In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle

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Stage 4: Part II - Nymibe to Lilongwe - "Taking Blackson Home", 430kms, 5 days.

I had arrived in Lusaka without any stokers lined up to cycle into Malawi. 8 days & nearly 800kms later, another 6 people had helped me and Thandie get to the border and into the 'warm heart of Africa'. In particular Blackson Banda, the cook from Janna School in Ndola who would be hitching a lift back to his home village on the border, his first visit in 13 years. Given the recent death of his sister, it was an especially emotional return for him...


Blackson. 3000kms into the trip

Given the physical strain of the previous two days and with Blackson only arriving in Nyimbe on a mid-morning bus, we decided to cut down on the kilometres on day 4. After Luckson's departure, We enjoyed a slow morning packing up the campsite and I cycled to the bus station to wait for Blackson whilst Nicki & Rich sourced food and water. Blackson had run out of talktime the previous day so I was hoping rather than expecting him to emerge from the Lusaka bus. Africa time, I reminded myself, as I waited patiently at the bus stop, trying to understand why there were 17 idenitcal fruit stalls in the station, all selling the same bananas. An investigation for the economic cycle, perhaps.

He didn't materialise from the steady stream of bodies emerging from the first bus but I was delighted when I spotted him coming off the second one, only 1/2 hour behind his estimated time. He had been up since 4am to get this bus and was probably going to be tired. I'm not sure I've ever seen him without a smile on his face, however, and it was his beaming grin that greeted me as he bounded off the bus. We strolled into the centre of town to find the others. I explained the plan for the day and gave him my spare t-shirt and shorts. After the inevitable faff associated with a new team member, we continued our journey. I had really enjoyed the brief solo ride earlier that day and struggled to find the enthusiasm needed to introduce a new cyclist to the bike. But I knew it was going to be more of a challenge for Blackson.

I had first met Blackson when I visited Janna school, Beyond Ourselves' first project, in the summer of 2010 with Richard & Tamsin Humes. He helps run the kitchen, mixing the Nsihma daily that is used as the main source of carbohydrate for the feeding programme. He had lost his wife a few years ago and had been bringing up 3 boys on his own, somehow managing on a monthly income of 450,000 kwacha (=100USD) per month.  He had remarried in April this year and I was delighted to meet his new wife, when we visited Janna at the start of September. I was saddened, however, to hear of his younger sister's death at the tender age of 34, the same age as my own sister. Blackson told me Cecilia had died of asthma, leaving 4 orphans to be looked after by an already stretched family in his home village in the Eastern Province. He hadn't been able to travel to the funeral, a return journey equating to a month's salary. Given that I was going to be cycling past, I had suggested he get a lift with me. Communicating the logistics with him hadn't been straightforward so it was great to finally have him on board.

The 60 kms to Chimwemewe Lodge in Petaki passed by quickly, as Blackson and I caught up on each other's news. WIthout the same education and worldliness as Luckson, conversation was more challenging but the kilometres passed by quickly as Blackson explained enthustiastically of his plans to bring Catherine, his youngest niece back to Janna School. He was already expecting a new child of his own on the way in December. 5 kids to feed on 100 dollars a month would be a challenge but is of course not unsual in this region.

the three bikes                                                                  A typical roadside stall - 35 different traders on a busy day.

We were greeted by an army of excited and armed policemen alongside some smartly dressed plainclothed officials at Chimwemwe. THe president's circus was having lunch and a rest at the lodge. A good photo opporutunity for Beyond the Bike, I thought to myself. Sadly, his head of security didn't buy my argument that it would be a great marketing opporutnity for Mr Banda. The observation that my bike shared the same name as the Preisident's wife didn't help swing him. We took advantage of the strong sun to wash some clothes and enjoyed a cold beer before setting up camp. The others disappeared into town to buy supplies and I called Jenks on the sat phone to find out how the Cranleigh presentation had gone. Students from the building project were delivering a presentation to the whole school and it was thus a massive opporutnity to get the Cranleigh community fully behind the project. He was very positive and it sounded like the video  had also gone down well. An email later in the week from deputy head Tim McConnell Wood saying that the video had really moved him and that his family would be sponsoring a child gave me a real lift. The project really couldn't have got off to a better start!

We dinned that night at the lodge which proved a mistake, waiting for over an hour for our meal to arrive. The excitement of having the president to stay had clearly taken it's toll on the staff. Africa time is all very well but not when you are paying tourist prices!

The next two days would take us some 170km to Blackson's home village. We rotated on the bikes during the two days, with Rich and Nicki piloting the tandem to give me a break. They were also both riding thorns (above) and Rich's in particular was a delight to ride. Being able to freewheel & stop when and whereever I wanted without having to warn a stoker gave me a real sense of freedom. Whilst I was happy with the deicision to do it on a tandem, it would have been a lot easier on a single bike. Where is the USP in that, the business studies teacher in me thought. We overnighted en route to the village at Tikondani Community Centre, run by a German-Austrialian lady with what seemed to be a sensible apporach to community development: the centre was run by locals who had a share in the profits.

