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The Rollerblade King of Mzuzu

During my African journey back in 2005, an excursion to find the nearest cash machine led to an interesting encounter on the streets of a Malawian town…

Staying at the Mayoka Village backpacker lodge at Nkhata Bay overlooking Lake Malawi was a fun and relaxing experience during my African odyssey. The place was very laid-back, the food good and the staff and villagers were friendly; one of the local chiefs even had a stall by the bar where he sold sweets in the evening. I spent my days wandering around the town and snorkelling in the lake while I waited for the weekly Lake Malawi ferry that would take me further south. However, after a couple of days I realised (not that this was too difficult to work out) that Nkhata Bay possessed virtually nothing by way of money-changing facilities or cash machines – there wasn’t even a bank where I could change my travellers’ cheques. 

The nearest place with a bank was the city of Mzuzu, the regional capital which was 30 miles away. I’d passed through there on my way to Nkhata Bay and hadn’t thought to get some cash from an ATM while waiting for the minibus to leave (naively, I’d assumed there’d be one in Nkhata Bay), and being short of ready cash I decided that my only option was to retrace my footsteps, head back to Mzuzu and find a bank. Not feeling much like doing this on my own if I could help it, and suspecting that I wasn’t the only backpacker at Mayoka Village in this situation, I happened to mention this to some of the others, and as a result I found myself accompanied for this day-trip by Peter, a South African who was also staying in the main dorm. I’d have preferred one of the girls, but there you go.

Once we’d got as far as what passed for the High Street in Nkhata Bay, we found a pick-up truck heading ‘our’ way. If nothing else, we reckoned that the fresh air would do us some good (we were both rather hungover that morning). It took the truck half an hour to fill up enough for the driver to decide that it was worth going – but only as far as the first police checkpoint on the road out of town, where he stopped to pick up even more passengers and some livestock. When we eventually set off from the checkpoint, the rather motley (human) cargo included a priest and five of his female ‘followers’, carrying among other things a large wooden collection-box which they thankfully didn’t pass around, and several mothers with young children. One of these was sitting directly in my line of vision, which meant that when the inevitable breast-feeding routine started I had an unobstructed view of what is a common sight on African public transport.

Thanks to numerous stops, it took over two hours for us to cover around 30 miles. There is nothing unusual in this as far as Africa is concerned, and as far as major African towns go there is nothing remarkable about Mzuzu. In fact, this excursion of ours would not have warranted a mention at all were it not for what happened next.

The minute we disembarked in Mzuzu, one of the street-traders approached us with, of all things, a pair of rollerblades. New-looking rollerblades. This did not interest me in the slightest – it’s not my sort of thing, they looked far too heavy for my backpack and in any case all I wanted to do was find the banks and maybe find an Internet café so that I could check my e-mails for the first time since Zanzibar. I made to move off, but I had reckoned without Peter.

'Mate, have you got a thousand kwacha you could lend me?’ In less than a minute, he had commenced negotiations for the rollerblades, knocked the asking price down to 2,000 kwacha and then realised that he didn’t have that sort of money on him. Luckily for him I was able to make up the difference with what money I had left – well, we were there to get some money, so it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t soon be in a position to pay me back.  On the way to the banks, Peter explained that these rollerblades were more or less brand-new, and back in South Africa he’d have had to pay the rand equivalent of a few hundred pounds for them; here, in Mzuzu of all places, he’d got them for less than a tenner. Jointly, we decided that speculating on where the street-trader had managed to find a pair of almost-new rollerblades wouldn’t get us anywhere apart from assuming that Peter had purchased stolen goods. More to the point, so pleased was he with his new purchase that he soon put the ’blades on and set off down the roads of Mzuzu, which unlike the road from Nkhata Bay were sealed. He had clearly done a lot of rollerblading before.

Well, we did what we’d gone to Mzuzu for – at the bank we both took out enough ready cash to tide us through the couple of weeks, and subsequently found an Internet café where, to my despair, Hotmail proved impossible to access. Our business done, we set off back to the bus-station, myself on foot and Peter on his new ’blades, performing all manner of stunts on the thankfully not-very-busy roads as he went. I’m no rollerblading expert, but I could see that he was good.

It was by a garage that I first noticed small gangs of children laughing and running after him along the street, and by the time we got to within two streets of the bus-station Peter had amassed a ‘following’ which amounted to well over a hundred people. He performed some sort of stunt in a driveway which involved a hand-stand (told you he was good) before getting himself ‘dragged’ along the road by a passing truck. Then, with his new fans in hot pursuit, he entered the bus-station itself, where his various rollerblade tricks almost bought the place to a standstill. Mzuzu had probably never seen anything like it before.

After this, the matatu ride back to Nkhata Bay was somewhat anti-climactic, though Peter, buoyed up with his success and still on a bit of an adrenalin high, achieved the hitherto impossible by getting one of the many street-traders to get a bottle of ‘green’ (local slang for Carlsberg beer) for him to drink when we stopped at a village on the way back. On reflection, my only regret about the whole affair was that I hadn’t taken my camera with me, so sadly no photographic evidence of the Rollerblade King of Mzuzu exists.

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