the warm heart of africa

(translated from Dutch by Christina Jordan, The life in Africa foundation, december 1999)

Blessed with the names of two presidents, Kennedy Botha sits with dignity behind his tropical hardwood desk. In front of him sprawls a colorful map showing his motherland, which is also his professional territory: the southern central African country of Malawi. In his tailored dark brown pinstriped suit, he serves his country as a Ministry of Wildlife civil servant in the capital Lilongwe. He is an important man -- which he demonstrates with repeated interruptions of our discussion to answer incoming calls on the short wave radio. Telephone density in Malawi is low, and the two phones on Kennedy's desk are seldom used. But I'm allowed to use one in order to inquire about a rental car with which to cross the country.

The contrast could hardly be greater: my shiny white Toyota Corolla with central locking and electric windows glides over the Malawian asphalt. The air conditioning doesn't work, but that's the only reminder of Africa inside the car. Outside is a completely different world, with a mix of wood and mud thatch-roofed houses lurking among the banana trees. There is poverty, but also pride, helping to make Malawi one of the friendliest populations on the continent. The slogan "The warm heart of Malawi," with which the country hopes to attract tourists, refers as much to the people as it does to the tropical climate. Visitors are welcomed with the wonderful opportunity to step inside real life, as it is lived on the continent.

So -- out of the car, and into Africa

In Livingstone's footsteps
In 1859, the famous Scottish discoverer David Livingstone was the first European to set foot in the region now known as Malawi. He called it Nyasaland, after the local term "nyasa" which means "big water," referring to the large 550 kilometer lake that borders the country to the east. Livingstone's discovery led to the arrival of British missionaries and colonialists, and Nyasaland was named a British protectorate in 1890. Then in 1953, as colonialism was in decline, Nyasaland became part of the Rhodesian Federation. It didn't last long: in 1964 the Federation dissolved into the now independent nations of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.

In Malawi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda came into power, a freedom fighter educated in England. In the end, little eventually remained of his early ideals -- he became a dictator who kept his country in an iron grip for over thirty years. Within Malawi's borders the rules were strict, and contacts with the outside world were rare. Malawi did not have its own TV station, women were not allowed to wear long pants and men were forbidden to keep shoulder length hair. As late as the early nineties, the mandatory haircut for visitors at the border was a constant source of jokes among travelers. Old Banda wasn't removed from office until 1994, when he was almost ninety years old. The newly elected government is now trying hard now to improve the country's image.

Like in the surrounding countries, life in Malawi is not easy. In a recent standard of living survey among 174 UN member states, Malawi ranked 17th from the bottom. Poverty is thus widespread; a one-day salary of the average worker is only 15 cents -- about $ 50 a year. Through agriculture and cattle breeding for home use, jobs on the side and bartering, many Malawians are able to increase their standard of living somewhat. But hardly any are well off -- especially considering that from their meager income they still have to pay the rent for their wooden huts. When I learned this from a Western diplomat I was very surprised. I'd always assumed that every citizen could simply build his hut at his favorite spot. But in a controlled society like Malawi, even that was not possible. The rent is normally paid to the State, which is not only the largest landowner, but also the owner of most companies in trade and industry.

Pedestrians, goats, chickens and a car
I drive through the southern, most densely populated part of Malawi, and the part most often visited by tourists. Nevertheless, my car and I are obvious objects of interest for the many pedestrians, cyclists, goats and chickens that share the road. The asphalt is in good shape, and I'm tempted to accelerate to full gear, but this is out of tune with the African atmosphere around outside.

The villages are long rows of wooden and mud huts. I stop in the village of Apatsa and observe from a distance as villagers move piles of branches. Then I end up in a conversation with Mouren, who lives nearby and is eager to show me her village up-close. There is laughter from her fellow villagers as I follow her to a courtyard between some huts. There I meet Mouren's grandmother - a remarkable figure --brewing beer in a big oil drum and using a big stick to stir it with. According to Malawian tradition, as a visitor I am invited to sample the beer.

Mini-fishes and plastic shoes
Every ten kilometers there is a small local market where vegetables, fruit, fish and liquor can be purchased. At each stop, you find the same little piles of 4 tomatoes or mini-fishes, neatly lined up in display. At the bigger markets the supply of groceries is expanded to include to the indispensable sink buckets (to get water) and cane baskets (to collect grains). Sometimes there is real luxury for sale, such as the bamboo mats used as floor covering inside the huts.

I visit these markets regularly, causing a commotion each time as soon as I park my car close by. When on top of that I decide to buy some potatoes here, some bananas there, the people are shocked and amazed. But initial astonishment immediately becomes a friendly smile and a chat.

Most foreign visitors do their shopping at the PTC (People's Trading Center), which is the state-owned supermarket. These shops are reasonably well supplied with western products, but at prices that are out of reach for the man on the street in Malawi. Souvenir sellers strategically position themselves at the entrance of the PTCs, hoping to sell to tourists and well-off Malawians. I decide not to buy any of the cleverly carved giraffes or hippos with their shoe polish finishing. Or shall I change my mind?

