Malawi: Coronavirus Crazy, Coronavirus Calm

We are beginning our twelfth week of teleworking. Our twelfth week of homeschooling. Our twelfth week without our nanny. Our twelfth week of dragging C into the Embassy with me when I need to go in. The twelfth week since the President of Malawi declared a State of Disaster.

It has been a long three months.

Tonight I learned South Africa does not plan to re-open to international tourists until February 2021. And one of my South African cable channels aired the movie Outbreak. Well, certainly an interesting choice television executive, very interesting. Though perhaps a wee bit too soon?

Coronavirus Cases Continue to Rise in Malawi

It is after all only early June. Perhaps there might still be a slowing to this pandemic sometime soon? I would really like to think so, but it sure feels as though there is no end in sight. When I last wrote on May 20, Malawi had only 72 confirmed COVID-19 cases. But two and a half weeks later the count is up to 409. That number pales in comparison to most other nations around the world and still is in the lowest third of countries on the African continent. But it is rising. Many of the recent cases have been undocumented deportees from South Africa, the hardest hit country in Africa. Most were packed on to buses for the two day journey back to Malawi and then consigned to a stadium in Blantyre for quarantine and testing. And promptly some 400 escaped. I wish I could say I am surprised. But nope.

Coronavirus Precautions vs Political Crowds

There is presumably an election in approximately two weeks. A re-run, or as the Malawian media likes to call it a “fresh” election, ordered by the Constitutional Court, which nullified last May’s presidential election. And yet the pandemic continues. These two events do not make a great combination. For one, many Malawians love to get out to political rallies to see their preferred candidates. And two, many Malawians have been outright ignoring the government’s COVID-19 guidelines. In the political rally advertisement above, one can maybe just make-out the fine print (circled by yours truly) that states “All COVID-19 measures apply.” However, the second picture (not mine) demonstrates how simply stating COVID-19 measures apply does not in fact translate into reality.

Lilongwe’s Newest Fancy Schmancy Billboard

I am also not surprised by this. After the Malawian government attempted in mid-April to impose a lockdown, similar to that of South Africa but without the same coordinated finesse, it was met by informal sector protests and a court injunction halting its execution (up til today). The President himself has been out on the campaign trail without a mask and surrounded by thousands of supporters. It is thus little wonder that many Malawians are opting to continue ignoring government guidance.

There are those who are following the rules or at least giving a solid “A” for effort. But even those who have tried are becoming tired, so very tired, of the isolation and loss of income. Restaurants that had previously closed or were allowing only pick-up or providing new delivery services are slowly re-opening to dine-in. A few days ago, for the first time in 11 weeks, C and I headed out to our favorite restaurant, a small Italian place located in a residential neighborhood, owned and managed by an Italian with over a decade living in Malawi. We were the only customers and the wait-staff wore masks. I made a move to grab our own masks from my handbag, but quickly realized the ridiculousness of trying to eat with them on.

I Appreciate an Establishment With “Serious” COVID-19 Safeguards

At the Chinese restaurant at the Golden Peacock Hotel, masked staff looked incredibly hopeful when we arrived. Although we opted for take-out, we were still required to have our temperatures checked before entering. This reminded me of my days in Singapore during SARS, though it was the first time any establishment in Malawi has done this. And when the thermometer malfunctioned while taking C’s temperature, after three tries the hostess just waved us inside.

Hotels, too, are re-opening, with some claiming, as in the colorful newspaper insert above, to have “serious” coronavirus precautions, clearly in contrast to the many who are not taking it quite so. The supermarkets remain open, but have upped their COVID-19 game with more stringent hand-washing stations, social distancing floor markers, and all staff wearing masks, including some with full plastic facial shields.

Studies indicate that it can take an average of 66 days to form a new habit. So, after 11 weeks, we should be used to all of this. I suppose in some ways it is easier than when this all began, but I am far from accustomed or comfortable with the situation. I cannot sleep. My insomnia is moving from acute into the realm of chronic. And I am not alone. I regularly receive messages and emails from colleagues and friends who also find themselves up at odd hours. I do not want this to be the new normal.

There are bright moments. Our community has tried its best to come together. One of our colleagues, who loves to cook, has opened up a “Quarantine Kitchen,” providing delicious meals every Friday for order. C and I once made cupcakes, with our own delectable homemade buttercream frosting, and then drove around our housing areas delivering them them to other persons in the mission. Without the lockdown, I have been able to continue my tennis lessons, and they are a highlight of each and every week. C and I often take walks together. Cargo flights have been reinstated, and thus our State Department mail has as well.

From My Yard of Wonders

And there is still our beautiful yard. Last Friday, I was exhausted and stressed. My insomnia had kept me up until 3 AM, but unlike in previous days and weeks, I did not get any work done in those wee hours while C slept. I did nothing. Not the restful kind of nothing either. But on Friday afternoon I took a meditative walk around my yard. A slow stroll taking in the birdsong and the colors and textures of the incredible variety of flora my yard offers. From pink and yellow roses and deep red poinsettia in full bloom to the unidentified green pods bursting from small red branches that resemble coral and a split, decaying pomegranate fruit. The nearly perfect emerald green leaf with its a few carefully chewed insect holes, the deep glossy striated burgundy of fallen banana petals, a curled, desiccated leaf, and a cluster of small violet buds. These sights rejuvenated me.

I do not know how much longer this will last, but I try to stay hopeful it will be on the sooner end than the later. It is what calms me during the coronavirus crazy.

Malawi “Spring Break” in the Time of COVID-19

Part 2 D

COVID-19 Media Advertisements– text message (from COVID-19?), TV commercial, and print ad

This may be one of the greatest understatements of all time, but Spring Break 2020 was not as we had envisioned. I had had a truly fantastic trip arranged for C and I. Driving through a new country. Adventures. Mother and daughter bonding time. I know, I know. No one planned to spend their spring largely isolating from the world during a pandemic. If you have read my blog though you know that I am big into travel. I take just about every opportunity to travel somewhere. Its part of my identity and my daughter C is my travel buddy. I expect some might find my moaning about missing out on yet another trip to be tone-deaf, but each of us has at least one thing that we miss doing right now that makes this situation even harder. My inability to travel is one of mine.

Our last trip – a mini holiday to Johannesburg – was meant to give us a sense of normalcy, to let us do the types of things many Americans can do, but we are unable to do in Malawi. However, it was already well into the beginning of COVID-19 abnormalcy.  Although at the time of the trip (Feb 29-Mar 3), there were only a handful of cases on the African continent, there were already 2,900 deaths, including the first in the U.S. There were temperature checks at immigration and a few people wearing masks.  And two days after our return, South Africa registered its first case.  Within weeks, as South Africa prepared for its 21-day lockdown that would begin March 27, the writing on the wall was clear: we would have no Spring Break outside of Malawi.

These musings though are not just lamentations of travel unrealized, but rather a compilation of thoughts about us riding out COVID-19 in Malawi.

COVID-19 Makes its Malawi Debut

Part 2 G

Malawi streetside billboard.  The translation of the Chichewa is “Ways of Protection Against the Coronavirus Disease.”

It would not be until April 2 that Malawi would confirm its first cases of coronavirus, the 50th African country to do so (out of 54), and seemingly one of the last countries in the world. Though truth be told, there had not been testing available before then, thus there was a quiet assumption it was already here. Although C’s school had already prepared for social distancing as had the Embassy, and the President of Malawi had declared all schools in the country closed from March 23, there did not seem any immediate change to the rhythm of the local people. The colorful, crowded, chaotic markets continued.  Mini-buses — though supposedly with fewer passengers squeezed inside, per the President’s guidelines — continued to trawl the city streets. Stores remained open, though with hand cleaning stations outside.

Part 2 C

You know those stories of animals, such as deer, swans, dolphins, goats, and the like roaming emptied city streets and waterways? This is Malawi’s version. Also, an 8 foot Southern Africa Python was recently found in Lilongwe.

But following the first death on April 7, the undercurrents seemed to shift. I began to see Malawians wearing masks while driving their cars or in the supermarket. Supermarkets and the TNM (Telecommunications Malawi) store set up those floor stickers to encourage social distancing while in the store. I began receiving text messages with helpful suggestions to counter the spread of the virus. Companies took out full-page coronations-related ads in the newspapers. But there was a sense that it was the more well-to-do urban Malawians that were getting the messages first and foremost.  They are the ones driving cars, shopping at Chipiku Plus, and topping up their phone data plans at the rather upscale TNM shop at Umodzi Park.

Then on April 14, the President announced a 21-day lockdown to begin at 11:59 PM on April 18.

Lockdowns Are Not Created Equal

Social distancing, self-quarantines, and lockdowns are just not the same across the world or across socio-economic lines.  In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, there are no Whole Foods, Wegmans, or Trader Joe’s (upmarket U.S. food stores).  There is no Amazon delivery bringing us all manner of goodies. Pizza delivery drivers are not essential workers here as there is no pizza delivery. Until a few weeks ago when a few bespoke expat-oriented restaurants began to offer limited delivery, there was none in Lilongwe. Though now almost all restaurants are closed. There are no drive-thrus (well, there is one, at one of two KFCs in the country). Supermarkets do not deliver.  While we can walk around, there are no sidewalks, and at night almost no streetlights (and probably 50% or more of the lights do not work).  There are no parks or walking trails where we might enjoy a stroll or bike ride. For awhile the parents of C’s best friends took her with them for bike riding at the BICC (Bingu International Convention Center).  There is a large open area in front of the convention center and hotel, and terraced roads linked also by stairs going up a hillside. But last week, security personnel turned them and others away, declaring the only open area of its kind in the city closed to persons seeking recreation.

Part 2 F

Left: There seems to be a lot of confusion whether you stay one meter or two from each other, so I like how our favorite supermarket just split the difference and went with 1.5 meters. Right: Yet, on the eve of the originally-scheduled lockdown, with the store packed, social distancing went out the window.

