Farewell, Malawi

Tomorrow it is wheels up from Malawi after four years. It is very bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived in the same place since I lived with my parents before college; the longest in one place for C as well. But it is time for us to go. I am sure I feel this way in part because this is what any person moving must do — they must steel their heart against the inevitable, accept the change in location, otherwise it would be all the harder. But the pandemic has most certainly played its role as well. Malawi is an amazing place and we have loved the opportunity to put down roots, albeit temporarily, in this country, but it can be a challenging place. The pandemic exposed more of those limitations because we had no outlet. There were few chances to get out and push the reset button.

A long time ago I studied cross cultural psychology. One technique I learned was that when departing from a location to make a list of those things you will and will not miss and those you look and do not look forward to in the new place. So, here we go:

Will Miss

Wildlife

Malawi has been such a great place to really get up close and personal with wildlife. First off, we have been able to go on safari in several national parks. In other countries, safaris might not be open to young children as they are not particularly well known for keeping their cool and being quiet when faced with African animals like lions or giraffes. But in Malawi, there were no age restrictions and we enjoyed game drives in Majete, Nkhotakota, and Liwonde National Parks. Secondly, just being in the neighborhood, we have come across pygmy hedgehogs, a bushbuck, and a genet. And lastly, our yard has been full of wildlife surprises. We have had a few snake encounters – a blind snake, brown house snakes, and a few white-lipped herald snakes (and I convinced my staff not to bludgeon them but to alert me so I could see the snake and tell them to leave it alone) – and lots of geckos and skinks both inside and outside the house.

We have seen hedgehogs and mongooses in the yard too. The first hedgehog I met ran right up to me in the yard and then across my shoe. The one in the photo — I saw in the road as I drove home one afternoon. The poor thing was rolled up in a ball hoping not to be hit and I pulled over, stopped traffic, whipped off my cardigan, and scooped it up to safety. I took it home, made sure it wasn’t injured, and then released it in my car-free yard. The baboon spider (what we in America call tarantulas) first showed up hanging out on my front door (made it a wee bit scary to go in and out of the house) and then one day just ran across my living room floor while I was watching television. Very exciting! But the very best of our wildlife encounters had to be the visit of a rare bat. One day she was just roosting in my carport in broad daylight. I was able to approach and take a few pictures and sent them to the African Bat Conservation team in Malawi. I was told she was likely either a Great Roundleaf Bat – only the second ever recorded in Lilongwe and the first to have been known to roost here – or a Striped Leaf-Nosed Bat – which would be the first-ever recorded in the city. What an extraordinary find! The African Bat Conservation sent out someone right away to photograph and take some measurements — but unfortunately, their most experienced tagger was out of the country due to COVID. C and I named the bat Nutmeg and were so thrilled she made our yard her home – and stayed visible to us – for the better part of three weeks. Through these wildlife encounters, I made up the hashtag #safariinthehood as we did not need to go anywhere at all to experience incredible African fauna.

Our Incredible Yard

I have previously waxed lyrically about our yard, but I must pay homage to it once again because of all it has afforded us. Not only did we get mongoose and tarantulas, but we were also able to grow fruits and vegetables, experience incredible birdlife, and enjoy new pets. Sitting on my konde or screened porch and I can hear the calls of many kinds of birds. I can hear tweets and caws, chirps and cheeps, whistles and trills. On any given day probably 20 types of birds. My favorite birds are the pied crows — a large crow or a small raven with a snowy white breast and collar. A mated couple calls our roof home and when they hop across the corrugated metal it sounds like loud stomps; I call them the pterdactyls then. But the most beautiful is the lilac-breasted roller — we have one who loves to regularly visit. When times have been tough over this pandemic period, a brief walk around the yard, sometimes in meditation, could help restore my spirit. I’ll miss this yard very much.

Travel Around the Country

Malawi is an incredibly beautiful country and I am so grateful that C and I were able to see as much of it as we have. In all, I made it to 22 of the 28 districts. Had it not been for COVID, I would have made it to them all, I know this. If I had to choose, my favorite places were visited were the Tongole Wilderness Lodge in Nkhotakota National Park, the Robin Pope Safari lakeside property of Pumulani, the lush tea plantation of Satemwa in the south, and the island resorts of Blue Zebra and Mumbo Island.

Extraordinary Events

As a first-time political officer, Malawi absolutely delivered an unforgettable tour. As the sole political officer, I have had the privilege to cover a whole host of issues from human rights, trafficking in persons, refugees, politics, and more. In the four years I have been in Malawi, I have observed two by-elections and two national elections as an election monitor, was part of the team to manage the first visit of a U.S. First Lady to Malawi, I nominated Malawi’s first-ever State Department-recognized Trafficking in Persons Hero, and helped to bring about the first Mr and Miss Albinism pageant, at which I served as the head judge. The 2019 national elections were challenged leading to a historic — only one other time on the continent — court decision to nullify the results and call for a new election. The new election, which was held peacefully, ushered in the opposition party for the first time in 26 years. I might have received an evening call at home from the White House Communications Agency after the election results were announced. I might have been very excited — though maintained my cool during the call. At the end of 2020, the Economist magazine named Malawi the Country of the Year. And I was here for it.

