POPULATION: 14-million, 65th most populous country
PRICE OF GAS: $14 a gallon on the black market
MONEY: $1 = 164 Malawi Kwacha
NO VISA REQUIRED (or no charge). CARNET WAS USEFUL, REQUIRED?
TIME IN COUNTRY: 11/30 – 12/14/2011
The “warm heart of Africa” needs a cardiologist, STAT! The endearing name of the country speaks well of the Malawi people, but the government might be called the “cold hearted greedy bastards of Africa”. Not as eloquent, but to the point.
When I arrived in Malawi through Chipata, Zambia I knew there was going to be some problems. Immediately upon crossing the border I noticed empty gas stations, one after the other - totally barren. I stopped by one and asked the drowsy attendant sitting on the curb when was the last time his station had any gasoline? “Two weeks ago.” When will you get more? “Today…or any day.” Malawi has not had any real gasoline for about 18-months. What petrol it does have comes in at night on trucks or boats from Zambia and Tanzania and sells for about $14 a gallon – far out of reach for any local. In the larger cities a legitimate tanker truck may occasionally supply a gas station with gas, but rather randomly. Once word gets out, the long lines form. Today, a BP station might get some fuel, two weeks later, it might be a Puma station cross-town. Thankfully, Malawi is not a very big country.
Malawi is a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country that has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS and government corruption. Its economy is largely dependent on agriculture coming from small rural farms. It has long relied on aid from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Britain and United States, but much of that was halted in the year 2000 due to many human rights violations and government corruption. (A recent IMF or World Bank (?) report just quantified that government corruption accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP.)
The reason for the gas shortage is because Malawi no longer has any foreign currency and nobody wants to be paid in its Kwacha currency. The last bit of foreign cash on hand was used to buy a private presidential jet in 2009. No gasoline translates into higher prices on everything for people living in one of the poorest and least developed countries on the planet. In July of this year the people did protest and the police quickly opened fire on the crowds using live ammo, killing 22 people (the people on the street say over 40 were killed).
Anyway, you get the picture.
On the upside of things, Malawi is a stunning country. True, it is a landlocked country, but you would never know it with 3/4 ‘s of its eastern border made up of Lake Malawi. The lake was commonly referred to as “the calendar lake”, or at least until that silly metric system was introduced, because of the lake’s 365-mile length and 52-mile width (at its widest point). The shoreline is peppered with comfortable and affordable lodges that make traveling here easy and very enjoyable. The lake has a lot of personality and changes often depending where you are; Kande Beach, for example, was white sandy beach with still warm waters reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Up north, the rocky shoreline with a mellow surf felt like somewhere in the Caribbean with excellent diving and freshwater tropical fish as brilliant and colorful as any of their saltwater cousins. When the shoreline wasn’t white crystalline sand, it was lined with dense green foliage interrupted only by the Flamboyant trees with their burnt-orange blossoms. Fish Eagles were commonly seen in the tall trees waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting fish. One could spend a lot of time touring the lake never repeating the same scenery twice.
Driving in Malawi was always an enjoyable and tranquil experience – the road never straight or flat for very long. Many people use the roads for foot and bicycle traffic so there is always a bit of “theatre” going on around you (and you have to be very careful). Passing through small villages and rural farmland the waving was incessant. Children would run toward the street and wave so hard that their whole body would wiggle. They really seemed to be getting something out of it and I was always afraid that I would not see a kid waving and pass by with out returning the gesture. On travel days, I must have waved at least 300 times a day. I loved it and it made the day so much fun. “Maybe this is why my shoulder feels better?”
The rumors on the online forums of police shaking down foreign travelers for proof of insurance or made-up infractions was unfounded from my perspective. There were many road stops and the cops did shake down the overcrowded minivan taxis, but I was waved on through or simply asked questions about the bike.
