The Giuviri encounter or: How it is to be stolen from in a remote malawian village




How to start this story? So far probably the strangest and strongest experience of the trip. Heading to the north of Malawi on a nice tailwind i am crossing lots of really rural areas. For hundred kilometres nothing that you could call a town. I like these places, just lots of farming and nice people. But most of the time the road runs far from the lake and I can barely ever spot it. Just after Dwangwa the road takes a turn inland and goes back close to the lake at a place called guiviri. Lefthandside jungle and a big mountain, righthandside the beautiful lake. The first place that the road is so close to the lake i decide to ask at a place of a halfway finished building and a family with the father, Chikumbutso, the mother, Jess and 4 or 5 kids. This is how the story begins.

It proves that Chikumbutso who is a really nice and rather educated man, is from Lilongwe and fell in love at this place so he decided to move there, starting a new life. And the place truly is beautiful, a small but widespread village with a lot of jungle and his house directly on the beach. We go to shower in the lake. In the evenings an orange full moon is rising out of the lake and when the fishermen go out, using lamps to attract the fish it looks like a road on the lake, thats where the name "lake of thousand stars" comes from. I learn a lot about the community and the people, what they eat, how they live, what they do during the day etc. The next day this beautiful family sort of cancels my trip and i decide to stay longer, chat more with chikumbutso to learn how it is to live in a village, cook with jess or play football with the kids.

In the evening i sit with chikumbutso around the fire, we chat about malawi, its people and its problems like corruption or lack of education. I tell him about europe and how it is to live in Germany. About Thema reasons why the people in his country are so poor and there is no chance for them to ever get out of this situation. Living in their village never moving further than 10 km away from home, not going to school or quitting after 4 years to work on the field. Corruption and uneducation keep the people in the villages and never move away from this life.

In the evenings Jess, who is doing most of the work while we as men are busy bathing, eating, chatting and getting food, is usually cooking in the dark. This close to the lake it is very windy in the evenings so candles and other cheap ways to have light don't work. I would just have thought ok thats no big deal but now that i have seen how it really is, i would have never thought how hard it actually is to live with such little money and basic things in the villages. You just can't see what you're doing and if the meal for your whole family (which is usually nsima, maize or casavameal mush with tiny fish, spinach or beans everyday) is just burning before your eyes. The yard of your house is always dusty but you have to keep the gras cut as sefety agains snakes and keep the place clean. So no matter where you sit and whatever you put on the ground- it's dirty. The borehole for water is 1 km away and all that the men do is drinking during the day or sitting around waiting for crops to be farmed and sometimes cutting grass. It is quite disgracing for the men just lingering around, no objectives and no way or possibility to provide for their families with usually 4-6 kids. Basically too much time to drink gin for 40 cents a bottle and get stupid ideas. While women are working all day and i'm feeling terrible having people working for my food all the time and being bored.

We are having food between the house and the lake, watching the red malawian moon rise out of the lake on the eastern, the mozambican side. Quite spectacular, while all the fishermen are out there, dropping a lantern in the lake to bring the fish to the seasurface where the nets are. It looks like a street on the lake. Fascinating to see this every evening.

Soon after we finished eating, Jess comes running out of the house yelling something in chichewa. Slowly only I understand that something is wrong with my things. My red backpack which usually contains my most important things like wallet, passport, camera and electronics is not standing where i left it and the plastic sheet covering the window is removed at one edge. Someone must have grabbed through the window taking it. At first i am like paralized. Where did I put it the last time? Is it really not here anymore? Not here, not with these nice people when i was least expecting it! What was in there? Passport and camera with lots of unsaved pictures. Shiiit. Electronics, paintings that i had just bought from two artists i was staying with in nkothakotha. Shit! 40 us dollars and a lot of other equipment.

I got no idea what to do, this is the middle of nowhere, this is africa. The next policestation is 60 km away, they have no vehicle and i would need to pay them to come. Chikumbutso and Jess argue in Chichewa and tell me they need to warn policefore arm men to build roadblocks so he can not get away on the main roads. They grab machete and metal rods and speed off, Jess to the north and Chikumbutso south. But it is a jungle out there and in the village there are 10000 places to hide. Not to mention the place is bordered by a mountain with a forest on it. I keep thinking, if I would be him, this would be my escape route and no one would ever find me.

Quite soon Chikumbutso is back, completely out of breath. He says he was suspecting a certain boy of 18 years all the time, because he was stealing and to prison before and he was hanging out at the compound saying he is going to take the bycicle. When he was running to the police volunteers in the village he saw him next to the road holding something like my camera but running into the bush, loosing my old and already broken mp3 player. Ok so it is at least obvious who the thief is, now all we need to do is to catch him, in a small village like this, for how long can he hide? Turns out 4 days.

