Malawi Signs

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

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

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

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

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

Staples on sale

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

Society “Be Better” Signs

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

You have been warned!

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

Campaign billboards

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

Nothing to see here

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

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

The Face Mask: So Fashion Forward

Every so often I write about something a wee bit different. Not about my travels or life abroad. And this particular topic has been worming its way into my brain for a few weeks. First as a few throw away thoughts, jokes to friends and acquaintances, until it filled out, and surprisingly, or maybe predictably, turns out it is sort of about my living overseas.

The author contemplating the past and future of face masks

The Face mask: finally, an accessory I can embrace. I have, at times in my life, hoped I could carry off a particular accessory to accentuate my personality. Well, not really, but I read that on a rather silly website that this is something accessories do, in addition to defining an occasion or defining one’s style. I do have jewelry, mostly necklaces and pendants, including some very interesting and much loved pieces I picked up in my travels. And for a time I was quite into shoes. I wear spectacles, but that’s so I do not bump into things and, you know, be unable to do my job. My prescription makes them expensive and I am unwilling to buy more than one pair.

I have tried to hats — cute baseball caps, a floppy straw beach hat, comfy beanies — but my head must be oddly shaped because they never look quite right. There are also those really simple but colorful fabric headbands that seem to render certain women who exercise to also look effortlessly chic. In case you are wondering, no I am not one of those women. Those bands will not stay on my head, but instead steadily, stealthily slide across my crown until they slump listlessly to the ground. I also, briefly, tried to up my game with neck scarves. I have a few I purchased in Nepal and Southeast Asia, some I bought at a fancy shop at the mall in the building where the Consulate was housed in Shanghai, a really beautiful one brought back from Pakistan by a former boyfriend. Sigh. I tried, I really did. But those did not amplify my style either.

But face masks. Whew, its like I have finally found the accoutrement for me. They fit my face. And they cover up my slightly bulbous, fleshy nose, with its high bony bridge I wanted, in high school, to reshape, and they play up my blue gray eyes and my quite flattering forehead. Oh yes, I have found the accessory for me.

The thing is, I realized after some introspection, face masks are not a new thing for me. I have actually been sporting them for some time, or at least at different phases in my life. And, I thought, how about that? For once I might just have been fashion forward.

My mask from my Korea days

From September 1995 to October 1996, I lived in Seoul, South Korea, where I worked six days a week as an English teacher in one of those institutions of after school cram instruction, called a hagwon. Between teaching, working out at the gym, and studying Tae Kwon Do (and weirdly, all three locations resided in one single building in Il-won-dong, Kangnam-ku, yes, the district in Seoul made famous by the Gangnam Style song), I had little free time, but when I did I often went clubbing with my friends. And there, I was on the ground floor of K-pop, before it was really known as K-pop. I bought cassette tapes (yes, it was that long ago) of my favorite Korean bands, and the favorite of my favorites was just about everyone else’s favorite: Seo Taiji and the Boys. And on a Sunday, my only day off, in the fall of 1995, I bought myself a knock-off Boy London face mask from a street vendor in Itaewon. I could probably write a short novella at least of my time in Itaewon, just up from the Yongsan Garrison of the United States Forces Korea, where by day I could find American goodies snuck off base and sold in hole-in-the-wall stores and by night could dance away with my friends and soldiers. But the point is I bought that mask, which because I had no clue about the British Boy London clothing brand, thought it referred to Seo Taiji and the Boys, forever associating it with my first, brief love for a band that sang lyrics I could not understand. I loved that mask. And I still have it!! I fished it out of a box just yesterday as I searched for something else.

Generic — until I made it special with a sharpie

Fast forward seven plus years. Boy London has been in a box for a long time and the Seo Taiji and the Boys cassette long ago lost. Now, I am in Singapore for graduate school. I have roommates again and there might have been a wee bit of clubbing on occasion, though more often small parties usually hosted by Indian friends and roommates, with Bollywood-infused dancing. A little more than halfway through my year, the SARS pandemic made its Singapore debut. It would be dramatic to say things changed overnight, because they didn’t, but things did change. And lo and behold, the face mask came back into my life. Though this time it was, of course, not about wanting to keep half my face warm during a cold Korean winter or temporarily brand my visage in cottony pop culture fabric. This time, I had to wear the mask for public health purposes. And I had no special mask, just generic single-use ones. But I still found it, not fun, but, me?

Jump ahead to the fall of 2014 as C and I are preparing for our move to Shanghai. Now, I am told, I’ll need a mask again, this time for the poor air quality days of Chinese cities. Though this time I also get to inculcate my daughter into the wonderful world of face masks from a young and impressionable age. I go for the top-of-the-line N95 masks in fetching plain colors for me—including a wonderful pale grey/blue that really accentuates my eyes—and a snazzy oriental print for C. So enthralled am I with this purchase that I schedule a photo shoot for C and I with my photographer sister, to truly capture this momentous moment when I bequeath my fetish for fetching face fixtures to my offspring.

For the love of face masks

I discovered though that getting a 3-year-old to wear and keep on a face mask is no mean feat. The photo shoot had not quite instilled the fun factor I had hoped. I also wear glasses and in the winter months, when the pollution levels tended to be higher and the masks were more often needed, I had to choose between wearing the mask and seeing where I was going. My warm exhalations steaming from the mask’s ventilation valves would fog up my glasses and though Chinese cities had come a long way since my first days in the country in 1994, there was still a chance a manhole or drain cover might be left off and I would plunge to my death (or just injury and pride as what happened when I fell into such in Japan of all places), so I needed full vision to navigate the sidewalks. My affection for face masks might have slipped a bit then, just a bit.

And now, here we are in 2020, and everyone (well most everyone, I guess not the anti-maskers who just are not getting into the spirit of it all) is getting in on the face mask action. But C and I, we are old hats at this. In fact, I would like to note that in 2016 I wrote, on this very site, a blog post about the growing face mask fad in China. Seriously, I kid you not, you can go back and look, but here is my prophetic prose: “Is this what it has come to? My coveting anti-pollution masks as an accessory? As far as I know Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture are not yet into designing face masks, but is it only a matter of time?” And yes, I not only covet more face masks, but Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture and many more brands and designer houses are now in on the action (and huge kudos to Louis Vuitton for repurposing studios across Europe to produce and donate non-surgical protective masks to frontline healthcare workers).

Malawi during COVID: Sunshine and chic chitenje face coverings

C and I, like most people in the world, wear our masks much more often now and have traded in, or at least swap our, out heavier N95 Shanghai masks with the colorful, lightweight, and simpler masks made from the traditional Malawian chitenje fabric (much of which is actually made in Indonesia as the higher quality, more expensive fabric is known at the markets as Java). But unlike many others, C and I are not newbies to the face mask scene, and eased into our mask wear with greater ease than most. Alas, my face modeling days are mostly behind me, though maybe C has a bright future in this no-doubt growth industry.

I would be remiss if I did not also point out that my cat too was way ahead of the face mask for pets curve. While I see photos and articles on the trend in China nowadays, I would like to just post here again a photo I posted four years ago of my cat, Kucing (pronounced “Ku-ching;” it means “cat” in Bahasa Indonesian) temporarily sporting my daughter’s face mask, which she wore without resistance.

It is amazing to recognize that for once, I was on the forefront of a trend. Me, who still had an 8-track player in the eighth grade (when everyone else was on to cassette tapes) and still had a cassette player in 2006 (and someone at the gym mocked me for it). Finally, my time has come.