Yours faithfully: postcard from Malawi

Last week I received a letter in New York from my friend Richard Soko, a fisherman in Malawi. Richard wrote:

This is the third letter I’ve received from Richard since we met in October 2008. I have been a spectacular failure at upholding my side of the correspondence. While my cellphone and laptop have kept me in touch with friends in Kenya and Congo, in Tanzania and Mozambique, I’ve been woefully inept at sending hand-written letters to Richard, whose life in Malawi conforms to our visions of pre-digital antiquity, circa 1994.

Richard lives on Likoma, a Lilliputian island just seven kilometers off the coast of Mozambique in Lake Malawi. Development on the island has been sluggish; it wasn’t until 2002 that electricity reached Likoma from mainland Malawi as part of a “rural growth project” fostered by the new government (according to many islanders, they were simply being rewarded for helping to put the newly elected President Bingu wa Mutharika into power). There are, it is safe to say, no Internet cafes for guys like Richard to keep in touch with good-for-nothing American friends like me. Jobs are scarce; most islanders survive as fishermen, like Richard, or small-scale traders, like his wife. After the government, which employs civil servants, hospital workers, and teachers at Likoma’s esteemed boarding schools, the single largest employer on the island is Kaya Mawa, a small luxury lodge with some 70 employees drawn from local villages.

A boy pumping water on Likoma

A rare motorbike on the island

A rope bridge connecting Kaya Mawa to its Honeymoon Island

Roughing it at Kaya Mawa

I visited the island for two weeks in 2008, and found it to be an agreeable little place. The pace of island life was unhurried, the locals were – even by Malawian standards – almost friendly to a fault. The beach was long and golden and studded with flower blossoms, and the thatched bandas at Mango Drift – a backpackers’ on the south side of the island – were like little lakeside idylls, shaded by mango trees and draped with bougainvillea. Further along the beach, village women scrubbed their pots and pans in the water, their naked kids splashing nearby, the high notes of their laughter carrying like birdsong. The blue-gray ridges of Mozambique loomed across the lake. It was, as backpackers’ haunts go, about as much as you could hope for.

The beach at Mango Drift

It was a long, exhausting ferry ride from the mainland to the island, and after a night of deep, well-deserved sleep, I remember stepping out of my beachside banda for the first time. The sky was sharp and clear, a towering canvas of blue; sun-spangles danced across the lake. A light wind rattled the bougainvillea, shaking the pink and orange blossoms to the sand. Some of the other guests were splashing around in the waves, and we gave each other goofy grins of baffled complicity – Here we are! What are the odds! – that were, I would soon learn, the only way to greet your neighbors at Mango Drift. I fixed a bowl of cereal and sat in the shade while Bob Marley sang some soulful song over the stereo. The bartender drummed his fingers on the bar and stared wistfully out to sea. It was the sort of day I could get used to.

Danny, the bartender

A boat with patchwork sails drifting toward Mozambique in the distance

I was the only new arrival in camp; the others had arrived on the ferry a few days before. There were four of them and they were already thick as thieves, conspirators in some island plot hatched over Carlsberg Specials or dreamed up boozily in the hammocks. Toward Allon and Dana, a holiday couple from Cape Town, I instantly warmed, as much for their easy-goingness and wry humor as for how capably Dana filled out her bikini bottom. We hit it off famously.

Toward Paul and Ryoko, a Canadian-Japanese couple on a ‘round-the-world tour, my feelings were more mixed. Paul, lanky and doe-eyed, with some ambiguous connection to the Canadian national parks system, was like a parody of a certain familiar class of backpacker: bearded and earnest, an expert knot-tier, a man so hydrated in these harsh tropical climes that you could read a Lonely Planet through the crystalline stream of his urine. He was a man as sensitive to local cultures as an albino is to sunlight – in effect, a man as pleased as punch to be Paul. I grudgingly tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, not least because he had spent the bulk of my first day at Mango Drift with some unknown stomach bug, shitting his brains out and lying feebly on the sofa. (Later in the week, when a new arrival asked Paul if he was “on holiday,” he more or less got this crucified look before taking on a sanctified air and explaining how he’d “like to think of it as a journey, not a vacation.” This would absolve me of any of the guilt I might have felt while making the snide observations above, and confirmed my suspicions that I pretty much had him pegged from the start.)

Artist's representation of Paul

It didn’t take long for Paul’s father-knows-best schtick with Ryoko to get on my nerves – the warnings about staying properly hydrated, the concerns over her dietary requirements at dinner. That the man had hiked half the Canadian Rockies and could probably make a waterproof jacket from tree bark did little to temper my ill will. Ryoko, for her part, took his admonitions with the sort of meek submission that makes you rethink every stereotype you had about Asian women and realize you had it right the first time. Watching the peculiar give-and-take of their relationship would become entertaining sport for all the guests over the ensuing days.

