Malawi Part I: The Warm Heart of Africa

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa which of course makes it one of the poorest on Earth.  It is also known for being one of the most welcoming and friendliest countries on the continent and thus has earned the nickname ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’.  We were coming from Zambia which is also known for being very poor and very friendly.  I didn’t detect any major difference in friendliness and hospitality from one side of the border to the other but the difference in standard of living was obvious.

We were heading to Lake Malawi, the next big destination on our trip and our journey began after an incredible early morning safari in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia that you can click here to read about.  After that we made a roughly 2-hour drive to Chipata, a small Zambian city close to the border.  We spent the night at an interesting campsite called Mama Rulas where we encountered a South African who was biking all the way from Cape Town to Cairo that we shared dinner with whilst celebrating our last night in Zambia.

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A shoe store Zambian-style

We left early the next morning to try to get to the border post at Mchinji before the crowds built-up.  Our entry into Malawi was interesting to say the least thanks to an immigration officer who took a shine to me.  We were in a part of Africa where there are plenty of men who will take a shine to a single woman who might be able to offer them access to citizenship in a western country so it wasn’t long before I had a marriage proposal much to our amusement.  The officer insisted on only dealing with me so I had to handle the passports for the whole group and he roped me into handing out entry forms to everybody waiting in line so that Africans crossing the border that morning had the bizarre experience of a New Zealand woman handing out their immigration forms and directing them to the right window to line up.   I never expected I’d be volunteering to help out at a Malawian border post nor that I would receive a marriage proposal at one but as long as it helped us get through quickly I was happy to play along.

With my suitor waving sadly at us we drove into Malawi and through Mchinji itself.  With a population of around 450,000 this remote city has a made international headlines a surprising number of times.  In 1930 a lion began harassing the area causing 36 deaths.  In 1989 a large earthquake struck that left around 50,000 people homeless.  Mchinji is also where Madonna famously adopted her children from Home of Hope in 2006, one of the largest orphanages in Malawi and just recently in February 2017 she announced that she had adopted twins from there to join her family.

Media stories during the first adoptions had led me to believe that they were unpopular in Malawi so I asked a few locals when I was there and that didn’t seem to be the case at all.  The various people I spoke to thought it was a good thing because not only did it increase awareness about the issues facing people in Malawi but they thought that one day when her children grew up they might come back with a good education and do something to help the villages and towns that they came from.  It doesn’t surprise me that I never read about this point of view in the British and American press where she faced criticism and ridicule for the adoptions.  The fact remains that not only did Madonna personally change an otherwise fairly hopeless fate that awaited those children but she has probably done more to educate the public about the almost impossible situation many children in Malawi face than anyone else, a situation I would get to see for myself over the coming days.

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It was a long, scenic and interesting drive from Mchinji to our campsite at Kande Beach.  We were on a paved road but it was in poor condition with tarmac washed away in many places from previous floods.  We passed through many small villages and towns teaming with colorfully dressed smiling people.  Our arms ached from waving at everyone.  Up until now it was mainly kids that waved at us but in Malawi even the grown ups would turn from whatever they were doing, throw us a huge grin and wave enthusiastically.

On the outskirts of a small village we stopped for a pee break and as usual it wasn’t long before a group of children shyly approached us.  They were holding a soccer ball fashioned out of plastic grocery bags wrapped around old rubber tire inners and fastened together with string.  We saw kids all over Africa playing soccer with ‘balls’ like this.   We knew we were visiting a clinic and a school the next day so in Zambia we had stocked up on soccer balls, pencils, paper and feminine hygiene products to hand out.  As these kids stood staring at us we all agreed that we should give them one of the balls so they had something decent to play with.  One of the guys fetched one from the truck and threw it to them.  The result was incredible as they grabbed it and sprinted toward the village whilst hollering in glee and holding it above their heads like a trophy.  The noise caused other people to wonder what was happening and as they realised the village had a brand new ball various other people began yelling in excitement and running toward the kids who took less than a minute to start a soccer game on a nearby patch of dirt.

