The Scheduled KQ flight touched down at Kamuzu International Airport at 1300 hours. I gained the first one hour of my life as we had left Jomo Kenyatta Airport at 1200 hours, flown for two hours but still arrived in Lilongwe Airport at 1300 hours. I realized that time was not the wisest feature in existence. Njeri sat beside me on the side of the window. She was quiet. We tried breaking the silence by alternating efforts to spark a conversation but failed miserably. Though the in-flight services could be rated as exemplary on an African plane, I cannot admit I enjoyed flying. The first reason; it was my first time flying and I found it overrated.
I only read about flying on Bikozulu’s blogs whose article on Msafiri, the inflight magazine,kept me entertained but the whole flying ordeal was an anticlimax. I thought I would feel the speed, see clouds racing in the opposite direction as the flight ate through them like trees appeared to race in the opposite direction on a bus trip. When I was younger, I enjoyed travelling mainly because we had no television and the opportunity to see the world came only through travel. Nowadays it is the quest for knowledge that pushes me to travel, otherwise I hate the actual process. See, travel involves dissociating from cultures and systems, people and traditions. It includes vaccines, inappropriate checks at boarders, stamps, numbers and luggage. The part of walking barefoot through scanners is demeaning especially for me who feels that the very act of removing shoes oozes subordination to western standards.
Though I earlier admitted hatred towards travel, remnants of the childhood urge to see beyond the range of mountain in Nyandarua, to learn a new thing, to appreciate landscape and distance and to maybe find love keeps me going. These urges also push me to oppose my fear of heights and depths. This time I got the chance to fly. Flying felt like floating (floating is blunt) but I must attest that takeoff and landing were exciting. The war between gravity and technology was as intense as it can get and only surpassed by a rocket take off.
The second reason I didn’t enjoy the flight was because I was nursing a hangover. I was going to live away from home for a year.That uncertainty needed to be drowned by several pints of Nile Perch Lager. It would have been better if I was I drunk on Kenyan Tusker but we were in Kampala on the eve of travel. The feeling of being drunk on foreign beer, in a foreign land, going to a foreign land and in a foreign mode of travel was overwhelming and I occasionally I felt the urge to throw up. Njeri disrupted the process when she broke the silence. Of course I should have thanked her for the interruptions because I would not like to remember my first flight with something as embarrassing as puking. I could imagine the beautiful air hostess coming towards me after I have soiled the seat in front of me and the Oxfords of a serious faced Indian on the opposite seat.
“Sir, are you okay?” she would ask me.
“Yes, I am fine. I just love puking at 30,000 feet.” I would want to answer because I hate that question. Clearly a man who pukes on himself and his neighbours with his seat belt still intact is not okay.
Between intermittent gulps of air and endless apologies to the furious Indian I would say,” Errrr, just give me a bottle of water… Sorry man… really sorry…” I would try to wipe off the now foamy thrown up chicken pieces on the shoes and floor with my handkerchief. The hostess would help me to the lavatory at the back. The whole lounge would be stuffy with a reek of malt and acid. Everybody would judge me.
“Here you are sir. I am so sorry you fell sick.” She would say with a regretful tone, as if I had just told her something lifesaving like, “There is a giant eagle perched on the right engine.” She would fetch some wipes, a small bucket, and gloves and clean up the mess, my mess. She would also tell the Indian guy something that would make him smile a big one. A smile that screams India- tobacco-stained teeth beneath a wild moustache. Perhaps his breath would also smell heavily of garlic and spice. But he had cool Oxfords and one can get away with bad breath and ugly smiles if he dons a pair of cool kicks.
She would come back and ask if I am okay. I would reply that I am feeling much better adding that it was my first time flying and that my mother insisted I eat Mukimo and fatty lamb before boarding. She would smile knowingly and genuinely. I would tell her that she has a beautiful smile but a more beautiful heart. She would tap my arm and laugh a bit before she telling me to take my seat when I felt okay.
Kamuzu International Airport felt everything else but international. Only one Ethiopian Airlines plane was on the ground. The port buildings looked like an old government administration block and was in the middle of nowhere. The shock was however minimal because Shikunzie had told us tales of Malawi.
