Saturday, 21 November 2009

Malawi: a country of smiles

When you cross the border into Malawi everything changes: the countryside, the people, the language, the buildings and the level of poverty.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. If the rains fail, hundreds of thousands of people are plunged into the depths of starvation and the World Food Programme has to intervene with aid. Even today on the front page of the local newspaper it claimed that a 147,000 people were to receive food aid this year.

The country is poor because it doesn’t have anything that anyone wants. It is an apologetic sliver of a country entrapped by Lake Malawi on the east and Zambia on the west. Malawi is also a country devoid of any precious raw materials wanted by the West or China. Its cash crops too don’t bring in much money: the country turned to sugar when the whole world decided obesity wasn’t such a good thing; then attempted tobacco just as all the anti-smoking laws around the world were finally drafted.

Despite its poverty, Malawi is a country of smiles. As we drive through the rolling green hills, interspersed with trees blossoming with vibrant lilacs, purples, pinks and reds, everyone waves and smiles. The children jump around excitedly and more enthusiastically than those of Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania, and here even the adults join in. We pass very few villages, only small congregations of huts with maybe one shop or a small bar or a shack for a church. Many of the hamlets have shiny new-looking water pumps which are permanently in use – testament to some of the aid entering the country actually trickling down to the grass roots.

The countryside is truly dramatic. Hills dip steeply down to the water’s edge of Lake Malawi; protruding spectacularly from the horizon are sharp edged, flat top mountains tinged with blue.

Lake Malawi is huge and is the lifeblood of the country: without its water many of the people in Malawi just wouldn’t survive. Along the water’s edge small fishing canoes are dragged up on shore, women do their laundry and young children swim. At the side of the road on sprawled out straw mats, piles of tiny silver fish dry in the sun; elsewhere a small pile of tomatoes, onions or mangos – all produced courtesy of the lake and Malawi’s humid climate.

The roads in Malawi are in good condition but the road blocks are excessive. Every few miles the truck is stopped for inspection. On our first road block Tim was told there wasn’t enough reflective material on the truck (despite it having all the lights and reflectors where it should) and was fined on the spot by a young man with a florescent jacket. Basically, a bribe that ended up in the ‘traffic policeman’s’ pocket.

At one stop, an ‘officer’ asked to take a look in the passenger section. He climbed the ladder up into the back of the truck then proceeded to have a look around at us and, more importantly, our stuff. Ravi played the American role perfectly by using excessive flattery (‘we love your country’, ‘we’re having a wonderful time’, ‘the people here are lovely’ etc.) to sweeten up the officer. It worked a dream and the officer brimmed with pride. We were fortunate that the officer’s only attempt at bribery was to ask whether he could have books from our book collection at the back of the truck. We told him that our driver Tim owned them and that he would have to ask him. With that he smiled politely, said goodbye and left empty handed.

After a long drive, we finally arrived at Chitimba on the shores of Lake Malawi. This camp with its bar overlooking the beach was our home for two nights.

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