Here I am, nearly a year living in Lilongwe and only now beginning to write an introduction to Malawi’s capital city. Yet it is just recently that I began to truly transition from Lilongwe being just a place I have moved to for work to a place where I live. I am not a local; I am not a long-time expatriate. Nor am I a mere tourist. But I only wander so far; I have my routines. So this is my introduction to Lilongwe.
Malawi’s capital city is not particularly large, its population hovers around a million, yet the city is spread out with few buildings taller than two stories. The tallest building in the city, I think the whole country, is the twelve story President Walmont hotel, located in the City Center. Well, that is somewhat a misnomer. Lilongwe’s core is divided by the Lilongwe nature sanctuary/forest reserve. One one side the older part of the city, where the old town is located, on the other, newer side you find City Center, Capital Hill, most Embassies, including that of the U.S., and areas where most expats live. The city is literally divided into Areas — all with numbers, a few go by names. But its a patchwork with Area 10, 11, and 12 adjacent to one another but also next to Area 43. Area 40 sits next to Area 13, 16 and 19 (and make up much of City Center). We live in Area 10 and my daughter’s school is in Area 3, but they are across town from one another, 20 minutes by car on a good traffic day, nearly an hour on a bad one. Confused? Often so am I. Sometimes I do not know why I bother to ask someone where they live because if they say some place other than Area 10, 11, 12, or 43, I would be hard pressed to know where they are talking about.
Staring out the window of the airplane as we descended into Kamuzu International Airport, I strained to see signs of the city that would become my new home. I could make out only a few buildings scattered among faded green brush and burnt orange earth. Soon afterwards as we bounced along the two lane tarmac to town I wondered aloud the whereabouts of the city. Having already driven a good 20 minutes I had yet to see signs of a capital. That day it never really materialized as we turned off the M1 into Area 12, then Area 10 to my new residence, located in the relatively leafy, well-to do zone. Our homes, with high brick walls, often topped with a profusion of barbed wires, and guarded by dogs or security personnel or both, do not necessarily scream “foreigner,” as there are locals and local government buildings scattered throughout these residential locations, but they most certainly project privilege. Yet even those first days and weeks driving from home to the Embassy or to Old Chipiku, one of the most expat-oriented supermarkets, Lilongwe seemed remarkably unoccupied, provincial. Only after more time did I expand my driving radius, finding there are in fact crowded, congested parts of the city, yet they remain outside of my usual stomping grounds.
There are not many tourist sites in Lilongwe. Normally when I arrive in a new place, I like to hit the ground running and do some sightseeing as soon as possible. Certainly in Shanghai, my bucket list was long and I had no time to waste. Here, I focused more on just getting myself and C settled as a read of my guidebook weeks before had already informed me the touring would take little time. There is the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, which will give visitors a one hour tour of the facility, though there are not many animals there, especially after their two lions passed away. They have one of the nicest playgrounds in the city and a pretty good restaurant/cafe. Sometimes they have concerts and show movies under the stars. I expect many people might be disappointed by a visit, especially if they have already joined a safari, which is unlikely if they have made the trek to Africa. But the center is still very much worth a visit as they are a major player in animal conservation in the country.
Guidebooks also list the Kamuzu Banda memorial, the WWI / King’s African Rifles monument, and for lack of much else to add, the Parliament building. The mausoleum of the country’s first president is wedged between Umodzi Park, with the Chinese-built President Walmont hotel and Convention Center and the Chinese-built Parliament building. I do not know anything on Banda’s thoughts on the Chinese other than the Chinese Embassy assisted some of his political rivals to flee to Tanzania, thus with that he might not enjoy his final resting place. But it is a quiet and pleasant place to spend 15 to 20 minutes unless Parliament is in session as then the grounds swarm with ruling party supporters. Banda’s statue also graces the plaza in front of the WWI / King’s African Rifles clock tower, located not far from the Parliament. Here you have a good chance of someone with some keys letting you inside to climb maybe 300 stairs to near the top landing where one has to switch to a narrow metal ladder hanging over the terrifying gap all the way to the cement floor below. Our “guide” pushed my then-5 year old daughter up to the final landing and it scared the beejeezus out of me. I insisted he get her down and she stand flesh against the wall on the stairs. My heart pounded as I climbed up myself. The one dingy window on that landing is set too high up for my 5’5″ self to look out so I took pictures holding my camera high above my head and hoping for the best.
Our lives in Lilongwe are quiet. Weekends are generally spent at home, puttering about our yard. We head to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center to recycle, stop by Old Chipiku for groceries, maybe get a mani-pedi up the street or head to my boss’ house to use the pool. As one of the Marine Security Guards told me just before his departure — “Lilongwe is a nice enough place to live but if you are between the ages of 17 and 30 it is on the boring side. There isn’t anything to do.” Good thing C and I fall outside that age range and thus for us Lilongwe is pretty okay.