Getting Your Chambo Right

Lake Malawi’s best-known fish, the chambo, is a cichlid (now there’s a good word for a spelling test) and its numbers are dwindling horribly through over-fishing. It is unlucky enough to be both edible and colourful and is thus popular both for plate and tank. A tough call as to which is the crueller fate.

So, whilst camping on the beach of what I still consider to be the most beautiful of all the Rift Valley lakes, we tended to spare the chambo and to enjoy, instead, the kampango, whose populations are holding up better. A worthy policy, I am sure you will agree.
We spent several colourful days on the lake at Senga Bay. On the Sunday afternoon the place was heaving with people. You couldn’t see the sand. The Lilongwe Indian population seemed to have emptied itself out on the beach en masse and it was an exciting, lively crowd, braaiing fish and chattering loudly to be heard over music of the sort most of us only hear by accident on Radio Lotus or during one of DStv’s Bollywood Seasons.

Occasional church groups of local Christians, dotted amongst the burkas, belted out hymns in a vain attempt to counter the overwhelming Muslimness of the scene. It was all very good-natured and a good few chambo met their end on the coals that day.
By dusk there was nobody left on the beach but us and a German-registered Unimog, impressively kitted out for an Overland trip by its two octogenarian residents from Hamburg. As the sun set, we sipped our Malawi gins and watched as the fishing boats fizzed across the water to take up position, a light hanging down to attract the fish, as yet more nets full of cichlids were hauled out and beetled back to the beach to feed the masses.

The following day at lunchtime, on the deserted beach, there pulled up two Cape Town-registered vehicles, heavily sponsored by all their Indian occupants’ chums and covered with stickers advertising this fact. They got roundly stuck in the sand. They dug themselves out of it. They left.

That evening they returned, fish in hand, set up camp and then sidled over to us and asked us where we had travelled. Swelling our chests slightly, but with the right nonchalant air, we told them that we had driven from Hazyview to Northern Uganda in three months and we were now on our way home. They were polite but it was obvious that they weren’t terribly impressed.

In view of the hour spent digging themselves out of their midday predicament, we had rather assumed them to be amateurs at this overlanding game so, puzzled, we asked where they were hoping to go. They had every reason not to fall over backwards at our paltry achievements.
They passed the ‘totally non-narcotic’ hubbly-bubbly around again and explained that they were driving to India – Mumbai, to be precise – in 6 weeks, up the eastern side of Africa, across to Morocco, over to Spain and through Europe to the Middle East, and on to India. Did they watch the news? Were they worried? Not a bit. They’d already done it, four years ago, and they were Muslims so what did they have to worry about? Everybody had loved them last time.

I sneaked off to my tent, somewhat abashed, listening in as they told stories around their campfire and braaied an innocent chambo. Given their past and future achievements and obvious bravery and derring-do, I wasn’t going to stand up for that fish. Its cichlid existence, like so many before it, had ended on a plate, but it could be proud of the South African stomachs it was feeding.

I could possibly have clawed back some self-esteem by telling them that I caught chambo with my bare hands and smoked it, giving them the recipe, had I known it then, of my friend John Clark, an Englishman born in Malawi, but he only gave it to me a few weeks later. Next time you are humiliated by superior endeavour on the banks of Lake Malawi and if you can bear the shame of further reducing the chambo population try it.

Bwanajoni’s Smoked Chambo

Bring along a smoker. Buy the fish from the fishing boats as they come in. Fillet the fish. Cover them with salt for 1/2 an hour. Wash the salt off. Place the fish fillets in the smoker. Serve the smoked chambo with crispy salad and a fresh crusty loaf. (Author’s note: be sure to ask for chambo, not chamba, which is the Chichewa word for dagga, the smoking of which is not permitted).

Flowers to Vleisfees

I don’t really do flowers. I could walk into a room full of dead flowers and not notice – and I felt the same about veld-flowers until I saw Namaqualand.

We were there in a good year. That was the talk at the bar of the rather alarming Masonic Hotel in Springbok, along with the weather, which on that Thursday afternoon was definitely not playing ball. We were gathered around SABC2 to find out the forecast for Friday. “Dis en lang pad van Pretoria om reen te krye” was the ongoing whine of the ladies from the Le Roux Toere bus, “en mere sal dit weer r’en.” Oh dear.
Fortunately, contrary to the predictions of Johan Schutte, Friday dawned clear and lay-bys at especially colourful vantage points filled up early with enthusiasts climbing onto their vehicle roofs better to capture the scene.

