Intro to Malawi: Power and Water, Life and Death

A few months after arriving in this country, an idea popped into my head about writing a blog on Malawi with this very title. In early briefings I participated in, there were clear lines drawn between the lack of electricity and the inability of the country to attract foreign direct investment that would drive growth and development. Without that investment, Malawi would remain one of the least developed countries in the world.

Over the years I have continued to think of writing that – this – blog post, but it never seemed to be the right time. Yet, here I am with only months left, and it’s time. However, this is but an idea that I had on how to write about my first and then developing impressions of Malawi. No place can really be distilled down in such a simplistic way. Though I have had a great opportunity to learn more about this country over these four years, what I have learned still represents only a few aspects seen through my lens. That of a political officer who has spent the majority of my time in Lilongwe.

This post is therefore not based on extensive research. These words are based only on my experience and anecdotes from my time here.

Power & Water

When I arrived in Malawi in August 2017, the country had the capacity to produce about 360 megawatts of power.  For those that know electricity, this pronouncement generally produced gasps or serious, rather grim nods.  For the uninitiated, such as myself, I had to do a bit of digging to understand.  Online I found a statistic that on an average day New York City uses 12,000 megawatts. If Malawi produces its maximum capacity daily, then the total annual production is about130,000 megawatts. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the state of Florida, with a population of 19.5 million (compared to Malawi’s 18 million) produces 221 Terawatts or 221 million megawatts annually.  Although I still do not quite grasp the concept of power generation or megawatts, these numbers nonetheless tell a stark story.  Now, nearly at the end of my tour 4 years later, Malawian energy production capacity is nearly 100 megawatts more though still a far cry from what other countries can produce.

And this poor power generation capacity has consequences.  In Malawi, only 15% of the population has access to the power grid, but uneven distribution means 62% of urban households but only 5% of rural areas are connected.  Living without electricity is the reality of approximately 85 percent of Malawian households. Power generation is also inconsistent.  Several times a week I lose power, but I am lucky because the Embassy provides a large generator that – if the connection is working right – switches over almost immediately.  Most are not that fortunate as generators – and the diesel fuel that operates them – is much more costly than electricity. 

Left: Malawian poll volunteers tally ballots in the 2019 elections (Nyasa Times); Right: a 13 year old prepares dinner in a village only 30 miles outside of Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe (The Guardian)

So just think about this for a minute.  Think of all the things that you do every single day that require electricity.  In the U.S. we really take this for granted and groan when we lose access for a few hours, in rare instances a few days, after a storm.  It is not a matter of your local power company, maybe Pacific Gas & Electric or Dominion Energy, working around the clock to restore power.  There just isn’t any power to restore.  The lack of power affects all aspects of everyday life from kids studying to mothers cooking (and yes, it is almost always the mothers or girls).  Consider these two headlines from my time here: “The judgment was delivered in the judge’s chambers as the court had no electricity to print it out for reading in open court” and “we have cases of babies dying in hospitals due to the absence of power for the incubators.”

In Malawi, power and water are intrinsically linked. Water dominates life in Malawi – its abundance or its scarcity. Lake Malawi makes up a full one-fifth of the country’s area (and is Africa’s third-largest and the world’s ninth-largest lake). Malawi’s longest river, the Shire (pronounced Sheer-eh) is not long by world or continental standards, but is the Lake’s primary outlet and flows into the mightier Zambezi. Ninety-eight percent (yes, 98%!) of the country’s power is hydroelectric. And three of Malawi’s four hydroelectric power stations are built on the Shire. (The Kapachira Station sits above the falls that back in 1859 stopped explorer David Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition from continuing upriver). That level of hydro-power sounds amazing from an environmental perspective, doesn’t it?  However erratic rains and declining water levels can mean reduced capacity, increased power outages, and the process of “load shedding.” Though it is not unique to Malawi, until I arrived here, I had never heard of load shedding or planned supply interruptions. During load shedding a particular area may not have access to power say from the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM and then again from 9 PM to 6 AM.

Malawi is an agriculture based economy. Eighty percent of the country is involved in agriculture with the vast majority of those being smallholder, subsistence farmers. The staple crops of Malawi are maize, maize, rice, cassava, potatoes, beans and bananas, with maize being the runaway favorite (60% of total cropped land is devoted to it). The main cash crops are tobacco, tea, sugar and coffee, but tobacco is king, making up approximately 60% of Malawi’s export earnings. Agriculture needs water. And water in Malawi, as already noted, is inconsistently available. Irrigation can help, but most of Malawi’s crops are rain-dependent. One of the big ironies I have found here is the soil and climate appear (to my, admittedly, very inexperienced eyes) quite suitable to growing all manner of crops. In my yard, I have banana, lemon, avocado, mango, fig, and papaya trees and we have successfully grown sweet potatoes, chili, carrots, tomatoes, tomatillos, lettuce, cabbage, maize, broccoli, and cauliflower. I have lemongrass, cilantro, aloe, and peppermint also growing. We have palm trees and succulents. And yet it takes just a few shocks — too much rain or not enough — to devastate Malawi’s crops, leading to food insecurity.

