Read part 1 one of Glenron Yearwood’s short stories from Malawi. In March this year I volunteered some time to make good on a promise to visit the coffee bean growing region of northern Malawi in central Africa, a place called Mzuzu. As a coffee drinker and occasional (coffee) connoisseur it has been my view for some time that Mzuzu produces some of the best Arabica coffee beans in the world.
The story of how coffee reaches our cup is seldom acknowledged in a conscious way. These short stories are divided into three volumes and sourced from a collection of letters, emails, Dictaphone recordings and daily dispatches sent to my family and friends around the world describing my challenges, humour and life affirming parody‟s in Africa. From the ground to my cup I now know much more.
The moonlight over this corner of Africa is bright, so bright and expansive that it might be mistaken for the sun such was its radiance. The jolt from the brakes applied too heavily by the bus driver woke me, the spirit of vexation that consumed Dennis manifested outwardly before he grumbled; “Mzuzu, Mzuzu, final stop.” He grabbed his bag and melted into the crowd. I watched from my window as he entered a bar, he wore the sentiment of a man resigned to an all-night session with a whiskey bottle and soft shoe-dancing; not sure if I will ever see Dennis again but overstood that he had briefly entered my universe for a reason, I hadn‟t yet worked out.
I grabbed my rucksack and merged with the multitude and kept walking into the darkness; “Taxi sir?” a small group of men all seem to have shouted in my direction. I stopped; “yes, I need to find a cheap lodge for the night”, after the brief pause, I pitched and they responded with different vocal noises in the night air.
I was used to that second look; the first, the acknowledgement that I was a foreigner and second to place my accent. Was it another far away African country, American or elsewhere? Oh, and a third, to work out the range between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’ my presence might represent. The stout man wearing a cap moved towards me marginally quicker than the others and advised, “Over there, the white car”.
I tried to haggle over the cheapest ride, although ultimately self-defeating as most rides started at 2,000 Kwachas even if your destination was next door, literally, and I could only take limited satisfaction, as he quoted 3000 Kwacha, which didn’t represent the best deal, still hungry and tired I jumped into a white car parked nearby.
The stout man drove for a short distance, started a brief conversation with me that his best friend had managed to get into America and he might be joining him, I didn’t respond, he then pulled over to the side of the road; by now, my spirit of goodwill had drained away and replaced by a feeling of fear; night time in a new environment does that to the human spirit.
The cab would drive at a speed less than 15 mph, short of asking why and risk another deep painful conversation as I had experienced with Dennis the bus driver. He said he’ll take me to his friend‟s lodge, where I’ll get a “good price”for a bed for the night. We had gone a little way, maybe a mile or so and ran out of fuel, out of fuel? I panicked a little like Michael Jackson‟s girl in music video Thriller at the thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere and no fuel.
The stout man was cool he jumped out of the car went to the boot and grabbed a jerry can and poured more fuel into the tank. I didn’t want to be the jumpy or nervous tourist, but it was dark and the bright moonlight which guided the bus to Mzuzu all but disappeared, few people on the street and suddenly I felt lonely and a wee bit exposed.
The cab driver, the stout man, led me through the darkness into a tiny door illuminated by single light bulb that flickered with poltergeist like energy to greet me. The reception room was little more than a small front room with a tiny colour television with a huge antenna perched on the top and looked like it had been borrowed from a lunar space capsule. The stout man exchanged a few words with a man behind the reception desk then they both turned and gazed at me. The man behind the desk was shorter than me and his face was dark, I am good at faces, but this one threw me.
His face had life etched like the topography of the rugged country and land that is Africa. His eyes were bloodshot red and his elevated cheek bones met under his chin like the confluence of two small rivers that merge into the thunder of the Zambezi where his grey, Moses beard resembled waterfalls;
I petitioned for some food and coffee, The old man spoke little English, though slightly more than the cab driver and my Chichewa was small and based mostly on what I had picked up along the way, but, “no” in any language is simple, intuitive and self-evident as the old man turned his back to me and walked away to grab a bunch of keys.
I thought I’d raise the game, lift the bar, by communicating this time in his language repeating my request for coffee and sandwich to my room; “Ndikufuna kugona nawe” the old man seemed a little surprised but didn’t break pace, he even looked impressed, he kept up the momentum and based on our new found comradeship responded in English and said he will be along later to my room and would there be anything else I require “No”, I replied in clipped English, “just good coffee and sandwich and don’t worry, will take care of the bill in the morning”.
Feeling pretty chuffed with my effort we shared a wry smile without shifting eye contact for a while. I had picked up basic Chichewa, the local dialect, from the gardener and his small group of helpers who hung around outside Lilongwe‟s hotels and guest houses to slide open and close large iron gates that separated and enforced the poverty line between the have and have not.
The outside men as I referred made friends with me for novel reasons I suppose, well, mostly out of curiosity. I was obviously a Black-African but not African enough to be like them but I sensed a genuine inquisitiveness to learn more about my journey.
Things developed quickly on my way out in the morning‟s I would always stop and share a smile and occasionally ask the gardeners‟ to pick lemons and bring them to the kitchen to make fresh juices, probably as important, if not more, was my love for football and reggae music and I would talk for hours with gooey passion about both.
I even kept an image on my smartphone of me holding aloft the European cup at Barcelona‟s Nou Camp – these things carry weight in a football mad nation. One of the outside men who introduced himself as Ryan, asked what year did I play for Barcelona? He asked because he knew, I only had a visitor‟s day-pass to photograph myself in the trophy room at the Catalan‟s stadium.
We would share a laugh and joke. In return for our maturing friendship a group of us would meet under the Lemon tree almost daily and I would donate a few English words. First, greetings; “hello, alright mate?” Then, descend very quickly into (English) swear words and cussing. We laughed, full belly-laughs.
I would throw in some Caribbean patois as alternatives to English words, what’s going on? Soon became wh’happn? Something smelling bad or just dealing with ignorant individuals would now be known as “renk” and when you are about to lose the will to live, possibly, whilst dealing with your bank’s support call centre in New Delhi, you say “suck yo mooma”, sort of, “I’m outta here”; roughly translated.
I promised the outside men the latter will end all arguments and superfluous debates. In our short time, the outside men vocabulary expanded slowly beyond Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and Irie when things were going smoothly. They in turn would teach me basic Bantu words, survival words like “ordering coffee”, “asking for directions”, “asking for love” and a few local cuss words thrown in, and of course, the essential; how to order chambo fish, the local delicacy, and how best to cook it.
Yep, Malawi had swept into my soul.
Images courtesy of khym54 (cover), Twin and Twin Trading, Davy Demaline, khym54, Neville Nel, Twin and Twin Trading via Flickr