“You’re most welcome” is the way we are greeted in most places here in Malawi. The country is called ”The Warm Heart of Africa” for a reason, which we will discover in the days to follow.
On our way from South Luangwa in Zambia towards the border of Malawi, we pass a small sign saying “Tribal Textiles”. Curious as we are, we decide to turn off and have a look. We “discover” a very special project, which puts a big smile on our face.
Established by an English lady under a baobab tree, 20 years ago, the factory nowadays produces 2.500 pieces of textile each day, produced by their 100 local staff members. They are one of the biggest employers of the region, helping many families to a decent life. They produce the most stunning table cloths, draping, blankets and much more, all with a typical Zambian design. We walk around the outdoors factory, and see the people creating the pieces of art with beautiful colours, great eye for detail and most of all: they are proud of what they do. When walking around, we notice that the factory is managed in a very (we assume) Western way. There is an “Employee of the month”, we see a whiteboard with targets visible for all staff members and an “I am grateful for…” tree, in which the employees hang little cards on which they write what they are grateful for that day. This all creates a culture that makes the day-to-day work a little bit more than just work. It really motivates the team. Great to see!
We quickly move on, since it getting late already and we still have to cross the border. This however is a piece of cake. We are done in a matter of minutes, and are welcomed by the customs officer with a big smile and “you are most welcome to Malawi”!
The first thing that we notice when entering the country, is the amount of people on the streets. We are now used to Zambia, where you can drive for hours without seeing many other people. Here in Malawi however, we drive through village after village, with people everywhere. We also notice loads of bicycles. The bicycle is used for transport, taxi, carrying wood & produce. We later speak to some Malawians, and they tell us that a bicycle means life in Malawi.
The other big difference is the building style. In Zambia, all local villages are built of clay and thatched roofs, where here in Malawi we only see brick houses. Everywhere we look we see big piles of bricks. The piles look like pyramids, but are actually ovens. The Malawians bake their own bricks, by mixing the local soil with water and shaping the paste into the shape of a brick. This is dried in the sun, before being piled up in the pyramid shaped piles. The pile is encrusted with a layer of mud, before a fire is lit underneath. This forms the oven that bakes the clay into brick. Very interesting to see.
Last but not least, the biggest difference between the two countries we see is the poverty. Although Zambia is poor, we really notice that Malawi is struggling. With the population increasing with about 3% per year, the country can’t handle the enormous mount of people living here. Especially with the drought this year, the farms cannot produce enough food for everyone. We later discover how this affects the lives of the Malawians.
Tonight we stay in Lilongwe just as a stopover. After some shopping and browsing the busy city streets, we move on with Zomba being today’s destination. Before we leave, we take our first Malawian money from the ATM. The currency is ridiculously weak, so we take about 300.000 Kwacha, in notes of 1000. We feel so rich!
Kim, a good friend of ours, lived in Zomba about 2 years ago and managed a community run backpackers over there. We can’t wait to see this place, because she told us so many stories about it. During the drive the landscape changes dramatically, from relatively flat land to stunning mountain ranges. It almost feels like driving into the European Alps. After a drive of about 5 hours we reach Zomba, and we directly fall in love with this very green and friendly city. With the Zomba Plateau mountain range rising high above the town, and long tree lined streets, Zomba doesn’t look like any of the African city we’ve seen so far. It used to be the capital of Malawi, before it moved to Lilongwe about 40 years ago.
When we arrive at Pakachere backpackers, we notice some bushfires burning on the mountain. This apparently is normal this time of the year, so we don’t worry about it too much. We play table tennis in the garden and move inside to learn to play Bao (a Swahili, very addictive board game) and enjoy a good meal, together with some of the staff and their friends. When we order tea to finish off dinner, we are surprised by the team of the backpackers with a homemade cake with “enjoy life together” written on it. It is our honeymoon after all. A real treat. Thanks Kim!
We finish the cake and walk outside to enjoy the last sips of tea under the stars, when we see massive flames burning only a few hundred meters away from us. The bushfire has become way bigger than expected, and now threatens homes nearby. It brings back bad memories of the Adelaide Hills bushfires only 2 years ago, when Glen Ewin Estate was under threat of the fire. Luckily, over the course of the night the fire is contained by the fire brigade, and no properties are lost.
Since we meet so many people on the road, we decide to make some “business cards” with our contact details and website. We are sent to a local printer, and arrive in his tiny little office with printers and photocopiers all over the place. There is almost no room to move, but we manage to get our cards printed, although, we have to print it ourselves, and have to use the guillotine to cut them to size. It takes about 3 hours to finish the entire process. This is Africa after all! But Estin, the owner, is the friendliest old little man, so it was worth the wait. His business slogan is ”we deliver what others promise”. Fabulous!
The next project for the day is a platform we would like to have welded for inside the back of the car. It is a bit of a mess and in need of structure. So we drive around town and find a welder who likes to help us. Together we make the design, and drive from shop to shop to buy the materials. We can’t believe our eyes when the platform is welded, exactly to shape, within the timeframe agreed. Funny that you can be so happy with the smallest things! That night we have the best dinner so far in Africa, in a cute little Italian restaurant on top of the hill.
We wake up early to go for a 6 hour hike across the Zomba plateau. We are dropped off by a taxi on the other side of the mountain, where start our hike walking across the schoolyard of a primary school. Just at the moment the kids are lined up to walk inside, when they see us. The teacher must hate us since all the kids start running towards us.
