We cautiously followed the man as he stepped away from the street. He moved elegantly through the small shantytown. Vendors woke from their mid-day slumbers and eagerly pressed towards us, goods in hand. I pushed my eyes to the ground and grasped for the back of Emily’s shirt. The path narrowed, each side slanting inward until each footfall stuck in a shallow ravine. The makeshift storefronts ended into a brick wall. The man disappeared into a dark path that ran between the bricks and a wall of wooden boards. Venders rushed out, baskets steadied on their heads. I gingerly placed each foot along the high sides of the path, pressing my body against the wall. It soon opened, revealing a single lane dirt street lined with even more elaborate booths. I stalled momentarily, amazed by the goods that extended from the shops and dangled over the street. I was quickly pulled aside, directed down an even smaller path that wound us deeper in the market. Women perched on overturned buckets, watching in amazement as three young Caucasian travelers passed through their secluded alleyways. We made a sharp turn, ducking beneath an aluminum overhang to enter a large three-sided structure built on a tiered cement slab. At either end tailors sat at worn, wooden Singer sewing machines, cradling brightly colored fabrics in their hands, finished skirts and shirts hanging overhead. Between them women sat behind rows of tables stacked with folded chitenjes. The vibrant fabrics were folded into small rectangles and placed neatly next to one another, forming rows of bold colors and ornate patterns. Attitudes and business approaches varied drastically amongst these women. Some made great efforts to hassle each customer, unraveling the fabrics and dangling them in front of overwhelmed onlookers. Others remained passive, watching as we ran our fingers over the rows. For some, a lifetime of peddling colored fabrics in a long, dimly lit room had taken its toll and they slept, draping themselves over their wares. Pushing through the crowds of people in the tight pathways that wound through the tables was challenging, and the pressing guilt of refusing these women a few dollars for their goods was heartbreaking. Our shopping was extremely visible and dark eyes followed us with persistence as we perused the tables, graciously shaking our heads and turning down the many offers that were forcibly thrust our way. Much like my decision-making in America, choosing a fitting pattern in a dingy underground market took me far too long. We left with only a few dollars out of pocket and elegant tapestry like fabrics draped over our wrists.
Enjoying our momentary freedom from responsibility and any set schedule, the three of us decided to continue exploring. I stepped off the covered platform into a small cement drainage ditch and walked back though the narrow passageway that lead back up to the open market and daylight. Ross hobbled along, adding amusing commentary as he struggled with his ankle on the uneven ground. Our progress slowed along the open road as we ascended a small hill, our eyes drinking in every image. For the novelty of it we wished to find an old Malawian flag. President Bingu Wa Mutharika had recently revamped the flag, slightly altering its image and making possession of an old flag illegal. Unfortunately fear has amazing power and the old flag was nowhere to be found. Our relatively aimless wandering found us in what appeared to be the hardware section. Metal rods, long wooden slabs, and axes extended out into the road, pushing us into a small clump in the middle. It was one of those moments where much more then our pale skin distinguished us as foreigners. We were skittish, both excited and excitable.
The hardware section continued on around the bend, nothing like what we intended to find. In my infinite wisdom I suggested a short cut to bring us back towards more interesting items. Sliding my back along a rough wooden wall and my hands on a storage crate in front of me I squeezed through a constricted opening between booths. Emily and Ross moaned as they attempted to follow me through a tiny ally that ran behind rows of poorly constructed shanties. Once again a trickle of mostly stagnant muck ran down the center of the “path” that I attempted to follow. I straddled it awkwardly, smiling brightly as I stumbled past men lazily seated on crates. Either they had been warned of the presence of a blonde or they heard our anxious laughter as we struggled through the labyrinth of people and shops because men soon began poking their heads behind their booths, greeting us in broken English. Although slightly flustered with the small deviation I had taken we were quite satisfied with our adventuring and when we reached the main road through the market we quickly left it again.
Piles of wood boards, chain links, tools. Turn around. Axes. Turn back. Fish. Stop. Don’t breath. Change direction. Fish. Shit. Change direction. Restaurant? Confusion. Food? is always acceptable. Continue. We followed a dirt trail through what appeared to be some rendition of a food court, lined with small shops marketing baked goods and fried sausages. Women sat to the side rolling nsima and dipping it messily into a green relish. A young man sat in front of a tray of small yellow cakes. A mix of exhaustion and curiosity brought me closer and for fifty kwacha I purchased a small square of sweet corn bread. The path ended where it began and we stopped to reassess. Ahead a set of wooden stairs led down to baskets of produce and the general direction in which we started.
Our haphazard journey surprised us all. It is not that we expected to be mugged or stolen away in one of the many dark corners; we simply had anticipated some level of irritation. We were clearly tourists, undoubtedly carrying a substantial sum of money, and lost in a very secluded, unenforced area. Instead of exploiting a potentially dangerous situation, every Malawian man and woman that we encountered either smiled politely and guided us on our way, or simply ignored our presence. Occasionally they prodded us for business, but never to an extent that we felt uncomfortable. It seemed that most were simply baffled by our audacity and good nature. We walked with confidence as we returned to the hotel, convinced that we had tackled a daunting challenge with relative grace. It was in this comfortable mindset that we responded to an offer of marriage on Emily’s behalf.
A Real Malawian Woman
As we emerged from one of small ally ways that lead from the market back to the main road running into Old Town a young Malawian man called out to us, addressing us as “sister.” Amused, we turned around to find a decently attractive man eyeing up Emily with little discretion. He spoke to Ross, “Your sister, your sister, I would like to marry her, I love her.” I opened my mouth, in part to laugh and partially offended that the offer was not directed towards me. Fortunately for Emily’s future love interests, Ross quickly deflected the situation, calmly suggesting to the man that he could have her hand in marriage for the price of twelve cows. Such great quantities of livestock would surely be an impressive dowry if one could afford it. Luckily Emily had not caught the eye of a particularly wealthy man and his unadorned response was “I will not have her.” Simple and true. We departed without another word on the matter.
^ That was our market adventure on Friday, followed up by watching the Man. U/Barcelona game in a packed bar in Lilongwe! It was a relaxing and exciting day!