On the Shores of Lake Malawi

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There was a truckload of sacks clumsily piled next to the passport control office. One had split open, exposing its contents: a silvery mass of fish. The whole border post, inside and out, reeked like prahok, the sewagey fermented fish paste they dare you to eat in Cambodia. At the edge of the village just over the border was a sign which read, “Healthy People. Clean villages. Stop Open Defecation”. Just beyond that, a middle-aged man threw open the door of his hut and strolled down to the road, glancing at us without interest. He was completely naked.

Women worked in a network of paddy fields, bending to harvest the rice with babies strapped to their backs. They laid the rice at the side of the road to dry, and draped their washing over bushes or spread it out on the grass. A man wobbled along on a squeaky, creaky pushbike with a big sack sagging along the crossbar and over the seat so that he had to lean forward onto the handlebars. Harry Highpants, the money changer, struggled onto the bus, puffing and sweating. He was flashily dressed on the cheap with braces which looked as if they had been tightened with a winch. His suit pockets bulged with kwacha notes.

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We stopped for a night on the shore of the lake which dominates Malawi and I strolled along the narrow beach between banana palms and papaya trees, past dugout canoes made from fat logs hollowed out and shaped at each end. Villagers swarmed around me, wanting to know my name, where I was from, how long I was there, and where I had been before. One called himself Mr Sweet Talker, another said he was David Beckham; they all had something to sell.

I am Mr Cheap as Chips,” said the first of the vendors in the row of craft stalls which flanked the road to the campsite. A handwritten sign confirmed it.

Richard,” said the next vendor who overheard when I said my name to Mr Cheap as Chips. “Come look my stall”.

Richard!” the other vendors chorused, and advanced on me with bracelets and carvings. “Just two dollars, Richard”… “good quality”… “see, big five”…“how much you give me Richard?”

Err. Maybe I’ll come back later.

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We worked our way down the shore of the Calendar Lake, 365 miles by 52, paralleling Tanzania way over, out of sight, on the opposite bank, until it faded into Mozambique, and stopped at a campsite around halfway down. There was a long, wide beach bookended with mountains and, behind it, an open-sided bar, some hammocks, a pool table and exuberant bougainvillea.

Village fishermen dragged dugout canoes up onto the beach and hung their nets to dry. As the sun dimmed, the lake turned electric blue, and pinks and purples bled into the sky, and the villagers lit fires along the beach and grilled the fish they had caught that day in their dugout canoes and the smell wafted up towards me. Chambo: a tilapia unique to Lake Malawi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

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