19 August 2010, Kande Beach, Malawi
One of the consequences of doing an overland tour is that we learned relatively little about local culture as we had few opportunities to interact with people on a daily basis. This is the trade-off we were willing to make for reliable and comfortable transportation, hassle-free border crossings and a six week hiatus from lugging our 30 pound packs around in search of hotels, restaurants and bus stations. Although the overland tour exceeded our expectations in terms of good company, wildlife and natural beauty, we were eager to learn more about local culture and customs. Fortunately, when we reached Lake Malawi, we had an opportunity to visit a nearby village. Craving a more intimate experience, we went with just two others from our overland group.
Tearing ourselves away from the clear blue waters of Lake Malawi, Jason, Paulo, Gregor and I passed through the heavy metal gate surrounding our campsite. Immediately we were transplanted to a different world. Overland trucks, tents and tourists were replaced by small homes, villagers tending to their crops and children playing. Within seconds we were surrounded by a group of young men eager to play tour guide for a nominal fee. Hoping to drum up business, each of these guides had adopted a catchy nickname such as Mr. Smooth, Sugar and Spice, or Rocky. We got a good vibe from Cheese on Toast and Mr. T so we hired them to show us around that afternoon. In between nearly constant interruptions from groups of young children, they told us about themselves, life in the village and their families. From a public health perspective, I especially appreciated our conversation about a group of community members working together to educate villagers about HIV/AIDS and population control. Malawi has one of the highest fertility rates in Africa and 14% of the population is living with HIV/AIDS so initiatives such as this are valuable and necessary.
Our first stop on the walk was Cheese on Toast’s home, a small brick building with a grass roof. Like most homes in the village, construction of the building was a community effort. Residents made the bricks and constructed the roof while a mason was hired to build the actual structure. Three years later, the house was still a work in progress as the family was trying to save up enough money for additional windows.
After leaving the house, we made our way to the local school where our guides introduced us to the headmaster and a few of the teachers. The school building was not fancy but it certainly seemed better off than other schools we had seen in Africa. For instance, they had a library with colorful murals covering the walls and shelves filled with reading material. Skimming through the titles, we saw books that looked vaguely familiar from our childhood. Apparently other tourists had donated these books to the school. During our discussion with the headmaster, we learned that the school was, in fact, better off than many other schools in Malawi. This was due to its proximity to the campground where we were staying. The nearly constant stream of tourists in the area has led to monetary contributions and donations of supplies. When we asked what supplies they needed, we discovered they were requesting simple things like pens, pencils, paper and books. With upwards of 50 students in one classroom, desks for less than half of the children and a shortage of very basic supplies, It is impressive to think that some of their students have the determination and motivation to make it to high school.
Our village walk also included a visit to the local clinic but the entire place was deserted when we stopped by for a look. We had come on market day and apparently that’s where everyone was. Rather than waiting around, we crossed the street and were swept into a mass of people. It was a small market but this was clearly the place to be on a Thursday afternoon. Merchants were lined up along the dusty road selling everything from food to tools. Secondhand clothes from the United States were on display everywhere. Apparently Malawi and other countries in Africa are the final resting place for our donated clothes. This was not a surprise given the attire we had seen so many Malawians wearing. Those of you from Wisconsin will be pleased to know that I did spot a villager wearing a Middleton Youth Soccer t-shirt. Amidst the chaos of children trying to hold our hands and pull us in multiple directions, I had a brief conversation with a young girl who looked like she was about 12 or 13 years old. After asking me to be her friend she immediately proceeded to find out if I was willing to buy her a cell phone. When I refused, she wanted to know why. I told her when I was her age, I didn’t have a cell phone and neither did anyone I knew. The look on her face was priceless; clearly she thought I was old and completely lame but was polite enough to not say anything.
We appreciated having a chance to relax on the beach in Malawi but our village walk was certainly the highlight of our time in this landlocked country. From a purely statistical perspective, Malawi does not seem like an ideal vacation destination. It ranks as one of the world’s least developed countries with over 65% of the population living below the poverty line of less than $1 per day. Even more heartbreaking is the average life expectancy which has dropped to 38 years in the last 10 years, mainly because of the increase in HIV/AIDS. Despite the hardships faced by many Malawians, we found the people to be some of the friendliest we encountered during our time in Africa. Our afternoon with Cheese on Toast and Mr. T passed by too quickly thanks to their charisma and eagerness to talk about life in the village. Everywhere they took us, we were greeted by smiling faces and that is what I will remember most about our short time on the shores of Lake Malawi.