A few weeks ago I (Myles) headed off for a ‘day trip’ with Rose Chirwa (ZM Project Officer) and a couple of others, to the Lower Shire for a review of the projects that ZEC operates in partnership with ZM to create income for church members and the local church.
It can be easy to become isolated from the reality of rural Malawi life as you buzz along in a Japanese built 4×4, falling the couple of thousands feet down the escarpment from relative wealthy urban Blantyre to the flat floor of the rift valley that runs for thousands of miles north to Kenya, round Lake Victoria and beyond.
Once across the Shire River and off the tar road, it was a further 30km cruise along a rutted stony dust track to our first stop at Dzinthenga ZEC to check up on the progress of their goat breeding project
I was shocked as I looked out from the relative comfort of the truck to see how – compared to Ruth and my last visit in early 2015 – a year of drought had left the countryside a semi-desert dust bowl.
But, it was only when we arrived at this first stop that we were finally shaken out of our fragile comfort as we found a rear tyre fast deflating.
OK, Myles thought, time to show my tyre changing skills. But, oops, the wheel spanner was nowhere to be seen after the recent work done on the truck! As the hot sun got higher, our water supply became depleted, and our phone batteries flattened. We suddenly began to realise how remote we actually were, and face the possibility of an unexpected night out if we ended up having to get a mechanic down from Blantyre. We were beginning to get a little taste of how vulnerable our local brothers and sisters in the Lower Shire are to the uncertainties of Malawi life.
However, at this stage Malawi hospitality really kicked in! There was a murmur of voices, and out of the bush came two young men with a wheel spanner! Great. Only now did we find that the wheel nuts had been very well tightened by machine when the new tyres were put on! Much African muscle (and a Scots weight) was applied and after a half-hour or so of grunting in the sun the wheel nuts were slackened. Only then did we find that the spare was so flat it would be dangerous to drive with. No problem, off again scurried the two young men to return with a powerful bicycle pump. Another half-hour of vigorous pumping and, hey presto, a usable spare tyre. Only then did we find that the replacement jack in the car was too short to raise the truck high enough for the flat tyre to clear the ground.
No problem, off again scurried the two young men to return with a big lump of wood, two flat rocks, and a half dozen strong villagers. The big heavy Toyota truck was manhandled up six inches or so, the big log jambed under the axle, the rocks were then placed under the jack and the truck raised another few inches. Off came the blown out tyre and … oh oh, the truck was still not high enough to get the new, fully inflated spare tyre on the truck. What now?
No problem, off again scurried one of the young men. Ah! Malawian lateral thinking, he came back with the ubiquitous Malawian hoe that is used to do everything in the maize ‘gardens’ of Malawi. A few minutes digging under the wheel arch and the new tyre could now be slotted on!
Needless to say, with no spare and still another 40Km or so of dirt road driving to go, we did a quick deal and the two key young men (one nicknamed “Brains” and the other “Brawn” for obvious reasons) jumped in the back of the pick-up to stay with us the rest of the day!
And it was important that we went on, because our next stop was to distribute goats to two new communities at Chapananga Trading Centre and Kabalalika ZEC. All went well, but the closer we got to the Mozambique border the clearer it was that people – if not starving – are certainly getting very hungry. And in such a situation the ‘loan’ of a goat can make all the difference to the livelihood of a family.
The beauty of this project is that in Malawi almost everyone knows how to keep a goat, the goat will eat almost anything, the young females are very quickly reproductive, and the gestation period is short. So rapid multiplication quickly pays back the initial investment. And the recipients ‘repay’ the initial gift by passing their first-born kid on – through the local church – to another needy neighbour.
We gave one aged Agogo (grandmother) a lift back home with her new goat who she insisted on calling ‘Zambezi’ in our honour. As she proudly pointed out her home, she explained how all her children had pre-deceased her and she felt very alone. She was overjoyed at how this goat would mean so much for her comfort in her remaining years.
It was with some relief that we turned round and headed back for Blantyre. Little did we know how much ‘Brains’ and ‘Brawn’ would again be needed to help us with an hour or so of excavation (and fervent prayer!) as I got the truck stuck up to the axles in the sandy bed of a dried out river. But, eventually we were driving back up the escarpment towards Blantyre as the quintessential bright red/orange setting sun of Malawi turned the Shire river below us into a red flashing snake.
Quite a day trip! And one with an unlooked-for taste of that mixture of despair and isolation, hospitality and generosity, that is the nature of life and work for so so many of our brothers and sisters here in Malawi: The warm heart of Africa.