“Can I join you Marcus?”
Brian had a big grin plastered on his face. The American Christian engineers who were my fellow Mzungu* occupants of the Presbyterian hostel in Mzuzu in Northern Malawi were so damn polite. So American. In fact they were so earnest and nice they started to make feel like a real arsehole.
“It’s a lot of fun the work we’re doing Marcus” Brian gushed. “Blessings is a ray of hope, he truly is.”
Brian and his fellow professor Tom and their students were helping a Malawian man build casts for generators and had recovered their sense of enthusiasm along with their lost luggage. As Brian enthused about their project it occurred to me while these guys did their best to improve people’s lives I had been riding a shoddy bicycle, bargaining for vegetables and telling small children to f*** off when they asked for money too aggressively or had a poke at my saddlebags.
Still the Americans seemed impressed at my trip nonetheless.
“You’re a brave man Marcus” Brian said with a disbelieving shake of the head. “I really admire what you’re doing”.
I suppose there is something admirable in the idiotic courage it takes to get on a bicycle whose gears clunk and thrash as they change like a teenager awakening for school and ride it thousands of kilometres through the middle of the world’s most undeveloped continent. I polished off my breakfast, strapped up the last of my gear and said my goodbyes. The Malawian ladies in the kitchen with wide grins, questionable wigs and big hearts said a fond farewell. The receptionist told me to tell my fellow Australians when I went home how hard life in Malawi was because there was no money. I smiled uncomfortably. Is this the message you want to send to the world I asked myself, that you are objects of pity who need rescuing? The Americans of course gave me a sincere, heartfelt sendoff.
“Godspeed Marcus! Godspeed!”
I set off in drizzling rain, not ideal but actually preferable to blazing sun. I was following a blog post which described my route as “one of the best downhill rides in Africa”. Buyer beware I suppose. The dirt track undulated at a comfortable gradient, the rain cleared and just as I questioned the location of the turnoff to Usisya, a father-son combination appeared on a bicycle.
“We are going near Usisya” the father said with a cheerful grin. “Let us go together!”.
A great idea! We pedalled along in tandem and I marvelled at the monumental strength of the son who hauled the gearless bicycle up inclines with his father sitting on the rack wielding the extra weight of a hoe, a bag of maize flour and a container of oil.
The father missed no opportunity to point this out.
“He is riding manual!” he pointed out gleefully.
In between ramblings about his origins – it was unclear whether he was from the Congo or Zambia, or both – and professions of faith in God his conversation took on an exasperatingly circular quality.
“Let’s go together!”
“He is my first son!”
“He is manual! You are with gears!”
“Let’s go together!”
“We are friends!”
“Let’s go together!”
This started to grate but I truly squirmed when the religious evocations emerged. In theory I am your textbook liberal, all-tolerant of religions of all stripes and traditions, yet in practice public professions of faith still frequently make me uncomfortable. How do you know the person expressing the sentiments shares your at least theoretical tolerance? And so it proved in this case.
“God is with us. We are brothers” the old man intoned. “I do not like the Muslims. Are you a Muslim?”
I blanched considerably at this declaration of religious hatred. It seemed Islamophobia had reached the warm heart of Africa. He gave me a flat hard stare that rather suggested we would be decidedly less brotherly if I was a Muslim.
I blurted out a cowardly lie to cover my atheism. “No I am a Catholic”.
Well stuff him. When he showed no sign of even listening to my question as to why he hated the Muslims or my tentative attempts to explain that Allah and Jehovah were the same god, I resolved to leave him behind. At the first major hill I crunched through the gears and left them behind as they shared the duties of walking the bike up the hills. I barreled down the hills and scrabbled up them, in turn getting of the bike and walking when the rocks and dirt would not grip. I spied a lady selling bananas by the roadside and could not turn up the chance of precious nutrition so stopped to buy her wares. When I went to set off again my chain jammed in the derailer and my nether regions were sent flying into the handlebars with the bike going nowhere.
Left swearing vigorously and freely safe in the knowledge that no one would understand, I tried and failed to force the bike into gear. An old man rushed over to help.
“Ahh sorry sorry” he repeated multiple times.
He ushered me to his house and examined the bicycle. He asked me for a spanner which being a woefully unprepared, bumbling idiot, I didn’t have. After much head-scratching and fiddling by him and a younger friend there seemed to be no solution to the loose wire that was jamming the derailleur against the frame and blocking the chain from running. Then in a moment of inspiration the younger of the pair of my spontaneous helpers grabbed a dried up piece of corn shorn of its husks. He jammed the corn in between the derailleur and the frame and presto! The chain was running again. The Malawians and I exchanged wry grins and chuckles at the absurdity of the solution. I even gathered up more corn husks and left with bulging pockets in case the corn fell out and had to be replaced.
