Mind your own business

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In this new series of 12 conversations in Malawi, Phil Clisby meets an Ethiopian on his flight to Lilongwe and discusses business (and the weather)

As I buckle in for the flight that will take me from Addis Ababa to Lilongwe, I fall into conversation with my neighbour.

Abraha, who hails from the Ethiopian capital, is on his way to Malawi for the first time. I can see the sense of excitement etched in his craggy face; maybe a touch of apprehension too.

I’m full of anticipation as well. I’ve had the pleasure of travelling to Malawi a couple of times previously, but I’ve never been to the places that form my itinerary on this occasion – Likoma Island, the Nyika Plateau and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve – and I can’t wait to get there.

Dressed in a shirt, cardigan and jacket, as well as draping the ubiquitous airline blanket over himself, Abraha is someone who clearly feels the cold; not that it is cold, mind you – I‘m sweating buckets in just a T-shirt (and trousers, I hasten to add).

Inevitably our initial exchanges include the weather – as is the English way, and the Ethiopian it seems – and its unpredictability, especially in the UK. Abraha, much to my amazement, is aware that England has just been basking in two consecutive days of sun. It’s funny, but I never think of someone sitting in the Cradle of Civilisation wondering whether it is raining in London.

Talking of rain, I had been surprised to be splattered with cloud water as I changed aircraft in Addis. I quiz my new friend on whether it is usual at this time of year.

“The light rains have started,” Abraha informs me. “It is building up to the rainy season in July and August.” Although, he adds, June usually provides some respite from the wet with some warm, sunny days, before the “big downpours arrive”.

Later, he asks me if I am going to Malawi on business.

“Sort of,” I reply. I’m on a trip to the Warm Heart of Africa at the invitation of Malawi’s Department of Tourism – to visit a few places and then write about them. So, yes, it is work – but not really.

“What do you do?” I ask.

“I’m a businessman,” he replies, as if that answers everything.

It’s amazing how many Africans tell you they are businessmen when you ask them their occupation. And what is their business? “Ach, bizness,” comes the stock reply.

“So, is Malawi business or pleasure?” I probe.

“I’m doing a little bit of business in Lilongwe and some sightseeing,” he tells me, waggling his hand in that way that suggests neither one thing nor the other.

“What business are you doing in Malawi?” I query.

“I’m doing some workshops,” he replies. “To see how they are working there.”

Did that mean how his workshops worked or how Malawians work?

I never did find out, nor did I discover what he was workshopping – business, I expect.

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