Extraordinary People

On this tour I have worked with some of the best the State Department has to offer — truly extraordinary officers who serve their country with distinction. And I have had the honor to meet the best and the brightest of Malawi in the course of my duties. I had in my phone contacts a high court judge, high-level Ministry personnel, members of Parliament, important persons at the Malawi Electoral Commission, prominent human rights activists, and more, and when I called, they answered! I met a former President – the second female president on the continent – twice, the wife of the Vice President twice, the previous sitting president once, and the current president, before he became president, on several occasions. But it has been the everyday Malawians (or those living in Malawi), those like I featured in my Faces of Malawi blog posts (here, here, and here), I have met that have really been a big part of this tour.

Will NOT Miss

Massive Stacks of Bills. I do not carry a wallet here in Malawi. Instead, I carry is a fabric coupon organizer so that I have the space to hold more bills flat, not folded. The largest Malawian bill is the 2000 kwacha note, which is the equivalent of $2.47. There have been rumors of a possible 5000 kwacha bill since my arrival, but it never materialized. Malawi is largely still a cash-based society, though I have been able to use my credit card at the supermarkets and mobile cash has recently been introduced, so things are changing. I will be glad to retire my coupon carrier for a while, at least until I arrive in Guinea. In related complaints, the cost of some things is surprisingly the equivalent or even more than in the U.S. One is petrol. Currently, in Malawi, the gas prices are around 900 Malawi Kwacha per liter. That is the equivalent of $4.20 a gallon versus the current average price in the US of $3.17. And the Internet – I have posted before that Malawi has the most expensive Internet data in the world and you most certainly do not get what you pay for.

Driving and Parking. I have heard that traffic in Malawi is mild compared to many other developing cities. It is not so much that there are major traffic jams — I mean there are, but they are due to a limited number of roads. But it is the quality of the driving that really drives me nuts. I have heard, anecdotally, that there are a good number of drivers on the road without valid licenses. Given some of the driving I have seen, I believe it. But the parking too… A former colleague told me that a speciality of Malawi is to always construct buildings with a fraction of the parking needed. For example, the Bingu National Stadium can seat over 40,000 people, but there are maybe 500 parking spaces only. But it’s not just about there not being enough parking, sometimes there is plenty of space, but it’s made worse by some extraordinarily bad parking. There are a few places like the Game complex and the Gateway Mall that appear to be a magnet for those with the worst parking skills. People park a third of the way into another spot or diagonally into spots or in spots that do not exist. Sure, there are people all over the world who are terrible at parking, including the U.S., and its likely that parking will be challenging in Guinea, but I do hope for a respite from the special brand of driving and parking I have encountered here.

Mosquitos, Nets, and Malarone. We have spent four years sleeping under mosquito nets and taking malaria meds. In the rainy season, from approximately November through March, the mosquitos are relentless. Each morning I find myself conducting a bizarre clapping session as I kill one after another. When we head to Guinea we will back to this but I look forward to nearly a year away from it.

Grocery Disappointments. Sigh. It is such a disappointment to order items from the US and have them take four weeks to get to us and then they are crushed or melted. But this is what has happened with probably 50% of my Tostitos (half the bag pulverized) and my gummy vitamins (half of it melted into one solid mass). But even purchases here are subject to a lot of uncertainty. About two weeks ago I bought a container of hummus for $5 and I get home, open it, and find it covered in mold! And cheese, it’s a regular game of what will I get — could it be smooth and delicious or will it taste like stale dirty socks? I would say 8 of the past 10 watermelons I have purchased from the fruit seller have been bad despite the constant assurances that they are selling me the most delicious, red, and juicy fruit possible.

Overall, Malawi has had far more positives than negatives. I do not regret staying for two consecutive tours or staying here through the pandemic. Though COVID and the related travel and life restrictions have definitely made things more difficult but Malawi was our home. Now, we both look forward to some things in America we have missed for some time. My daughter puts string cheese, slurpees, and Taco Bell at the top of her list; I especially look forward to salads, sidewalks, and more of a sense of normalcy — though I do admit I am a bit concerned about the culture shock we will encounter going from a place very much in a third wave of the pandemic to a place where many appear to believe we are past it all.

Farewell, Malawi.

Hello, USA.

Malawi: Winding Down

The countryside around Dedza, central Malawi

We are slipping ever closer to our departure from Malawi; we have less than a month to go though I do not today know exactly how many days are left. I had a date in early August, but realized that due to COVID I could request to depart in July. I then had a very late July date, but then the airline flying that route cancelled the flight. We have new tickets but the already paid for reservation for my cat on that flight has yet to be confirmed for the new itinerary. Therefore things are not quite settled until the cat’s ticket is settled.

The past month has been a bit of a roller coaster. Lots of preparations to wrap things up in the office and at a home. A series of actions to check items off lists. Slowly sorting items into piles of things to sell, to donate, to give away, to put in luggage, into unaccompanied baggage (UAB), and into household effects (HHE). It might seem on the surface to be a rather straightforward process, but it is not. The two of us qualify for 450 pounds of UAB, which will be sent to the U.S. by air. It seems like both a lot but also not very much. We will be in the U.S. for about a year, so we want to be able to take a fair amount with us. Our HHE will be placed into storage in Europe until we arrive in Guinea in the summer of 2022; the shipment will only be authorized after our arrival and can take a few months. Therefore its likely we will not see these items for 15-16 months. If my daughter tells me that I can put something into HHE then I might as well just get rid of it now as she will be a different child 16 months from now.