I need not have worried. The bike was running and the corn fell out but the chain kept on rolling. I checked the wire and it had tightened itself under the mystical influence of the corn. Battling loose rock and dirt I pedalled on as it became apparent that the wild downhill ride mentioned in the blog post was only telling a small part of the story. Yet after some egg sandwiches and excruciating crawls uphill fighting for grip, the road was flattening out in anticipation of the final scenic and thrilling winding descent down to Lake Malawi.
Kerrrrrthunk! My heart sank. My chain was jammed again. This was a new problem, falling off the back cogs and becoming entangled in the wheel. With the sun now searing in a late afternoon flourish, I sweated and heaved as I wrestled with the chain. After two false dawns where I managed to reattach the chain only for it to immediately fall off, I again had the chain in place and went for an exploratory few metres to check the bicycle’s working order. A couple of deceptively smooth turns were followed by ominous crunching and stalling and then a sharp ping that had the ring of a death knell. I looked down in despair and the chain and back derailleur had become entangled in the spokes and the chain had snapped. The corn in my pocket could not play saviour now. I began to trudged down a road with almost no cars on it, facing the disappointment of missing the exciting part of the ride having hauled myself up epic hills, and the prospect of arriving in Usisya in the dark after a three hours of pushing a bicycle downhill.
A prospective rescuer rose into view in the form of a toyota ute. But it was overloaded with passengers and goods with barely room for a small child, let alone my bike, saddlebags and yours truly. I explained my predicament and the driver gave a rueful smile and apologised that he could not help. I plodded on but then a few minutes later a new helper came sprinting over.
“I can fix. I can fix.”
The latest Malawian to rescue a hapless Mzungu proceeded with a bent nail and large rock to set to work on the chain. The driver of the ute and other various helpers and curious onlookers gathered round as my Malawian friend sent pieces of rock flying. I am not entirely sure how but with a mixture of brute force and finesse he managed to shorten the chain and then tied up the dangling wire and the regulator. I thanked him profusely and slipped a note in his hand and hurried on with an eye on the fast descending sun.
It occurred to me that my bicycle might be a metaphor for the state of politics and society in Africa. Originally built and funded by African labour (in a bizarre coincidence i discovered whilst cleaning my bicycle that it was made in Tunisia) for the West’s benefit and then handed back in an act of repentant charity in a fairly decrepit state and manifestly unsuited to local conditions. Yet through the improvisation and ingenuity of African people it keeps on running and problems are fixed in the most bizarre and original manner. Yet the solutions are only ever piecemeal and new cracks, punctures and fissures immediately appear to replace the old ones. So it keeps on trundling along, rickety and bent out of shape, never far from needing another handyman to move the gears this way and that for a small fee.
Or maybe I am an over-analysing and under-qualified backpacker who has been in Africa for three months and whose main interaction with local people has been riding past hordes of children yelling “Azuuuungo!! Givamee!!”*
I was smashing down the hill as the wild ride promised finally appeared, alternating between braking furiously over huge rocks and then urging the now gearless bike up small inclines only to find the pedals snapping and jolting against the resistance. I found myself jumping off the bicycle and running up hills dragging the bicycle in a horribly hunchbacked pose as the shadows lengthened. Winding down the ever steeper hill, Lake Malawi unfurled magnificently below me but I was too shattered from the exertions of the day and the effort of trying to pick my way down the treacherous boulders strewn on the road to appreciate the view.
My thoroughly battered bicycle made it down the hill with my possessions dangling out of my Royal Mail post bags that moonlight as cycling panniers and had developed a huge rip on one side. Careering down a road getting progressively more sandy, avoiding the villagers as they gave me cheerful greetings while I willed them out of my way, I cycled into the village of Usisya. I suddenly realised in all this frenzy I had no idea where the lodge was and with the village much bigger than expected there was no obvious indication as to where it might be.
I think you know what is coming next. One final benefactor appeared. A woman in braids found me looking frazzled and bemused on the main dirt road and asked me “You are looking for the lodge?” and then led me down multiple goat paths. I began to get slightly nervous but let myself be led in the near dark, too tired to ask questions. With the bush gathering round us and a few more confusing turns negotiated the woman pointed to a final path and said “It’s through there” and then disappeared before I could utter a thank you let alone inquire as to her name. I navigated my way down and the outlines of three figures appeared out of the darkness.
“Oh hello there” a European-accented voice said in mild surprise.
“Phew!” I replied. “What an atrocious idea that was”.
*Mzungu is originally the Swahili word for “one who wanders” or “wanderer” but has come to be the common word for a white person in East and Southern Africa due to the perceived aimless nature of the earliest white explorers, traders, soldiers and missionaries in Africa.
*Azungo is a distortion of mzungu.