We were driving north of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, along the west shore of the Lake Malawi to the town of Mzuzu. I was then working in Lilongwe as a doctor in a rural health project. Though I had been in the country for over six months, it was my first visit to Mzuzu.
It was the month of March. Rain was pouring in, now and then like proverbial cats and dogs. At times, the visibility was so poor that we could not make out whether the approaching vehicle was a car or a truck and jumping over the pot holes repeatedly was a painful reminder of my chronic backache.
There were two reasons for me to go to Mzuzu under such circumstances. I had not seen the town of Mzuzu, which was famous for its beautiful forest reserves and wealth of wild life. Secondly, there was a marriage in Herbert’s village. Herbert was keen that I attended the marriage and frankly, so was I.
A large number of Malawis in the north are Christian by faith. The Church however has acted pragmatically, causing least dislocation in their personal lives. It has allowed the natives to follow their animist traits, customs and rituals including long drinking sprees. A Malawian marriage ceremony is a lively soiree over eating and drinking till the stocks last.
Herbert was in his forties but looked more than his age because of his irrepressible desire and capacity to consume alcohol at any hour of the day along with smoking cheap cigarettes. Excessive drinking had made him obese and lethargic. Besides, Herbert was garrulous, often to the point of irritation. His endless chattering at times tested my patience save that my ears were sufficiently trained to accept only what was relevant to the work.
“Herbert, God forbid if you were ever caught in side a building on fire, you will never reach to safety. First, you will start rambling and secondly, you are awfully lethargic,” I remember to have told him once to his dislike.
“Sir, you don’t know, I was in my school football eleven and that too the centre forward. Now, at my age, I don’t have to run around to prove my agility but if a situation demands, I can surprise many like you.”
“You mean you can still play good football?” I egged him.
“That is for the kids now, I can prove it in many other ways,” he said with a mischievous grin.
By then I knew adultery and fornication were the forte of Malawian males. Most of them spent weekends in the bars and the nights with the bar girls, that is if you had enough ‘Kwacha’ - money in your pocket. In fact, I used to find it extremely difficult to sit by the side of Herbert on Mondays when he used to come to the office straight from his weekend revelry. He used to be in crumpled clothes and stinking. Let me add here, Herbert was no exception.
Herbert, I had learnt was the son of a village chief from Mzuzu district. He had seen the authority of his father over his people and imbibed it by instinct. Even though he was a driver, he liked to order around and get the work done from a distance and he would be in the front row to claim credit for a job completed.
The worst of Herbert was his habit of pinching money. I had to take good deal of care to protect my money from him. He would buy grocery for me at double or triple the rates. I had however reconciled to the situation for I knew he was the only driver of the project and I had to bear with him so long as I wanted to work in Malawi.
Passing through the small hamlets, I was pained to see awfully dismal living conditions of the people. One could see men and women with tattered clothes; semi nude, bare foot children playing in the squalor all over. Most of the villagers live in circular huts with mud plastered wall under thatched roofs. They neither have electricity nor water supply and yet they didn’t complain. Malawians are easygoing, complacent people, satisfied with two meals of Nsima, a paste made out of maize flour. Everyone prays for rains during the months of November and December to have a good maize crop. That is the common fate of the rural masses living in the small, beautiful country of Malawi often called as tourists’ paradise.
Malawi derives her name from the word "maravi" which means glowing reflection. The name has been derived from an exalting view of the morning sunrays falling on the lake surface and setting it aglow. The British ruled the country until 1964, which really meant a hold over a large tract of land and its rich flora and fauna. They cultivated tobacco and indentured poor Malawians as labour to the copper and gold mines in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The colonial rulers knew, they didn't have to develop any infrastructure in the country to meet their commercial targets. In fact, it served their purpose best to keep the people illiterate and impoverished.
During the forty five years of independence, various governments have come and gone in Malawi, doing precious little except borrowing from UN bodies, developed countries and donor agencies. The life in the villages where eighty percent of the population lives is simply pathetic.
We reached Mzuzu by eight in the evening. Herbert took me to the forest lodge where a room was booked for me. The lodge was on a rock ledge with the valley spreading towards the foothills of the mountain ranges in the west.
I was tired after eight hours’ rigour. I took a quick shower, had my dinner and went to sleep for I wanted to see the sunrise over the Lake Malawi. I told the watchman to wake me up at five and to make it doubly sure, I put an alarm on my mobile phone. Having come so far, I didn't want to take any chances.
I woke up before my mobile tinkled and switched on the small electric kettle that I generally carry. While sipping my coffee, I put on my T-shirt and half pants and ran out of the guest house barefoot to the rock-ledge just hundred yards away.
As the sunrays surfed over the silken spread of the Lake Malawi, it looked as if the entire lake was aflame. The ripples on the lake surface were breaking in to kaleidoscopic patterns of colours. It was simply amazing, just out of this world. What grandeur of natural bounty! I then realised the meaning of the name, Malawi.
I was sitting motionless, watching intently the noble gift of the nature. Fine cool breeze was caressing and comforting my body and soul. It seemed as if I had reached the pinnacle of peace and comfort leaving behind all travails of life. I had forgotten the wretchedness of the world that we live in.
I was still in my world of romanticism until the watchman brought me back with an apology for not waking me up and wanting to know my choice of breakfast. I told him to leave me alone. For me, those moments were preciously divine and the least I wanted was any distraction in my romancing with the nature.
