Allen Varney, writer and game designer


African Dispatches

Allen Varney's letters from Africa (3 of 5)

[On June 9, 1998, my lady love Beth Fischi and I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, to begin a seven-and-one-half month journey across sub-Saharan Africa. From Kenya we travelled by bus, train, and occasionally hydrofoil ferry down to Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and finally South Africa, flying out from Pretoria in late January 1999.

[Along the way we found that Africa is getting reasonably wired, and we rarely lacked access to e-mail. Before our departure we had created a mailing list of friends, "African Dispatches," and we posted periodic updates to the list throughout our trip. - Allen Varney]

Date: Fri, 2 Oct 1998 (Malawi)

AFRICA TRIP DAY 116: ...But We Wouldn't Want to Live Here

Imagine that your home town in America started getting visits from all these weird foreigners. They're an ugly, scruffy, ragtag lot in threadbare T-shirts and shorts, they haven't bathed or shaved in days, and they display the most bizarre behavior. Like, say they obsessively climb around on elementary-school jungle gyms, or climb skyscraper staircases all day -- up and down, up and down. These grubby outsiders make no sense -- but when they go to a restaurant or hotel in your town, they pull huge wads of cash from their malodorous shorts, pay princely sums without batting an eye, and leave hundred-dollar tips.

You hear about McDonald's cashiers becoming millionaires. So you quit your job as a computer programmer or marketing executive or lawyer, go to work at McDonald's, and serve these inscrutable tramps who try to buy a Big Mac with a thousand-dollar bill. You've never even seen a thousand note before. "Sorry, I can't change that," you say. The dirtwad aliens look surprised, annoyed, and abashed all at once. "Are you sure?" they ask, looking plaintively into a wallet fat with $10,000 bills. "I really don't have anything smaller..."

That's Malawi.

On our trip south from Kenya and Tanzania, Beth Fischi and I have followed the standard backpacker's route toward Zimbabwe and South Africa. Visa hassles and bad roads make Zambia unattractive, and in eastern Mozambique the roads are not only bad, they're lined with the byproducts of a 20-year war: a million American-made landmines. So most travellers head down Lake Malawi, Africa's third-largest lake, a placid inland sea stretching south alongside rolling hills. The western shore comprises one of Earth's poorest and most obscure countries.

Like most travellers, we've enjoyed Malawi. Nobody ever comes here specifically -- it has few notable sights and no vital resources -- but everyone who passes through likes the scenery and the friendly (if impoverished and physically ugly) people. We hung out a few days at lazy Nkhata Bay, the biggest backpacker stop between Zanzibar and Victoria Falls. Then we spent four days in Blantyre, the commercial capital, a pleasant enough city by African standards, strikingly modern and well-maintained to our eyes after three months in grotty Kenya and Tanzania. Despite the US State Department's dire warnings about the state of Malawi's roads, they've been among the best we've seen in Africa. People here speak English more often than in Tanzania.

Beth got a pair of pants made, and the tailor did a great job for about eight bucks. We've seen some interesting sights, such as smoke-like clouds of millions of lakeflies; Malawians catch them by swinging baskets in their midst, then roast and eat them. We have eaten good food (not lakeflies!) cheaply, liked some of the hotels, and didn't get sick or robbed.

That said, Malawi is definitely still Africa -- WAY Africa! -- so we've moved through quickly to Zimbabwe, heading prematurely for South Africa and an expeditious November return to Europe. I've found some reasons to like Malawi, but there's really no reason there should even BE a Malawi. It's yet another silly idea for an African country, without foundation in geography, culture, or linguistic grouping. Like most African states, it's a historical accident. I had planned to outline its history, but actually Malawi has the exact same history as three dozen other African countries. They all follow these five stages:

1. TRIBAL KINGDOM. Before European contact, some tribe achieved dominion over the surrounding tribes and loosely governed a large, sometimes sophisticated state. In Malawi it was the Maravi Kingdom (circa 1550-1700). In the 1700s all these kingdoms were plunged into chaos by the depredations of the Arab-Swahili slave trade. The Maravis were perhaps the hardest hit, losing upwards of 20,000 people a year to slavers.

2. EUROPEAN CONTACT. First explorers, then missionaries and traders. Malawi received the requisite visit from peripatetic missionary David Livingstone ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume"), followed by a heavy influx of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries at an outpost they named Livingstonia.

