Malawi – The Warm Heart of Africa
Despite being one of the poorest African countries, Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ and also ‘Africa for beginners’ due to the laid back and peaceful people. However, our first 24hours in Malawi, was not quite the ‘Warm heart’ we were expecting! The border crossing at Chipata was easy enough, however we knew we’d have to face the necessary evil of our first money exchange on the border as we needed to change remaining Zambian Kwacha into Malawian Kwacha. Having read numerous accounts of the money changing scams on borders, we went into our first negotiations feeling prepared. We were only changing a small amount, but still we were both determined not to fall for their tricks. Having already established the correct exchange rate and a number that we wanted for our Zambian Kwacha we soon entered into negotiations with one of the money changers. Gradually he was joined by more friends and soon there was a group round us. The negotiations were frenetic but we finally managed to agree the amount, a bit too easily as it would happen, as money was counted and went back and forth the well-practiced money changers had soon confused the situation enough for us not to realise that we were being completely ripped off. By the time we’d re-counted the money to check that we had the right amount, the money changers had scarpered. We lost $17, Bastards!
We headed into Lilongwe and found a camp in the middle of town, both feeling tired and furious about being ripped off a big argument erupted as to who was to blame and how we needed to handle it the next time. A pointless exercise, but from time to time when tensions are running high, being confined in a box together is not a good thing. But as with all dark times, there are silver linings and as a peace offering, the next morning Richard removed the beard! It’s fair to say, that the gesture and hair-free face made things instantly better again.
Friends again we set off into town to stock up on supplies and parts for Kylie before hitting Lake Malawi. We had 4 jobs we needed to do but after about an hour in heavy, chaotic traffic we had managed to achieve nothing. Getting frustrated with the traffic, Rich decided to turn-around and try another road but as we completed the U-turn, a policeman flagged us down saying we’d just committed an offence of ‘careless driving’ and must pay a fine of 3,000 Malawian Kwacha or $10USD. The day was not getting any better. We decided it would be best to try and get out of the main centre and try our luck further out, as the traffic was just too much. We headed for the main Lilongwe bridge that separates the two halves of the city only to be confronted with buses and cars being driven erratically towards us with all the drivers tooting and shooting. Needless to say we couldn’t work out what was going on. Soon the locals on the side of the road were yelling at us to turn around also. It was total chaos as we did another u-turn, this time across 4 lanes of traffic, all the cars and vans beeping and trying to force their way round. We had to drive back the way we had come, so we took a side road and parked up. No one seemed to know what was causing the traffic chaos, so we decided to just get the supplies we could and leave as soon as possible. Rich jumped out and left me in the car while he went off to sort out a sim card, he’d been gone about 15mins when from the end of the street the sound of a huge crowd began to grow. I got out of the car to try and see what was happening, but couldn’t see anything, except the noise was getting louder and louder and closer and closer. The Indian shopkeepers in front of me suddenly started to close up their shops, turning off the lights, pulling the shutters across the windows and grilles down over the door. My heart started to pound as I realised that something bad was happening, I shouted to the shopkeepers, to tell me what was happening. ‘The vendors are coming Mam, get back in your car’. As I looked back down the street I can only liken it to the moment in the Lion King, when Simba the lion cub, all alone in the valley looks up to see the herd of Wildebeest coming towards him. My jaw hit the floor and eyes were as wide as saucers, as hundreds of bare-chested men brandishing sticks and throwing rocks came running round the corner towards us. I was in a full scale Riot! This was a sight a never hope to see again.
Feeling like a sitting duck in my foreign car I quickly grabbed what I could and ran after the Indians. ‘I’m not staying in the car, I’m coming with you!’ We piled down a small alleyway, the Indians saying we could escape to their flat above the shops if we needed to. Richard was nowhere to be seen. It was probably the most frightening few moments of my life as we watched the carnage unfold in front of us. Fortunately the focus for the men seemed to be the next street over, so as they levelled with us, they turned off again, leaving us all breathing a huge sigh of relief. Rich, who had been down the road in the Telco shop, had had to force his way out of the shop after they’d barricaded him in. Rich was worried about me and came running towards us alongside the tail end of the mob. Despite being the only 6’ 6” white man on the street he somehow managed to get back to me without drawing too much attention. It was such a relief to be back together again, and we decided to make a break for it. We jumped into Kylie just as the mob backtracked down the side street towards us. As we sped off we dodged rocks and other missiles hurled at the car, which fortunately missed, we didn’t stop until we were far out of the city. So what had it all been about? Apparently the Government seem to have an ongoing battle with illegal street vendors who clog up the main road out of town. Every 6 months or so, the army arrive to clear the vendors by burning their stalls. In retaliation a few days later, the vendors then riot through the city causing as much damage as possible. This time however, the main market stall holders were fighting back and it erupted into a huge street fight. All very unexpected for a country that is one of the most peaceful in Africa.
After the drama, we were very relieved to be on the road heading out of town and onto Cape Maclear where we have now been for the past 5 days. Lake Malawi is an impressive sight, it’s hard to believe it’s not the ocean. The water (off-shore) is the clearest I’ve ever seen, and the water is full of the most amazing colourful fish (cichlids). We’ve been out snorkelling and swimming by the islands, but unfortunately the water by the shoreline (apart from the areas in front of the lodges!) is filthy and full of litter, and if you wondered where all those charity donation clothes went after the Salvation army or Oxfam, it’s here in the lake! We’re staying at Fat Monkeys, which is right on the water’s edge and right next to the village. It’s been a real eye-opener being so close to village life, watching how people go about their daily lives on the shoreline, amazing to see a lake not just being used for leisure but for living. The shoreline is heaving with people bathing, washing clothes and pots, fishing, not to mention the chickens, ducks, goats and dogs that wander up and down. It is not a peaceful setting by any means, but we’ve met some great people and enjoyed being part of the hum-drum of village life. We’ve also officially qualified as ‘Muzungos’ for the first time on this trip, and anytime we talk a walk on the beach or into the village we are mobbed by children who just want to come and hold our hands or stroke our skin. We walked back the other day, with a child on each finger, it’s exhausting to go anywhere but it’s hard to say no to so many pairs of big brown eyes. They also love the camera and having their picture taken so they can see themselves on screen, most of my pictures generally turn into complete chaos as more and more children arrive, all trying to push to the front of the picture.
It’s been a great few days, so nice not to have to drive anywhere for awhile! But tomorrow we’re heading south to Balaka District to meet up with our charity, Against Malaria Foundation and spend a few days helping with net distribution. More on this in the next post!