Riding on the mini bus in Malawi always causes me a mixed bag of emotions. I feel anxiety because of my lack of ability to communicate with the driver and conductor and because of my concern about actually safely climbing off the bus with some dignity. I feel fear as a result of the state of disrepair most of the buses are in. I feel excitement and curiosity because I know it will not be a boring ride. My Chichewa is very limited. I know “mzungu” and “chizungu” meaning white person and white language. Inevitably. my appearance on a mini-bus elicits talk which always includes these words but I never know what they are saying.
Mini-buses in Malawi are big business. The more people that can fit on, the more money is made. People will carry anything with them. It is not uncommon to see live chickens, huge baskets of produce, bags of maize and luggage stuffed under and around seats.
On my second last day in Malawi I traveled to Salima to collect the xylophone my friend Philip had made for me. After a lovely inspiring lunch we went to the market where I hoped to buy a chitenge (fabric) to take back with me. Finding a lovely chitenge I headed to my bus.
The bus was a “good” one. It had an aisle down the centre with one seat on the left and two on the right. The aisle is a bit deceiving though because a seat can fold down into the aisle. I sat in the third row from the back on the fold down seat. This meant that there were four of us sitting abreast with no walking space for those behind us to pass. When all fo the rows were filled in this manner we started off. Under my feet was a bag of maize and a suitcase.
As we all paid the conductor I realized that someone behind me would need to get off before I did. My anxiety immediately kicked in. How would I stand atop this maize and suitcase while holding my purse and my newly acquired xylophone which was tightly secured in a plastic bag? I hate this part of the mini-bus ride. The worry of getting off or of moving to allow others to do so. It’s not as simple as just standing to let someone pass. It’s not simple at all. There is balancing and coordination required that I absolutely do not possess.
Fortunately the man behind me was not laden with livestock and produce so he was able to just climb between those of us seated ahead of him. Noting that he had vacated a coveted window seat I decided to move. Placing my purse on the seat I stood to climb back to my new spot. Upon lifting my bag my xylopone pieces began to slide out. The side of the bag was ripped wide open. Once reseated I gathered my wood pieces and attempted to secure them in a now defunct bag. I was unsuccessful so I just squeezed the pieces between my knees and acted as if everything was fine.
Again my anxiety kicked in. How would I get off the bus with my purse and a load of sticks knowing that getting off would require me to climb over many items. Remembering my chitenge I decided to make a sack. Squeezing the sticks I tried to unfold the fabric on my lap. As I was working with limited space I couldn’t unfold the fabric too much but did manage, after several attempts, to gather all the sticks and tie them in a bundle. The sticks were still not totally secured but at least they were all together.
After about thirty minutes as we approached the city I began ot worry that my bundle wouldn’t hold. I thought that perhaps I’d be able to get off the bus by tucking my load under one arm. I planned to try to make a better sack once I found some space in the depot. I worried that the bundle would not stay under my arm and sticks would drop all over the bus as I disembarked. I worried that someone would steal my purse if I spread my fabric out and worked on a sack in the depot. I worried about being laughed at.
All this worry prompted me to try to make a better sack. Noting my distress a kind man ahead of me offered to help. He had the luxury of an empty seat beside him and being Malawian, he didn’t have to worry about everyone on the bus talking about and judging him. He skilfully created a secure sack for my precious instrument and gave it back to me. I was so grateful for his assistance that I was almost giddy. He showed me that Malawians generally are kind people