After Liwonde it was time for our last week in the beautiful country of Malawi. Before leaving Africa altogether we still had two destinations planned. First we went to Zomba, which was the capital of Malawi before it got moved to Lilongwe. Don’t let that fool you, Zomba is a pretty small town and the major attraction is the Zomba plateau located at the edge of town.
So here we spent a couple of days. We did some walking on the beautiful plateau where we enjoyed some nice views and waterfalls, we explored the market of Zomba, and even got creative and did a painting course.
In Zomba town advertisements are painted on walls. This makes a very colourfull view. Caskets are very cheap!
One day we went to somewhat nearby lake Chilwa. On this lake is an island with a couple of villages. We visited two villages and met some of the loveliest people we met in Malawi. We played some Bao, drank some tea in the chief’s teahouse, and had a good time.
The villages are very poor tough. We’ve seen quite a bit of poverty in Africa, but this was clearly the worst example. No borehole nearby, so no clean drinking water. No school nearby, no hospital nearby, no electricity, no waterproof houses, broken mosquito nets. The closest school and hospital were a two hours walk, no cars or motorcycles to speed up the journey. We only met 3 kids going to school. In this island the people were faced with the same problems the NGO Lidewij worked with in Ghana was trying to beat: because of the poverty, all the girls get married at the age of 15 and because of the culture, a lot of people died from HIV/AID. The custom is that the brother of a died man can marry the widow of his brother. No safe sex and no idea what the dead cause was, makes transmitting of HIV/AIDS very likely.
The guy guiding us is trying to set up a school on the island near this village. He also tries to give some education to the people, every time he is there. He shows them for example that in the western world people do not marry this young and teaches them about different crops. Because of the low education level, people only harvest maize, because this is the main staple. Unfortunately maize is very dependent on the weather, and a lot of crop get lost due to lack of rain. If people would harvest different crops, and crops that does not need this much water, they would be able to have food despite of a very dry year. The people do not think about this, because they do not know about this possibility, so our guide starts learning them, and they already tried some new crops with the seeds he brought. It is so strange to see this big difference in education, these people don’t know anything, because nobody teaches them. Even the simplest things. Such a world to win.
We met an old man, who had a leg problem, he was not able to walk. He sat in an old boat near his house, unable to move anywhere. Sometimes he goes to the hospital, if somebody can bring him om the back of a bike. His house was collapsed, so they gave him a new shelter, of which shelter was a better word than house: no coverage in front of the window or door. The man was already about 70 years old. Is gets you thinking about the Dutch hospitals and facilities for the old and cripple. You would wish nobody has to age like this man. It’s always hard to see people who are this friendly and hospitable, living in such tough conditions. Wealth is unfortunately not distributed based on merit.
Final destination was a visit to the highest mountain of this region of Africa. The nice thing about Mulanje is that there’s a network of about 10 huts across this mountain all connected with paths. So you could easily spend multiple days hiking from hut to hut. We didn’t have the time to walk that long, and Lidewij’s ankle, while better, was still not 100%, so we opted for a hike to the nearest hut, and then a different route back the next day.
Unfortunately, the guides here work with a schedule that ensures that everyone gets their share of work. Which sounds fair. However, that also means that you can end up with a good or a bad guide, luck of the draw. Turns out, we ended up with a not so good one.
On the way up everything was pretty nice. It was some tough and steep climbing, made almost 1000 meters of altitude, but we made it, and with sour muscles we settled in out hut.
The caretaker of the hut made a fire in the open fireplace in the hut, we cooked our food on the fire. We had a bucket shower with a bucket of water heated above the fire. We could drink straight from the very clear river near the beautiful hut. It was all very nice.
Fun thing, the guide did some shopping for our food since we were not that well prepared. So we made him a shopping list, which included spaghetti. The guy bought 4 packs… for 1 night. Turns out he had never eaten spaghetti, so he had no idea how much to buy. Needless to say, we had plenty.
On the way down however, we were less happy with the guide. We took the different route down. So after climbing down for a long time down a very slippery part (it had started to rain), we came to a river/waterfall we had to cross. But the water was way too high, and the flow of water way too strong, to safely cross the river. So we had to climb up again to go down the same route we got up on the first day. This detour costed us almost 5 hours. And then we had to go down again. All in all we hiked for over 9 hours that day, which was a bit too much. And people we met down the mountain who had a different guide said their guide immediately told them that during the rainy season, it’s very likely that river cannot be crossed.
In the end we made this, but it wasn’t as good for Lidewij’s ankle as we assumed it would be.