We have whittled down quite a bit of the pantry and toiletry items. It feels a little odd as Malawi is a consumables Post – a place where we are able to get a extra shipment of foodstuffs and items for personal or household maintenance – and thus we arrived with large stocks of those items. Now we are out of vitamins and down to the last tubes of toothpaste, the last bottles of shampoo, the last bits of so many things.

In the midst of these preparations, Malawi has experienced the lead up to a COVID third wave. The third wave in Africa started in early May. South Africa had been seeing increases particularly with its own variant (the Beta) and the Indian variant (Delta), and as was to be expected it did not take long for it to spill across borders. By early June, the cases in Malawi started to climb just as the county began to administer the second shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Unfortunately, before the end of the month vaccines in Malawi were finished.

I had really hoped that before we departed Malawi we might get in another vacation. We had managed to get out for our holiday in Kenya just before the second wave and we have had a few trips within Malawi after the six-month prohibition against traveling out of Lilongwe at the beginning of the pandemic was lifted. I thought we might get to South Africa and Lesotho to finally complete the trip we had had planned for April 2020, but Ethiopian Airlines refused to honor the flight credits we had and with the COVID numbers going up yet again, it seemed best to remain in Malawi. I started to look into whether we could get in another domestic vacation but we had already done a good job in getting out and about; there were few places left on my bucket list. Many we had already been to twice. Those we wanted to get to were rather far, with still limited facilities due to the pandemic, or cost prohibitive.

Thus I found myself with 11 consecutive days of off just hanging about the house. As if we have not already been hanging around the house for much of the past 18 months. Yet this time, I have the upcoming departure from Malawi, our Permanent Change of Station (PCS), fast approaching so though my inability to scratch my travel itch yet again has done a few things to my psyche, I am also grateful to have had this time to both relax (lots of sleeping in, reading, watching DVDs), manage some final play dates for my daughter, and to do some of that whittling down of things.

Rock Art Paintings at Namzeze

But I could not be content with just that. There was one more place I had hoped to visit. There are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Malawi. One is the Lake Malawi National Park and we have visited there on multiple occasions (such as here, here, and here). The other is the Chongoni Rock Art Area. Scattered across 127 sites in the Chentcherere hills of central Malawi, around Dedza, these are a mix of paintings on rock by BaTwa pygmy hunters of the Stone Age and Chewa agriculturalists of the Iron Age and “feature the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.”

The last bit of, um, road?

On a beautiful, clear Sunday morning (after days of overcast days), C and I, with our friends CR and her daughter AR, headed about 100 kilometers south on the M1 to the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We stopped there so CR could pick up an order, we could all use the facilities, and we met our guide Samuel. CR jumped into the backseat with the girls and Samuel took the passenger seat, and we headed back north along a dirt road. We drove around 45 minutes to the turn off to the Namzeze site, which Samuel said was the best as it featured paintings of both the BaTwa and Chewa people. The road then got pretty bad. It was just a track through tall grassland. At times it was okay, but at other times there were some parts where bits of the road was missing, making ridges with fissures deep enough to maybe, if not swallow at least stall my car.

At last we came to an area just above a wooden log bridge. We stopped here as there were significant gaps between the log and it was too much of a challenge with my car (especially one I have already sold!). I was really pleased that although the road was challenging, the signposting was good.

We then walked up the rocky hillside for about 40 minutes or so (I suppose some can certainly hike it faster than two middle aged women of middling activeness with two nine year old girls) until we reached an area with a large covered opening in the rock, a shallow cavern, the Namzeze paintings. There we sat as Samuel gave us a bit of information on the drawings and the people who made them. He said the paintings done in red ochre were made by the BaTwe people, and could be as much as 10,000 years old, and the ones in white clay were made by the Chewa people and are approximately 2,000 years old (though it is not all that clear, even on the UNESCO site, that the paintings are that old). The red paintings, as they are older, are fainter, and of mostly graphic designs (lines, dots, shapes) while the white clay designs are of four-footed animals and birds, which are likely related to ritualistic initiations.

Left: Our guide Samuel surveys the valley from the mouth of the hillside opening; Right: C and AR in front of the rock art

After about 30 minutes at the site we had a more rapid descent to the car. We drove part way back to the Dedza Pottery Factory to drop off Samuel and then headed back to the M1 and Lilongwe. I am glad that we went, that we had one more adventure to see another special aspect of Malawi.

It is such an odd time now. PCS’ing — moving internationally — is hard enough, stressful enough in normal times. During a pandemic puts it at a whole new level. Flight schedules are more limited. Ethiopian once flew daily to and from Lilongwe and now its four times a week. And schedules seem subject to more changes and cancellations than usual. And the testing regimes on top of it. It’s a lot to think about. And it is all mixed up in the complicated feelings of departure from a place where we have spent a significant amount of time and after already a year and a half of a pandemic. Most Embassy families we know are currently on their R&Rs and we are the last family to PCS this summer. C’s best friends leave two weeks before us. Our last few weeks are going to be hard, especially on C. There is unlikely to be another PCS like this. At least I certainly hope not.

We head next to the U.S. where it seems from where we sit that most have returned to a level of normalcy. My sister, a TSA agent at a major U.S. airport, has reported “post-pandemic summer travel,” except that implies an end to a pandemic that is very much still in progress and accelerating again in many parts of the world. I am focused almost entirely on managing our departure; the arrival in the U.S. is a whole other step. I do not know what to expect.