We got on the road in reasonable time the next morning and made solid progress to the final settlement before the turn off to Chipalamba, Blackson's village. He hadn't been back for 13 years so understandably couldn't remember where it was. He asked several people, all with different answers to our question of 'how far'. None of them in kilometres rather 'not far' or times ranging from 5 to 50 minutes. We assumed the worse and 10km later found what seemed to be the right turning. A good main road, Blackson had promised us (below). After 90 minutes of cycling, pushing and carrying the bike, we met his cousin Alan who had come to meet us. We had only ventured some 10km off the main road but it felt significantly more like 'Africa' with the sight of 'mzungus' on bicylces engendering more bewilderment than usual. Blackson and Alan hugged warmly and we continued towards his village. "Do you know where we are now, Blackson?", I asked. "Yes", came the reply as he excitely described some of the farming methods and cultures of the commnuntity. "How far?", I asked feeling this was now a legitimate question. "Not far", came the stock reply. I bite my tongue and enjoyed the moment. After 3 further false alarms, we eventually turned into his village and I sense a combination of excitement and anxiety from the back of the bike. "We have arrived", I declared, offering my hand around the back of the bike. He grasped it strongly and we shared a quiet but happy moment knowing the physical challenge was over but a different one was about to start, especially for him.

The road to Blackson's village...   Blackson, reunited with his family

We passed a gathering of excited women who were preparing for a wedding the following day, enjoying their own version of the British hen party. Little did I know that our sleeping quarters would be invaded by that same party in the early hours of the following morning. The village was a mixture of bricks and mud structures polluted by copious amounts of litter and debris mixed in with the dust by the swirling wind. This was roughly what I had expected. The romantic images that I had grown up with of peaceful and clean mudhuts, with healthy animals freely ranging nearby pastures  had been shattered on my first visit to the continent as a fresh faced 18 year old in 1997.

We circled into Blackson's uncle's house to be greeted by a gathering of excited women and children. Blackson has explained to me the day before that it was custom for the women of the village who were friends of the family to greet him and then help him to mourn his loss. Given the physical strain of 3 days of cycling, it didn't take much for Blackson to breakdown. We retreated to give him space with his family.

After the initial commotion of 3 msungus in the villages on brightly coloured bicylces, we enjoyed the last couple of hours of daylight, mixing with the children and adults alike. Blackson's eldest niece, 17 year old Irene, told me of her ambitions to become an accountant, whilst Blackson met Catherine, his 5 year old niece who he would be taking home with him and hopefully get a place at Janna school, thanks to the the Beyond Ourselves child sponsorship programme. . We were also introduced to the village chief - a tired looking old man in a tatty suit with a large sore on his hand that hindered our handshake. His warm toothless smile suggested a warm heart and he welcomed up into his village. We prepared food whilst Blackson's eldest sister Christine prepared him for the visit to the burial site the following morning. We crashed early that night, with the family insisting on us sleeping inside, shielded from the mud floor but a reed mat and our own thermarests.

We were awoken at 4.30 but the above mentioned wedding party. It was custom for a new bridal party to circulate around the village seeking gifts for the soon to be married couple. Struggling to get back to sleep, I got up early to enjoy the start of the day, joined shortly afterwards by Blackson's cousin who prepared us a delicious breakfast of groundnut porridge.

Paying respects to Cecilia, Blackson's sister                  A Banda rally greeted us at the main road

We had been invited to be part of the procession to the burial site. After leaving gifts of t-shirts (if you see someone in the Eastern Province in a London 2012 BA shirt, you know where it comes from), we joined all the adults from the extended family for the one kilometre walk to the site. It was a moving experience watching Blackson pay his respects and show considerable exposure in addressing the small audience.

Alan joined me on the back on the bike to show us the way back to the tar road and the 2Okm into Chipata, the major town of this region before the border. Another Banda rally was gathering force, clearly better funded that his main rival Michael Sata. Rumour was that the chinese were helping to fund his campaign. Their involvement in Sub-saharan africa had been very apparent on our journey so far. How beneficial this has been for the local economy has been subject to much debate and is the subject of my latest 'economic cycle' blog.

Despite the first accident of the trip as Nicki lost her front wheel on the curb and fell in front on me forcing a slow speed collision (photo), we enjoyed a smooth ride to Chipata, and onwards to the border. Much of the day's ride was spent reflecting on what had been a very interesting & moving experience and a chance to see the real africa.

Just a graze                                         With Pastor Alliel & his family


We passed through the border without any hitches, picking up some Malawian Kwacha at what proved (photo) to be a very favorable rate relative to the official exchange, and covered as much distance as possible to shorten the final day to Lilongwe. With the light fading, we pulled into a church off the road, hoping to find a peaceful place to camp. After 5 minutes, around 50 kids had found us. We sought out the pastor's house and, after hearing our story, he kindly invited us in to stay with him - the kindness of strangers amazing us once again.  Pastor Alliel and his wife Martha were our first experience of the hosptiality common in this peaceful, albeit desperately poor country. I look forward to spending the next month or so exploring it!

if you'd like to sponsor a child to go to school like Blackson's niece Katherine, you can do so at




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