This is not a woe-is-me tale, but a reminder to folks living in developed countries with many amenities available to them, that this pandemic period is much harder on others.  And I am not talking about myself.  Although I do feel some envy for some of the creature comforts and conveniences I see and hear about from others at home, I am better off than 90% (or more) of Malawians, many of whom live hand-to-mouth, making their small income from daily informal work.

Part 2 E

In the last week, roadside traders have begun selling homemade Chitenje masks. The first time I bought them, they cost 500 MWK. A few days later the price had doubled to 1000 MWK.

Following the announcement of a 21-day lockdown, small-scale traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu held protests, which spread to other areas such as Kasungu and the capital Lilongwe. Many of the protestors are concerned that unable to engage in their livelihoods they are more likely to die of starvation than of the coronavirus. Contrast this with protests in the U.S. which largely seem to be a question of civil liberties and larger economic concerns vice life and death. A Malawian human rights organization took the government to court, claiming the lockdown implementation has not been aboveboard and does not include enough consideration of and protections for the poor, and obtained a seven-day injunction.  Therefore the lockdown is currently on hold.  Political or not, the virus nonetheless has been politicized; the erratic political environment coupled with the potential health crisis leaves even more uncertainty about the way forward.

Easter Under COVID-19

Part 2 A

The Easter Bunny is an essential worker who follows COVID-19 protocols

Originally, C and I were to be away on the holiday, so I had planned to celebrate the Sunday before. With no vacation though, I considered moving it to the actual day, but C was just too excited. And after two weeks of homeschooling by a horrible new teacher with zero patience (yes, me), I wanted to do something that would make her smile. Well, first I forced her to clean up the living room (I asked my nanny/housekeeper, who also happens to be seven months pregnant, to just stay at home during this time — paid of course), and then the morning of I set up her Easter basket, full of locally-sourced chocolate (the selection is much better than you might think) and some luckily-ordered-before-Embassy-mail-ceased surprises (our diplomatic mail arrives on planes, there are now almost no more planes).  I also hid 34 plastic eggs in the living room and entryway for our annual egg hunt.

As the week wore on I questioned my decision. I grew melancholy as the Easter weekend, and the day we would have flown out, approached. But a very clever colleague came up with a plan. She reached out to all staff with children to see if they might be interested in a visit by the Easter Bunny on Sunday morning. Then she dressed up in the Embassy Easter Bunny costume and a partner drove her around from house to house. Once at our house C and the Easter Bunny practiced social distancing, waving discretely to each from at least two meters away. Then the Easter Bunny poured some plastic eggs full of candy on the lawn and with a final wave, backed away.

Introverts Are Hermits and Other Annoying COVID-19 Falsehoods

<Heavy sigh> I cannot begin to tell you how much it has driven me crazy to see all the memes and posts stating that introverts have been preparing for the self-isolation and social distancing of this pandemic all their lives. Introverts are not anti-social misanthropes. Introverts recharge their energy when alone, while extroverts pull energy from being with other people. Sure, I generally prefer individual pursuits like reading, writing, solo exercise, solo travel, but that does not mean I never want to be around other people. In fact, traveling on my own often forces me to strike up conversations with strangers far more than if I were part of a group. I do like people, just usually in smaller doses. I have discovered that working from home is not my cup of tea. That does not mean an open plan office with lots of chatter is for me either, but I miss going to the office. I miss the satisfaction of face to face interaction with my coworkers. I woke up one day last week and felt an immediate desire to crawl right back into bed. Then a feeling of déjà-vu came hurtling toward me from the deep recesses of my brain, a flashback to when I was in Singapore during SARS. I did not thrive during that time and I am not thriving now.

Part 2 B

C and I find new uses for our Shanghai pollution masks and acquire local Chitenje fabric masks

I am learning new skills and hobbies, but not because of one of the many overly ambitious blog posts told me to do so in their Top Ten Best Ways to Make it Through Quarantine. Want to know what I am learning?  How to juggle homeschooling, housework, and working during a pandemic, dealing with insomnia, and providing American citizen services to our community and private Americans living in Malawi. I cannot say I am hitting the ball out of the park on any of it.  Describing my homeschooling skills as mediocre is probably overselling it, but hey, these are new skills, it takes practice, right?

This is a difficult time for everyone, I know. How you cope is relative. I try to see the bright side of things, such as the Tostitos I ordered by Embassy mail are unable to get here and thus I am not stress-eating them and my daughter’s school shoes will make it through the school year after all. I can also wear jeans and a t-shirt every day, which is my happy place for clothes, or if we are being really real, pajama pants and a t-shirt. Basically, I try to maintain my sense of humor. And with travel on indefinite hold right now, I am especially relying on it.

Stay safe.

 

Uncertainty Reigns on the Rift’s Edge

Malawi lies at the southwest edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley – and it’s this that led me to title this post this way. 

It has been an interesting year.  And I do not just mean what we have seen so far from the 2020 calendar year, I mean the last 365 days.  A year ago we here in Malawi were preparing for the country’s tripartite elections in May.  It was a busy time, but as the political officer at the Embassy (and a first-time political officer), it was also exciting.  Elections are a political officer’s bread and butter.  I was lapping it up.

The lead up to the elections was exciting, as was polling day itself, and the immediate days afterward.  I worked extra hours, dug into the politics, analyzed the results, and wrote reports.  After nearly two years in the country, I felt I really understood the situation, the players, and it was all culminating in this election.  The elections had shaped my tour since I arrived in August 2017, and I thought I would head off on my mid-tour home leave and return to a post-election environment with newly elected representatives and a new focus for my second consecutive Malawi tour.

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Tear gas wafts in front of the U.S. Embassy in June 2019 (photo from Nyasa Times)

But that was not to be.  The hotly contested election resulted in a court challenge of the presidential election results.  And demonstrations.  First by the opposition parties who alleged the misconduct by the electoral commission, and then by human rights activists.  During the summer, the police deployed tear gas multiple times in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy (the main opposition party’s headquarters is next door).  At the end of his first week on the job, my summer intern and I were caught outside the Embassy while at a meeting during another tear gas display.  On another day  I could hear from my office the thwoop thwoop thwoop of the canisters being repeatedly deployed.  Estimates were some 90 canisters fired in an hour.  I never felt in danger, but things were definitely not normal.

IMG_E1876

My own terrible iPhone zoom photo of a military escorted demo heading my way (and after taking the photo, I turned around)

By August the court case had begun.  But it dragged through the fall.  The end of every multi-week session announcing the next.  The human rights activists continued their demonstrations, though the military joined with them to provide security and there was less use of tear gas.  There were other demonstrations too, by truck drivers, by teachers, by civil servants.  Then on February 3, the Constitutional Court (a five-High Court judge panel convened especially to hear and decide on the presidential election nullification case) released its decision.  It was a day of suspense — with the lead justice reading out the 500-page decision on the radio over the course of ten hours.  And at the end he announced the landmark judgment for the opposition parties; only the second time on the African continent that a court had overturned an election.

It was exhilarating.  The country was electrified.  There were news articles around the world on this historic decision.  But it was short-lived.  Because now there are to be new elections and here we are back where we were a year ago.  Only the stakes seem higher. February felt like a really long month, approximately six weeks long.

Enter: Coronavirus.

CDC COVID-19 world map outbreak March 28 Malawi

The CDC map of countries with confirmed cases as of 12:00 March 30

As of today, March 31, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi.  As I have been thinking about writing this over the past week, I have experienced a sense of apprehension that as soon as I might write that down, it would cease to be true, a case would be confirmed.  But most of us in the diplomatic community and the government of Malawi are operating under the assumption that there are cases here, we just do not definitively know it.

The Africa Report Africa Risk for COVID-19It might seem odd that Malawi seems to stand alone, that with over 170 countries and territories affected, it sits there, a greyed out area in a sea of teal. But Malawi is not only at the edge of the Great Rift but also is sort of the end of the line.  Malawi is not a transit country (I mean sure, for economic migrants, yes, but for international travel, no); it is not a major tourist destination, not even really a minor one.  It is off the beaten track.  It is landlocked and even connections to its neighboring countries are relatively limited. I found this really neat graphic online that demonstrates Africa’s risk in terms of individual countries’ connectivity with China. But it might as well be connectivity to really anywhere in terms of Malawi.  There are only a handful of international flights a day, and connections only to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.

So, this relative isolation has contributed to how I have perceived the pandemic.  While so many of us around the globe have labeled this experience surreal, I have felt both affected and oddly detached.  I have watched the panic buying, the press conferences, the number tallies from a distance.  We have had meetings (many, many, many, meetings) at the Embassy, beginning in February and increasing in frequency in March.  Especially as the news around the globe worsened, as cases crept closer to home.  As the measures were slowly put in place.  My boss voluntarily self-quarantined for two weeks beginning in early March after returning from a European country that the government of Malawi had just designated as a country of concern.  From last week my daughter’s international school went entirely to distance learning — the decision made a week or two before the President announced on March 20 that all schools in the country would close – and the Embassy has gone to Team Office / Team Telework.  One week one team may be in the office (though they do not have to be) while the other solely teleworks, then the next week the teams switch, and to quote one of my favorite poets, Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.”  Well, except in Zoom meetings.

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We are still flush with TP — for now

Last week I was Team Office and still spent much of my time at the Embassy.  Not only as the political officer but also the Acting Consular Officer, because our primary consular officer opted to return to the U.S. for health and safety reasons while the option remained open.  I went home each day for lunch, an option I rarely take, so that I could also log my daughter on for her daily Google Meet session with her teacher and classmates.  The homeschooling was rough for sure, more akin to co-dependent torture than learning, but I felt useful and efficient at work.  This week I am on Team Telework and it is only day two but it is like everything has fallen apart.  Well, homeschooling is on the upswing and work is, um, on the opposite trajectory.

I do not quite know how to describe how I am feeling; I am sure I am not alone in this.  I am not worried about the virus for myself or my daughter.  And while I am working with my family to put into place measures to make my elderly parents safer, I am not all that worried about my friends or family.  I expect that some might find this callous.  Although I can be an emotional person, I feel I am approaching this situation more as a pragmatist.  I think it may be due to my experience in Singapore during SARS.  Singapore handled that pandemic well and is by all reports doing the same this time around.

