Minibus trips of shame 2

Just as I was about to say yes to cross-eyed man and his dodgy car, an ambulance appeared at a small medical clinic within sight of the border post. The guard beckoned the ambulance driver over and had a conversation with him.

‘He will take you back to the main road.’


Juliette and Sam piled into the front seat next to the driver and I sat in the back. African ambulances have a bench in the back down one side and that is it; no equipment whatsoever.

The driver, Prince, was a friendly extrovert and Chelsea Football Club fan. ‘We have to pick up some patients and take them back to Liwonde,’ he said, ‘so are you OK to be in the back with them?’

‘Sure, I am a doctor,’ I said.

Prince’s eyes lit up.

‘Oh, you are a doctor! Where are you from?’



Prince and another worker from the hospital lay some sheets on the bottom of the ambulance tray and then gently lifted a very unwell and wasted man, straight from the doorway of the hospital and onto the sheets. There was no gurney, no trolley, no pillow, just a fireman’s lift straight in on the sheets, the man’s head on the floor next to my feet.

Four patients capable of walking climbed in and sat next to me on the bench. The unwell man, barely conscious and trembling violently, grabbed my ankle like a security blanket. HIV? Cancer?

Jules and Sam glanced over their shoulders and anxiously stared at the collection of humanity surrounding me.

Prince bopped away to some tunes from The Black Missionaries, the hottest thing on the Malawi music scene. We talked about English football, my work and medicine in Australia and Malawi.

‘Do people have to pay for ambulances here every time?’


‘There is no government assistance if people are in dire need?’

Prince’s smile disappeared for the first time. ‘None. It is appalling.’

Back onto the main road, we waited in a bus stop in a town clearly unused to wazungu. Everybody stared at us, and Sam, sitting cross legged on the ground playing his DS had a crowd of forty surrounding him, just watching him. He ignored them.

A bus soon arrived and we headed to the Mozambique border again. On the Malawi side, two problems emerged. Firstly, Sam and I had been issued only 14 day visas for Malawi instead of the standard 28, so we had been unwittingly staying in Malawi with expired visas. We had broken the law. Secondly, we were told that getting a visa on the Mozambique side would still be very problematic. The first problem was fixed with a stern look and a fifty US dollar exit visa; the second was not so easily remedied.

‘Just be flexible. Remember this is Africa.’

I took this to mean that we would need to pay much more for our Mozambique visa than the $US30 it was meant to. On the back of motorbike taxis, we zoomed across the sandy road at sunset to the Mozambique immigration office seven kilometres away. Sure enough, there was trouble, but worse than I thought.

It seemed it wasn’t a matter of money. A machine that they needed to issue the visas (I didn’t know what the machine was) was broken, so they actually couldn’t issue any visas, and seemed genuinely upset for us, especially as they realised Sam’s issues. It appeared we may have to travel all the way back to Lilongwe to get the visas! Oh no! Our plans for Juliette’s remaining week with us were unravelling, and the overall itinerary for Sam and me was being turned on its head.

After an hour of stuffing around, phone calls being made and intense discussions between the dozen or so staff of the office, they finally told us if we came back tomorrow morning at eight they could issue the visas then. Yay!

Back on the bikes to Malawi. The drivers didn’t stop at the Malawi side of the border and just took us straight through into the town, which I thought was strange, but was too tired to care. The border post looked shut anyway.

Take us to the nearest nice hotel!

After what had been a tough day, we arrived back into a town shrouded in dark –  a blackout. Our friendly host managed, however, to organise some chicken and chips, soft drinks and bottled water. Eating the chicken on the floor of the room by candle light, we waited for the blackout to end and discussed the day.

‘At least we don’t have a tapeworm infestation Uncle James,’ Jules said.


‘Also, if Benison and Mum knew we had been riding on motorbikes without helmets, on a dirt road in the dark in Africa, they would completely freak out.’


As the lights came on, we settled for the night. A new problem was looming on the horizon which concerned me more than the Mozambique border. Jules had been getting a worsening ache in her wisdom tooth over the last couple of days, and now she was having trouble opening her mouth fully. She struggled to eat the chicken.

She had a swollen lymph node, but at least the gum didn’t look swollen. We really did not want to have to make an emergency visit to a dentist in Mozambique. Fortunately I had a course of broad spectrum antibiotics with me in reserve and started her on them. Hopefully they would do the trick. I told her not to worry, it would be fine, but was secretly very concerned. Of all the places to get an infected wisdom tooth…