The Winter Olympics are here where top athletes are competing in winter games. It’s great to see Africa represented from several countries. I wish them well as we build experience and gain exposure. And it is my hope that one day the Malawian flag will fly on the podium. Why not?
The sight of snow on the ice tracks took me back in time. It reminded me of my first and only trip to the UK in February 2002.
The year is 2002 and I am working for an IT company in Malawi ICL (International Computer Limited). George Nnensa is the MD (Managing Director) and it has been a year since winning a government contract to supply the original IFMIS (Integrated Financial Management Information System). It is a giant leap for Malawi Government and the people of Malawi. As a local consultant, I was then required to go for professional training in the UK for a financial management system called CODA Financials.
There is a catch though. There are two sets of courses with a one week gap in between. I had to choose either the first course or the second one. I opted to go for both and promised to arrange for a self-sustenance break. I turned to my family for help. My dad and Uncle Gustave gave me two contacts in the UK. And the trip was on. This would be my first time out of Africa and my first time to go to Europe.
THE FLIGHT OUT OF AFRICA
My first flight was from Malawi to Kenya. During the flight, the Captain introduced Kilimanjaro Mountain with a gorgeous snow-cap. The landing in Nairobi, the Capital City of Kenya was rather rough and abrupt. The Captain was brutally efficient as if he had a military background. He just dropped the plane down from the skies, and then hit the tarmac hard. The next flight was on KLM, and the facilities were much improved. I think the aircraft had just been released and had personal TV screens in front of every passenger seat. We experienced violent turbulence when flying over Sahara Desert. My next-seat fellow passenger got really scared. Who would blame him? Who would want to tumble out of the sky and crash into the hot sands of the desert?
We landed in Netherlands with the smoothest touch downs I have ever experienced in my life. These guys were on top of their game. The plane gently kissed the tarmac and the landing gear sort of blended with the ground in a grand pacified union, like chocolate scooping soft vanilla ice cream. This was at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, which at the time was among the top ten list of the best airports in the world. For the first time, I did not have to ask for directions. Everything was well displayed along the well-light, properly ventilated corridors.
AN ITSY BITSY TEENIE WEENIE TASTE OF SUB-ZERO TEMP
It was here that we were required to hop into a smaller plane that would fly us to Bradford, UK. We stepped out of the terminal building to the elements. Whoa! I was hit by an invisible icy wrap. What has looked so serene behind the weatherproof glasses was a giant cold room. The cold easily penetrated my summer clothes from Malawi, past my tropical skin and viscously attacked my bones.
I had never experienced winter before. But here were other passengers calmly queuing outside the plane waiting for their turn to be served. I shivered uncontrollably as I approached the plane officials for help. Any help. The hostess took one look at me and asked me to jump the queue and board the plane immediately. She didn’t even take a look at my boarding pass. Rescue first, formalities later. God bless her beautiful soul.
The hostess explained to everyone what was happening, and I got a truckload of sympathetic “Awww!” and “Sorry!”. When everyone was on-board we couldn’t take off. The plane was too cold. It had accumulated a layer of snow and perhaps ice around its shell. I was told a layer of ice on the wings can cause problems later on. It had to be defrosted. Defrosted? Isn’t that what we were doing back home when preparing chicken kept in the freezer?
We eventually got airborne and was advised to buy my winter clothes as soon as we landed. We touched down in Bradford, checked out and bought proper winter clothing.
ACROSS THE UK IN THREE WEEKS
Within the three weeks in the UK, I stayed two weeks in Harrogate, one week in Nottingham, and two days in London. I had landed in Bradford. I took a bus (pronounced BU as in BOOt, and S as in octopuS) to Manchester. Jumped on a tube (train) to Harrogate. Or something like that. There was a bus and a train involved. The cities remained as mentioned – Bradford, Manchester and Harrogate.
After the first week in Harrogate, I jumped on a bus and spent a week in Nottingham and back to Harrogate. At the end of the third week, I was back on the bus and went to Nottingham, and then proceeded to London. I got to see Leeds, Sheffield, Leicester, Luton and other small towns in between.
OF SNOW AND SNOWBALLS
The first few days were terrible for me. The rooms were always cold despite having heating units. The central heating systems were not effective enough for me. Everyone was covered in layers of thermal wear. One had to be in gloves at all times, especially when venturing outside.
Then the unexpected happened. I started feeling less cold, and at one time I managed to go for my evening walks in relatively light clothing. Gloves remained important but not essential anymore. Eventually I lost them. And suddenly the central heating unit was too high for me. The rooms were getting to be warm. I was adjusting to this land of snow and ice.
I got to see, touch and play with snow for the first time, just before turning 25. It was white, fluffy, and malleable, if I could call it that. My hosts at the Coda-Financials had lots of fun seeing me getting wide-eyed at heaps of snow. They couldn’t believe that I had not seen snow in real life before. And that the closest thing to having ice on the ground, was the hailstones that sometimes accompanied rains in the tropics. After a little encouragement, I went outside the training compound and “played” a little bit with snow.
Three weeks later I returned to Malawi to continue with my professional work, supporting a critical national financial management system for the Government of Malawi. But somewhere inside me, was a child that had loved the touch and feel of snow. It may never say on my CV, but the highlight of the trip was not the modern transportation system in Europe and the UK, the fancy cars, the modern structures, the rows of five-star hotels in London, the food or the language, no. The highlight of the entire trip was to stand outside and get to throw my first snowball across the front office garden in Harrogate, while reflecting on the intricate query searches embedded in the Coda-Financials enterprise solution.
One day, Malawi will do more than read about snowballs and ice. We will have a winter athlete that will represent us in the Winter Olympics Games. We will have someone stand on the podium, with a gold medal. It’s my dream and you better believe it.