And me? What can I do? Not a lot, i have to rely on Chikumbutso and Jess to translate, find out whats going on and keep track of what the policevolunteers are doing. Because they usually don't report to us what is going on, only in the evening, it is up to speculation whether there is any progress.

This first evening, after informing the policevolunteers (which further always insist not to inform the police) we rush to the next trading, a village with shops on the street. At these places the policevolunteers are building the roadblocks to make it harder for the thief to move away from the area and sell some of the things. So we are at this trading, i feel quite helpless and the dark african night in combination with party at the shops along the street and loads of drunk youths that throw bottles around give it a real postapocalyptic feeling. Probably the strongest impression you can get as a visitor from europe is the evenings: fires and sounds, music and many people that you can barely see, moving around in the dark. There are no lights to light up the street, you can't see where you're walking and yeah, all the people are black. We wait there until the policevolunteers are informed, then head back 5 km to Chikumbutsos house, thinking about what to do next. I don't have any plan, i don't know how things like this are usually dealt with in a rural african village so in this circumstance i feel quite lonely. Chikumbutso and Jess help me as much as they can and I'm more than happy to have them around. We have a rough clue in which area he must have been hiding the backpack before Chikumbutso spotted him, but he is a good runner and the area is a jungle. Or a kasavafield. There's not a lot to do except waiting for the next day. Quite stressed i try to sleep in my tent.

Next morning first news are that there are no news. An hour later the policevolunteers pay a visit telling us that he is still around, he was spotted at the primary school taking pictures of the kids with my camera. Now that is abnormal behaviour for a thief I guess. We know who he is, we know he's still around, he's not trying to leave the area. But he is able to use my camera, with all the pictures on it, most of them are not backed up. During that day he appears at several places but always manages to run. In trying to find him, shopping for food, getting water from the well and searching for the backpack I get to know the village and its people quite well. Who is related to whom, who's farming what and who was a thief in the city a couple of years back. Of course there is a lot of talking to chikumbutso about the case, but also his life, politics and life in Malawi in general. It's one of the poorest countries on the planet, yet there is quite some tourism, incredible nature and very fertile soils. So how is it possible that it's on the low end of the scale for wealth of nations? The political system and the leaders are not interested to create wealth for everyone. Basically every malawian head of state is or was facing accusations of corruption and/or fraud.

Even though there were serious campaigns in the past to improve the lives of people in the rural areas, not a lot can be seen here. People are bad educated, if they go to school at all, teachers are not trained well, there's no police, no organizations, no sign of support by the government. It is interesting to live in such a community, more than i expected, but also challenging, due to the circumstances with the theft, food, and general way of life. After just a couple of days i struggle with the boredom a lot. The women are expected to do all the work at home, men are expected to provide money. Because there is no money or jobs me and the other men train our patience. And eat Sima made of Kasava. Every day one to three times. People here love their Sima (Shima, posho, pap, ugali, it's all the same. Eastern africa is consuming millions of tons of maizemeal every day), if you cook something else, people need Sima afterwards. But after 9 days i can't eat it any more. I cant smell it anymore. Everytime i sense Kasava while cycling, i get a backflash and have to stop breathing. Don't get me wrong, it is nice and healthy food (if people have the money to combine it with various vegetables. Which they don't.), it's just too monotonous and too much of it.

Everything is dusty and dirty, not to start about hygiene. People here have their methods to maintain an impressive level of order and cleanliness, but the wipe-your-ass-with-left-hand and eat with the right doesn't appeal to me too much. Tried it- don't like it. But well, where to buy toilet paper? Everything is washed in the lake about which I don't bother too much after some days. Once your health is ruined it doesn't matter too much. If all those safe places are actually not that safe considering Bilharzia, I have it already. Plus it is too hot not to swim in this wonderful lake.

We also go to the chief to report the case, hoping he (or she?) can help us spreading the message to the thief to return my things so I don't have to call the police (which the policevolunteers constantly tell me not to do). He (or she?) Is a very small person with a really strange voice so i really can't tell wheter it's a man or a woman. Doesn't matter, I quite like the concept having a problemsolver, someone to communicate between parties in these communities. Makes me think of them as wise women and men, like ancient kings that rule by making the right decisions. Just that I've got no idea how big their power actually is. We also pay a visit to the thief's mother and spread the words: Turn yourself in or i have to contact the police. Which is what i want to avoid, i don't need him to get beaten up or tortured, which I probably couldn't control once the policemen start doing their thing. Classical dilemma.

We constantly have to try to contact the policevolunteers, 5 people that are on the case without payment. We don't know their progress, if they stopped searching or have any hints. So i see myself forced to put a lot of pressure on a group of people that basically work for me now, hoping i pay them off once the things have returned. If they do.