I know COVID-19 is not SARS. I felt I needed to say that. But there are some similarities.

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Handwashing station – similar to what most places I frequent have set up

Not that I personally handled the time during SARS in Singapore all that well.  It was not an easy time.  While I sent back some thoughts to friends and family (summarized in my two blog posts on the time), I went back to look at my journals for the time period and found nothing at all written in them over a 2.5 month period.  That in and of itself is telling.  It is rare for me to go for more than a week without writing.  What I do remember is that at first the situation was novel, even exciting, but over time it really began to drag on myself and my friends.  I even sought out counseling.

There are concerns about the virus coming to Malawi.  As one of the poorest countries in the world, the health system is already incredibly limited, and would likely quickly be overwhelmed by a pandemic.  Also, social distancing is just not something that fits well with the culture and customs here.  Malawians are very social.  They enjoy group meetings, family gatherings, attending church or mosque.  In the few walks that I have taken around my neighborhood, I still see Malawians greeting one another touching hands, walking closely together.  And the reality of poverty is that people live, travel, and work together in very close quarters.

And yet I think I am doing better this time around for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it is because I am here in Malawi, with our relative isolation and delayed case confirmation, but also because I have my incredibly lush and calming yard full of birdsong.  Also, I have meaningful work that keeps me busy, I have been meditating almost daily for over two years, and I am here with my daughter, and everything is better with her.

These feelings are valid as of today.  Things will continue to be uncertain for the foreseeable future.  If COVID-19 follows a trajectory similar to SARS, then it is likely peaking, but will continue well into June.  July 2 is currently the date for the “fresh” (as all the papers here like to call it) presidential election.  My daughter and I are opting to shelter in place here in Malawi, our home, and though it will not be easy, I expect us to be fine.  Despite all of the uncertainty and challenges my friends and I faced in Singapore during SARS, it did pass, and those feelings faded.  So I know that this too shall pass.

 

 

 

That Weekend We Tried to be “Normal”

4

We are not very good at being normal

Due to a Malawian Tuesday holiday, C’s school gave the kids a mini-break, a four-day weekend.  When we have gone out of town on long weekends here, we have tended to go to someplace on Lake Malawi.  We head out to Senga Bay or Monkey Bay.  We have also been to Mangochi and Nkhata Bay.  We have also been to the Zomba plateau, Ntchisi Forest, or to the tea plantation area of the south.  But getting to these places we have long, somewhat boring drives, on crappy Malawian roads, with little change to the scenery.  I have often enjoyed these drives and found beauty in them.  But I really wanted something different than Malawi.

On other vacations, we tend to go to far-flung locales like northern Finland or Zanzibar and I fill our days with sightseeing and/or activities.  That isn’t what I wanted either.  What I wanted was a change of scenery, but also low-key.  I wanted us to be able to do things we cannot do in Malawi, the things that I imagine the average middle-class family in America or Europe or likewise does in a given week.  I wanted convenience.

I opted for a quick trip to Johannesburg.  Just staying in a hotel near a mall with a movie theater.  That seemed so “normal.”  And yet, not at all normal with our every day in Malawi.  The normal, but not normal, which, in my opinion, just about sums C and I up.

And wouldn’t you know it, by the time the weekend rolled around, things seemed all the less normal.  There is the political uncertainty in Malawi, with the country’s High Court deciding to nullify the results of last year’s presidential elections and ordering a new poll.  I am the political officer and this is my bread and butter, but we were all entering an unprecedented political situation, not only in Malawi but on the African continent.  And then there is coronavirus pandemic, which has led to another global health emergency, widespread panic, but also necessary Embassy planning sessions.  With all this going on I was mentally exhausted.  I craved normalcy all the more.

6

There are only 2 statues in Malawi and neither are this big

The flight to Johannesburg was normal enough.  Three and a half hours with a short stop in Malawi’s southern city of Blantyre.  Long, ridiculous lines at immigration greeted us in Johannesburg.  I sure hope that is not how they normally do business, but I suppose it is normal enough.  Yes, there were individuals with high-tech thermometers, that looked more like a radar gun used by police to check speed, scanning everyone’s forehead but few travelers wearing medical face masks (the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Africa was the day we flew back).  Once through all the arrival rigamarole we grabbed some snacks and a taxi and headed to our hotel in Sandton City, our home away from home for the long weekend.

Our first stop then was the Sandton City mall, right off of Nelson Mandela Square, the site of a gigantic statue of the hero himself.  There are no shopping malls in Malawi.  Well, there is the covered shopping center on the outskirts of Lilongwe (“the biggest mall in Malawi!”).  It’s made up of perhaps a dozen stores – anchored by two supermarket chains, which are a shadow of their South African cousins, a few restaurants, a salon, a pharmacy, a dentist office, a bank, the Malawian version of a dollar store, a shoe store, a South African children’s clothing chain, a barber’s, and one or two other stores I have never actually seen anyone in.  It might be named “Gateway Mall” but using the word doesn’t make it so.  On the other hand Sandton City Mall has around 300 stores!

We ate a late lunch in a South African family sit-down restaurant.  The only similar restaurant I know of in Malawi is Wimpy — and there are only two of those in the whole country.  Then we did something really quite ordinary for many families in a lot of countries – we saw a movie at the theater.  C and I really enjoy going to the movies and we did so regularly in Shanghai.  But in Malawi there are no movie theaters.

This was no ordinary theater though — the movie (Sonic the Hedgehog) was shown in a kids theater complete with colorful bean bag chairs and a slide.  The popcorn though was not all that normal, at least not compared to U.S. cinemas, instead of melted butter you could top off with there was powdered butter.  And not a napkin to be found.

On our second day we woke to a rainy Sunday.  C looked out our hotel room window at the uninspiring view of half of the neighboring building and a nondescript six lane road.  But what she saw was instead was wondrous.  “Mom,” she exclaimed, “look at that! I wish we lived here and every day we could look out on that road. There is no road like that in Malawi.”  And she is right.  There are only a handful of roads in Malawi’s three main cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) that are four lane, and those only span a few kilometers at best.

Sci bono discovery center

Math, science, and physical activity is so fun at Sci-Bono

Off we headed to the Sci-Bono Discovery Center, an interactive children’s STEM museum located in a former power station.  Wow, this place is cool.  When we headed first to a water exhibit on loan from the U.S.’ Smithsonian Museum and there was no one there but us, I worried the museum might not capture C’s attention.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  We ended up spending four hours there – taking in the planetarium show, filling a small hot air balloon and watching it soar up the four stories to the ceiling, using various displays to learn about circuits and voltage to create electric charges, learning interesting animal facts, trying out PlayStation interactive golf and tennis games, and of course sprinting up the climbing wall.  I have taken C to children’s museums across the U.S. and in many places around the world, but there are none in Malawi.  In fact, there is only a handful of museums in the whole country – we have been to three and only one was worth a visit.

We spent the afternoon back at the Sandton City Mall having another late lunch (Hard Rock Cafe) and then C picked out her LEGO characters, which I bet would be hers *if* she made it to the top of the rock climbing wall.  Despite her fear, she made short work of that wall to get those toys, so I had to deliver.  We then had a quite evening just hanging out in the room.

Montecasino

For our last day the plan was to head to the Montecasino bird gardens, but we woke to more rain and a weather prediction that it would last all day.  However, Montecasino also had a indoor shopping area and best of all — an arcade.  There are few things C likes more than playing a bunch of ticket-producing games and trading in those tickets for cheap toys.  I might have to admit I rather enjoy it all myself.  So, I went all out.  I bought hundreds of tokens and we played for HOURS.  Claw games, skee ball, video games, wheel spins, games where we tossed basketballs, bean bags, or ping pong balls to see how many we could get into a receptacle or knock over some pins in a period of time.  All in the name of maniacal, obsessive fun so we could get enough tickets to get the prized stuffed lion that had C’s name on it from the moment we walked in.  It might not seem like much, and may even seem a waste of time and money on vacation, but we had so much fun.  And there is nothing like it in Malawi.  (Thank goodness, or I would be broke, our hands would be calloused, and we would have even more stuffed animals than we already have).

Then we wandered the covered mall of Montecasino, which, with its faux cobblestone lanes and ceiling painted and lit like the sky, reminded me much of the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas.  We had our choice of 30 restaurants and 10 fast food joints for lunch.  I am not sure there are 40 restaurants in all of Lilongwe.  C and I frequent about eight.  We had (yet another late) lunch at a Mexican (Mexican!!) restaurant and then called it a day.

Heading back the next day was hard for me; I could have used another night or two in Johannesburg.  We hadn’t visited a department store or gone to an amusement park or even a decent playground.  But once home I thought our weekend away had, at least temporarily, restored me.  It might not be that normal to fly to another country to try to do “normal” things.  And honestly, these normal activities we did felt extraordinary because we do not do them all the time.  Many people in developed countries take it for granted that they will have wide pothole-free roads to drive on, nice sidewalks to walk on, well-stocked supermarkets to shop in, and entertainment and shopping complexes to go to, and it just isn’t that way for many in the developing world.  Don’t get me wrong — I know we have it good.  With our privilege, C and I straddle these worlds, living (very well) in one, and with the means and opportunity to travel to another.  The “normal” things we (I) miss are not normal at all for the vast majority of Malawians.  They are not even that normal for my daughter who has spent most of her eight years overseas.

It’s really something to think about — and as I begin to contemplate where we might head next after Malawi I wonder how well we would do somewhere with all these amenities and conveniences that we often do without?  How would we handle being more normal?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks with Visitors

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The Pumulani staff preparing the dhow for the sunset cruise

Within inner circles of the Foreign Service, one of the much-discussed downsides of the lifestyle is the lack of friends and family willing to visit us overseas.  Even those who find themselves in a fairly fantastic post – say Paris or Hong Kong – may find that not quite as many folks from home who promise to visit do.  And for those of us serving in those not-quite-so-garden locales, our attempts to lure visitors (“look at this fabulous guest room just waiting for your arrival”) go far more ignored than grasped.

