First Open Air Cinema in Malawi

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Chileka wasn’t exactly what you might call Africa’s most busy airport in 1969; it still isn’t. Back then the highlight of the week was the Tuesday arrival of a VC10 as it thundered low across the plain to make the final stop on its weekly flight from London, usually via Cyprus, Sudan and Uganda. A few hours later it started out on the first leg of its return run. On Mondays and Thursdays an East African Airways Caravelle flew in from Nairobi and then away and….. well that’s it really apart from when Air Malawi’s sole DC3 left on a domestic flight up to the north of the country stopping briefly at Lilongwe and Mzuzu if anyone wanted to get off.

So not much ever happened at the airport, and with an unlit runway there were no night flights, but this all suited the residents of Blantyre, the small Malawian commercial town that Chileka served – they didn’t need anything bigger or more sophisticated.

But the airport was more than just an airport, more than just a link with the outside world where the 60s were in full swing. The airport, or rather its club house, was one of the few social venues relied on by the predominantly British expatriate community that felt just a little bit vulnerable and isolated sine British rule ended a few years before. The Airport Club was the place to go at week-ends with its kidney dish-shaped swimming pool set yards from the usually idle runway and the bar. That’s all there was to it, but that’s all that was needed along with a spell of good weather, but I seem to remember there being a swing too, just the one, and a see-saw.

1969 was a year to remember for the club. That was the year the club committee decided to branch out into a new area of entertainment – cinema. My 10 year old mind imagined a room filled with cigarette smoke whose windows were painted black to keep out the light, but what the committee had in mind was an open air venture with one of the whitewashed walls of the club house doubling up as a giant screen.

It was an exciting time for our family and for many others too I suppose. My father imagined a succession of Westerns that he had watched first in Ireland after the war; along with my younger brothers I imagined a weekly dose of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck which was the limit of my experience, but none of us ever had our expectations met.

The first screening was a much talked about affair and was programmed for a Saturday night in August. August was always hot, but the title of the first showing was to be known to no-one until the reels of film arrived on the VC10 from London that week.

Saturday arrived at last. It had been like waiting for Christmas in our house, something that always made me nervous and still does because the promise of good things always carries with it the possibility of disappointment. We spent that Saturday afternoon at the pool, splashing around, lying impatiently on the grass, eating a picnic and forever asking what the time was, and it was never much later than the previous time we asked.

At the hottest part of the afternoon, around two o’clock, we were distracted for a while by an airplane taxiing along the runway belching fumes and creating a raucous dim uncommon even for ‘planes in the 1960s. It was a DC3 that shuttled cheap labour from various Southern African countries to the diamond mines of South Africa. When it had positioned itself for takeoff it sat still for a long while until eventually the side door opened and two men jumped clear followed by their bags. The men picked themselves up and ran the few yards to the low fence we were peering through, scrambled over it and lay panting on the grass. The main concern for some Club members was that these men were intruders who hadn’t paid their membership fees which were far too high for most Malawians to afford. I was more taken by the fact that they had been too terrified to fly and had created such a fuss that the pilot refused to take off with them on board.

When the DC3 finally left and the last traces of the black smoke from its engines had fallen through the still air and settled on the dry countryside, the heat of the afternoon gradually began to give way to the cooler air of the approaching evening. As dusk eventually started to draw in we all dried ourselves and changed into our clothes after a last splash in the pool. Anticipation and excitement mounted as darkness fell abruptly as it tends to in that part of the world. Drinks were ordered and chairs dragged across the lawns and we all sat in family groups staring hopefully at the big, white, featureless wall.

Even as a 10 year old I realised how silly we all must have looked sitting on chairs looking at that wall in the middle of an African nowhere just 10 yards from an airport runway and 5 yards from a swimming pool. Farcical in some ways, but everyone seemed to notice not the incongruity of their position but the sophistication of going to the cinema at their own private club.

The film? Not John Wayne, not Mickey Mouse, but The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews came belting across the Alps onto our neat African lawn beside the airport and we were mesmerised.

Everything about the experience was incongruous, but perhaps the greatest incongruities came during the silences and other times of quietness in the film. That’s when we could hear the chirping of crickets and the trumpeting of a herd of elephants as the Austrian nuns were at prayer in the Abbey near Salzburg, and while we watched the Von Trapp children swinging from trees, our projectionist for the evening scrambled up and down the mimosa tree at the club at Chileka airport to attend to the projector that he had anchored high in the branches, so that all Africa could see what was showing in the cinemas of England.

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