“Lilongwe is a fever dream this time of year.” I text my friend back home.
I’ve only had two light beers at an outdoor bar tucked into a shopping complex, one of the three places my date and I could think of that would be open after 7 pm. Two beers, but already I’m feeling poetic, amazed, entranced and terrified by the world around me. I want to jot it all down. I want to ditch my date so I can write.
In this moment before the rains, the city is pregnant with anticipation. Small, sporadic rain showers mixed with humidity have caused the the mammoth jacaranda trees to burst forth with bright red flowers. Dusty blank hillsides are transformed overnight into grassy fields. I awake to find that my nasturtium seedlings are now adolescents, pressing their green flat faces to the kitchen glass pane, hungry for light. How was all of this energy hiding before now? I wonder. How can the city look so desolate one day and like the Garden of Eden the next?
With the explosion of plant life comes the bugs. I left my porch light on last night and came home to find hundreds of termites and mosquitoes swarmed on my door, a maelstrom of tiny wings and needle-thin legs. I have a bottle of natural no DEET bug spray in my purse. It is useless. The insects are apathetic to the spray, continuing their lives around my door frame without a glance. My foster cat earns her keep by killing cockroaches that she proudly deposits at my feet. We make a good team. She kills the bugs and I let her stay in the air conditioning.
The power cuts continue to challenge the city. In some areas, the energy is now rationed even further: 48 hours off, 8 hours on. Food rots in fridges. Phones croak and die. Hospitals rely on power inverters and old backup generators.
People are exhausted from the sporadic, unreliable system. My French tutor, who is from the south of Malawi, said to me, “Everything about this country is getting worse. Ten years ago we didn’t have these problems. Ten years ago we had a much higher standard of living. Thirty years ago was even better. Sure, we didn’t have democracy, but we had basic services, a surplus of food, and education.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard before: What is the point of democracy in Africa if it means people starve?
In Johannesburg last week, my two colleagues and I stepped off a plane into O.R. Tambo International Airport. The airport is a behemoth: all white, multi-floored, hundreds of white lights sparkling from the railings. I was a little overcome at first.
“So much light,” I said. I stood still in the center of it, squinting up at the ceiling of fluorescent bulbs. “So much light.” My Malawian colleague was unimpressed. “It’s too much.” She said, grabbing her rolling suitcase and heading toward the exit. “Unnecessary.”