About a week after the introductory health check I received upon moving to Malawi, I received a call from the government hospital asking me to come in as soon as possible, as I had been given the triple vaccine in the wrong combination.

A sangoma may be known as a “herbal doctor” when selling mushroom teas to tourists, a very profitable sideline. However, to most Malawians he was a “traditional healer” the only doctor they would ever know, outside a district hospital, and his market stall also displayed dried animal parts.

When my gardener Davison brought his “brother” to me about his wanting to be my cook, it surprised me how unalike they were, apart from both being from the Yao tribe. Davison was fairly tall and slender, spoke hesitantly and was Muslim, while George was short and stocky, spoke confidently and was a Christian.

George’s references were mostly legible and showed he’d worked in the South African gold mines. I told him he could start in the morning on a week’s trial, as Davison had done, but he soon convinced me of his culinary skills. I had a full English breakfast and in the evening enjoyed recipes from South Africa and Portuguese dishes from Mozambique, which surrounds Malawi.

He frequently dropped the end of a sentence as if to say, “You know, Bwa(na) (Sir).” “You know this one, Bwa’?” he asked one morning, holding up a mango. It was too hairy to be love at first bite, so he painstakingly diced them for future breakfasts, until he brought me a hairless grafted one.

In the library

Maryk came to help Cynthia clear the backlog of cataloguing that had accumulated since she had taken on some of the routines my predecessor as reader services librarian had done before he was imprisoned.

She was on loan from a Cambridge University college, a more rarefied environment than the public library in southern England from which I’d been promoting services to the entire local community. This was my first academic post.

We had exchanged addresses at the newcomers’ reception. She was in one of the apartments near Chancellor College I had expected to occupy. “Come up and see me sometime,” she had joked, imitating the coquettish film star who popularised the phrase.

I told her I lived at the top of the Kalimbuka estate, outside town, and how Frank had driven me home before I’d been lent the VW Beetle.

Although we worked in the same building, I seldom encountered Maryk, except when she waved across the senior common room during tea breaks. She seemed so self-contained and cerebral that I imagined that while I was whooping it up at a Club Folk Night, she would be practising yoga alone in her apartment to the sound of classical music.

The walk

George didn’t know Maryk, but between them they helped me recover from a foolhardy experience.

Hearing that some students and manual staff came into Chancellor from local villages, I was curious as to where the nearest one was. It would be my first African village! Recalling whole-day hikes in England, I decided on an impulse to follow a path from behind Chancellor.

Two women approaching me seemed to eye me a little curiously, which I put down to my colour, but paused to exchange the customary greetings. After an hour without meeting anyone else, I turned a corner and saw the path stretched straight towards a single tree in the distance with maize fields on either side.

As I walked forward expectantly, the clouds cleared and the full force of the sun hit my bare head. I was glad to reach the shade of the tree, but the view beyond it was just like the way I’d come — the path led to another distant tree.

My head was beginning to ache and my stomach felt upset. Disappointedly, I turned back and with difficulty reached Chancellor again. However, I felt too ill to drive home. Maryk was the only person I knew who lived nearby, so I climbed the steps of her apartment block, hoping I’d remembered her number correctly.

I pushed past her apologetically when she appeared, found the toilet just inside and shut the door behind me. I felt too weak to answer her questions properly.

Maryk must have wondered what to do about a man she scarcely knew squatting in her “smallest room” as if he had no home to go to. Then she remembered Frank and called him for help. They managed to get me down the steps into his car.

George and Davison took me over at No. 1 Kalimbuka and got me into bed. One or other was with me all night. It was as if I had gone through some initiation ceremony that George and Davison had already experienced that now bonded us.

Back at work, Maryk waved to me across the SCR, then turned back to her neighbour as if nothing had happened.


Several months later, I was woken up by a voice in my room and, panicking, nearly pulled the mosquito net down on top of me. It was George urging me to “get up Bwa’, Davison in hospital. We must take him all the Sprites in the fridge.” (We took Sprites because at the time we didn’t have the option of bottled water, which I first encountered four years later, in Egypt.)

I usually turned left at the main road, to Chancellor, but George directed me right. Zomba’s single-storey district hospital soon came into view, with small clusters of people talking together or smoking cigarettes outside.

George picked up the box of Sprites from the Beetle’s back seat and led me to a dimly lit ward that seemed to contain little else except patients on tightly packed beds and their visitors standing, sitting or lying down in between. Davison’s bed was just inside. He looked up at us with a rather vacant stare, then let his head fall back on a thin pillow and pulled his blanket around him.

George gave the box to a nurse, but I declined the man’s offer of a chair. Davison’s other visitors started to arrive after dawn, so I told George to come up with me and collect from the servants’ compound whatever clothes Davison needed and I would drop him off at the hospital with some toiletries and food on my way to work.

Davison was fortunate to be living near a district hospital, but most Malawians turned to a local sangoma for treatment.