At 5am in the morning, the surface of Lake Malawi is still and blue. The air is cool with a light breeze replacing the storm that raged the night before. On the far side of the lake, to the south, the mountains of Mozambique slip in and out of a cloud bank. To the north, the water stretches past small islands all the way to the horizon – a sharp line dividing dark water from pale blue sky.
The sand crunches underfoot as I run along the beach. Looking at the water, sand and palm trees, it’s hard to believe this is not the ocean. One small giveaway is the fresh water snail shells scattered along the waterline, where you would normally expect seas shells to be. Another is the fresh air, which lacks the salt tang of the seaside.
I pass through a gate in the wall that marks the end of the resort, Club Makokola, and enter a different lakeside world. The beach here is wilder and less manicured. A line of Malawian women in colourful chitenge wraps walk down the beach from wood and reed houses at the top of the sand dunes, carrying piles of pots and pans improbably balanced on their heads. To achieve this feat, they walk with perfectly straight backs and necks, staring resolutely ahead.
At the water’s edge, women and girls wash pots and clothes in the lake. Several large nets have been strung out on the beach, and a group of fishermen work methodically through them, fixing knots and holes. The bay is full of small wooden fishing boats and canoes made from individual tree trunks, bobbing up and down on the water. A group of six boys sit on a wooden canoe that has been pulled up onto the beach and wave at me.
One of the fishermen calls out “muli bwanji?” (how are you?), as I run past, and I reply “ndiri bwino, kaya inu?” (I am fine, and you?). “Ndiri bwanji, zikomo!” (I am also fine, thank you), came the predictable response.
It is this endearing politeness and friendliness that has earned Malawi the standfirst “the warm heart of Africa”. It’s a country that is welcoming to foreigners, or mzungus (travellers), in a way that some African countries with deeper colonial scars are not. By Southern African standards, it’s also safe and stable, having avoided the wars and civil conflicts that have plagued other neighbouring countries.
On another occasion, I went a bit further along the lake shore and ran into a ship yard. There were no buildings or cranes, just the metal frames of around a dozen large boats rising up from the sand like the skeletons of beached whales. I struck up a conversation with a shipwright who, like many older Malawians, spoke excellent English.
“My name is John Kalengo,” he said. “I’m from Zomba. I came to Mangochi 20 years ago to build boats. These are fishing boats. They take about six months to complete. That one is my favourite boat. I like the curve at the front. It’s very elegant. But now they say I am too old to work, so soon I will go back home to Zomba.”
I’ve lived in Malawi for a year now, coming from Thailand. My previous job was for UNICEF’s regional Asia-Pacific office and I travelled around the region, blogging as I went. In Malawi, with a two-year-old son and more intense job, I’ve had little time to write. But with my wife and son in Hong Kong for a few weeks, I took the chance to spend a weekend at the lakeside catching up on my writing.
We live in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, which in many ways is the direct opposite of Bangkok. On the good side, where Bangkok was hot, humid and polluted, with almost no green space and terrible traffic jams, Lilongwe is cool (for at least half the year), with empty roads, fresh air and no shortage of open space. My son Zefi loves the outdoors. He always wants to go outside to see the papaya trees and search the ground for ‘shakers’, seed pods in various shapes and sizes that make a noise like maracas when you rattle them.
Built as a new post-independence capital 40 years ago, Lilongwe still has the feel of a half-finished city, like a watercolour sketch for a painting still to come. Every built up block is followed by an area of farmland or bush. Even the grandiose Parliament building is surrounded by open land and earth tracks. We live near the bottom of a valley in Area 10. Our ‘road’ is an unnamed earth track which narrows to become a footpath to a small lake. In front of our house is a small stream used as irrigation for sugar cane and maize fields. And that’s in one of Lilongwe’s most salubrious neighbourhoods, where Ambassadors and Government Ministers live.
On the other hand, we miss big city life. Bangkok has more restaurants and coffee shops than you can visit in a lifetime. It has vast shopping malls, cinemas, a 7-11 store on every corner, and street stalls selling delicious noodles and fresh fruit at very affordable prices.
Lilongwe, however, has little of anything. There are half a dozen good restaurants, which is fine for the first few weeks but soon becomes repetitive. Grocery shopping is a mission. We have to drive around town for half a morning, picking up whatever is in stock in half a dozen different stores. And when a new movie comes out, our options are a weekend to South Africa or waiting until it’s available for (painfully slow) download.
