A Muppet in Malawi
The policeman said: “Yes sir, you are in the right place. But you are committing an offence and I am going to fine you”. Somewhat mystified, and gasping for a cold drink under the hot midday Malawi sun, I asked what the offence might be and where I could get a Coke. “You are not wearing a seat belt and I am going to fine you one thousand kwachas”. I was told where to park my hired car and shown to a rather uninterested Malawi youth sitting in the lower boughs of a tree, to whom I was to give the fine (about 4 quid) and get a receipt. Meanwhile, the policeman pointed out a small stone building where he said I could get my Coke. Having drunk the bottle down in nearly one go and having waited for my change (I had paid with a 500 kwacha note, i.e. 2 quid, and of course the lady had no change so she had to go and get some from some othertrader or relative or possibly even the youth who was collecting fines!), I returned to the car, where the policeman was waiting.
This had been the start of my 5th day in Malawi. Having spent the first two days in Lilongwe, the capital, it had become clear that I was going to have to get a car in order to do what I wanted to do before heading down to Blantyre in the south to meet the team from The Great Football Giveaway, which was my reason for being here in the first place. Two days at the lake and now two days at Mvuu Camp in fairly luxurious accommodation amongst the wildlife of the African bush. It was a really good time and ended too soon, and I found myself back in the car on the three-hour journey back to Lilongwe to give it back.
I had been told to take the west road for the scenery, and indeed it was impressive, changing from hilly green and brown to flat, dusty red and orange. My watch no longer worked and neither did the car clock. The radio didn’t work either. I had no decent map, half a bottle of water, half a pack of Malawi Benson & Hedges and three tic-tacs. I was one of only two or three cars on the road, which typically had Malawians walking along the verge between villages, carrying various kinds of produce on their heads or on their bikes (goats for example). So there I was, driving a Toyota saloon in the middle of nowhere, clueless as to what the time was or where I was or whether there was any petrol in the tank or how far it was to Lilongwe when I found that my cigarette lighter had run out of gas. I had some matches so tried lighting up, but with the window down (as the air conditioning worked on only the left side of the car) it was a bit optimistic at 55 mph, so I tried lighting my fag under my tee shirt.
Not a good idea, I singed one of the two hairs on my chest and then promptly dropped the box of matches, which fell into that space under the front seat that manufacturers put in which is totally inaccessible unless you take the car to bits. I felt a right muppet.
A bit further along the road I had an idea. I stopped the car. Much easier really, so, refreshed from a swig of by-now hot water and my B&H alight from my reserve matches I resumed the journey, looking forward to meeting Paul and Sarah the following day in Doogles bar in Blantyre. But I had to get the car back first, and as I drove into Lilongwe I realised I wasn’t quite sure of my directions. I passed a group of three policemen, so stopped about 20 yards after them, fumbling in my daypack for a town map. One of them approached me and asked why I had stopped. I said I was looking for a map to the Old Town. The policeman said: “You are committing an offence, you have stopped on a roundabout”. I looked about but saw nothing particularly round, although to be fair it did look like a stupid place to stop. I protested my innocence and told him I thought he had come to help me. He said “For this offence I should fine you 3000 kwacha.” Twelve quid! I said nothing, and he also had a change of heart and let me off. Twenty yards ahead I saw the car hire place on my left. I felt even more stupid.
The next day I got the bus down to Blantyre to meet up with Paul and Sarah at Doogles, where they had kindly booked me a room. The real reason for my being here was about to begin. At least, it would the next day. I had met Paul once before in London, and he and Sarah, by way of greeting took me straight to the bar for a beer after the four and a half hour bus journey. Excellent start.
