A minibus full of Malawians with chickens is different to a minibus full of Pakistanis without chickens. There’s the absence of clucking, the segregation, the meaning of silence. Maybe the chaperoned women in burkhas are not so different to the boisterous fleshy mamas in spaghetti straps and chintejis but who really knows what’s wrapped behind those chadors? Either way, too much repression or expression could kill them just the same. That’s if the minibus drivers, demented in both places, didn’t get there first.
Pakistan was easier than Malawi. Going to Pakistan was valid, like going to Mecca. But there was no pilgrimage to Africa, no relatives to circle. So when Amma and Aba waved me off four days ago, they thought I was going to Brussels.
“What’s Brussels” Ama asked?
Europe was all Italy, France, Germany and Spain for her and although as a nation we ate more Brussel sprouts than the rest of Europe, they were not of our cuisine and had never crossed our threshold to make the connection.
‘It’s the Islamabad of Europe but with chocolate’ Aba explained.
Envisaging the stability and bland respect emanating from a city of such bureaucratic promise, they sent me to the airport in a taxi. More specifically, some uncle driving a car, who took payment but not a taxi fare payment because that would be obscene. Had they seen the prospects of Malawi, they would have told me to walk. Had they dug a little deeper, a little earlier, we all might have been spared the journey.
The car sped on through the Chilterns and the familiar autumnal foliage receded by the motorway’s approach. I started to doubt the whole enterprise. Crisp amber colours focused my mind on possibilities not fully explored. What if I died out there? No one knew I was going to Malawi and I didn’t want the unbearable sorrow and dismay at my passing to be marred because they had found me somewhere I shouldn’t have been. The spectacle of death must be perfect. Dying in the wrong place a thousand miles away from where I was meant to be wasn’t the thing at all. Not for me. When I go, I want the dust to settle absolutely without specks of doubt forever floating, tickling the noses of those left behind like some perennial unconsummated sneeze.
I was roused from my worries by a more immediate one because the driver uncle was talking to me.
“…that’s funny innit..”
What was funny was that I hadn’t used ‘innit’ since I started climbing the greasy pole. He continued, oblivious to my silence.
“Me, I get on with everybody…”
I wasn’t listening. Opening his mouth when he didn’t have to triggered a red flag. If he was one of those ‘friendly’ uncles, it left me vulnerable to detection, he might offer to carry my suitcase for me to the checkout desk. I changed the drop off terminal at the last minute, a decoy, but it was all for nothing, the bugger didn’t even take my bag out of the boot. I should have known; persistent stares into the rear-view mirror, stale tobacco, overwhelming aftershave and Peshwari sandals didn’t bode well for gallantry- he was the type of man to make women carry things.
Check-in was uneventful because for the first time, there was no excess luggage to try and haul on board. Had I not been effectively running away from home, the whole experience would have been a luxury. I had never travelled abroad with seven kilos to spare. I saw Ama’s face and started to feel the waste of it and threw frantic glances for something I could shove in the suitcase, but then I checked myself. This is how it’s supposed to be done. No crazy unpacking of bags to stuff things into plastic bags to smuggle on board anyway, no litany of relatives praying for deliverance from excess luggage fees. I didn’t have to contrive my place in the queue to be served by a male at the counter desk, an act bizarrely encouraged by Ama because flirting for the right cause wasn’t haram in the same way as flirting for pleasure.
Once I had passed through the departure gates, I felt free. I hadn’t been found out and the transient feeling of an airport, of being neither here nor there, of having left one path but not firmly embarked on the other seeped in. My newfound freedom was vetted by body scanners and security wands as my shoeless feet stepped aside for a bag search. Then a physical body search ensued with a female security officer rummaging my thighs whilst telling me that she was going to touch my legs as if I couldn’t see or feel her. She rubbed her hands over my hijab as if for good luck.
I had two hours to be free and picked up a trashy magazine because they were comforting even if they were to be scorned. The world was throwing away good water at departure gates, people were jittery, war was the word on the street and a clash of civilisations inevitable, but trashy magazines saw past all that and anchored us in a voyeuristic reality that was the preserve of free folk.
I examined the people on the plane and was about to start writing their histories in my head but then realised the real Malawi travellers would only be certain on the connecting flight from Nairobi to Lilongwe. Once we were airborne, the extreme turbulence put paid to anything other than praying, and the possible explanations of my demise in a tragic air disaster.
