The Real Out of Africa

Malawi 1994.

The sun slowly descends behind the hills left of me. She magically pours a yellow-reddish glow over the wide plains at the other side of the road. The evening odour of Africa hangs around me. I switch on the headlights of my Landcruiser and concentrate again on the road to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, my home since a couple of weeks.
I left Blantyre, the old capital in the south, this afternoon, where I was spoiled by the hospitality of two friends, Ron and John. Both of them are hams like me. We talked several times on the radio in the past years, but I had never met them. While we were having lunch, I forgot all about time. On top of that, I got enchanted by the hippos in the lake right in front of a lodge along the road, where I stopped for a quick drink. Time went by too fast, and now the darkness took me by surprise. But it does not bring any feeling of danger with it. On the contrary, it is a veil falling over you, inviting you to participate in the secrets of Africa. The road leads me along villages where men sit on branches of fallen boababs, talking to by-passers, while children play hide and seek behind the skirts of their mamas. Some people stand on the road, waving their arm horizontally, asking for a lift. But I have no more room as the jeep is loaded to the top with my telecom gear, stowed in aluminium crates. I installed mobile radios in two of our 4x4's, in Blantyre, and refurbished the other installations which had one or the other problem.

Malawi is a beautiful country, it could have been taken right out of the film 'Out of Africa'. The people are friendly and enjoy a good laugh. The IFRC, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (call us the 'Red Cross' for short) actively helps the Malawi Red Cross cooping with the thousands of refugees who fled the civil war in Mozambique, some time ago. We also help the local Red Cross people preparing for a period of drought. The past rain season did not fill up the water reservoir to even half of their usual level. Nature gives and takes in Africa. At its own will.

The remote relief centres of the Red Cross use radio equipment to coordinate their activities with the Lilongwe and Blantyre headquarters. As the refugees move, we move, and as we move, the radios need to move. So the international HQ in Geneva regularly sends over a telecom delegate to keep the equipment up and running. I'm one of them. And I have my hands full. Especially the mobile installations in the cars suffer from the bad roads and the dust in the bush. But I enjoy my work. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. And, a telecom delegate is always welcomed like a prince. While you do your 'thing', local 'helpers' carefully watch your every move. That annoyed me a bit at first, as I like to work alone, and the other guys were always running in my way. But in the end, I got used of having ten people standing around, and asked them to do small jobs for me. Whether they held my ladder, while I was climbing yet another tree trying to find a support for a wire antenna, or whether they were looking for an extension cord, or whether holding one end of a yagi in the air, they did their job with extreme care and concentration. It was as if they felt they were now also part of the magic, which, at the end of an installation, makes a radio come to life. On such moments, when the radio is first switched on, their eyes light up, while the voice of the radio operator, hundreds of miles away, sounds in the speaker.

It was quite a challenge installing the big antenna used for the radio link to Geneva, on the roof of the new Red Cross building last week. The building was not completed yet, and it had no easy way to get onto the roof, 10 metres high. A group of local workers, promised me a 'ladder'. They put two long chopped trees almost vertically against the wall, and nailed horizontal wooden steps on them. As they finished one step, they climbed onto it, and nailed the next one, working their way up. After a day, I had my 'ladder'. Don't ask me how many times I climbed it up and down, while installing the antenna and the tower on the roof. One thing is for sure: I could always count on some locals standing below to watch "the crazy white guy in thorn shorts and a dirty T-shirt saying 'Hamradio, more than a hobby', who would install an antenna to 'telephone' to Geneva". While most of them did not even dare to climb up the ladder half way, they did seem to enjoy watching the 'radio engineer' balancing on the edge of the roof, with a big concrete drill in his hands. Some got so interested that they even brought a chair the next day, so they could watch me more comfortably. From ground level. Luckily, Blackson, the foreman of the workers helped me out a bit with the heavy work. I assembled the antenna on the ground. It was a big thing, made out of a whole box of aluminium tubes. To my surprise, I missed one small tube. Fortunately, Heikki Keto, the second in command at the UNHCR over here was also a ham, and he had some scrap alu tubes laying around. One of those fitted as my missing piece. 'God, Thy Do Exist!".