How had I really come to be here? One afternoon I had been watching TV and my ears pricked up when I heard the words “football” and “Malawi” in the same sentence. Some chap on the telly (strangely not wearing a hat considering Paul supports Luton "The Hatters" Town) was talking about taking footballs to Malawi, footballs generously sponsored by the British public, and distributing them to primary and secondary schools and orphanages. A mate of mine had been working in Malawi for a couple of years distributing food with Action Against Hunger, and on one trip back to the UK he told me that he had tried to get Coventry FC (he is from there) to give him one, just one, football shirt to take back to Malawi, which he wanted to raffle for some of the kids. Coventry FC said no – black marks to them. So I listened to the hatless Paul, and decided to sponsor a ball via their website. It didn’t work. I decided to phone, and expected a call centre, an answer phone or a ten-year old, but got straight through to Paul. I thought this quite impressive, and mentioned that the website had a kind of general invitation to anyone who could to give a helping hand. I thought about it for a day or two. Should I go or not? Paul had said that there was one other coming out, making four with me. Which meant that this whole shebang had been conceived, designed, produced and actioned by two people, an immense achievement that Paul and Sarah should be rightly proud of. I booked my flight, got my jabs and Malaria tablets, packed my tic-tacs and that was it – soon I was off.
In Blantyre, the bar was full, mostly ex-pats, and noisy. Quite a change from the peace of the countryside. Over several Greens (the local name for Carlsberg) and a plate of lasagne I listened intently to Paul and Sarah to find out what the plan of action was. The plan seemed straightforward. We’ve got 2600 footballs and 400 netballs and we’re going to give them away. OK... er, who to? Kids in schools and orphanages. OK...er, whereabouts. In Malawi. This was great, I relished the chance of being more or less at the start, and love situations where confusion and chaos reign but can be overcome by focussed determination and a sense of purpose. Paul and Sarah had both.
I liked Paul and Sarah (they had after all bought me another couple of Greens) and in between talking to Silvia, an English teacher who also sponsors children in Malawi, I ascertained that Paul had to fly to Lilongwe the next day for a meeting with the Sports Minister, who had provided help and support to the project whilst Sarah and I would go to some schools to give out some balls, and Bob would be arriving at Blantyre airport at 4 pm. Silvia said: “Could you get him to bring me a hot water bottle from England?”. Paul immediately texted Bob in the UK “Can you get a hot water bottle?”.
Sarah and I would not be alone the next day. Apart from our Land Rover driver, James, a friend of Silvia’s called Harriet would come along for the day. Where would we pick Harriet up? Where were we going to go? What were the names of the schools? Of course, nobody really knew but we had James to rely on, who proved to be not only a driver but also translator, guide, mechanic and friend. The point was that it was going to be fun, or adventure or most likely both but at the centre was that we were going to do something worthwhile at the same time. Paul’s phone beeped signalling the arrival of a text from Bob. Paul read it out: “What’s a got water bottle?” The perils of predictive text input! Paul phoned back, but Bob was already at Heathrow for the first leg of his journey. Silvia will sadly have to wait.
The next day, whilst Paul got up at some ridiculously early hour to fly to see His Most Ministerfullness, James drove Sarah and I to pick up Harriet and then several cartons of balls and pumps. It had finally started. We still didn’t really know where we were going but James did. If memory serves me correctly the first school we visited was in Chilangoma. James spoke briefly to the headmaster and introduced us. I had learned about 3 words of Chichewan and greeted the headmaster with Muli bwanji, which is basically “Hi how are you”. He therefore thought I spoke the language a bit more than that and told some of the kids. Must remember to keep my mouth shut. We were shown into a medium-sized classroom, which seemed to have about a thousand kids in it (only a hundred or so really) and Sarah, Harriet and I were invited to sit at the front while the headmaster spoke to the kids (in Chichewan.) Watching the kid’s faces gradually light up and their eyes widen as the headmaster’s words sank in was amazing. He mentioned our names again and it was our turn to say some words. Or rather Sarah’s. I wasn’t expecting this, but Sarah was brilliant. I don’t know if she had prepared anything but she rose to the occasion perfectly, explaining that the balls had been donated by British adults and children to be given to the children of Malawi and that they should be used after study and maybe Malawi will one day qualify for the World Cup and the names of the person or people who had donated them. I was glad that Sarah was with us, it showed that one of us actually had a clue.
