Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"I need you you you (you you you)"

Getting back on the horse, I decided to do the first of my last-month-in-Malawi visits last weekend. I travelled to Malawi's big urban attraction, Blantyre and a small hill station called Zomba. Blantyre is the Bombay of Malawi - the country's commercial hub, urban, densely populated and with nice restaurants and places to hang out. But that's where the similarity ends. Surrounded by rolling hills and a few tall mountains, Blantyre in the rainy season is lush green, cool and pretty.

Our motivations for driving to Blantyre were less than noble as we were the designated groupies for a 6 member expat covers band that started playing the on circuit a couple of months ago. The Llongways are a quirky band playing the guitar, piano, drums, trumpet, flute and violin and a beautiful Italian voice to lead. It was entertaining to listen to them play a funny mix of the Blues Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bryan Adams and Patti Smith - honestly, one of the most fun times in Malawi. The follow-up to the concert was, of course, a forgettable evening of random club hopping with Indian men hitting on us and a Malawian pickpocket giving me the death-glare because I saved a firengi from his roving hands (What is it with me and thieves?!!!). 

We got over the night-out debacle quickly and drove to Zomba Plateau on Sunday morning. Zomba is a beautiful hill station an hour from Blantyre. Here I got a glimpse of the beauty of the African forest. It was a small hill station, by no means making an appearance on the 1000-things-to-do-in-Africa-List, but the sights still took my breath away. Although we passed up on any hiking/ trekking opportunities, standing on top of the plateau we could see mountains at the horizon and lush green plains covering the distance between. Relaxing at the Zomba Sunbird Hotel was also not a hardship :)  
As I was standing on the Sunbird deck staring out at the vast expanse of mountains, I realized this is what African tourism should be all about. Not cities, not nightclubs, not gory history. Only pure and unrivalled natural beauty stretching as far as the eye can see.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Today's CNN article mentioned that after the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan last year, nearly 700 aftershocks were felt in various parts of Japan for months after. Obviously, this became the inspiration for the title of this post on what has been bugging me for a bit today- aftershocks of my little incident.  

Of course, I've spent a lot of time telling people what happened and at some level, people's shock and sympathy made me feel better. However, incidents like the one that happened in the last two days are common for people (especially expats) in Malawi. People get mugged, their homes get robbed and they are generally attacked for being the moneyed, elite class of people who can afford to spend the poor-man’s-monthly-salary on one good dinner in town. My Malawian friends have also noticed an increase in robberies and mugging in the last few months and most predict that this will only get worse as the Malawian economy goes to the dogs.

Personally, I can’t seem to reconcile my (by some standards) minor incident with my rather extreme reactions one day after. Tonight as I went out for dinner with friends and hung out later at the Shack (yes, Wednesday is Shack Night!) – I was conscious that I was suspicious of every Malawian in the house. At one point, a Malawian guy crept up behind my friend to surprise her and I spontaneously yelled thinking that some unknown guy was creeping up on her. Turns out that he was her friend which led to acute embarrassment but didn't reduce my fear. Maybe the fact that I was stone-cold-sober exacerbated my reaction. I forced myself to go onto the dance floor where both expats and Malawians were dancing, but still scooted away every time a Malawian came in the vicinity.

My mind tells me that such reactions are extreme and unnecessary. But I can’t help feeling that every other guy on the street is watching me and wants to snatch my purse. At our girl’s dinner tonight we were discussing how we end up feeling guilty because African women get treated terribly on a daily basis and manage to lead normal lives despite being physically and mentally abused. And here one “little” incident is enough to shake us up and make us suspicious of everyone around us.

But I guess we live in different worlds. I can’t feel guilty for being lucky enough to have a safer world. My reality is that getting attacked is not on my watch-out-for-list. I have not been taught how to deal with situations where I feel insecure all the time – day and night. And I’m not going to feel guilty for having had that privilege. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

The day I (actually) got mugged

January 24th, 6:00 am
I forced myself to wake up at 5:30 am this morning to go for a jog. My friend Lesley was doing a very good job of dragging me out every morning by messaging/ knocking at my door/ being generally persistent about exercise. This morning I got out of bed, ran in and out of the bathroom, grabbed my ipod, tugged my shoes on and was out of the room in exactly 5 minutes.
I stretched, breathing in the cleaning morning air and felt like this was going to be a good day! As Lesley and I started walking, I recounted last evening's incident to her and she was pretty shocked. We also admitted that it may have been a little stupid to be walking around at 7 pm in Old Town.

