A Lilongwe Symphony

I wake to the urgent allegro of a house alarm piercing the pre-dawn darkness. My pounding heart is a kettledrum solo that jolts me into alertness. I am programmed to remember that 3:30 AM is when most break-ins happen; a time when everyone is sure to be deeply asleep. Even the night watchmen in their booths, bundled up in their too-big, second hand winter jackets, their fires dwindling to silent embers, are not likely to be awake.

Somewhere nearby, six desperate men have scaled a barbed-wire wall and destroyed a door with a sledgehammer. Six men desperate enough to beat a groggy man till he bleeds, then tie him up; desperate enough to push his wife against the wall with such force that she hits her head; desperate enough to terrify two small children in their bedrooms, not knowing if they should run to their mother’s side or hide. All this for a couple of laptops, a phone and a wallet.

Behind a wall of barbed wire, behind a splintered door, a mother of two sits trembling and asks Allah why. ‘What have I done to these men?’ Allah is silent, but if she had asked one of the men, he would have said: Done? It is not about what you have or have not done. You yourself are irrelevant. My children need to eat and yours won’t starve for want of a laptop.

The alarm stops its accelerated portamento shriek and I let my head sink back into my pillow. The recorded muezzin starts his call from an empty minaret, letting me know that I have one hour left to sleep. The droning adagio slithers down from the mosque on the hill and dozens of street dogs join in in response. Their anxious howls sometimes match the pitch of the prayer call, and sometimes diverge from it. Somewhere in the distance another mosque pipes up with a different chant. Two voices interlaced with a dog chorus mark the beginning of a new day in Lilongwe.

The sun makes a quiet entrance, sending out its messengers first to push back the black sky with gradients of indigo, azure, pink and yellow. With daylight comes the sound of car horns — used so liberally here — impatiently commanding the traffic to keep moving. The lights are merely decorative. They change from red to green to red; signifiers abandoned by their signified.

Later in the day, the cars will return to their iron gates, each one beeping out a unique monotone Morse code, demanding to be let in. They keep up their klaxon allegro until an overall-clad houseboy-guard-gardener, on the tenth hour of his twelve hour shift, begrudgingly unbolts the gate with a series of clangs. They drive in: proud, invincible, shiny, white Land Cruisers. Behind tinted windows a foot presses the accelerator. A majestic roar of the engine, a cloud of exhaust, a widening gap.