Paul Theroux: The Malawi I Loved

Frank Bennett

Half a century since serving in the Peace Corps in Nyasaland, a veteran travel writer recalls his first infatuation with a landscape and its people.

My first sight of Nyasaland, 50 years ago, as the D-C3 from Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, swept low toward the landing strip at Blantyre, was of thatched-roofed mud huts, clusters of them, almost indistinguishable from the grassy humps and hillocks and termite mounds—a glimpse of the distant past—and then atop the squat airfield tower, limp on the flagstaff in the drizzle, the Union Jack.

The place was still a British territory, run by a governor-general and white civil servants in knee socks and khaki shorts. It was densely wooded, silent, landlocked, attached to the vast Lake Nyasa, muddling along without any industry except a brewery and the Chiperoni blanket factory, which wove blankets out of rags, and three cash crops, tea, tobacco and peanuts. With a small population, Nyasaland was friendly, knowable and hopeful; seven months later it would be the independent republic of Malawi, with its own prime minister, Dr. Hastings Banda, or the Messiah, as he was called, with his dark glasses, black homburg and fly whisk made of a lion’s mane.

It all sounds ancient now, but even then it seemed antiquated to me. It was the unchanged, still-recognizable landscape of the Africa fiction I’d read, the bush backdrop of Conrad, Hemingway, Karen Blixen and Graham Greene. It was the visitable past, and I loved it for its seeming to exist outside of time, or at least in a premodern era of church bells and red clay roads, of stucco Indian-owned shop houses and the Gymkhana Club. Even the capital, Zomba, was a small town. Because clothes and shoes were so expensive, old men sat on verandas, one cobbling shoes or making sandals out of discarded car tires, another stitching pants and shirts while he worked the treadle on his dark-green Singer sewing machine.

Having arrived in this serene country from the violent upheavals of early 1960s America, I thought, This is the place for me. I felt lucky. I was about to be possessed, to experience the immersive power of Africa. I was 22 years old, a Peace Corps teacher, and this was my first love affair with a landscape, and with people in that landscape. Letters—our only contact with home—took a month to reach us. In the post office we brushed fish glue onto postage stamps to stick them to the envelopes. At last I had the life-changing experience of something new to write about. Even years later, still in Africa, I felt the same way—blessed, inspired, liberated.

Nowadays Africa seems a fixed and immutable image of desperation in the traveler’s mind: the big, messy cities, the violated bush, the NGOs and persistent businesslike charities—“the gang of virtue,” as Conrad called them—making promises to fix it. And in contrast, existing in the same hungry, badly governed countries, the luxury safari camps, the excellent hotels here and there, the beach resorts with sushi on the menu.

It was not always like this, though that may be hard to imagine. Anyone visiting Africa today for the first time, as a safari tourist or an aid worker or an opportunistic businessman, experiencing its deforestation, silted-up rivers, crime stories, creeping onslaught of Islamic terrorism, Chinese settlers, arms dealers, corrupt governments, political tyranny, disaffected youths and meddling billionaires—anyone believing that Africa was always a problem (damaged, troubled, needing to be repaired) has no idea of the orderly life there 50 years ago, the still-intact pieties and the innocent belief that politics would deliver jobs and prosperity and a dignity that colonialism had denied them. Nyasaland was beautifully small-scale, more a like-minded community than a country. It had no cities, only small, habitable burgs, like the market towns of old Europe where people went once a week to sell their surplus crops or to buy cloth or tin pots, to meet friends, to flirt and find romance.

I loved how it looked: unspoiled, full of possibilities, the forested hills, the magnificent plateau, the glittering lakes. It smelled of the wood smoke of cooking fires and damp clay and risen dust. Its sunsets were sudden and spectacular. And I loved it most of all for its people. I was a teacher in a small school, my students were hardworking and intelligent and eager to share. I learned much more than I taught, and I made lifelong friends.

And there were animals, of course, but not big or exotic enough to attract any tourists. East Africa was home to big game. We had snakes mostly, and crocs and monkeys, and many nights hyenas sniffed at the garbage heaps near my house. The glory of the country was its flocks of birds: weaver birds, pied crows, go-away-birds and more than ten different kinds of owl. Some sat on the roads at night, as the quails did in the daytime—nightjars, vultures, terns, herons, eagles—and their distinctive calls turned the countryside into a parliament of fowls.

I raised pigeons, not in the spirit of birdwatching but to supplement my diet; chickens were scarce in the bush where I lived, and on the days when pigeon curry was on the menu, my Muslim cook, Jika, would solemnly cover his head, observing halal procedure, before slitting the bird’s throat. Jika had been a cook in the King’s African Rifles in Tanganyika. Fluent in Yao, Chewa and Swahili, he helped me become proficient in two of these languages. Apart from teaching and my note-taking, there wasn’t much else to do. Oh, yes, there were the African girls and bush romances, but I have written about those elsewhere. I should add, though, that we teachers were popular as their first friendly, fraternizing Americans—perhaps over-friendly, because of our heightened awareness of the Civil Rights movement picking up steam in the American South.

Nyasaland had so few motor vehicles that the unpaved roads were not remarkable. The sound I remember most clearly was that of the bells jingling on the handlebars of the heavy black bikes as the tires jarred in the bumps on the rutted roads. The local word for bike was njinga, mimicking the sound of those old-fashioned bells. Thousands of bicycles. And people crowding the roads, many of them walking barefoot, and the dogs, and the dense woods, and far off the sight of the flat-topped Mount Mulanje. From Blantyre, a weekly steam train chugged slowly to Salima on the lakeshore, and another to Beira on the coast of Mozambique, or “Portuguese East Africa,” as it was known, the source of piri-piri chicken, cases of sparkling vinho verde and occasionally a cross-border raid by guerrillas of the Frelimo liberation army.

I did not really live in Africa, nothing so grand or abstract. I lived in a slope of bush at the edge of a small hill, at the margin of a mud-hut village, like a teacher in a Camus short story. I had a bicycle, like many others. I had my pigeons, my barefoot cook, my barefoot students. I was the mzungu, the white man. This bungalow in the bush, like many other mzungu bungalows, had a trestle dining table with a dish in the center of it, and on the dish was a cluster of sauce bottles: the jam jar, the marmalade jar, the salt shaker, the pepper mill, the toothpick quiver. This dust-flecked dish was like a symbol of civilization.

After two years of contentment, I got a job in Uganda, at Makerere University, where my fellow teachers were world-renowned anthropologists and scientists, where Chinua Achebe sometimes visited and V. S. Naipaul lived down the road. Uganda at that time, too, was a republic of small settlements and leafy trees, a day’s drive from Nairobi, another market town with a small population and no slums, where the prevailing mood was hopeful, optimistic, and most people, black and white, wished to live and be part of the process.

But it ended: The terrible shadow of Idi Amin fell across Uganda, and the Indians were driven out, the opposition vanished into the bush. Dr. Banda, now a tyrant, was still in power in Malawi, as he would be almost 30 years later; and those educated Africans—doctors and teachers—who had said they were planning to stay abandoned all hope and decided to leave. It was simple enough: The first jumbo jets began to appear in 1970, bringing tourists and aid workers and more doctors and teachers to Africa, and on the departing flights went the African teachers and doctors, fleeing on the big planes for better lives elsewhere.

Paul Theroux is a novelist and travel writer. His latest book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May.