Sitting on the plane from Johannesburg to Malawi, my seatmate was a wine connoisseur, an entertaining conversationalist and a regular visitor to this tiny country which is probably poorer now than it was the years after independence. After consuming almost an entire bottle of a delicious pinot from the area near Stellenbosch in South Africa, he was still able to introduce me to Malawian economics and politics.
His company was the largest buyer of tobacco leaves in sub Saharan African, and Malawi was one of the largest producers of tobacco. He admitted that the farmers who sold tobacco at auction barely received enough to provide them with a dollar a day in wages. He felt bad but what could he do. He said his company invested in aid projects, but he never returned my call when I contacted him to discuss funding.
At the time of my arrival, the current president, Bingu, had banned freedom of the press, ordered police to kill protesters in 2011, bought himself a private jet, deported the British envoy and lost all foreign aid. He also had just announced that he would not support the tobacco farmers by authorizing a minimum price per kilo at auction. What I soon learned was the country was almost bankrupt and without hard currency could not import gasoline. So the gas stations had no fuel, the contraband fuel was going for 850 kwacha a liter( $5 or $20 a gallon) and there was a huge black market for dollars of which I had none.
The capitol Lilongwe was a collection of tacky shopping malls, greasy fast food restaurants with expensive prices and a few supermarkets looking sad and bare. I avoided anything with a made in Malawi label except their home grown coffee. I used my guesthouse as a home base, leaving clothes and my laptop. With a collection of NGO workers doing research on prospective projects, a South African business man who came twice a month, an Australian agricultural specialist offering her expertise as a volunteer and returning Malawian guys returning to their birthplace , it felt like a clubhouse with constant visitors, a stocked bar (not free) and tv constantly on.
My contact in Malawi was a woman named N…, who worked with Little Dresses for Africa. I had offered to photograph in the villages where they worked since I had received over the past two years almost 75 pounds of new children’s clothes which I had taken to Cameroon. When N arrived at my guesthouse, she had borrowed an SUV from her cousin and miraculously it was filled with gas. We were going to drive down to her town, Ntcheu, 150 km south, and visit the school under construction, and the neighboring villages. I would photograph kids with new dresses and whatever else I saw. Her mother lived in a poor slum in Lilongwe, the usual rutted dirt roads, flooded during rainy season, and no electric, water, or toilets in the house. There was a truck which came every day or so to sell water. At her mom’s house, I politely refused lunch and suggested we go out to a restaurant. After a burger, colored strawberry ice cream and a boiled chicken curry salad, the bill for bad food was $18. I guess if I had changed money on the black market it would have been at least a cheap lunch. The expensive bad meals continued until the day before I left.
One night I had dinner with the South African from the guesthouse and as the electric went off, the owner came over, apologizing and asking where we were from. At the mention of the U.S., he brought over an American, about sixty years old, who was running a large American non profit in Malawi. When we asked him exactly what they were doing, we got a vague description of giving out cereal every morning to hungry kids in 343 centers all over the country. He himself was sketchy about his job description and excused himself when he saw a woman with extremely high heels walk by. Then there was the UNICEF contingent who was on the plane with me from South Africa. They were staying at a $200 a night hotel and being driven around in a van with $20 a gallon fuel. At my guesthouse there was a young girl who worked for the African union in some capacity as a health consultant who spent a lot of time socializing, taking an instant dislike to me when I asked her what she was doing in Malawi.
Finally out of Lilongwe, N and I drove down to rural Ntcheu, met her family, and drove out to the poor village that had received dresses last year. Surrounded by coughing, sneezing children, I noticed how filthy their clothes were and was told they had no water or soap to wash with. Better soap and water than new dresses I say. The rain came pouring down and the road turned into a muddy swamp. We made it to her sister’s house, and after the rains, I was dropped at the local hotel. The mattress was decent, there was hot water in the dirty shower and no rats showed up that night so I felt extremely lucky. The next morning I was a bit testy when N informed me I was going to have to fill up the gas tank today as well as replace the 60 liters when she returned the car. In case you are not a mathematician.. that’s about $450 worth of gasoline. I topped the tank with $150 worth of gas so I could get down to the Liwonde National Park and see some elephants and hippos. We decided she would go back to the big city and a friend of hers would drive me to Liwonde. We visited several villages before I left, N gave out dresses while I photographed. As we left to visit the villages, N invited along a very annoying heavy set man dressed in a suit, who kept laughing at his own jokes. He proclaimed great love and admiration for president Bingo and when I made a derogatory remark, N whispered he worked for the government. The poverty and despair in the villages did not seem to bother him. He just kept beaming like a politician. One of the women in the village had just become a widow left with 2 children. Her appearance suggested she was old but she was only twenty. I had little doubt that she could have Aids.
