Tales of a
21st Century Gypsy

March 10, 2006. My corner

I work in the conference room of our project office. Itís on the corner, and has windows facing two streets. Weíre upstairs Ė what would be the second floor in the US, but here itís called the first floor. Thereís a lot going on outside my windows, and I love to watch.

Across one street, looking up the hill, is a gas station. I donít know how long Iíve spend staring at it, but I donít know what kind. BP, maybe? Thereís a fence around it, and just over the fence a long shed under which cars park and

everyone takes shelter when sudden rains hit, which is often at this time of year. At the back of the gas station is a bus stop, where luxury coaches to Lilongwe pick up and drop off their passengers. So there are always people waiting, to take the bus or pick up their friends, and cars waiting to them home once they are dropped off.

The street up the hill is Hanover, and my hotel is up past the gas station. All sorts of business goes on along Hanover. Just down from the hotel is the car wash. A couple of fellow perch on the ledge of the fence, waiting with buckets of dirty water and rags for people to drive up and have their cars washed. The full treatment includes cleaning and polishing the outside, and laying the floor mats on the street to scrub them as well.

Next to the car wash is the first in a long line of phone shops. Two nicely dressed and very bored young women sit at a small table with a telephone. An empty chair is ready for the customers, who can have a seat and make their call. The phone wires run back into the gas station, so I suppose the women have to pay a share to the keepers of the phone line. Sheltering the women from the brutal sun or torrential rain is a small shelter with a sheet of plastic for a roof - though not all phone ladies have those. There arenít too many customers, but sometimes the lady who sells peanuts from a basket on her head joins them to chat and offer a snack.

So do the Celtel fellows. Celtel is one of the two cellphone companies in Malawi. Just about everyone seems to have a cellphone in this country. Land lines are hard to get, but cellphones are easy, so thatís what we all use. I have one too, provided by the project for as long as Iím here. You

donít get a phone bill here; you buy a card with a secret code, and you dial up with your code to put the minutes youíve paid for on your phone. So the Celtel guys sell phone cards. There must be at least half a dozen who hang around our corner, where Chilembwe crosses Hanover by the gas station. They talk to each other, and to the phone shop ladies Ė somehow itís always Celtel fellows and phone shop ladies. The Celltel fellows wear red vests with Celtel written on them in yellow, so they are always visible.

By the downhill entrance to the gas station is a little snack shop. Maybe you wouldnít call it a shop, but here it is. A young man sits at a table, balanced on the rim of an old tire, selling packaged crackers and cookies, and what the English call boiled sweets but weíd call hard candies. For a kwacha or two you can pick up sweet and pop it in your mouth as you hike up the street. The man and I are friends, in a way. Iíve never talked to him Ė Iím not sure he speaks English Ė but every morning we smile and wish each other a good day. If ever I want a little snack like that, heís my man. Not the competition across Hanover street, with a bigger table, and a proper chair to sit on, and more things to sell. When it rains, my friend opens a huge umbrella and covers his wares with a sheet of plastic. When the sun is strong he opens his huge umbrella to create some shade. When the rain is really bad he takes shelter under the parking shed in the gas station. His competitor Ė though no doubt in reality they are friends Ė runs into one of the phone shops when he needs to escape the rain.

Across Hanover street, halfway up the hill, is a big auto repair shop, Kwik-Fit. It has three bays,

lots of cars inside, and all kinds of work going on. At lunch time the Kwik-Fit staff in their royal blue grease-stained jumpsuits sit on the ledge of the gas station fence and relax. The curb in front of the gas station is the overflow parking for Kwif-Fit and the workspace for trucks too big to fit into the gaping bays. One big truck sat there for days, its cab upended and mechanics crawling over its engine till they got it fixed. Yesterday we had a smaller truck, pouring puddles of shiny black oil onto the street while men slithered beneath to push and prod at its undersides. A few rainstorms later the truck was on its way, but the oil lingered, swirling rainbows in the puddles.

Then thereís the other car repair place, across Hanover from the office, on our side of Chilembwe. They donít have a big building with wide bays. Instead, they have a pair of orange ramps, an air tank and a pump on wheels to fill tires. They replace and repair mufflers; a row of glaming new ones is on their corner. A stack of tires, too, should you want to buy one, and their tools, and a few chairs where the mechanics sit and chat while waiting for customers. Itís a lovely little repair shop. No walls, no roof, just the essentials. When it rains, they shelter with the phone ladies too. (The building with the blue awning in the photo is our office - my windows are above the awning.)

