Zambia is the friendliest place I have ever been, so neighbouring Malawi’s high VISA fee and culture of shouting ‘Give me money’ came as a surprise. I stopped for petrol soon after the border. A Malawian man approached me, I knew exactly how this conversation would go. How fast does your bike go? What size engine does it have? Wow, that’s huge. My bike is 250CC. Same conversation every time, they always start with ‘How fast does your bike go?’ like Africa is some sort of Fast and the Furious set.
“What size engine do you have?”
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“Do you have a bike?”
“What CC is your bike?” I asked out of politeness.
I looked at him shocked. That was an expensive bike by American standards, I did not expect someone in a village in Malawi to have one. And I realized that’s what’s wrong with the world – why can’t anyone save up and buy a BMW?
“A man was riding Cairo to Cape Town and his bike was no more in Malawi so he sold it to me and he went home. I ripped out all electrics and fixed it myself. One day I want to do a tour like you are doing but VISAs are very expensive here.”
Lilongwe was a small capital, not much for a tourist to do so I wandered around the local market. I turned a corner to find 30 people dancing. Not African dancing with a beat and rhythm – white people dancing. They were all wearing the same green t-shirts. I took a closer look, they were missionaries. I had ridden my motorcycle from Seattle to a place with African Missionaries. The dancing finished and they formed a semi-circle around a bald, middle aged, accountant looking man. The locals had formed quite a large crowd to complete the circle.
“My name is JJ.” He boomed into the microphone.
The crowd looked on in silence.
“Can you say JJ?”
A Malawian man in matching green t-shirt translated his sentence into Swahili.
The two Malawian men at the nearest stall asked me, “What are you doing here?”
“I heard there were white people embarrassing themselves so I came right over.”
They both cracked up laughing and slapped my hand.
“I am Chicken Wing and this is Joe.”
“What’s going on here?”
“They are from the church but they came all the way from America so we must listen.”
“I came from America as well, but I came on a motorcycle.”
“To here? Wow. We will listen to you instead then.”
They slapped my hand again.
The speeches had finished now and upbeat dance music was playing. JJ donned a white blood stained sheet and crown of thorns and ran around silently pretending to cure other missionaries.
Two teenagers brought out a board and pretended to hammer nails into JJs hands with the tempo and campness of an 80s workout video. America, they’re not sending their best and brightest. Some I’m sure are good people.
I started to wonder why anyone would come to Malawi. I left the underwhelming capital and rode to my hotel in Monkey Bay. After coming hundreds of miles out of my way to see the Lake of Stars, all I could see was the bare assed African man in front of me. This was not tribal Africa, he was from the navy base next door and going for a dip. The South African owners were discussing hotel maintenance.
“And then we need to put all the furniture in the water.”
“You mean in the lake?”
“Yes, they lay eggs that survive for four days underwater so weigh down all the furniture in the hotel and put it in the lake.”
I took the hotel kayak out on the lake. The peaceful bay opened up into an ocean of blue, the endless lake meeting the clear sky. A small village on a beach was tucked in around the next corner. There was no road to the village, the only way to get there was to walk or sail. A place unburdened by progress. The only other person on the lake was a lone fisherman casting a net from an ancient canoe. It was an image that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. I can see why people come to Malawi.