They greet one another, these flower-spotters, with wild floral enthusiasm. “Is julle van Mpumalanga? Dis en ander woreld, hierdie, nie?” They lie in the sand – oblivious to the primary bladder-relieving purpose of a lay-by out of flower season – to get a side-on-in-amongst-it view of the radiant verges. Flower fetishists will go to any lengths to get the best angle of dangle on a daisy. Pancake stalls open up on the roadside to fast-feed the followers. It is another world indeed.

At Vanrhynsdorp we turned east up the escarpment and onto the Bokkeveld Plateau to Nieuwoudtville, where proud boards told us we were in the Bulb Capital of the World. Correctly presuming this to be a reference to flower-bulbs, not light-bulbs, we were dazzled. There are a few regions that might dispute it, Belfast, Mpumalanga for a start, not to mention Amsterdam, Holland, but how fantastic that it should be true enough for Nieuwoudtville to claim this title unashamedly. And what a lovely town.

Still we were surrounded by veld-flowers. By the time we got to Calvinia where, by chance, we arrived at the opening of the Vleisfees, my jaw was tired from wowing like a goldfish.

You could tell immediately that there was something going on in Calvinia because there were people awake on a Friday afternoon. A police combi, emblazoned with the SAPS badge and the words Booze Bus, blocked the main intersection. I was liking Calvinia even more if the cops were selling dop until it dawned on me that this vehicle was for performing blood tests on suspected over-limit drivers. Calvinia came back into focus.

The khaki-clad, side-armed booze-bus driver signalled that we should turn left but, emboldened by my certainty that I was sober, I ignored him and carried on down the main drag, pulling into a petrol station. Thus it was that we had the best possible pump-jockey’s-eye view of the show that followed. This was Calvinia dressed, like the rest of the Karoo, in all its finery.

It started with a classic car or two and it wasn’t until the first float, a low-bed truck with a few strings of tinsel and couple of laaitjies in the uniform of the Primore Skool, that we woke up to the fact that we were witnessing a carnival procession and not just a couple of Ooms coming in from the farm in their jalopies for a brandewyn or two.

It got better. A string of old tractors followed the children, steered with great effort by lined, old men clenching their teeth to stop their cheeks wobbling as they bumbled down Hoop Street. The tractors were spotless, dated back many decades and had obviously been lovingly restored and polished for this annual outing.

Next, centre stage, ahead of the Senior School float, came the Queen of the Vleisfees, MEJ CALVINIA 2006 emblazoned on her blue sash. Perched on the back of a bakkie, she was flanked by her two princesses, one blond like her queen and the other smaller and somewhat darker. (Calvinia is nothing if not politically correct). These girls were keenly accompanied by an escort of about thirty teenage outriders, mounted on quad bikes and delightedly leering at their monarch-for-a-day whilst simultaneously revving their oupas on the tractors.

It lasted all of five minutes, this microcosm of Karoo life. The pump jockeys cheered loudly and suddenly it was over. As we pulled out of town there was a strong smell of burning meat. There was going to be a groot opskop, and that’s for sure.

We hadn’t been able to find anywhere to stay in Calvinia – the town was fully booked as if for Nagmaal, and it’s a long road to Williston at dusk, especially when you’re sober, but the rivers were running and the flowers went on for ever. We could cope.

A colour-blind South African

It’s good to be home. Or is it?

I have always been pleased to return home to South Africa. In fact I have been known, embarrassingly, to kiss the tarmac at Johannesburg International (regardless of the political colour of its eponymous historical leader) on reaching the bottom of the steps from the plane. But after one hundred and ten days on the road, visiting eight Southern and East African nations, driving 26,000 kilometres, this time was different. Coming home was a time for reflection and contrasts, doubt and even despair.

On driving across the border from Namibia, the first South African radio news broadcast I had heard in three months was a depressing reminder of the issues we still have to resolve in this country. After months of newscasts detailing the comparatively parochial issues faced by communities in nearby lands, our own news came across as racially-polarised, self-obsessed, point-scoring and very unsettling.

Tony Yengeni was carried shoulder-high into jail, to serve his sentence for corruption, and backed up by the presence of leading members of government; statistics again revealed the disparity between the standards of living of South Africa’s various ‘population groups’; a black man’s rape of a white woman raised once again the question of whether the case would have been given such a high profile had it involved a black woman; vehicle hijackings were up; the government’s record on AIDS was criticised from Toronto; Jacob Zuma’s latest trial was due to begin and he was being championed from all sides; the Land Claims Court was blaming white farmers for standing in the way of change.