One of the largest and most lively markets is located in Zomba, the former colonial capital. " Haircare experts for all races" says the sign on the front of a salon. There is every business imaginable, but the structure of the market is surprisingly easy to navigate. Each aisle has its own specialty -- hairdressers are grouped all together, as are tailors, and in the very middle is a huge stand for sink buckets and watering cans. The shoemaker Kapille is surrounded by piles of used shoes. He allows me to snap a photo as long as I don't distract him from his work. With care he selects the usable parts of worn out footwear, and rebuilds them into wearable shoes. As an alternative to the recycled shoes, gaily colored plastic sandals are displayed by the dozens.

Across the plateau of Zomba
Zomba lies at the foot of a plateau with the same name. This used to be the favorite spot of the British, who preferred the cool temperatures at this altitude. From the densely wooded plateau there is a beautiful view of Zomba and its surroundings. It's hazy when I am there, and the panorama is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, it's relaxing to sit at the terrace of the Ku Chawe Inn, right at the edge of the plateau. This hundred year old hotel/restaurant was recently renovated to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. Amidst the sisal mats and bamboo screens atop of red rock walls I feel transported back in time, as though preparing for an elephant-mounted lion hunt later in the day.

I decide to pass on the lion hunt, but pluck up the courage for a trip over the dirt roads of the Zomba plateau. I arrive at Queen's View, named after the British queen mother who visited this site in 1957. Unfortunately, the view is still poor - a description which also applies to the road condition. On the dirt road the potholes get deeper and wider, alternating with big rocks jutting out of the sand. I'm finally reduced to driving at no faster than a walking pace. The road is too narrow to turn around, but after every obstacle I manage to get through, I'm convinced that I don't want to pass that spot again anyway. In spite of it all I reach my destination, Chingwe's Hole -- a pit of unfathomable depth, used in earlier days for funerals. With a long rope, the dead were lowered through a narrow passage, into a cave twenty meters below the rim.

At Chingwe's Hole I meet two boys from a village located at the foot of the plateau. They'd walked for two and a half hours, hoping to sell locally found semi-precious stones to the two or three daily tourists that visit Chingwe's Hole. This is one of the few sad sights during my trip through Malawi -- two ragged, lonely boys, far from any means of communication with the outside world. Their whole life revolves around a little piece of tourmaline. They sit at one of two picnic tables placed there for tourists. I notice that hundreds of holes have been drilled into the table's wood to make it unusable, so that villagers won't be tempted to steal it. This detail puts a finishing touch on the melancholy of the moment.

A river with hundreds of hippos
The next day I sit at the shores of the Shire River, admiring the sunrise. A mysterious early morning haze shrouds the river, almost completely obscuring the mountains on the other side. Once in a while a kingfisher flies by, or a hamerkop -- a water bird whose skull is too large for the rest of its body. The secrets of the early morning swiftly unravel as the sun gains ground over the low clouds, dumping its inferno out over the countryside. It almost looks as though the trees on the hill are on fire.

The hippos can be heard, just returned to the river after their nightly pottering ashore. They feel safe in the river, and use their unceremonious grunting to say so. Two fishermen weave between them, trying to catch for their daily bread. Surrounded by high palms, fishing is still done in the traditional way on the Shire. The rower sits in the back of a dug out tree trunk -- the traditional Malawian canoe. The fisherman stands in the front, throwing out his net. He brings the net in and lets the catch squirm on the bottom of the boat. After about twenty throws, they row back to shore to sell their catch. When the boat is empty, they set out again. The mighty Shire is one of the most important rivers in Malawi, providing for both man and animal -- not only fish, but also drinking water. Near the shore I see women washing -- themselves, their children and their laundry.

The upper part of the Shire borders Malawi's Liwonde National Park. Very early in the morning I board the small motorboat that will take me there. The crossing is one of the most spectacular parts of my trip. It's no coincidence that the campsites at the beginning and end of the excursion are called Hippo and Mvuu (the latter means hippo in the Chichewa language). Never have I seen so many hippos together - hundreds of them. And in case the hippos get boring, uncountable crocodiles glide alongside the hippos, or relax on the sandy banks in the sun. They keep a close and continuous eye on our little boat. The crocs don't mind being observed from so close by, but my boatswain keeps a safe distance from the hippos. In defense of their territory, these peaceful animals victimize more humans than any other African animal.

Waterbucks and impalas quench their thirst along the shore, oblivious of the crocodiles. Black and white storks and marabous muddle about in the shallow water. Fish eagles peer for potential prey from the treetop perches. I am so busy admiring this abundant game, that I'm surprised when my boatswain points out the elephants. How could I not notice them? There are dozens! But in spite of their enormous bodies, they are camouflaged in the high papyrus grass growing along the shores. From the water we get as close as only ten meters away. Fragile egrets travel on the elephants' backs, emphasizing the massive dimensions of the beasts. At the waterside a gigantic male suddenly appears, weighing at least 5,000 kilos. We're too close for comfort, and my boatswain agrees. We back off several meters, just to be on the safe side.