3. CONQUEST. In the sudden, ill-planned "Scramble for Africa" of the 1880s and '90s, European colonial powers took over through force and treachery. Britain created Malawi, called Nyasaland then, to thwart Portuguese domination in neighboring Mozambique.

4. INDEPENDENCE. During the late 1950s and 1960s, in an equally sudden and ill-planned Scramble Out, Europe gave up its colonies. (Malawi: 1964.) In every case, power devolved onto some idiotic tinplate greedhead pismire egomaniac dictator, propped up by either the West or the Soviets. Malawi's resident parasite was President-for-Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who (along with the usual ruthless suppression of dissent) imposed a national dress code: men couldn't have long hair, and women couldn't wear pants. He banned the Simon & Garfunkel song "Cecilia" ("'re breaking my heart") out of respect for his wife, Mama Cecilia.

5. POST-COLD WAR. Since the USSR fell and the West consequently withdrew its support, all these corrupt clowns have gradually been ousted from office, and African voters have replaced them with identical new corrupt clowns. Malawi got rid of Banda in 1994 (he died last year, aged 100) and replaced him with some nonentity whose name I can never remember, Bakili Muluzi or Bakilu Mizulu or Bacillus Missouri -- it hardly matters. The new bunch is as despicably incompetent as the old, except that now they can't play off America and the Soviet Union against each other. Instead, because their predecessors saddled Africa with billions of dollars in foreign debt, they must now dance to the unpleasant tune of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

It took me a trip to the Third World -- or, to use the new politically correct term, "the South" -- to realize how the Bank and IMF are now much, much bigger powers in the world than ever before in their 50-year history. Most Americans have never heard of them, don't know what they do, and don't know who runs them; I don't, anyway. Yet these two "multilateral lenders" (the formal term) absolutely call all the shots in countries that owe them a lot of money -- that is, most of the world. Two men run the World Bank and IMF. Nobody elected them, nobody knows their names, and yet these two guys powerfully influence the lives of three out of every five people on the planet. They control a greater percentage of Earth's population than any ruler in history, with the possible exception of Genghis Khan. And nobody knows them. The Hidden Emperors.

In recent years the Emperors' goals have grown ever more overt. About democracy in the developing world they say nothing, and they pay only lip service to increasing a nation's prosperity. Nowadays the Emperors obsessively push what they call "structural adjustment programs" -- or, in translation, "Drop your import restrictions and tariffs, float your currency, and buy everything you need from the West." They're a worldwide Hanseatic League or United Fruit Company, using imperial-style politics to serve commerce. If you don't play along, no more loans -- and in Africa, nobody does anything, ever, without foreign aid to pay the bill.

The structural adjustment programs have certain long-term benefits. For example, in Zambia these measures increased local agricultural production of staple foods quite a bit. But the benefits are unequally distributed, and the short-term consequences are devastating. In countries that follow the Emperors' directives, local industry stagnates, the currency collapses, and poverty grows. Among the hardest hit this year has been Malawi.

The last Human Development Index listing I saw, the ratings of the world's countries by various measures of civilization, placed Malawi at 157 out of 174. I forget the countries that rated below Malawi, but they must be pretty bad off. Prices for Malawi's major export commodities -- tobacco, sugar -- have plummeted. Last month the currency, the kwacha, lost 48 percent of its value versus the dollar, in company with several other southern African currencies. That made our travels cheaper than ever -- we did nicely on about $15-20 a day -- but ordinary families are having trouble affording rice, and you can't get gasoline anywhere without waiting in line for hours. In Tanzania, people would sell little plastic baggies of peanuts for about 15 cents each. In Malawi, they sell the peanuts in piles, because they can't afford baggies. A rich man here is one who owns a radio. I carry 200-kwacha notes; each is worth about $5, but I might as well be trying to buy a Big Mac with a thousand-dollar bill. In this country of 12 million people, where one man might support two wives and (on average) seven children, the per-capita income is plunging from its onetime high of one hundred sixty bucks a year.

Yet I have to say, people in Malawi don't look miserable. They laugh, they banter, they sit around with the same placid laziness we saw in more prosperous East Africa. Nothing works -- so what? Even if you pay off the corrupt bureaucrats and cops, STILL nothing works -- but really, what have you lost? You crowd with 24 others onto a matoro (share-taxi) built for 16, and you wait motionless for ten minutes while the tout tries desperately to find a few more victims to jam into the corners -- but at least you'll move eventually. Has the ancient Ilala lake ferry broken down again, just as you needed to head down the lake to Monkey Bay? No problem. Camp out in the ferry jetty's concrete bunker for a few days until the boat is fixed. Don't worry, be happy!

