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Diary of a Volunteer





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Ha Ha Ha Harare!

Shop Till You Drop
After a year of not shopping, I visit Harare More...More

Strange Customs
The journey from Harare to Blantyre More...More

More Little Differences
Comparing Blantyre to Harare More...More

R O B B E D! (Again)
Hmm! My second experience of being robbed! More...More


June 1996

Image of our broken down bus!

To Malawians, Harare is like the promised land: sky-scrapers with neon Coca-Cola signs; wide city streets, filled with shiny new cars; restaurants, cinemas, bars (and not bottle stores)... After a year of living in Blantyre, it was my promised land too.

Ha Ha Ha Harare!!!

WE'D SPENT some part of every day in Harare, shopping. We mostly wandered around the streets, somewhat wide-eyed, occasionally buying a batik or some Zimbabwean music, or rechargeable batteries, or expensive deodorant, or a £10 PC Magazine (I kid you not - it's not all cheap-cheap!). You know, the usual things! But Saturday - our last day in Harare - was our serious shopping day. It was the day that we would buy all those things we hadn't quite got round to buying yet.

We had until 1.0pm, when the shops shut! It was going to be like one of those mad trolley-dashes you often hear about, where some lucky customer gets to rush around the store for 3 minutes filling for all she's worth. It wasn't quite like that - we had a few hours, and we did have a limit on what we could spend our money on - but we still whizzed round the isles - down one, up the other, down the next - making all-important consumer decisions, as we went!

So, I bought biscuits, mayonnaise (a quarter of the Blantyre price), Heinz beans, candles and of course some pasta! (But no cuddly toy!) I grabbed 3 tins of tuna, some strawberry jam (Strawberry!) and bread (bloody delicious in Harare, it was!). And how could I visit Zimbabwe without buying wine, or Cadbury's chocolate, or Granny Smiths.

I had 4 bags, full, and Rachel had 3. Satisfied, and shopper-gratified, we paid our money and took our choice.

(And didn't I larf when I realised, later, that I hadn't bought those 2 delicious red wines, just the 2 cheap white ones!)

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Strange Customs

TO GET to Harare from Blantyre - the cheap way - you have to make two border crossings! You have to spend between 5 minutes and 5 hours stranded in no-mans land, waiting for your stamp of approval. No toilets. No explanation of where you must go, or what you must sign. Nothing. Just a long, winding queue.

So I laughed foolishly to myself, as the passengers on our coach prepared to alight, still in the middle of nowhere. And as we arrived at customs (shortly after), they almost ran off the coach, desperate to meet that solemn faced man. You know that ever so important man who takes your passport, and scribbles something or other onto his grand chart. That man who deigns to keep your passport, against all the rules of travelling. That ever so sensitive man who might not like the curl of your moustache, and could (quite easily) add half a day's delay to your journey.

And whilst you're smiling ever so jovially to this man, inside your coach another golden rule of travelling is being broken: Never leave your luggage unattended! So whilst you smile, and smile, and smile (bloody hurry up!), money-changers - a shady bunch - walk up and down your coach hustling for business with all those sensible passengers who seemingly sprinted off the coach, about an hour ago! Of course they're laughing to themselves now, as they see my sorry form still waiting for that bloody man to fill in his bloody chart. Still waiting for him to pass me some slip of paper, that must then be signed by another important (and equally solemn-looking) man - oh! standing right next to the first man, actually! (And after all that, when you're not looking, the man chucks it in the bin!)

So many coaches make this journey every day, and of course they all arrive at the same cheap-cheap time. (If ever Scotty could have beamed me up, now was the time!) All these coaches - these one-man shows - and none of them particularly road-worthy; and none of them providing information (or customs forms) 'to make your stay a little more pleasant' (read shorter). You can even find yourself on one coach, and unceremoniously swapped to another coach at the border. Of course this only happens at night time when the driver of the second coach is nowhere to be found - FOR HOURS! And of course this second coach is always full with potential smugglers who all take an age convincing those ever so nice customs chappies that they really will be consuming 10 boxes of Granny Smiths' apples in the next week or so. Scotty - please beam me up!

No one else complains though. It's always like this, and it always will be like this. (Especially if no one ever complains!) There is a purpose in this process, I'm convinced. But it's been lost in this quagmire of signatures and counter-signatures, forms and supplementary forms. You're left with this feeling that no one really knows what's going on. Maybe it's a deliberate ploy to deter tax-dodgers by boredom and frustration. It's not working though, because people seem to have a never-ending capacity to 'take it' when money can be earned. And the shops in Harare or Johannesburg sell goods so much cheaper than in Malawi that money can always be made. No! This ploy has only succeeded in making sure that I never travel on the cheap-cheap again.

My one solitary moment of pleasure during this strange time at customs, was the verbal-bashing I was saving for my next newsletter (this one). Ah! that does feels better!

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More Little Differences

CAN YOU imagine walking along a street, and can you imagine not seeing a man pissing by the road-side? Can you imagine walking in town, and can you imagine that nobody's staring at you or calling you names? And can you imagine that not everyone's trying to beg from you or work an angle! Can you?

Well, you probably can!

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R O B B E D ! (Again)

THE TAXI dropped us at Mbare Msika bus station, at about 5.30am; still dark. As we unloaded our luggage some men drew near us; and one took Rachel's small ruck-sack! Just took it! "Hey!" she shouted, and rushed over to retrieve it. I turned towards this man appalled at his brazen act. And his friends circled over us! The driver had already returned our bags to the car; but even as we drove off, one of them had swooped again - the car boot was open, vulnerable. Angry, I almost fell out of the right-side door in an effort to chase him away! He just smiled at me: "Ha, Ha, Ha!" And I just swore at him! "Grr! Grr! Grr!"

Only when we'd found and boarded another Blantyre coach did we realise... Rachel's large ruck-sack was missing! A simple subterfuge, distraction - and all her clothes, her camera - gone! You should have seen Rachel's whitened face, as she struggled to fight off tears! The tears of bereavement, of loss! I felt her loss too... and her anger, and her foolishness! And I can still hear them laughing!


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