My story began in 1996 and involves cycling shorts, banana pancakes, a machete, Policemen in Hawaiian Shirts, a lot of mangos and the unconditional generosity of people who have almost nothing.
In 1996 I’d been working and living in London for over 5 years. I worked in a Project helping Drug users and homeless young people. It was interesting, challenging and worthwhile work but I was bored. So I took redundancy of £1000 and went cycling in Africa.
As you do.
My plan was to cycle from Kenya to Cape Town. Cycling is a fantastic way to see a country and get close to the people. The roads may be chronically bad but the richness of the African people and countryside more than made up for any inconvenience.
Setting off from Nairobi I explored the lakes of southern Kenya, saw the snow capped peaks of Kilmanjaro reflected in the mirror of Lake Chala, took a bush safari to see the elephants of Amboseli. My bike and I rode passed zebra, giraffe and buffalo, explored the vibrant chaos of Mombassa and the languid, humid charm of Dar es Salaam. I lost count of the times I would silently ride passed, on my modern bike, a local transporting precarious piles of goods on a single gear jalopy only to hear them struggling to catch up with me. To have a conversation and to wonder as to why someone would cycle for pleasure.
I must have said Jambo (Swahili for hello) thousands of times to people only too glad to see and talk to a stranger in their village. Their curiosity with me was as great as my interest in them.
Formerly known as Nyasaland, the Republic of Malawi, is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. Bordered by Zambia, and Mozambique, the country is defined by the huge Lake Malawi. The third largest in Africa and eighth largest in the world, Lake Malawi is the second deepest lake in Africa. This great lake's tropical waters are reportedly the habitat of more species of fish than those of any other body of freshwater on Earth.
From the moment I crossed the border south of the Tanzanian town of Mbeya I was entranced. Cycling past tea plantations in the hilly north, slowly heading south and lake wards towards Karongo, I soon began to fall for Malawi's easy charm. Malawi is one of the poorest countries on earth but has the friendliest people. People always, always, greet you with a smile and ask only for a conversation and a smile in return. Malawi is justifiably known as The Warm Heart of Africa. You can’t help but be sucked in to the place.
After a few weeks ambling south I eventually rolled down the side of the Great Rift Valley in to Nkhata Bay. For a long time one of the best kept secrets on the African backpackers’ trail, Nkhata Bay has a superbly lush and scenic setting, comprising a pair of bays enclosed by forested hills and separated by a long, narrow peninsula. The small town itself, nestled between the hills and lakeshore, is as charming as it is difficult to label. 413 km from Lilongwe along the lakeshore road it’s an overgrown Tonga fishing village, a venerable district capital, a bustling market port and a laidback lakeside resort; it’s difficult to know which of these labels fits best.
Breakfast was always Banana Pancakes drizzled with honey. I purr with pleasure thinking about them now.
Mr Phillips Amiyoka Chirwa and his large extended family were a pleasure to be around. Mr Phillips was a widely respected elder and a clever, kind and wise man. He, with the help of the other family, somehow produced the best place to stay in the most run down of settings. Lazy days were spent by the lake, picking mangos straight from the tree or simply sitting on the veranda with other travellers or the delightful Chirwa children. Richard, Kennedy, Naruth, Aswell, Manson and the rest were a pleasure to spend time with.
Mangos & Machetes
I rode up the side of the Great Rift valley, towards the Mzuzu/ Lakeshore junction. I felt fit, strong and well rested as I pounded up the long steep hill, passing curious locals standing outside their homes wondering what this crazy Mzungu was doing or giving me a friendly wave.
At the busy junction which is both a Police road block and bus station I went south on the Lakeshore road. I had no particular destination in mind but it was good to be on the road again. I had no idea of what was about to happen and how eventually you'd be reading this.
Once I'd hit the lakeshore road I had it to myself. Occasionally I'd come across someone walking in the road; the lack of cars meant that people use roads like a footpath, like most of Africa. After 10 miles or so I was cycling down a slight slope and entered a big forest plantation.
Three young men were walking ahead of me walking in the middle of the road. As I approached, I prepared to utter the usual Swahili greeting of Jambo when suddenly one guy lunged sideways and pushed me, and my bike, into the drainage ditch alongside the road. They swarmed around and took the bike off me.
I was slightly surprised by this turn of events but got myself together and realised they were struggling to steal the bike as the chain and handlebars were mangled. I innocently walked towards them saying "I'll show you where the money is. It's in the front pannier".
I don't know whether it was the strangeness of this sentence or my confused approach that upset them, but one guy pulled out a panga or machete and started hitting me with it. He used the flat of the blade around my neck and shoulders before I made the wisest decision of my life and ran.
Ran as fast as my little Welsh legs would carry me.
He followed right on my tail but could only land a few more blows before giving up the chase. I ran as far as I could before turning around and watched incredulously as they pushed my bike around the bend out of the forest and left me there.