Intro to Malawi: Power and Water, Life and Death

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

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

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

Power & Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life & Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malawian weddings are jovial, colorful events (my photos)

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

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

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

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

Blue Zebra Redux: The Last Road Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Somewhat Reluctant Spring Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of our eco-chalet from the cove entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C gets her zen on

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

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

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

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

Malawi: The COVID Second Wave

When we headed out to Kenya for our Rest and Relaxation (R&R) trip on December 11, things on the COVID-19 front seemed to be looking up. There was of course a second wave already beginning in Europe, the U.S., and South Africa, but the numbers in Malawi had dwindled to almost new cases. In Kenya, there were rising numbers, too, but I had done some personal calculus and decided that if we needed a vacation outside of Malawi (and when I tell you *I* needed a vacation somewhere other than Malawi after a year, I mean it) then Kenya was the place to go.

Yet in the course of our three-week trip, the numbers started again to rise in Malawi and on December 23, with a week left in Kenya, the Malawian government announced a two-week border closure. The idea was to reduce the number of imported cases, though to be honest, these incidents were not of foreigners entering the country, as Malawi is at the end of line and even in a non-pandemic year captures only 1% of Africa’s 67 million tourists, but rather Malawian deportees from South Africa. No border closure that is not closed to citizens (which naturally it would not be) was not going to stop the cases coming in. But it was already too late.

When we returned on December 30, the country registered 83 new cases. For those in countries like the United States, Brazil, India, Turkey, Mexico, or much of Europe, this may seem an incredibly low number and not something to be concerned about. However, Malawi had not registered that number of single day positive cases since August 7. And keep in mind that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has one of the lowest doctors per person ratios in the world. In a 2020 Malawi College of Medicine survey of 255 hospitals, only a quarter reported reliable electricity, about a half had hand soap, and only one-third had oxygen supplies. In June 2020, the entire country had only seventeen ventilators and twenty-five intensive care beds for a population of 18 million (in El Paso, Texas, with a population of less than 700,000, there are 400 intensive care beds). Eighty-three positive cases, had they all been serious, would have overwhelmed Malawi’s intensive care facilities.

Soon after our return, C and I headed out to a supermarket and to get takeaway from a restaurant in downtown Lilongwe. In the supermarket, although there were signs at the entrance regarding masks, the vast majority of customers were not wearing any. The two cashiers I saw had theirs hugging their chins. At the cash register, a man got in line behind us and in doing so, brought his mask down to his chin (rather than put it up). At the food court, where several fast food joints serving chicken, ice cream, and pizza, and which was doing a roaring business, only one person other than us had on their mask. The servers, cashiers, patrons and management had no protective equipment at all. When I asked the manager why not, he told me that there were no reasons to do so, no regulations. I knew that to be false as the Lilongwe city government had put a mask policy in place back in July or August, and which included a potential 10,000 Malawi Kwacha ($13) fine for non-compliance. I suspected it was more a matter of little to no enforcement. After having spent the previous three weeks in Kenya where the government was very serious about COVID-19 mitigation measures, this came as a bit of a shock.

Despite the closed borders, there were reports of big gatherings for the holidays. The January 1 newspapers covered the New Year’s Eve events including parties and concerts, one including a South African musician.

Official COVID-19 data from the Public Health Institute of Malawi

Over the next several weeks, we watched as the numbers of positive cases climbed rapidly. Between December 11, which reflected over eight months of the pandemic in Malawi, and January 17, the total confirmed cases doubled. During this time frame, two Cabinet ministers and two other senior government officials died from COVID. The President announced on January 17 the government would impose a curfew (between 9 PM and 5 AM), enforce mask wearing, enforce early closure of markets (5 PM) and drinking establishments (8 PM), and close schools. By January 22, which would turn out to be the reported height of the second wave, the numbers were nearly threefold the eight month total. Between then and February 1, the number would be fourfold. Two more Members of Parliament, two local councilors (district level elected officials), a music icon, and 252 other Malawians died. The numbers then began to decrease. Field hospitals were set up, resources were put into the government response, the international community donated equipment. Parliament postponed the opening of its Mid-Year Budget Review Session as rumors of some 10-40+ of its 193 members were reportedly COVID positive. It took until February 19 to see the five fold increase. Another member of parliament and 291 others in Malawi died. As of February 28, Malawi had surpassed a sixfold increase of its first eight months of COVID, in a three month timeframe.

Though we all breath a bit of a sigh of relief to see those higher numbers of January gone, the current daily numbers still hover around the high marks of the first wave. Although the government reopened schools on February 22, teachers, demanding protective equipment and hazard pay, refused to work. Three days after beginning the postponed parliamentary session, the Speaker of Parliament tested positive for COVID. Yet still, with the first order of vaccines for Malawi expected to arrive soon and the vaccination roll-out to begin some time this month, there is a sense of hope that this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Though we have been living this pandemic for a year now, and we have certainly (largely begrudgingly) adjusted, C and I too are hoping for an end to the pandemic, to a resumption of some sense of normalcy, sooner rather than later (like everyone else on the planet). We have through this year been incredibly lucky compared to so many, and I am grateful we have been able to ride out this challenging time in Malawi, a beautiful country we call home. But we are so ready to have our last months in Malawi be ones without the cloud of the pandemic hanging over us.

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.