I never expected to have people knocking down my virtual door or blowing up my inbox, clamoring to visit us in Malawi.  To be honest, until I started to look at potential places to bid for my third assignment, I had never heard of the country.  And it is in Africa.  Although the continent has a rapidly growing tourism market (the second fastest-growing market in 2018), it still captures a small part of the tourism pie.  In 2018, 67 million tourists visited Africa.  Compare that to the 90 million that visited France alone.  The top visited African destinations were places like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Morocco, Tunisia, and Kenya.   And most of these tourists are not Americans who tend to stick to Western Europe and the Caribbean – of the top 39 overseas places Americans visited in 2017 only two African nations made the list – South Africa and Morocco – at place #36 and #39 respectively.

So bottom line, there are not many people who would come more than halfway around the world to visit us in a small, relatively unknown developing country.  But I do have those few.  D&D are two of those people.  They have visited me in Indonesia and Mexico (both before my blogging days), they had plans to visit me in China (until an unexpected medical evacuation caused that cancellation), and C and I visited them in San Francisco during Home Leave a few years ago.

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The downstairs in our lux Latitude 13 room.

DO1 and I went to college together many years ago; he was my big brother in our service fraternity.  He loves traveling and visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world and has no qualms about traveling WAY out of his way to see them.  His partner, DO2 (yes, they have the same first name and their last names start with the same letter), may not love traveling quite so much but is a really good sport.  It was no surprise that DO1 contacted me in the summer about visiting Malawi for Thanksgiving, in conjunction with a trip to South Africa.

On Thanksgiving Thursday I picked up D&D at the airport and we headed to the Italian restaurant around the corner from my home for lunch.  I also took them for a little spin around Lilongwe to see all the sites — that really and truly is a short drive.   Once C was home from school, we all headed out to Latitude 13, an upscale boutique hotel not far from my home.  C and I have often eaten at Latitude’s restaurant and I have long wanted to stay overnight there.  After all, when Rihanna visited Malawi, she stayed there.   So, you know, if it is good enough for Rihanna, it is definitely good enough for me.

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Rain over Lake Malawi

Early on Friday morning, we started our three and a half-hour drive to the beautiful resort of Pumulani, located within the Lake Malawi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Last year, we also spent Thanksgiving at Pumulani.  We had such a great time there before, it made perfect sense to return.  And D&D would have the amazing opportunity to enjoy the long stretches of Malawi road along the way.  I mean that tongue in cheek as it is really not that exciting.  It’s rather amazing for a country that is so densely populated that one can drive for miles with little signs of civilization.

views from the room

The views from our room

Our rooms at Pumulani were as stunning as the last time.  Pumulani is built up a rocky hillside along the lakeshore.  There are ten villas set from at various levels — one at the beach level, and then at various stages up the hillside — there are 150 wooden steps from the beach up to the main lodge.  Previously, C and I stayed at the upper level, with a bush view.  This time, by my request, we stayed at a villa at the mid-level, where I had heard rock hyraxes were sometimes spotted.  We also had a lake view.  D&D were in a villa a little way down the boardwalk, a level below us.

While standing on our balcony, overlooking Pumulani’s small dock on the lake, a movement in the brush caught my eye.  A good-sized monitor lizard, a little over two feet in length, skidded hurridly down an embankment.  And then, giving chase, a rock hyrax!  I could not believe it.  The hyrax lept into the branches of a tree and settled in for a little rest.  Upon looking around, I noticed not one, not two, but three hyraxes sitting in the trees.  Wow!  On our last trip, we had not seen a single one, and now here they were hanging around our villa.  Soon enough, vervet monkeys ran across the roof of our villa, then leaped into the trees.

We enjoyed lunch together on the dining patio at the main lodge overlooking the upper pool, the dock, and with a tremendous view of the lake.  It was hot.  Very, very hot.  Although the sky was clear, rain was in the air, and thus so were the lake flies.  So while Pumulani food is very good, and the view and company were perfect, the swarming flies marred the otherwise lovely meal.  The heat and insects, full stomachs and exhaustion from the road trip, drove us each to our rooms and the lake beach for some relaxation.  The storm rolled in, guaranteeing there would be no late afternoon dhow sail on the lake, but the stormy skies were nonetheless atmospheric and cooled the temperatures to something more bearable.

I kept a respectable distance from the lake waters abutting the Pumulani beach.  On our last visit, while C played by the lakeshore and I lazed in a swing chair, a Pumulani staff member approached my daughter and told her to stay away from the lake as a crocodile was nearby.  This time we asked about the crocodiles and were told, “oh, its only the one and we haven’t seen him in oh, two or three…days.”

wildlife

Some of the wildlife at Pumulani: monitor lizard, rock hyrax, samango monkey

Unfortunately that evening I came down with a stomach bug.  I could barely drag myself up the 100-some steps to the dining area, and once there, I could not stand the thought of food.  Nor the idea of still sharing my meal with the hundreds, no thousands, of bugs teeming around the few lights.  I called it an early night, leaving D&D to the mercy of the insects, and arranged for food to be delivered to our room for C.

The next morning I was good as new, thank goodness.  D&D headed out on a hike and kayak tour after breakfast, but I could not get C to agree.  With a recently busy work schedule and an upcoming training trip to Addis Ababa, I was fine with taking it easy.  It helped that we had been to Pumulani before.  C and I watched the rock hyraxes from our balcony and then headed to the pool to cool off.  I noticed another guest taking some photos with a serious lens and following the direction noticed a baboon in a tree.  I started to head down to the room to get my better camera when the trees around us began rustling and a baboon burst out next to the pool.  It eyed us, especially my daughter, and made as though it might jump in the pool with her, and then it reached down to cup a few handfuls of pool water before leaping back into the brush.

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Standoff – C vs the baboon

We all had lunch together again but then D1 headed off for a snorkeling adventure.  He was going to make sure he did Lake Malawi right – not just spending time by the lake, but also on the lake (kayaking) and in the lake (snorkeling).  I have heard a saying since coming to this country that if you haven’t been to the lake, you have not really been to Malawi.  Although D&D would have only a few days in the country they were making sure to really check the Malawi box.  The rest of us lazy, fair-skinned folks continued doing our best to enjoy the relaxing pleasures of Pumulani.

We were incredibly lucky that the rain stayed away so that we could go out on the dhow.  we piled into the wooden sailing boat along with a family of four and headed out onto the water.  I was thrilled that we once again were able to see a hippo – in fact we saw two – enjoying the waters of Lake Malawi (at a safe distance from our vessel).  More rain was on the way so we could not stay out as long as usual, but again, the impending storm turned the sky incredible colors for one of, if not the most spectacular sunset I have seen in Malawi.  Normally, sunsets here seem quick: a round red ball of flame just above the horizon that burns bright for five minutes before suddenly dropping away.  This time the sun took its time, sliding languorously down, and even after hiding away for the evening, the sky changed colors for the longest time. sunsetsWe had one last dinner and breakfast together before beginning our slightly stressful race against time to get D&D to the airport for the first flight on the way back to California.

I understand that many of my friends and family cannot make such a trip for various reasons.  And therefore I share a lot of photos of our home, our activities, and our lives in Malawi on social media, but little can compare with an in-person visit.  It was a short visit but I am so thankful that I have friends like D&D who are willing to come more than halfway around the world to see us.

 

Road Tripping in Malawi

Road Sign 1Americans’ love affair with the car is no secret.  In reality, Western Europeans have more cars per person than Americans, but Americans drive their cars for just about anything – short trips, long trips, and everything in between.  And when Americans go on long trips, they might be just as likely to pack up the car as to get on a plane.  Americans (in general) love a good road trip.

Although I have spent a good portion of my adult life (between September 1995 and September 2011) without owning a car, I still very much appreciate a good drive.  In my Foreign Service career, I have not done much driving at Post.  In Ciudad Juarez, we could only drive in a limited area around the city and into the United States, and I did not own a vehicle in Shanghai.  Malawi has been an “interesting” opportunity to get back on the road.

Most of my driving life in Malawi is within a small area, maybe five square miles, if that.  It’s a seven-minute drive from my home to the Embassy and most other trips are to and from friends’ homes and a few supermarkets and restaurants.  But every so often we get out of town, and with nearly two years under my belt in Malawi, I have taken a road trip or two or ten.  And driving here is unlike any other place I have driven.

A. Roads

Some Malawian roads I have driven

Malawi may be one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but when on the road between cities and towns, it can feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere.  Its not just the lack of population — there can certainly be those times when it seems there is no one else around — but even when there are villages it is just those villages, a cluster of small homes, probably the majority just a single room.  They might be mud or brick with thatch or corrugated iron roofs, but except in the larger trading centers, the homes, maybe a school, is it.  You will not see road lights or electricity poles. There are few if any road signs. You will only rarely see billboards by the side of the road — only as you might approach a major center.  Playing “I spy” is a futile exercise.

There will be no fast-food restaurants if any restaurants at all.  Few stores.  Even petrol stations are in short supply.  On the 4+ hour drive on the M1, the country’s main artery linking the capital Lilongwe with the business capital of Blantyre, there are perhaps only two or three places to stop for gas.  You should always fill up when you can, because there may not be another opportunity for some distance.  The same goes for restrooms.

CowsThe paved roads, even the main ones, are predominantly two lanes, one in each direction.  Maybe there will be a painted center line, maybe not.  Maybe there will be a shoulder, though usually not.  Most often the sides of the road are jagged, as though a large monster that eats asphalt has bitten huge chunks off the edges.  There are many potholes.  Near villages, there will be cyclists, and it seems almost a given that as your car approaches they will begin to weave haphazardly, adding an extra challenge to an already difficult drive.  There are also often goats or cattle alongside the road — the cattle are usually accompanied by children or young men, the goats are often unattended and maybe a wee bit suicidal, or at least not phased by traffic at all.  However, if you hit someone’s livestock, be prepared to pay up.