I was completely alone in the middle of Africa with a pair of trainers, a pair of shorts and a sweaty shirt to my name. Everything I had was on the bike. Money, passport, clothes, water. Everything.
This was before email was available in Africa and telephones were only one or two per town. Neither would have been any help as I was
standing in the middle of a forest all alone.
It took a while before I got myself together but I couldn't just stand in the forest forever. My injuries didn't seem too bad and I hadn't been cut. I had to make a decision which way to go; south into untraveled territory or back towards Nkhata Bay. Back towards the bad guys.........
I decided to go back to where I knew and after waiting a while longer, gingerly started to retrace my route. I cleared the bend without incident and set off back to Nkhata Bay, keeping an eye out for my assailants. The road was empty but after an hour a lone man on a bike came up behind me. I explained my plight and for the first, but not the last time that day, saw the anger and shame in the face of a Malawian on discovering that some of their country men had done this to a guest in their land. The man was called Goodwell Paramor and he was going to a Jehovah's Witness Conference on his bike. Dressed in his best Sunday suit he tried to give me a pillion ride back to Nkhata Bay but we soon realised that, as I was fitter than him, I would ride the bike back to town with him on the back.
We retraced my route back to where I was attacked, occasionally stopping whilst the police talked to people on the road. Back in the forest I explained what had happened but there was nothing to see. The guys were long gone and there was no SOCO or CSI here. Back in the Land Rover I accepted the futility of it all and tried to think of what I had to do next. I had to find somewhere to stay, organise a new passport and get some money from somewhere.
After continuously stopping to talk to locals along the way, the Land Rovers unexpectedly turned left at the junction and headed towards Mzuzu, not back to Nkhata Bay. We were now in an area which was not on my route. After a few miles we headed off road into a thick woodland. The vehicles separated, one vehicle went down a track whilst I was left in one with and armed guard.
We waited. The policeman and I didn't have a common language so we sat there, sharing embarrassed smiles in a silence punctuated by the thud of ripe mangos falling on to the steel Land Rover roof. I remember thinking how bizarre the day had become when suddenly the sound of gunshot rang out from inside the wood. My guard started shouting to his colleagues, then ran off towards the shooting.
Wait a minute!
I needed an armed guard a few minutes ago, but as soon as the shooting started my guard leaves me!
Half an hour later he came back and we drove to a clearing in the woods where we met the other, grinning, policemen standing around a pile of items on the floor. In the back of one of the Land Rovers were two of the young men who had robbed me. Both still in their teens, one was quiet, the other was protesting loudly.
The Policeman in charge asked me to look through the pile of goods on the floor and identify them as mine. I rifled through the stuff but they weren't mine. They were clearly items taken from western travellers but none of it belonged to me. There were trousers, dresses, sandals, watches, rucksacks, novels............but I didn't recognise any of it.
The police were hugely disappointed but then I spotted a tin of powdered milk and some trousers. Strange how you can identify something as mundane as powdered milk as yours, but I'd travelled with it for months. The trousers were far more distinct. They were purple with a strong Paisley pattern in yellow! The kind of trousers now only seen in New Age Festivals or the circus. I know; what was I thinking.
Satisfied with my identification, we all piled back in the vehicles and headed back to where I was attacked. I now had to sit in the front and all the way there I could hear the police trying to silence the louder boy by pummelling his bare feet with the rifle butts against the hard steel of the Land Rover floor. It's not in my nature to condone any kind of violence but I must confess that, at that moment, I didn't care.
The trials of the day were getting to me. I began to feel a little scared. Travelling on a bike gives you ultimate control and the freedom to decide what to do and when to do it. Today everything was in the hands of others. Also, despite the amazing efforts of the police I know had the clothes I stood up in, a tin of dried milk and a pair of very unfortunate trousers.
We stopped about a hundred yards from the edge of the plantation and the two captives were marched into the woods. More waiting around and awkward exchange of smiles with my, now grinning, guard until a line of laughing policemen came out of the forest; carrying my panniers and, brining up the rear, a police man, dressed like an extra in Hawaii Five O, riding my bike! The police were laughing at his attempt to cycle with a buckled front wheel, warped handlebars, in completely the wrong gear. His legs pumped furiously but you could have crawled faster. What a beautiful sight.
A quick search showed that my money and some other stuff was missing, probably taken by the guy with the machete, but I'd gotten most of my belongings back. It seemed miraculous how the police could have tracked the culprits to a different part of the region and get my stuff back.
The Sargent then explained that every time they stopped to talk to people, they were told a little more information. Everyone wanted these guys caught and were only too happy to help. There had been a series of violent attacks on tourists and locals in the last few months and the gang leader was said to carry a gun. Information was passed on by anyone who had it. He said that within a few hours everyone had heard of the assault and were upset by what had happened to me.
I thought this was charming but far fetched. Until we set off back to the Police Station.
