The remarkable Rodrick

Here’s another dispatch from Malawi, from my sister Bev.

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While I was in Lilongwe, Malawi, I stayed in the equivalent of a three-star hotel in the middle of town that charged just over R500 per person per night conscience-free without soap or shampoo in the room and, in daily temperatures of around 30ºC, couldn’t provide ice. Toilet paper was on request, as were drinking glasses for the limited selection of colddrinks. Guests were expected not to be surprised when waiters opened their bottle cap with their teeth, unless you specifically requested that they find a bottle-opener. But they did offer an elaborately signposted ‘Fresh Egg Laid Service’ each morning as part of the breakfast buffet, which simply meant your choice of fried, poached or scrambled.

And then there was Rodrick.

Rodrick was the hotel porter on duty the day I arrived. After settling in and showering, I came down to reception to enquire about a much-needed sundowner, only to discover that the hotel neither stocked nor served alcohol. I immediately requested that one of the staff accompany me in search of red wine. He was it, and together we tracked down a reasonably priced bottle of Chateaux Libertas and a stale packet of Lays crisps. And that’s how our friendship began.

Roderick is a 30-something born-and-bred Malawian with a wife and two small kids who became my unofficial tour guide, trainer, advisor, translator and companion. Even though he only started his shift at 2pm each day, he’d travel the 20km from home at 6 in the morning to accompany me on my run through the streets. He’d laughingly explain that the stares we got weren’t so much because a black man and and a white woman running side by side was an unusual sight, but rather because Malawian women are, he said, lazy and never, ever exercise.

Having Rodrick with me gave me the confidence and freedom to really explore my surrounds. He took me to interesting historical sights, informal markets and the enormous Chinese superstore, and answered all my questions about the different areas, customs and practices, challenges and problems of Lilongwe society. When I urged him to get himself a drink as my treat while we were out in the heat, he’d come to the checkout counter with a bar of soap or a packet of sugar and ask if he could get that for his family instead.

On the day I left, Rodrick was off work but he arrived smartly dressed in suit and tie to accompany me to the airport. At the departure point, I thanked him with tears in my eyes and handed him an envelope with some money, urging him to use it get his driver’s licence. He replied that it was he who needed to thank me. He said I’d taught him to be proud and prepared to speak up when things weren’t right. Through me he said he’d learnt that not all white people are demanding and dismissive. And he told me that he’d decided to take up jogging, in honour of the greatest lesson of all: white women can run!

Building bridges in Malawi

My sister Bev has been working in Malawi for the last week, and sent me back this lovely story about a man with a mission.

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Today I was reminded of the children’s story about the troll and the goats and the bridge. The bridge I encountered was a rickety wood-and-rope structure suspended over a river. But the keeper of this crossing wasn’t an ugly, mean-spirited little man like the troll. He was a round-faced, cheerful entrepreneurial Malawian whose initiative makes the daily life of many easier while making him a fortune.

This crossing is in Old Town, Lilongwe – in sight of the road with the formal bridge built many years ago to enable the neverending stream of locals to move between the business section and the frenzied informal market district. Most are on foot, sweating in the heat, carrying bags, children or bulging sacks of flour and food.

The home-made structure offers a convenient shortcut through the market stalls to the formal shopping area. It shortens the walking time by at least 10 minutes – considerable when you’re burdened by a heavy load or in a hurry to get home.

The cheerful man built the bridge himself. He sits at one end under a reed shelter each day, collecting the equivalent of 60c from each person who passes as they step on to or off his bridge. And the people – many of them so poor they’d sell the shoes off their feet for a good meal – happily pay for the privilege of being able to use the bridge.

I wonder for how long and how many times this man walked over the original bridge before he glanced upriver and came on the idea of erecting an alternative, more convenient crossing himself, and charging every person who used it – a pretty bold move by anyone’s thinking, and an unusual opportunity that could probably only happen in Africa, without the local authorities smashing it down because it’s illegal or taking it over to profit from it themselves.

And then how did he gather the materials to build it – did he have to borrow the money to buy the poles, wood and rope? And what about physically erecting the structure so that it was safe and stable enough to entice foot traffic and withstand extensive use and the rainy season? Did he get the advice of someone who understands construction? Did he summon the help of family and friends with the promise of payment once it was complete and the passing started?

What an amazing show of individual thinking in an impoverished town where the humble majority lack the resources, education or time to do anything but find basic work and survive until the next pay packet.

I heard that, before this ingenious man undertook this amazing feat, people used to offer to carry others and their belongings across the river for 60c a time.

It’s been several years now that hundreds pass by the keeper of the bridge every day. I worked out that he probably earns the equivalent of R7 000 a month – an unfathomable fortune in a place like Lilongwe.

And I’m willing to bet a thousand quachas (that’s about R30) that, every now and then, a goat gets to cross over it too.

A side note: Have you ever been in an unfamiliar place and heard someone call your name? I was walking through the market district yesterday when I heard my name being called in a Malawian accent – it sounded more like ‘Baaaff’ than ‘Bev’, but I was almost certain it was my name. I stopped and listened more carefully, and there it was again, in amongst the sound of masses of people interacting, the hum of traffic and incessant hooters, the spread of informal vendors, a lonely preacher belting out a sermon on a loudhailer and the incessant beat of African music. For a few seconds I was gobsmacked. Who could possibly know me here? And then I glanced down and saw a gathering of goats tied together, laid down on the sidewalk, clearly awaiting their fate. It was the last desperate plea of one of them that I’d heard.

Roll the credits

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The movie Death of a Gunfighter, released in 1969, got a thumbs-up from The New York Times’s movie reviewer, who commented that the film had been ‘sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail’. Smithee went on to direct over 20 more big-screen features, and many TV features and series episodes.

The rub? Allen (sometimes spelled ‘Alan’) Smithee doesn’t exist. It’s a pseudonym used by movie directors who don’t want to be associated with a project for some reason (usually ‘creative differences’).

I was thinking about Alan Smithee while I spent a couple of weeks watching a box-set of Seinfeld*, the editor of which was one Skip Collector – an odd moniker if ever I’ve read one. Skip’s real name is Joseph M Collector Jnr; according to Wikipedia, ‘Skip’ is a family nickname for a son named after his father or grandfather.

‘McG’ is another oddity – he’s the director and/or producer of several movies and TV series, including Charlie’s Angels, Supernatural and Chuck. His real name is Joseph McGinty Nichol. His uncle and grandfather were also named ‘Joe’, so his mother called him ‘McG’ and it stuck.

Then there’s ‘Mavis’ (just ‘Mavis’), the assistant director on 120 episodes of That 70s Show, and who’s also credited with work on So You Think You Can Dance and American Idols. I haven’t been able to find out anything more about him/her.

Another person I haven’t been able to track down any details about is the bizarrely named ‘Speed Weed’, who’s worked on Law & Order SVU and NCIS: Los Angeles.

But perhaps my favourite credits name pops up in CSI: Miami. It’s Boti Bliss. This is the American actress’s real name – but maybe that’s not a big surprise when you learn that she grew up with her four siblings, stepfather and mother in a tepee without water or electricity in Colorado – a place where, as she put it (speaking to denverpost.com), ‘most of the kids … were already millionaires’.

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* Yes, Seinfeld has dated – the fashions, in particular, of the first few series (early 1990s) are a real laugh – but it’s still a fabulous and clever social commentary, and very, very funny. I highly recommend a revisit of this 9-season series if you’re looking for something to while away some hours.