Heaven is a place on earth

Posted: October 24, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , , , ,

I never knew that the words of Belinda Carlisle would prove to be so prophetic. Our swift exit from Zambia led us a merry dance as we hopped on and off the most packed chiappas minibuses (old, busted shuttles that barely move) from the Malawian border down to Lilongwe and then on to Liwonde. At the border we were helped by a Zambian detective who stoppd us getting conned by the money exchangers but then not so subtley asked for money! We politely palmed him off and then settled into the crazy bus and made friends with the locals.

We arrived late in Liwonde and were dropped off, on the advice of a friendly asian Malawian, at the police roadblock. It was 9pm, pitch black and the streets always seem to assume an unknown menace when you are fresh into a new country at night. There are no taxis in Malawi (it is the 3rd poorest country in the world apparently) so we had to pick up our bags and hop on the back of a bike cab. Our destination, Hippo View Lodge, was 1km down a dark, dusty and bumpy track. God knows how my bike boy (that’s not a euphemism) managed to maintain balance with my weight and the 3 bags I was carrying (1 of Muneeza’s as she is so dainty don’t you know). Having tipped him handsomely we managed to secure a room.

Hippo View Lodge sits on the bank of the Shire River that flows between the Liwonde National Park. It has the air of a once magnificant palace. Owned by an Indian family, the menu is classic Indian and so is the ambiance – faded splendour, with grandiose scale yet little attention to details such as maintaining paintwork and woodwork. Our room was a pricey $60 but it had aircon, ‘squito nets and a partial river view. Having dispensed with the roaches, we settled down to some much needed sleep after 17hrs of bus torture.

Our plan for the next 2 days was to head to Mvuu Lodge in the Liwonde National Park. I hit town early to get some cash from the only ATM in the local area, then set about making some calls. It turned out that for 1 night the lodge would be $440! Crazy prices. Luckily, we knew that the same company worked with a local village in the national park to encourage eco-tourism, enabling you to spend time with the yocals and get to know their way of life. A snip at $40 per person per night we booked up. Njobvu Cultural Village is actually a project name and represents 6 Malawian villages with the intention of bringing money into the villages and helping them sell their products to a wider market whilst raising money to fund important development projects.

Before we headed off, we were able to squeeze in a 1hr boat trip up the river with another English couple staying at Hippo View. Our boatman was cool, incredibly chilled and very knowledgeable about the area and wildlife. We were rewarded with our first sightings of hippo and lots of them, relaxing in the water and sleeping off the heat. We then hit the jackpot when we reached a lagoon and stumbled upon a herd of about 50 elephants, of all shapes and sizes, having their m0rning drink and bath. We stared in awe as they played and returned to the lodge contented.

We headed off on a chiappas early pm and reached the drop off point at Ulongwe. By now I had mastered the basics of Chichewa, the local language, so was making us new friends. After waiting around for a while we had to take another bike taxi to the Njobvu Cultural Village, our home for 2 days. The bike ride was 12km (50mins) in searing heat – I felt very sorry for the cyclists but by the end we were having a good conversation and we were sorry to see them go.

We will never forget the greeting we received at the village. All the way children ran out to wave and shout and on arrival, all the kids from the nearby houses kept running up to us and shouting “Hello”. The only other English they knew was “bottle” (empty plastic bottles are invaluable as they enable the children to take fresh water to school each day) and “money”. Unlike some of the other countries we have visited, there was no hassle, no following, just big open smiles and a genuine desire to see new visitors.

We were given an intro to village life by the 2 project leaders, Douglas and Enoch. Both were born in the local villages and knew everyone there. We had the priviledge of meeting the local medicine man who, via translation, explained what plants and roots he used to treat which complaints. He had learned his craft from him uncle to ensure the learning passed down the generations. I’m not sure how much I believe in this type of medical treatment but I’m not arrogant enough to dismiss it – I remain open minded though without direct proof myself. There must be something in this because the medicine man is still a highly respected person within the villages.

