Faces of Malawi

Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the planet, so the statistics and indices say. But like many things, a statement like this does not really give you the whole picture.  Malawi has a population of over 18 million.  That’s a lot of people.  But again, it does not give you a true sense of the country.  Since arriving in Malawi, I have had the opportunity to meet many people from all walks of life through my job, but also in day to day interactions.  I am impressed with the resiliency, kindness, work ethic, and joy that Malawians demonstrate despite some very difficult circumstances.  I decided to profile a few of the people I have met.  One thing I found interesting is that so many of those living in Lilongwe are not from here, though not uncommon in highly centralized developing countries.  Another is the number of single mothers I have had met.  Though I feel a connection to them, I know that my single parent path has been far easier than theirs.

Faces One 1

Samson

Samson, 50, is a tailor, mostly creating one-of-a-kind fashions from the traditional fabric called Chitenje.  Electricity is unreliable in Malawi, so he works quickly but with care using a manual sewing machine.  Samson grew up in Machinga district in the Southeast of the country, near Lake Chirwa.  He started working as a tailor at 16 years of age.  Once he turned 21 he relocated to Lilongwe with his wife and two year son.  Twenty-nine years later he and his wife, six children, three boys and three girls, and four grandchildren live in Lilongwe.  He loves working as a tailor because its the only work he has ever known and it has provided a good livelihood for him and his family.  Besides his family and work, he loves going to church and praying.

Faces One 2

Ethel

Ethel, 26, is a single mom of an 18-month old boy.  She is one of seven children, the third to the last.  Her oldest and youngest siblings passed away.  The oldest died of tuberculosis; she is not sure about the youngest, but it was an illness.  With the exception of an older brother in South Africa, the rest of her family remains in Malawi.  As a child she wanted to become a mechanical engineer, but she only finished primary school.  Originally from Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, she moved to Lilongwe in 2013.  Soon after arriving in the capital she secured a job at one of the largest and most popular supermarkets.  For four years she worked six and a half days a week at the supermarket, earning about US$35 a month after taxes.  That is until recently when she was suddenly let go.  Right now she dreams of moving to South Africa for work, to improve both her and her son’s life.

Faces One 4

Boston

Boston, 32, works as a residential security guard.  One of eight children, with three brothers and four sisters, he grew up in a farming family in Nkhotakota, near the shore of Lake Malawi.  Unlike most of his family who remain in his home town, where they grow rice, cotton, maize, cassava, sugar cane, and beans, Boston moved to Lilongwe in 2010 to “seek greener pastures.” It was in Lilongwe that he met his future wife, who is from Balaka in the South.  Although there is some historical tension between Northerners and Southerners, his family completely embraced her.  In July 2017 they were married.  He and his wife are in no hurry to expand their family; they currently care for Boston’s 18 year old brother.  Boston loves reading, though books are sometimes hard to come by, and plans to do more with his life.  For a year he was taking tourism and hospitality courses, but just before he was to sit for his exams the school closed.  He is not sure his next steps.

Faces One 3

Grace

Grace, 27, works as a massage therapist.  She was born in Ntcheu, a central district in Malawi along the Mozambican border, but as a young girl her family moved to Mangochi for her father’s job.  At 18 years of age, her parents sent her back to Ntcheu to live with relatives before her arranged marriage.  Three months pregnant, her intended told her he was leaving and never wanted to see her again.  She returned to Mangochi, giving birth to her son, and made a living selling small traditional foods she prepared, such as banana fritters.  In 2009 a friend told her about an advertisement looking for staff to work at a spa.  With that job she received massage training.  Two years later she lost that job and moved to Lilongwe.  There she met her current husband and had her daughter.   She has big dreams for expanding her massage therapy business though often something as simple as her daughter landing in the hospital for several days with malaria can wipe out her savings.

Faces One 5

Stephen

Stephen, 38, is quiet and unassuming.  Born in Thyolo district, in Malawi’s deep south, he does not recall dreaming of being anything when grown up other than a transport driver.  He shrugs and shyly explains he only finished his primary school certificate.   He moved to Lilongwe to start work as a gardener for an international development partner in 2008.  Although he had no formal training as a gardener, he learned on the job, until he could confidently care for vegetable and fruit gardens as well as flowers and decorative plants.  He worked for that employer for over eight years until a new person arrived and suddenly let all the staff go.   He and his wife Mary, from Nkhata Bay on the upper shores of Lake Malawi, have three children, one girl and two boys, aged 4, 11, and 14.   In his free time he most enjoys dancing with his wife to the latest popular music at home or at church.