Harriet had been busy taking photos during this time, and we had already blown up two or three footballs and netballs with a compressor in the front of the Land Rover. The others were still flat in our large bag, the pumps in separate cartons. The kids could see only the balls that we had blown up, not the ones in the bag, but that didn’t stop the joy and excitement growing as the headmaster continued to talk. All this time I had been doing, well not a lot really, and I felt about as much use as a fart in a colander. We lobbed a couple of balls into the middle of the kids, producing unsurprisingly a scramble, and the headmaster then asked us to produce the rest and the kids dutifully counted them out as we dropped them on the floor. Sarah told the head that we needed to show everyone how to use the pumps and that she knew just the man to do it. I stood up, said “Muli bwanji” and, assuming the kids had said OK replied “Zikomo kwambile” (thanks a lot – the other words I knew) and then opened a pack containing a pump. I hadn’t done this before, and although it’s not that difficult, trying to concentrate in front of loads of laughing, noisy kids and teachers is slightly harder than it might seem. Still, with the headmaster translating what I said, it went alright, and we all went out into the sun for a kick-about with the balls.
I watched the kids for some minutes, and started to get a picture of what the Great Football Giveaway was going to be like over the next week or so. The reaction of kids and teachers alike had totally taken me aback and I think Sarah and Harriet as well. I explained it back in England as being like someone knocking on your door one day and giving you a huge wad of cash. They were unbelievably grateful and within their gratitude you could see warmth, excitement, sometimes disbelief but always the sense of wonder that kids all over the world show. Malawi may be very poor but kids are still kids.
We got back into the Land Rover and were pleased to see that the headmaster was coming with us to the next school where the kids were slightly older. It was more or less the same procedure, Sarah explaining, Harriet photographing, the headmaster translating and me pumping. At least I felt a bit more useful. The headmaster seemed to be in his element, and after this secondary school took us to what was described as a feeding centre. Silvia had asked us to go there, but it consisted of a couple of brick buildings in the middle of nowhere, with probably no more than ten fairly young kids. Silvia had asked us to meet Chief Solomon, the local big cheese, and he duly turned up. No shoes or socks, a battered grey suit, cardigan and shirt, grey beard and a smile.
Back at Doogles we met Paul fresh from his encounter at the Ministry, which seemed to have gone OK once Paul had gently persuaded the Minister that he was not going to distribute the balls amongst Malawi's 180 Members of Parliament. Bob's plane was due at about 4 in the afternoon, so James took us all up to Blantyre airport. I hadn't met Bob and was looking forward to his arrival to complete the team. Paul said "Here he is" and I looked to see a man walking towards us, laden down with bags and baggage. Bob had a smile so wide it could challenge Lake Malawi itself. He was beaming now as he arrived. He was beaming later on. He would still be beaming the next day.
Contrary to what one might expect, the road immediately outside Blantyre airport is a dirty, dusty, red clay route for a few kilometres until it turns into tarmac on the outskirts of the city. Paul told James to stop. He had spotted a group of kids playing football. Paul said "OK Bob, how about giving the kids a ball?". We bundled poor Bob out of the Land Rover, pushed a ball into his hands and told him to get on with it, which, to his credit since he hadn't had much sleep, he did with a natural ease. Within minutes, the group of kids had turned into a small crowd as kids from the other side of the road clocked what was going on. Obviously, we had to give a few more balls away.
We got Bob settled in at Doogles and arranged to meet in the bar. Since it gets dark, i.e. pitch black, in Malawi by 6 p.m. most Westerners are advised (sensibly) not to go walking about after then, as it is a tad dangerous. It also means that most bars shut fairly early. Doogles had the advantage that it was in a secure enclosure and the bar stayed open late. We helped Bob with the delicate process of ordering a beer: You just say "A Green please". He took to it like a duck to water. The bar was fairly busy, as usual, but the food didn't take long to arrive and the Greens were flowing nicely. We were all looking forward to the next day, Saturday, Cup Final Day in England but also the big giveaway at the Blantyre Youth Project, where we planned to give away 90 balls in 90 minutes. Sarah and Paul decided to retire early (they had both been up since 5 that morning to make sure Paul got his flight to Lilongwe) leaving Bob and I to carrying on teaching each other to say "A Green, please", even getting to the advanced "Two Greens, please".