We had  run about 500 metres when our 2 minute timer went off and we started walking. I saw two men approaching us on the road. I had a moment where I thought they looked sketchy, but there were many other people around so I ignored the feeling and continued walking. The next thing I know, these two men  grabbed us, snatched my iPod out of my hand and ran away. We struggled, yelled for help and tried to fight back, but obviously they were stronger than us. There were people on the road (including some guards) who watched the incident and did not help us. A Malawian lady passed us by and apologized, but at that moment all I wanted to do was abuse her so I stared straight ahead. We then realized that another friend was jogging alone in a different loop, so we jumped into a taxi and picked her up. That was the end of our morning jogging expedition.

For this to happen so close to last night's incident points to a few things. First, that people are watching us and know that we are long term guests at this hotel. Second, that the situation in the Old Town area has deteriorated more than I had initially thought. The tension is no longer confined to women wearing trousers or vendors being kicked off the side-walks. It has become a larger problem where walking on the street in some areas is unsafe even in broad daylight.

Sure I'm pissed about losing my old iPod with all the music collected over the years. But I'm more shaken up by the violence of the incidents. The grabbing, snatching of purses, yelling and pushing created a panic that I wasn't prepared for. I've been robbed before, in the train and in public places in India. The difference was that those thieves had class. They found cunning ways of getting my purse and my phone without me realizing. Today's incident made me respect the genius of pick-pockets, who are just after my money and not after me. Then, I was sad about losing my things, but not scared or worried about safety. After today, I'm going to worry about my safety in Malawi. And not go out jogging. Shit.


The day I (almost) got mugged

January 23rd, Monday, 7 pm
It was late evening and we had decided to go for dinner to Noble China, a local joint located a couple of blocks away from the hotel. It was twilight as we started walking the approximately 1 km distance and unthinkingly switched on our torches as we went down a street without street lights, loudly chatting in English about the day’s work. It was a street off the main road, with mainly residential buildings and large trees flanking both sides of the street.
Unconsciously, my friend Lyndsey and I had flanked our newest companion, who was visiting Lilongwe for a few days. About 200 metres from the gate of the restaurant I felt someone running towards us and turned my torchlight on our thief just as he went for Lyndsey’s bag.

What followed was a blur of the thief jumping for Lyndsey’s bag, me jumping for the guy and yelling loudly and Lyndsey falling to the ground holding on to her bag. After a brief scuffle the guy ran off with neither of us trying to go after him. We pushed ourselves up and walked quickly to the restaurant, all the time looking behind us. Obviously, we took a taxi on the way back.   
A few things struck me as we discussed the incident over dinner: 
1. The experience of being mugged is quite scary even if it’s not violent. Neither of us quite remembers what happened in that 30 second blur of activity, except for Lyndsey falling to the ground and me screaming. On my part, I remember feeling like I was stuck in a slow motion film while the thief was racing through with his moves. I couldn’t get to him fast enough while he tried to steal our bags. 
2. Typically, as the economic situation in a country deteriorates, the security on the streets deteriorates proportionally, with muggings slowly becoming more frequent and violent. Malawi is clearly on that path. Till last year you couldn’t walk on the street for fear of animals, but now I think I’m not walking down the street in the evenings for fear of being robbed.
3. From what I understand, similar security annoyances in other African countries don’t go away as the economic situation improves. For example, in some countries, even though the economy is stronger, getting mugged on the streets and getting your house cleaned up by thieves is so common that people have started factoring it in their regular budgets.
4. Later, our friend told us that she had noticed the guy as we left our hotel and that she should’ve followed her gut instinct and called him out earlier. It is a very weird experience when someone is following you or intently looking at every move you make – like someone is trying to pre-empt every move you make. I think I'm going to be a lot more alert and allow my gut to actually sense such people around me.  

Of course, we had our dinner and chatted happily about other things after this, but I think the bitter aftertaste is still there and my rating on the Malawi-is-a-shithole scale just took a huge hit. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Welcome back party!

17 January, 2012. The news.
Disturbance in Old Town, Lilongwe reported where shopkeepers attached women, ripping off their trousers and skirts. Randomness continued for about 2 hours in the morning before the police cracked down on shop-keepers "protesting" the relocation of the local flea market to a larger, authorized plot of land.

Some are saying the vendors were actually just pissed about the lack of fuel. Bah.

Dress code for the month is now the chitenje. With all the religious and saintly symbols on every skirt.

Welcome back to Malawi :) 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One more new beginning

The year long forecast for Aries was depressingly filled with adjectives such a difficult, lonely, introspective and stressful. 

I am, however, suppose to emerge stronger-  Like metal strengthened by the fire :P 

So begins one more year, full of hope!