Life & Death

In 2002, when crossing into Malawi from Tanzania, travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux noted “you know you are in Malawi when the first seven shops you pass are coffin makers’ shops.” Death is of course a natural part of life and it is all around us. Yet, in Malawi, death feels much closer, a much more present part of the everyday.

Life expectancy in Malawi is just under 65 years of age – a full 20 years less than in Japan.  In Japan (and also the U.S), the top causes of death are generally those that affect a person who has lived a longer life:  coronary heart disease, cancers, dementia, but in Malawi the leading causes of death are those that can affect younger persons such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and diarrheal diseases like cholera and dysentery.  Many of these are rarely heard of as causes of death in the developed world.  Many are preventable and treatable.

This is merely anecdotal, but I would be willing to bet one of the top reasons, if not the primary reason, for absenteeism from work in Malawi is attendance at funerals. For my own staff this is certainly the case. My nanny, gardener, and guards missed at least week or two each year. My gardener lost a grandmother, his sister, a nephew, and many neighbors. My nanny’s 15-year old niece died suddenly of malaria while a student in Nkhata Bay. She lost a friend to a snake bite. A cousin’s three year old son was run over by a garbage truck. My masseuse’s uncle was hit by a car. Another of her relatives died due to pregnancy complications at Kamuzu Central Hospital.

Its with this ever more present possibility of death (and a high level of religiosity – reportedly among the top five most religious countries in the world) that likely makes Malawians more fatalistic. In the early days of COVID, the government attempted to impose a lockdown and people revolted. For many, the inability to trade in the market would mean a significant loss of income and a high certainty of starvation. COVID, however, is just another of the long list of diseases that haunt the country, its fatality rate less certain than others. One might as well take one’s chances.

Though the government did eventually pose a variety of mitigation measures, such as closing restaurants or limiting them to takeaway only, requiring masks, restricting social gatherings of greater than ten people, funerals were always an exception. Weddings might have been discouraged, but funerals would continue — with up to 50 people.

Yet it is perhaps that same sense of mortality that leads to the incredible zest for life I have found among Malawians. While the Japanese may have the longest life expectancy in the world, I found the culture to be reserved, formal, and more difficult to penetrate by outsiders. Malawians however strike me as more relaxed, open, welcoming – the country is not known as the “Warm Heart of Africa” for nothing.

Malawian weddings are jovial, colorful events (my photos)

I have had the wonderful opportunity to attend two weddings in Malawi: that of my former nanny and also her sister’s. Both were colorful, noisy, joyful experiences. The groom did not solemnly stand in front of the guests, hands clasped waiting for the bride, but instead, alongside his groomsmen, boogied and slid his way down the aisle and then got down with the emcee (yes, there was an emcee) and the bride’s parents. Then the bride and her entourage danced two-by-two in a fast-paced coordinated routine down the red carpet. Later the emcee invited up groups of attendees to dance around the bride and groom and toss money into a donation basket. So much lively dancing.

As things open up again (and to be honest even when they were not some ignored the guidelines), the weddings are back on. There are a few wedding venues in my residential neighborhood. It’s rather unfortunate from a noise point of view, to have the sounds of a massive dance party go on for hours on end just around the corner on what would otherwise be a quiet Saturday, but in my generous moods, I can appreciate the high spirits, imagine the smiles and laughter and enthusiastic strutting down the aisle.

There are such challenges here and yet such resilience and joy in the face of them.

Again, this is an oversimplified boiling down of Malawi as a country. After four years here, I know this is patently unfair, and that Malawi, like any country, is made up of millions of stories that though there may be a common thread, still stand apart. Yet, I could not shake the idea of writing this about how the access to and lack of power and water does weave into the lives and livelihoods of Malawians and others, like myself, who are fortunate to call Malawi home.

Blue Zebra Redux: The Last Road Trip

With three months left in Malawi, I have to come to terms that this was probably our last Malawi road trip. After four years of driving all over the country, our second trip out to Salima to take the speedboat to Nankhoma Island is quite likely the last of our Malawi vacations.