An interesting fact about Mulanje is that there’s a big yearly event taking place here: the porters race. People (a lot of porters obviously, but also tourists), compete by running a course of 24 km on the mountain. They start with the trail we did on the way up, and took us 4 hours, and then run a lot more. Record is around 2 hours 15 minutes. Truly impressive. This event attracts a lot of people every year, so if you’re looking for a new challenge, maybe give it a try next year ?.
From there we went to Blantyre to the airport. While moving through security I had some interesting encounter. The people wanted to open my bag since they saw something suspicious on the scanner. Small clogs made of ceramic, we carry these around as small presents for people we meet. People didn’t understand what they were. We drew quite a crowd. I think they thought it could be ivory because they kept asking what material it was made from, and what these clogs where, and on the airport there were posters talking about how exporting ivory is a serious offence. I explained they were presents made from ceramic. Then two of them were wondering if they maybe deserved it as a present. Ah well, we have plenty so they could keep one. Afterwards one of them came up to me to confirm he didn’t force us to give these clogs as bribe but we really wanted to give them… The whole situation was pretty funny and unusual.
So then we left Africa. In these months we travel through 3 countries that were all very different, and we loved them all for very different reasons.
Ghana, not for the sights but for the people. Always wanting to chat with you, very hospitable, approachable. Hard working, no beggars to be found. Always trustworthy. Barely any hassle. I think a lot can be learned from their work ethics, and their ability to solve problems, either by actually solving them, or by not considering something a problem. Also the Ghanians have very strong social networks and a caring culture, which means there is always somebody taking care of you and make sure your needs are fulfilled and that you are safe. In retrospect I think the government of Ghana is the most effective. Of course Ghana has some interesting sight, some nice beaches (one of the few places we went where the beach of still a hidden treasure, not overly crowded by tourists, and in great harmony with the nature and local people), slave forts, but the people remain the main attraction.
Then Tanzania, which for us was not really about the people, but mostly about the beautiful sights. The nature and wildlife there is absolutely stunning. The people, well, of course we met some very nice people. But in general (and your mileage may vary), there was just a lot more hassle, we met a lot more dishonest people, and people were a lot more reserved, not quick to strike up a conversation just for the sake of it. The fact that a lot of people do not really speak English does not help. It was also more difficult to get a good insight in the local life, if you do not know people, because of the well developed tourist industry. There was a big difference between poor and rich, more developed then the other counties, but the facilities were not for everyone. But if you want to see crazy amounts of wildlife and truly stunning scenery, well, Tanzania has that, and loads of it.
And Malawi. Well, it’s just a very pleasant country to be in. Clearly the least developed of the bunch (the number of days we had no internet / telephone connection, or the electricity was down was staggering. Just keeping phones and stuff charged was sometimes a bit of a challenge). Transport was the least comfortable. But there are a lot of beautiful sight relatively close to each other. Great snorkelling, great hiking, some wildlife. There is some real sense of community among the travellers you meet. There a bit more hassle than in Ghana, and you should watch out not to be overcharged on public transport, but still a lot of people we met were absolutely great. Malawi is just a great country to travel around in.
And Malawi shows the importance of good education. Because a lot of people… well, they are not stupid, but it’s clear a lot of people lack proper education. Which is quite sad. Most accommodations are actually run by foreigners (lot of south Africans actually), because there are not a lot of Malawians capable of doing this. Which is quite a contrast with Tanzania and Ghana, where most accommodations we encountered we either locally owned, or at the very least managed by a local. As long as education does not improve, I don’t think the situation in this country will improve. Because being dependent on foreigners to solve your issues is not a sustainable solution.
What all these countries had in common that people had the tendency to accept situations they had no control over anyway. And to care for other people and treat other people with respect. People were relaxed, positive and social. Which led to a bit of culture shock on our flight to our next destination: Sri Lanka.
We had a long layover in Qatar on the way, and this was a big culture shock for us. There were a lot of problems with delayed flights, people missed their connecting flight. There was shouting at the transfer desk. Another person was very angry because they cannot wait half an hour in line because they had a 6 months old baby with them (the humanity!). And all these poor personnel trying to solve these problems, and customers treating these people like shit. I didn’t envy them. And I’ve not encountered so many unreasonable people in a long time. It was a scene you would not encounter in the countries we’ve just been to. And you realize that while a lot should be improved in the countries we’ve just visited, there’s a lot to be learned from the inhabitants as well.
See you in Sri Lanka.