The speed limit is generally 80-90 kph (50-55 mph) on the roads outside urban/market areas and 50 kph (30 mph) within.  Yet, in my experience, you either get those who drive a maddening 20 kph below or a scary 20-30 kph above.  It’s the excessive speeds which are particularly worrying —  according to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of vehicle accident fatalities per 100,000 people in the world, and Malawi ranks as one of the higher among southern African countries.

A. Road Blocks

License and registration, please

To force people to at least occasionally slow down, the police set up roadblocks.  The Malawi police are basically a static force; they are hampered by their shoestring budget and a limited number of vehicles.  Thus they are not hiding around bends or behind trees in their police cars or motorcycles ready for the hot pursuit of lawbreakers.  Instead, they set up roadblocks, some quite rudimentary, to at least temporarily halt travel and conduct vehicle inspections.  My diplomatic-plated car is rarely stopped, and on the very few occasions it’s happened, I have been waved through quickly.  Not that I am doing anything wrong mind you.  I drive the speed limit, my tires are in good shape, I have a license and insurance, and I carry the required-by-law equipment.  I have a feeling I might be in the minority.

A. Safety First

Safety First!

On any given day you will likely encounter some creative interpretation of traffic regulations.  There are no official taxis and buses are few and far between (largely cross border routes); the primary means of travel for the commuter is on foot, bicycle (including bicycle taxis), or the ubiquitous mini-buses, which can be used for intracity or intercity transportation.  These small vans are notorious for being overcrowded with people and packages, in poor condition, often with inadequate tires or brakes, and often driven at excessive speeds.  Besides the mini-buses, Malawians come up with some resourceful methods to transport goods and people via the roads.  If I weren’t so concerned about how their ingenuity impacts my ability to safely get from Point A to Point B, I would be pretty impressed.  But I have also read enough articles about, and even come across, what happens when vehicles drive too fast on Malawian roads.

A. Accidents

Uh-oh!

I remember something a friend once said about driving here — how much it takes out of you because you cannot ever really relax.  This is not the place where you can put the car on cruise control and zone out.  One has to keep on one’s toes, as you never know what will be around the next bend.  Maybe there is a disabled vehicle, cordoned off not with the required-by-law warning triangles but leafy branches.  Or a police checkpoint.  Or perhaps there might be a bunch of uniform-clad school children lollygagging on the road’s edge.  Or a bunch of goats.  You might come across someone selling dried fish or gunny sacks of illegal charcoal.  Or perhaps someone selling roasted field mice on a stick — a popular delicacy during the dry cool season.  Or you might run across masked young men or boys dressed in makeshift costumes of torn clothes, strips of fabric, burlap sacks, and straw, heading to a performance.  These are the Gule Wamkulu, or ritual spiritual dancers of the Chewa tribe, the dance inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Or maybe you come around a curve to face a stunning vista.  Driving in Malawi is not for the faint-hearted, but it sure does keep things interesting.

A. Road Side

Furry fried field mice anyone?  Or maybe hang with Gule Wamkulu spirits?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zim & the Lake Part Two

The second half of our Fall Break trip which began in Zimbabwe and ended at Lake Malawi.

This part did not begin as expected.  I debated how to write about it or whether to write about it at all.  But I did not see how I could omit what occurred and still accurately portray our lives here and our, or at least my, state of mind as we headed out from Lilongwe to the upper-central area of Lake Malawi.  As much as we enjoy Malawi, there are, of course, times when life here is not easy; when cultural differences lead to misunderstandings and/or confusing circumstances.  To pretend otherwise gives false impressions.

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Kachere Kastle

The summer before I arrived in Malawi I spent approximately three months in Washington, D.C. in training to prepare for my position.  During one of the course sessions, the presenter turned out to have once served in the same job, sort of like my great-great-great-great-great incumbent.  I caught him after his presentation and we had a few minutes to talk.  Like me, he and his family had moved to Malawi from China and appreciated the cleaner air, the large yard, and the smaller population.  But, he warned me, the only part they disliked was dealing with the household staff.  It was not the work ethic, but the potential for bickering and competition between staff members.

Fast forward and C and I are arriving back from Zimbabwe.  Before leaving Malawi, I had arranged with our nanny to pick us up at the airport.  But when we walked out of arrivals there was no one there for us.  And 30 minutes later there was still no one.

I do not completely understand what happened but basically, my nanny attempted to leave the compound to pick us up, but one of the residential guards refused to let her leave.  There may have been threats, yelling, stones thrown, and others called in to resolve their spat.  It turned into a “he said, she said,” explanation, with lots of finger-pointing and claims that God as their witness knew he/she was the one telling the truth.  But the end result for C and I is we were left at the airport for 2 1/2 hours later than expected and a good bit of my positive vacation feels from Zimbabwe had dissipated.

I wish I could say I got over it quickly, but that would not be true.  I debated about canceling the rest of our trip, but I knew that would not improve my mood.  We had reservations on the lake and I hoped a good long drive might do me good.

We woke up early-ish and I finished packing up the car so we could get on the road by 8:30 AM.  The unexpected situation of the day before was still very much on my mind, yet it helped the first, familiar 90-minute drive east on the M14 from Lilongwe to Salima town fly by.  There we took our usual Salima break at the nice gas station, loaded up on snacks, and then cranked up the CD player in the car (yes, the CD player — this is what you are forced to do when you drive a 2006 vehicle with a broken radio).

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A room with a view – Malawi, yet it does not look like Malawi

All in all, it took five hours to arrive at our destination, Kachere Kastle, the unexpected hotel built in the style of a Moorish castle sitting on an expansive flat sandy beach in a quiet cove on the upper third of the incredible Lake Malawi.  I recall reading it took the owners about eight years to bring their dream to reality.

I had booked the upper tower room for C and I – a top floor room in the front turret.  I wanted the best room — a view toward the beach.  But the room also included a sitting room, a balcony, and a staircase to the roof, where we could have slept out under the stars had we so desired (it was quite windy and unexpectedly chilly, so we did not).  I made sure to book this special room some months in advance and thus was surprised to learn C and I would be the only guests for the night.

scenes from a beach walk

Scenes from a beach walk

Almost immediately we changed and parked ourselves by the pool.  I blew up our giant pool tortoise for C, ordered lunch, then relaxed into a reclining chair poolside and took out a book.  I could feel some of the tension of the previous 24 hours sliding away.  And then our lunch arrived — and it was some of the best food I have had in Malawi.

Like Zimbabwe, northern Malawi appeared to be on a limited electricity shared plan.  We were told that the electricity would be off for about eight hours in the morning.  Good thing we had just come from Zim; we took it in stride.  The hours passed.  We ate.  We played in the pool.  I am not particularly good at relaxing.  I generally feel a strong pull to be doing something, anything.  Reading, writing, planning, walking, something.  I find it very hard to slow down, but I needed to.  Therefore a long, slow stroll at sunset was in order.  There were a few boats on the beach; I am not sure if they were there for purposes of actual use or placed there for atmospheric reasons, but we stopped at each one for some photos.

The beach was largely deserted — again, just for us.  We could see a few locals in the distance, and a few children approached us, some giggling, others quiet and curious, but for the most part we were left alone, and I was grateful.  C collected smooth stones she found on the beach, first in her hands, and then when they became too numerous, into the gathered folds of her skirt.  She drew pictures in the sand for me to guess what they were.  I snapped her photo atop a large boulder on the beach; rather similar to the boulders we found strewn across the Zim countryside, but in Malawi are often found along the lake.  A few small, naked children, appeared near the rock.  They yelled at us–I think it was meant to be friendly, but came across as taunting, amusement at our expense–so we turned back.  A dugout canoe silently glided through the reeds on an inlet cut off from the Lake by only 25 meters or so.

Back at the hotel we ordered our dinner for room service.  Once again the kitchen surpassed my expectations.  I wished Kachere were closer to Lilongwe.

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Sunrise

The next morning I woke early to my alarm; I wanted to watch the sun rise over the Lake.  I went up to our private rooftop to watch the sky lighten on the water’s horizon.  The only sounds were the lapping of the waves, birdsong, and a breeze lightly caressing the leaves of a nearby large mango tree.  To my left, just past the hotel property, I could make out small fires on the beach and the stirrings of the village.  Fishermen were already out on the water.  After the sun had poked through the clouds on the water’s far edge, I went down to our balcony to close my eyes and meditate.  Then I crawled back into bed for another hour.

As our next destination was only 10 minutes down the road, we stayed at Kachere as long as we could, enjoying the novelty of a pool to ourselves.  We then packed up the car and head to Kande Horse, another property that had long been on my Malawi bucket list.  C loves horses but there are few stables where the casual guest can ride.  One is on the Zomba plateau and the other at Kande Horse.

We were quickly settled into our room, had some lunch, and then prepared for our included one hour afternoon ride to the lake shore.  I appreciated the incredible welcome afforded us by the Kande Horse management and staff, and the care taken in selecting our horses.  C and I are casual riders, who though we try to get a horse ride in on about every other holiday, still have little real horse experience.  C was pleased to have her own good sized pony, and no one to lead her.  As luck would have it, it turned out to be more than an hour’s ride.  Let’s not kid ourselves here, we sit on horseback and they walk, we are not trotting or cantering, but I guess its still riding, right?  Our route, through villages, forest and brush to the beach was both pleasant and calming, with just enough cheeky misbehaving by the horses, to make us laugh.

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C riding along the lake shore

However, once at the beach we had to wait for the other riders, who had taken a longer ride, to arrive and frolic in the waves.  The beach was crowded, mostly with children.  A community project was underway.  If I understood correctly, a donor had provided money for bricks to build a classroom at the school; the community needed only to provide the cement and the labor, and thus they were collecting sand from the beach.  However, they were nearly done for the day when two mzungu rode up on horses, dismounted, then sat waiting.  A perfect time to surround them and pepper them with questions.

