5 March 2019 — Africa is huge, and approaching it is a bit like dropping into a French patisserie. If it's your first time, where do you start?
And southern Africa is filled with adventure and discovery, a continent that demands respect and admiration. But, like anywhere, some corners beckon more than others.
You'll like Malawi, a joyful simple place, deeply African yet distant from the buzz of the continent's high-energy cities. I'm betting you won't be hard to convince this country belongs on your must-see list, so I'll let these intriguingly interesting facts about Malawi speak for themselves.
Is Malawi safe? Well, Africa is a huge continent and parts of it have a (justifiable) reputation for violence and crime - there are pockets of war, areas held by terrorists, and mega-cities in which being a foreign solo female traveler will be unsettling at the very least. But Malawi is small, rural and quite safe. According to AnswersAfrica, it's the 6th safest country in Africa.
I remember my first visit more than 20 years ago - it felt anything but safe. Instability and poverty had made this a sensitive destination but today, things are different. I might not walk around Lilongwe, the capital, alone at night but feel unsafe at any point? No.
Malawi calls itself the "Warm Heart of Africa", based on a friendliness and openness that makes it a pleasure to explore. Wherever you go in this country, you'll be greeted with a "Welcome" or a friendly question.
I was unfortunately sick my first few days, with an ear infection that made me worry I might not be able to leave. So the hunt was on for a pair of "Earplanes", plugs that make it easier to regulate the pressure in your ears.
Internet was sometimes 'not there' so my partner Anne, back in France, scoured the web until she found Mitch Pharmacy, a stone's throw from my hotel. They messaged one another, and next thing you know a pair of these was ordered for me and Mercy, the economist who runs the pharmacy, even offered to drop them off.
Everywhere it was the same: How can I help you? With smiles from morning to night. It's easy to get addicted.
Markets in Africa, especially those selling crafts to tourists, are often an assault on the senses, with artisans and shopkeepers vying for your business, sometimes trying to physically drag you to their stalls. Yet in Lilongwe's central craft market, even though the tourist season was still months away, it was the opposite. Yes, people were trying to sell - of course they were, it's their livelihood. But it was all done so gently and such good humor it actually made me want to stay - and yes, I did buy a few things.
In fact, I broadcast this live video of my foray through the craft market but given the poor connectivity in the country, it's a bit blurred. Still, it'll give you an idea of the market, the crafts and the people.
Few tourists mean a visit here will be an authentic experience. While this may not be great news for Malawians, it's a blessing for visitors: no jostling for wildlife viewing, no competing for hotels and restaurants. For now, at least, most foreigners you meet are likely to be aid workers or business people.
Take yourself for a ride through the countryside. Small-town life in Malawi is dictated by the weather and the cycle of the sun, but it is a country facing major challenges: the road infrastructure needs renewal and erosion is frittering the roadsides away; this is the rainy season but a note in my room warns that due to drought, a perennial problem in these parts, there can be no guarantee of water (although there’s a chance it might come on in the evening); there are constant power failures (my flashlight is getting a workout) but they don’t last long; and Internet is so unreliable that any business that accepts credit cards displays a disclaimer warning customers to bring cash, just in case.
But it’s very much a ‘can do’ society where people make things happen. Someone may have to fetch someone who knows someone but you’ll usually get what you need. Whatever happens, it’ll be served up with at the very least a warm smile.
You've probably heard of the term 'Africa time' - rather than sticking to a firm schedule, things get done... when they get done. It's a much less stressful approach to life though it can be disconcerting until you get used to it.
As I worked under a bougainvillea one morning, a group of gardeners were clearing some trees. They chopped a branch here, another there, climbed down to examine their handiwork... Other than the chopping of wood with a panga (the local machete), the only sound was the light winter breeze, the chirping of a few birds and the pitter-patter of tiny darting lizard feet.
Then suddenly a loudspeaker blared out of nowhere, a rowdy African song. Within minutes two other loudspeakers were in competition, rap on my left and on my right, something I thought I recognized from the 1980s. No one seemed to mind; everyone just began talking more loudly.
Rural Malawi ambles at such a slow pace that if you need a ride for a short distance, you may well have to hail a bicycle. Like motorcycles sitting at the top of small streets in Thailand's cities, these wait at key spots, like road crossings and hotel entrances.