My psychological state could also be better. I'm feeling more and more annoyed, nothing's happening in this case, but also there are no items of a lot of worth in the backpack. Just essential for me. Does this guy really want to test people's patience because of a 10 year old compact camera?

At some point in the evening when I was about to lose hope to ever see my beloved toothbrush again a cousin or someone somehow related to him suddenly appears with the backpack which is said to have appeared at the beach. Checking for the things we realize about half of it is still missing. Well at least my passport is there. But what is going on in his mind? By giving back the backpack (which itself is the item with most value actually) makes the theft of the other things legal. Dammit, we have to start the whole process again.
And i have to sleep.

Next day when I'm on my way to buy food suddenly people start running. Apparently he's around. Someone spots him eating sugarcane at the road, next to my host's house. He really feels safe now. I have to stop trying to make sense out of this. I start to get stress related headache slowly. He's running again and I find myself seeing no other possibilites than hiring 10 youths for 1 or 2 € each, equip them with sticks and machetes and send them out to hunt him. What a fucked up situation. We have no idea who is supporting him, where he's staying and who is maybe giving him a place. And I'm running out of patience and more importantly on time on my (you guessed it) 30 days visa. I'm rapidly losing sympathy with this guy, even though I'm aware that he's just taking his chances to improve his situation. But chances are gone, if you steal in such a stupid way. Repeatedly. I am giving him the best chance to get out of this without going to jail again.

Long story short- it takes another one or two days until the policevolunteers miraculously catch him. Two days of feeling helpless, stressed out and nervous about what will happen, torturing myself why i became that careless. But do I want to be afraid about my belongings all the time? Most of it is not that expensive, but almost everything is essential for the trip or very personal to me. This guy is stealing memories of friends in mozambique that i might never meet again - you bet i will get a bit angry. What a moron, and I am trying to help him out. Why am I doing this? Maybe the case would be solved faster if I didn't? Am I just the guy who's being nice to people that don't deserve it?

And it has an effect on my host family as well, aside from them being awake all night, working on the case, searching the area, looking for abandoned houses or standing guard all night. I'm feeling really bad about pulling them into this mess by not being careful. Especially Jess is struggling with me being stolen from while I was their guest. When she bursts out in tears it breaks my heart. They have been taking me in because I asked them, they didn't ask anything in advance. And now they are in trouble because of me. I'm trying to cheer her up, telling her it is not their fault but only this stupid boy's, I don't know if it's working. I just get more mad with the thief.

But now they caught him. Finally. Now everything should be easygoing. The village arranges a meeting with all the important people (and me), to face the thief and figure out what happened, where the things are and what will happen. The policevolunteers bring him over but he insists he has to take a bath in the lake. Alright man, whatever, the whole village will wait. After 30 minutes I go and check what's going on. As it looks like from far, the policevolunteers are checking out the pictures on my camera together with the thief. Just what the fuck. I jog over there and have to tell them to stop and rather move their asses over to the meeting. I don't want them to watch private pictures or accidentaly delete them. It's like teaching kid's lessons to thirty year old adults. Really annoying.

At the meeting first we check the items. Most things are there. Camera, passport, backpack, drawings, solarpanel and electronics. But he managed to break my opinel knive. I don't even know how that is possible. He unscrewed the charging lid of the small powerbank. Just why? Some small things are still missing. Obviously he can't pay for broken or lost things. Whatever. But i have to pay the policevolunteers. Obviously. And to make it more depraving we have to bargain over their payment. I don't want to do that but have to. They did a good job. Retrieving my most important belongings. But basically we had no idea what they were doing after all. So how much is a fair payment. I think Chikumbutsos family did much more for me. They also deserve something but they would never dare to ask openly. What a shitty situation.

At the gathering we send the policevolunteers out again, together with the thief to find the rest of the things, which the thief probably lost when he was running from Chikumbutsos 1m metal stick at night.

And as i suggested he is put on social service. 4 weeks of cleaning an area up in the mountains without payment. Well deserved for one of the dumbest thieves in malawi. As people told me he would have some better examples around, like one of Jess relatives who claims to have been a big time thief in the past in Lilongwe, stealing from companies. Or another guy who was'n t there when it happened. But everyone fears him. Good that the village is judging over him and I don't have to do it.

And then they blow the bomb. Someone must have put a charm on him. That's why he is stealing all the time. And in such a stupid way. That happens when the charm goes wrong. Every charm has conditions to it. For example don't eat salt. If you do, you steal something but you don't know what to do with it. Sounds more or less logical so far. In the tribal, nature religious life of the people here, i can see how it makes sense. So who put the charm on him? Apparently he's been to the brother of Jess a while ago to get a charm that makes him more attractive to girls. Sorry to say it that way, I can see why. He's dumb like bread, he needs all the help he can get. While i check my broken belongings he's sitting in front of me, smiling like nothing happened. Eat shit man.