After a rather uncomfortable 20 minutes, the other riders showed up and we headed back to Kande Horse.  Again, there was little to do but relax around the room, our balcony, or the grounds until it was time for dinner at 7 PM.  Again, no Wi-Fi, no electricity until evening, so we kept things low key.  I was a little worried about dinner as I had learned on arrival that all of the meals are solely vegetarian.  But honestly, it turned out to one of the best dinners I have had in Malawi.  The veggie burger and fries were really delicious (I wish I had the recipe), and the camaraderie around the table warm and easy.

Initially we had planned for a second night at Kande; however, C was ready to go home.  To be honest, I was too, but I would have stayed if C wanted to.  But after dinner she asked if we might go home early.  I was incredibly grateful for the management at Kande for their understanding.  Therefore after breakfast on Saturday we packed up the car and made the five hour drive back to Lilongwe.  It was a long drive, but somewhat comforting just being behind the wheel.  The days at the Lake had restored at least some of my equilibrium.

 

Zim & the Lake Part One

4Following our glorious four week Home Leave full of fun, American comfort food, and functioning traffic patterns, coming back to Malawi was a bit of a shock.   On top of missing our friends and family, lamenting the loss of string cheese purchases at the Super Target, and just an overall in-our-faces realization of the drastic differences between life in the U.S. versus that in Malawi, the summer transfer season was upon us.  Its always an “interesting” time at Embassies across the world as seasoned officers transfer out, new ones transfer in, gaps form and those left cover two or more other positions, and Washington realizes that it is getting close to the end of the fiscal year (ends Sept 30) and thus decide they want to use the money to travel to you — just when staffing is at its most precarious.  In Malawi, the political situation too had been less than stable since the election, and an umbrella group for governance civil society organizations and activists had been holding demonstrations on average once a week.  Some were canceled by the group itself, other times they were forced to postpone due to government court action, but every time we had to prepare nonetheless.  And even when not transferring, others are on vacation, and C missed her Malawi friends and struggled in the weeks leading up to school.  At last C  started upper primary school and there was the usual flurry of preparations for a new school year.  Whew.  Within a week or two of our return, I already found myself fantasizing about the next vacation.

About a year ago my good friend JK1 had moved to Zimbabwe to take up a position at the U.S. Embassy.  C and I had previously visited her and her family in Chiang Mai, and we were excited to have them relatively close to us again.  Soon after they arrived in southern Africa, I began to plot our visit.  I also wanted another chance to see Harare given my only other trip unexpectedly coincided with the overthrow of the long-time president Robert Mugabe, and thus I had been largely confined to the hotel.  Given our different work schedules, JBK and her husband JK2 were unable to take any days off, so we would have to make do with a three day weekend with them and Little JK.

Fall break arrived and our trip to Zim at last!  What a breath of fresh air to fly only one hour, direct, and just be at our destination.  JK2 picked us up at the airport and within 30 minutes we were at the beautiful JK homestead.  About an hour later we were at a Harry Potter-themed birthday party.  It was likely the birthday party of the year and Little JK was not about to miss it.  It was a wee bit awkward for C and myself as we did not know anyone other than who we came with (and I happened to know the hostess as well, but she was very busy hosting) but hey we are diplomats, so we made do.  That night the JKs took us out to dinner at the fabulous Queen of Hearts, which is on the order of an upscale food court, with Italian, American, and Japanese food on hand.

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C and the Tower at Great Zim – Nothing like this in Malawi

By now I was already busy comparing Zim with Malawi.  The two countries are geographically close, have similar climates, flora and fauna, a shared history (both British protectorates and part of the short-lived Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and similar culture.  Both countries struggle with governance and their economies.  But there is something very, very tricky about playing the comparison game, especially as a short-term tourist.  Though I noticed both countries had the purple-blossomed jacaranda trees in bloom and both were struggling with power cuts of some kind, the nagging deja vu feeling was less a mirror of Malawi as it is now, but as it might have been or could still be; a same-same, but different.   Malawi does not have the long lines at the petrol stations (except during the recent two-day trucker strike that blocked the delivery of oil and gas) and the power cuts seem more a function of mismanagement than a deliberate policy, and yet the existing structures of Zimbabwe – the airport, the roads, the Embassy housing, even the range of restaurants – all seemed more modern than in Malawi.  Zim seemed both better, and worse.

Early on our second day, we loaded up the JK’s larger vehicle, with suitcases, snacks and several jerry cans of extra fuel, and we made the 4 1/2 hour drive south to Masvingo, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Zimbabwe.  I could not help but find the long drive similar to ones we have encountered in Malawi – distances between villages with little else in-between but scrub brush, static police roadblocks, and seemingly random road works.  We were all grateful to pile out of the car at the far end, in a gravel lot in front of the canopied tourist entrance to start a tour of the ruined edifices of a former ancient Shona kingdom.

Great Zimbabwe is actually the largest of approximately 200 similar sites across a part of southern Africa, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Zimbabwe means “stone houses” in the Shona language).  The earliest known mention of the once-great gold trading city was in 1531, by a Portuguese garrison captain based in what is modern-day Mozambique.  At a certain time in history, colonialists and white settlers ascribed to the view that the ruins were of Semitic or Arab origin, i.e. could not have been built by Africans.  It is perhaps of little wonder that nationalists selected the name Zimbabwe for their independent nation.

Lodge at the Ancient City bungalow

Our fabulous rondavel at the Lodge at the Ancient City – outside and in

With our knowledgeable guide we enjoyed our several hour-tour of the ruins through the Great Enclosure, with its five-meter high walls of interlocking stones, fashioned without mortar, the mysterious conical tower, and naturally air-conditioned passageway designed for the king to secretly visit his highest of queens, and then into the Valley Complex, where the lesser of the elites, king’s concubines, and such would have lived.  These structures were in a far more ruined state, piles of grey stones in places, in others palm trees growing through the middle of walls, with baboons, monkeys, and the occasional cattle frolicking among them.  Then we headed to the museum.  And finally, we herded our bedraggled, and yet oddly energized selves (there was something really special about Great Zimbabwe and our tour), back to the car and continued on to our lodging for the evening.

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Inside the Lodge’s main building

Although we all found the food options to be somewhat lacking, the ambiance of the Lodge was fantastic.  They had designed the main building in the style of Grand Zimbabwe, perhaps at its grandest or at least an imagined magnificence.  The simplicity of the outside of our rondavel, a traditional round African-style dwelling, belied the roomy and attractive inside.  C and Little JK parked themselves in our room for a bit to play, but with our long drive and then the two-hour walking tour at the site had us all yawning early on.

JK1 and I woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – and made our way back to the Great Zimbabwe site for its 6 AM opening sans JK2 and the kids, with plans to employ another guide to lead us up the Hill Complex.   The sky was already light, blue and clear; the sun bright but the air crisp.  It was a good time to do a little bit of climbing.  Unfortunately, although the stated hours indicated a 6 AM opening and the gate was open, there were no guides yet on site.  And thus we waited.  Monkeys snuck past the ticket building and scampered across the field toward the Hill Complex as small groups of children began to stream out on their way to school.  And grey clouds began to roll in over the Great Zimbabwe complex, the wind began to pick up, and JK1 and I began to regret not having a light jacket.  Although October is the warmest month for both Zimbabwe and Malawi, we were not feeling the heat.

Close to 7 AM the guide arrived and we set off.  It turned out one does not really need a guide to climb up to the Hill Complex, as the trail is well marked; however, once at the top, we would have had no idea of what we were looking at without our guide Loveness.  According to our guide, the Hill Complex was the abode of the king from which he could look over the Great Enclosure, where his number one queen resided, all of his approximate 18,000 subjects, and the entirety of the Mutirikwi valley.

Hill Complex

The view from the Seat of Power; JK1 and I on top

As we wound our way up increasingly narrow steps framed with stone walls, which then suddenly terminated at the citadel, I was reminded of the rock fortress at Sirignya in Sri Lanka.  Standing below the hill nothing can prepare you for the size and intricacy of the fortress atop.  In Zimbabwe, there are large igneous boulders strewn across the landscape, some balancing precariously on top of others.  At Great Zimbabwe, such boulders are stacked atop the Hill Complex and were cleverly integrated into the compound.  Although I had hoped for blue skies at the summit, the swift-moving grey clouds evoked a sense of history and atmosphere that clearer skies would not have.  And at a very few intervals, the clouds granted us cobalt blue.

Our tour at the top took approximately an hour; our guide knowledgeable and thorough.  We literally left no stone unturned, historically speaking that is.  JK1 and I even had the guts to climb to the top of a balancing rock above a natural auditorium, where supposedly the ruler would sit looking down upon his court, rather a la Lion King and Pride Rock.  Getting to what I guess could be termed the Seat of Power was deceptively easy, but once on top, neither JK1 or I wanted to get too close to the edge.  The spot afforded incredible views across the valley but the stronger winds and, frankly, the edge and space beyond left my knees a wee bit shaky.  (I am not afraid of heights, only afraid of falling from them!)  We returned to the parking area via the easier pathway and then headed back to rouse the troops, pack up, and begin our long drive back to Harare.

Once back in Harare, JK1 needed to do some work, so their wonderful nanny took C and Little JK for a playdate next door, while JK2 took me for a short spin around the neighborhood.  That night we headed out to a Thai restaurant for dinner.  Let me repeat that, a Thai restaurant.  And it was authentic and delicious.  It was so good I almost wanted to cry; we definitely do not have any Thai food in Malawi.

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A little piece of heaven – Imire Lodge

On Tuesday morning we said farewell to the JKs.  I had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Harare and take us the 90 minutes southeast to the Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation Lodge.  C and I have been on a few safaris but C had not yet had the chance to see rhino; I wanted to change that.

We arrived before the 9:30 AM game drive, just in time to partake in a mid-morning tea before departure.  We were divided into two jeeps for the day-trippers and the overnighters and headed out into the conservation area.