“Malawi is a small jungle,” she said, “in the city the trees are taller than most buildings.” That is when I fell in love with Malawi. It would take me back to the life in the eighties and early nineties that I never had.
From the sky the landscape was flat and the vegetation was somewhere between green and brown evident that the rainy season was gone. I loved the uncharacteristic lack of features which made the sky appear bigger and bluer than anywhere else I had been.
The intercom started with the descent. The lady hostess welcomed us to Malawi and requested the passengers on transit to Mozambique to remain seated. She spoke in soft English and exquisite Swahili, emphasizing on every syllable like it would lose meaning if she spoke quickly.
“Mabibi na Mabwana, tumewasili katika Uwanja wa Kimataifa wa Kamuzu. Munaombwa mubaki kwa viti vyenu mpaka ndege litakapo simama…”
She trailed off, or rather I focused on the sinking feeling and awaited the sudden bump and the grinding of wheels on the tarmac as the large bird touched the ground. All around me everybody looked calm like they knew the captain personally. I let out a sigh of relief after the plane had touched down, raced down for a deceleration and taxied safely to the ramp.
I got my hand luggage and laptop bag from the overhead cabinets but forgot to take a selfie to put on my WhatsApp status. From the waiting bay, friends and relatives welcomed the passengers. There were Indians, Chinese and whites mixed up with the Africans. Africans gave the most concerted welcome that would break into song and dance, hugs and kisses, and tears.
The scorching sun welcomed Njeri and I to Lumbadzi. Nairobi and Kampala were rainy and the sun was shy but in Lilongwe, the sun shone boldly. There was much to take in, I saw the faces of people as they welcomed their loved ones back. In their eyes was fondness, pretense, joy and indifference. Most passengers were happy, others were confused. I made confused and drunk category. I had played out the phrases to use on the immigration guys to gain entry into Malawi in my mind. With my passport and yellow fever certificate I made it into the new land, my home for the next 365 days. I was scared beyond wits but glad that the alcohol in my head helped a big deal. Our hosts were friendly, helping us with our suitcases and welcoming us more than once.
“Takulandirani,” they said repeatedly.
We just smiled in reply and assumed it was time to say thank you. I disagree with the belief that if you welcome people in your own language they tend to feel welcomed into your lives because I felt lost.
A group of Indians was gathering below a tree as we left the airport. They appeared to be mourning the loss of something. The Indian man from the flight pulled his suitcase towards the group and an outburst of emotions ensued. The women wailed in Hindu.The men stood undecidedly with their furry arms dangling loosely on their sides and took turns hugging the new brother. I felt guilty for the thoughts that had crossed my mind earlier on. He would be mourning with the family and also thinking of how to dispose the soiled shoes. That Indian group reminded me that even if I was far from home, life had to continue. My siblings would fall in love and bear children, my friends will get over the fact I left home and get new friends, and I would also get new contacts and a different way of thinking.
From the airport, we were taken through so many curves and turns and ended up in Area 9 Lilongwe. Later we went shopping for Airtel network lines and household stuff at The Game Complex and Chipiku Stores. None of it appeared real. Our hosts were friendly and helpful, helping us load airtime and pick out popular foodstuff brands. In a new country everything appears different, I could not recognize coffee even when staring at it. Ricoffy, an equivalent of the popular instant Nescafe coffee in Kenya was branded in a yellow tin container there.
While I felt lost, confused and overwhelmed, it was Njeri who gave me hope, not that she was any better, as a matter of fact I drew strength from her weakness. She had her whole family and friends escort her to the airport a week earlier. Her mother led the devotion, reading from Psalms, and showering her and me with blessings. Tears flowed. For me, it was different. My family could not travel from Kinangop that morning so I made my way to the airport by myself. Saitoti, my friend from college, and who I had crushed at his place after giving up my house and selling everything saw me off at the airport. The act of giving up the house and family not seeing me off prepared my subconscious that I was leaving home.
Later when everybody had left, I called home and shared my fears and day one encounters with my mother. She encouraged and enquired. She wasn’t conversant with what took me to Malawi and neither was I. I unpacked my clothes slowly, made my bed and took out my laptop. I knew it would become a friend for a while before I got on my feet.
(Excerpt from a longer writing, a collection of articles about Malawi, Uganda and Kenya, When Ilala Sails)