I thought back to some children in my life who had been especially ungrateful about far more exciting presents a few Christmases prior with one of them even exclaiming ‘I hate you Santa’ as she threw some wonderful toys across the room in disgust.  If only I could transport them and every other kid I’d seen throwing a tantrum in a toy store to Malawi for a week to teach them a lesson about privilege and being thankful.  We drove out of the village feeling happy, humbled and in awe at how much impact a cheap soccer ball could have.

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The drive eventually took us up a mountain range where the forest became more jungle-like and we had to dodge baboons on the road.  Soon somebody shouted that they could see water and we all looked to see the huge blue vista of Lake Malawi disappearing into the horizon.  It was absolutely massive and looked more like the ocean than a lake.  The view was stunning as we continued down the mountain range to the edge of the lake then drove the final few kilometres to Kande Beach which is a small town on the main road about 20-minutes walk from the beach itself where our campsite was located.  To get to it we had to traverse a bumpy narrow road that is mainly used as a walking track through banana trees and cassava farms filled with more waving and curious children before we finally wound up on a beautiful sandy shoreline.

Lake Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and occupies much of the Eastern section of the country.  It also forms the border between Malawi and Tanzania as well as a large portion of the border with Mozambique.  It is the lifeblood of the northern part of Malawi with the majority of settlements being close to its shore or along tributary rivers.  It is a beautiful lake that is home to more species of fish than any other in the world and also houses  a large population of Nile Crocodiles as many signs at our campsite frequently reminded us.   The pretty blue waters are also said to be home to Shistosmiasis or Bilharzia, a waterborne disease that whilst curable can be serious if not treated properly.

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The subject is controversial among travelers and business owners in Malawi with many blaming overblown hype in the media and in online forums about the illness for a downturn in business.  The Dutch expat owner of our campsite said he’d been swimming in the lake every day for 15-years and had never got sick.   My own doctor had warned me about swimming there and had advised me of some precautions to take.  After getting ill a few times from swimming in other parts of the world (both in Europe I might add) I generally don’t go in the water anywhere unless I’m sure it is safe so it didn’t bother me.   However one thing notable about Lake Malawi was that although there were plenty of locals using it to bathe and wash clothes in, very few tourists were venturing into the water with most enjoying it from the beach.

We were staying at this campsite for two nights and now that we were off the main tourist route (and had been since we crossed into Zambia) things were getting progressively cheaper and this was particularly true with accommodation.  For US$10 I was able to upgrade from my tent to a private beach hut and although it was very rudimentary with lots of holes to let the bugs in, the bed was comfy, the mosquito net worked well and I had a cute little patio with a wonderful view.  I think it is safe to say that I got very good value for money.

It was wonderful for all of us to have this big and fairly empty beach to enjoy and it wasn’t long before our small group were either sunbathing, playing beach volleyball or soaking up the lake views from the bar.  We saw other tourists taking horse rides out into the lake where the horses eventually swam about with delighted travelers on their backs.  There were a lot of locals on the beach too, some going about daily chores like laundry and others chatting with the tourists.  Whilst I am sure that some of them were chatting out of genuine curiosity, normally there was an ulterior motive which was to get us to buy artwork or trinkets.  I’ll talk more about that in my next post because it came to be something that created a bit of stress during our time at Kande Beach.

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My humble yet perfect beach shack

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For now it was a magical first night by the lake with the sound of the waves lapping on the shore and what seemed like hundreds of lights from tiny fishing boats creating a starry effect on the surface.  Waterborne diseases or not, Lake Malawi is a stunning destination.  It is beautiful, the people are friendly and because it is still largely undiscovered by the mass backpacker crowds it is still peaceful and cheap.  I imagine it would be what places such as Thailand and Goa were like before the backpackers descended en masse and I also imagine that it won’t stay like that for too long so if you can get there now then do.

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