The upside of a place like this over going to a National Park is the guarantee to see certain animals.  At Imire we would see four of the Big Five–elephants, buffalo, rhino, and one lonely, old male lion.  The animals were somewhat conditioned to associate the safari vehicle with snack time, giving us up and close personal time with all but the lion (he killed his partner about a decade before and he resides by himself in a large enclosure).

We drove for about 2 1/2 hours and then had a lunch set up in the bush near a reservoir, with benches and tables carved out of rock facing the water.  Then another 45 minutes after lunch before heading back to the lodge for afternoon tea and relaxing in the beautiful surroundings.  A cheeky monkey grabbed cookies from the spread and headed up as high as he could go into the tallest nearby tree.  While normally we might have both got on our devices, the lodge had no power during the day, with the management only switching on the generator at 5 PM.   So we had to find non-electricity related activities.  There was a pool but the winds were cool and picking up, so we just enjoyed some relaxing time.  I sat outside the rondavel, reading and writing in my journal.  C made friends with one of the resident dogs (she really would like me to get her a dog) and ran around the lawn and climbed trees.   Then in the late afternoon, we went out again for a sunset game drive and sundowner.

Imire animal montage

We were served a delicious four-course meal in the dining tent that evening.  The wind had picked up more, whipping through the tent flaps.  I had a hard time believing it was October and wished we had packed sweatshirts or light jackets.  With our drive out to the lodge that morning and two bumpy safari drives (in Malawi we call these bouncing around on bad roads the “Malawi massage”), so we had no problem turning in early.

The next day, after a lovely breakfast, a driver transported us from Imire to the airport for our return flight to Malawi.  And the second part of our Fall Break.

Faces of Malawi: LGBTI Refugees

Here in Malawi, I have at times tried to highlight everyday people in this country, one of the world’s poorest and arguably least known, to demonstrate both the diversity and the commonalities.  This year I have had the opportunity to meet a group of LGBTI refugees who, when faced with harassment and/or assault at the Dzaleka refugee camp, were placed in a safehouse, and sought the chance to speak to an American regarding their experiences.  Over the past half year, I have been able to meet with all of them, to get to know them a little and listen to the stories that brought them here.  

I thought meeting them again, interviewing them and taking their photos, would result in a fairly straightforward blogpost, but it has turned out much harder than I expected. Their stories, told in the dispassionate manner of people who have been through a lot — the fear of being caught, of something happening to them or their partner; of being turned in by family members, run out of town or followed by police or arrested, and having to flee their country, of having to use sexual favors as payment for rides to get from one place to another–were a lot to take in.  I have struggled with the line between my compassion and desire to shed a light on people and issues versus my self-interest and privilege. 

All I could think about as I began this post was one of those web-based privilege tests:  I was born in America.  I am white.  I am heterosexual.  I have never had to lie about my sexuality.  I never doubted my parents’ acceptance of my sexuality.  I feel comfortable in the gender I was born in.  I graduated high school.  I graduated college.  I work in a salaried job.  I have never been homeless.  I have never been a refugee…. I cannot begin to know what it is to be a LGBTI sub-Saharan African, ostracized by family, and living as a refugee far from home, in a country where I cannot work, where my movements are limited. 

They fled poor circumstances for an even poorer country, a country where the status of LGBTI persons is no better.  In 2016, Afrobarometer, a non-partisan, pan-African research institution that conducts public attitude surveys, released a report that found Malawians are among the most tolerant people in Africa.  Malawians are very tolerant of different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, immigrants and foreign workers, and even have little issue with those living with HIV and AIDS.  Malawi is also a host country for refugees, and is making gradual shifts to switch from an encampment policy to one of settlement and integration.  However, when it comes to LGBTI persons, Malawians, in general, are not at all accepting, rating lower that most other African countries.  And it is in this context these LGBTI refugees arrived — not only outsiders as refugees, but outsiders among the outsiders.

(Note: each refugee provided me with an alias; the youngest of the refugees, “Bandina” and “Happy” had the most fun choosing their aliases and were overall the most optimistic of the group; also note: my first meeting with two of these individuals was as a function of my work, but my continued association has been for personal reasons)

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“Dan”

Dan, 30, is from Kampala, Uganda.  Several years ago he was in his fourth year studying science and information technology at university, with plans to work on designing protection networks for businesses, when his sister’s boyfriend told his mother about his relationship with his partner; his mother turned him into police.  Forced to flee he left Uganda, he headed to Kakuma Refugee Camp in the northwest corner of Kenya, where he spent two years before he was again forced to leave.  He remembers having a happy childhood, a time when his mother loved him.  Should he be able to settle in Malawi or resettle elsewhere, he would like to finish school.  He would like to write a biography, help other LGBTI refugees, and start or be part of a campaign to change the narrative on LGBTI persons in Africa.

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“Marvin”

Marvin, 31, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and started at a technical institute studying computer science, but had to drop out due to financial issues paying the tuition.  In 2016, he went to Dubai to work as a computer technician, where he spent two years.  Upon his return to Uganda, he felt targeted.  He is not sure who might have put the police on to him, but his work abroad seemed to be part of it.  He was taken in for interrogation, accused of bringing LGBTI ideas into the country.  He spent three days in a police “safehouse” with only water.  During his time in custody, his car was burned and his home vandalized; his family disowned him.  He was assigned a human rights laywer to defend him in court, but that lawyer gave him the stark reality of LGBTI cases in court.  Marvin decided it was time to leave, as he said “being LGBTI in Uganda is like having a curse.”  He traveled freely to Tanzania, and then through to Malawi.  Should he have the opportunity he wants to be an entrepreneur; nothing in particular, he just wants to get a job and be happy.

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“Sasha”

Sasha, 28, is from Kenya.  She does not know her parents; she grew up in a home for girls in Mombasa.  There were about 100 girls there.  She finished her BA in education and started her MA in gender development, but although she sat for her exams, she was unable to receive diploma.  She moved to Nairobi and taught geography and Kiswahili in a high school, before her LGBTI status was discovered, and she was chased out.  She tried to return to Mombasa where she also found she was no longer welcome.  Although Sasha shared some of her journey to Malawi with me, I suspect more happened to her in Kenya than she would let on; she told me she can never return there.  She used to enjoy swimming, both in pools and in the sea, and was captain of her softball team at University, and wishes she had equipment here to play.  She is passionate about working to help other LGBTI in Africa, but she also would just like to open her own shop, selling clothing, perfume, and take away beer.

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“Patrick”

Patrick, 29, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and used to work as a carpenter, specializing in furniture renovation.  About two years ago he attended his boyfriend’s birthday party, on New Year’s Eve.  His boyfriend’s “auntie” caught them kissing and turned him into police.  Two days later, after his family disowned him, he left Uganda.  He first went to Kenya, where he met Dan, and the two of them worked in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, until again being forced to move on.  Should he be resettled in another country, he would like to join his new nation’s military.  He would like to prove to his parents and his community that he could be someone and help others.

5

“James”

James, 35, is also from Kampala.  He finished high school and worked first as a bookkeeper at a supermarket and then opened his own unisex boutique clothing store.  He comes from a large family; he has 12 siblings.  He had an American partner, but when they were arrested his partner could flee back to the States, but James could not.  After suffering persecution (he did not elaborate), and most of his family had turned their backs on him (one brother stays in touch off and on) he fled Uganda, coming straight to Malawi.  When in high school he thought he might like to continue his studies to become a lawyer, but he could not afford the tuition.  If given the chance, he would like to go to law school to become a human rights lawyer.

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“Bandina”

Bandina, 21, is from the Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there has been an ongoing conflict since 2004.  Her English is not strong, so the other refugees translated her Kiswahili to me.  One told me although many refer to Bandina as transgender, she told me she is intersex, but still seeking to find out just who she is.  Bandina is effervescent; she is lively, full of energy.  Even the time I took her to the clinic when she had malaria, she exuded positive energy.  She finished only primary school as money issues always held her back.  She left the DRC in 2017, traveling by truck for twelve days through Burundi and Tanzania, to reach Malawi.  She wants to help other LGBTI, but really her dream is the same as it was when she was a child–she wants to run a restaurant or a fashion salon as she says her two favorite things are fashion and eating.

4

“Happy”

Happy, 23, is from a small town in west-central Uganda.  His mother left the family when he was two years old, so he grew up with just his father and elder brother.  He attended a boarding high school, but it was here, at 17, he was caught by the headmaster with his boyfriend.  They were taken to the office, beaten, and expelled.  His boyfriend’s father had senior police connections; the police went to his father’s home, destroyed the house, and forced his father to sell the land.  Happy did not go home and to this day he does not know what happened to his family.  He fled Uganda, traveling first to Nairobi, but after four months there and suffering additional harassment and physical attacks, he headed to Malawi.  Happy just would like to continue his studies and become a plumber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malawi: Two Mini Vacations

As much as I enjoy living in Lilongwe for the personal and professional life it affords my daughter and I, there are times when it wears me down.  Times when the grinding poverty weighs heavily, when the stories of those who are trying to claw their way out yet are foiled again and again, just gnaws at the heart.  When a simple drive to the supermarket exposes all my deepest seated frustrations – the begging boys who tried to block my car to get cash (nope!), the car that signaled a turn and then just stopped in the road not turning (get out of the way!), through the traffic lights that haven’t functioned for weeks (is it 4 weeks or 8?  It’s hard to recall how long we have all been inconvenienced, playing chicken at that intersection), the guys selling kittens and puppies along the side of the road (sad and illegal!), and a parking lot full of ridiculously poor attempts at driving and parking (%&#*&#!).  And the mosquitoes are making a comeback as the weather warms.  One might think each morning and evening I am applauding an encore performance for all the clap, clap, clapping I do trying to kill them in my room…

Whew.  OK.  It may be clear at this point that I just might be in a wee bit of a funk, hanging out at the low point on the culture shock graph.  It’s not that it’s Malawi, not really.  We all feel like this at times.  The fed-up-ness with the routine; the craving for something to break through whatever morass we find ourselves in.  The tremendous desire to just get away, to have a change of scenery.  That can happen anywhere.  Or at least I keep telling myself this…  No, its true, I know it.  I think back to the loooooooong, busy summer of 2016 when we lived in Shanghai, a city with many, many things to do.  I also needed to arrange a few mini vacays then to keep my sanity.  Knowing how busy this summer would be (though not really knowing how crazy it would be until in it), I planned for similar getaways to help preserve my mental equilibrium.