I’m not exactly a small person but they assured me - with hilarious gestures - that they often carried passengers far heavier than I!! And no, I didn’t try.
Malawi has exceptional star gazing, for those of you who think a glittering firmament is magical (I do). All the prerequisites are here - clear skies, a rural setting and a lack of city lights. But the stars really come into their own along the shores of Lake Malawi, a large expanse of limpid darkness at night, broken only by the occasional light of a fishing boat.
The Malawi climate, which is basically sub-tropical, was rainy when I visited and I worried I'd be stranded and unable to travel but no, the skies opened up for a few hours, no more. I was lucky because the rainy season can also bring with it seriously floods, which kill people.
When the rains are light, you tend to lose power here and there during the day. The lights go out - but come right back on. Even so, don't even think of going out without a flashlight - it may be the most useful piece of equipment you carry.
Otherwise, Malawi weather is warm to hot, with the wet season between November and April, turning to lush green until the cooler period between June and August, which is the best time to visit Malawi and the height of the tourist season. By September, the heat sets in and continues until the rains start again.
On another note, in Malawi malaria is an issue so do take precautions before you visit.
Looking out a car window, you'll be amused by the number of goats scampering by the road, but you'll also notice the green of tobacco plants: tobacco makes up more than half the country's exports and is the country's main cash crop. It's a difficult life for the tobacco farmer. Not only is farming itself a health concern, but farmers are at the end of the receiving line when it comes to tobacco profits. There has been plenty of controversy around price-fixing by Big Tobacco and its life-cycle ownership of Malawi's tobacco crop: large corporations provide the seeds and fertilizers, give the farmers loans, and contract with them to buy the crop at the end of the season. When you own the entire production process, you call the shots...
This is a small country, as Africa goes, about the size of Bulgaria. But it is also one of the poorest countries on the continent (at times the poorest) and one that is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Malawi also produces tea and coffee and plenty of other things but not enough to make it wealthy. Also typical of many poor countries is wood scarcity, with much of the forest being felled for firewood. Malawi is famous for its beautiful wood carvings - I remember wanting to buy a chair decades ago but it was so heavy the shipping would have cost more than the chair. In the end, I'm glad I didn't buy it because I would have contributed to the disappearance of trees in Malawi. In the craft market, there were plenty of hardwood carvings but the sculptors told me they were the product of tree plantations.
The literacy rate in Malawi is below Africa's average, with two-thirds of the population able to read and write. Still, education in Malawi is compulsory for the first eight years. The country has also suffered a high HIV infection rate but it is working to contain the epidemic, all of which hampers its development.
Despite ongoing poverty, Malawi has started turning things around and its economy has been growing steadily for several years. It is still poor, but its prospects are on the upswing.
Malawi's capital is Lilongwe, but its other large city, Blantyre, was founded by Scottish settlers and named for Blantyre in Scotland, the birthplace of David Livingstone. The explorer remains fondly remembered here, in part for his devotion to Christianity (Many Malawians are devout Christians and social talk involving religion is common.) Livingstone also fought the slave trade, and mapped out Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyasa, a name still used by neighboring Tanzania), which he called the "Lake of Stars" because of its shimmer (which some say is due to the lanterns used by the fishermen's boats.
A random historical fact: Malawi was once a British colony called Nyasaland, the name it kept until independence in the mid-1960s.
Lake Malawi is Africa's third largest and the ninth largest in the world, a huge, empty expanse that borders with Mozambique and Tanzania. Elephants occasionally drop by for a drink, as do baboons and hippos. It also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to more fish species than any other lake in the world - approximately 800. Some 90% are cichlids, scurrying bright-colored fish only found in Africa. Cichlids from Lake Malawi can be tiny or huge and include chambo, a staple food in Malawi.
But that's not why most people come to the lake: they come here to relax. Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay, Senga Bay - all these are magical Lake Malawi resorts that entice people to visit, whether to lie on the beach, enjoy the scenery or go diving.
Malawi may be landlocked but Lake Malawi does provide it with a border - of sorts, because despite being drawn up well over a century ago, it is still somewhat disputed; some say the border runs along the Malawian coast, others say it runs smack down the middle of the lake. This controversy could have been blissfully ignored had it not been for the discovery of oil beneath the lake. For Malawians, the lake is omnipresent, as part of their culture, their fisheries and its sheer size and beauty.