It is bittersweet. In years we are not moving (and not in a pandemic), I would look at a month like May and its three, count them three, long weekends, and would be busy planning the getaways. There are places still on my Malawi travel bucket list I had hoped to visit such as Nyika National Park and Likoma Island that we will not get to. Like so many things, the pandemic also took away these trips, and with Department restrictions still in place that would require my daughter, who is, of course, unvaccinated, to isolate for two weeks, some domestic trips just are not going to happen. With only three months left in-country, I am turning my attention toward departure and next steps.

But we have several new families here at the Embassy and I knew they were struggling with not being able to get out and about and start experiencing their new home. Moving is hard enough as it is, but moving internationally to a developing country with few entertainment options during a pandemic…that tops the difficulty level. And I love to plan vacations! So, I organized a weekend away at the beautiful Blue Zebra Island Lodge, located on Nankhoma Island within the Lake Malawi National Park for us and three other families – six adults and six kids in total.

We headed out together from Lilongwe in a caravan to make the two hour drive to Senga Bay to meet the speedboat out to the island. The Lake water was like glass. It was deep blue, but sparkling clear. It matched the sky and together the blue horizon seemed to go on forever.

C and I had visited Blue Zebra before, a night back in September, but I had wanted a bit more time on the island. This time we opted for a different type of room – an Executive Chalet as opposed to the Superior Family Cottage. We were all greeted on arrival with welcome drinks and then a selection of items to choose for lunch and then we were led to our respective rooms. We followed the staff along a wooded pathway around the southern side of the island to a boarded staircase that led down to our chalet on the edge of the lake. We had a large rondavel-like bedroom, a bathroom built into the rockface of the island, and a small sitting room facing the deck and the lake. It was perfect.

We all gathered together for lunch and afterwards the kids all gravitated to the pool while the adults chose a few options such as reading, having a massage, taking a walk, or simply enjoying some down time (i.e. hiding from the kids). The afternoon light over the gorgeous water called to me and around 4 PM I headed out for about an hour kayaking.

It was such a lovely paddle with the water so incredibly calm. It was so very quiet. I had a mad idea that I would go around the island like last time, but dismissed that pretty quickly, and opted instead to head nearly to one side, turn around, and then paddle over to see our chalet from the water. And to take it all slowly, and leisurely, enjoying a bit of kid-free time. I stopped paddling for a bit, closed my eyes, and felt the almost imperceptible rocking of the lake.

Back on the island, the kids were still in the pool as we watched an extraordinary sunset. In my experience, sunsets in Malawi are usually fiery but short lived, but this one was a languid slip of colors until night. Stunning.

We all had dinner together and then C and I headed off to our chalet. I was looking forward to a restful slumber lulled to sleep by the lake lapping against our deck. But in the darkness, winds had whipped up somewhere along the lake and white-capped waves were rolling hard across the lake’s surface, crashing into our deck, even splashing water into the chalet. Lake Malawi was doing its best to mimic an unsettled ocean. Instead of sleeping peacefully, I lay wide awake for several hours listening.

Despite this (or because of it?), I woke early to watch the sunrise. The lake’s mood had changed completely. Gone was the sunny disposition of the day before, replaced instead with a steely temperament. Still, the dramatic water and skies had their own beauty. I watched as the sun slowly lit up the hills across the lake and a rainbow formed. Like the drawn-out sunset of the night before, this rainbow also defied the norm, staying firmly in place fifteen minutes or more.

Though the waters were rough and uninviting for kayaking or swimming, the temperature was perfect for a walk. After breakfast, C, her friend AR, and another family of four, and I headed out on a 45-minute walk around and over the top of the island. The trail was better marked and easier than the one we had taken on Mumbo Island last month but Nankhoma Island is larger than Mumbo. And we had a proper hiking party.

After the trail walk, the kids headed right to the pool for another epic day of swimming. I had a massage — in an open-air spa facing the lake — and then did some reading and photography. The lake waters never calmed down for any further water activity.

But it did not really matter; it was a great weekend regardless. I was able to set aside thoughts of work and the upcoming move and relax. Just two hours by car and a 15-minute boat ride, Blue Zebra is a perfect antidote to the capital. C had a chance to play with other kids, to let loose in a way we have not really been able to in a year. I could chat and laugh with a group of adults – with others who work at the Embassy but are not State Department (USAID, PEPFAR, Peace Corps). It has been a really long time since the Embassy has had social events. And this is an extraordinary group of people. I did feel a sense of regret that I was getting to know this group of people just as C and I are preparing to leave. For three years we have watched others leave and now it us who are the ones leaving.