No hyenas?
I sit next to Nedson Kwilunga. He lives in a village named after the former president Kamuza Barrage, located at the crossing of several roads, and one of the few locations where the Shire can be crossed. I must look like a real tourist with my camera and car. The value of the plane ticket in my pocket represents what Nedson might earn over a period of 10 to 15 years. He bombards me with questions: What do I think of Malawi? Is Malawi the most beautiful country I've ever seen? He himself has traveled to neighboring Mozambique, and now dreams of seeing the Indian Ocean. He doesn't know Holland, but isn't surprised to hear that we don't have elephants or hippos. But that we don't even have hyenas is something he finds hard to imagine.

Healing water
I'm at a crossing in the village of Ntcheu, having a drink in the local corner-shop. The street is busy with people climbing into two pick-up trucks, obviously getting ready to leave. I am surprised to see other vehicles here, since most of the transport in Malawi is by foot. As he returns some empty coke bottles in the shop, Edward Khoswe tells me they are on their way to bury his brother, who died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27. In a country like Malawi the medical care is very poor, and illnesses like TB are quite common. But it's also very possible that the real cause of his brother's death was AIDS. Statistics point to a high number of AIDS victims in Malawi over the past few years, but to save face with other villagers, an AIDS death is often concealed as another illness.

It will be difficult to eradicate AIDS in a country like Malawi. It's dark by six in the evening, and making love is one of the few affordable hobbies. The population is too poor to be able to buy condoms. One Malawian however, offers a possible source of hope for HIV infected population. He is called The Healer, and serves "healing water" to long lines of waiting people. The non-infected also eagerly sip of it -- even if it doesn't do any good, it can't do any harm either. The Healer doles out the healing water for free, but gladly accept gifts from the thankful population in return. The government condemns him as a fraud, which he may very well be. On the other hand, he provides the people with a little bit of hope.

Exotic Lake Malawi
At the end of my trip, I finally arrive at the place I came to see, and put up my tent on the shores of Lake Malawi. Luckily, it's not until the next morning that I notice the little sign warning of night-grazing hippos.

Lake Malawi glittering in the sun is the most important tourist attraction in Malawi. It is the southern-most lake in the Great Rift Valley, a cleft in the earth's crust running from Syria through most of the continent. Lake Malawi is the third largest lake in Africa and is one of the few African waters free of the dangerous bilharzia bacteria. This offers the traveler an excellent opportunity to enjoy the colorful underwater life in the world's largest sweet-water aquarium. A marked snorkel route in Lake Malawi National Park has explanations of the brightly colored tropical fishes and the special vegetation.

Above the water's surface the birds compete with the fishes in their colorful displays. Bird watching in Malawi is exhilarating -- impressive African fish eagles with their beaks of remarkable yellow, luxuriant paradise finches, excited weaverbirds and fragile sunbirds fill my gaze. The occasional lilacbreasted roller comes into view, attracting all my attention with his brilliant blue, turquoise and lilac colors.

Just as impressive are the shores of Lake Malawi itself, with its white sand beaches and waving palms. In an effort to entice tourists, some of the hotels keep their beaches as smooth and level as tennis courts. It is an endless job, especially since dozens of little monkeys mess it up again in no time. Cape Maclear - the backpacker's paradise of Malawi -- is another story. There are no perfect beaches here, but plenty of travelers, often meeting up again since parting ways in Kenya. Stevens Resthouse at the beach is the place to be. It's also the gathering point for young Malawians eager to have contact with foreigners, or to get their hands on a pair of jeans. On the way to Stevens Resthouse I meet one of these Malawians who accompanies me along the beach to the village. As a bonus he shows me a traditional fishing village nearby, where the catch of that day still dries in the sun on big bamboo racks. But a cone shaped bag of french fries bought from a young entrepreneur shows how modern life is increasingly interwoven with older traditions. The astronomical price (three days of salary for the average Malawian) doesn't prevent tourists from enjoying this famous treat. With a big smile on his face the guy tells me that his business is going very well.

Singing and dancing with sugarcane
On the last day of my trip through Malawi, I find myself at a big party in Salima. Dozens of people dance and sing through the streets. Some have painted their faces and all wave sticks of sugarcane. A man blowing a whistle leads the entire bunch - it's a very happy party.

They sing a song in the Chichewa language about the birth of children in the bush. A participant explains to me that the party is to celebrate the birthdays of all the villagers - it's a birthday party for everybody at the same time. The sugar cane sticks they wave symbolize a sweet life. For me, it is an unforgettable sight, which confirms all of my other impressions of life in Malawi. Like Kennedy Botha proudly operating the radio on the day I arrived, I see that Malawians enjoy life -- in spite of their very limited means. I couldn't have wished for a more appropriate farewell from Malawi - a land full of hope and hospitality.