One highlight of my time in the country was my 10-day stay at the Myoka Village resort outside of Nkhata Bay. For $15 a night I had a private thatched roof chalet right on the shore. I swam everyday and practiced my balance in one of the dugout canoes. By the time I left, my shoulder pain was gone and felt strong again. There was an eclectic group of travelers all there at the same time and we often went into town for some curry or *nsima and beef stew at a local restaurant or for a cold Carlsberg at one of the very basic nightspots.
The weather by the lake was hot and humid. The 20-minute walk into town during the middle of day would leave you drenched in sweat. Thankfully, the water of the lake was always refreshing, and not the least bit cold. During the heat of the day, it was best to never venture too far from the water. At night, thunderstorms often rolled in and brought with them a cool breeze that great for sleeping.
Because of these rains and the dense population, Malawi can be quite malarial this time of year and I ramped up my anti-mosquito regiment to include mosquito sprays, burning coils and electrical plug-in deterrents. It was a full-on offensive that will probably knock years off my life for breathing in the noxious chemicals, but it kept the bugs away.
Because I swam in the slow moving waters of the Okavango Delta and in several spots in Lake Malawi, I am at risk of getting biharzia. Biharzia is caused by a parasite from a specific freshwater snail that can enter your body through the skin. It can be awhile before symptoms appear, but can be rather nasty if you wait for them as the “bugs” settle you your bowel and bladder. All of us at Myoka picked up the meds at the local clinic for about $1 and will take them six weeks after our last swim.
Lastly, to round out my time in Nkhata Bay, I visited a local school with a Finnish woman who had been volunteering there teaching English. My plan was to look around and observe for an hour and then get back to the lake, but to my surprise the teacher of the 6th grade class handed me some chalk and asked if I would teach English for a couple of hours. “What?” The cement block room with window openings, but no glass or screens was hot and packed with over 70-students. The teacher was gone in a flash to grade report cards or something as it was the last week of school. I was lost. I noticed that all the kids had a returned test in front of them so I looked through the questions. Excellent, they had been studying some basic human anatomy. That got me started. Then we moved on to world geography: the continents and oceans. The kids were polite, but unresponsive and quiet. I introduced the spelling game Hangman (but modified it so nobody was actually killed, and simply called it “Spelling Man”). Finally, I divided the class into two teams of their choice; it was to be England United vs. Arsenal. I used the anatomy and geography terms that we just went over for Spelling Man. The kids proved to be competitive and came alive and we all howled with laughter. Outside, other students peered into our windows with envy. When the teacher asked if I could come back the next day I said, “Absolutely!” I had a blast with the kids, though they probably didn’t learn a damn thing.
When it was time to leave I rode off with Peter, from Denmark, who was also traveling on a motorcycle. He had been traveling two-up with his wife Christine, but she had become ill and had to be flown home. Peter needed to get to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania where he would sell his Honda Africa Twin before flying home. After Myoka Village we spent one night at Kande Beach and then another high above the lake at the old Scottish Christian mission of Livingstonia. The black market gasoline was expensive but always easy to find. I ended up exiting Malawi with Peter and we spent a couple nights in Tukuyu, Tanzania before heading our separate ways.
True to its reputation, the people of Malawi are what make the place so special, that and the lake of course. It is an amazing place with great potential but with the gas problems and the daily power and water outages, I was ready to leave when we did. I hope things turn around for the country soon. The story of corrupt African politicians seems to play on a repeating loop for many of these African countries, and of course a lot of good innocent people suffer for the benefit of the greedy.
*Nsima is a new food experience for me and has since been commonly served in northern Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. It is finely ground corn meal that is served on your plate looking like a large scoop of mashed potatoes. With your right hand you pinch off a small piece and form a ball. With the ball you use it to scoop up or “pinch” your other food, often times a chicken or beef stew and cabbage salad. The nsima does not have a lot of flavor but soaks up whatever you are eating it with and is of course, quite filling. Luckily too, there is always a bottle of peri-peri sauce, or hot chili sauce on table. Because you eat with your hands, restaurants will bring out a dish of warm water for you to rinse your hands or provide soap and water station somewhere in the dining area.
A video of images of Malawi: Video