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.

 

Hunting and Gathering the Goods: Shopping in Lilongwe

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

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Old Chipiku

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

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

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

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

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Food Lovers definitely knows how to attract the fruit lovers*

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

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

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The Golden Peacock version of the sauce aisle

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

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

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Roadside fruit sellers

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

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

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Lilongwe Farmer’s Market

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

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

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

Intro to Lilongwe

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Not much to see here folks

Here I am, nearly a year living in Lilongwe and only now beginning to write an introduction to Malawi’s capital city.   Yet it is just recently that I began to truly transition from Lilongwe being just a place I have moved to for work to a place where I live.  I am not a local; I am not a long-time expatriate.  Nor am I a mere tourist.  But I only wander so far; I have my routines.  So this is my introduction to Lilongwe.

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The Bingu International Conference Center and the President Walmont hotel, both Chinese-built modern marvels in Lilongwe

Malawi’s capital city is not particularly large, its population hovers around a million, yet the city is spread out with few buildings taller than two stories.  The tallest building in the city, I think the whole country, is the twelve story President Walmont hotel, located in the City Center.  Well, that is somewhat a misnomer.  Lilongwe’s core is divided by the Lilongwe nature sanctuary/forest reserve.  One one side the older part of the city, where the old town is located, on the other, newer side you find City Center, Capital Hill, most Embassies, including that of the U.S., and areas where most expats live.  The city is literally divided into Areas — all with numbers, a few go by names.  But its a patchwork with Area 10, 11, and 12 adjacent to one another but also next to Area 43.  Area 40 sits next to Area 13, 16 and 19 (and make up much of City Center).  We live in Area 10 and my daughter’s school is in Area 3, but they are across town from one another, 20 minutes by car on a good traffic day, nearly an hour on a bad one.  Confused?  Often so am I.  Sometimes I do not know why I bother to ask someone where they live because if they say some place other than Area 10, 11, 12, or 43, I would be hard pressed to know where they are talking about.

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A jacaranda-lined road in Area 10

Staring out the window of the airplane as we descended into Kamuzu International Airport, I strained to see signs of the city that would become my new home.  I could make out only a few buildings scattered among faded green brush and burnt orange earth.  Soon afterwards as we bounced along the two lane tarmac to town I wondered aloud the whereabouts of the city.  Having already driven a good 20 minutes I had yet to see signs of a capital.   That day it never really materialized as we turned off the M1 into Area 12, then Area 10 to my new residence, located in the relatively leafy, well-to do zone.  Our homes, with high brick walls, often topped with a profusion of barbed wires, and guarded by dogs or security personnel or both, do not necessarily scream “foreigner,” as there are locals and local government buildings scattered throughout these residential locations, but they most certainly project privilege.  Yet even those first days and weeks driving from home to the Embassy or to Old Chipiku, one of the most expat-oriented supermarkets, Lilongwe seemed remarkably unoccupied, provincial.  Only after more time did I expand my driving radius, finding there are in fact crowded, congested parts of the city, yet they remain outside of my usual stomping grounds.

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The monument to Malawi’s first president, President for Life Hastings Kamuzu Banda.  Now you have seen it.  You’re welcome.

There are not many tourist sites in Lilongwe.  Normally when I arrive in a new place, I like to hit the ground running and do some sightseeing as soon as possible.  Certainly in Shanghai, my bucket list was long and I had no time to waste.  Here, I focused more on just getting myself and C settled as a read of my guidebook weeks before had already informed me the touring would take little time.  There is the Lilongwe Wildlife Center, which will give visitors a one hour tour of the facility, though there are not many animals there, especially after their two lions passed away.  They have one of the nicest playgrounds in the city and a pretty good restaurant/cafe.  Sometimes they have concerts and show movies under the stars.  I expect many people might be disappointed by a visit, especially if they have already joined a safari, which is unlikely if they have made the trek to Africa.  But the center is still very much worth a visit as they are a major player in animal conservation in the country.

