I met Kondwani when I was staying in a village near Mangochi. He worked as a gardener for a resort not far away so his English was quite good and his income much better than his neighbours. His son was the only child in the school who had shoes. One day he saw me taking pictures of an immense baobab and told me this story:
“African legend says that God got so angry with the baobab for letting humans drink the fermented juice of his fruit, that he pulled him out of the ground and planted him back upside down, and then he sent the elephants to chew his bark so that he would never forget his sin. Since then, the baobab spreads his branches like roots under the soil”.
In Ireland, where the bankers, politicians, developers, and financial speculators who have ruin the country go not just unpunished but are rewarded with public money, a 65 year old pensioner is sent to Jail for refusing to allow the energy supply company ESB to destroy the natural environment and the native trees that she has managed on her property for many years.
Ligwangwa Njobvu village, Liwonde.
Chimwala shows me the interior of her house. Inside a cane fence, there are four small constructions built with bamboo and a framework of rods and twigs packed with clay. One is for storing dry wood. Another is where they keep their two goats. There is also a “kitchen”; a round space with a fire in the middle, two pots and a shelter to keep the fire lit in rainy weather and to store the beans where the smoke keeps the bugs away. The last building, slightly bigger with a thatched roof, is the sleeping area. She invites me in to have a look. There’s not much to see. A tiny and gloomy room no more than 3 metres long, with a small flash light connected to some rusty batteries, a calendar from a few years ago hung on the mud wall, and a straw mat with some blankets on the floor. I ask how many people sleep there. She answers that her five kids and her, and then says “my husband sleeps outside, in the garden” I get a bit surprised and dare to ask “did you have a fight or something?” “No” she says laughing, “It’s because of the elephants. They come at night and eat all our vegetables. My husband sleeps there and if they come near, he tries to scare them by shouting and making noises with a tin bucket”
Since farming started in Africa, humans and elephants have been in direct competition; both needing fertile land and plenty of fresh water. The balance didn’t start to drastically tilt until well into the 20th century with the massive introduction of the rifle in Africa. Elephants are nowadays protected, but even if they could shoot them, Chimwala’s family, like most of the population of Malawi, are subsistence farmers, depending entirely on what they produce to survive and too poor to buy any commodity, let alone a rifle. So at the end of the dry season, when hunger drives elephants to villages, Chimwala’s husband has to face the biggest animal that walks on the earth armed just with a stick and a bucket.
Dublin, Henry Street. The little girl skips and jumps through the street, full of joy, dancing under the Christmas lights. Her parents follow behind carrying shopping bags of all sizes. She’s eating strawberry bootlaces and singing Christmas songs. Maybe she’ll be seeing Santa in one of the shopping malls this evening, maybe she’ll give him a letter with all the presents she’s expecting, or perhaps she’ll whisper them to the old man’s ear. It’s without any doubt the best time of the year. It’s Christmas, it’s the time for family, presents, happiness, lights, joy and candies. The little girl walks towards one of the big window displays full of teddies and cotton snow. The cuddly toys are so fluffy and pretty that she doesn’t have eyes for anything else. She gets so close to the glass that her warm breath makes a tiny circle of steam. Suddenly something moves right beside her. It´s a big, dark, staggering shape that bends down. The little girl turns her head but everything happens so fast. The first thing she recognises is Santa’s hat. Then she hears the retch, the sound of the lumpy liquid falling on the ground, the splash on her little shoes, the disgusting sour smell of the vomit. The face under Santa’s hat rises and looks at her little eyes. The dirty white pompom hangs to one side of his dripping face. His features are deformed by the excess of alcohol, his eyes try to focus. Opening his fetid mouth slowly and, gargling, the drunken Santa greets the shocked little girl.
The little girl burst into tears. Her father appears quickly and the circus starts. Shouts, pushing and threats. Ironically, the aggressive way he tries to protect his daughter just scares her even more and her whimpering turns to loud crying. A big crowd gathers, two security guards approach. The show keeps going on, but I had had enough and walked away. On my way I wondered if this stupid incident would in some way shape the character of the impressionable girl. Maybe Charles Manson also got his little shoes puked when he was a kid… Who knows…
Thursday evening. Bored, I push the shopping trolley through the aisles of the Tesco’s hidden in the Jervis centre’s arse. I keep walking around putting Tesco’s “value” products in the trolley because all the counters have long queues. I hope to find one half empty but it seems impossible; the queues grow like fungus in public showers. I choose the one that I think will be quicker, but once there I realize all the other queues are advancing substantially more.