Then there are the power cuts. The main source of electricity in Malawi is hydro-electricity, which works well during the rainy season when the reservoirs are full. But in the hot, dry season power cuts get longer and more regular, until in November people are surviving on around four hours of electricity a day. Not everyone is in the same boat, however. At night Lilongwe plunges into darkness except for the street lights along the road to the Presidential Palace, and the Chinese Casino, which blazes neon light into the night like a misplaced mirage of Macau.
We have a generator at our compound, which makes a big difference, but that also suffers regular breakdowns. We bought a portable gas stove and stocked up on solar jars. These are a neat invention from South Africa, basically a glass jar with a solar panel on the outside of the lid, and an LED light on the inside. I take them out in the morning and leave them in the sun. When I get home from work, I bring them in and have light all evening. They can even be carried around like an old fashioned lantern. After that, power cuts became almost fun, like a family camping trip.
There are many pleasures of life in Malawi, starting with the wildlife. We have a stunning array of tropical birds that visit our compound, which reminds me at times of going on safari in Zambia. The African Hoopie is a frequent visitor. It has an elaborate orange and black crest on its head, like an avian punk rocker, and a long beak which it uses to dig for worms. My personal favourite is the Livingstone’s Turaco. This is a green and blue bird with a deep kawk-kawk-kawk call. When it takes off, it reveals a sudden, unexpected flash of bright red plumage on the underside of its wings. If several birds launch at once, the display is spectacular.
There are also hyenas. I’ve never seen them, but at night we hear packs of them fighting local dogs for access to the lake. Their weird high pitched calls and ‘laughs’ sound like something out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I also learned not to leave my running shoes outside. When I picked up a trainer one morning, a large fat frog jumped out at me. Later, showing my wife Joyce what had happened, the same frog jumped out of the other shoe. After that, they stayed indoors.
Although I don’t have much time for holidays, my work with UNICEF has taken me to some interesting corners of Malawi. As Chief of Communication, my responsibilities are broad – from media relations to donor visibility, public advocacy, youth media and managing a team of 14 people – and that keeps me in the office a lot. But I still find opportunities to get out to ‘the field’ with my camera and notepad, to tell children’s stories.
One my favourite stories so far is about a fishing village recovering from cholera. Here we interviewed a fisherman and his family, including 14-year-old Ronald Bamus. The village was way off the tourist track, and all the children in the neighbourhood were excited to see us. I got some great photos of three children laughing on the road outside Ronald’s house (at the top of this post). One thing I’ve learned from taking photos of my son is that if you laugh at small children, even for no reason at all, they will always laugh back at you.
During the interview, I asked Ronald what he did for fun and he told us playing pool. So we went off to find a pool table to take some photos. There was a trading centre nearby that had a bar with proper tables, but that’s not what the children used. Instead, a particularly enterprising child had made a miniature table out of wood, using sticks for cues and marbles instead of balls. He charged the other children 10 kwacha per game to use it.
My other favourite story became known as ‘Granny Homebrew’. It’s about a 71-year-old recipient of a UNICEF cash grant, targeted at the poorest 10 per cent of families. The idea of this is that the family can chose themselves what to spend it on. In Meria Maluka’s case, after buying food and school uniforms for her grandchildren, she used the remaining money to set up a successful business selling home brewed beer. She was a delightful old lady with a surprising amount of energy, optimism and humour. When I interviewed her, she frequently broke into laughter or a broad gap-toothed smile.
“I make the best homebrew in this area,” she told me. “We play a drum to let people know when it’s ready. Everyone comes here first.” I asked her if it was as good as Carlsberg, which is brewed in Malawi and considered to be the national beer. “I don’t know if it is as good as Carlsberg,” she replied, “But I can tell you it is good.” Unfortunately, on the day we visited, Meria had already sold out. “I wish I had some to serve you now,” she said. “You shouldn’t be sitting there without a beer!”
Apart from field trips, my other regular pleasure was driving my off-road motorbike. I had a moped in Bangkok, which I used to halve the time to work by weaving through traffic jams. In Malawi, there is no traffic to speak off, but you do have to contend with roads that are uneven and potholed at best, and at worst a simple earth track. The solution is either a four wheel drive car (we have a Toyota Rav 4) or a dirt bike.
I started off with a Yamaha DT 125, which is a bit like a mountain bike with an engine. Its large tyres and enhanced suspension mean it can drive over almost anything, with the rider barely feeling the bumps. It’s a bit like a two wheeled tank. However, it’s also very basic and manual, so I had to learn to use a kick starter, clutch and unnumbered gears. As well as petrol, there was a small tank that had to be kept full of blue ‘two stroke oil’, for reasons that remain unclear to me. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“Where’s the fuel gauge?” I asked Grant, an Australian consultant at UNICEF who sold me the bike. He laughed. “There isn’t one,” he said. “Just keep an eye on the millage – after you fill up, it will do about 150 km.” There was also a reserve tank for emergencies. “If the engine stops, turn this switch and you’ll get enough petrol to take you to the next filling station,” he added.