I think I had genuinely lost all racial awareness after so long out of the country but these headlines brought it back to me with a jolt. I had been pre-prepared a few days earlier by an incident in South Luangwa in Zambia when I was accused of racism by a black South African overland-truck mechanic, in asking him to turn his kwaito down in the national park campsite as he was scaring the animals away. “Let the black man play his music; leave me alone and go and look at your bloody birds” was his response. What would a German or a Brit have made of this? He or she would surely have been very puzzled that this was somehow a racial issue?

In East Africa, if you break down (which you do), you wait on the roadside, flag down a vehicle or stop a passing pedestrian and they help you, in our case, to give two examples, three Maasai helped us remove a damaged shock absorber in Tanzania and a Ugandan taxi driver (and his passengers) helped us change a tyre when our wheel spanner broke. In South Africa the best advice is to lock yourself in your car and call the police, or better still, a friend.

In East Africa, if you see a policeman, as with most countries in the world, you assume he is honest and that he is protecting you, preventing crime, would tell you the time if you asked or explain the route to you if you are lost. In South Africa the tendency is to assume that anyone in a policeman’s uniform is corrupt, about to extract a bribe from you and probably behind the latest break-in at your house.

As a result of my new-found relaxed attitude towards my fellow-Africans, I spent a very happy four hours in their company in the queue for a new driver’s license in White River the other day, sharing a joke at the undoubted inefficiencies of the system that led us all to be there for so long. I bought King Pies for my neighbours in the line at lunchtime and gave them a lift to Pick’n Pay at the end of the day. It didn’t seem strange to me and I can’t speak for them but wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were usual, not unusual behaviour?

We South Africans, of all colours if we must stipulate that fact, are perpetuating our own hang-ups by thinking in colour all the time. Them and us. ‘They’ broke into my car last night. ‘You people’ don’t understand. We are haunted by our preconceptions to the point of paranoia.

It is an obsession and we need to shake it off. In all the time that I travelled, in all those kilometres, I had not one item stolen, I was never threatened, no-one (with the exception of the above incident with the South African in Zambia) was rude to me, no-one mentioned bribery to me and no-one mentioned colour. I was South African, so we were all Africans and therefore distant cousins. That was good enough for them and more than good enough for me.

I talked about ‘the man in the purple shirt’, ‘the mechanic’, ‘the owner of the restaurant’, ‘the bus driver’. In South Africa, telling the same stories I would probably have specified that the first and third were black, the second Indian and the last white, because it would somehow have painted a necessary picture for my audience but, in fact, this tells me only about myself and my probable audience.

We expected, somewhat arrogantly I suppose, that the people we met would be slightly impressed that we were South African. Big economy, masses of tourists, Eskom, DStv, Vodacom, good roads etc. It was sobering indeed that the most common reaction was ‘South African? You have a lot of crime there don’t you?’ and, sure enough, within two days of coming home, R500 and a cellphone were stolen from my hotel room in the Karoo and I had to leave the vehicle in Secure Parking for the first time since I left home in case the roof rack was emptied in the street.

Most of our fellow East and Southern Africans have had more than forty years of independence, social revolution and nation-building. They are way ahead of us. (The notable exception is Zimbabwe, which, maybe like South Africa, ploughed ahead with a new dispensation without looking carefully enough at any issues which might arise later). We need to ask ourselves crucial questions and formulate government policy on the basis of the answers.

Do we want white people here or don’t we? Are we serious about reducing crime or aren’t we? Are we going to save the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS or aren’t we? Should we be giving away land to unqualified farmers or should we let market forces decide who farms? Are we going to have provincial government or aren’t we? Do we need to be wary of tribal divisions in the 21st century or should we abolish ten of our official languages? Should we employ on the basis of qualifications or colour?

We have another twenty years of social revolution ahead of us but we could cut that short now by straight-talking and honest action. Then we can look our neighbouring countrymen in the eye and tell them that we, like them, know who we are and where we are going.

Dogs Bite Blacks and The Young are Colour-blind – two South African truisms. Surely we are more intelligent than our dogs and can make a judgement that is not only more than skin-deep but is not based on skin at all? And if the young are colour-blind, let’s remove our ‘old’ struggle-obsessed politicians and let the young run the country before they develop cynical, partisan views.

It is very good to be home, but why can’t I always feel here the way I felt amongst our neighbours? Why won’t my government let me be African? What does colour, be it political or dermatological, have to do with it? Why are we such a sad, self-obsessed bunch? Can we move on please? The rainbow is irrelevant if it draws attention to our colour. Let’s be people.