Over the course of our time in Malawi, I have driven with C all over. We went as far north as Nkhata Bay and as far south as Thyolo and more than a few times east and southeast to points on the lake. I have worked out that I put approximately 5500 miles on my sweet silver Japanese RAV4 on driving holidays around this country. I wish we had more time to get in a few more, but I have to accept that this was our last road trip.

The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

Spring Break. Sigh. This used to be a time I really looked forward to planning a getaway, you know, in the before times, before the pandemic. Although the 2020 Spring Break trip had been upended, at the end of last year it started to look like things we turning around. I had begun to have visions of a 2020 Spring Break Redux. But by the time we returned from our Kenya R&R at the end of 2020, travel again seemed to be in jeopardy.

COVID-19, naturally, continues to throw a major monkey wrench into any sort of international travel. Malawi’s second wave, though subsiding now, had been much more disruptive and deadly than its first. But the indirect effects, the fewer flights, testing regimes, and other restrictions are still in place. Malawi has never been a major hub; before the pandemic there were daily flights to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Nairobi, and less frequent flights to Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Harare. Now there are just the Addis, Jo’Burg, and Nairobi flights, and they are less consistent. Friends of ours were to fly to South Africa the previous week and the airline cancelled a few days before without reason.

Malawi’s newest COVID-related billboard featuring the President touting the “Three W’s,” i.e. Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands

Though honestly, I love travel so much, that I was willing to go through the flight, COVID testing, and mitigation measure gauntlet, but we had another problem: passports. Last fall I noted our diplomatic passports (we hold both diplomatic and tourist passports) were expiring in the summer of 2021 and thus we would need to renew before the new year as many places frown on or even outright disallow travel during the final six months. As the Acting Consular Chief (a post I held for six months during 2020), I diligently applied for our new passports at the end of October. Our paperwork was FedExed to the State Department on November 4. And then, it seems, we got tangled up in the whole U.S. election mail issue / COVID-related mail issue and was lost. (Luckily for most American citizens this is NOT how we do tourist passports overseas and its much faster and more reliable!) I did not know this until by the end of January I wondered what had become of them. We had to apply again. Though we received our new passports by the end of March, it was not in time to plan a vacation outside of Malawi’s borders.

One of the cats of Norman Carr Cottage living her best life

That left a trip within Malawi. And I was torn. With nearly four years in country, even with a pandemic mucking up domestic travel for a good five months of 2020, C and I had already covered most of the major sights and lodging on my Malawi bucket list. Yet, the thought of spending another staycation hanging out in my living room, lounging on the tired dung-colored State Department-issued Drexel Heritage sofa was too much to bear. We needed to go somewhere. Well, truth be told, *I* needed to go somewhere. I am afraid my formerly world traveling companion kid had grown a bit too comfortable with couch surfing. But if I did not get out of my house, I thought I might go mad.

The two major places left on my bucket list seemed out of reach because they were either quite far (two days driving or one really long day for those with a penchant for torture) and still on a self-catering basis (and my desire to drive really far to just cook the same stuff in a different kitchen is at an all time low) or required a charter flight which would trigger an Embassy-imposed stay at home order upon return. And while I was uber-productive with my telework the first six to eight months, my at-home productivity has most certainly waned after a year. And that my friends is actually the understatement of the year. “Working from home” has become an oxymoron as I tend to just stare into the abyss when confronted with this option; I make every effort to go into the office.

With this in mind, I booked two nights on Kayak Africa’s Mumbo Island and one night at Norman Carr Cottage.

With the Mumbo Island transport departing Cape Maclear at 10:30 AM, I was not keen to depart Lilongwe just after sunrise, and thus Norman Carr Cottage, located just south of Monkey Bay, would give us a nice overnight stop and ensure more relaxation. (Note: Embassy employees we are not permitted to drive after dark outside the three major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu for safety reasons)

Norman Carr’s original lakeside cottage (left); The beautiful carved bed in our room (right)

Norman Carr was a British conservationist who in the 1950s and 1960s helped launch the first national parks in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (then the British protectorate known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) and started the first walking safaris in these countries. In the 1970s he built himself this idyllic lakeside cottage where, reportedly, he wrote several of his books. I love me a little history with my vacations and this bit of Malawi history suited me fine.

We did not do much here, but that was rather the point. We arrived and had lunch. And then my daughter promptly broke one of her flip flops — because she had carefully selected the oldest, on its last legs, pair despite my having presented her with brand new ones a month ago. Sigh. Thus, we found ourselves driving into the thriving metropolitan (just kidding) village of Monkey Bay in search of replacements. We parked at a small grocery store, but they did not have any shoes. They did have soft serve ice cream (will wonders never cease?) and as the young man whose job was to serve this up was preparing to do so, I asked if he knew where we could get shoes. He pointed at a makeshift wood kiosk across the street and we walked over (well, I walked, C hopped on one foot). The small shop sold a random assortment of goods such as clothes detergent and a limited selection of fancy ladies slip ons. I shook my head — these looked like adult sizes — but C said she would try them and in some odd African village version of Cinderella, they fit perfectly.

