Malawi On My Mind

Our writer takes a trip to Malawi, the 'warm heart of Africa'

Feature by Gillian Provan | 29 Oct 2013

Keep your head down, avoid eye contact and ignore strangers on the street – that’s how we go about business in the UK. After spending time in Malawi, a country where greetings, waves and even hugs are offered unconditionally to visitors, it’s difficult readjusting to the guarded British way of life.

They don’t call it the warm heart of Africa for nothing – the southeastern country is credited as having the friendliest people around. And those people are the reason why my two weeks in Malawi, and my first proper visit to Africa, were among the most exciting, cheap and safe days I’ve ever spent abroad.

As someone who would never even have the confidence to take a solo trip to the cinema, the thought of taking three flights and then travelling for 24 hours to spend a fortnight in a strange country on my own was a prospect that concerned me. However, backpackers, locals and guidebooks assured me that with English as an official language and low crime rates, Malawi is one of the safest places for female travellers to go.

Jumping into a taxi (between $30 and $40 from the airport to Lilongwe) to get to my accommodation, everything is so new and fascinating. On what appears to be the main road in and out of the capital there are few cars, but cyclists can be seen pedalling furiously in the heat, and people are walking everywhere. Stands selling mobile phone top-ups in the middle of a barren stretch of land, men taking a rest under traffic signs and ladies balancing water on their heads and carrying babies on their backs instantly tell me I’m far from home.

My few days in Lilongwe are split between backpacker favourite Mabuya Camp, and the pricier $59 a night Kiboko Hotel. At Mabuya travellers can stay in the luxury of a chalet for $25 a night or camp for $6.

Lilongwe is such a spread out city that it’s impossible to take it all in by foot.The state-of-the-art Parliament built by the Chinese stands proudly in Area 40 beside conference centres and offices, while only a few streets away there are people selling wooden carvings and paintings in the Old Town. There’s little in the way of green space in the city, and for those longing to find somewhere to rest from the heat, the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary is the ideal place. While there are few opportunities for people watching, there’s an unusual collection of birds and a network of trails through the forest lining the Lingadzi River. Entry is under 50p (200 kwacha) and it’s worth it to get an escape from the chaotic, traffic-jammed city life.

Next door is the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre a rescue shelter where hourly tours treat visitors to sightings of blue monkeys, leopards and of course Bella, the one-eyed lioness who was rescued from a zoo in Romania.

My visit to the capital is for the City of Stars Festival – a two-day programme of music, comedy, theatre, film and dance organised by the team behind the Lake of Stars Festival. Fringe events, including a poetry night at the National Library featuring iconic Malawian writer Jack Mapanje, reveal the dynamic arts movement thriving in the city. The Living Room in Area 4 now hosts weekly documentary film, acoustic and poetry nights and there are slots for local musicians at Serendipity in the Old Town Mall. Darkness may loom at 6pm but it certainly doesn’t mean bedtime in the city.

Although the festival bill, which included Glasgow DJs Auntie Flo and Esa Williams and Edinburgh band Bwani Junction, is unlikely to return to Lilongwe, the event signals an ideal way of attracting backpackers to the often forgotten capital.

Growing up across the bridge from the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, Scotland, I was keen to visit the Blantyre in Malawi. While politicians and ambassadors favour Lilongwe, bankers and financiers can be found in Blantyre. Multi-storey office blocks and banks fill Malawi’s oldest city, and after wandering around the commercial districts I’m relieved to find a Tourist Information centre where I make plans to go to the Museum of Malawi.

This marks my first experience of a Malawian minibus. Arriving at the stop I’m bombarded by men asking where I’m going – who can fill up a minibus first seems to be an ongoing competition between the drivers. I’m redirected on to a 16-seater vehicle, and before I can even question the lack of space I find myself sitting on some poor passenger’s knee. My visit to the small museum coincides with the recent launch of National Museums Scotland’s exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Dr David Livingstone in collaboration with their Malawian counterparts, with letters, sketches and objects from the explorer's travels are on display.

With newfound confidence in my ability to navigate the minibus network, later in the week I take a trip to Mulanje – the tallest mountain in south-central Africa. A hike up the mountain and stay in the huts takes two to three days, involves lots of planning and booking a porter but I just want to see the landmark and the tea plantations that surround it. The two-hour trip which costs 1000 kwacha (less than £2) is certainly memorable. I see men run off the bus and board again after the police checkpoint. I’m crammed beside two men and a family of four in a four-seater row, and at each stop the bus is surrounded by people knocking on windows selling water, rolls, corn on the cob and cabbages.   

Mulanje town is a nice break from city life and my walk up through the tea plantations ends up being a really special afternoon when I bump into motorcycle instructor Wycliffe on his lunchtime jog. For the next few hours Wycliffe tells me about the politics, economics and health problems of the region, and I’m warned that it’s dangerous to walk alone on the mountain – not because of thieves or gangs but because the spirits do not like foreigners.

Close to Blantyre is the Liwonde National Park. Unfortunately I run out of time for a three day safari there but I’m told there's no shortage of operators who can organise trips to see the hippos, elephants and crocodiles at the game reserve, or there’s the option of hiring your own car to do it yourself.

With a limited amount of time I instead choose to visit the country’s famous Lake Malawi. Two hours out of Lilongwe is Senga Bay, as one of Malawi’s biggest fishing communities. By day the beach is lined with boats getting ready for an evening hunting for kapenta fish and by night it’s a twinkling sea of torch lights searching for the creatures.

Cool Runnings is a guesthouse overlooking the gorgeous sandy beaches and tranquil Lake Malawi. It’s definitely my favourite lodgings of the fortnight with delicious food and quirky furnishings, and a  host of opportunities for volunteers ranging from blood donations to coaching football teams in the village.  

Walking along the waterfront reveals much about local life. I find children running up to me for hugs and photos, ladies washing their clothes and men sewing their fishing nets. For $50 I take a trip out to Lizard Island, a craggy rock which is a popular spot for swimming and snorkelling. For a little more money you can sail out to the tropical fish and crocodile farms near Kambiri Point. It’s worth noting that bilharzia – an infection caused by a parasite worm – can be caught swimming in the lake, so it’s important to check in with the doctor when you return home.

From Senga Bay I decide to see more of the lake around the Mangochi area and in planning my journey completely forget that African time is more leisurely and laidback than British time. I end up waiting three hours for the coach to Mangochi. I have to stand on for two out of the five hours.

The cramped and claustrophobic conditions are worth it, though, for the gorgeous views and quiet beaches at Monkey Bay. A combination of poor research and forward planning leads me to spend two nights in the oldest building in Mangochi town – the Villa Tafika Lodge, where for 20,000 kwacha (or £40) I, as the only guest, have to haggle with taxi drivers, fight off salesmen and dine and dress by candlelight when the electricity cuts out.

A short drive out of town, and I’m given the chance to visit the home that cares for up to 40 young orphans in Mangochi. I pop into two of the project’s nursery schools and feeding stations that educate hundreds of children in the area. At the Open Arms Mangochi facility it’s emotional to meet the 27 babies, aged between one day old and two years, who have been abandoned by their families or lost their parents through HIV/AIDS and other diseases. A team of 35 staff care for the orphans during the most vulnerable first two years of their life and then, where possible, the child is reunited with a grandmother or aunt. Spending time playing games, singing and feeding the children is a day that will stick in my mind forever.

As a tourist Malawi is a stunningly scenic country with fantastic people, gorgeous sights and great culture. There is poverty and a real need for foreign aid, but it shouldn’t just be viewed as a charity case. With sun, sandy beaches and delicious food it is a perfect holiday destination just waiting to be discovered.