Hunting and Gathering the Goods: Shopping in Lilongwe

*Caveat: This is how I, a U.S. diplomat, obtain foodstuffs and household goods in Lilongwe.  I am also including photos so people outside of Malawi have a more realistic *picture* of what things are like here.  Before I came to Malawi I looked all over the Internet to find photos of a Malawian supermarket without luck.  For reasons I cannot clearly articulate, grocery availability and presentation worried me, though I had not been concerned when moving anywhere else.  While shopping can be quite exhausting in Lilongwe (I know many who outsource it to staff or hand it off to their very kind spouse because it just makes them too crazy to do it themselves), especially if one makes the mistake of trying to get one’s shopping down on the last Friday or Saturday – pay day – of the month.  But its a part of the experience, something I prefer to do myself.  And its not half bad.

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Old Chipiku

I will not lie, I miss the convenience of shopping in Shanghai.  Shopping in Lilongwe is….different.  It takes so much more time and work to get the groceries here.   In Shanghai, we had supermarkets downstairs from our apartment, across the street, downstairs from the office, and a few blocks away.  All within easy walking distance.

In my intro to Lilongwe I tried to explain how the capital is laid out.  I live in Area 10, located in the newer part of town, the “City Centre,” although one would be hard pressed to truly locate a center of this sprawling, low-lying city.  There are a few supermarkets on this side of town, a People’s located in Area 12, a Sana in Area 43, another People’s in City Centre, but these are smaller stores and the few times I have been the selection has left me wanting.  With the exception of the Kapani supermarket located on the M1 as you head from town to the airport, I do not shop on my side of town.

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C is happy to visit Gateway – Lilongwe’s only mall

Although on a good, no-to-light, traffic day, it does not take long to get to my favorite supermarket, Old Chipiku, maybe 20 minutes?  (It is not actually named Old Chipiku, just Chipiku, but we Lilongweans call it that so that we distinguish between the more established Chipiku on Paul Kagame Road from the newer Chipiku located in the Game complex, i.e. “New Chipiku.”)  But traffic in Lilongwe is getting worse and worse — with some 500 new cars entering the Lilongwe road scene daily — the old two lane roads cannot accommodate.  Even in the 16 months I have lived here, I have seen the traffic situation worsen considerably.  I used to head to the supermarket after work because the Embassy is half way there, but these days the traffic is nearly always backed up down Kenyatta Road past the Embassy and I do not have the energy most evenings to face it.  So I do most of my shopping on the weekend.

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Food Lovers definitely knows how to attract the fruit lovers*

Old Chipiku is my most often go-to store, but it does not have everything at any given time.  To really get all of my list, I have to go to more than one store.  Sometimes three or more.  If it is produce I need, I head to Gateway Mall, Lilongwe’s only western-style mall.  Within Gateway there are two supermarkets – Food Lovers and Shoprite.  The former is generally very good for produce.  When stocked it is a thing of beauty.  One can also find some imported items like tahini or special trail mix at inflated prices.  But I can never find everything on my list at Food Lovers so I also head to the Shoprite at the other end of the mall.  Shoprite too gets some imports, but different ones from Food Lovers.  Of course.  I have found shredded cheese (be still my heart) and the french cheese spread Rondele.  Shoprite is also more like a Target, carrying household items like plates and flatware, and they have a toy and holiday section.

But I am wary of meat products in these stores.  Early on I purchased meat products that were off.  Oftentimes “fresh” still means “thawed.”  My Malawian nanny refuses to buy  frozen chicken and instead buys her chickens live and takes them to her mom to kill and pluck.  I generally only head to Kapani, which in addition to having a nicely stocked small grocery store (once again with some imports and products found nowhere else), is a specialty butcher.  Yet even there sometimes the chicken is frozen.  Sigh.

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The Golden Peacock version of the sauce aisle

There are a few other shops I sometimes frequent.  Foodworths is a small Lebanese-Malawian owned supermarket located only five minutes walk from the Embassy along a foot-worn path.  My nanny tells me Foodworths has the best bread in Lilongwe, so I often pop over to grab a loaf between bigger shopping trips.  Foodworths also has some great peppermint licorice tea I have not found elsewhere, and they often have light Cola when other places do not.  There is also the Golden Peacock supermarket, sort of like a Chinese Target, I guess.  When we first moved to Lilongwe, I found comfort in the Golden Peacock.  Its long too-wide aisles filled with random made-in-China stuff and loud piped-in C-pop made me feel nostalgic for Shanghai.  But after a few months as I have found the sheen wore off.  It reminds me of when I first arrived in the Philippines in 1996.  I walked down to a supermarket my first jet lagged night and moved in wonder through a store that seemed much better stocked than I had expected.  Yet, when I went back a few days later to shop, I discovered an entire aisle dedicated to soy sauce and ketchup.  Dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, low salt soy sauce, fishy soy sauce, regular ketchup, spicy ketchup, super hot burn-your-face-off ketchup…anyway you get the point.