But before I died I had to know the truth. A world full of people who don’t need to know is relaxed and unafraid, like a beach holiday, but progress is slow, fuelled only by effortless genius whilst lesser mortals succumbed to the dulling of their natural curiosity. I wondered what the man sitting to my right with glasses too small for his big red face would think if I turned to him and said ‘I am going to join the world of knowers’? Probably, that there was a bomb on the plane.
Two hours into the eight-hour flight, the turbulence eased up. The babies on board settled down and someone tried smoking in the toilets and caused a commotion. This flight was a different demographic to my last one, to Lahore. Lone travellers, couples, families, the old, the young, tricolours of white, black and brown, delineated with the occasional spangling of mixed. Two black nuns in purple habits sat adjacent to me and looked less sombre than the white nuns in purple habits I had met at the Sacred Heart Convent School in Lahore a month ago. But that was two days after 9/11 so perhaps not a fair comparison.
Amongst the youngsters there was an American bible camp; excitable and coordinated, purposeful with their fanny packs and full of hope and zeal. My Beh Ji, granny, once told me that comparing, like regret, was a useless and unproductive exercise. Not that it stopped her constantly comparing this one and that one or regretting getting sick as a child, something she presumably had absolutely no control over, and slowing down her family so they got separated from their caravan during those apocalyptic sounding days of the partition migration in 1947. But I was comparing. If I was with my old school crew, matching hijabs instead of matching t-shirts, going for dawah- teaching Islam anywhere in the world, everyone would get excited all for the wrong reasons and no one would let us do it because with my religion, the private had become very public because someone somewhere had divined that flying planes into skyscrapers was a heavenly thing to do. And now we wait with baited breath to see how the tyranny of the majority will play out on this one.
I was glad to have an air steward manning the left aisle I sat in rather than a stewardess. The Pakistan International Airline hostesses who until now had formed the entirety of my stewarding experience could be condescending and looked at their fellow Pakistanis as an entirely inferior breed. That is unless you spoke with a good British accent and kept up with the fashion, or indeed, just didn’t resemble a walking Christmas tree as some female PIA passengers occasionally did, such was their excitement to board a plane for home. In this case, the hostesses conspired to separate you from the riff raff. The show of elite solidarity bordering on deference disintegrated however, when they realised they were still being treated like the help that they were, causing them to morph into another mode of contempt. But this was a British Airways flight and any raging class struggles were too subtle or polite to be noticed by me.
Looking out at the clouds which always looked the same, no matter where you were going to or coming from, I saw the world below as one full of knowers. A world full of knowers was fraught and uptight, its axis accelerating like a trading floor during an economic recovery. The demand for answers in this world qualified all knowledge to the point where faith ceased to exist and the human spirit entered recession. I wasn’t sure about this world, it felt slippery.
The transit in Nairobi was short and the attempts at security at the boarding gate were half hearted. I was grateful that no one would want to fly a plane into a Malawian skyscraper because they didn’t have any. I deduced the latter from my brief chat with the tree trunk whose exponential dreadlocks were troubling the security gate, so much so that after the fifth time setting the alarm off after literally stripping to his hemp underwear, they had to run their security wands through his hair. It was a great conversation starter. This was the tree trunk’s third visit to Malawi, he loved it for many reasons and amongst gushings of decluttering and the simple life, he let on that there were about three motorways and skyscrapers were not the thing at all.
I drifted away when he started talking about cross breeding, I’m not sure if he was talking about people or plants.
Ding Dong. The tannoy reclaimed me.
“Can passengers T. Patel, S. Gupta and R. Valimohamed report to boarding gate 6, last boarding call for KQ Flight 702 to Dubai.”
‘Our people, always late’ I mused. In fact, I had been hearing a lot of desi names over the tannoy and to reaffirm this, I looked around and there were indeed, a great number of brown people in the airport as well as at my boarding gate. Why did so many brown people want to go to Malawi? The answer came when an elderly Indian looking man who had keenly followed my emergence from the Muslim prayer room opposite the departure gate moments earlier, used it as a conversation starter as soon as I had cleared security and was within hearing distance.
“Where are you going Ma?”
He was certainly a good deal older then me so I don’t know why he was calling me Ma, maybe he was a bit senile.
“It’s a fine thing for the young to be devout,”
he continued, appraising my flowing green skirt, full sleeved black top and paisley hijab,
“And pretty girls should cover up.”
I’d never heard an old brown man speak such good English, he definitely wasn’t from England. He wanted to know whose daughter I was and why I was travelling alone.
“Baba ji” I started, before thinking the better of it,
“Uncle ji, why are you and all the other desi people going to Malawi?”
