Malawi is part of the Southern Central Africa neighboring with Zambia to the west, Mozambique to the South and Tanzania to the North. It is basically a narrow country some 900 km long and between 80 and 160 km wide with its basic feature being the huge Lake Malawi which is actually more like an inland sea. Being the 3rd largest lake in Africa, Lake Malawi lies deep in the southern part of the African Rift Valley who shaped this land millions of years ago.
According to historical evidence tracing back to Stone Age , the first inhabitants of Malawi appear to be pygmy bushmen. Later on Bantu tribes from Angola, Portuguese and Arabs also left their mark until the Maravi people dominated and gave the country its current name. In 1859 Scottish explorer David Livingstone visited Malawi and named the lake Lake Nyasa. This was the start of the homonymous mission and later on British settlers moved in the area and founded Nyassaland, an official British colony. Malawi gained its independence only by 1964.We were lucky to be visiting on the 50th
celebration since the independence!
Crossing into the country from Mozambique we had a hard time getting the visa in the borders, but we finally got the precious stamp at the price of 70 dollars each and we went off to Blantyre.
Blantyre is a big commercial city named after the birthplace of Dr. Livingstone. It is comfortably situated in the heart of the agriculturally rich Highlands between Zomba Plateau and the surrounding mountains and hills. The whole Malawi’s economy is focused on agriculture and especially in the cultivation of tobacco, maize, sugarcane, cotton, groundnuts, tea etc. We were very happy to be hosted by Harris Mikroudakis, the general manager of one of the many Greek owned tobacco farms and also the president of the Greek Club.
During our stay not only we met most of the lovely Greeks in the community with roots from Limnos Island, but we also had a wonderful insight in the tobacco business. Harri showed us the tobacco fields and explained the procedure of drying the precious leaves from 2 up to 7 days until they get the desirable colour and quality so that they can later on get packed and sold in local auctions to the big tobacco companies. The procedure is very labour intensive and lots of experience is needed so as to be profitable.
The traditional “drying” of the leaves appears to be also harmful for the environment due to the huge amount of wood needed to light fires. Harri risked and installed new technology that reduces wood consumption and ensures a more uniform quality of the final product. We will definitely include this very interesting subject in the Afriquest documentary.
Moving on from the city, we took the minibus to explore the famous lake. On the way to Cape Maclear we passed from peaceful university town and ex-administrative centre of the country, Zomba. Continuing to the North we passed through nice small villages on the side of the road. Little girls sitting in the shade of big trees playing with string, small “stores” looking like shacks, taxi-bicycles with colourful pillows for passengers at the back and many many churches of different beliefs and missions. Houses here are closer to normal, and built with red bricks made locally in a pit from the soil.
The vegetation is not so tropical and you hardly see coco trees anymore. It is more like dry bush and high trees like baobab, jacaranda and the so called “yellow fever” trees. Shortly after Monkey Bay the road was a little bit rougher as we went down the Rift to reach the lake but the vegetation was beautiful on the hills.
In Cape Maclear the backpackers we stayed was inside the local village so we had some long walks to the market in the effort to get some cheap meal. They were long in the sense that always kids caught up with us just to hold our hands and to ask for photos, money or sweets.When we bought sweets for them they were tears for the ones that didn’t have one.
It was so weird for them to be with white people and they wanted just to walk with us. As soon as we got used to all this attention, the village was really original we could see people in their everyday life. Children going to school, women washing clothes and pots by the lake and men chilling in the market. The biggest tribe in Malawi are the Chewa people and their language is Chichewa. The only words we managed to learn was Zikomo (=Thank you), Mulibuanji (=How are you?) and Ndilibuino (=I am fine and you?).
The Chewa people are really friendly and chatty and give credit to the country’s name the Warm Heart of Africa. As for the food in Malawi it consists mainly of Nsima
(the local name for maize meal) and fish or small portions of meat stew with local green vegetables. Local delicacies we really liked is the chambo
fish straight from the lake and the fried potatoes with eggs that they cook on hot tin surfaces at the side of most roads, markets or bus stations that can rescue your hungry stomach.
Last but not least, we couldn’t finish talking about Cape Maclear without mentioning the stunning sunsets that we were watching every evening.. They made us manually close our jaw every single day :)
In the backpackers’ we met a group of guys that were on different vehicles on the Put Foot Rally giving out shoes for charity. They offered us a fun ride at the back of their old Volkswagen van to Senga Bay. The bus station was at the nearby town of Salima. We spent some good 3 hours waiting for the big bus with the expectation of a comfortable trip to our next destination, Nkhata Bay.
However, things proved one more time that everything in Africa takes longer and… nothing is what you expect it to be! So the bus was full… with people and all sorts of luggage. Bags, buckets full of cabbage , carpets and baskets. It was not so bad at the end, we chatted with the people and after 3 hours we managed to sit! The road was now, passing from hills as we approached Nkhata Bay at night and we just had a glimpse of the beautiful small bay before we headed to Mayoka Village for our stay.
After a good sleep the next morning we were amazed by the view! The place was at the steep slope of the green hill, hanging above the rocky lake! The Lush green trees almost touching the blue water reminded us of Thailand and instantly we fell in love with the place.
We stayed one week at the Mayoka Village and our time was spent among swimming, cooking porridge for breakfast on our gas stove and hanging out with the other guests. In the afternoons we were always going to the local village down the hill in search of a cheap meal, internet or to simply stroll with the locals.
On our last day there, we learnt how to play the game that everybody seems to be playing in Africa, the bao! Wherever there is a shade below a tree you will find men playing it. The bao is famed to be a game for the “lazy” people. A single game can take even days to finish due to its combination of strategy and luck. It consists of a wooden board with 32 holes filled with beans or small pebbles. 2 or more players sit opposite each other and with moves similar to each other will try to “eat” the opponents’ beans by moving them to their side. We found it highly addictive and Smiley, the guy who taught us, curved a small one out of wood which we bought to continue the craziness back home in Greece!
When we asked Smiley to share with us his vision of his life, he said he would love to be able to help poor orphan children even if himself, he earns very little money for a living. We were so surprised of this so unselfish expectations for a young man’s future…That made us think how selfish people in the western world are by constantly wanting more and more from their lives instead of just being grateful for what they have. I guess this makes the difference between being poor but having a full life and being rich but mostly incomplete. Something has got to be wrong with the values that we believe in,us, the “advanced” countries.
Filling our mind with lots of thoughts we got ready for our next destination, the land of safaris, Tanzania :)