Faces One 6

Thoko

Thoko, 25, works full time as a nanny and housekeeper.  Her name, Thokozani, means “thanks” in the Chichewa language.  She is also the single mother of a five year old girl.  Although born in Lilongwe, she still considers herself from Ntcheu as it is where her father is from and still lives, and where the majority of the Ngoni, her ethnic group, reside.  Her parents are divorced and both remarried, though she remains close with both of them.  Thus she has one brother, two sisters, two stepsisters, and three stepbrothers. Her mother is a housekeeper for a foreign diplomat and her father continues to farm in Ntcheu, growing tomatoes, cabbage, and Irish potatoes.  Thoko has worked as a nanny for seven years, beginning part time while she was still in secondary school, which she finished.  She hopes her daughter, Rejoice, will grow up to have a good family and a good job.  Thoko is already working hard to improve her and her daughter’s lives.  She saves a portion of her salary each month in her own bank account.  She recently started growing her own maize and has plans to buy her own land where she will build a house that some day she can gift to her daughter.  She loves music and singing, particularly in her church choir.

 

 

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(The Not Quite) Lake Escape

15A three day weekend.

The third of the year, but as we had stayed put the first two it was time for C and I to get out of Lilongwe for a mini mommy and me vacation.

I had had some big plans.  A friend from college, SC and her daughter M, now currently residing in Cape Town, were to make the flight up to visit.  C was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of guests from out of town.  She had on more than one occasion made it clear that she would show them to their room and she would show them around the house and yard.  She warned me repeatedly that my job was to pick them up at the airport, but it was her job to show them around Panda B&B, which is what she named our house for visitors.  She had taken pains to put little accents in their room – from placing two hyacinth hair clips left over from her Moana birthday on to the bed, to also putting her blue bird desk lamp on the dresser (with a blue spider web on it — I don’t know, she thought it made it homey?).  For a finishing touch she placed a plush Panda with a personal welcome drawing on the pillow.

5

The M10?

Two days before they were to arrive SC messaged me with the bad news: due to an unexpected, and extremely important, work commitment, they had to cancel.  C was devastated.  Frankly, I was too.  I considered even cancelling the hotel I had booked and changing to someplace closer.  But I had been looking forward to going to the southern part of Lake Malawi for some time, and the deadline for cancelling without penalty had passed.  So it would be Cape Maclear or bust.

Early Saturday morning we packed up the car and hit the road.  I will be honest, I was a wee bit nervous.  This would be only my second road trip outside of Lilongwe (with me at the wheel) and Malawian roads are not for the faint of heart.  The first part was fine enough — the M1 north to the M14 east, the same route to Senga Bay we took in November.  Ninety minutes out we headed south on the M5.  Don’t let the names of theses highways fool you, they are two lane roads with little or no shoulder.  Sealed but full of potholes and unexpected surprises around bends (a truck stopped?  a herd of goats? a police checkpoint?) But the drive was pleasant enough.  Then just after Mua, my GPS directed me to make a left onto the M10.  And there in front of me stretched a dirt road.  I checked the GPS.  Yeah, I made the correct turn.  So we bounced along the dirt road as it gradually narrowed.  I hoped it would not end.  Thankfully after a bumpy 10 miles or so we returned to tarmac.

The last 20 minutes or so, once reaching the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve (and the area of the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sealed road once again fizzled out.  With the exception of a few enterprising youngsters wielding hefty garden tools attempting to shake down passing motorists, it was uneventful and we soon pulled into our lodge.

13

Along the beach

Within a few hours I was disappointed.  The lodge, despite costing a pretty penny, had no WiFi, no restaurant (both advertised online).  They offered lunch — but with no menu we were told we select from a few fish or chicken dishes.  Despite being only one of two apparent guests ordering lunch, or even at the lodge at all, it took more than 45 minutes to bring us the food.  We had an option between Coca-Cola, Fanta Pineapple, or water to drink.  The whole place looked tired and worn.  We went for a walk on the beach.  Not five feet from the property and I was waylaid by a man wearing a vest who said he ran boat tours.  I said I just wanted to walk on the beach with my daughter.  He said no problem, he could tell me about the boat trips along the way.  I asked him to cut to the chase and tell me the price — I was interested in a trip out on the lake — but he would not reveal them right there and then and said he had a set price sheet he could show me.  US$35 per person!  I said no.  We went on our way.