Something Like Normal

Normal. It seems hard to know what that is anymore. We have been told to adjust to a “new normal.” A normal where face masks are a required fashion accessory and obsessive hand cleansing and avoiding other people with our newfangled edict on “social distancing” is how we get through the day. At first it was novel. Difficult, but doable. I might even say I was not only productive, but jazzed by the new situation, even more so than usual. But as time wore on, the reduction in social interaction, the rise of teleworking and distance learning, and the inability to travel began to take its toll. I think back to nearly nine months ago when we took our last trip beyond Malawi’s borders, a long weekend in Johannesburg aimed at doing activities that many Americans and others in developed countries take for granted. In other words, doing what I thought was “normal.” Instead it turned into the trip just before the end of all the pre-COVID normalcy. I didn’t know what normal was until it was gone.

But slowly, gradually, over the past few weeks, there has been a lightening, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It really began with the lifting of restrictions on travel outside of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. A city where, in normal times, even with a lack of amenities, is enjoyable when one keeps busy at the office, doing work activities and meetings, and spending time with friends and family at simple events like meals out or small gatherings. But in COVID times, with limited interactions outside the home, became suffocatingly dull. I was glad to be able to get out and about more, but still weighed down by pandemic fatigue, the vacation glow dissipated quickly.

A week after my daughter’s school’s “Fall Break,” I broke. I felt caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand I could keep my daughter at home, limit her exposure, but to do so we would have to continue the distance learning program, which was declining in quality, damaging our relationship, and affecting my work. On the other hand I could send her back, but as the Embassy-provided school bus was no more, I would have to make the dreaded 30-minute drive to the other side of town twice a day. Desperate for a path back to normalcy, I chose option number two.

I coordinated with another Embassy family with kids the same age to alternate morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups. Sure, the first day or so seemed odd — seeing the face-masked kids shuffling into school in socially distanced lines and being greeted by thermometer wielding staff in personal protective equipment — but the return to school has changed our lives for the better. There is a lot less yelling about schoolwork because I am no longer in charge of it. And, unexpectedly, I feel more engaged as a mom driving my daughter and her friends to or from school. Additionally, as the Embassy has moved to “Phase 2” of a three phase system, I can spend time in the office, which is so much more conducive to my getting work done than the well-worn groove on my sofa.

My little Pokemon enjoys a socially distanced Halloween

Halloween arrived soon after C returned to school. At the beginning of October, it was not clear we would have any celebration of the holiday at all, but two weeks before, a team of Embassy volunteers and our Marine Security Guards began began planning an awesome socially distanced, pandemic-approved Halloween. Unmanned decorated tables were set up around the expansive lawn at the Ambassador’s residence and the Marines turned the gazebo into a haunted hallway.

It was not the usual U.S. Halloween by any stretch of the imagination, but then overseas the holiday has rarely looked like the American-style trick or treating. In Juarez, trick-or-treating was room to room in the Consulate. In Shanghai, we zig-zagged up and down floors to designated apartments whose residents had agreed to hand out candy, though the sweets were much different than one might typically receive in America. And in Malawi we have had three years in a row of trunk or treating. This was just another creative Foreign Service holiday. Though it did feel a bit odd to don face masks and just to two of us walk around to collect candy from unmanned tables. Well, that is how it started. But the kids gravitated toward one another and soon C was with several friends. And at the end several families gathered at the Jurassic Park stop, where a few of our colleagues were dressed in dinosaur costumes. For the first time in a very long time we were around more than one other family. It felt decadent, like we were getting away with something.

The following week – the first of November – gave me an almost daily dose of feeling I was on at least the normalcy. On the Monday, I received my handshake for my next assignment in Conakry, Guinea. I took Tuesday off to sit at home and watching the nail-biting results of the U.S. election. On Wednesday, my daughter’s tutor let me know she could begin immediately as my full time nanny – and for the first time in seven months I again had consistent help around the house. On Thursday, my request for time off to take our long-overdue Rest and Relaxation trip was approved. I could begin planning our first significant trip outside the country for nearly a year since our last big trip to Finland and Paris. We rounded out the week with a COVID-approved birthday party: an outdoor gathering of no more than 20 people only among Embassy personnel whose kids had returned to school. Another first such gathering in more than six months.

It was as if a dam had broken. The year has been so hard. I know I am not alone but sometimes the circumstances of the extended isolation has made it feel so.

I know things are not back to normal. The pandemic is still here; our lives remain altered. There has been a resurgence of COVID-19 in many places and previously lifted restrictions are being put back into place. When I found myself in a busy open-air shopping district surrounded by persons not wearing masks, I felt uncomfortable. When I am approached by others, I instinctively shift a good meter away so as to let them pass. Yet, even with these oddities presently entrenched in our daily lives, I have taken these recent signs of pre-COVID times to heart. We may still have a ways to go until we emerge from this pandemic, but at least for now it feels we have turned a corner.

“Fall Break” in COVID Times

View of Lake Malawi from the Makokola infinity pool

There are days during the pandemic when things feel almost normal. And then I wonder if it means I am getting used to the “new normal” or if things really are returning to a sense of normalcy? But I am unconvinced of the latter and still find myself struggling with restrictions and the mental strain of entering our eighth month of this (and I cannot even articulate well what “this” is). Having gone through SARS in Singapore in 2003, I had been confident the pandemic would end in July. When July came and went I felt a pretty solid sense of having been let down. Yet, I convinced myself that by mid-October, by C’s school break, that probably, maybe, things would have returned largely to normal. Wrong again.

