My first trip to Malawi in 1991 was life changing in a thousand weird and wonderful ways.
I embarked onto the plane a seventeen year old boy and returned a few years later young man with many stories to tell including working as a black-market money changer with United Nations soldiers, buying weapons from police officers in war-torn Mozambique and taking off in a small Cessna aircraft without permission whilst getting chased along the runway by several police cars and fire engines!
The few years before leaving I'd found myself in the middle of the Acid House revolution, traveling around the country dancing all night at huge parties in forests, boats, basements and warehouses. The all night dancing was aided by drugs. Weed, acid, speed and a new drug called ecstasy that made you dance all night and love everyone around you. Soon I was selling these drugs and was having the time of my young life. But things got out of hand rapidly. Weekend partying became daily and my drug use spiraled out of control. A couple of years daily drug use had left me feeling washed out, paranoid and slightly psychotic. I was pale, underweight and had broken my soul. The phone call from my aunt offering to pay for me to go to Africa to reacquaint myself with my father felt like a call from heaven itself. I could run away from myself or so I thought.
My mother and father had got divorced in 1989. My dad was working in Mozambique training soldiers during their civil war and never returned home.
My aunt brought me an open return ticket and told me that I'd be flying out to Malawi and would also be staying in war-torn Mozambique with my dad and some of his crew. I knew nothing about either country, but did a bit of research and learnt that Malawi produced high-grade marijuana known as 'Malawi Gold'.
I went to one last Acid House party in the picturesque Devonshire countryside which seemed the perfect way to end this chapter of my life, dancing in a field alongside the moon the stars and my closest friends. Grinning from ear to ear I approached each friend and gave them a hug,
“I love you, man.” A south westerly wind blew elation into my soul.
The MDMA had freed my emotions and unlocked the key to my heart. Vulnerabilities had temporarily disappeared until the morning. The sparkling coach wouldn't turn back into a pumpkin until 8 am.
The last memory I have of that night is sitting in a field full of cows. Elderly hikers with walking sticks and backpacks gave us confused looks as they rambled along in the distance. We smiled and enjoyed smoking our Sunday morning joints as they walked home to eat theirs.
I sat perfectly alone nervously fidgeting in my seat before take off.
The pretty air hostess performed the pre-flight safety demonstration as I bit my thumbnail and thought about my father. I was no longer the child he once knew. What was our relationship now? Where did I belong in the father-son equation? Fear knotted my stomach as did excitement and anger.
As soon as I could I ordered a Bloody Mary and lit a cigarette (yes you could still smoke on planes then). A spicy tang lit my mouth and warmed my nerves. I immediately felt better.
Sitting down for thirteen hours is an eternity for a 17-year-old. Particularly one who wasn't comfortable with himself or his emotions. I was forced to sit with a washing machine full of thoughts pondering what had been and what was to come. I drunk a few more Bloody Marys, followed by beer and wine. I drank until I passed out. I awoke as we flew over Lusaka with a tray full of breakfast and a side order of headache. The air-hostess gave me a knowing look as she handed over a couple of paracetamol and a priceless smile.
As the pilot started his slow decent orderly movement to and from the toilets became apparent. People entered looking like extras from a zombie movie and emerge fresh, alive and reborn. African ladies came out wearing beautiful headscarves colourful like the blazing morning sun. Men carrying small wash-bags reappeared clean shaven, refreshed and excited by the day's possibilities. Following the crowd, I got out of my seat and waited in line. The alcohol hadn't yet left my system and the top of someone's seat had to be used to steady myself. Glancing out of the window majestic mountains kept watch over the dusty African plains. They were keepers of a thousand stories, tall, righteous and pure.
A strong odour of Chanel No. 5 traveled up my nose and made me urge. I suddenly felt dizzy and had to place both hands onto the sink, like a 100-meter runner preparing for the race of a lifetime. In the mirror, I glanced an old soul trapped in a young body. I closed my eyes, counted to ten then threw some water over my face, most of it hit my Bob Marley t-shirt before hitting the floor. As I walked back to my seat I passed a pretty girl, looked at her and smiled but she looked away. I felt wounded.
The dusty plains of Africa were instantly recognisable from a thousand nature programs watched on the BBC. I half expect a collective of colonials to appear on the horizon dressed head to toe in khaki, chasing elephants in old, battered Land Rovers.
As the chunky plane bumped onto the tarmac I gripped tightly onto my seat and braced myself for impact. An elderly lady sat next to me patted my hand and gave me a sympathetic smile.