People in Malawi do seem happy. We often saw them dancing by the roadside, with or without music. Groups of women getting a lift to work in a pickup truck just break into choral song, spontaneously. Children frolic (I believe "frolic" is the right word) in the surf. I look at these people and recall my experience in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's principal city. Beth and I left Zanzibar for Dar with dread in our hearts, expecting the worst -- another Nairobi, an unlivable hectic nightmare of pollution, crime, and squalor. Surprise -- Dar proved to have clean air, relatively light traffic (license plates in Tanzania have three or four digits, showing how common cars are), and a low-key, halfway pleasant ambience. We even saw one or two buildings of recent construction that are, not attractive exactly, but not ACTIVELY hideous -- a first for us in Africa! In the end we found Dar charming, a reaction born of relief. In the same way, I think, most Africans seem to function in a state of zero expectation, so that everything in life takes on a quality that reminds me of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a 1980s movie that endeared itself to reviewers simply by being not so dumb as it could have been. African life, for Africans, may have that same lukewarm charm.

As a seeker toward enlightenment, however irregular and desultory my efforts, I have pondered this at length. On the face of it, this is it: transcendence of suffering through the extinction of selfish craving. But, jeez louise, shouldn't enlightenment require basic hygeine? Gender equality? Elementary building maintenance? Can't you still try to eliminate malaria and ruinous slash-and-burn agriculture and poaching of endangered wildlife? Spiritual maturity had better be compatible with health care and a Protestant work ethic, or I'm screwed.

One hard lesson I've learned in Africa is that, at some level not too far below consciousness, I don't wish for the boddhisatva's ideal of peace and contentment for all beings. In people I'm dealing with to get something done, I prefer to see neurotic workaholic anxiety. At lunchtime I don't want my waiter to dance happily by the roadside. If I needed surgery, I wouldn't want the surgeon to sing with easygoing contentment, I'd want him to worry about malpractice suits. Getting past this will take me a while.

But if my psychological limitations make it hard for me to respect the Malawian contentment, so does my unshaken belief that education is a virtue. Buddhist philosophy stresses the overcoming of ignorance, and Malawians are bone ignorant. Half can't read. Everyone lives in what the late Carl Sagan termed "the demon-haunted world" of superstition and belief in witchcraft. (In Africa today, the late 1990s, hysterical mobs still lynch hundreds of old women as putative witches.) Despite their outward friendliness, Africans are notoriously distrustful of visitors from other African tribes or regions. They don't object to tourists, but seem mainly interested in how much money we make. They find our interests and behavior inexplicable, laughably bizarre. I've seen very little evidence, even among rich Africans, of an urge to learn for the sake of learning -- to explore.

And that's where I have drawn a thick and unbroken line between me and the African life. Faustian I may be, but I absolutely believe that the pursuit of knowledge is good. Travel, especially, is good. Travel not only exposes you to new ideas -- which, as we see, may not always win your admiration -- but also exposes your existing conceptions to new scrutiny. Whatever ideas about Africa I take away from Malawi, my trip so far has strongly affirmed that existing conception: Travel is good. This is a Euclidean axiom of my world-view.

That itself, to my mind, is the telling argument. I don't like all of Western society's ways, its senseless material waste or neuroses or self-righteous rivalries or superficiality, its television and corporate dominion and opinion polls and landfills and lawyers -- especially its lawyers. Certain aspects of African culture might prove salutary influences for us, such as the emphases on family loyalty and pragmatic recycling of litter. But in the end, we're coming to visit them, and not vice versa.

Just as well. I'd hate to work at McDonald's, even for hundred-dollar tips.

From Blantyre Beth and I headed southwest by bus across Mozambique's western "Tete Corridor" (no landmines!) into Harare, capital of Zimbabwe. It's an attractive modern city, and we fell with oily ease back into our familiar world of decent restaurants, bookshops, and shopping malls. From here we detour to Victoria Falls in northwestern Zimbabwe before continuing south to Pretoria, South Africa. Once we're there, we'll get in touch again.


Allen Varney