Turns out that there have been Indians in Africa for a long time and most of these passengers were also going home. Baba Ji didn’t speak Urdu or Punjabi but another language or dialect that he kept slipping into and then translating, which had a guttural Bombay feel to it.
Baba ji was comfortably settling into an exploratory conversation when his travelling companion, a younger man interrupted, so I deftly relinquished my seat and found an emaciated vacant bench seat, nestled between a brightly dressed middle aged woman and a portly Greek looking man.
I assumed the lady was Malawian but she was actually Zambian, so I excused myself to find a Malawian. I found one further up the line, his name was Banda, which was coincidentally the name of the former dictator who ruled for thirty odd years before being deposed by the incumbent president. Banda could have been anything between 35 and 50 years and was dressed in tweed but not the gentleman’s sort of tweed. He had a small poultry farm just outside of the capital city Lilongwe and was returning from a business trip but times were hard for guys like him because there were bigger poultry farms, mainly owned by Greeks and he found it hard to compete. I looked towards the Greek looking man I had been sat next to minutes before and saw him reigning supreme over caged birds.
“So I’m going to make my own feed, because that is what the big men do see, it’s like that.”
He actually said rike instead of like, mixing r’s and l’s seemed to be a pet lisp for him.
“Well that’s great”, I said encouragingly trying to be an attentive and supportive listener, to provoke useful information even though I didn’t know what the useful information looked like.
“Yet by the Grace of God I have sent my middle daughter to the UK to study aglicurture at the University of Essex”, he continued.
“That must be expensive, that’s a lot of chicken feed to sell”, I volunteered.
“In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” he offered with a knowing nod of his head.
Poverty and Malawi were apparently synonymous- I hadn’t read a travel guide or a news piece that didn’t mention one without the other. It was one of the poorest countries in the world but it also had a magnificent lake, the fifth largest freshwater one, with the most species of fish, compared to any other in the world but perhaps this information didn’t need to be acted on in quite the same way as the nouns that poverty spawns; hunger, crisis, drought, death. That’s why she had chosen to come here.
He was impressed that I was studying politics and I plucked a Churchill quote I felt was apt for our conversation:
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Banda folded his arms, crossed his legs and nodded his head with an agreeable ‘Hmmph’.
As we moved up the queue to board, I managed to talk to an elderly white lady who lived in the tea estates in the south of Malawi and a young Malawian guy returning from a global health conference. I felt satisfied that I had managed to speak to some sort of representative quota of my fellow travellers apart from the ‘save Africans through development and nation building’ types, who boarded first, straight from the business class lounge.
Three hours into the second and final leg of the journey, the pilot announced descent and I peered out of the window and saw nothing. Just fields and the brownish red earth which was of course something yet it shouted the absence of things. It was only when the plane practically hit the tarmac that I saw a warehouse looking structure that had to be the airport. I shuffled along to the exit but allowed myself a few seconds at the door of the plane, to be hit by whatever elements reigned here.
A nudge in the back jolted me down the stairs. People were always so desperate to get off a plane, as if it became a hostile environment as soon as was stationary. I was hit with heat that could still be described as pleasant unlike the sauna of post monsoon humidity that hit me when I landed in Lahore some weeks ago. It was early afternoon and bright here where Lahore had been at her evening best and shimmering with lights. The sky was a cloudless calm blue and a light breeze caressed the branches of the towering blue gum trees that lined the boundaries of the airport. And then a familiar smell- the charcoal smoke of charred land, of earth being prepared for its purpose, sowing and reaping. The same smell of the village back in Kashmir. Here I could hear birdsong and voices that were still distinguishable but in Lahore I felt like I was hearing all humanity at once.
It was a four and a bit hour coach ride and the terrain became less flat and dry and greener and more mountainous but the red earth persisted as we headed south to Malawi’s second city. I wished the coach would stop out of respect when we passed the first Baobab tree. I’m not sure what made it so majestic, the sheer radius of its trunk, a vastness that silently said ‘I have been here for a long time and know much’ or that it was possibly more enigmatic than my all-time favourite, the willow tree.
Small towns would pop up every now and then, rickety shops, goats, children playing with everything but plastic toys, women carrying loaded wide woven grass fanner baskets on their heads with straddled infants on their backs, minibuses up and down and on either side and vendors frying very big donuts and samosa looking snacks and some running alongside the minibuses to sell corn on the cob.
Evening set in as we entered the outskirts of Blantyre, and I was treated to a picture-perfect setting sun in the African savannah, only we weren’t in the savannah..