But their bush preparedness was a subject of great awe around the dinner table. They wore marvelous high-tech fabrics and applied sensible lotions before heading out into the sun. They had complex water filtration devices that they attended to each night with Talmudic rigor, a series of pumps and hoses whose mastery we all observed with a sort of polite bafflement, and whose resemblance to a home enema kit was uncanny.

To the untrained eye, Paul's water filtration device looked something like this

If the Apocalypse were to ride in on four frothing horses, spreading death and dysentery in its wake, it was a fair bet that Paul and Ryoko would be the last ones standing, walking sandals expertly strapped, zinc oxide dabbed to their noses.

That Paul had been leveled by a stomach bug was, of course, an irony missed by absolutely no one.

Not a place to get sick: Likoma's lone ambulance. (Note the cracked windshield.)

They were a genial bunch all the same, full of cheery advice about the best snorkeling spots on the island, and the best place to grab a bite in town. When I set off for my first exploratory foray to Mbamba – the main trading center on Likoma – they offered little mocking eye rolls about the long cross-island walk. The hardest part, they warned, was at the start: a tough uphill climb with the sun’s beady eyeball staring down at you. After that it was smooth sailing to Mbamba. I filled a bottle with water, thanked them for the advice, and started to trudge uphill.

It was a hot, weary slog. On a cartoon map of Likoma I’d spotted at Mango Drift, the road to Mbamba passed through the “Valley of the Baobabs,” a spectacular-sounding place name that held the promise of ancient, elephantine trees with their green tusks turned up toward the sky. But on Likoma, as in the rest of Malawi, deforestation had taken a heavy toll. The Valley of the Baobabs was almost barren; two spectacular trunks, uprooted and toppled on their sides, sat like the ruins of a temple to some pagan gods.

Last man standing: one of the few remaining trees in the Valley of the Baobabs.

On the road I met a tall, square-jawed man who was grinning broadly, his hand already extended and waiting for a firm, friendly clasp. He introduced himself as Richard Soko and asked if it would be possible for us to be friends. I suggested it would not only be possible, but a very good thing. He took my notebook and wrote his name and address, methodically etching each letter and number onto the ruled lines, as if he were a Renaissance master putting the finishing touches on some portrait of the saints:

Richard Soko
Ngani Village
PO Box 17
Likoma Island

We met often that week, usually by chance: me, sweaty and flushed, staggering through Likoma’s heat; he, smiling and waving from the shade of a mango tree, waiting for me to pass so we could share some time and exchange the day’s news. One day he came ambling along the dirt road behind me, wearing the same black jeans and green “Team Osaka” t-shirt, his long arms swinging by his sides. He was on his way home to Ngani, to see his family before taking his boat out onto the lake.

“Fisherman is jackpot,” he explained. “When current is good: cash. When current is bad: poor.”

His head was large, bald, creased; it shone in the harsh morning light. He invited me back to his home to meet his family, leading me eagerly down the dusty paths. Our conversation stumbled along. Richard apologized for his poor English.

“I, myself, little school,” he explained. “With President Kamuzu Banda, primary school was money. Standard 1, standard 2,” he said, making a brisk, chopping motion with his hand, a gesture of finality.

I said his English was better than my Chichewa, and he smiled.

Bwenzi,” he said. “Friend.”
“Friend,” I said. “Bwenzi.”

At his house his children swarmed around me. His wife, sifting a pile of maize flour on the ground, rose, dusted her hands against her skirt, and greeted me warmly.

I took these pictures and mailed them to Richard many weeks later, from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.

Richard Soko, rear left, with family

Mrs. Richard Soko

I can picture Richard sitting in his modest two-room home, hunched over a sheet of ruled notebook paper and sending his greetings from Likoma. Maybe he has those two photographs beside him as he writes, or maybe they occupy a place of pride and distinction on the wall.

With his last letter Richard included a drawing of the lake.

This week I will suck it up, deal with the heat and lines of the Bujumbura post office, and send Richard Soko a letter with my greetings from Burundi. If I fail to do this, I hope you will all think much, much less of me.

2 responses to “Yours faithfully: postcard from Malawi

  1. Pingback: A land of milk and honey. « This Is Africa

  2. Yes, you’d better send Richard Soko a handwritten letter. And it’d better be a lengthy one to compensate for all the ones you never wrote so far. Disgrace. We don’t bit the hand that feeds us (even if feeding is a metaphor >> the people who inspire us…to write about). Do you feel guilty now? 😛 Well, have a grand year ahead of you mr. Vourlias 🙂 It seems you have been awfully busy lately which is fabulous 🙂
    Keep the good deeds going!

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