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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.