C had put on her swimsuit, desperate to play in the water, but this was different from where we had been at Senga Bay.  The beach is hard pebbles and there is lots of glass.  The village butts right up to the lake, the lodges, dive joints, and hostels in-between.  Locals use the lake for everything — for their ablations, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, fishing, and play.   I saw the rusted handlebars of a bicycle in the shallows, a long pipe ran into the water and along the beach, carrying water somewhere to the village.  I let her only a foot or two in.  She was not happy.  Neither was I.

At the hotel C swam for hours in the pool as I contemplated checking out the next day.  For dinner we declined to once again order chicken or fish from the hotel and headed to Gecko’s, where a lively atmosphere, a decent singer, a mancala game, and quite possibly the best pizza in Malawi revived us.  Despite the hard and somewhat lumpy mattress we both slept very well.

24

The center of the village

The next morning I was still mulling over whether to check out.  But C saw other children in the pool and was cheered.  She instantly made friends; she’s sweet and friendly and open — though our giant orca pool toy probably didn’t hurt.  And I let go.  I let go of the idea of “doing something” on this trip.   Sitting by the pool, reading a book, watching my daughter play is doing something.  Striking up a conversation with the other parents while we lazed at the pool watching our kids is also doing something.  I learned they are Lebanese-Malawian and own a prominent shopping center in Lilongwe.  For lunch C and I went next door to the Funky Cichlid, a backpacker dive, where I had the most disappointing spaghetti bolognaise of my life (it took 45 minutes to make and when it arrived it had spaghetti and ground beef and cheese but no sign of tomato sauce — I was told to add it from the ketchup on the table) and C hated her burger.  No problem.  That day I was not bothered.  It was funny.  We shared a KitKat instead.  Then went back and took a nap.  Then headed back to the pool.  Dinner was at Hiccups Pub, upon recommendation of our new Lebanese-Malawi friends, where C enjoyed a chicken shawarma and flatbread and I lapped up quite possibly the best hummus in Malawi.

31

village children and shop

On our final morning C and I took a stroll through the village.  At 7:30 in the morning it was quiet — most likely with the majority of the population long awake and on with their day, bathing or doing chores or fishing at the lake only meters away.  Malawi is poor, its one of the poorest countries on Earth, and the majority of the inhabitants of the village poor as well.  I do not want to sugarcoat it.  I am afraid of romanticizing it in some way.  Several kids in the village regularly approach foreign tourists with handwritten notes asking for donations to support their transportation to a football game in a neighboring village.  There is no football game, of course, but I cannot fault them for trying.  Others will pester visitors to listen to their “boy band” and charge per song — but they are surprisingly good with their makeshift instruments, covers of popular songs such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and some pretty great dance moves.  But with the exception of some persistent (and relatively mild to other places I have been) requests to see someone’s shop or take a boat tour, the villagers were friendly, and busy going about their daily lives.

On the way back to Lilongwe we stopped at the Mua Mission, one of the oldest Catholic missions in Malawi founded in 1902, and the Kungoni Culture Center, which celebrates the cultures of the Ngoni, Yao, and Chewa tribes.  Historical and cultural sites are few in Malawi, museums even fewer, so it was a bit of a treat for me to stop here.  Though the museum is only three rooms, they are chock full of information and one could easily spend two hours there with the guide.  Lucky for the waiting Catholic University students, C and I went in for the express 30 minute tour, though including the gift shop and walking some of the grounds, we still spent an hour here.  C liked the room of Gule Wamkulu masks best.  (The Gule Wamkulu is a ritual dance of the Chewa people that involves costumes and masks, some quite elaborate.  The dance has been inscribed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage)

38

Mua Mission

It was not quite the trip I had intended.  I had wanted to get away, and I think I had envisioned some kind of fancy lodge that kept Malawi at bay, but instead of an escape, we got a little more up close and personal.  At first it was uncomfortable, and to be honest, I am still processing it.  My expectations.  The reality.  The natural beauty and the everyday lives.  Economics.  Culture.  Environment.  Do not get me wrong.  I know a short walk on the beach and a walk through a village and a stop at a cultural center do not a deep cultural immersion make.  But it was eye opening for both C and I.

We will not soon forget it.  (especially as C lost her first tooth in the car on the way — a loose tooth, a bumpy road, and an apple are the ticket!)  And though I declared at first I would not go back, I already expect that an untruth.