On September 30, C’s grade returned to in-person classes, but C did not return to school as there are no longer buses to take her the 30 minutes to and from the campus. As a single working parent, I did not see how I could spend upwards of 15 hours a week (to account for traffic and waiting in the complicated pick-up line) chauffeuring C back and forth and keep up with everything else. I would trade the frustration of online learning with the frustration of hours in Lilongwe traffic.

Seven schooldays after the majority of children returned to the international school (I was not the only hold-out), Fall Break began. But I figured I have to call it “Fall Break” in quotes because it is never the cool autumn of the U.S. and, frankly, I could not really put my finger on what it was a break from. Yet, I knew, once again, that if I could take off some days and get out of Lilongwe, then I needed to do that. Still, as hard as I tried to consider taking the entire week to travel around Malawi, I could not stomach it. There are many lovely places in this country, but most of them are at least three hours away according to Google Maps, which when you factor in police road stops and getting stuck behind a slow moving truck on a two lane road (and they are all two lane roads) or a person driving 20 kilometers below the speed limit for no apparent reason, it is always more on the order of four hours.

One of Malawi’s road travel challenges: eighteen wheeler accidents on the road – the first on the way back from Makokola and the second on the way to Luwawa

I broke our holiday into two parts, each visiting a new location on my Malawi sightseeing bucket list: We would first head south for the three-day Indigenous Peoples Day weekend to spend time at the Makokola Retreat on the lower end of Lake Malawi. After a two day respite back in Lilongwe, we would then turn northward to spend a four day weekend at Luwawa Forest Lodge.

Our first mini getaway was to Makokola. At first the drive was pleasant enough, but 2/3 of the way in (i.e. about two hours) I had had about enough of the endless monotony of scrub brush alongside the potholed tarmac. I have driven that particular route one too many times and it does not get more interesting. But at last we arrived at the lush lakeside retreat. Due to renovations under much of the older part of the resort, children are, at this time, allowed to stay in the newly built lakeside suites. And they are lovely.

Our mini Retreat condo — water features are rare in Malawi (in fact I don’t know of any other place with them)

After the monotony of the Malawian roads, pulling into the lush, landscaped grounds of the Makokoka Retreat was a noticeable physical and mental relief. The grounds are beautiful, even with portions of them churned up for renovation. As we were walked over to the Lakeside suites, our home away from home for two nights, I was struck by how much it reminded me of a model American condo subdivision. There were sidewalks and water features. Water features! I think I have seen one other water feature in all of Malawi – a fountain at a roundabout in Lilongwe – but never once has there been water in it!

In pre-COVID times, I heard that the Makokola Retreat had a bunch of watersports like wakeboards and water skis and those floating banana things. However, although speedboats were on offer (only $200 to rent!) there didn’t seem to be anything attached to them in pandemic times. And that’s okay — I am not really the speed on the water kinda gal. C and I were keen on just lazing about. The American development feel gave a sense of really having gotten away. COVID-19 measures meant our meals would be delivered to our room. Walks along a beach (albeit a lakeside beach) or through the gardens, slow laps around the infinity pool, and leisurely meals in our room or on our patio while reading — that is exactly what C and I needed.

And then I had to drive home. Just like after our recent trips to Satemwa and Liwonde, the return trip winds back the relaxation clock. At least this time, we would have two days at home — still on leave and off school — before heading out again.

The sign on the M1 indicating the turn off to the Luwawa Forest Lodge

The drive north to the Luwawa Forest Lodge turnoff was not so bad. Not because the road quality or drivers were better, they were not, but it was a new-to-me route. I had only driven north on the M1 once, when we visited Ntchisi Forest Lodge, but an hour into our journey we had already passed the familiar behind.

There was nothing special about the first three hours, but after turning onto the red dirt road into the Brachystegia woodland and riverine forest of the Viphya Plateau’s highlands, it was as if we really been transported somewhere else.

Grassland, marshland, forest, and fresh air

At Luwawa I had booked a self-catering cottage. I was not sure what to expect, but I found the slightly musty two-story cabin, with its small fridge and retro-style mini gas oven, under the wooden stairs lounge area, and large loft-like upstairs, homey. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house. We unpacked, made and ate sandwiches for lunch, then took a look around the property. We met Bob, the Lodge’s massive, yet playful, Saint Bernard; C played on the playground, and I wandered the garden. Then, with the assistance of the Lodge, trudged up the narrow steps of another cottage, and in another musty room designed for studies when the schools use the dormitories for their “Week Without Walls” programs, with chairs haphazardly stacked along the walls, we played the worst, yet hilarious, game of ping pong.

Luwawa Forest Lodge has an impressive range of activities from canoeing and kayaking on the reservoir, trail walking, abseiling, bird watching, fishing, archery, and a few guided tours. I had plans for us to do several of these over the course of our three days, but our first morning we had a one hour horseback ride lined up.

Luwawa Nature: a bejeweled locust and a rainbow of berries

C loves horses. Unfortunately there are no public horse riding stables in Lilongwe — nor were there any in Shanghai that would not have taken us less than two hours to get to — so I have always looked for horse riding opportunities when we head on vacation.