For a small(ish) country, Malawi doesn't do too badly on the conservation front: between 16%-23% of its land (depends on whom you read) is considered protected and includes nine national parks and reserves. That's the good news. But it's not all good. The latest assessments show deforestation is spreading and that such activities as logging (some of it illegal) and agriculture are encroaching on all national parks and destroying forests. Forests aren't really being managed and that doesn't help. That said, there is much poverty in Malawi so harvesting wood from the forest helps some people survive.
Even if land is protected, there's no guarantee the forest will survive but Lake Malawi is even worse off. More than a third of Malawians depend on the lake for their livelihoods and food, yet their very resources - the lake's fish - are now threatened. Three of the four species of chambo are now considered critically endangered, and fisheries are threatened. Chambo has been a cheap and (for now) abundant source of food but at present rates of fishing, there soon won't be any left.
This isn't Kenya or Tanzania or South Africa... no, Malawi is far more modest but it is changing fast, positioning itself to become the next African safari destination. There may be fewer animals in Malawi than you'll find in neighboring safari countries, but you'll also find fewer tourists.
Majete National Park was once home to teeming wildlife but by the 1990s, most wildlife had been poached and the park was nearly empty. It was then taken over by National Parks, an NGO that rehabilitates protected areas, who began reintroducing species. The plan worked so well that Majete began exporting animals to other Malawian parks.
In a move that brought hope to both parks and local communities, one of the largest elephant translocations ever - which took two years - successfully rehomed 520 elephants from Liwonde and Majete to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, to help repopulate a park that was once home to the majority of Malawi's elephants.
Majete is just one example of park rehabilitation, where black rhinos, elephants, lions and plenty of other wildlife now thrive. Poaching has disappeared, tourism is on the rise and the income from tourism helps fund conservation efforts. What was once a wasteland has been restored to life - and the same future awaits Malawi's other national parks. The government and private tour companies recognize the value of revitalizing protected areas, which benefits everyone.
It would be a shame to miss the chance of a safari in Malawi but if you simply can't manage it and you're in the capital, get yourself to the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre and spend an hour walking around the conservation trails to see the rescued wildlife. It's not the same as a safari by a long shot but it's a lovely experience and one definitely worth trying (the lunch at the on-site restaurant is good, too.) You can also follow the river trail out of the conservation area for several hours - but be sure to let the guards know where you're going. Oh, and watch out for the occasional crocodile.
Back in the late Stone Age and early Iron Age, the forested hills of central Malawi were already inhabited. We know this from a number of things, including the ancient rock paintings local hunter-gatherers left behind. The sites are still used for ceremonies and the Chongoni Rock Art area is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is made up of 127 separate sites scattered around the hills.
Air travel in Africa is changing (for the better) and a flight to Malawi is no longer the convoluted journey it once was.
Lilongwe Airport isn't exactly cosmopolitan, but it has everything you need, including a small gift shop in the departure "lounge" for your coffee and tea purchases, and a café with food that is more acceptable than you'll find at many larger airports.
Of course you can also take a bus to Malawi from neighboring countries, but high speed on poorly kept narrow roads make this option a lot more dangerous than flying. Hop on Air Malawi or Ethiopian Airlines instead.
You can compare prices for flights to Malawi here:
The two most common languages in Malawi are Chichewa, the national language, and English, which is the official language (remember those British colonial times?) This makes it easy for visitors to communicate and get around. Other languages include Yao, a Bantu language, Tumbuka (spoken mainly in the North), and some others spoken by a few hundred thousand people. (Curious about the sound of Chichewa? Here's a Youtube lesson.)
Knowing how difficult it is to get visas to certain African countries, Malawi is a dream. You land, stand in the first airport queue with your filled in visa form, then move to the second line to pay (when I visited it was US$75) and to get your passport stamped. That's it, you're in.
Malawi may be small. It may be poor, and the infrastructure may leave something to be desired. But it is friendly, welcoming and - like that French patisserie - filled with such delight that deciding where to start is a challenge.
It's the perfect country for a first visit to Africa. Or a second. Or a third.