Of whom there are many. On the corner with the little repair shop are three proper phone booths Ė wooden sheds with walls and a roof and a door for the phone lady to go inside, and the car mechanics when they need to get out of the rain. Thereís a big open window; the phone lady sits inside it, the phone sits on a counter, and the customers sit on high stools outside, leaning their elbows on the counter as they make their calls, sheltered from sun and rain by the broad overhanging roof.

And across Chilmbwe from my windows, outside the other wall of the gas station, are three more phone stalls sheltered with plastic sheet roofs. Hardly anyone makes calls Ė all these ladies just sit on the corner and wait, chat, see their friends pass by. They are nice-looking ladies, clean and tidy and quite properly dressed. But I canít imagine how they make a living, nor how they can bear to sit there all day.

Just down the hill from my favorite car repair shop is a restaurant. I only just noticed the other day that the air smelled sweet as I walked to work in the morning, and I saw it for the first time. Itís a kind of open shed, a roof held up with poles, a couple of benches, folks sitting around peeling potatos to fry for lunch. Inside thereís a table and a bench, and a man with a pot on a charcoal fire cooking up something whose smell caught my attention. Maybe those sweet deep-fried dough balls that are kind of like doughnuts at home? Iím ashamed to admit it, but I probably wonít try his food to see if it tastes nice as well. I wasnít afraid to try street food in China Ė I could see what it was. Roasted sweet potatoes, or flat crepe-like things with fried eggs and green onions and hot peppers inside. But in Malawi Iím wary.

On our side of Hanover, a bit down the hill, is a banana lady. She sits on the sidewalk tending a baby girl, a flat basket of bananas for sale in front of her. Sometimes a peanut boy sits next to her, with a basket of peanuts and a small bowl to measure out your portion if youíd like to buy some. Bananas are spread on baskets designed to be carried on the head. Perhaps two feet in diameter, the middle is raised so it can perch well on the head. The ladies wrap a cloth around their heads as a cushion, and stroll through the streets balancing their banana baskets without even a hand to keep it from toppling. Men donít carry things on their heads in Africa. Nor do very fancy African

ladies. That's why their hairdos involve braids sticking up in the air at all angles, to show that they donít have to carry things on their heads, they are above that kind of manual labor. Perhaps like long fingernails in the west to show that people donít work with their hands?

The banana ladies and peanut boys are only some of the people who pass through my corner regularly. There are street kids, too. In July I photographed two of them from the window as they wandered down the street barefoot. Then I realized they are regulars, and one day I gave them a surprisingly large amount of money. So of course they know me, and they hope someday Iíll repeat the gift. I donít know who they are, the street children. Those boys are perhaps ten years old, nice looking children, clean enough given that they are on the street. I think they have homes to go to and mothers to feed them. They always try to look piteous and tell me they are hungry, but it may all be lies. One of our project drivers said they gamble with the money we give them. I have no idea.

Thereís an old man who passes through, too. I see him in the morning, sitting on the gas station ledge next to my friendís shop. He bids me good morning in a strong voice, so I greet him back. The other day he stopped me. He pointed out his dirty clothes, the bottle of water that he said was his only breakfast, and said ďI see you going to your work every day, I need a job.Ē His English was excellent, he sounded like an educated man who had fallen on hard times. My snack shop friend watched to see how I would respond. I was embarrassed. He didnít ask

for money, that I can give out, but I have no jobs to give. No one at the office would listen if I said ďthereís an interesting old man on the corner, can we find him a job?Ē I havenít seen him since that morning, but Iím sure heíll come back.

I watch all these folks every day, but I donít really know what the corner is all about. Iím sure they all know each other. No doubt there are friends among them, perhaps enemies as well. Competition, or flirtation. Maybe thereís a pecking order Ė a

wooden phone shed is higher than a plastic roofed stall? Do they get lunch from the restaurant man? Do the mechanics at Kwik-Fit joke with the mechanics on the corner, and perhaps provide hardware if they need it?

Iím sure they all know me, though. They know I stay at the hotel and work in the office on the corner. They know when I go to work and when I go home. They probably see me watching out the window, and taking photos when Hanover Street flows like a river in the rain. Iíd like someone to do a study of them Ė someone who speaks their language and could sit with them and find out who each person is, how each of them landed up on my corner, how it looks through their eyes, and what they say is happening there. Iíll read it, if someone ever writes it.

Continue to the next entry. Return home.

Unless otherwise indicated, all text and photos on this site © Joy E. Hecht.

p.s. Since I've left Malawi, I've heard that a law has been passed banning all street vendors. So perhaps the whole community on my corner has been wiped out. I certainly hope not. They do no one any harm, and might even eke out a living there.