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The King Stays King

The King Stays King

Jan 2016

Words and pics Obie Oberholzer

Over the last few years the COUNTRY LIFERS have been given so many dazzling country stories that a poor maverick like me wants to move back to Pretoria. Using prize-winning photographers and journalists, the magazine has criss-crossed the country for us, taking every route, pass or padjie to the remotest dorp and back again. 

No koeksister, roosterkoek or watermelon preserve has been left untried in this land of country living, with its farm stalls galore. Soon all the good people will be moving to the country and leaving all the crooks and corrupt officials in the cities. Ah, sorry, and me there on my stoep in Waverley, Pretoria. 

With this pending scenario I decide to rediscover the spirit of Dr David Livingstone, one of the most famous explorers of all time. Travelling to the Livingstonia Mission in Malawi seems the obvious place to start. After a five-day journey of humour and hardships, my wife Lynn and I cross the border from Zambia into Malawi. 

The border post looks like a huge bazaar, but the immigration official confirms it isn’t a market but a border post. After he cordially waves us into his long, thin country, money mongers besiege us, clutching wads of Malawian kwachas. 

With the downward spiral of the rand, I purchase a roll of green bills, realising that this will probably be my last chance to live out my travel dreams before the onset of old age, hunger and poverty. 

Buying fresh produce in a village market is a delight, the fruit and vegetables gleaming naked in their natural state, unlike the over-packaged, commercialised stuff in most of our supermarkets. I buy a huge bag of fresh, raw peanuts and a bunch of half-green Lady Finger bananas. The lady fruit seller gives me such a smile that, for a moment, I feel vibrantly young again. 

I tell her I’ve always had a thing about ladies and their fingers. Driving in Malawi is a delightful mind blast of exhilaration, joy and pure horror. The roads, built when the British were mighty kings of the world, are disintegrating from the edges inward. For many years, the aging tarmac roads have felt the treading and pounding of the population. Bare feet and rubber have rubbed the tar thin like old cracked skin. But the crumbling roads of Malawi remain the arteries and sustainers of the country’s lifeline. Most dangerous are the edges, deep and sharp, eroded by humanity’s relentless footprint. 

But, then again, driving through Malawi, I find myself strangely at home. The passing villages seem like a continuous farm stall, just without the koeksisters and watermelon jams. The Livingstonia Mission is situated about 550km north of Lilongwe, on the M1 to Mzuzu and Rumphi. 

Initially, this mission was located at Cape Maclear along the southern shores of Lake Malawi but, plagued with such a high rate of malaria, the mission was rebuilt by the Free Church of Scotland in 1894, in the town of Khondowe, on the large Nyika Plateau, 900m above the fishing village of Chitimba along the northern shores of the lake. 

Dr Robert Laws founded the mission station in honour of David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, educator and physician who opened up Africa by exposing slave trade, and imploring others to bring Christianity and commerce to this underdeveloped land. 

During the first part of the 20th century, this mission complex was known as the greatest achievement in central Africa and soon expanded to become a town that included a church, schools, hospital, houses, post office and, more recently, the University of Livingstonia. 

In the village beneath the Livingstonia escarpment, I buy a large wooden sculpture of a king wearing a crown and shedding two large tears. I ask and ask, but nobody can tell the silly mzungu (white person) why the king is tearful. So a towel is wrapped around the king’s head and he is wedged in between the fridge and my cameras on the back seat, ready for the ascent. 

My macho smile soon vanishes as we attack the road that twists its way up to a plateau that, from below, looks more like vertical cliffs. The single lane road is in such an excruciatingly k#k condition that words fail me, leaving me with other ones that that are unprintable anywhere, ones that would make missionaries turn in their humble graves. 

I apologise for such language to the most beautiful landscapes that surround us. We go, we go slow, we travel high, then higher, around hairpin bends, with three-point turns, engage 4x4, diff-lock on, forehead sweating, blood pumping, Lynn’s face stiffens white, and at the back a blindfolded king whimpers. To be honest, I can’t boast of being a very good four-wheel driver, but the 12km up this plateau with its 22 hairpin bends reminds me of some parts of the Sani Pass. 

At one 180° bend we meet a group of children in uniform walking up the pass to their school in Livingstonia. A chorus of shouts echoes against the cliffs, “Give me money, give me money – money – money!” Having experienced this greeting in my many years of African travels, 

I wave and smile and in so doing almost drive off the precipice. 

“You know what?” I turn and say to my wife, but there is nobody in the passenger’s seat. She must have gotten out somewhere and is walking up the pass. “You know what?” I say to my second-best travelling companion, Sense of Humour. “Driving over the precipice reminds of the final scene in the 1991 movie called Thelma and Louise. It shows them, after being cornered by police, driving over the edge of the Grand Canyon. 