Kumbali

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View from the upper floor of the main lodge

Located just 13 kilometers from the center of Lilongwe, and about 9 kilometers from my home, sits the 650 hectare working farm with a beautifully appointed lodge at its center.  This is the place where Madonna stays when she comes to Malawi.  C and I had visited Kumbali before for lunch, but this time we would stay overnight.

I booked for the Friday before Labor Day.  C’s school is international, but not American, so she does not get the U.S. holidays off.  I did not want her to miss a day of school, nor did I want to miss out on my holiday.  With our half day Fridays, we could still have lunch at home and be at Kumbali in early afternoon.  And it did not take long for us to pack up the car and head out — a few quick turns to Presidential Way, following it nearly up to the gilded, guarded gates of State House, the residence of the President of Malawi, where a sharp turn to the left has us skirting the high State House walls on one side and a few fancy homes on the other, but which quickly give way to a modest village as the paved road gives out.  We bump along a slim dusty, dirt road another 10 minutes til we reach the Kumbali estate, and five minutes more the road peters out in front of the lodge.

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Our favorite cow is the one hiding in the back

We quickly settled in to our room, a simply appointed space with its quintessential white linens, with four posters draped with white mosquito nets, but with a soaring 25 foot high ceiling exposing the beautiful wooden and bamboo rafters. I took some minutes to drink it in before hurrying C so we could take part in an activity we had been looking forward to: milking cows.

Kumbali is a working dairy farm, and although their herd is small, they make enough milk to use in preparing their own milk, yogurts, and feta cheeses. I had only once milked a cow in my life, as a child visiting a community fair in the historic town of Leesburg, VA. I must have been 8 or 10 year since old when I sat on the metal pail, guided by a fair volunteer dressed in 18th century garb, in my attempt to free milk from what appeared a very full udder. But my ministrations were in vain and I have always remembered it as extremely difficult work. So of course I wanted to inflict this particular joy upon my daughter!

C was initially game to give it a try but as she watched the cows file into the milking area, she had a change of heart. Perhaps seeing the size of the cows in front of her, she had some serious second thoughts, so she pushed me forward exclaiming, “mom, you go first.” Remembering my own frustrating experience many, many moons ago, I wanted her to go first.  With a bit of wheedling she agreed.  And wouldn’t you know it but she managed it with ease!  I also gave it a go and made it happen with little effort.  Well, how about that.

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C and Bwenzi survey the Kumbali livestock

We also took a tour of the farm, joined by the Kumbali dog Bwenzi, which means “friend” in Chichewa.  A mix of Rhodesian ridgeback and local dogs, Bwenzi seemed the perfect companion, and happy to act as C’s temporary dog.  As C begs me every few months for a dog, this worked out well.

After surveying the cattle, goats, and sheep, we headed back to the room for a rest.  Work had been busy for weeks and I had had allergies and a cough for about the same time; I was exhausted.  I just needed to stay awake through dinner.  C happily drew in her sketchbook and I read on our patio.  We arranged an early dinner at 6:30 and we just barely made it.  The food was delicious -a custom made menu to suit us made with fresh incredients from their farm.  Right after dinner we went to bed.  Its a good thing that the African Bat Conservancy, with offices on the farm, was unavailable to give us a bat tour that night; we could not have stayed up.

IMG_3197The following morning after breakfast we took part in a one hour farm tour, just our guide, C, and I in a dilapitated, push start, bare bones truck used just for tooling around the farm.  There is a picture of Madonna with four of her children posing in this vehicle, published in People magazine.  We didn’t tap our inner Madonnas though, C and I are plenty adventurous ourselves.  Still, it was kinda cool to be in the same vehicle.

We were taken from the lodge, past the animal pens and staff quarters, to the banana plantation.  Bwenzi the dog ran behind and alongside the truck.  We passed row upon row of banana plants, from those heavy with fruit to the small shoots just getting going.  We headed down to the edge of the property, which borders the Lilongwe River.  In two years in the capital, I had seen little of the river that gave the city its name.  Those parts we had passed over seemed mere trickles of what surely had been at least a somewhat substantial waterway.  But here at the edge of Kumbali the water was full, it flowed, it glistened in the sun.  It was beautiful.  We walked along the bank for awhile as our guide pointed out areas where locals forged the the stream or used well placed rocks to cross.

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C and Bwenzi survey the far bank of the Lilongwe River

C convinced me to move from the front seat of the truck to the bed — this certainly upped the adventure factor as we bounced back along the dirt lanes of Kumbali, back past the banana plants, to the permaculture center, where sustainable farming methods are taught to Malawian farmers.   Then we jumped back into the truck, headed past the horse pens, and arrived back at the lodge.  Our short, less than 24 hour getaway, had come to an end, but it was worth it for a different look at Lilongwe.

Ntchisi Forest Lodge

Soon after getting C’s school schedule, I noticed a random Friday off in September.  With our half day Fridays, I could take 5 hours off and have the whole day, so I booked a night at the Ntchisi Forest Lodge, located about two hours north of Lilongwe.  We also invited friends to join us on this adventure.

Ntchisi 2The lodge is a refurbished historic colonial building, once cool, higher altitude leisure residence of a British district commissioner, then a resthouse of the Forestry Department.  Dating from 1914, its actually one of the oldest buildings in Malawi.   It is located within the Ntchisi Forest Reserve, one of the few remaining indigenous rainforests.  Its been on my Malawi bucket list and sounded like a great one night getaway.

On Friday morning, C and I packed up our car and headed over to collect our friends AS and her two daughters, one of whom is one of C’s bestest friends, then we hit the road.

From the outset my GPS would not pick up the route.  But we had a handwritten map and figured we could figure it out.  It was easy enough to begin the drive north on the M1, the main artery through Malawi from Tanzania in the north to Mozambique in the south.  We found the turn to the right easily enough after 55 kilometers as it was the only main road heading east since the road to Salima.  Then we had to make a right after a hospital.  OK, got it.  Then a right at a t-junction.  Good to go.  We then had to make a slight left after a radio transmitter and we almost mucked that up, but we made a quick corse correction.  Then things got interesting.

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Where are we?

We were to drive past a yellow house on the left and then veer to the right.  A yellow house among mostly brick ones should stand out, but the color was not as bright as expected and sort of blended into the scenery.  Still, there it was and we made the turn.  We were close.  The next step was to pass a school on the left and then make a sharp right hand turn then follow that for 4.2 kilometers more to the lodge.  Except, we missed it.  I saw a school, but there was no road to the right, and we drove on.  We were talking, and talking.  I just kept driving without paying attention to the time.  We drove over a cement bridge over a small river.  AS noted that something like a river would be on the map and it wasn’t….and we kept driving.  Finally, at one point I wondered aloud how long we had been driving past that school and we turned around.  I paid attention then and discovered we had driven 30 minutes past that school, and it was not even the right school.

By the time we found the right turn, with the help of a friendly local who luckily spoke English, I had begun to feel the strain of the adventure.  Our two hour drive had become four.  I was hungry.  The kids were tearing through the snacks and beginning to grow restless.  I had previously thought, if my aunt comes back to visit, maybe I would take her here, but now I said, aloud, I never wanted to drive here again.  Then we found the lodge, turned into the parking lot, and I ate my words.

Ntchisi 32It is set on a lovely open piece of land surrounded by the forest, on an escarpment with views across the East African rift valley.  The scenery is immediately relaxing.  We got ourselves settled into our respective rooms, C and I in the lodge, and AS and her family in the forest cabin.  Then C and I had fresh sandwiches for lunch.  As C quickly finished and ran off her friends (well her friend, she tolerates her friend’s sister), AS and I sat talking, looking out the window, breathing in the beauty.  There are plenty of hikes the lodge can arrange, but I wanted to do little but be away from Lilongwe.  The gardens of the lodge, full of flowers as well as herbs and vegetables used in their meals, were also full of butterflies.  I am a huge fan of nature photography and enjoyed just wandering the grounds in search of lovely things.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to Sunset Rock, a large granite promontory with views across the tree tops, oddly enough with Malawi headed into Spring the leaves turning autumnal colors.  DS, AS’s husband arrived, he had driven up after work, apparently without navigational issues, just in time to watch the sun sink into the clouds over the distant hills.  Perhaps one of the best sunsets I have had to pleasure to be present for in Malawi.

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We all enjoyed a homecooked meal prepared for by the lodge’s excellent staff, and chatted and laughed.  I am by far a lone traveler, or now just C and I, so it was novel to be spending this getaway with lovely new people we have met here.  C dumped me in favor of spending the night with her bestie, so I retired to a bedroom with three beds that would sleep four, alone.  Exhausted by the drive, the darkness, and even comfortable happiness, I fell asleep early, sleeping more than I had in weeks.

We woke the next morning just before a half seven breakfast.  I strolled the gardens some more with my camera, DS went for a run, the kids chased each other on the lawn, and AS had quiet meditation time in the forest cabin, before we all regrouped to take a very short hike to a very small waterfall.  Then we packed up the cars and prepared for the drive back.  Just before leaving, the wonderful managers and hosts of the lodge pointed out their resident chameleon, clinging photogenically on a red flower.  All of us took an extra 30 minutes to check him out and thank the staff for their hospitality before heading back to the capital.

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Leon the Chameleon

These little getaways have not been quite enough to completly chase away the strong emotions of nostalgia and displacement I have found sneaking up on me at unexpected times the past few weeks, but they did keep that at bay for a little bit.  These mini vacations may not have provided all I needed, but they gave me some.