What a treat that there are stables just a 15 minute walk from the Luwawa Forest Lodge and they are run by the wonderfully patient and kind Maggie, who worked as a medical practitioner at the US Embassy for 30 years. She took us on a lovely ramble along trails and through the woods surrounding her property. Along the way, she told me about being born and raised in Kenya, studied in South Africa, and then after her degree she relocated to Malawi where her grandfather had purchased land in the early part of the 20th century. We passed ripening multi-colored berries, caught vistas of misty covered rolling hills, and breathed in the fresh air. C was in her element.

Immediately after our ride, C asked if she could have another ride that afternoon. Maggie said she had some siblings, one of which was a precocious 7-year old she thought C would hit it off with, scheduled at 1:30 that afternoon.

The horses return to the stables on their own

Boy did they hit it off! H and C became fast friends. After the ride — reportedly full of giggles — C wanted to spend more time with H. They hopped on an ATV with Gift, one of the stable hands, and headed up to the stables to muck them out and prepare for the evening feeding. Yes, my daughter volunteered and happily mucked out horse stables!

The following day C signed up for two additional rides with her vacation best friend. As C rode the trails around Luwawa, I walked them. I used to be a great walker. I love to walk, but there are not many places to do so in Lilongwe; there are few sidewalks and no trails that I know of. In Luwawa I had hours to myself to walk and meditate in nature. I have not had such time to do so at any other time in Malawi. We didn’t do much in Luwawa; C rode horses and I walked, and we relaxed in our little cottage. But it was just what we both needed.

Once again, a few trips out of Lilongwe restored myself and C just a wee bit. It was not the fall break I had initially planned on pre-COVID or even as I kept hoping the pandemic would end sometime in the summer months. But while it wasn’t perfect, it was unexpected and unexpectedly good.

My COVID Birthday – Liwonde National Park Getaway

Liwonde’s riverside savannah at dusk

Earlier in the year we had a great plan for August with our friends from the U.S. Of course, the best laid travel plans have a habit of being disrupted in a pandemic and these were no different. Like many travel and tourist related companies caught in the pandemic spiral with cancellations right and left, I was issued a credit, not a refund, on our deposit.

As Embassy domestic COVID-19 restrictions eased and we could again travel outside the capital, stay overnight in lodges, and dine in limited exposure situations, I began to plan a trip. After days and weeks morphing into months (six of them) doing nearly everything — working, schooling, cleaning, reading, writing, eating, sleeping, child care — in my home, I was incredibly motivated to not spend my birthday weekend in yet another COVID staycation, if I had options to do otherwise. So, I contacted the travel company and booked two nights at the Mvuu Lodge in Liwonde National Park using our credit to cover half the costs.

Ulongwe Village entrance to Liwonde National Park

Liwonde is an approximately 4.5 hour drive from our part of Lilongwe, despite what my map app said. First, its always surprising to me that it takes about half an hour winding through the warren of narrow, overused roads of the capital til finally breaking free at the round-about on the M1 south from the city. I had just barely emerged from the capital’s chaos when I had to take a pre-arranged call. It is early in the official bidding season, when those of us transferring the following year are taking interviews with potential future posts. The hiring manage had one day and one time available, so I had to make it work. It was hardly ideal having an interview while on speakerphone in the car, but the pandemic has turned everything upside-down, so I gave it my best. But the interview helped the first half of the drive go by quickly and once it was over, we cranked up the tunes and sung our way south for another hour.

At Balaka, where we turned off the M1 and headed east on the M8, we moved into unfamiliar territory. So often driving in Malawi requires just going along the same roads again and again and again, but as we headed down a new-to-us road — even one as pockmarked with potholes and with sides eroded significantly that in some places the two lanes became one as this one — and drew closer to the park, I could feel the stress of the past several days (weeks? months?) ebbing. We spent some 20 minutes on a new, nicely paved road named after the President who lost the landmark court-mandated new election in June, and then meandered through dusty dirt roads through small villages until we reached the end of the village of Ulongwe and the back gate to Liwonde National Park.

Our ride across the Shire River from the Ulongwe side to Mvuu Lodge arrives

Liwonde National Park is neither Malawi’s oldest or largest park (both of those honors go to Nyika National Park), but it is Malawi’s most accessible, and thus most popular. Just five years ago, Liwonde was a park in extreme decline; decades of poaching had left more wildlife snares in the park than wildlife. That year, 2015, Africa Parks, a South African non-profit conservation organization (and whose President is Prince Harry), took over the management of Liwonde. Africa Parks has turned Liwonde around, cleaning up snares, developing a top ranger force, and providing key community awareness to mitigate human and wildlife conflicts. In 2016, Liwonde was the source of one of the world’s largest elephant translocations when Africa Parks moved over 300 elephants from the park to another of its Malawi parks, Nkhotakota. And in 2017, predators were re-introduced, first with lions and later cheetahs, as Africa Parks works to restore the park and animal populations. C and I had visited Nkhotakota and Majete and had saved Liwonde for the last of Malawi’s Africa Parks’ run national parks.

To reach the park from the Ulongwe side we registered at the park ranger lodge and notified the manager of Mvuu Lodge of our arrival. We drove a short distance further to the banks of the great Shire (pronounced “sheer-eh,” not like the homeplace of the Hobbits) River, which is the only outlet of the massive Lake Malawi and flows to the Zambezi. There Chifundo, our guide, met us with a small boat to pilot us ten minutes across the river to our accommodation. The exchange from car to boat had to be made quickly, as almost as soon as we parked, we saw antelope, monkeys, and most ominous, a troupe of baboons emerged from the brush to circle the clearing. Chifundo would take my car keys and after dropping us off at Mvuu Lodge, return to drive our vehicle back to the ranger station (you do not want to know what baboons might do to your unattended vehicle).

