We enter Malawi today. The only thing I knew about Malawi before this trip is that Madonna adopted two children from here and at least one of those was under dubious circumstances.
Madonna aside, Malawi is an intriguing place. Apparently, they have no reliable system of foreign exchange, which makes their money, the Malawian Kwacha, worthless outside its borders. It also enables foreigners to trade-in U.S dollars for a solid premium – well above what you’d be able to get from a bank. Additionally, they have a serious fuel problem. Drivers park their cars in lines leading up to gas pumps and wait for days for a fuel delivery.
Malawi also has a very big lake. It’s called Lake Malawi in Malawi and Lake Nyasa in the other countries that maintain some claim to its waters (Tanzania, Mozambique). This lake is so big it takes up one-fifth of Malawi. This lake is so big it looks like an ocean.
It’s a fresh water lake, which makes it feel like a curious fresh-water ocean. Except there are no waves. On many days, the lake is so calm it looks like glass. We’ll spend the next couple of days on the banks of Lake Malawi.
We camp for two nights at a site in Kande Beach, which gives us time to tour the local village. It’s an organzied tour where a guide from the town meets us at the camp gate and takes our group around. He tells us about the staple crop cassava (how it’s grown, how it’s used to make food).
We go to his house where he explains life at the village, then we visit both the hospital and school. Ever time I felt conspicuous about our tour, I tried to remember that strangers visit my city too.
But what’s interesting about this tour is that at least two young men in their late teens and early 20s, flank each member of our group as we move from place to place. These guys talk us up as we walk through the village but then retreat respectfully when we go into buildings or when our guide has something to explain.
I’m happy to say that on this leg of the trip, we’ve gotten much more opportunity to interact with the locals. It was beginning to feel like we were seeing Africa through an aquarium glass where we are the fish looking out on the real world through our truckbus tank.
Of the two guys that followed me for the half-day tour, I am embarrassed to say I can only remember the name of the one who did not give me his real name. He preferred to go by Mr. Fabulous, a nom de plume of sorts for the tourists. (Many of the guys in Malawi introduced themselves by these kind of names or the names of celebrities – George Clooney, Malawian Justin Beiber, etc. Nellu remembers suggesting to one guy who introduced himself as Vegemite, “You should go by Nutella. Not everyone likes Vegemite. Everyone loves Nutella.”) For most of the day, we just chit-chatted. They would casually try to convince me to buy things, wooden key chains or other trinkets, but it never got aggressive. It was actually quite pleasant and I enjoyed our conversations.
But when we started nearing our camp gate, my two new friends got oddly desperate, asking for food, money, a Coca-Cola. I gave Mr. Fabulous one of the hair bands around my wrist when he asked for it (he did have fabulous long hair styled in neat dreads) but nothing else. When Mr. Fabulous challenged me with the phrase “sharing is caring,” I replied, “Yes, I know. That’s why we shared with the hospital.” (Hmmm, just a thought, maybe we should raise money for New York City public schools by giving school tours and at the end of it having a donation box?)
I felt an odd tension through most of Africa because it was very clear that I (we) have so much more comfort, money, and just plain things than the average African. But after recognizing that, where does that leave us?
In casual conversations, our group has been talking a lot over the last couple days about the nature of aid in Africa. We have more, so we should give, right? There is need (poverty, health issues, education concerns) in Africa, so we should give, right? But if we give money, will it create dependency? Will it stunt home-grown entrepreneurship? If we give money, will the people who need it, receive it? What if we give things, will they be the right things? If we build, will it be the right buildings? Does Africa even want or need our help?
I’d like to say that at the heart of most aid is good intentions. But this is still a complex system so good intentions don’t always equal good results. I need to do more reading on the issue. Here’s an article I believe brings up some interesting points:
And here’s the link to the TED conference that the author above refers to:
While we were on our village tour, a few guys from town spent they day roasting a pig for us for dinner. It’s not every day that you get fresh roasted pig.
We move up-lake from Kande Beach to Chitimba. On our short drive we stop at the markets in Mzuzu and buy second-hand clothes for a dress-up party we are planning for the evening.
Many of the overland tours plan such party after they pass through Mzuzu because of the wide array of random clothing that can be found at the stalls there: everything from superhero costumes to suit jackets. I think Mzuzu is where clothes go to die. Apparently the guys working the market, running around with plastic bags full of full of offerings, have figured out the kind of clothing that most overland groups favor. I said no to many sequins miniskirts/tube tops (I really couldn’t tell which part of my body the tiny slices of flashy fabric were supposed to cover) and oddly sewn together jumpsuits. But our group is not most groups. Our theme: cheap but classy. And you can take this theme as seriously or as ironically as you like. For less than $5 a person, here’s what we came up with:
There was also an amazing storm that nigh that hit just soon after we headed to the bar. Nellu had some fun with the dramatic sky.
The other thing to do in Chitimba besides dress up is a 32 km hike from camp to a town on top of a nearby hill/mountain called Livingstonia. We were warned by Maretha and Raymond, our trek parents, that this would indeed be a long hike. Apparrently they both tried it, underestimating the time and supplies they would need to do it. Taking their advice, we went prepared.
I don’t know if I’ve ever really walked 32 km in a day (nearly 20 miles) let alone 32 km up hill both ways (just kidding). But if other people had done it before, then it could be done. We packed a lunch and plenty of water.
The hike up took us most of the day, but the way down was easy.
We even got up the courage to take some of the short cuts the locals take every day – many of them barefoot through steep, rocky pathways with heavy loads on their heads. They must look at us huffing and puffing with our bottles of water and trekking gear on and think we’re crazy.
We arrived back at camp just before 5pm. My feet were quite sore. I took my shoes off right away and went straight to the beach to take a much needed dip in Lake Malawi. The calm cool water feels amazing after a long day of walking. For the rest of the night my stride had what Raymond refered to as a “soft step” to it.
Oh and I mentioned earlier that Maretha adds nice touches to our meal time rituals. What I didn’t mention, and clearly should have been the lede sentence, is that she’s an amazing cook. She does things to food on a campsite that most people couldn’t do in a full, decked-out chef’s kitchen. We had unbelievably sophisticated, multi-course meals while Maretha was in charge. We’re talking about full servings of fruits and vegetables, homemade breads, muffins and more! And while we were on our hike, she spent the day roasting chickens in the ground for a full feast.
More to come…