The landscape in Malawi is breathtaking but to really enjoy the ride you must have your own vehicle. I was staying inside the park at Bushman’s Baobab camp, with beautifully designed chalets at affordable prices. Down the road at Mvuu camp the price tag was $300 a person. The small group of people that night were teachers from England and Holland, the family of the English girl and a research doctor from the U.S…. we had great conversations and went out early morning in a jeep to see animals. Unfortunately because of poaching, there were a few elephants, deer and several ugly warthogs.
Malawi has camps and resorts catering to everything from backpackers to people spending several hundred dollars a night. It provides jobs for the village people but the wages are so low that they never rise out of poverty. A woman who cleans rooms everyday at a high-end resort, will be paid 10,000 kw a month ($60) while the room for one night is $135. With villages surrounding most of the resorts and camp sites, there are numerous night watchmen carrying machetes with a license to kill. This has kept crime at bay because they will murdera robber without thinking once.
I swore I would never take public transport in Malawi but the 350km drive would have been $300 in fuel alone. At the last minute I found out there was a express bus going up north to Mzuzu that would cost 2500mk. The bank rate was 165 mk= $1 the black market 275-300mk=$1. My seatmate was a rotund young woman breast feeding her baby. She was actually one of the most educated Malawians I had met and earned as an accountant for a church non-profit almost $800. Her husband was a government teacher and was sent to work in Lilongwe, even though his wife lived in Mzuzu. The government here as well as Cameroon, does not care if they split up families for years when they appoint teachers to government schools. With over 30,000 or more teachers out of work in Cameroon, no one dares complain when they get appointed.
Getting up to Lake Malawi from Mzuzu was about 50km so I thought I could survive a minibus. These are broken down dirty vans that travel short distances between towns. The last time I took one of these was in Mozambique and the experience ended the same this time. Waiting for an hour to fill up the van, when we finally left town, they began to stop every 5 minutes and kept cramming more people in until the door barely closed. My fury at their indifference to risking all of our lives and the docile acceptance by the others in the van, I was the only Mazungu (white), caused a verbal battle between myself and the guy collecting the fares. Within seconds after the van broke down, I clawed my way out the door. Luck was with me as a large white SUV stopped and gave me a lift to the lake.
The next five days I spent on Lake Malawi trying out two different lodges. The first was Mayoka village, built on a cliff with stone staircases leading from the wooden cabins on the lake to the more expensive stone cottages high up on the ridge. My room had a sunken stone bathtub. This was the best deal in Malawi; $20 a night. We swam off the rocks into clear blue water. Lake Malawi is 585km long and 100km wide. When I arrived at Makuzi Beach Lodge a few days later, there was a sandy beach, huge waves and only the horizon in sight. I felt as if I was at the ocean. At both of these lovely retreats I met several wonderful, interesting people. An Italian girl teaching in Dar Salem, a Dutch guy with dreadlocks doing his masters on environmental issues, and an English Malawian couple with their adorable children visiting family and friends made the five days on the lake very enjoyable and unforgettable.
Another unforgettable experience was the less than express bus back to Lilongwe along the lake coast road. Almost as bad as the minivans, the bus always had room for one more person. Within an hour of boarding the bus, there was no room to stand in the aisle. Women were even standing, breastfeeding babies, as the bus lurched on uneven road. At each of the three roadblocks, the entire bus had to exit for a police search which was purely intimidation to instill fear and obedience in these poor villagers. On the express bus up to Mzuzu there were no searches by police. The poorer the people the more they are abused. After nine hours, at least twenty five stops and over 350km, we finally reached Lilongwe.
At the end of this trip, the final good news was delivered on Friday night at the guesthouse. The president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, had suffered a heart attack and was dead. Ignore the world news propaganda, the people of Malawi were not mourning their loss but rejoicing this arrogant dictator was finally gone.