Margaret Quilter
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When it becomes more than a photo

September 14, 2010 @ 7:01 PM | Permalink

I was sitting in a pick-up truck driving down a winding road to Cape Maclear, a village nestled on the southern shores of Lake Malawi with John (my husband) and some Afrikaner expats we had met while hitchhiking across the Mozambique / Malawi boarder. 

Cape Maclear is a village that survives off being an expat weekend getaway and a popular spot for travelers.  What I found unique about this village is that the locals live amongst the tourist strip. This is mainly due to tourism businesses popping up along the lakeshore, the same lakeshore that locals need to access as a daily necessity.

Anyway, this post isn’t about Cape Maclear, its economy or Lake Malawi.  It’s about the drive down in that pick-up truck on the winding road with a rowdy bunch of Afrikaners and Australians whose minds were set on one thing, getting completely inebriated.   

We had been drinking relentlessly since Lilongwe and we were all in a mood to party, it was John’s birthday and the three single Afrikaner boys were on their first weekend off in over a month.

 It was at one of our many toilet breaks, we pulled up on the side of the road on one of the hills, there was absolutely nothing and no one around, just rolling hills as far as we could see. I left the boys to climb further up the hill to get a little bit more privacy. The boys were laughing and suddenly a hush came across them, I tried to peer down to see what was going on but I couldn’t see anything. I finished my business and went back to join the boys, and they were all standing a bit back from a Malawian lady who was on her knees, speaking a language none of us understood and rubbing herself like she was washing.  The boys were randomly throwing ideas out as to what she wanted and when I came back they all turned to me.  

Still to this day I have no idea if I interpreted what she was saying correctly and it still bothers me that I don’t know or if there was something else she really needed that I could have given her. At the time I grabbed what soap I had and gave it to her while one of the boys handed her some money.  She accepted both silently, staring at the soap and money, she started to weep.   We all piled back into the pick-up and drove off, I turned around to see if she had moved but she hadn’t, I was fixated on her until we turned the corner and we stopped short again, “Where the hell are they all coming from?”

A bunch of kids were jumping up and down on the side of the road, holding out empty plastic bottles and waving at us.  Normally we would have kept driving because this was common to see but one of the boys leant out of the car window and called over to one a young boy who was holding dead mice in his hand.  We knew village kids would scour the countryside looking for mice to sell, it’s considered a delicacy in Malawi, I never was able to bring myself to try one. 

The boy was a bit intimated by us but he still made an attempt to try and sell the mice to us, none of us were interested, we asked instead if we could take a picture of him with the dead mice and we gave him some money for that.   In the moment it was just a photo, but when we drove off I looked at the picture I just took and showed it around, the atmosphere was far less jovial, the reality of our world and that young boy’s world hit us hard in the one photo.  I have never been able to forget, nor do I want to, the image of a Malawian boy who experiences hardships that I can’t even begin to imagine or relate to on a daily basis.   




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