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A quick out and back to rural Malawi

A quick out and back to rural Malawi

Old Apr 1, 20, 2:30 pm
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A quick out and back to rural Malawi

In February 2020 I undertook a brief 14 day trip to rural Malawi to conduct qualitative research in a rural district of Malawi along the Mozambique border and just off the road from Lilongwe to Blantyre.

Flights:
KLM: DUS-AMS
KQ: AMS-NBO
KQ: NBO-LLW

KQ: LLW-NBO
KQ: NBO-AMS
KLM: AMS-DUS

The flights were all perfectly uneventful. While I live in the Netherlands we tend to start journeys at the airports in NRW in Germany or Brussels as they are closer. However, on this occasion, by far the cheapest routing took us to Amsterdam anyway. The flight to Amsterdam was brief and uneventful. The connection was relatively lengthy, unfortunately. But as the COVID-19 situation was beginning to bite in China, there were few people in the airport. The flight to Nairobi was rammed full and very warm, so I didn't sleep well. We pushed back late and arrived late and thence sadly had to be towed to our gate due to building work in foggy Nairobi. I had just 15 minutes to make my connection. I got through security as they were paging me. In the end, I made it. There were temperature checks in Nairobi. The flight to Lilongwe was more than 2/3 empty so I could sleep well. We had lovely views of Kilimanjaro on the way, as well as over the tea and tobacco fields of Malawi on landing. There was a chlorine wash on arrival in Lilongwe as well as a temperature check. There is now an e-visa for Malawi. I had not done this, and got visa on arrival which necessitates three booths and costs $50. However, the line for the e-visa was for just one booth, so took far longer than applying for the visa on arrival. I proceeded to the hotel and crashed out asleep.

For a small and relatively geo-politically unimportant country, Malawi is hard to conceptualise. Rather than the slightly frantic energy of Kenya, Malawi has a certain lethargy mixed with genuine openness and warmth. The capital, Lilongwe, is a sleepy city nestled inside high, decorative walls and florid gardens and the song of dozens of songbirds. It's stillness and silence, punctuated only by the sounds of nature, is quite restful. My preferred hotel (Africa House in Area 10) is a perfect oasis to rest the soul. Strolling or driving round the city is relatively stress free. Traffic lights and road signs remarkably reminiscent of home in the UK guide traffic which approximately follows the rules of the road. Products from South Africa and the UK line most higher-end food shop shelves, but most harking back a few decades. Bird's Eye custard, Cadbury's chocolate, Imperial Lather soap and meat pies. The city is low, the highest thing around often the trees, oppressed by the southern African heat. A sense of order, respect and a gentile old fashioned approach to society. Everybody bids you good day, and when you ask how they are, they tell you. On previous contracts I have travelled extensively around Malawi, but never to my intended destination on this occasion.

After a day or so in Malawi, I jumped in the double cabin and hit the M1 south. The research site chosen by my contracted agency is Ntcheu, along the Mozambique border. After a couple of hours on the M1 we reach Ntcheu. The town runs along the north-south road, parallel to a series of valleys to the west. The mountain was more often than not shrouded in a thick swirling grey cloud. The heat of Lilongwe dissipated into a cool, damp coolness. The top of the mountain remained elusive through much of the trip, but heavy rain and thunder made itself well-known. Mid-way through the trip the government issued an emergency notification that this area was likely to experience natural disaster. The stoic green, rocky, mountains provided a calmness over the area; everything was made minuscule by the hulking hills. The land was verdant, flowers blooming and trees languidly poking towards the cloud. While walking from the offices in the evening, if one timed it right, the sun would set under the ever-present cloud layer and shine golden beams under the cloud, illuminating the valley under the cloud.
Suffering in the villages in which the research was to take place was quite harrowing. Poverty is a grinding reality for the majority in the district, especially during the lean season before harvest when food is scarce and prices are high. How little we can do, how much we ignore, how alien my reality and theirs must be. Boys tended goats, roaming the high grass and muddy ground. Women gathered what money and food they could, men were often away for work in fields, different districts or Mozambique. It's near impossible to express the feeling of inadequacy.
My hotel was more than slightly eccentric, with a lovely proprietor, an enthusiastic cook, no water but reliable power. Each morning the proprietor would knock on my door at about 06.45 to check whether I had taken my bath. But, the bed was relatively comfortable, the television got a single South African English language channel. The chef could cobble together a half-way decent meal, if a little repetitive and focused on chips and white bread. There was a Kips (chain of chicken/BBQ restaurants in Malawi) next door which dealt with my samosa addiction and provided better coffee (still terrible). Fieldwork generally occupied my days, or conducting interviews in the district offices housed in traditional, British-looking offices complete with Land Rover Defender parked under a large tree. Inside the building were safes constructed in West Bromwich in the UK. A little piece of England in a far off field. By and large, the people I met and engaged with were delightful, engaging, positive, professional and with a wonderful vision for the district and its population. I am very excited to visit again and see how it changes. Despite this energy, there was a certain air of waiting, eternal waiting, under the cloudy skies, waiting for better times to come.