“Azungu, azungu”! the kids scream. Azungu is a Bantu expression, meaning white men, or Europeans. We are completely surrounded by tens of overexcited schoolkids.
We hear the term Azungu every day now. It directly takes us back to the “Zwarte Pieten” discussion in the Netherlands. We basically feel like “Witte Pieten”. Funny to see, kids are just super excited to see you, but there won’t be an endless discussion over this fact here in Africa. So why have this discussion about Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands? Just let kids enjoy the tradition, mix in some “Witte Pieten” and lets have fun.
The hike is beautiful. We eat cassava and yellow berries, have a dip in the waterfall and enjoy some beautiful views. We learn our first Malawian words, and practise this all hike long with our guide.
The flipside of all the natural beauty and friendly people, is the poverty. Here in Zomba most of the cars we see are white Landcruisers with the logos of NGO’s. Unicef, Save the Children, World Food Programme, US AID, UK AID, and many more. We also see lots of road signs (almost billboards) with projects that are supported by foreign countries, mostly the EU.
It sounds a bit strange, but there are almost too many of them. We are curious about the projects that they run in the villages, and about the vision of the local people on all the help they receive. We end up chatting about this topic with many locals, and they all seem to share one opinion: most of the NGO’s don’t understand the village life and what is necessary to improve the situation. The aid is run mostly from large hotels and by foreigners who don’t live amongst the people that need the help. Most help is only short term and not sustainable. Because of the misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, the aid (both money and food) ends up in the wrong hands: chiefs, corrupt government officials etc etc.
We ask what is needed in their opinion to make things better. The answer is that local people sometimes become dependent on the foreign aid. This obviously is not sustainable, and the NGO’s should invest more in education about agriculture, to ensure sustainable agriculture can be practised, also in times of extreme drought.
One of the guys we speak to even suggests that there is no need for people to be hungry. “People stick too much to their traditional food. They only consider Nshima (pap made of corn flower) as food, whilst other produce like cassava and mango, is not considered as food but only as a snack. The problem is, corn needs an enormous amount of water to grow, where the other produce doesn’t need much water at all. So if they change their eating habits, food is most likely available year round. However, they sell the cassava and mango on the market to earn money to buy corn flower. But when there is no corn flower around because of the drought, those people will starve…”. You can imagine that stories like this hit us very hard. We don’t state this as facts, but purely as what local people tell us, which is in our opinion very valuable information.
Also is suggested that foreign aid should support the local programmes, that are run by people who do understand the culture and day to day life. Foreign NGO’s most often don’t realise the aid given ends up in the wrong hands. “All together, everyone appreciates the help, but because of the short term strategy, the community becomes dependent on them, which is not good”. We ask which NGO’s they believe do a good job. Most NGO’s that run programmes for children, like Unicef and Save the Children, are mentioned.
After all these impressive and touching stories, we make our way further down south, to visit the tea growing region of Malawi. Not even 10 minutes into our drive, the accelerator cable of the Land Rover snaps. Krijn fixes the issue with a piece of rope and some steel wire, and 20 minutes later we are back on the road.
When approaching the tea fields, we see the colour of the nature changing from mostly yellow to all the shades of green you can imagine. It really creates a stunning landscape and we feel like driving through a painting. We end up at Satemwa Tea Estate, at around 10am, ‘just’ for a cup of tea and some cake. We end up staying all day long, learn all about growing and producing tea and coffee, have lunch in the peaceful surroundings of the colonial house and enjoy the amazing views from the picnic spot on top of the highest hill. Just stunning and magical!
When the sun starts to set, we drive through the tea fields towards the mountain ranges of Mount Mulanje, the highest peak in Malawi. We see young boys learning the skills of managing a herd of cows from their big brothers, running after them with little sticks and fear on their faces. So cute! We also see a group of kids play a game of soccer with a ball made of plastic bags and pieces of rope, and we notice the religion is changing from mainly Christian and local religions to Islam. Many small mosques are dotted around the landscape, and open air ceremonies are being held underneath trees. Interesting to see.
We set up our tent on the slopes of the mountain, and fall in a deep sleep trying to process everything we experienced over the last few days. The next morning we wake up early again, to explore the mountain ranges. We hike with a local guide called Winnes, a very sweet young guy, who tells us a lot about the area and his culture. He didn’t eat or drink anything before we start the hike. We offer him breakfast, but he turns it down: “I can say… I am still fit”.
When we are struggling climbing the mountain, fighting the rocks, deep sand and heat, we see women almost running down the slopes, carrying about 20kg of fire wood on their heads. “They run to avoid getting muscle cramps”, Winnes says. This reminds us of what we saw during the Zomba Plateau hike. Women walk for 3 hours through the mountains to the market, with a heavy bucket of produce on their head and a child strapped to the back. They are on the market all day long, selling their produce in the burning sun before they have to walk back home for another 3 hours. Back home, they have to cook and do the washing, and obviously look after the kids. We believe we don’t have the right to ever complain again. These people are too strong!
So far, Malawi has been an amazing experience. The people are so friendly, whilst they live an extremely though life. The contrasts are massive, but people make most of it and smile to survive. We believe there is so much potential in this country, but where do you start? So many people try to help, and some are succeeding, but in general the corruption is winning…
Lake Malawi is our home for the next few days, another stunning part of this country. We will update you again soon!