'Slow, Police', says a small sign in the ditch next to the road. I switch on my beam lights, and all of a sudden, a heavy chain hung across the road, appears right in front of me. I hit the breaks, and with screaming tires, the Landcruiser stops, a few inches from the chain. The policemen who jumped out of the way, see the Red Cross emblem and walk towards my car, smiling as always.
"Evening, Sssssir", salutes one of the two officers.
"Evening, that was a close call, wasn't it? If I were you, I'd put the sign a little bit more visible, or at least I would suggest lighting a fire next to your checkpoint, so that people might actually see the checkpoint from a distance.", I snap back, with my heart still beating in my throat.
"Yessss, Sssssir", replies the policeman, but he obviously has no idea what I'm talking about. I smile.
"On your way to Lilongwe, Ssssir?"
I nod, and he lowers the chain as a sign that I can drive through.

I'm not used to be addressed as 'sir', I told Raphael, my cook, and asked to be called, 'Peter', but he said that was impossible. People in Malawi are called by their last name, or just 'baba', 'sir', or ‘father’. When they try to get your attention on the market, they make a sissing sound between their teeth and snap their fingers at you. 'Baba, fruit, baba? Do you need fruit?'. I smile as I compare the flat I lived in, in Angola a few weeks ago, to the quiet villa I stay in over here. In Luanda, I lived as the only white guy, amongst the locals. Everyone put there radio or TV as loud as possible, and during weekends, the sound of music and children yelling and screaming went on all night long. Here, I use the villa of the head of the delegation of the Red Cross as he is on holiday. My own villa, in the quiet suburban area of the capital, with nice tropical trees and flowers in the garden. Fletcher, the gardener, maintains the garden as if it were his own. He also grows vegetables in the field behind the house: tomatoes, cabbages, and avocados. In Angola, I woke up by the sound of cars hooting in the street below or rallying around without exhaust pipes, while over here, at sunrise, birds tick on my window, asking for a bit of bread. While in Angola, the security rules forbid you to drive around without a local driver, in Malawi I have my own jeep, and can go wherever I want, whenever I want. Security problems are virtually unknown here.

In a distance, I see a truck in the middle of the road. No lights. A few men are loading fire wood. Speeding is not advisable on these dark roads. The main roads are in good shape, but the local drivers do not pay too much attention to the safety rules. Busses or trucks often stop for a while, in the middle of the road, with no lights on, while their drivers are talking to the people of one of the many villages. And it does not feel good, while driving 60 mph, and all of a sudden see an abandoned truck appearing in your headlights..
Meanwhile, the road is climbing into the hills. The night is pitch dark, no moon yet. Here and there, scattered on the slopes of the hills, I see the glow of camp fires. The fire projects dancing shades of huts and women with babies tied on their back, onto the background. Again, a car in the middle of the road. I step on the brakes, and see some cars coming in behind me. I make signs asking them to drive by, and I follow them. If they brake, I will, if they take over another car, so do I, no more surprises, thank you very much. Sometimes it pays off not trying to be the lead dog of the pack.

For a moment, I thought I saw the lights of Lilongwe in a far distance, but I was wrong. It must have been one of the huge bushfires, intentionally lit to burn down the dense vegetation, to make more room for corn fields, or grazing space for cattle. Deforestation is a big problem here. The soil erodes real quickly, without trees, leaving the farmers with no other option than to burn down yet another part of the bush.
The policecar in front of me makes signs that I should pass him. I go to the right of the road (yes, we drive on the left handside, Malawi is an old English colony) and pass him over a double yellow line. They do not seem to mind.

It seems like tonight, I'm driving on a road with no end, following the cars in front of me, to the edge of the world. From time to time, the two way radio in the car comes to life, and I hear some remote voices in a language I do not understand. Once I even hear two guys talking in Afrikaans. I give a call to a friend who is monitoring the radio tonight and pass on my position. He answers ‘Good, 10 more miles to go’. I can already see the lights of Lilongwe in a distance. As I enter the city limits, I drive towards the HQ building. It is pitch dark as I park the car in front. I know that the night guards are sitting, wrapped in blankets, somewhere on the left, and say 'Good evening' into the darkness. 'Evening, Sir', several voices reply. I can not see them. It looks like the night is answering me.
I unload the boxes with equipment from the car and drag them up the stairs. There is no electricity and by the faint light of a flashlight, I prepare the stuff I need for the next day. I pack everything in, and lock up. The flashlight fades. The batteries have died.. Have to remember to go shopping for new ones tomorrow. But that is tomorrow. As I drive home, I remember Raphael, my cook, has promised to put something in the fridge for me. Something to look forward to. That and the sound of birds ticking on my window tomorrow morning.

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