All they wish for at Christmas is a Fanta

17th December 2004 at 00:00
While children in Scotland dream of snow and Santa, it is a different story in sub-tropical Malawi, where Elspeth Mackay spent an entertaining year training local teachers

hree weeks to Christmas. Mr Majamanda, the shopkeeper in this small rural Malawian community is sweeping the sunny veranda of the shop. After a day's teaching, I am sitting in my usual place on the low wall, gazing out across the college with a bottle of beer in one hand and post from home in the other.

Christmas cards! Mr Majamanda's boys, Mark and John, tear them open for me and stare, uncomprehending, at the glittery snowmen and comedy drunken robins.

I try to explain a bit about Christmas in Edinburgh, about big wheels and ice rinks and mulled wine and raucous dancing to the Bay City Rollers at the staff night out, but even to me it seems like a different world. I'm sure they think I'm making it up.

"Aieee, Christmas," sighs Mr Majamanda, shaking his head with that weary pre-Christmas look of shopkeepers worldwide. "On that day, I am too busy."

He explains: if you ask any child in this deeply religious community what Christmas means to them, the answer comes quickly, with a beaming smile.


On Christmas day, John and Mark, and all their friends and neighbours, will skip along dusty tracks beneath mango trees to the local supermarket, where they will queue patiently until it is their turn to buy a soft drink. You have a wide choice: the usual global offerings of Coca-Cola, Sprite or, the local favourite, Fanta, which comes in three delicious colours here. Or you can buy Malawian and drink the locally produced specialities, Cherry Plum and Coco Pina.

The cost of these is 24 kwachas, about 10p to you and me. However, in a country where the majority of people earn a lot less than a dollar a day, this represents a considerable outlay. So they make the most of it.

They drink slowly, sitting around outside the shop, waving to friends as they queue. And when it's all gone, they parade around with the empty bottle, so that everyone knows they had a Christmas. And finally, they queue to return the bottle to get their glass deposit back.

The crush is such that on that day, and that day alone in the year, Mr Majamanda has to bar the door to the shop and serves his young customers from a side window. "All day I am on my feet," he says gloomily. I think of Princes Street and realise, again, that all things are relative.

Fanta aside, Christmas in rural Malawi is not really a big event. Even for my better-off teaching colleagues, the chief impact is the increased risk of burglary. (Though I am an obvious target, I never have been robbed. A bigger problem is knowing who to thank for the random gifts which regularly appear on my doorstep.) The month leading up to Christmas is when more robberies take place than in any other month of the year. It is that anxious time before the harvest known as the hungry season.

All college members have been invited to a talk on security from the officer in charge of the local police force. I know him from the bottle store. He is tall, unsmiling, very thin; his face is dwarfed by an enormous baseball cap boldly emblazoned with the slogan WORLD CAP 2002. His past is murky: his previous posting was in Nsanje, in the hot, low lying Lower Shire (pronounced shiray) Valley, the Siberia of Malawi in terms of comforts. I have never seen him operate in a professional capacity before and am agog as I take my seat.

It is a classic piece of Malawian officialese. The four police officers, all in full uniform, are sitting in a row behind a table. The table seems to have been dressed for an altogether different event, topped as it is with an ornate lacy tablecloth and garnished with a bunch of lurid yellow plastic flowers.

After a halting start, when the officer in charge tries and fails to introduce his colleagues, he soon gets into his stride with a lecture on the contributing factors to the commission of crime, in which the common Malawian confusion between the letters L and R scales new heights. It soon becomes clear that the main factor is the decline in the spirit of hard work.

"You know, people used to be hard working in Malawi," he reminds us nostalgically, "but now they are what? Vice versa! They are only lazy; they are just remaining idle, roafing under the trees, waiting for government handouts."

But by night, he cautions, they are transformed into monsters of cunning, sneaking through the "long glasses", even peeping through windows to try to pinch what they can.