After 7 days of work in the district I returned to Lilongwe eager for hot water, air conditioning and a variety of tasty food. I settled up with the cars and checked back into Africa House, the lap of luxury. I spent the next few days meeting government officials for our report and conducting meetings. In the evenings my colleague (who arrived after fieldwork) walked through the stunning gardens, drank cold beers and ate at restaurants housed in English-style houses set in tropical gardens. The food was by and large delicious - Mexican food, Italian food and Indian food in a surprising part of the world but all delicious. The gardens were alive with nature, sometimes a bit too much so. In particular, large, foot long millipedes which appeared in great numbers. The gardens of restaurants were often in total darkness, along with the car park. On one particular evening a piercing and panicked scream emanated from the car park shortly after two women headed to their car. We all dropped everything and ran out only to find the two women staring in horror at a millipede. Laughs all round and back to dinner. Overnight, enormous rain storms would often deluge the world, shaking me awake initially before providing the perfect white noise for sleep. So much peace surrounded by chaotic emotions of seeing suffering and poverty.

All too soon it was time to leave; happy to go back to my partner and life, but also feeling leaving is impossible. The waiting under an enormous sky, a sense of place, of belonging, of irrepressible beauty. In the end, I'm glad we had to leave when we did as it didn't take many weeks to pass before borders all the world over slammed shut.

My flight home was particularly punishing. My colleague and I were on the 02.40 departure out of Lilongwe to Nairobi on KQ's Embraer 175. We tried to find things to amuse us before leaving for the airport. The restaurant closed at 22.00, unfortunately, but the hotel permitted us to stay on the patio with some beers after they locked the doors. We spent some time playing cards with the bar staff. Our taxi got us to the airport about midnight, only to find it closed and in the dark. Thankfully the waiting room was open. Eventually check-in opened and we could get our boarding cards and go through immigration and the second round of security. The lovely gentlemen was afraid I wouldn't be able to convert my remaining currency and offered to take it off my hands. I politely declined. We waited in the new section of the airport, a particularly uncomfortable area to sit and wait. About an hour before the flight, a gentleman stood up and advised us to check our immigration stamps as he had noticed his exit stamp was for the month before. I checked and, indeed, I had been stamped out the month before I arrived. Back through the airport to get her to scribble out the date and write a new date in in biro and sign it. Hope this won't be an issue later... The aircraft arrived and we boarded. There can't have been more than 30 people on the flight. I passed out before the plane had finished taxiing and didn't wake up until the lights came on upon arriving on stand in Nairobi. Our layover was about 2 hours before the Amsterdam flight. We grabbed a coffee and waited in the separate gate areas European flights get shoved into. Fears about the virus were not really present, though some passengers wore masks (more than usual). Totally unrelated a poor girl was vomiting relentlessly (I overheard the mother tell the cabin crew it was travel sickness). She vomited powerfully hourly through the entire flight. The charming women sitting next to me on the flight also had digestive issues but were delightful companions otherwise and we chatted most of the flight.

We arrived in stormy Amsterdam and went through security. Unfortunately, the winds were powerful across Europe and there were heavy delays to destinations across Germany. I was completely shattered by this point as I didn't sleep on the all-day flight from Nairobi. Mercifully, despite looking touch and go for a while, our Dusseldorf flight was announced as on-time. We boarded and took off into turbulent skies. The very short flight was bumpy and landing lively. Back to the car (having spent a good 15 mins remembering where I parked... The heavens opened on the drive back to the Netherlands. A long journey gratefully safely concluded.


Tomatoes and the mountains on the M1. Behind me, a thunderstorm was working across the plain from Mozambique.



Fuel was cheaper in Mozambique, so we headed over the border to fill up the vehicles.


A Mozambique registered Herbie turned up at the filling station.


Rain coming up from Mozambique


The ever-present cloud over the craggy mountain.


Pineapples and avocados. Very tasty and fresh. Avocados were about €0.1 and pineapples closer to €0.8

View from the District office. Stillness, quiet, moody clouds.

Maize and mountains.

Landing in Lilongwe

Wandering in Lilongwe

Focus Goat Discussion.

