Malawi Part III: Heading North

One thing you don’t want to happen on a 6-week overland trip through Africa is get sick.  So I was feeling pretty nervous when I finally acknowledged there was something wrong at Kande Beach in Malawi. My glands felt swollen, I was a bit feverish, my stomach was complaining and one side of my throat was becoming increasingly painful whenever I swallowed.  In the absence of any medical advice I self-diagnosed tonsillitis, something I used to get a lot as a teenager and still get roughly every 5-years as an adult but usually after I’ve become run down from another illness like a bad cold or the flu.  Apart from the dodgy stomach the symptoms were typical of how I normally experience tonsillitis so I took to my beach shack for an early night after dosing myself with some generic antibiotics my Doctor had prescribed, a Strepsil lozenge and a sleeping pill.  It would be another day or so before we would get to a pharmacy so I wasn’t taking any chances.

I woke 12-hours later to the sound of waves lapping the shore of Lake Malawi and crossed my fingers as I nervously swallowed some water.  It appeared that even if my diagnosis could be wrong the self-medication had worked but I was still nervous about possibly using the wrong antibiotics for tonsillitis and that might mean it would come back with a vengeance when I stopped taking them so resolved to buy some penicillin at the next pharmacy.

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Sunrise over Lake Malawi from my beach shack on Kande Beach.

After breakfast we hit the road once again to make for Chitimba, a small settlement about 3 1/2 hours drive north yet still on Lake Malawi.  This was a pretty and interesting drive that took us back over the mountains that border the western side of the lake then through many rural towns before we stopped at the large settlement of Mzuzu, the largest city in northern Malawi and a regional capital.  Not only is Mzuzu an important agricultural center known for tea, rubber and coffee but it is also a manufacturing hub where pharmaceuticals and cosmetics are produced.

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We stopped to pick up supplies at the supermarket and I wasn’t the only person relieved to find a pharmacy.  Back in Victoria Falls a couple were settling in for the first night of their trip.  They left their tent to have dinner and somehow a monkey broke in, rifled through the woman’s backpack to find her shower kit, emptied out the contents and of all of the interesting things to steal it chose her birth control pills.  Leaving all the other choice treats behind it took them up a tree and we aren’t sure what happened next except that we found the blister-packs at the bottom of the tree empty of all the pills leaving the couple with only a weeks supply for the rest of their 3-week romantic African holiday.  We figured either the monkey wanted a year off from raising young or had an evil sense of humor, in any case we all felt bad for the couple so were glad to find you can buy contraceptive pills over the counter in Malawi whilst I picked up a 10-day supply of Amoxicillin (the antibiotic normally used for tonsillitis) for the grand price of $1.50.  It turned out I didn’t need them and whatever my illness was it never came back but it was a good lesson in being well prepared with medication when it comes to traveling in remote places.

We were stopped at a small strip mall consisting of the pharmacy, a few small cafes, boutiques and a supermarket.  I remember the stop well for more than just the cheap drugs.  Firstly the entrance was lined with tables and Carlsberg branded umbrellas.  It seemed that Malawi was full of Carlsberg beer branding on umbrellas, billboards, bus stops or painted on shop walls.  We noticed it was often the only beer you could buy and we could no longer buy cider.  The campsite bars had fridges filled with bottles of Carlsberg in different sizes and strengths with an absence of anything else.     We joked that Carlsberg probably sponsored the government of Malawi and later found out that wasn’t too far from the truth.

The Danish company decided to establish a brewery in Malawi in 1966, the year the country gained independence from Britain.   After speaking with a few staff at campsites it seems that the Carlsberg negotiated a series of distribution rights that resulted in a whopping 97% market share.  They provided employment and income for Malawi so it appears that exclusive deals were fairly well supported at a government level and eventually Press Corporation Ltd, a Malawian investment company acquired a major share.  In 2016 Carlsberg sold it’s 59% share to Castel Group, a major French beverage company so future travelers can expect to see a bit more variety although I have no doubt that those green Carlsberg signs will be visible across the country for a few more decades yet.

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One of hundreds of examples of Carlsberg branding in Malawi.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Next to the strip mall is Mapale Health Centre, as is typical throughout Malawi this was a relatively small clinic servicing a huge number of people and is responsible for pre and post-natal care for mothers and babies as well as performing all the usual functions of a regional clinic.   A high wall separated us from the clinic grounds but the sound of voices indicated that there were up to 100 women waiting outside with children.  Many of these had probably walked a long distance to get there.  We weren’t sure if they had come for a something like a vaccination day or if this was a normal Monday morning rush but it once again highlighted the sad state of healthcare for Malawians that we had seen on a smaller yet no less depressing scale at the clinic we visited in Kande Beach, with maternity care being a particular problem.  The World Health Organisation ranks Malawi’s healthcare very low on a global scale and although the government has increased investment over the last decade it remains woefully inadequate when factoring in rapid population growth and the array of health issues the population faces such as HIV and Malaria.