My bike had to be put on the roof rack as there was no room in the vehicle itself. We now had two more passengers than when we started. As we drove back to Nkhata Bay the cheering started. All the way down the long hill, outside almost every home, men, women and kids rushed to the side of the road and started cheering. The same people who had stared or waved at me early that morning, as I climbed up the hill, came out of their house and started applauding and ululating in celebration. They could see my bike on the top of the Land Rover and knew that the attackers had been caught.
They seemed to be singing and cheering for me.
back to the heart
My joy turned out to be short lived. At the Police Station it was explained that my bike and all my property was evidence and I couldn't have it back! I had to wait for the circuit judge to come to Nkhata Bay for the Court Sessions. The Police would keep it until the Trial and then it would be returned to me.
I was still in the same situation I was earlier that day. Nowhere to stay, no passport or money, alone in a foreign country. The only thing I could think of to do was to walk back to the Heart Motel and ask for their help. However Mr Phillips had already heard about my plight and took me in, no questions asked. I didn't even have to ask.
He had very little in the world but he shared it with me. At that moment, I was bruised, hurt and scared. It felt like I had nothing in the world.
Apart from this one friend.
I was fed and given the room I'd vacated earlier that day. Never have I been so pleased to lie down in an uncomfortable bed. As I lay there and recalled the events of the day, I felt safe again.
I spent another the 6 weeks at the Heart Motel waiting for the Court case and really got to know the Chirwa family, Kakumbi village and Nkhata Bay. I was there so long I became known as Mr Chris. Little incidents are ingrained in my memory; Kennedy Chirwa with his captivating smile and happy nature, drawing postcards for tourists to pay for his, and his brother's education; the feeling of desperate helplessness when a mother raised her new born child to me and said "Malaria. Malaria", and I was unable to give her my anti malaria tablets or do anything to help her; being taken to a local dance competition as one of the guests of honour, next to the MP; giving a couple of biscuits to some children I passed whilst walking to lake to read my book and a few hours later, the same children appearing at my reading spot, just to give me two mangos in return; a child born whilst I was in Kakumbi being given the name Christina.
The idyllic physical setting I described earlier masks an unremitting poverty faced by the people, every day. Yet these warm hearted people showed me nothing but kindness as I recuperated. As other travellers came and went I stayed and got to know Mr Phillips especially well. He and his family were hard working, productive and always wanted to better themselves. We would spend ages talking about his life and mine. I visited the ancestral village to the south and got to know more about Malawian life. He was a clever, wise and hard working. A good man who had earned the respect everyone showed him. He had chosen not to become a village Chief, yet still people came to him for help and advice. I almost gasped aloud when one day, HE asked ME for my advice on a problem he faced in the village. I felt completely unqualified to give any opinion, yet he wanted to know.
I really liked and respected this man.
My physical bruises healed but for a long while I could see that machete coming down towards me, just before I turned my back on it. I often wondered what might have been if my assailant had not used the flat of the blade. Had twisted his hand slightly. I've met other travellers who've been robbed and developed a suspicious nature; their default position is that everyone is out to get them. That cynicism doesn't sit well whilst travelling or in everyday life. I had to work on not letting this incident stop my travels or hold me back in any way. It would be understandable if this incident had left its scars on me personally and damaged my belief in the inherent goodness of people.
Yet it hasn't. I was re-invigorated by my experience at the Heart Motel. I still have hope in the future. For that I am forever grateful to Mr Phillips Amyioka Chirwa and his family.
I've recently found out that Amiyoka is a given name meaning Tower of Support.
I eventually left Nkhata Bay and continued my journey, ending up on the Cape of Good Hope at the end of Africa 6 months later. I had many other adventures after Nkhata Bay; white water rafting down the Zambezi; peering over the edge of Victoria Falls, staying in a township in South Africa and sitting on Table Mountain looking out at Robben Island. I met hundreds of fascinating characters on my travels and wonderfully, the last person I said hello to, other than the people on the same flight home from Johannesburg Airport, was Nelson Mandela himself!
Yet, it is the memory of Mr Phillips Amiyoka Chirwa and his family that has stayed with me. Over the years I often did nostalgic internet searches for the Heart Motel or Heart Motel Nkhata Bay or Phillips Chirwa but nothing ever came of it. I wondered what happened them and whether they remember me. This dramatic incident in my life could be nothing in the memory of families trying to scratch a living in Africa. After sixteen years I questioned whether I'd confused dates and places or whether it was as dramatic as I recall.
Then in the summer of 2012 I decided to type in Kennedy Heart Motel into Google. Zion Kennedy Phillips Chirwa connected with Growing Voices, an American Charity trying to help in Nkhata Bay! I asked Mel at Growing Voices to forward an email in which I explained who I was and asking if anyone remembered me. She also informed me that Mr Phillips had sadly passed away in 2006.
I waited what seemed like forever but finally got a reply. I was in my car in the carpark of Brecon Tourist Information when an email came through. The family did remember me and were astonished to find out I remembered them. Kennedy, the happy kid who served me banana pancakes and drew postcards, had become the astonishing young man who inspired HOPEmalawi.