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Visiting the King’s African Rifles monument

Guidebooks also list the Kamuzu Banda memorial, the WWI / King’s African Rifles monument, and for lack of much else to add, the Parliament building.  The mausoleum of the country’s first president is wedged between Umodzi Park, with the Chinese-built President Walmont hotel and Convention Center and the Chinese-built Parliament building.  I do not know anything on Banda’s thoughts on the Chinese other than the Chinese Embassy assisted some of his political rivals to flee to Tanzania, thus with that he might not enjoy his final resting place.  But it is a quiet and pleasant place to spend 15 to 20 minutes unless Parliament is in session as then the grounds swarm with ruling party supporters.  Banda’s statue also graces the plaza in front of the WWI / King’s African Rifles clock tower, located not far from the Parliament.  Here you have a good chance of someone with some keys letting you inside to climb maybe 300 stairs to near the top landing where one has to switch to a narrow metal ladder hanging over the terrifying gap all the way to the cement floor below.  Our “guide” pushed my then-5 year old daughter up to the final landing and it scared the beejeezus out of me.  I insisted he get her down and she stand flesh against the wall on the stairs.  My heart pounded as I climbed up myself.  The one dingy window on that landing is set too high up for my 5’5″ self to look out so I took pictures holding my camera high above my head and hoping for the best.

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The view from the top floor of the President Walmont Hotel

Our lives in Lilongwe are quiet.  Weekends are generally spent at home, puttering about our yard.  We head to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center to recycle, stop by Old Chipiku for groceries, maybe get a mani-pedi up the street or head to my boss’ house to use the pool.  As one of the Marine Security Guards told me just before his departure — “Lilongwe is a nice enough place to live but if you are between the ages of 17 and 30 it is on the boring side.  There isn’t anything to do.”  Good thing C and I fall outside that age range and thus for us Lilongwe is pretty okay.

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One of my favorite things about Lilongwe are the advertisements on the trees

Car & Driver Lilongwe Edition

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The entrance of the road where we live

One needs a car in Lilongwe.  Well, wait, let me back up a bit already.   A large percentage of Malawi’s approximately 1 million residents do not own a vehicle.  They get around on foot, by bicycle, keke, or mini bus.  But for the expat community a car is pretty much essential.  Due to safety/security issues we are generally either high discouraged or even barred from taking the mini buses and taxis, as you know them in large cities, are non-existent.  So, prior to our arrival I needed to go about acquiring a vehicle for  Malawi.

The Acquisition Saga

I had two options for buying my car: either purchase at post from a departing diplomat or buy from Japan and have it shipped to Malawi.  After some consultation with my predecessor and colleagues I opted for option B.  Information provided by the Embassy indicated I would need to start the process early as it could take as long as four months from beginning to end, so in late February of this year (2017) I contacted IBC Japan to begin my search for my dream Malawi car.

Why buy from Japan?  Well, in Malawi we need a right-hand drive vehicle as the country drives on the left, i.e. the opposite as the US.  Japan is a huge market of used right-hand drive vehicles.  I recall from when I lived in Japan that the Japanese have to pay a vehicle tax every two years that as one’s car depreciates can quickly become more expensive than people are willing to pay on an older car.  So, the Japanese have a tendency to unload their used vehicles once they are over six years old.  With an excellent local and long distance train network, Japan also does not really have a “road trip” culture, so personal cars also generally have low mileage.

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My ride.  Her name is Stella.

I decided on the type of car I wanted–a Toyota RAV4 (the ubiquitous Toyota brand means parts are more readily accessible, cheaper, and more mechanics are familiar with them (though I still bought FOUR spare tires, extra oil filters, and high quality oil to bring with me); a RAV4 for the road conditions)–and searched through the IBC Japan database for one within my price range.  I was connected with an agent.  By the end of March we had agreed on a car and a price.  So far, so good.