Despite these minor inconveniences, driving the bike was a real pleasure, especially on fine evenings. I developed an alternative route home that detoured down Presidential Way and then went off-road back to Area 10. I drove along an earth track on the edge of town, with views across the Lilongwe river to farmland and forest beyond. The low evening sunlight cut in from my right, and lit up a field of maize growing alongside the track, giving a warm glow to the yellow stalks. Even so close to town, local children were excited to see a mzungu on a motorbike and would run after me, waving and shouting.
Eventually I got the chance to combine my two favourite activities and do a field trip by motorbike. We got money from a German telethon to build classrooms at a primary school just outside Lilongwe. The first time I went by car, which struggled down the narrow earth tracks. “This would be much easier by motorbike,” I said to my colleague Joseph, and on the second trip I did exactly that. I even managed to get a photo on my bike wearing a UNICEF t-shirt, with the school in the background.
I had the DT 125 for most of the year, but it was seven years old and had done over 40,000 km. I was often taking it in for repairs, leaving me stranded and dependent on lifts. Eventually, I replaced it with a much newer Yamaha YBR 125, bought from a young French expat who had made the dubious decision to relocate to Somalia.
As a former British colony, Malawian culture was immediately familiar to me, although in some ways it seemed frozen in time. People take British surnames as first names, such as Hastings, Foster, McBride and Henderson. Greetings are elaborate and people tend to dress formally. It’s not unusual to go to rural villages that are not much more than a collection of mud huts, and meet someone – usually a teacher or a chief – in an immaculate suit.
The most obvious legacies of colonialism are the English language and Christian religion. People speak tribal languages like Chichewa and Yao at home, but school is in English from day one, so anyone who’s been to school will speak some English. It’s also the language of business and government. So unlike Thailand, where I spent many hours trying to master Thai, my Chichewa is very limited.
In addition to the standard greeting, however, I have learned some Chichewa from my son Zefi, who picks it up from his nanny Christina. My favourite of these is ‘bongalolo’, which means millipede. We have lots of large black bongalolos in our compound, which Zefi likes watching. I used the word once on a field trip, to the surprise and amusement of my Malawian companions. “That’s deep Chichewa!” my colleague Chancy exclaimed.
The other legacy of colonialism is religion, which Malawians take much more seriously than the British. It’s very normal to go to church every Sunday, in a way that it hasn’t been in the UK since my grandparents’ generation. Interestingly, this coexists with pre-Christian beliefs, most notably in witchcraft. Once when filming with a drone, we asked a vicar to explain to his congregation that the drone was not witchcraft. He happily did so, by contrasting it with a ‘real’ example of witchcraft. “It’s not like that time a woman picked up a cursed 100 kwacha note in the marketplace,” he explained. “Her hand went numb and a red swastika appeared on her arm.”
There’s also a popular cult called Gule Wamkulu (the Big Dance). I first encountered this driving along the ‘M1’, a two lane road connecting Lilongwe with the commercial city Blantyre. Beside the road were figures wearing straw costumes and strange wooden animal masks, dancing energetically. I asked my colleagues what this meant, but they just laughed and changed the subject. Later I got the story from a Malawian who had grown up outside the country and was more open about its secrets.
“It’s actually based on a Bible story,” he explained. “When Moses came down from the mountain he found people worshiping a golden calf. Gule Wamkulu is the cult of that calf.” He explained that there are secret passwords and initiations, and that members believe themselves to be spirits. “There are entire villages that are Gule Wamkulu,” he said. “In the past, if outsiders went there and didn’t know the passwords, they would kill them. It’s not so bad now, but they’ll still intimidate you. They’ll say ‘Why are you here? This is not a place for the living. Only spirits live here’.”
(I later discovered that this version is also suspect. Visiting Dedza, we saw 500 year old cave paintings that depict Gule Wamkulu ceremonies and definitely predate the arrival of Christianity. Our guide, Lemton, told us that it was a traditional religion that later incorporated elements of Christianity, possibly including the golden calf story.)
So that’s my first year in Malawi, in around 3,000 words. I was going to write more about my occasional weekends away – to Cape Maclear, Dedza Mountain, and Zambia – but I think this is enough for one post. I’ll be back soon with more on Malawi’s prehistoric cave paintings, some of which – spoiler alert – were made by pygmies. Thank you for reading!