Recently, my wonderful boyfriend has upended his life and moved to Malawi. It’s fun to see the country I’ve grown to know and love through his new, fresh perspective. However, he’s pointed out to me more than once that the way me and my friends give directions is frustrating to a newbie and well, slightly nuts. It’s not our fault, really. In a country with few street signs, it’s better to give approximations and landmarks. You say things like:
“It’s in the Game Complex, in the little part that turns into a faux mall. You know, back where the shoe store is.”
Helpfully, Lilongwe is broken up into neighborhoods (Areas) that are numbered. Unhelpfully, they follow no chronological order, so Area 10 is next to Area 43. Area 18 abuts area 25. After asking lots and lots of questions, you generally get to figure it out. But, you’re never really sure where one Area ends and the other begins (I still have no idea where the Area 3/9 demarcation is). So again, you fall back on:
“It’s across the bridge in Area 2, half way up the street to the mosque, on the right hand side.”
There is also a reliance on lesser known landmarks, such as the CCAP Church in Area 12, or Maula filling station in Area 3. How one is supposed to know the names of these places? Your guess is as good as mine. And to further the fun, their names periodically change under new management. There is a filling station in between my work and home that I have always known as Bisnowati. Only recently was it pointed out to me that the name changed four years ago to Mantino. I don’t know anyone who calls in Mantino filling station, but by FoodWorths, the name of the grocery store tucked within.
Even if I remembered to refer to it as FoodWorths (NOT Bisnowati) this was unhelpful when describing it to my boyfriend. He only remembers it as “along Embassy row”. I had no idea what Embassy row was, until he pointed out to me that the American Embassy was next door. (Does one Embassy make a row? I dunno, but there was the start of this post…)
He does have a point. Without common reference points, it is frustrating to the outsider. It’s alienating. I recognize that it’s mad to refer to something by its proximity to something you’ve never heard of, or even by its former name. A friend who had been asking for directions to an Easter potluck got told to “take a right where the old man stands during mango season”. I thought this was hilarious. How many old men stand by the side of the road?! “And, I haven’t even been here for mango season yet!,” she cried.
It doesn’t mean to be exclusive, but it is. It doesn’t mean to sound nuts, but it does. For the uninitiated, it’s complete rubbish. But for those in the know, it’s like being a part of a secret club. Once you start having the same reference points as those around you, it gets easier. And then, the day you figure out where Medeterraneo (the old Augusto’s) has moved to in Area 10 and can find it in the dark without getting lost, you feel like you’ve uncovered an Easter egg.