The good, the bad and the ugali

Sitting at Malawi’s Kamuzu international airport in this year’s already singeing summer has me bored, constipated and wishing I was somewhere else. I’ve been dropped off an hour and half early and am finding it difficult to breathe. This has nothing to do with my premature arrival, but with a rather wild weekend in Nairobi a few days prior that will remain a story for another day. I’m on my way back home though, which is good.

The reason I’ve whipped my laptop out is really a mixture of envy, nostalgia and arrogance.

I’ve just been watching someone whom I think to be a Malawian on his way out of his country for the very first time.


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He is roughly in his mid thirties and is wearing a disheveled green suit that he will not be remembered for. He has clearly been wearing it a long time. A couple of days I would think.

His shoes though, are an entirely different matter. They look brand new and have no trace of wear save for the shallow line of dust along the bottom half of the sole. They are what cause me to notice this otherwise quite ordinary fellow. They stick out like how a rhinoceros would in… well, just like how a rhino sticks out wherever it is.

The shoes are also quite bright yellow as if in defiance to his dull green suit. Were it not for those shoes, my encounter with this man might have gone otherwise unreported. Quite arrogantly I think that those shoes are that man’s sole and only claim to fame.

He is accompanied by an equally nondescript man in his sixties and a younger fellow grunting under the weight of a humongous suitcase. The “tote-wallah” deposits the case on the scales at the check-in counter and the numbers spin. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Shoes is seven kilos above permitted weight and an animated discussion with the uninterested Air Malawi girl ensues. The end result is that he comes back to the queue with his entourage and they open up the case to see if they can trim some of the extra weight off.

Tote-wallah is exceedingly resilient for a man of his slight stature and executes the procedure with deceptive ease. Soon, the excision is ended and a five kilo bag of Iwisa maize-meal flour has been removed and indifferently sits on the floor beside the queue just ahead of me.

If you’re not African, then you might not know that maize-meal is used to make ugali (or pap, or nshima, or sadza, depending on which part of the continent you come from) and forms the cornerstone of the typical sub-Saharan diet. It is a great injustice to separate a man from his ugali and I can almost swear I saw Shoes wipe away a tear.

The check-in procedure is however then flawlessly concluded and the man disappears from my view and on to the rest of his life leaving his family to deal with the surrendered excess.

He and his yellow shoes, however, linger in my mind.

Having completed profiling him, I step past the huddle around the maize-meal and check myself in to then find a quiet place to muse on what I’d just seen.

I conclude that this man had been accompanied by his father and a relative to the airport in Lilongwe from some far and unpronounceable section of Malawi and was on his way for the first time into Johannesburg to seek his fortune.

The suit gave away the fact that he had traveled in it for a few days and it being high summer, the fact that he was from the breed of African who still maintained that one could only be truly dressed when one was in a suit.

This genus of African tends to occur more in the rural areas but can be seen in many urban settings displaying distinct characteristics that enable you to spot him from a distance. What had happened here was typical of a man who had left his village and yet somehow managed to take the village along with him.

I used to be like him when younger and always had a bag of beans from my mother’s little farm packed snugly in my suitcase. I check myself as I realise that, in judgment, I have stumbled across what I have actually become; a man who is increasingly separated from his roots and this is bad.

I actually now envy his simplicity and wish I could be more like him again.

Maybe I should get a pair of yellow shoes.

This is a guest post by Roger Gachago, an IT professional from Nairobi, Kenya, currently working at the university of Cape Town in South Africa. His family have moved around a bit over the years and lived in Edinburgh before moving to Cape Town. They have two cheerful little boys and hope to stay in Cape Town for the medium term at least since it’s very nice there. Read more of Roger’s musings on his blog An Idle Mind.

This post was originally published on Roger’s own blog.

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1 Comment

  • Nice story. I’ve sat in airports many times making the same kind of musings, although different continent and different stories! I’ve never tried ugali, but I think I would like it. Hope I will try some one day.

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