Yet these grocery store runs are not the only way I acquire my foodstuffs and household items.  There are also people selling items alongside the main roads, on street corners, and parking lots.  More often than not they are selling fruit, such as my favorite fruit sellers near the Old Chipiku, though there are plenty of other things for sale from handmade brooms and mops, plastic tarps (good for covering small maize fields), large dog collars with chains (I see these all the time–I guess for guard dogs?), birds, puppies and kittens,  pirated CDs, toys, and more.  I buy fruit 99% of the time, though I did buy my daughter a pink soccer ball while sitting in traffic in Old Town one day.

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Roadside fruit sellers

I have a few other Foreign Service tricks up my sleeve in order to get the goodies. One is that Malawi is designated a consumables post, meaning an officer can ship up to 2,500 pounds of foodstuffs and other household goods that you generally use up (i.e. consume).  During our summer in the US, I purchased a whole lot of qualifying items but in the end my supplemental HHE (household effects) shipment was only about 700 pounds, so my intended consumables were wrapped up and shipped with them.  Therefore, I still had 2,500 consumables I could ship before reaching a year in Malawi.  I then had three options: give up on my consumables, fly back to the US at some point within the first year and spend time shopping for a bunch of stuff to have shipped back. or order from the European Logistical Support Office (ELSO) in Antwerp.  I went with the last.  I poured over their massive spreadsheet of items available, made my selections, and then ordered.  Seemed straightforward, though similar to what I happened when I purchased a car from Japan to ship to Malawi, I ran into credit card issues.  I had emailed my purchase spreadsheet to Antwerp, they then sent the request to the PX at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.  They tried to run my credit card, and surprise, surprise I ran into issues.  An American living in Malawi who is ordering groceries from Germany via Antwerp…  The credit card company blocked the charge.  I called and explained the situation.  Ramstein tried to run it the next day.  The credit card company blocked it again.  I called the company again.  FOUR TIMES they blocked it.  Sigh.

Of course I also order from Amazon.  I probably order something from the retail giant two to three times a week.  There is no Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) box for Malawi, so our mail goes through the State Department pouch.  Both the DPO and pouch have liquid restrictions, though for the latter it is more limited.  To help us in desperate need of certain beverages, about three times a year we are able to order wine, beer, and sodas from South Africa.  I do not drink alcohol but I have a strong (though totally healthy) addiction to Diet Coke.  Malawi has a Coca Cola bottling plant, but the emphasis is on “bottle” and I prefer cans.  Every so often Coke Light (the preferred name for Diet Coke outside of the US of A) cans can be found in Lilongwe stores, but if one does not act fast and stock up appropriately, then supplies dwindle.  And things get ugly.  The Embassy Diet Coke support group (not really a real thing, well, kinda) pounces into action, keeping those with the need informed of supermarket sightings.  The Special South African Beverage Order (SSABO) (I just made that up) can keep us poor slobs stocked during the lean Lilongwe times.

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Lilongwe Farmer’s Market

There is also the once monthly Lilongwe Farmer’s Market, held on the last Saturday of the month, which provides a venue for enterprising Malawians and expats to sell their wares.  Sure there are paintings and jewelry and items made from the local Chitenje fabric, but there are also people selling homemade salsa, ice cream, sticky buns, and organic eggs, grain-fed poultry and other meat, baked goods, Indian breads, and homegrown farm produce.

At the end of the day, there are a good number of shopping options in Lilongwe, more and better than I expected.  It just might take several hours and several stops to get what I want, and more often than I like come back without a good number of things on the list.  Yet there are few food items from the US that I miss, which I cannot get here somehow.

* My photos at Food Lovers had to be taken on the sly as just as what happened in Shanghai, I was told not to take photos.  What is it about people not being allowed to take photos in supermarkets?
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Pumulani Thanksgiving

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Pumulani from Lake Malawi

I love the spirit behind the holiday, but the American celebration of Thanksgiving is not the easiest for a nomadic single introvert.  I have celebrated in many ways over the years from a makeshift dinner cobbled together in a Beijing student dormitory to a turkey and muenster sandwich while writing a graduate student research paper before heading to a Thanksgiving-weekend movie opener.  I have had dinners at friends’, teachers’, colleagues’ houses–and while there can be wonderfully unexpected highlights, I am naturally uncomfortable with strangers around a table.  My preference is to spend the day doing something I enjoy and in the process take time for introspection, ideally, I like to get away.

