Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Benevolent Stranger

23 Jan 2014. Location: Limbe, a suburb of Blantyre City (Malawi). For close to 5 Months, I lived in this part of town that does not look remote at a glance, though it does appear old-school in a number of aspects. Limbe literally shuts down by 6pm. There’s a few taxis still plying their trade, but they hardly stop by. It’s like a transit route to other destinations.

The shops, too. They are all closed by 5pm, save for a couple of supermarkets. Peoples, a popular chain of stores, is the lone open supermarket on an approximate 800 meter stretch beyond 6pm. Churchill Road is the name of the street, I was told. Peoples opens till 10pm. The other is an Indian-owned supermarket by the roadside whose name skips my memory.

It gets worse on weekends, especially Sundays. One would imagine residents have been sent on a state-funded vacation, or they are all nursing dreary hangovers from the previous day's excursions. No stray animals –dogs, cats, or owls roam the streets. I guess they dread the lone nights out there as well. Limbe appears quiet and serene in the evenings. This, of-course, may not be the case if you forgot one of those must-have necessities, and you have to take that chilling walk to Peoples. It's the quieter side of the township.

Only then will you hear strange sounds from all angles. Whistles. Cackles. Coos. Phantom sounds. Once in a while, you will see a few idle-looking blokes slouched on patios of closed stores. Some look like hired rag-tag security detail for the store owners, while others could pass for seasoned street burglars.

Talking food, the menu on all restaurants reads like a presidential decree. Very monotonous. It’s either beef or Chicken. Broiler chicken. Healthy-looking broilers, fed on ARVs and dripping with viscous fat. If you are lucky to find an alternative, it will be goat, local chicken or fish. Even with all the water bodies around, fish is still treated as a rare delicacy. It’s pricey. I guess it’s the reason it does not feature on many eateries’ menu. Very few locals can afford it.

Beef is served in all sorts of sizes and ways; T-bone steak, Roasted Beef, Beef Stew or any other name deemed fancy. I once had lunch at a restaurant called Oasis. The beef on their menu has a special name: Oasis T-bone Steak. Different names, same Taste. All in the name of making the menu look rich, I suppose. The last time I was in this part of the world, I returned home 15Kgs heavier.

I had to take some caution, lest I ended up with the look of a Booze-war General. There was one small problem. The township has only one good gym, I was told. It closes quite early. So, I elected to do a little exercise of my own. My office was about 2 kilometers away from the hotel. I thought it would be a good piece of exercise if I decided to walk the distance to and from office, every day. It was one of the ways I would keep my weight in check. 

Booze-War General.
It was on one of these routine evening strolls from office when I saw a gray speeding Nissan X-Trail suddenly slow down, before stopping a few meters ahead of me. Behind the wheels sat a frail-looking gray haired fellow of apparent Indian extraction, donning a golden tunic. He signaled to me, as if to inquire something. I pulled over, stopping by the co-driver’s side.

"Hi. My apologies. I guess I mistook you for someone else", he said.
"OK… And who could that be?" I asked.
"My son. He was in town, so I figured he had decided to walk home", he replied.

I was puzzled. He, with his skin colour, had sired a son so dark that his complexion was comparable to mine? I let it pass. But he would not let me go.

Stranger: "Where are you going?"
Me: "To my hotel."
Stranger: "What’s the name of the hotel?"
Me: "Bluebird."

"Oh, OK. So you are new in this place, aren’t you?" I answered in the affirmative. He asked where I came from, to which I told him Uganda. He said his name was Noor. He’d grown up in Tanzania, and he spoke fluent Swahili. We exchanged proper pleasantries in Swahili before switching back to English. What, then, was he doing in Malawi? Noor said he was there for business.

Things had been good, so he decided to move his whole family to Malawi. They stayed in Mpingwe, a few kilometers from Limbe. My hotel was on the way to his home, a few meters off the junction that leads to Mpingwe. He offered to drop me.

It was one of those chilly evenings when the heavens threaten to open up unannounced. The offer sounded rather innocuous. A genuine, friendly gesture. Noor unlocked the doors, and I made myself comfortable in the co-driver’s seat.

We arrived at my hotel in a few minutes, shortly after which we exchanged contacts. I had got myself a new friend, or so I thought. Noor asked if he could check out the hotel rooms. I saw no issue taking him to mine. I had been asked the same question, a few times by friends and peers for potential reference to colleagues on working visits and all. I agreed to have him take a peek at my hotel room.

Noor’s visit would turn out to be more than just a brief peek at my room. Once I had the door open, he made his way to the middle of the room, somewhere in between the wardrobe and the bed, before suddenly stopping in his tracks. "Oh, by the way. You haven’t formally welcomed me to your room", said he, making a turn to look in my eyes.

I should have sensed something was amiss. Somehow, I didn’t. Noor flung his rickety hands towards me in an attempt to initiate a hug. It all still looked a familiar gesture.

So, we hugged.

I could almost count the number of vertebrae (chest bones) in the few seconds he held me. He was that skinny. And wobbly. One strong slap would easily send him sprawling to the floor, I thought to myself. Noor made his way to the bed, before asking me to join him.

It now dawned on me. I was in peculiar company. I didn’t react immediately, but rather gave him a blank stare. Like I was staring into an abyss. I stayed glued to my seat for a couple of seconds, before asking him what he was up to.

"You got a really hot body", he went on.

He must have believed he had finally snared his prey. He probably imagined he was at that point where a woman you have been chasing still says no, but increasingly shows signs of Stockholm syndrome.  

Deep inside, I believed there was something else giving him the confidence, and the guts to pitch such silly ideas. He might have had a gun (I have heard of cases where people have been raped on gun-point), or he could have been high on drugs.

Could I have looked easy prey for him? He certainly couldn’t have mistaken my broad chest for boobs. My chin bore noticeable stubble. I certainly didn’t look female.

At this point, I feigned a phone call and signaled to him I needed to meet somebody downstairs. As one would imagine, the "call" ended as soon as were out of the room. Noor wasn’t giving up without a fight. He asked what my program for the weekend was. I told him I was busy, and wouldn't fancy any business to conduct with him.

One of the advantages of working in telecoms is that it’s easy to trace a mobile user’s details, as long as you have their number. So I decided to dig-out more about Noor. A quick search on my database returned the few details I needed at that point.

Noordin Ahremani was his full name, a 41 year old raging gay (the database didn’t have that, of course) born in Mumbai, in 1973. At 41, he had the hunch and gait of an octogenarian. I guess he will be moving on all fours by the time he turns 60. Like a cow. Or a camel. He'll probably be in a wheel chair.

Now, I needed to stay out of Noor's reach. I needed to block his number from calling me, which I did successfully, after a number of rounds on the internet and successful installation of some call-blocker application on my phone. Two futile call attempts the following Saturday had him finally give up, for he never tried calling again.

- Dan B. Atuhaire