Last edited by DanielW; Apr 2, 20 at 1:07 am Reason: Formatting fixed.
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Old Apr 1, 20, 2:43 pm
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Great report , thank you so much for posting.....
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Old Apr 1, 20, 3:05 pm
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I have long been interested in visiting. How would you asses the safety situation there traveling overland and going to the lake? Both safety from people and wildlife. Thx!
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Old Apr 1, 20, 3:38 pm
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Originally Posted by GetSetJetSet View Post
I have long been interested in visiting. How would you asses the safety situation there traveling overland and going to the lake? Both safety from people and wildlife. Thx!
Oh Malawi is very easy. It's the warm heart of Africa and very much recommend. At no point in the entire country did I feel physically in danger, apart from the cooking. I recommend visiting! It's beautiful. In the capital, check out the wildlife sanctuary too. Domestic flights out to the lake and islands are also available, though pricey. The road is just as easy and you see more of the country. Flights to the country are generally a bit erratic. I've flown in several times with Kenya Airways and also with Ethiopian. KQ fly the E175 while the last time I flew Ethiopian it was an A359. Immigration took about 2.5 hours when we arrived on the A359.... There is less than nothing in the airport.

Bring as much cash as you can - the ATM has a limit of about 80 per transaction. The biggest note available is 2000 Kwacha (about 2.5) so you can imagine you need quite a bit of money... Dollars, pounds and Euros easily exchangeable.

Lilongwe is a safe capital. I wandered around frequently even in the dark. Traffic is generally well mannered. Best way is to rent a car and drive. Make sure you take on fuel regularly, as it's not always available. It's very easy going. Down by the lake, Annie's Lodge is lovely, right on the water. The catfish fresh from the lake is excellent. There is plenty of game in the north, and take the usual precautions as you would around any animals. There's plenty of options for seeing the game. Blantyre is small but more bustling than Lilongwe, and the gateway to Zomba and Mulanje. Mount Mulanje is stunning and well worth seeing if you like hiking.
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Old Apr 1, 20, 5:22 pm
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What beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing! I’m loving all the destination focused trip reports these days!

Last edited by Flywriter; Apr 1, 20 at 9:36 pm
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Old Apr 1, 20, 8:14 pm
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Thanks for the lovely, detailed trip report. Its nice to read a report that isn't focusing on first class flights, five star hotels, and fine dining, and instead describes a country that isn't often visited.
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Old Apr 2, 20, 1:19 am
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Great report from an interesting country, maastrichtmouse.
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Old Apr 2, 20, 5:46 am
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I appreciated this story too. Thanks for posting.
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Old Apr 3, 20, 4:22 am
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Originally Posted by Flywriter View Post
What beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing! Im loving all the destination focused trip reports these days!
Thanks flywriter! These are good days for going back through travels and reflecting on them. Even if they don't lead to a trip report it's a nice period of stillness for reflection. I've been thinking about writing up other work trips (usually refugee camp work).

Originally Posted by netllama View Post
Thanks for the lovely, detailed trip report. Its nice to read a report that isn't focusing on first class flights, five star hotels, and fine dining, and instead describes a country that isn't often visited.
Thanks netllama. Sometimes I find it difficult to explain how these places affect a person, so I enjoy the chance to write and try and distill it. Definitely no five star hotels (though I ate lunch in Latitutde 13 in Lilongwe which is quite exclusive, but I can't afford to stay there on our allowance!). The closest I get to business class let alone J is the occasional preferred seat upgrade on Kenya Airways as I fly with them quite a lot...

Originally Posted by DanielW View Post
Great report from an interesting country, maastrichtmouse.
Praise from the master, thanks DanielW (and thanks for fixing whatever I did to the formatting.

Originally Posted by Barrheadlass View Post
I appreciated this story too. Thanks for posting.
Thanks barrheadlass!
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Old Apr 6, 20, 10:19 am
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Excellent mini TR, i really enjoyed it.
It brings back memories of the cruise on the antic MV Ilala from Monkey Bay up to Nkhata Bay.

Originally Posted by maastrichtmouse View Post
Nairobi on KQ's Embraer 175.
KQ, which used to operate the E170 until 2016 as well, now only flies the E190.

Many thanks for sharing
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Old Apr 7, 20, 11:16 am
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Thanks for the nice report.

Malawi is a magical place. During the 80s, they had a tourist campaign to get South African's to visit with the slogan "Malawi, the warm heart of Africa". The people are genuine and warm.

I lived for two years in the tea growing area in Southern Malawi in the late 80s. I think fondly of my times there. It's nice to see and hear that the best part of Malawi hasn't changed.
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Old Apr 8, 20, 3:00 am
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Originally Posted by flying_blue_white_red View Post
Excellent mini TR, i really enjoyed it.
It brings back memories of the cruise on the antic MV Ilala from Monkey Bay up to Nkhata Bay.


KQ, which used to operate the E170 until 2016 as well, now only flies the E190.

Many thanks for sharing
Thanks flying_blue_white_red. That sounds like a wonderful cruise. Sadly rarely have time on these trips to indulge in such things.