Bob, like Paul and Sarah, is very affable. I can't imagine him ever not smiling, even though he must have been fairly knackered after his flight via Johannesburg to Blantyre. Too many Greens make you feel a bit bloated though, so reluctantly, Bob and I decided that we'd had enough Green. JD and Coke for him and Malawi gin and tonic for me. "Just the one", said Bob. The first problem was that the bottles of Coke and tonic in Malawi are too large for just one drink and we both refused to pour all of one bottle into one drink. "Another one?" asked Bob, although he had probably already realised that the amount of arm-twisting needed to get me to have another drink was negligible. The second problem was that Bob's Coke and my tonic were slightly different sizes, which meant we were finishing our drinks at different times, and it would be discourteous to let a man drink on his own. I needed some more fags and waved to the barmaid down the end of the bar to get her attention. She poured me a gin and tonic, and then, noticing me waving my empty fag packet, brought me the drink and the fags. "Another one?" I said to Bob. He grinned, which I took for a yes. And so it continued until that point where we both accidentally finished at the same time. Whatever time that was.
Saturday morning, about half past seven, and the team is up and about. I had my usual coffee and fags for breakfast, the others opting for food. Bob was his normal beaming self, but said he was a bit groggy. "Probably jet-lag" I thought. But at least we had a plan today. There's a guy in Blantyre called Patrick who runs a football charity called Play Soccer, which keeps the kids off the streets and gets them involved in football. He's got bugger all resources and runs it on a shoestring budget obtained from the US, and yet he has been very successful, with, I think, about 1800 kids signed up to one of the centres. We were going to visit 2 centres in the morning and then do the Youth Project in the afternoon just before the English Cup Final kicked off. We loaded the trusty Land Rover with enough balls and pumps for the first two centres, then we loaded it with all the photographic contraptions and equipment. Then we tried to get in. Bit of a squeeze, but we made it and set off for the 15 or so minute journey to the first port of call, where Patrick and several hundred kids were waiting. The format was similar to the villages Sarah and I had visited the day before but with the addition of the cameras. Bob and Paul were the experts and set up tripods and other complicated stuff, which was way above my head. Most of the kids were in groups, with one of Patrick's helpers in the middle of a ring of kids. They were singing and playing games and I think I counted 10 or so different groups. We lobbed a football or netball into the centre of a couple of rings of kids and from the reaction knew we'd have to do it for each group. Just as before it developed into a series of impromptu kickabouts and throwabouts (is that the right word for what you do with netballs?) but we soon had to leave, do the same thing at the next centre and then load up again for the Youth Project in the afternoon.
We had lunch at a very modern shopping mall and then drove over to the Youth Project. It was like a mini stadium, two concrete netball pitches (courts?) as you went in, then to the right and behind a huge expanse of grass with changing rooms at the far right-hand side. Patrick said we needed the balls outside the changing rooms, so we duly started bringing the balls in. I've no idea how many kids there were but it was well into the hundreds, scattered about the field playing, laughing and in one case listening to a huge radio or TV, which he had covered in a cloth to shield it from the sun. Amidst the chaos we established that we were to give away footballs and pumps to Patrick's Under 14s, Under 15s, Under 17s etc, then we would start individual gifts to 90 kids who Patrick had somehow quite efficiently pre-selected.
Time is a moveable feast in Malawi but somehow it all went fairly smoothly. For the 90 in 90 part, we had to improvise a sort of conveyor belt system. Since we didn't really want to blow up 90 balls, Sarah had the brilliant idea of blowing up one ball, presenting that one to each kid as they came up the few steps from the pitch, then taking it back off them and replacing it with a ball still in its bag and then a pump. Bob had the camera positioned to film the kid getting the blown-up ball from Paul, then, out of camera shot, Sarah would replace the ball and throw the blown-up one to Paul, usher the kid to me to get a pump and be shown down back to the pitch via a path. It was quite funny really, since the kids started coming at intervals of every two seconds, leaving Paul to scramble for the ball, Sarah and I trying to top up our respective stocks of flat balls and pumps, and kids looking confused to be given a ball, then have it taken away again, getting a flat ball, then getting a pump, then trying to go back the way they had come. Can't wait to see Bob's footage. Talking of which, Bob’s boots were really cool. I only noticed when he crossed his legs in the Land Rover to accommodate a ball he was blowing up that the soles of his boots had a map of the world etched in to them. You never know when you might need one!
