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