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

On our second day, we drove 30 minutes north to Cape Maclear on the Nankumba Peninsula where we boarded a boat for the 10 kilometer (6 miles), 45-minute ride to Mumbo Island, located within the Lake Malawi National Park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Mumbo Island is a small, only one kilometer in diameter, uninhabited island and the eco-“resort” covers only a small part of that space. Five of the six thatched chalets are perched high on rocks located on an even smaller island connected to Mumbo by a wooden walkway. There is no WiFi, no cellphone signal, and no electricity. And it is beautiful.

After an extremely rainy March, we had perfect weather – temps in the uppers 70s and sparkling azure skies. The lake waters lapped against the sandy shore. I never tire of how the lake seems like the sea.

We disembarked from the boat and were shown our chalet, where C immediately claimed the hammock strung across our porch overlooking the Lake. And there we just took a little time to soak in the atmosphere. For the first time in weeks I really could feel myself relax.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch prepared by Douglas, the Mumbo Island chef, in the dining area on the main island. We watched a pair of hornbills alight on a nearby tree and a chatty bulbul waited impatiently on a ceiling rafter hoping for any of our leftovers. Monitor lizards crawled through the underbrush beneath the floorboards and sunned themselves on the rocks by the water. Afterwards, we relaxed in the room, on the small beach, and swam in the lake. Around 5 PM we headed out with Marriott (one of the other Mumbo Island staff) for a circumvention of the island by boat and a sunset viewing. Writing now I was sure we had done more that day, but thinking back, that was all and yet it was full. After dinner, we snuggled together in the hammock watching the stars. With the vast expanse of Lake Malawi lit with only a few fishing canoes, the sky overhead is at its darkest and the stars at their most brilliant. Though the 19th century Scottish explorer David Livingstone reportedly named it the Lake of Stars for the way the fishing lanterns reflected on the evening water, its the incredible view of the night sky that is more arresting. I am quite sure we could clearly see the swath of the Milky Way though I am far less sure of the constellations. Regardless, we talked until we grew sleepy and then we crawled into our beds, letting down the mosquito net but leaving the doors and windows open so we could hear the waves all night.

Early the next morning C again commandeered the hammock, lazily rocking back and forth, flipping her shoe casually from her toes. Exactly as I had asked her not to. And wouldn’t you know it, but as I got up to tell her to stop, one of those shoes we had only just bought at Monkey Bay was launched from her foot, sailing over the edge of our porch to the waters below. Sigh. Luckily, we could see it floating below. I told C to put on her suit and I would put on mine and we would swim out to get it. But then realized we could take a kayak to retrieve it. And as luck would have it, one of the Mumbo Island staff was willing to make the rescue. I may have had some choice words regarding her lack of footwear care, but told C one day (in fact later the same day) we would laugh about it. She said I should call this blog post “The Shoe Incidents.”

An extraordinary tree along our Mumbo Island hike and the view from Pod Rock

It is a good thing we located that shoe as after breakfast we headed out on a hike around the island. Not that those fancy lady sandals were the best shoes for a hike, but they were far better than nothing. Our sweaty hike around Mumbo must have taken about an hour though I am not entirely sure as my watch stopped working early in the pandemic and I have not yet bothered to replace it. The hike afforded us incredible opportunities to experience nature from three to four foot monitor lizards scurrying from our paths, symbiotic trees, the high pitched cries of the African fish eagle, and a gorgeous view across the Lake from atop Pod Rock.

C gets her zen on

We spent the rest of the day alternating between reading flopped on a bed or swinging in the hammock (you can guess who got the hammock again) and lake activity. We kayaked around the small island, swam, and together steadily worked up our courage to leap off the wooden walkway into the water. Eventually, C made friends with the 9-year old daughter of a visiting French family and the two of them spent the rest of the afternoon in one another’s company swimming and giggling, heads together in deep conversation. I sat on the beach in the warm sunlight reading.

We had another nice dinner but headed to bed a bit earlier than the evening before; the hike, kayaking, and swimming surely had tired us out. I had another great sleep lulled by those lightly crashing waves on the rocks below our chalet, and dreamed of rain.

It was hard to leave the following day. I could have stayed another night, maybe two. I meditated on the boat ride back, the warm sun on my face. And before driving back to Lilongwe, we stopped at another small historic site in Cape Maclear, the grave site of 19th century Scottish missionaries.