“You know what?” comes a deep voice from somewhere in my 2001 Isuzu bakkie. Hell man, I can’t be sure, but it’s either the bakkie talking, Sense of Humour or the King of Tears wedged between the fridge and my camera. 

“No. No. What?” I ask with trepidation. “Give me a banana,” a guttural voice replies. From all the moving, shaking and sliding back and forth on the dashboard, the bunch of half-green Lady Fingers that I placed there at the bottom of the pass has now ripened from fright. 

I crawl up an ever-increasing gradient at bend 19 and 20, getting into third gear and bringing about a raucous cheering from somewhere. The little bit of macho-me has taken flight and my ego is stretched like a kettie (catapult). Then this low gravelly voice sounds again, “You once wrote at the beginning of one of your books that, when travelling through Africa, your best companion is a sense of humour.” 

Far below I get a glimpse of Lake Malawi, long and wide in its blue wonder. The gruff voice from nowhere continues, “This is going to become one of the best jokes ever… ha, ha, ha, ha… ” it thunders. Then against the cliffs and down into the steep valleys the sound echoes ‘ha,ha,ha,ha’. 

In my rear-view mirror I see a vehicle approaching, closing in, then flashing its headlights and hooting. I find a narrow area to pull into and watch as an ordinary taxi minibus passes me. All the passengers shout and wave at me and next to the driver sits my wife, blowing me kisses.

After finally arriving at Livingstonia Mission, we spend a day looking around this rather beautiful red-bricked complex. Although the town is bustling with people, I get the distinct feeling of yesteryear, what has passed rather than what is to come. 

I photograph warm African light stroking the church, a row of trading stores, the Aunt Edda Right Price Shop and a colonial house so filled with mystery, it seems ready for a movie set. 

In the evening we camp next to the Stone House, the original house of Dr Robert Laws. It now serves as a museum and B&B. We rise early, in preparation for our descent to the shores of Lake Malawi far below. “Take a taxi down,” I say to Lynn. The first rays of morning light dapple the silence. 

One of the secrets of a great marriage is not to laugh when something isn’t funny. Another secret is to know what your spouse is going to say before she says it. “I am running down,” she says and off she runs into the distance. I eat another banana for strength. 

Before the plateau turns to a steep escarpment, I shoot a landscape that lights up the one half of country in me. The other half tells me it looks like those kitsch paintings you get back home. You know, the little farm road with the wagon tracks that lead to the house by the bluegums beneath the pink Cape mountains. These paintings are always framed in an elaborate gold frame and then placed on the wall next to three flying ducks above the cabinet full of shining memorabilia. 

Anyway, down from bend 22 to 15 all goes well. At one bend, the same group of children walking up to school shout the same thing. I have taken the towel off the king’s head so he can also enjoy the view. It’s clearer today so I stop to photograph the lake’s shoreline. A new bunch of young Lady Fingers is slipping and sliding on the dashboard, yellowing, ripening. Behind me the king is muttering and sniffing. I wonder if he wants a banana, or perhaps a woman? 

I push the old bakkie into third, hoping to blow kisses at my wife if I can pass her running down the pass. Below hairpin bend 2, calamity strikes. The narrow pass is blocked by a herd of cattle going up. I am not going to reverse, so it’s stalemate. The mooing and hooting echoes in the valley below. 

I get out of the bakkie then take out the king and we push our way out through the cattle. We follow the path to the house of a medicine man. It’s actually not far, just a few steps away. In front of the little house sits an old man on a bench. We go and sit next to him, the king and I. He says that the medicine man has gone to Chitimba, down on the lake. So we sit, us with the king, and near the cattle stand in front of the bakkie, parked. 

When travelling through Africa, your second-best friend is patience. Just sitting around is a powerful potion. After a while, I ask the old man why the king has two tears on his cheeks. He looks at the king and then at me and says, “Give me money.” I give him a green kwacha because I can never take the king home if I don’t know why he is crying. 

“Once, long ago,” spoke the old man, “in the mountains not far from here, a king was sitting in front of his fire. He was very sad. All of his followers were already asleep in their huts, except the first of his many wives. On the king’s cheek were two big tears. ‘Why are you crying, king?’ the first wife asked. ‘Because I have no money’, he replied.” 

For a while I listen to the wind blowing in the trees. Then I look at the old man and say, “I mean, that is heartbreaking stuff, a king with no money, no wealth and all his citizens asleep except his first old wife.” 

So all I can do is take out my iPhone and find a picture that I took of the barman’s upper arm in Havana, Cuba. It was in Smokey Joe’s, one of the most famous bars in the world. When I turn to the old man again, he has gone. Then 

I hold up the screen for the king to see. It shows a tattoo on the barman’s triceps that reads, ‘And always remember that the king stays king’.

Source: Country Life

Country Life