I am also very interested to learn that another factor is, surprisingly, the way that ladies are dressing nowadays. Their short skirts - a regrettable consequence of democracy - apparently drive sane men to a life of crime, forcing them to break into houses in pursuit of taps and door handles to steal.

At this point, the tablecloth threatens to slither right off the table, taking with it the luminous flowers and the officer's precious notes. All three of the supporting actors leap to their feet, lunging forward to tussle over the errant cloth. The officer seems badly shaken by this; his faltering English packs in altogether and he continues much more comfortably in Chichewa. My mind wanders at this point.

Last Christmas a group of us abandoned the piles of marking which herald the start of every holiday and took the night bus north up the shore of Lake Malawi to the resort town of Nkhata Bay. Here the lake is rocky and steep-sided and lush greenery rolls down to the shore. We staggered off the bus, necks cricked and legs throbbing from the onset of deep vein thrombosis. Our heads were ringing from 14 hours of "Pelemende", that year's No 1 hit in Malawi, going round more and more slowly through the drivers' battery-powered cassette player.

Feeling decidedly unChristmassy, we plodded around the bay to the oasis of Mayoka. This ramshackle haven is the home and business of Gary and Katharine, a South African and Englishwoman respectively, who decided to set up a backpackers' hostel which would genuinely contribute to the local community. The basic rooms are built of local materials and the hostel employs a large number of local people as cooks and cleaners. Any profit is ploughed into local projects, such as funding secondary education of orphans. The hostel manages to be both chaotic and relaxing and is a great place to unwind.

On Christmas morning we were wakened by the sound of fantastic multi-part singing drifting over the lake. Looking out, we could see row upon row of dug-out canoes stuffed to bursting with people, all paddling our way.

The boats crunched ashore, babies were flung from one arm to another and old ladies sloshed through the water. These were all the employees and their families, invited for Christmas dinner. There must be more than 150 people, all dressed up spectacularly; small boys in ties and little trousers, girls in frilly pink nylon, ladies in the traditional matching blouse and skirt outfits.

Fires were lit, a huge black pig was killed and roasted and Katharine served up industrial quantities of banoffee pie. The Fanta was flowing freely and everyone was enjoying themselves enormously.

After food came the entertainment. I was excited and looking forward to a unique cultural experience, maybe some local Christmas songs and a traditional dance or two.

A troupe of the girls in frilly pink stepped forward with not a trace of bashfulness. The ghetto blaster was cranked up to full volume. The intro seemed familiar I Yes, "Pelemende" again. The girls' routine was flawless and they knew all the words. "Pelemende" they sang, joyfully.

I wondered idly what the words meant and asked the man standing nearest to me. He listened carefully and then translated: "'In Pelemende's car, in front of the dashboard, there is a photograph of a nude woman. When he is driving the vehicle, he looks at the photograph while listening to love songs in the background. Pelemende is crying because he has got a venereal disease after having unprotected sex because there are no condoms I When he goes to drink beers, he keeps on crying because of his failure to urinate ..."

The poor man tailed off. "Madam, I do not think I can continue." He was obviously mortified.

However, the little girls danced on to rapturous and well-deserved applause, singing their song of seasonal debauchery. Sex and Fanta: maybe Christmas here isn't so different after all.

The daydream ends and my mind comes back to the present. The officer's talk is drawing to a close. After several votes of thanks we troop out. I return home, appraising my house in a new light and admire fondly my full complement of taps, door furniture and window fastenings.

My night guard arrives. He is a frail, gracious man in his sixties, who defends my property armed with a big stick, two waggy-tailed dogs called Jack and a flask of tea.

I tell him about the talk; he seems mildly interested but not alarmed. "Ah, Madam, everything here is No 1!" he reassures me, before snuggling into his seat at the front of his house.

Comforted by his symbolic presence, I draw the curtains as defence against peepers, check the long glasses for any signs of lobbers and sleep soundly.

Elspeth Mackay was working through Voluntary Services Overseas as a primary teacher trainer at one of Malawi's six teacher training colleges. She has now returned

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