This may not have been the Spring Break I had initially hoped for but it turned out to be exactly what C and I needed.

Setsubun – Hoping Fortune Comes Our Way

Fortune and Demon – the Representatives of Setsubun

Today, February 3, is Setsubun, the Japanese festival to celebrate the end of winter and welcome Spring. I remembered this because I have a Japanese car here in Malawi and every day when I start her up, she chirps a welcome to me in Japanese akin to “Today is such and such day of the week and date. And here is an interesting/random fact about today.”

I am still writing up my blog posts for our R&R to Kenya and generally dislike posting a random post while still not done with a series, but we are in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Malawi and I am just feeling down. I am tired of the teleworking and the distance learning (I know, who isn’t?) and am suffering some pretty severe bouts of insomnia that is leading to headaches, exhaustion, and exacerbating the pandemic fatigue. Even though I knew that a flip of the calendar would not magically waive the pandemic away, here I am a month into the new year, deep into the Malawi rainy season, and I could really use a pick me up. So, when I got into my vehicle today and it chirped it its forever optimistic female Japanese voice, “今日は2月3日水曜日です.その節分,” or “Today is Wednesday, February 3. It’s Setsubun,” a waive of nostalgia swept over me. I was immediately transported back to when I lived in Japan and celebrated this holiday with my friends. Back to when I was younger and not a parent and not living in a pandemic.

My friend Bill has embarked on a pandemic lockdown inspired daily writing exercise — to stretch his writing chops, entertain friends and family, and perhaps pave the way into some sort of post Foreign Service career. While he is closer to retirement than I am, I too have found myself, especially when in the pandemic isolation doldrums, to flirt with my one day, perhaps sooner than expected, retirement dreams. I have long wanted to write about the years I lived in Japan. I figured I would take C to Japan and write about that trip and then as companion pieces, revisit aspects of my three years there. But a good look at the very long, minimum three flight trip, with either very short or very long connections, that would take us from Malawi to Tokyo, flattened my resolve; COVID-19 killed it. I still plan to one day write those posts. So with a combination of inspiration from my friend Bill and my Japanese RAV-4, here I am writing about Setsubun.

In July 1997, I arrived in Kogushi, a small fishing village on the San-In coast of Toyoura-town, Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. That makes it sound really romantic. In fact, if you literally translate most of it, Yamaguchi means “mountain’s mouth” and Toyoura means “rich bay,” and that sounds even more beautiful. Only Kogushi 小串 is not as lovely. It means “little skewers” as you can see the character “gushi” resembles a stick with two pieces of meat on it, like a kebab. I thought “little stick” more fitting, as in “I live in the sticks” or way outside the city.

The view from Akiko and Isao’s house during an evening party

I was an English teacher at the local high school through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program through the Japanese Ministry of Education and Sports. To cut a long story short, I was plopped down in the middle of this rural area to teach English to less than enthusiastic high school students. As the only gaijin (obvious foreigner) in town, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Parents would force their children to sing me the alphabet in the supermarket and people wanted to invite me over to their houses for the sheer quirky fun of having a real live blonde American in their home, but honest to goodness friendship was hard. The other teachers in the school stayed clear of me, largely because they did not speak English well themselves and the English teacher was a bit of a creep so I didn’t want to hang with him anyway. It was not easy to make friends and after the initial excitement of the honeymoon period passed, I found myself pretty lonely.

In stepped Akiko and Isao. A couple in their 60s who lived a few towns over somehow got word to me that they would like to meet me and discuss the possibility of starting up an English course for adults that would be run out of their home. Akiko and Isao would be my saviors, they did so much more than open their home to me. They gave me adult conversation, even if in broken English (and my even more dismal Japanese), they gave me friendship, with them and with the other adults who joined the class. They introduced me to Japanese customs and celebrations. They visited me in the hospital when I had my appendix out (an odd but amazing experience to have in small town Japan). And they even had my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend stay with them a few days when they visited Japan, to give them an authentic Japanese experience (and me a break from four adults staying in my small two tatami mat room flat).

I started my three times a month lessons for adults in Akiko and Isao’s living room in January of 1998. They had a beautiful traditional Japanese home perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It looked like a miniature of a Japanese castle — all white with a grey tiled roof, with eaves that turned up at the ends, with animal figurines dancing on the roof spines to the edges. Inside they had tatami mat rooms, fitted with traditional recessed alcoves with Japanese shrines with photos of ancestors, dolls, and old pottery, befitting the home of the granddaughter of a Samurai, which Akiko was. It wasn’t all traditional though. The heated toilet seat with about 20 controls for all kinds of toilet experiences, was a modern treat. And the jazz musician paintings that took center stage in their living room still fit perfectly. I was overwhelmed to be invited to teach here and almost cried when I came home from the first class.