Payment was tricky.  I had the option to do a bank transfer or, if I wanted to pay by credit card, to pay through PayPal.  I opted for the latter.

I should not have been surprised to receive an email notification of “unusual activity” from PayPal immediately after submitting payment.  It was not so much surprise as a long, heavy, resigned sigh.  Because it is odd to have an American PayPal account with an American credit card, purchase a vehicle from Japan, to be shipped to Africa, while using the Internet in China but through a VPN saying my location is Canada.  That probably does not happen every day for good reasons.  But it can be the reality for Foreign Service Officers.  Luckily a quick call to PayPal, a few good chuckles over my situation, and a little hoop jumping to prove I was who I said I was and the payment went through.

Stella – my sweet silver 2006 Toyota RAV4 – began her journey from Kobe port in Japan to Durban in late April.  By late May she arrived in South Africa — I have little doubt happy to get off the boat.  I too was glad to hear of her arrival as the flurry of emails regarding her paperwork during my Home Leave was a little nerve-wracking.  The Japanese company had mailed all the documents but unfortunately, although they always do this in every other case, had failed to scan a copy to email to me.  The Embassy could not locate the original documents and thus would be unable to clear the vehicle through customs.  Eventually they were located (misplaced in the mail of another agency) and Stella rolled off the boat to freedom.  Well, to waiting until a truck could be filled to capacity and then driven to Malawi.

5 mini bus stop

A “station” for the ubiquitous mini bus.  It seems random, but I expect the stations are not–this is near the city market.  Mini buses are known for being overcrowded, in poor repair, and driven recklessly.  But they get most people from Point A to Point B.

I received occasional reports of her journey.  The truck has left the port.  The truck is at the Mozambican border.   The carrier is at the Mwanza Border under clearance to Blantyre, will then proceed to Lilongwe once offloaded in Blantyre. Your car has arrived in Lilongwe.  The last happened sometime in late June or early July.  There were further clearance and registration processes for the car before she could be released.  Just a week before my arrival I received notification that Stella was cleared but she had a flat tire, a dead battery, and an empty gas tank.  They would run diagnostics.  I nearly had a nervous breakdown — after all Stella and I had been through… I had visions of having to scrap her and buy yet another car.  I called Lilongwe, six hours ahead, and learned that it is very normal for cars to arrive in this condition as they have been chained up in boats and trucks for months, have not been driven, and gas tanks were kept low for transport.  A quick test and Stella roared back to life.  When I arrived she was sitting pretty in my driveway at my new home.

8 tuk tuk

The keke – Malawian version of the tuk-tuk

I wish I could say that was the end of it.  That Stella and I lived happily ever after.  Stella is Japanese after all and we have had more than our fair share of communication issues.  Her manuals are all in Japanese.  Initially, whenever I started the car, a voice chirped in an overly-caffeinated voice a Japanese greeting informing me to “insert my card.”  That is until in a wee bit of a fit I might have ripped out the cord attached to the card reader.  The radio only goes to 90.0 FM and thus plays only one Malawian station, sometimes.  The automatic windows have to be raised incrementally to close or they will only roll themselves half way down again. The second key — not a key, but a “smart key” fob — was misplaced for a few weeks.  The folks in South Africa didn’t have it, the Embassy didn’t have it, it wasn’t in the car… Until it was found in an envelope in a file drawer.  As the temps have raised with the change in seasons from the Malawian “winter” to summer, I found the A/C only blows hot air.  A colleague checked and deduced the fuse was missing.  Another colleague, with a mechanic background, took a look.  He said it is common sometime during transit for parts to “go missing” and his own A/C fuse had experienced a disappearing act.  He confirmed it was gone and also informed me my two large headlight bulbs had been stolen as well.  <sigh>  A friend who had served in another post in Africa though was less sympathetic — she told me to look at the bright side, they could have stolen my engine block.  Very true.

