, the road's many potholes caused us to take two and a half hours to cover a mere 45 kilometers. The potholes kept waking us while we tried to grab a few winks along the way. You can imagine our joy when we finally saw the sign—Welcome to Nkonde.

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