When Jean-Philippe and I reached the foot of the Chiweta escarpment, we found ourselves in a catch-22 situation. One road led to Mlowe, home of the afro-religio-jazz maestro Wambali Mkandawire, and the other led to Chombe Motel, seat of the father of multi-party democracy activism in Malawi, Chakufwa Chihana. I asked Jean-Philippe to make a choice. He hesitated. He asked me to make a choice. I hesitated. I switched off the engine; which attracted the attention of police officers at the roadblock. One of them walked to our car.
“How can I help you? You seem to have a problem?” The police officer asked.
“Yeah. We are failing to decide which way to go?” I said smilingly, my eyes fixed on the officer.
“What kind of joke is that? Where are you coming from?” The officer went on.
“Blantyre via Salima, Nkhotakota, Chinthechi, Mzuzu, Ekwendeni, Phwezi and Mchenga,” I answered.
“What’s your final destination?”
“Blantryre via Livingstonia, Karonga, Chitipa, Wenya, Rumphi, Mzuzu, Jenda, Kasungu, Lilongwe and Dedza,” I replied.
“Are you tourists?”
“I am just his driver,” I said pointing at Jean-Philippe.
“Malawi is a beautiful country,” Jean-Philippe broke his rare silence.
“Yeah. For you, tourists whose pockets are lined with Euros and US dollars, Malawi is a nice country, but for us, with empty pockets, Malawi is merely our fate!” The officer said with a boyish laugh.
“Well, join us for a drink!” Jean-Philippe offered.
“If I get a drink, what does my family eat?”
“How big is your family?”Jean-Philippe asked.
“Nine. My wife, my three children, my younger brother’s four children and myself.”
“Why does your brother not keep his own children?” Jean-Philippe went on.
“He and his wife died. So, I automatically took over the responsibility of raising the children.”
“Why don’t you send your brother’s orphans to an orphanage?”
“What?” The police officer asked, visibly shocked at Jean-Philippe’s suggestion.
“How can I send my own children to an orphanage? How? Why?”
“I mean you should send your brother’s orphans to an orphanage; not yours.”
“That’s bizarre. My brother’s children are my children. What will society think of me if I sent my own brother’s children to an orphanage? A mad man? Someone disposed of basic wisdom?”
“At the orphanage, your brother’s orphans will be given 24-hour care, good nutrition and schooling. And, who knows, maybe one day Madonna will visit the orphanage and adopt your brother’s orphans!”
“Please, stop calling my brother’s children orphans!” The police officer pleaded with Jean-Philippe.
“Sorry, Bwana, if I have said something seriously unpalatable. I did not intend to insult you or denigrate your culture,” Jean-Philippe said remorsefully.
“I have no problem with being assisted to raise my family. But, I abhor this orphanage business. Why don’t orphan-carers learn from the local communities how orphans are cared for? Putting children whose parents died in orphanages, away from their cousins, uncles, nieces, and aunties, increases their isolation. Such children feel hated and grow up to be a vengeful lot. Let’s try home-based orphan care.”
“Home-based orphan care? That sounds clever. Donors give money and materials to families who care for orphans within the communities!”
“Yeah. But stop calling them orphans?
“So, how do we describe them?”
“Anyhow except orphan.”
“Can we visit your home?”
“I am on duty now,” the police officer answered before suggesting that we meet him later.
“By the way I am Jean-Philippe’s driver. And you?” I asked.
advised us to go to straight to Chitimba and that he would join us there after he knocked off. And we drove off towards Chitimba, a town centre near the road-junction to Livingstonia.