As promised, Joto, the traffic officer we had met at Chiweta Roadblock, joined us at Chitimba. Together we went into a nearby shop and asked for three haram drinks. Surprisingly, Joto, who had argued strongly against having a drink when his family was starving, took his share of the haram donation from Jean-Philippe.
We were not the only customers in the small but neat pub-cum-grocery shop. Four young white backpackers, two male and two female, were standing in one corner holding haram drink bottles. They talked animatedly. From their accent, we concluded they were francophone. Jean-Philippe approached them and introduced himself and us as his friends. He asked them what had brought them to Malawi.
“Chamba,” a young man who introduced himself as Jean-Guy answered.
“What?” Jean-Philippe, perplexed, asked.
“Chamba. It’s the best I have tasted during my travels in Africa,” Marie, one of the female members of the group, chipped in.
“Do you know what you are talking about?” Jean-Philippe went on, face contorted in surprise.
“The last time we tasted it in Nkhata Bay. Beautiful and tasty fish, the chamba.” Jean-Guy said, smiling.
“You mean the chambo?” Jean-Philippe asked.
“That’s what I said,” Jean-Guy maintained.
“No. Chamba is not Chambo. Chamba is hemp, marijuana,” Jean-Philippe explained.
“Mon Dieu!” Marie exclaimed in French
“And mind you, we have a police officer with us!” I joked.
Joto looked at me and placed his right index finger on his mouth. I understood and tucked in my tongue. I immediately changed the topic. I asked if people knew that May 1 every year is International Labour Day and that May 3 is World Press Freedom Day.
“In the few days I have been in your country I have noted that the press is doing a great job,” Jean-Guy remarked.
“What great job?” I asked and sipped my haram drink.
“Investigating corruption, holding the elected accountable, you know providing critical checks and balances,” Marie said.
“I never expected such press freedom in an African country,” Jean-Guy said before asking us if we needed any more drinks.
“In Malawi, you don’t ask people taking haram drinks if they want more the same,” Jean Philippe lectured our new friends, “you just buy.”
Jean-Guy smiled, ordered the drinks, and paid the barman-cum-shop owner, Gomeka Junior.
“How well are Malawian journalists paid? They are quite vocal about democracy, human rights and abuse of resources” Marie asked, talking us back to World Press Freedom Day.
“Only that sometimes they overdo it,” I said.
“How?” Jean-Guy asked.
“They rarely talk about their own plight. One study concluded that Malawian journalists are grossly underpaid and overworked. But they never complain. They rarely think of themselves as employees who deserve decent pay and conditions of service,” I said.
“It means they are happy,” Jean-Philippe joked.
“I doubt it. They are simply masochists!”
“One thing I hate about Malawian journalists is that they are the only ones who think are entitled to freedom of expression,” Joto, our traffic officer friend spoke for the first time.
“Why do you say so?”
“They criticise, defame, insult, lambast, denigrate and ridicule everybody in society. But when they are criticised, they cry out like babies in wet nappies,” Joto said laughingly.
“That’s a very serious accusation! Can you substantiate it?”
“Recently President Joyce Banda talked to them in their own currency. Didn’t you hear the loud wailing?”
“But they were simply refuting the accusation that journalists had killed President Bingu wa Mutharika,” I said.
“Journalists liberally accuse the police, civil servants and politicians of corruption, but where do they get those expensive mobile phones and tablet computers? Where? Some of them earn much less than a police officer does.”
“Journalists are mere messengers who speak for the public,” Jean-Philippe came to my rescue.
“But they must learn to accept criticism and acknowledge freedom of expression is for all.”