“It's over now dear.”
She was wrong, it was just about to begin.
I had no idea what lay ahead of me but knew that it wasn't going to be a spring break in Cancun. They'd be no tour guide holding up a card with my name. No coach to shuttle me into a nameless hotel full of drunk kids moaning about the foreign food. I was going to meet a father I didn't really know and hadn't seen for over three years.
The last time I'd seen my father I was a fourteen-year-old kid awkward in his own skin.
I was now a young adult with size seven feet and a little bit of facial hair. I had piercings in my ears and nose. I was heavily into drugs, underweight, gaunt and unsure. My hair was long like all the other acid house ravers, it formed part of my identity. It grew down to my shoulders without asking any questions. I wore a black zip-up hoody, white Bob Marley t-shirt, Levis Jeans and white and red Nike Air Max.
As soon as the plane had landed I tied my hair into a ponytail, grabbed my hand-luggage and made the long, slow walk towards the baggage area. I stayed near the old lady who I'd sat next to. She made me feel safe. Her universal grandma smell felt familiar in this strange, unknown land.
People emerged from other flights and fought silent queue battles, showing their passport at immigration before continuing to the baggage area. An immigration officer glanced up and gave a look that every immigration officer in any airport around the world gives…the blank expression. Her look was an uncompromising poker face practiced a thousand times per day. She gave nothing away. Her husband may have cheated on her the previous night, she may have won the lottery, no one would've ever known. Her secrets were hers and hers alone.
She glanced up at me then thumped down a large rubber stamp into my passport giving me permission to proceed. I could now enter Malawi.
'Kamuzu International Airport – Lilongwe. 12 August 1991 – 30 days'
The baggage area was an array of bright colours, unfamiliar tones, and musky smells. After spending half a day wrapped up in the safety of the planes womb it overwhelmed me. As I watched a family of four become more stressed over their missing baggage, mine appeared. I wheeled it along and walked through the customs area. Butterflies inside my stomach tried to punch their way out. I felt like I could throw up at any minute.
“You boy!” An over eager customs guy with a deep, bellowing voice accused me with a harsh pointed finger.
I looked around hoping that he was shouting at somebody else. I raised my eyebrows at the man next to me as if to say 'the geezer wants you mate.' I looked back at the customs guy who was now beckoning me with a more urgent hand gesture. My mind darted around the racetrack before passing out on the floor in a frightened mess.
'Shit, I left something in my bag, they've spotted it on the x-ray. I've left some pills or weed in a pocket. No one will know where I am and I'll get lost in the system forever!' My thoughts quickly turned to panic.
I'd seen Midnight Express and a million other prison films. My mind found me in a place where I was getting arse raped by five huge guys who all had AIDS.
“Come!” His command was firm, not dissimilar to how you would say 'Sit' to a dog.
I walked very slowly towards him trying to look as cool as possible. The reality was that my right arm was shaking and sweat dripped down my brow.
The guy was big, maybe 6-foot-4 with unforgiving eyes, I looked into them then immediately looked down at the floor submissively.
“It's against the law of this country for men to have long hair, you have long hair.”
At the time the ruler of Malawi was Dr. Hastings Banda a dictator who presided over one of the most repressive regimes in Africa.
Women were not allowed to wear short skirts or trousers and the official line on men's hair was “The entry of hippies and men with long hair and flared trousers is forbidden”. (This I found out later)
“You have two choices, I either cut your hair off or you are deported back to London on the next flight.”
I made my 'choice' and a pair of scissors seemed to immediately appear. I say scissors in the loosest sense of the word. These industrial mounds of metal were more akin to something you'd see in the garden rather than a hair salon. The situation felt unreal I was frozen in time, looking down on myself from above.
The servant of this oppressive regime lacked the gentle touch of my regular barber, perhaps this was due to him cutting my hair whilst I was standing. He hacked away and gave me no mercy. I was Samson who's identity and strength were being lost. I didn't know whether I should've laughed or cried so did both. Inside my head, I rolled around on the floor in a wild hysteria. People from my flight walked past, glanced at me then looked confused and a little scared. Each snip cut a little deeper into my dignity. I wanted to scream and shout but instead stood there and said nothing. The old lady who'd been sat next to me on the plane looked over, eyebrows raised and scorned at me like I'd done something wrong.
A young English boy tugged at his mother's hand.
“Mummy, mummy that man is cutting the boy's hair off.”
“Sshhhh,” said the mum pretending not to notice this very obvious spectacle. Like her I said nothing, I kept my British stiff upper lip.