We next had a tour of some of the villagers’ houses. We met one woman and her family, although the entire time we had an entourage of at least 10 other children fascinated by the etrangers. Their homes are basic as you would expect. The people can’t afford to buy building materials, so houses are made from the land – mud walls and floors, thatched rooves supported by timber frames. Whenever possible they will gather other people’s waste materials like tarp to add insulation or provide covering to window frames. Inside is small but cosy – each house has 1 living room, 1 store room for food and 1 bedroom for the parents. Children either sleep in the living room or under their parent’s bed. It is incredibly basic yet they are used to it and when asked didn’t complain about anything. Major dose of humble pie for moany me!

If the daytime was insightful and quite humbling, the night time was enthralling. We had dinner cooked for us by some of the women and sat out on reed mats under the stars talking and eating (Xima, the staple maize diet). After dinner we had time to freshen up – our bathroom was an outdoor affair as you would expect, the toilet a mud hut with a hole in the ground, the shower stones on the floor with a bucket from which to pour water. To us lucky enough to live with modern amenities, it would appear childishly basic but in this heat, any comfort is welcome and to us, the fact that they thought about providing us with our own shower meant the world. It is often those with the least who give the most.

We returned to the fold and were sat as guests of honour as the villagers massed for the evening entertainment. Fearing being speared into the boiling pot as the sacrifical calf, I was glad when it turned out to be dancing. We were treated to the boys and girls dancing and singing, first amongst themselves, then to the local band who played a type of Malawian dance music. We were asked to judge the boys and girls in a dance off and pick winners. It was hot and dusty as dirt was being kicked up everywhere and I felt a bit dizzy – instant thought was malaria, forever the dramatist. Much to Muneeza’s delight I then had to join in with Douglas and Enoch and dance in front of all the locals – at first my British reserve locked the limbs but soon I was breaking shapes the locals had never seen. Apparently I was also kicking dirt all over Muneeza but that serves her right for escaping the white man’s ritual humiliation.

As the festivities quietened and the kids sloped off to bed, we sat up with our hosts under the moonlight and exchanged cultural insights. We retired to our hut in awe of the friendliness of the villagers and glad we had escaped the tourist route for a while.

We woke early and spent the next morning having a guided tour of the local school. The kids were fascinated by us and we had such an incredible welcome by the staff, especially the headmaster. We spent time in each classroom, met the teachers and children and learned how the school operates. In each classroom the kids, ever polite, would stand and wait until we had invited them to sit, in Chichewa of course (Cal an e pass). Inevitably we were also given the news on what difficulties they face and the headmaster, Tedman, was direct in asking for our support if we could.

We left the village early afternoon, with mixed emotions. No matter how basic the village was and how much hardship the people endure with lack of resource and support, the friendliness was genuine and at times overwhelming. It is a cliche that African countries depend on Western support, also ironic given what the Europeans did to most of the continent in the 19th and 20th centuries, but we left determined to find a way to help them financially to fund key projects such as building more schools. That is not fanciful idealism, more a recognition of how lucky we really are and how many children never get a helping hand when they most need it.

Humbled and sad to leave, we headed north towards Monkey Bay and some R&R on the beach at Mufasa backpackers. Stupidly we didn’t think about the cash situation, and realised too late in Mangochi where the bus wouldn’t stop to let us hit the ATM. There are no ATMs in any of the other towns en route, so we reached Monkey Bay low on cash. That meant we had a headache of a day on the Thursday taking the slow chiappas to and fro Mangochi to get to the ATM. Having finally got there, we had to wait 1hr as the network was down. We got back to Monkey Bay hot and tired after 7hrs of unnecessary travel but managed to chill on the private beach and spot a croc from the rocks – awesome sight! If you ever visit Monkey Bay, be sure to stay at Mufasa Backpackers – run by a motley crue of gringos, it is super chilled and lies in an idyllic location with a private beach on the shores of Lake Malawi (as we were being shown round, whilst stood staring at the amazing private beach Muneeze asked one of the owners “So where is the private beach I read about”!!!).

On Friday 22nd October we were up at 8am to get ready for our next journey, a long 24hr boat ride on the illustrious Ilala from Monkey Bay to the Mozambique border on Lake Malawi. From there our story will pick-up.

Love james & muneeza x

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