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Our Pumulani villa’s living room

On Thursday morning C and I began our drive east to Salima, then south to the Cape Maclear area.  Once reaching the Nankumba Peninsula we turned off the paved road onto the burnt orange dirt lanes of the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve.  We bounced along  alternating between small villages of sunbaked brick and rocky scrub until reaching a gate, the entrance to the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then up a steep cement tracked dirt lane to the parking area of Pumulani.

At first it was just a gravel parking lot.  But as we got out of the car, staff spilled out of the main building, greeting us by name.  We were invited to the main lodge patio, provided cool wash cloths, and welcome drinks.  Then we were led across a bridge, along a boardwalk path, to our villa.  And every step revealed more of the incredible beauty of Pumulani.

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The upper pool and the lake

The villa was stunning.  Built into the hillside, its olive green painted cement walls, green corrugated roof, and mahogany-stained wooden window frames, blended into the yellow of the scrub grass and the green of the palm fronds and tree leaves.  Inside was spacious, really, really spacious.  High ceilings, lots of windows, simple but with beautiful details.  I took a lot of photos because maybe some day I will build a home exactly like this.

We took in the villa, settled in, then headed down for lunch.  On the way we saw a monitor lizard swim across the pond, the first of many wild animals we would encounter.  Sitting at a table, enjoying our lunch, looking at C and out across an expanse of the Lake looking west, I could feel a wave of peaceful happiness.

C wanted to swim.  She always wants to swim.  We decided on the upper pool (there are two) as was closer to our villa.  C enjoyed the pool while I lay on a deck chair under an umbrella reading a book.  It was hot, very hot.  Late November is when the rains are supposed to begin, but as they had not yet the sun scorched.

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Sunset on Lake Malawi

Just before 4 PM we made our way down the series of wooden steps and platforms to the Pumulani’s private beach where we boarded a traditional dhow for a sunset cruise.  As it was a seemingly random Thursday in November, we were the only guests who had arrived in time for the dhow, so C and I had the vessel to ourselves with the exception of our captain and a guide.  It was nice to be on the water, to feel the warm breeze.  Our guide said we would head out north and west, near one of the four villages on the opposite bank, where we might find hippos.  I was skeptical.  Hippos might hang out in the muddy Shire (pronounced Sheer-ray) River but in the Lake?  Come on!  And I was joking around with C and pointed out toward the water near the beach and said “It’s a hippo!”  I had not seen anything at all.  But then the guide said there was a hippo there.  I thought he was pulling my leg until I saw the beast breach the water some 25 feet away from the dhow.  Holy moly! A hippo in the lake!

We dined after dark, another delicious meal, and headed to our room to sleep.  It had been a wonderful, active day.  In Malawi, when the sun goes down, it is dark, even in the capital.  Outside the cities, the darkness is very deep.  We planned to turn in early.  As we entered the bedroom, I switched on the light and C pointed behind my head and said, “What is that?!”  I turned and saw the largest spider I have ever seen – its body over nearly 2 inches long, its legs made it as large as my hand – lurking on the curtain.  I must have jumped and I am fairly sure I said some bad words.  There was some shrieking and funny shaking, mostly on my part.  I grabbed C and a flashlight and we hightailed it back to the main lodge so I could recruit some person, any person, who would take care of that arachnid.  If it were still in the bedroom, I was not going to sleep very well.  The staff member I convinced to help grabbed a broom and followed us back to the villa.  He identified the spider as “friendly” but could tell me no more.  I insisted I needed no new friends so he escorted our unwelcome guest out the front door.

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Just some of the Lake Malawi National Park wildlife

After that excitement we really wanted to get to sleep, though I made sure the mosquito nets were tightly closed.  I expected to sleep like a baby.  The room was cold, too cold.  The turn down service had left the A/C blasting on a low temperature and the fan just above the bed on the highest setting.  I fell asleep but a few hours later woke, my head aching with the cold air.  After some angry hunting, I finally found the switch and turned the fan down.  Two hours later I awoke bathed in sweat — the power had gone out, but the generators had not kicked on.  If your power doesn’t go off regularly, you haven’t been to Malawi.  I did not quite get the sleep I had expected.

On our second day, after breakfast, C tried fishing for the first time.  As its a national park it is strictly a catch and release policy (though tell that to the fishermen out in the lake waters!), but we fished in the Pumulani pond.  Garth, one of the managers and an avid fisherman, helped C get started.  She was so excited to reel in a “chambo,” Malawians favorite fish to eat (I have heard it is like tilapia; I don’t eat fish, so I don’t know), and then some cichlids, the colorful fish for which Lake Malawi is so famous.  All was well until we got the line – and a fish – stuck in a tree branch.  Then it was not so much fun anymore (the fish was eventually freed).

