Malawi Part II: A Village Visit

Our small group assembled with two local guides on one side of the large metal gates that separated our campsite from the village outside.  They gave us a rundown about what to expect from the tour we were taking at Kande Beach that morning.  We would visit their village, a medical clinic and a school.  As they explained everything the noise from a crowd gathered on the other side of the gates got more frantic.  People shouted at each other in a language we couldn’t understand but it was clear that we were going into this crowd that were excited to see us because they know that tourists like us provide a valuable income stream to their community.  It was intimidating but not wholly unexpected.

As the gates opened we were immediately accosted by a crowd of men who whilst polite were also grabbing at us and their goal soon became apparent.  They had mostly split into pairs and each one attached themselves to one of us for most of the tour with the aim being to charm us into buying something from them on the way back.   As we walked toward our first stop at the village they began asking innocent questions about where we were from, what we did back home and told us about how interested they were in talking to foreigners.    I immediately recognised the two men who were talking to me as the same two that had been hassling me to buy art at my beach shack the night before, they returned after dark to invite me to a party.  I had politely declined both but I noticed that they didn’t seem to remember me from the night before so presented different stories about who they were and asked me the same questions all over again.

We first made several stops in the village immediately next to the campground where our guide did a great job of explaining about day-to-day life there.  We learned about preparing cassava for food, obtaining water, how the chickens and their eggs are kept safe from predators plus he took us into his own house so we could see how people lived inside the hundreds of huts and brick houses we drove past on our trip.  Whilst inside he explained to us the challenges facing people in his community when it comes to education, making a living and getting healthcare, messages that would be reiterated to us throughout the day.

Cassava being pounded into a grain.

Photo courtesy of Kit Garretts

A chicken house.  At night the ladder is removed to keep rats and other predators away whilst the hens sleep.  At his feet are some of the bags of gifts we bought.

Throughout the village we met children and were taken aback by how affectionate they were.  Within minutes of arriving at our first stop we were being hugged and our hands were being held by at least two children to each of us, sometimes with a few more hanging onto a leg or the back of a shirt.  They loved to have their photo taken as long as you showed them the photo afterwards which never failed to make them laugh their heads off.


One of my tripmates enjoying time with the kids.

Photo courtesy of Moritz Bauer

We had prepared for our visit a few days before in Zambia where we stopped at a supermarket to buy books, pencils, soccer balls, items for newborn babies (diapers, formula, baby powder etc.) and sanitary towels/pads for women and girls.  I had learned several years ago that many African girls in poorer areas have to miss school for several days a month due to a lack of pads and tampons.  This struck me as particularly depressing as it means that just because you are female you miss out on a full education.  It is hard enough for women in poverty to get ahead even with an education so I couldn’t imagine how much of a handicap it would be to have to miss several days every month, something that leads many to just give up on school altogether as they fall so far behind.  For this reason I had the interesting experience of checking out at the Zambian supermarket with about 30 packs of Lil-Lets pads whilst assuring anyone who stared at me funny that ‘they aren’t all for me’.

At our last stop in the village a crowd of mostly women and children gathered so we began handing out our supplies that were very gratefully received, especially the sanitary products.   What was interesting was how many women asked me for face cream, something I hadn’t thought to bring so if you are heading to Malawi see if you can pick up some Nivea or Garnier beauty products to bring with you.  If pads are almost impossible to buy then you can imagine how coveted a jar of Olay is.

img_0492p1080533Lower image courtesy of Kit Garretts

We needed to retain most of our items for the school and clinic so we soon moved on to make a 20-minute walk under a very hot sun through the cassava plantations to the main town.  It was a beautiful walk, occasionally passing through shady glades of trees and always with a view of the forest-covered hills in front of us.  However whilst our ‘escorts’ had largely left us alone in the village they were glued to our sides during the walk, constantly peppering us with questions and relaying outlandish stories so it was hard to take everything else in.

Walking with our escorts.

Photo courtesy of Kit Garretts

Once we reached the main road the guides told our escorts to wait until we came back from our next two stops.  We crossed the road to make our way to the clinic and were immediately accosted by more groups of very excited and affectionate kids.  When we discussed it later we couldn’t figure out if this was genuine interest on behalf of the kids or if it was part of a wider plan to soften our hearts so that we would hand over more gifts or buy more souvenirs from the adults.  What we did notice was that even when given gifts the same kids would still hang around for hugs and to play games with us.  And I think we all agreed that we didn’t care because they were so lovely.

At the clinic we were welcomed by the medial assistant who runs a place originally built to serve the basic healthcare needs of a population of 2,000 people but now deals with a population of 18,000.  There is no doctor, just this very over-worked medical assistant and a nurse.   We were invited into the maternity ward which was a small concrete room where a handful of women with newborns were recovering from childbirth on some rudimentary beds.  We met a mother with two twins who were born a little premature but they were unable to find a way to transport them to the hospital that is a few hours drive away to get the care that they needed however they seemed healthy and strong so it was hoped that with the right care at the clinic they would be okay.

img_4058img_4059img_4060Clinic photos courtesy of Sasha Pinz

It was explained to us that thanks to international aid there was no shortage of drugs but they lacked other basic medical supplies and once again lamented the fact that they don’t have much-needed feminine hygiene products.  Another key issue that the newborn twins highlighted is a lack of transport to the main hospital should it be needed.  Hardly anyone owns a car or even a motorbike, public transport is thin on the ground and not always suitable for someone who needs medical care so somehow family have to raise funds to hire a taxi service, something that is out of financial reach for most people.