In one of the breaks where nothing much was happening I stood back and looked at this huge gathering of kids and adults and thought how great this all was and yet it was hugely enjoyable. I felt that short intake of breath you get just before you think tears are going to come, so I went round the back of the changing rooms and had a fag.
Patrick phoned Paul to say how well it had gone at the Youth Project, but with the sad news that his son Pious, about 2 or 3 years old, had contracted malaria. They had taken him to the hospital to get a jab, but I got the impression that they were stabilising it. Malaria seems to be a way of life out there and kills as many, if not more, than HIV or Aids. The next day we went shopping and bought toys, sweets, vitamins, healthy foods and more and delivered it to Patrick. Pious wasn’t eating much, but Patrick said he was a better than the day before. Whether he recovers or has to live with it is in the lap of the Gods.
From Patrick’s house we set off for Mulanje, about an hour and a quarter’s drive south of Blantyre, and home for the next few days. It was the start of my last two days with the team but I was looking forward to the lodge we were staying in as Paul had waxed lyrical about it. He wasn’t wrong. Mount Mulanje rises high above the tea plantations of Southern Malawi and our lodge was a 6 or 7-minute drive up the mountainside from Mulanje village. It had spectacular views of the mountain and the countryside below and quite comfortable rooms. It also had a bar with a Carlsberg sign outside it. Paul and Sarah had made contact in the UK with Mary from FOMO, the Friends of Mulanje Orphans, and the idea was to distribute balls to the FOMO centres that Mary had established in the region. A proportion of the balls from Blantyre had been transported down to Mulanje ahead of us, and we stored some of those at FOMO’s main centre. By the time we had done this it was starting to get late, but we had a reasonably full schedule the next day.
We went to the bar for a few drinks before dinner, then freshened up and sat down for dinner at a table on the patio outside the lodge. Bob and I got there first, and the barman, Felix, came out to take our order. It was about a quarter past seven, and he told us he would be shutting the bar in a few minutes. This was bad news indeed, so Bob and I decided the only decent thing to do would be to put in a bulk order, since Paul and Sarah hadn't arrived yet. So they turned up to find the table full of booze, but no food. Fortunately, the kitchen was still open. It was quite peaceful as, so far as we could tell, the only other people staying at the lodge were some Ethiopians, who had gone to bed early anyway. A few feet above us in the wooden roof a praying mantis was stalking a moth. It made a couple of tenuous attempts but the moth stayed immobile. Paul told us that you can tell a moth from a butterfly as a moth sleeps with its wings open and a butterfly with its wings folded. I said I didn't know he was such a lepidopterist (bloke who studies moths and butterflies) and they thought I had made the word up! I think we had bets on whether the mantis would get the moth or not but if we did, no-one was going to pay up because all at once the mantis had moved to the other side of the roof leaving the moth to slumber on, so we thought we'd wait till the next day (by which time both had buggered off). As you can gather, entertainment is largely self-made on Mount Mulanje.
The next morning, we went into Mulanje village where Bob and I spent quite a long time changing money at the bank and the idea was to go to another three centres if possible the same day. The orphans at these places tend to have lost parents to HIV/Aids or malaria but still live with grandparents or other relatives and the incentive to go to the orphanage is to get fed. The other centres are scattered around the region and we were told that unfortunately supplies of food hadn't been able to get through to the centres we wanted to visit. No food, no kids. Change of plan needed, so we decided that we would load up the Land Rover and ask James to take us way out into the back of beyond. The Land Rover wasn't playing ball. It decided to conk out, suffering a broken prop shaft or universal joint or something. However, it hadn't reckoned with James and a local man who had a spanner. After an hour or so James had transformed the Land Rover from a 4-wheel drive to a 2-wheel drive, which at least got us back on the road and there was a promise from the hire company of a replacement prop shaft to be sent from Blantyre. We set off into more unknown territory, where we still found schools, and also did some impromptu distributions to kids along the way. Even after nearly a week of this I still got a buzz out of the reaction, you can't believe how something as simple as a couple of footballs or netballs can have such an impact.
