The best travel writing is always bitchy writing. While the casual traveler invariably hopes that his vacations and journeys abroad are pleasant and relaxing, the travel writer knows that no one really wants to read about his first class accommodations on the Queen Bee and the exquisite turn-down service it afforded him. Instead, writers like Paul Theroux, the very best of the lot, make every dinner a trip through culinary hell and every suburban taxi ride a horror show down the Zambezi River on a tramp steamer. With little regard for the facts of the matter, they make of the taxi driver a reincarnated Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. These writers want you to know that they suffer for their art.
I am in Malawi this week, not far from the banks of the Zambezi River, and it is all too sad a place to crab about. My purpose for being here is to set up a small bank that will lend money to fish farmers who will sell varieties of tilapia to local villagers. That this bank will fail and that these farmers will fail is an almost foregone conclusion.
Two images strike you when you arrive in the country and leave the national airport on the country's one main road. The first is the multitude of shanty house businesses lining the highway that sell in combination "funerals and joinery." Coffins are piled high outside each of these shops; the coffins are made of plain wood and often have a cross glued haphazardly on the top panels. The life expectancy of Malawi's people is 39 years; it has the highest rate of HIV infection in Africa.
The second image is of gigantic billboards spaced every half mile advertising the face and the accomplishments of Bingu wa Mutharka, Malawi's President. The smiling President exhorts his people to "Judge me by the work of my hands!" and it is difficult not to as you motor past endless tracks of plywood and tin construction, women hovering over small piles of vegetables, and hawkers of half liter containers of paraffin.
At nightfall, the valley below where I am staying is punctuated by fire and the air is redolent with the smell of burning brush and grasslands. Hundreds of farmers are slashing and burning in preparation for planting maize and it is a wonder that the whole country side doesn't go up in flames. Because commodities prices have gone up so much there is a real danger that hunger will become even more prevalent. That fear is driving Malawi's people to plant maize on every possible bit of dirt, thus fire, thus dense, smoky haze drifting for miles in every direction.
My dismal prediction about the futures of Malawi's fish farmers is mostly because the tilapias they borrow money to raise never reach maturity. Fingerlings are put into farm ponds when they are about an inch and a half long: hungry thieves, as well as the farmer and his extended family, begin eating the fish when they reach two inches in length. The fish rarely get to market, and if they do, prices are so low that there is hardly a margin to make.
Who can be happy in such a place? I suppose Bingu wa Mutharka might engage at least the idea of happiness if the weight of rule was not so heavy on his broad shoulders. And children look happy: they chase each other, play hand games and soccer, and shower great flashing smiles on the old deaf white guy who walks by.
But their mothers look weary and tired and all done in and they are all impossibly young.