Mbilima border post on the Malawi side of the Tanzanian-Malawi border consists of two structures: A permanent brick structure with two rooms and a tent.
There was some semblance of order with a boom gate that many from both sides of the ‘border’ that we saw, including those with cattle and carts carrying maize, seemed to ignore. The only people who lifted the boom gate were those driving through.
There were two pit latrines across the road for use by border officials and those passing through.
The immigration officials saw our backpacks and were curious, what were we doing there? We wanted to go into Malawi, we replied. This did not seem like a border which saw much action.
He asked us to fill out our forms and stamped our passports. “You are a writer?”’ he asked on seeing my form. I answered in the affirmative. Could I give him one of my books, please? I would, if he could get us some water. So it was that Officer Innocent, for that was his name, became the owner of a copy of Men of the South.
Pretty happy about it, he went to show the older policeman in the brick structure who then asked dude, ‘so can I also have a copy?’ I replied, ‘sadly officer, you are going to have to buy now because you decided not to ask the person who actually wrote the book.’ He had the decency to be embarrassed then asked me how much the book cost.
Shared sugar cane
With some semblance of idea of what civil servants in Malawi earn, I smiled and told him that it was two thousand Malawian Kwacha (about Sh5,500). He happily paid for it and asked me to sign it for him.
So it was that we three travellers found ourselves chatting with Malawian civil servants at the border as we awaited transport that would take us to the nearest town. As we waited, the friendly civil servants shared their sugar cane with us. Dude and I tried to conceive the same thing happening with immigration officials in Nairobi or Johannesburg and we could not. It was the Heir who articulated what we were all thinking as we jumped onto a lorry carrying bags of maize from Tanzania to Malawi.
“Wow. Those officials are really friendly, neh mama?” I grinned my agreement as I continued peeling sugar cane with my teeth while sitting at the back of the lorry next to two young women with babies. Cross border traders. My decision to carry shukas now finally seemed genius. We could protect ourselves from the dust of the road as well as the wind.
Less than an hour into our trip, our lorry stopped. More bags of maize were loaded on to the back with us. Not too long after this, at a borehole, the driver stopped the vehicle. A friend we quickly made, a Tanzanian businessman staying in Malawi by the name of Daniel, informed us that the lorry had overheated. Fortunately they had a jerry can and water was fetched from the borehole and engine cooled.
All of us, except for the Heir, got off and gave the lorry a push start. I was secretly elated when we got moving again. However, my elation was not to last long. As we entered a nearby village, the engine cut off again and no push starts would get it to work. Fortunately, there was a tavern nearby playing some entertaining tunes as we stood outside warming ourselves on a bonfire started by one of the driver’s assistants.
The Heir’s teachers would have been impressed at his sense of community as he rushed to gather more fuel for the fire so that the women with children would not have to do so. After a two hour wait, we realised that there may not be transport coming through. The two women and one of the other passengers decided to walk the alleged 20 kilometres to town.
The driver opened the front door of the lorry for the dude, the Heir and I, while he went to the tavern with his assistants. Outside the moon was full. We were warm from the bonfire. All three of us found comfortable sitting positions in the front of that three tonne lorry as we settled for our first sleep in Malawi. We had two shukas for blankets. We would be alright.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author currently based in Kenya