My mistake on the aircraft. I hadn't realised they didn't fly the smaller Embraers anymore and didn't notice the emergency exit when I boarded (very groggily). I won't edit because everytime I try and edit I seem to mess something up on the formatting!
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Old Apr 8, 20, 3:04 am
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Originally Posted by olafman View Post
Thanks for the nice report.

Malawi is a magical place. During the 80s, they had a tourist campaign to get South African's to visit with the slogan "Malawi, the warm heart of Africa". The people are genuine and warm.

I lived for two years in the tea growing area in Southern Malawi in the late 80s. I think fondly of my times there. It's nice to see and hear that the best part of Malawi hasn't changed.
They work hard to live up to that reputation, it's a very special place. Sometimes a frustrating place, but overall very peaceful.

Sounds bucolic! I have almost certainly travelled through the place you're talking about and it was absolutely serene.

Thanks!
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Old Apr 10, 20, 2:08 pm
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Originally Posted by maastrichtmouse View Post
Thanks flying_blue_white_red. That sounds like a wonderful cruise. Sadly rarely have time on these trips to indulge in such things.
A 2 month volunteering mission ended up early on a 3 month visa back in 2007. Otherwise, like you said, it would have been hard to stroll around with limited time.
At least, you visited parts of this peaceful country totally unknown on my side in the south. Thus your TR is even more appreciated now. I hope to go back there again... one day
Some mountains on your pics look like Mount Mulange, can you confirm or deny this fact?
Was it easy to travel to Mozambique, especially just for petrol?
In the past, visa free entrance for most EU/African/Asian nationalities for 30 days, but now one should think twice, right?
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Old Apr 19, 20, 4:33 am
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I loved this report - thanks for sharing!

I have such happy memories of travelling overland through Malawi in 1999. At the time I was just over 3 months into 6 months of travel in Africa, and we'd had a fairly punishing schedule doing a circuit of South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and back to South Africa, all in a borrowed VW Jetta. The second phase of the trip was heading north to Kenya overland, via any form of transport we could find, and we arrived in Malawi after a pretty epic 36hour bus ride from Johannesburg, complete with interiminable multi-hour border crossings, and in my case still suffering from a bout of malaria. The bus took us to Blantyre, and the following day we got a painfully slow local bus to Monkey Bay at the southern end of Lake Malawi, and from there caught a ride on the back of a bakkie (the local term for a pickup) to Cape Maclear, which on the overlander's circuit was reputed as being a bit of a backpacker's heaven. With a string of cheap hostels, basic bars and simple restaurants along a golden sand beach with the warm waters of the lake in front and the green hills of the national park behind, cold beer and 'Malawi Gold' (the local variety of marijiuana) all in cheap and plentiful supply, so it turned out to be. There was absolutely no nightlife and the pace of life was glacial; the super-friendly locals would grill fish for you on the beach; and you could go snorkelling in the lake to admire the famous multicoloured chiclids, which look like tropical reef fish but live in fresh water. We rapidly discovered why people often needed to extend their visas...

From there we took a hilarious 2 day trip up the lake, in an ancient paddle steamer, to Nkhata Bay. Backpackers were able to travel 'deck class', which involved basically camping on the top deck. There was only deck or bench seats to sleep on, and only a shared loo, but there was a bar dispensing cold Carlsbergs for 38c each. And because the steamer had set off a full 12 hours late, it turned into a 2 night/one day trip instead of just the one night, so we congratulated ourselves on saving the cost of another night's accommodation. Not that accommodation was exactly pricey - based on the advice of one of our newfound shipboard friends, who had heard that the 'Heart Motel' was *the* place to stay in Nkhata Bay, a group of us all turned up there, little knowing that our information was a little out of date and the new place to stay was down by the water - indeed the Heart Motel had seen better days and travellers were few and far between. The elderly proprietor, Mr Phillips, was sent for by one of his 38 (no not a misprint) children, and was so overwhelmed with excitement to see 7 guests arrive at once, that he insisted that we wait a few minutes and he re-emerged wearing his best brown suit so he could welcome us properly. Our rooms cost a princely $1 per night, and one of his wives (I believe he had eight) would cook amazingly tasty meals of local fish from the lake, which we ate on the verandah with the meals being passed through a hole in the wall from what we assumed was the kitchen. At one point I looked through there and discovered it was a dusty yard where our dinner was being cooked over an open fire.

Even away from the backpacker bubble, Malawi impressed us for its friendliness, order and calm. At the time I believe it was one of the ten poorest countries in the world yet it was spotlessly clean and life seemed a lot less harsh than in the neighbouring countries. We caught a local bus from Nkhata Bay to the local town, Mzuzu, and from there a long and bumpy mtatu ride up to the Tanzanian border, but everywhere we went the people were unfailingly friendly and welcoming. I'd dearly love to go back.
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