Just a few weeks after I started, February arrived and Akiko and Isao offered to host a Setsubun party for the class. I had no idea what that was but was grateful for an invitation that would have me doing something other than sitting alone, cold (my apartment, like many Japanese homes, had crap insulation), watching Japanese television I could not understand, for an evening.

From left to right: Akiko and Isao with my mom, aunt, and aunt’s friend in Shimonoseki; Me with Akiko, Isao, and some of our other adult evening English class students; Me with Akiko and two other English class students at Toyoura-cho’s marina

Setsubun is sort of like Japan’s answer to America’s Groundhog Day. Though its origins are also old (8th century for the former and 4th century for Candlemas, the precursor to Groundhog Day) and around the heralding of spring, but do not involve anyone waiting around for the appearance of a fat rodent. Instead, it involves two people dressed up like an ogre of misfortune (oni) and the personified appearance of fortune (fuku) and the tossing of troasted soybeans. That sounds way more fun, right?

Arriving at their home after dark on a cold February night, I was a little surprised by the festivities. Neighbors dressed up like Fuku and Oni, looking a bit like a scary versions of Cookie Monster and Elmo, burst into the house as we threw the roasted soybeans (fukumame or “fortune beans”) at them with silly abandon while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Devils out! Fortune in!). I am pretty sure I shrieked a lot. I had no idea that a Japanese celebration would be so fun; I had expected sedate.

Following this we headed in to Akiko and Isao’s house, where they had transformed the living room into a sort of dining room. Around the room where multiple kotatsu, low wooden tables with electric heat sources built into them for cold winters, each with an electric hot plate and a ceramic bowl perfect for cooking nabe, the Japanese version of the hot pot, the perfect dish for a cold winter’s night. Set out on the tables were various hot pot ingredients: cabbage, carrots, thin white Japanese mushrooms called enoki (the only mushrooms I have ever eaten), and various proteins such as tofu, shrimp, chicken, and beef. The dashi (broth) of kombo (seaweed), sake, mirin, and soy sauce already simmered and small bowls of ponzu (a light watery citrus-based sauce with a dash of soy sauce) and ground daikon (white radish) sat ready for dipping our cooked food in for added flavor. It was all very delicious, but it was the laughter and camaraderie that really warmed my heart.

Left: There is some fuku in the house! Right: Me enjoying my first nabe party

I will forever remember that night as one of the best of my three year’s in Japan. We recreated it each of the three years, but it was that first setsubun that was the best. Never before (and I struggle to think of a time since) had I felt so welcome overseas. That class became more than just a class. They were my friends.

Tonight, what I would really like to do is throw the shit out of some roasted soybeans while surrounded by friends shouting Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! Because we could all use some major fuku fortune right about now. Am I right?

Malawi Signs

A woman and her baby stroll by beautifully painted advertisements in Area 3 Lilongwe

Signs. I have a thing for them. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody does? But in my travels abroad, I have found myself photographing quite a few signs. Street signs were my thing in Indonesia. There were so many child or person crossing signs — some with very skinny stick figures, some with chunky. In China, I think it was the signs of rules translated to English that got me the most. There were so many rules and so many that were amusingly lost in translation. I have taken pictures of so many different kinds of animal crossing signs from horses, cows, and ducks to kangaroo, penguin, and warthogs. In the U.S. we have so many, many signs that tell us what to do and what not to do (park here, don’t park there, go this fast or this slow) and what to buy. I find that signs reveal much about the environment, culture, and interests of a society.

Although there has been an increase in billboards and other physical advertisement signage in the three and a half years I have lived here, Malawi still has relatively few. There just is not that much money to advertise, and not that many persons with money to buy what is advertised. The signs one sees stand out because there are so few. When driving between cities and towns, you can go for 50 miles, maybe longer without seeing a single sign. That may not sound like much given distances one can drive say in Texas, but Malawi is densely populated — the 10th most densely populated country in Africa — and the sixth poorest in the world (by one index).

If you need some assistance, these guys are here to help

The first signs to catch my eye were those posted around the neighborhood advertising various services. Most are for house services such as electrical, plumbing, lawn mowing and such. It is hard for me to pick my favorite. I am a big fan of the handwritten signs nailed on to tree trunks. But then the toilet seat attached to a dead tree trunk advertising plumbing maintenance is kind of genius. Still, Doctor Mutaka and his miraculous cures and potions has got to be an all time favorite. I am not sure how much business he would get in my neighborhood of expats and wealthy Malawians, but he has put up signs all over, so he is at least hopeful. And I sort of respect that. I might feel less respect for those that seek out his services.

