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The charcoal drama

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It came from the blues.

“Delete all the pictures you have taken or else we are going to take you to court,” said one of the police officers.

The facial expression confirmed that the officers were not in a joking mood and any attempt to suggest that they had overstretched themselves would simply worsen the situation.

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This was on July 12 2017, a few kilometres after Kameza roundabout on the way to Chileka International Airport in Blantyre.

My colleague, Amos Gumulira, and I had arrived in Blantyre two days earlier to cover the opening, by President Peter Mutharika, of the Mercy James Pediatric Surgery and Intensive Care Clinic, where pop star Madonna – the financier of the multi-million dollar project – was present.

While on our way from Lilongwe, a Blantyre-based colleague, Eldson Chagara, called to say he was supposed to welcome two colleagues at Chileka International Airport during the afternoon of that day.

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“But my car has developed a fault which cannot be fixed immediately,” he said.

We assured him that we would be in town in good time and that I could accompany him to the airport. Sadly, it turned out that the South African colleagues could not use a visa card to make advance payment for a car they had booked.

“We can use one car since all of us will be working within town,” I said.

And it was because of this arrangement that I found myself on the Chileka Road that Thursday morning, to drop off the colleagues at the airport for a flight back to Johannesburg.

As we cracked jokes and laughed our lungs off, the foreign photojournalist suddenly asked me to pull up by the roadside.

“That must be a great shot,” he said, pointing at a man who was pushing an old bicycle with three bags of charcoal on the carrier.

“How does he do that?” added the photojournalist who had his camera strapped on his shoulder everywhere we went, ready to shoot in case of any chance shot an ordinary photographer could not manage to capture.

Slowly, the charcoal man kept ascending the slope, his biceps and sweating face conspicuously indicating the load was too much. Our colleague squatted on the other side of the road and immediately started clicking his machine to get ‘the best of the biggest charcoal bag whose top looked like an umbrella because of the way he weaved it. And that was the focus of the shot, with the vendor and the bike somewhat blurred.

But police officers understood it differently.

About a minute later, I looked at the view mirror and saw one of traffic police officer woman – talking to our colleague, with both her hands in the air. I sensed something wrong had happened.

“Elder,” I looked at Eldson who was in the back seat with the other foreign colleague, “go and check what is happening.”

Like a mouse in front of hungry cats, our colleague feebly folded up his hands, the long-lensed camera hanging on his shoulder, as the police officers spoke one after another like in a “Gachacha” court of Rwanda during the genocide trials.

The officers accused him of taking pictures without permission with intent to show abroad that Malawi is poor. He and Eldson tried in vain to explain the focus of the picture and that there was no ill intention.

The charcoal vendor, on the other side, looked perplexed at what was happening. He was told not to leave the scene and stood a few metres away from the officers.

Probably he was scared by the mention of the court and feared that the charcoal may end up being confiscated.

I felt an urge to express my opinion on the whole saga, convinced that the officers were playing the complainant, prosecutor and judge, all at the same time. But I was afraid that the longer the debate took, the higher the chances that the travellers would miss their flight. I remained a spectator.

“Delete all the pictures you have taken or else we are going to take you to court,” said one of the police officers.

Added another: “These people are dangerous. They can beat you up. Or they can bewitch you. We don’t confiscate their charcoal because one of our colleagues died mysteriously after he had confiscated charcoal from one of these vendors.”

As the adrenalin started to drop, the officers warned the colleague never to do it again next time he visits our country, and one of them finally ordered: “Delete all the pictures you have taken and apologise [to the vendor].”

“Ooh! I will have a story to tell when I get home,” the colleague heaved a sigh of relief.

“What’s the story?”

That I nearly missed my flight. And that deforestation can’t be stopped because illegal charcoal vendors scare law enforcers.”

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