I grow impatient. The cashier is a Polish girl. She has the same face my auntie used to have after being constipated for two weeks: a mixture between mute grief and existential emptiness. She scans the products slowly, looking at them like cows watch passing clouds. I would feel sorry for her if she’d be a little bit faster but I’m tired and I want to go home.
I still have five people in front of me. Two full trolleys, and three shopping baskets. Everyone is looking at their feet with the same bored face. Dressed in Sunday clothes, we could be at mass. I’m getting a little bit nervous. The guy in the head of the queue has been watching the cashier slowly scanning all his products without moving a muscle. After paying he asks for bags. He has to pay again, and we watch how he and the cashier put all the shopping in the bags. There’s nothing else in the world I would like to be doing right now. I look around; the other queues seem to advance even faster, lubricated with “finest” melted butter. I can’t help thinking how different the divine comedy would be if the Italians had had shopping centres in the Renaissance. I’m sure Dante would have placed a huge Tesco in the seventh circle of hell with a never-ending queue… maybe a Lidl.
While I still have one trolley and three baskets in front of me, the mesmerized cashier is trying to scan one rebel product without any success. Not even the trick of introducing the code by hand works. The system failed, and the anarchist packet of cookies has won. Now she looks around, someone has to go and change it before revolution starts. We keep waiting. I’m getting a foul feeling growing in my guts. I know this line is cursed. I’m sure the next thing will be changing the roll of paper in the cash machine. In my desperation, I look around. The sterile lights of the building mould the shapes in a sordid way. They make the meaninglessness of existence something tangible. It’s like living a “Tesco value” life. I’m sure Kafka would love to shop here. Suddenly I start to feel anxious. I need to get out of here, I need fresh air.
I look at the queue on my right. There’s a substantial amount of people waiting there but at least they’re advancing. Before I change positions I better check how many people are now behind me just in case once I’m in the other queue, this one gets quicker and I have to return in order to get the fuck out of here as soon as possible. Then I turn back and I see her. An old lady, with big seventies square glasses. Grey hair, big fallen ears and a pair of tired blue eyes. Her hands are shaking. She’s holding an almost empty shopping basket. Inside, just two bottles of cheap gin. I’m not the only one having a bad day. Suddenly that stupid feeling of measuring yourself against something worse triggers a balm of relief and calms me down. Life is beautiful, we just need enough misery around to remind us of it.
I was sitting in the Smithfield Luas stop and it was very difficult not to notice him. He was an old man, with long silver hair and long white beard. His face was carved with the passage of time and his eyes contained that hollow sight found frequently in mystics, castaways and the demented.
He was seated on the Luas bench but soon stood up and walked a couple of meters to grab a roach that was lying in the pavement. Instead of smoking the rest of the tobacco as I was expecting, he slowly walked to the bin and delicately let the roach fall into its morally acceptable place. Then he went back to sit down on the bench. A few seconds later, he spotted a little bit of plastic slowly carried by the wind. He went, picked it up, placed it into the bin and returned to the bench again. Once seated, he let his eyes drop to the pavement only to find another small piece of rubbish. So he returned to bend his back, grab it and bin it. And he kept doing that operation over and over, one piece of rubbish at a time. It looked more like a ritual than a simple clean up act. I was amazed with that mans’ determination, and the fact that he conceived his binning as a single mission involving a single piece of litter, forgetting all the others in his ritual journeys from bench to bin and condemned to repeat it over and over again. There was something honourable and tragic in it. It reminded me of the myth of Sisyphus, cursed to roll a big rock up to a mountain only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity.
The Luas came and I jumped aboard. Though the window I could see him a few moments more, cleaning up the now empty Luas stop.
The second time I saw him was in the same place. It was one of those extremely windy days. As I arrived at the Smithfield stop I saw him grabbing something from the floor, walking to the bin and returning to the bench. Slowly cleaning the place bit by bit. On one occasion, someone arrived and sat down at his starting point, leaving no free place on the Luas bench, so his cycle got broken. He became doubtful for a moment as if he had awakened from a trance, but finally he went and sat on a doorstep nearby. I was looking at him, expectant, waiting for the beginning of his cleaning ritual around his new area. But this time he didn’t look for litter. The violent wind slapped us from time to time with autumnal anger. His long hair waved in front of his eyes. He put one hand on his pocket and took a comb out. Slowly, he started to comb down his silver hair immersing himself in another vicious circle. Soon the wind turned, messing up his hair again, and he, with the same serenity as the priest lifting the blessed host, took the comb and drove it down. Over and over again.
I wondered if I was in front of a lunatic or a genius. If his mind was accidentally falling into vicious circles or if his consciousness had reached a superior state of mind that confronts every little detail of this world with total resolution and immense patience.