Herbert’s village was three miles away from the lodge. He was to come and pick me around eleven. The marriage was to take place in the small village chapel.
There was foul smell as we neared the village. Pigs, dogs and ducks were running around and children squatting over the kuchha track leading to a spring, the only source of water. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed as we traversed across the village. No research was required to know why there were large number of cases of hepatitis, cholera and malaria in the country. The inhuman, pathetic plight of Malawian villages is in fact, a slur on the face of civilized societies and donor agencies not tired of tom-toming their contribution in improving the life of the unfortunate natives.
Drinking had started before we reached Herbert’s place. Everyone in the village had come out with his and her best outfit. It was a sunny day and the bright gaudy colours of their dresses were sparkling. The drummers were active and people were dancing around the place earmarked for this purpose. Mindless of the miseries that etched their day to day life, it was gaiety personified that day in that small hamlet in Mzuzu.
Herbert was coming to me off and on and asking whether I was comfortable and enjoying the ceremony. I assured him that I was enjoying every moment of it and that he should not bother.
The marriage party had arrived. The bridegroom was a youngish boy. I was shocked to see his emaciated body and the pronounced limp in his right leg.
On arrival, the bridegroom's side has to give the promised dowry to bride's parents. It had been agreed that the bridegroom’s family will give two goats, five chickens and hundred Kwachas as dowry to bride’s parents. Things until then had gone to everyone's liking.
But now there was an altercation.
Cynthia, the bride was pregnant and the bridegroom was refusing to accept the child as his and claimed that another young man of Herbert’s village was also courting Cynthia and that, though he was still willing to marry Cynthia, he couldn’t pay the full dowry.
The matter was brought before Herbert who by then was in no better condition than the rest after hours of sustained drinking. Some one brought a wooden chair and fitted Herbert in to it with quite an effort.
"Sir, I would like to marry Cynthia but my financial position is very weak. I can not afford to pay the dowry in full," the bridegroom pleaded before Herbert, now acting as the village chief.
"Did you sleep with any other man?" The chief asked Cynthia.
Cynthia apparently was a no-nonsense girl.
"Sir, this man is a speaking the truth. He used to take me to the school after it closed and there his cousin, the school teacher often waited for us. We used to drink before and then make love but that was with mutual consent."
The chief was apparently serious and for the first time I saw Herbert speak solemnly.
"We can not prove the antecedents of the case since the other man is absconding. The fact before us is that this girl is pregnant and the child may come out any time,” Herbert spoke in his typical loud voice.
Then pausing a little he turned to the bridegroom, “You say you want to take this girl as your wife. If so, it is your responsibility to arrange for the dowry. And for that, whether you borrow, beg or steal, it is your problem.”
Everyone lauded the judgement. The bride’s father was simply elated. The bridegroom was visibly depressed.
“Sir, I told you my predicament. I am an orphan and I have no land. I want to marry Cynthia but I need time to arrange the dowry.”
The bride’s father protested to the suggestion. “I wouldn’t allow you to marry my daughter unless you arrange the dowry in full,” he shouted.
The celebrations’ had come to a stand still. The drummers had slumped to ground.
I was a silent spectator. Whose child was in Cynthia's womb? I thought of DNA tests and then laughed within myself. My mind was reeling under these arguments when I saw Herbert pushing the chair and coming out of it and addressing his people.
"I am concerned about the future of this young couple. I don't want this young man to be buried under debt. Debt is like leprosy. Once you get afflicted, it rarely leaves you. I don’t want that to happen to this poor man. I will therefore pay the entire dowry to bride’s father.”
I was startled by Herbert’s announcement and so were the rest. I knew Herbert cheating on small purchases he made for me or for the office. This was a big amount by Malawian standards.
"Wasn’t he the petty, slimy dishonest man I knew?” I was querying to my self again and again but was unable to decide.
The matter having been resolved, the marriage proceedings continued with more eating and drinking. I took leave and as I was taking to the wheels, Herbert came forward and said, “Sir, there will be no dinner in the guest house. The cook is here...I... will bring your dinner in the evening."
Herbert came in the evening with his son. He had brought roasted chicken and fish. Herbert was quite drunk and he had brought a bottle of local brew with him.
"I know you don't like country brew but please try this. It doesn’t stink and gives better kick than whiskey.”
He then shouted for his son and gave him long winding instructions and then he turned towards me, “Sir, I tell you one thing…. every person acts good so long you keep on kicking his arse. Give him a free rope and he is a spoiled man."
I felt inconvenient for I knew I was mild with men working with me and I found it difficult to be curt or harsh. Herbert on the other hand expected men to give him respect. I had often seen him ordering the rest of the staff, including those, senior to him.
We were sitting outside under the clear blue sky. The fried chicken and fish was undercooked but eatable. Suddenly, I asked Herbert, “Wouldn’t you need money to give dowry on your son’s marriage? I mean, weren’t you over magnanimous?”
Herbert took a long sip from his glass and told me, “Sir, God willing, I will be able to arrange the dowry for my son’s marriage whenever required. But did you see the plight of the man, the bridegroom yesterday? He is awfully poor and a cripple. No one even employs him on fields. Who will give him loan? Where can he ever find money to have a wife?”
I was astounded to find a different person before me. And as I kept looking at him, the inimitable mischievous smile was back on his face.
Next day, as I drove back through the beautiful valley, Herbert's words were ringing in to my ears.