Getting Around

Before arriving in Malawi I had tried to Google images of Lilongwe roads to have a sense of what was in store for me.  Frankly, I found little.  No surprise there, roads are, in general, not the most photogenic of subject matter.

10. roads of Lilongwe

Lilongwe Roads

I am not quite sure what to say.  The roads were both better and worse than I expected.  They are paved.  Some have center lines.  There are streetlights and traffic lights.  But I also found that the edges are often eroded in jagged lines — as if a giant animal had gnawed off huge chunks.  There are frequent potholes and even, surprisingly, some speed bumps.  The holes are often visible — filled with rust colored dirt.  The speed bumps on the other hand have few markings and can catch you by surprise.  There are rarely shoulders other than dirt — so cyclists (often with loads of sticks or straw several feet wide) and pedestrians generally choose to walk on the asphalt.  The streetlights rarely turn on and the four traffic lights (that I know of) are often dark, not functioning.  Not so surprising in a country where only 10% of the people are connected to the power grid — electricity is a luxury.

roundabout and traffic light

The roundabout on Presidential Drive (left); City Center with broken (again!) traffic light (right)

I found driving initially difficult, not because I was driving on the left side of the road, but because I was driving an SUV, which I had not done before.  Stella’s top left corner seemed very far away and I found it difficult to gauge where I was in relation to the side of the road.  When possible, I give the pedestrians and cyclists a very wide berth.  Driving at places where there are traffic lights and they are not working, which more often than not seems to be the case, provides an extra level of difficulty and sometimes seems like a game of chicken.   The roundabouts, which are more common than traffic lights, appear straightforward.  Arrows indicate which lane go get in if you want the first, second, or third turn off.  But almost daily I have to battle it out with a local driver who seems to think all lanes of a roundabout lead wherever they want to go.

3 road signs

Not so legible street signs mixed with advertising

Additionally, I found it difficult to find my way around.  Lilongwe is not a particularly large city and in the eight weeks I have been here, I have now learned the basic routes to and from work, to the various supermarkets, to key points of interest, and to my colleague’s homes.  It is compact enough that two weeks ago my five year old directed me to her school from memory of the route her school bus takes.  (a very proud moment for me).  Street signs though are uncommon and when they exist are not always easy to find or easy to read.  I often use landmarks instead — turn right at the T-junction where there are tires under the tree or take the third exit from the roundabout and then turn left a the store with the big blue letters.

7 traffic jam

Rush hour and traffic light on Kenyatta Drive is out (again!) leads to a Lilongwe-style traffic jam

One cannot really do relaxed driving. My defensive driving course comes in handy here.  Besides the pedestrians and cyclists and other things that might run out on the road (maybe a hyena), the other drivers keep you on your toes.  As a gross generalization, Malawians are not good drivers.  Again, there are not that many people driving, and many may be those mini bus and keke drivers.  There are a fair number of people who seem to have licences but are not very good drivers.  The newspapers are full of front page stories of car accidents; I saw an accident on my way to work today.

As a working single mom with a school aged child, I realize that I probably need a back up driver.  My nanny, a young woman, also the single mom of a 5 year-old, with a good head on her shoulders, has a driving license, but is not a confident driver.  To her credit, she admits this (as I have heard from others the tendency is to over inflate one’s driving ability).  To boost her driving confidence, I have enrolled her in some remedial driving classes, and on occasion I have her drive C and I somewhere, such as to the Embassy to visit the clinic or to the gas station.  She is slow and careful, which I rather prefer.  There are times though it feels as if I am a parent of a daughter with a newly-minted license, and it struck me that I am old enough to be my nanny’s mother.  In fact her mother and I are the same age.  I hope however the courses and practice give her, and me, the confidence in her ability to some day drive my daughter to school functions on her own.  My colleague’s experience with this, does give me pause.

Eight weeks in and I am fairly confident with the car and driving though still trying to figure so much more out.

2 gas prices

For those who complain about gas prices.  It works out to about $4.28 a gallon