That evening was my last with the team, as I had to go back to Lilongwe the next day and stay overnight in order to catch an early flight back to the UK. We settled down back at the lodge for dinner, and all the lights went out. They had also gone out in the distant villages. Enquiries revealed that there had been a power cut and it shouldn’t last too long, but the main concern was whether the beer fridge had been affected. Power came back on after a short while and I asked Felix when he would be shutting the bar. “Maybe 7.30, maybe 8. I have to walk home”. I tried to bribe him by offering to pay for a taxi, but he said no taxi would come up the mountain that late. (There is a local superstition that evil spirits inhabit the mountain further up, substantiated by tales of people going up to the top and never coming back down. Maybe they went down the other side, or is that too cynical?) Anyway, we ordered the drink in bulk again and got on with dinner. No praying mantis tonight to bet on, and Sarah had developed a bit of a cold. In fact we were all wearing jackets as it was quite cool in the evenings, but you still don’t really expect to catch cold in Africa. Sarah said she was OK and had various vitamins etc from England with her, so after Paul had filmed a short interview with me and James, and there were no more Greens to be had for love nor money, we called it a day.
Early next morning Bob and Paul wanted to go and do a bit of filming so we had to say farewell. I was going to be picked up by FOMO driving school at 9.30 and taken to Blantyre to get the bus to Lilongwe. Yes, you may be wondering why an orphanage has a driving school but I couldn’t work it out either. Sarah stayed with me, and we waited, wondering what Plan B was if no one arrived to get me. A white Toyota was making its way up the pot-holed, bumpy, lumpy road and pulled up in front of the lodge. There was the driver and one other passenger, and the driver greeted me and took hold of my luggage. “The boot doesn’t open properly” he said and had to take the entire back seat out to get the luggage in. “This is going to be fun” I thought. I said my farewells to Sarah and got in the car, feeling sad at having to leave all three of them, but at the same time apprehensive about the ability of the car to make it to Blantyre. We stopped in Mulanje village to get diesel and another passenger or two, and set off for Blantyre. At the control point on the outskirts of the village we stopped. The policeman said – actually I don’t know what he said as he said it in Chichewan, but I thought “Isn’t this where I started?” The driver said something back, a conversation developed and we were on our way. “The policeman, he is my cousin” said the driver, a bit unconvincingly. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we were soon in Blantyre, I got my bus, had dinner in Lilongwe and the next morning flew to Nairobi, waited 6 hours and then flew back to London.
I’m pretty sure that much happens in life because of chance. It was only by chance that I heard of The Great Football Giveaway and only by chance that the computerised pay system didn’t work, leading to my first chat with Paul. I had a terrific time, a kind of mini adventure holiday with an underlying serious but benevolent purpose and they don’t come along that often. I’m really grateful to Paul, Sarah and Bob for making me feel welcome, especially after the mishaps that I had had when I’d been by myself, but then being congenitally accident-prone I probably shouldn’t be let out alone. The point is that anyone could have made this journey, Africa isn’t that daunting. I think Paul and Sarah plan to do this or something similar again, my view is that with the right support and resources the potential is there for the project to grow into something quite unique and permanent.
Back in the UK I’ve noticed that I’ve got more mozzie bites than I thought, since I gave up on insect repellent on day three (they get me anyway). The air-conditioning has broken on my car, just like the hire car in Malawi, the replacement watch I bought in Lilongwe for 40p has given up the ghost, I’ve burnt my thumb on a roasting tin and the other day I fell off a stool in my local (before I’d had anything!). Some things don’t change wherever you are, but at least the fag lighter I bought is still working!
Thanks again to Paul, Sarah and Bob, see you soon