A White Headed Black Chat captains our boat; Malawi’s national bird the Fish Eagle surveys the river

Immediately, we could spot wildlife from the boat. Hippos lurking near the river’s edge. Elephants on the shore or in a bath party in the river. Antelope grazing on the river banks. And birds swooping alongside the boat or perched on branches – from slim reeds to massive boughs — nearby. A crocodile lazily swished through the water.

We disembarked after a 20 minute ride, including a short detour to see elephants, then climbed aboard a jeep for a short drive to the lodge. We were served lunch in the main building, built above a beautiful spot with views over savanna, marsh, forest, and the river, where in a lazy woman’s safari we could already make out seven types animals without any effort — warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hippo, waterbuck, striped mongoose, and a crocodile.

After a lazy lunch and an even lazier layabout in the room for an hour, it was already time to head out on our sundowner game drive. It was just C and I, our guide Chifundo, and a park ranger. It took literally seconds to spot more wildlife. Impala, bushbuck, warthogs, and baboon were the most plentiful, but the occasional rarity such as a southern ground hornbill or a tree squirrel, would make an appearance. It is October now, the tail end of the dry season, and the daytime heat is intense. But driving in late afternoon to evening in an open safari vehicle, feeling a delicious breeze as the African sun dips and the air is suffused with a rich, golden light, is magnificent. It was hard to believe that morning I had been in the capital. We felt a world away.

The next morning – my birthday – we were up at 5 AM. C and I have not seen that time of day in a long, long time. We are natural night owls, and the COVID experience has accentuated and cultivated our late evening tendencies. Amazingly, both of us, refreshed by an undisturbed sleep beneath a large white mosquito net canopy, the lulling sound of the ceiling fan, and the sounds of nature, woke up easily.

We were on the hunt for predators — cheetahs or lions or both. Cats are naturally a big draw for game drives, but even in a well stocked park like Kruger in South Africa, catching sight of the big cats is never a guarantee. Liwonde has a total of eight lions (though ten were introduced in 2018, battles for dominance among males has already reduced the population). The cheetahs — seven of whom were introduced in 2017 — have fared better, with cubs born each year more than doubling the population.

Monkeys, lions, and bushbuck, oh my!

We spotted the usual suspects, but also hippo grazing on open savanna in the early light, a herd of sable, another of eland (the largest antelope) some hartebeest (the fastest antelope), and zebra. And as luck would have it, the eagle eyes of our ranger caught sight of a lion in the distance. We arrived at the bank of a dry riverbed where two lionesses were snoozing. It was exciting to see two of the eight, though they made sure to be as absolutely boring as possible, and C quickly asked if we could drive off. But wouldn’t you know it, a male was lurking nearby, behind a dry ridge of earth in the riverbed. He popped his head up a few times to give us a look–Who had disturbed his nap? And then he rose majestically, standing on the ridge, his head raised as if sniffing the air, and began to saunter with purpose in our direction. And that is when C lost it. She began saying in a stage whisper “Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, its coming, its coming, let’s get out of here!”

Of course, that lion lost interest in us very quickly, and languidly stepped over to the ladies and flopped down beside them. The excitement over. We drove for another hour or so, enjoying being together away from home, with our reverie occasionally interrupted by a wildlife sighting, but there were not more cats.

We had a light breakfast and lunch, and several more hours of lazing about in our room or sitting on our balcony, which faced a marshy plain backed by tall trees and attracted all manner of wildlife. I felt more content than I had in a long while. Then in the late afternoon we headed out on a sundowner boat safari.

A safari from the water is an entirely different thing from a game drive. The pace is slower (and far less bumpier — as my very first Malawian game driver called it “The Malawian Massage”). There is just as much a sense of excitement with a lick of danger — just as C was sure the male lion intended to leap across the ravine, up the bank, and dive into our jeep to eat us, she was wary of crocodiles and hippos, sure they would upset the boat. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t) Again, an abundance of hippos, crocs, and bird life, including, unexpectedly, four wayward flamingos, on the water and elephant and antelope on the banks. And as the sun set on my birthday, we were treated to the quintessential swift but deep red African sunset; I felt as if I were in the movie the African Queen.

Sunset from the Shire – A very happy birthday to me

The following morning we opted not to take advantage of another included game drive as we had seen so much wildlife and preferred to a lazy lie-in along with the sounds of the African bush. I wanted to hang on to that languid relaxation as long as I could before making our way back to Lilongwe.

But all good things come to an end. And just as the sense of calm had increased the closer we got to the park, the stressful feelings returned the further we drove away. Liwonde was wonderful, but a short weekend away was not never going to be restful enough to reverse the past seven months of pressure, frustration, and melancholy. We were still in Malawi. And we love Malawi, but it can still be a challenging place. And as I drove home, I could feel my irritation grow with the piles of bricks lying unused by the sides of the road in villages where people work hard yet barely eke out a living, with maddening drivers (too fast or too slow or too), with the poorly maintained roads…and when I was pulled over by the police (for the first time ever in Malawi) and the traffic cop tried to extort a bribe, the weekend’s spell was completely broken.

Still, there are certainly far, far worse places to be, and Liwonde was a great birthday getaway. I have also used up one of my COVID travel casualty credits, only three more to go.