So, it is said that in addition to the charm charming the girls to like an idiot Jess's brother must have put a charm on him to steal. Great, nice way of putting more people into troble. After a tol of chichewan shouting, accusing and arguing it is decided. He did it. Again, what the fuck. This puts families against families, divides the village. Not necessary but there you have it: Fighting over nothing. I can't stand this anymore, it's a bit too much for my liking. The thief is still around, the families are fighting. My old nokia mobile phone was recovered from the market, he lost it while running. I was buying it back for 2€ and gave it to Chikumbutso. The family doesn't have a phone, no electric devices, no electric lights. Every evening Jess is cooking in the dark outsode the hut. Cooking in the dark is horrible, i don't get how she can see what she's doing. Chikumbutso, me and the kids are cheering her on: "Malawian food, malawian food, come on Jess!" At least we can make her laugh. But it is hard sometimes to see how little they have. Not even luxurious things but basic things. Matresses, chairs, lamps, clothing for the kids wich is in one piece, toilet paper, you won't find it here. If this doesn't make you rethink your status and how privileged you are as a white person born in Germany I don't know what does. And still they live life the way they always do. There is a lot of laughing, joy and love in this family. In talking with Chikumbutso and Jess I am trying to understand this world.

And the slight headache that I had gets worse in the evening. It is crashing down on me pretty fast: Before I know whats going on I'm lying under 2 big blankets in front of the huts shivering like crazy, freezing in the deepest africa. Now I am quite sure it is Malaria. No big deal for the people here, Chikumbutso hands me some paracetamol and after 30 minutes I am better. As Chikumbutso also is sick with Malaria, we head to the clinic next morning, do the checks and take our pills. During the day I am lying around, head pumping through 4 paracetamols, trying to read Tolstoi's "How much land does a man need." I don't need land, I want my head back, Leo. And I should leave. It is one full day of cycling to Nkatha Bay where I can hopefully extend my visa.

2 days later when I am feeling better finally and being ready to get back on the road, the thief reappears. Somehow he's allowed to roam around, causing more trouble and provoke Chikumbutsos family. Village justice doesn't work with him obviously.

He's starting a fight with the family of Jess's brother. Lots of shouting in Chichewa. As I go over there to see what's going on I realize he's carrying the bag friends gave to me as a farewell present. I seriously begin to doubt the IQ scale applies to him at all. So I go over there, shout at him and tell the people he apparently still has some of my belongings. After that the situation goes down the drain. He's shouting at me, people pull me away from him, people start fighting, he's coming over to Jess's compound throwing chairs and other things. I feel the urge to knock that shithead out. People are drunk, fighting and the kids are part of it. Before Mr. Troublemaker knows what's happening to him Jess confronts him, he starts pushing her, then she takes him down. Haha if the situation wouldn't have been that serious I would have laughed my ass off by the sight of it. 1 meter 50 Jess takes this 20 year old big guy down in three seconds. Seriously don't fuck around with african women, most of them are quite tough. Guess you have to be that strong when so many of the men are something between useless and drunkards.

That doesn't stop the village rumble at all, people tell me to go inside and that's what I'm doing. Seeing Jess take him down was all I needed to see. Of course it didn't stop there. After some time people tell me he somehow managed to grab a machete and was hitting people on the head. Oh great, why just does no one knock him out? Are they waiting for him to attack kids or what?

In the afternoon he's back on the compound while I'm repairing the bike of Jess's dad, stands next to me and stares at me out of blood red eyes. I just ignore him and try not to laugh.

He's asking for a meeting and I am asked to come over to the football field. He's just threatening us, telling us he wants the mobile phone or he will come at night and take everything from the house. And we won't realize it. I waste no time, start to laugh and walk back. What an idiot, he's going to Chintheche tomorrow to have a nice and long meeting with the police and other prisoners.

Still the athmosphere is quite stressed. Chikumbutso takes his warning pretty serious and the whole family is moving in with me, all their belongings (not a lot) and an omnium gatherum of tools, axes, metal sticks, shovels etc. At night I am going to toilet with a 1.5 meter metal stick in case he's around and needs to take a close look at a metal stick. This is crazy, i just wanna get away from here. And it is not exactly the way I want to leave this family that I spent so much time with and made friends. But next morning the time has come. Chikumbutso, his son and me are leaving on the bike, meet the Big chief in Tukombo so i can get a letter to verify the theft, from there i move to Chintheche to do the same at the policestation and then to Nkatha Bay to extend the visa. With the letters it works out pretty good, still it takes the whole day. And then I say goodbye to this home away from home on the shores of lake malawi. I need to get my head off of all the things that happened.

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