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Who are you telling to keep it down?

We enjoyed a lazy, quiet day at our villa.  Well until loud thumps across our roof could not be ignored.  Some teenage male baboons were using our roof as a wrestling pad.  The ruckus they made, well they put the pied crows that scamper across our room in Lilongwe to shame (I call them the pterodactyls).  I went out on to our deck and yelled up to them to keep it down, and one by one small baboon faces peered over the side of the roof top to check out who was telling them what to do.  I wish I had had my camera then – to catch four baboons looking down at me – but I had left it in the villa and closed the door (we were given strict instructions by the staff upon check in to never leave our doors or windows open or the baboons might just let themselves in and make off with our stuff).   Unhappy with my demands, the naughty baboons pulled off part of the roof siding and tossed it down on us.  This required another trip to the main lodge to explain an animal encounter.

In the afternoon we took a 45 minute guided hike across the rocky hillside to a small beach where we were met by double-passenger kayaks.  C also kayaked for the first time, and I have to say for a 6-year old she did quite well.  I could not help but feel a great sense of pride about my kiddo.  She could not paddle the whole 40 minutes, and often her paddling ended up more a “paddle battle” with me, but she sure gave it a shot and sometimes we were wonderfully in sync.

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A fish eagle grabs a snack

On the third day we set out with a guide and a Danish doctor for some snorkeling off a small rocky island about 30 minutes away by speedboat.  I am not a boat person.  My long time friend CZ will tell you this, as she is a boat person.  I am more a boat-avoidant person.  But I really wanted to finally get out on the lake and to see the colorful and famous Lake Malawi cichlids in their element.  Again, my girl, bravely tried another new activity.  Unfortunately, the four meter deep water was more than she was comfortable with and the full face mask unfamiliar, so after four attempts in which she clung to me in the water, she decided she would just see the fish from the boat.  Armed with some bread provided by our guide, she happily kept the fish fed as they swarmed around us snorkelers.

On the way back, we purchased some fish off a fisherman floating on the water in his dugout canoe, in order to feed the fish eagles, Malawi’s national bird.  The guide whistled loudly using his fingers and then called out something in Chichewa but ending with “eagle” in English.  Basically, he was yelling “hey fish eagles, over here, I got something for you.”  Incredibly enough the birds, perched on trees on the island some fifty feet away took off in flight as the guide tossed the fish on to the water, and the fish eagles gracefully swooped down, talons stretched out, to scoop up their treat.  Watching them was absolutely thrilling.

Oh, I forgot to mention that just before beginning our snorkeling endeavor, as I sat in a swing chair and C played on the private Pumulani beach waiting for the captain and other passenger to arrive, I saw a lodge staff member approach C and tell her something.  It looked like he was admonishing her and immediately afterwards she scampered up the stairs off the beach.  I called out to the staff member, asking if anything was wrong, and he told me only that there was a crocodile hanging in the water just off the other side of the beach.  I could have sworn someone had told me that the crocs and hippos, while possibly in the Lake, do not hang out near human settlements.  Just a few days at Pumulani was, quite literally, blowing that theory right out of the water.

For our last afternoon C enjoyed some more pool time; I enjoyed more time reading by the pool.  After another nice dinner we turned in, and slept like babies.  The next morning we did not want to leave.  It was not only the beauty of the location and the hospitality, but the people we met there.  On the final morning, all the guests were hugging one another and wishing each other well.  Pumulani is an extraordinary place that attracts extraordinary people.  There was the Danish doctor, now living in Sweden, who was in Malawi to look into possible work in the health sector.  He had also spent summers in Malawi as a teenager with his father, who worked for the Carlsberg factory in Blantyre.  He and his effortlessly beautiful wife, also a doctor, were very friendly and kind.  There was also the Brazilian-Austrian man with his Austrian-Swiss partner.  The former had come to Africa some ten years ago for a short internship and had stayed five years.  Finally, there was Garth, one of the managers, an amazing individual whose kindness and zest for life are so apparent.  If you visit while he is there ask him to share just one of his extraordinary life vignettes.

The visit to Pumulani was just what C and I needed.  As we prepared to depart I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I am so thankful for the opportunity to live and work in this country, to have been able to visit a place of such beauty, to have crossed paths, even briefly, with the other people at the lodge, and to have had this time to spend with my wonderful daughter.

And that neither the hippo nor the croc nor that giant spider got us.