Whilst HIV remains a critical issue the top problem is Malaria prevention whether that be treating standing water, providing mosquito nets, insecticides etc.  Whilst these diseases can and do kill scores of people in Africa they are generally survivable with the right treatment and certainly are preventable.  When people think of HIV and Malaria they often think of how tragic it is for so many people to die from these diseases when most people in developed nations are saved by modern healthcare but the wider socioeconomic impact on communities is sometimes overlooked.   Children are often left without one or more parents who have either been killed by disease or rendered too sick to care for them.  People suffering from these illnesses may often be too ill to work or even to do basic things like fetch water, tend to crops, look after chickens  and so on.  This often means that children are forced to take on the role of parent and provider then are unable to complete their education and therefore lose any hope of ever breaking out of the poverty cycle.  In fact, families that were doing well can be driven into poverty and homelessness when parents are infected with HIV or Malaria.  And that doesn’t even touch on the tragedy of infected children.

Our next stop was the primary school that like the clinic is overwhelmed by numbers.  11 teachers are responsible for the education of 1,800 students.  Each class has between 160 and 200 students.  For this reason the day is split into two shifts with half the students attending school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.  We were there the day before term started so school uniforms were a hot topic.  The government believes that uniforms are important for equality.  The idea is that you can’t tell the difference between poor students and ones that are more well off, a concept I agree with.  The problem is that the uniform costs $10 per child which is difficult for many parents to afford especially if they have multiple children in school.   It is compulsory to wear except on Wednesdays when children come in their regular clothes so that their parents can wash the uniforms.

We sat in one of the classrooms for a talk from the principal and it was very hard to imagine 200 kids in there all being taught by one teacher.  We looked at the schoolbooks and I was surprised to find huge piles of books I recognised from my own schooling in New Zealand in the early 1980s.  The teacher told me that at one point a New Zealand teacher had volunteered there and she organized for her school back home to send all of their old books.  That was a wonderful gesture but it saddened me that the content was so old.  I remember some of those books being at the end of their life when I used them so I opened up a few to take a look and whilst some were timeless others were sadly out of date.


A New Zealand schoolbook complete with a New Zealand native bird on the cover and the original stamp.

Top image courtesy of Kassie Hunt & Andrew Hodge

We were able to make donations at both the clinic and the school so I left as much as I could afford at both.  We also handed out books and pencils to the kids who went nuts over them.  I’ve honestly never seen kids get so excited over a pencil.  As we walked back to camp with our escorts now brazenly asking us to buy their stuff I thought about how all the gifts we had handed out and money we spent felt so inadequate compared to the challenges they were facing.  Whilst all students can attend primary school in Malawi only students with the best exam results are able to go onto secondary school (high school) and that still relies on their parents being able to afford to send them to wherever the nearest one is.  Students who don’t do well and who can’t afford private school end their education at that point with no hope of attending university.

The school children lining up for our pencils and books.

Photo courtesy of Kassie Hunt & Andrew Hodge


Photo courtesy of Kit Garretts

I think it is impossible to break the cycle of poverty if people aren’t able to get a full education particularly when there are few jobs.  The following evening I spent some time talking to some expats that ran a campsite along with one of their Malawian staff members.  I asked a lot of questions about the issues in the country and their answers echoed what we were told on this tour.   Education is a major issue but perhaps more worrying is lack of government investment in core services such as healthcare.  For example, I heard on many occasions that there are lots of fully trained Malawian doctors but no jobs for them in the healthcare system.  Malawian doctors end up being subsistence farmers or fisherman whilst foreign doctors have to pick up the slack at overwhelmed clinics like the one in Kande Beach by working voluntarily.

Like many African nations there is a lack of industry meaning once again a lack of jobs.   Whilst raw materials might be plentiful there are a lack of factories to process them.  For example, they might export timber that is then processed at a factory abroad whereas if they had the processing plants themselves that would create employment.  Nigeria is a great example of this because they are a major oil producer but they don’t have any oil refineries  which is not only a lost employment and income opportunity but they actually have to buy back fuel from foreign countries, fuel made from their own oil.

I don’t know what it would take to make a country like Malawi become a more prosperous nation full of meaningful opportunities for her citizens.  I suspect it starts with stamping out corruption so that international aid and profits from exports do get reinvested into industry and manufacturing.  If there is a demand for skilled workers then hopefully investment into education and healthcare would be a logical next step, something made easier for the government if more people are paying taxes and can afford to contribute themselves.

What I do know is that Africans are famous for producing wonderful arts and crafts yet most African things I saw on sale whether they be baskets, printed cloth, wooden carvings or paintings were made in China.  I’ll leave that there for you to think about.

I would like to thank fellow travelers Kit Garretts, Sasha Pinz, Mortiz Bauer, Kassie Hunt and Andrew Hodge for letting me use their great photos.  I haven’t included them in the slideshow in case someone thinks they are mine and I definitely can’t take the credit for them!

Slideshow (just my photos)

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