On my recent trip to Africa, I found myself at a road block in northern Malawi, five hours before the overnight bus to the city of Blantyre was expected to roll by. I had been advised to flag down the bus there, because it would have to stop at the road block anyway.
Since I had some time to kill, the forestry official at the road block pointed out one of a row of shacks fifty yards away as a place where one might find a drink on a blisteringly hot African afternoon. So, I rolled my suitcase through the red dirt and asked the young woman behind the wire-fenced counter for a coke. She handed me a warm glass bottle and opened it for me. As is the custom in countries that still serve coke out of glass bottles, I drank it there.
Of course, given the hours of free time I had to kill, I drank slowly, sitting on the shack porch for a couple of hours using my suitcase as a bench. The porch didn’t offer much shade, none in fact due to the sharp angle of the sun. I reapplied sunscreen several times and still felt my arms browning and nose pinkening under the direct rays. Local children approached with the usual “howareyou, howareyou” and giggles when I asked them their names and ages. Women in plastic sandals with babies strapped to their backs in printed-cotton slings came up to the shack to do their shopping. Most of them came to buy ground maize, I imagine to make it into blobs of mashed potato consistency that the locals call nseema (the n is silent) and which they eat with kidney bean sauce and fish from Lake Malawi. When they asked for maize, the young woman behind the counter would come out of the shack and scoop the meal into plastic bags from a large burlap sack on the porch and weigh it on a scale hanging from the beam.
Neither she nor any of the women spoke to me. But when I handed her back the glass bottle, through the slot in the wire fence protecting her little convenience store, she handed me a note:
hello, my name is Ivy ______
i am 15 y o
will you be my pen friend?
my address is