Staples on sale

The next signs I really started to notice were those for staple items. Most are hand painted on wood or cement billboards. I appreciate the time and patience someone took to paint them, and there is an artistry to them, but I am less clear why the advertisements are necessary. Soap, detergent, long-life milk, sugar, cooking oil, juices, maize seeds, TNM and Airtel (the two national telecommunications networks), cement (for housing), steel (basically corrugated steel for roofs), soda, and Carlsberg beer (fun fact: the first Carlsberg brewery outside of Denmark was set up in Malawi in 1968; its sort of Malawi’s unofficial beer), these are the basics. At the store there does not really seem to be so many brands or variety and my guess is most buyers in Malawi are going to get the cheapest they can find. But the advertisements are there nonetheless.

Society “Be Better” Signs

Another popular theme of Malawian signage is to present positive societal practices. Child labor, child marriage — especially for girls — and the exclusion of women in decision making are all issues in Malawi, and therefore there are signs to promote ways to combat these issues, generally paid for by international organizations or businesses. I think there is something to be said for aggressive societal campaigns to eradicate issues through education and indoctrination. When I visited and lived in Indonesia in the early 2000s, there were still vestiges of the very successful “dua anak cukup” (two children is enough) policy campaign from the 1970s. Mostly in the form of statues of the perfect family of two parents and two children, though some written materials and billboards still existed. The thing though is that the campaign was in the local national language – Bahasa Indonesian. Most of the signs encouraging certain behaviors in Malawi are in English and though it is the official language, I would not be surprised if many of the persons for whom the signage is aimed at, struggle with English. This begs the question of who then are these signs for? I appreciate them, but then, perhaps, I am part of the target audience?

You have been warned!

Another favorite of mine — though not generally so easy to find — are the hand painted warning signs. I have only see a handful, but when I do see them, I usually pull over to the side of the road to capture them on my SD card’s memory. I came across the dangerous bridge warning on the M5 maybe 30-60 minutes north of the town of Nkhotakota. I expect the nearby villagers had become tired of speeding motorists taking the turn and then the narrow bridge too quickly. I found the “Beware the Dog” sign while on a walk near the Luwawa Forest Lodge – and though I approached the sign with caution, I had a feeling I knew the subject, and though very large, the canine in question had spent the previous afternoon in a game of fetch the ball with my daughter.

Campaign billboards

As a political officer, I cannot help but notice politically inspired signs. With national elections occurring here twice during my four year tour (May 2019 and June 2020), I have had a chance to see my fair share of political signage. Mostly it was just the parties’ political flags flying from a tree or electricity pole. Larger signs varied from those that encouraged voting eligible citizens to get out to the polls (usually sponsored by international donors), while others (though fewer), extol the virtues of a particular candidate, paid for by the campaigns or sponsors. I had to hand it to the re-election team for the former President Peter Mutharika for its optimistic billboard with the inspired hashtag #OperationLandslide. Depending on the politics, the billboards may be built to last or suffer the political tides. The Mutharika billboard on the left was ripped down by vandals even before the 2019 election. The Atupele Muluzi campaign billboard for the 2014 election was still there — at least in part — even in early 2018. And just a month ago I came across a perfectly intact 2019 campaign billboard for a third party candidate who did not run in 2020. I have seen other well worn signs — beaten by weather and age — still standing silently alongside the road months or years after the event it advertised has passed.

Nothing to see here

By far the greatest number of “signs” I see in the capital are signposts lacking in signage. There are so many of these sad skeletal frames missing their purpose in advertising scattered across the city. For at least a year, my favorite billboard had to be the forlorn Welcome to Lilongwe sign on the M12 as one would come into the city from Zambia. Cracked, peeling, greyed with age, and absolutely empty, it seemed to say, “just keep driving, nothing to see here.” Do not get me wrong, I very much like living in Lilongwe and Malawi, but there is just not a lot of externally provided activities. This is very much a make-your-own-fun kind of place. But maybe, I could look at it another way — Lilongwe is a blank space, where its up to you to decide what to make of it?

As I begin my countdown to leaving Malawi (eight months to go), I find myself thinking a lot on what this place has meant to me and what I will miss. For the most part, my life in Lilongwe is pretty small, confined to an area of approximately five square miles. Those streets have become so familiar to me, and the landmarks on those streets as well. These signs I have seen have marked the territory of our lives for the four years we have made Malawi our home. I cannot say that they have necessarily passed the message to me that was intended, but I have noticed them and thought about them and stopped on my journey to take a picture to remember them.