When we returned to the truck with our shopping we found it had attracted the usual traders wanting to sell us trinkets but also present was a group of adolescent boys who appeared to be homeless.  This was something we hadn’t seen around the truck before and they were asking us for money and food.  As we were leaving one of my tripmates passed a large packet of chips to them from the truck window that they seemed very excited to get.  A group of nearby men proceeded to steal the chips then laugh whilst eating them in front of the very upset looking kids.  These men appeared to be well-fed taxi drivers waiting by the mall and it angered us to see them steal food from hungry kids.  We all felt disturbed by this as we drove past crowded rundown markets then out of Mzuzu.

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The drive once again took us past numerous small rural settlements and farms then up the mountain range that borders Lake Malawi.  Once we climbed down the other side we got perhaps the best views of the lake so far, something we’d get to enjoy for longer this time as our driver had to slow down for the numerous baboons on the road.  We arrived at our fabulous Chitimba campsite late in the afternoon.  I once again upgraded to a small shack for a mere US$10 then made for the bar along with my notebook.

I needed to catch up on my trip notes and whilst doing this got chatting to the owners who were Dutch expats.  They reiterated many things we’d heard already, namely that they believe the presence of Schistosomiasis disease in the lake is overblown* to the point that it seriously damages tourism and therefore the economy.  We also discussed why Malawi can’t seem to get ahead economically so the talk inevitably turned to corruption, the misuse of international aid and the fact that the world just doesn’t understand Africa.  They told me that due to the Ebola outbreak and Boko Haram terrorist activity over the past few years people weren’t visiting even though both of those things happened several countries away from Malawi.

Many people seem to perceive that if something happens in one part of Africa then it has happened to the whole of Africa.  Once again I heard good analogies for this such as people thinking Malawi wasn’t safe because of Ebola or Boko Haram was like people thinking Los Angeles wasn’t safe during Hurricane Katrina even though New Orleans is almost 2,000 miles away from California.  Malawi needs a lot of things to happen before it can be a prosperous nation but a good start would be people realising that Africa is a huge and diverse continent and not one country so that Malawi isn’t negatively impacted by tourism due to events happening hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away.

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Some views from the road into Chitimba.

Top image courtesy of Kit Garretts

The owner also sat down and showed me some stunning photography he has taken of Malawi and the lake that you can view by clicking here and trust me it is worth a look.  This lead to another discussion about something that had been bothering me during this trip too.  He said that despite the beautiful views he mostly sees tourists looking at their phones whilst sat at the bar.  If he points out a beautiful full moon over the lake or the fact that the local friendly genet has turned up to observe the customers people will look up, say something appreciative, snap a quick photo on their phone then return to whatever they were doing online.  It seemed to him that people were becoming detached from their travels and experiencing everything from the perspective of how well it will play out on social media.  Perhaps they weren’t taking time to really immerse themselves in their surroundings.

It brought up some interesting ideas about connectivity during travel and whether it is in fact a good thing.  It is necessary these days if you are traveling for business and that is something I understand very well from my own career but perhaps sometimes less technology is better so that you are more connected to your current location and less connected to the world in general.  I’ll be writing a little more about that in a later post and I’d love to hear what other people think about it.

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This genet (I believe called Janet) likes to hang out at the Chitimba Camp bar most evenings.

Images courtesy of Kit Garretts

It was our last night in Malawi and we were all enjoying a couple of drinks when at around 10pm an overland truck from another company arrived.  They had driven the same route we would the next day but in the opposite direction and had arrived several hours late.  I felt bad for them so went to help them set up their tents and heard that it was a horrific drive thanks to road construction and it had taken them 13 bumpy and dusty hours.  I returned to my friends to break the news so we all headed off to bed early to be ready for an early start and I’m sure we all hoped that somehow they were exaggerating so that our drive would be better.  Sadly that wasn’t to be.

* Because I am neither scientist or doctor I have no opinion on whether or not Schistosomiasis is overblown as a risk to people swimming in Lake Malawi.  I’ve gotten ill twice after swimming in other countries, once in the Mediterranean Sea near St. Tropez and once in an English river so I tend to stay out of the water anywhere in the world unless I’m very confident it is safe.  That never stops me visiting a destination as I’m content to enjoy things from the shore or on a boat.  I think you can enjoy Lake Malawi whether or not you decide to get in it.

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