Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

One of the most common misconceptions people have about Africa is “all of Africa is the same”. Almost every time I cross borders overland, I’m amazed at the kind of changes that some imaginary line can introduce. Malawi was no different. First, I noticed an increase in population density (Malawi has almost 14 million people in just 118,000 square kilometers compared to Zambia which has about the same population in an area seven times the size). While nothing seems crowded after my month in China, there was a consistent string of little villages, to an extent that it made finding a lunch spot or even a non-discreet bush toilet a challenge even for our driver TK has been perfecting his picnic spot spotting abilities for over a decade.

Kids watching us eat lunch on day 1 in Malawi

Kids watching us eat lunch on day 1 in Malawi

The Land Where People Materialize Out of Thin Air
Our first day in Malawi he picked a place that fit two out of three usual characteristics (clean, shaded, away from villages)… or so he thought. When we unpacked the first couple chairs, we saw one kid peeking curiously from the road. Before we knew it, a dozen of his friends gathered, shyly hiding behind a dead tree but very blatantly watching our every move. “Ignore them, ignore them” said Nikka, as he quickly chopped carrots, since Nomad Adventures has a policy against giving leftover food to villagers since word travels fast and they don’t want the locals to expect a free feast every time they see a truck. A few minutes after the young children started gathering, a herd of cow hopped over the hill made by the elevated train tracks. The teenage herdsman paused to investigate what we were doing but seemed to decide, regretfully, that he should follow his cows. Tailing the bovines came another clump of preteen boys wielding small wooden clubs accompanied by mangy dogs. They surrounded us, spaced out in the nearby field, watching us hungrily between the tall grasslands. “Oh goodness. It looks like we might be the ones eaten at this meal”, one of the Belgians commented. Nikka’s chopping accelerated audibly and we awkwardly clutched empty water bottles and nervously looked around for potential defense weapons. After ten or so minutes, the preteens got bored and the hunting party moved on but the first clump of young kids didn’t move an inch until our truck left them in a dust cloud.

Chaos of a market in Malawi

Chaos of a market in Malawi

“Sharing is Caring”: Relentless Entrepreneurs Who Convince You to Strip
Time and time again, this lesson that “empty spaces in Malawi aren’t actually empty” seemed reinforced. You go for a swim at the beach of Lake Malawi and one guy appears to welcome you to his country. Before you know it, his brother, Happy, joins the group. Then it’s his cousin “Name is William. Business name is Georgie Peorgie”. Another kid pushes them aside to hold our hands. “I’m No Hassle. Come into my shop. T.I.A. (“This Is Africa”)… free looks and you have all day”. Another doesn’t wait until we finish our swim and dives into the water and pulls out a handful of bracelets for sale (still not sure how he kept them dry). You tell them you don’t have any money and this excites them more. “Hakuna Matata. No problem. What do you have to trade? Maybe your watch? Sharing is caring!”. These twenty year olds are relentless and successfully had us stripping and swapping T-shirts, hats, socks and headphones for their woodcarvings, bracelets and necklaces. I ended up trading an old digital camera for two custom tailored pants and a magnet. While I’m sure I could have bartered harder, it provided an afternoon of activity, which involved marching around the village to pick out the fabric, finding two tailors (sharing is caring!), meet the boy’s mother and his friends… etc.

Reminds me ghost towns...

Reminds me ghost towns…

The Wild West of Africa?
Malawi mystified me in other ways. The buildings looked better constructed than in Zambia but the small towns gave off an eerie deserted feel like an old Wild West mining town (especially because they have “Gold Depot” shops). The paint was faded or peeling and chunks of the buildings seem to have been broken off. Many of the structures had boarded up windows and doors, with tattered sheets blowing in the breeze. Locals would be hanging out at one or two shops, or shooting pool at an outdoor billiard table under a thatched roof. The other half was completely deserted, as if haunted by ghosts. I was especially entranced by the “tea shops” I found in every town. “People in these parts can’t possibly be drinking enough tea to warrant a shop”, I thought to myself. When I asked the tour guides, they laughed, “those tea shops are just like any other shop. They sell everything but tea”. I stared back skeptically and responded animatedly, “then why do they call them tea shops?!?” . TK and Nikka just laughed. I’m still convinced Tea Shops in Malawi are the African equivalent of Coffee Shops in Amsterdam: a cover for marijuana deals… I have no evidence but weed is one of Malawi’s most famous exports.

Women outside a building at a market in Malawi

Women outside a building at a market in Malawi

What I observed on the side of the road made a bit more sense when the group had a fireside chat about the history of the country. Malawi is the poorest country in Africa but historically it has received a lot of foreign aid to supply clinics, develop architecture and build schools. Since it’s independence in 1960s, it has also suffered from several extremely corrupt leaders, including the current president who is offending donors to an extent that they are beginning to cut back on its donations. The country seems naturally gifted with lush greenery, mountains, rivers and the enormous Lake Malawi. There’s also noticeably more agriculture lining the roads. However, Malawi has one of the highest birth rates in Africa with some women having 14 children. Because of the large population, almost all this food is consumed by the people who grow it so barely any of it is exported for profit. So when we later toured Ngala village, we saw relatively nice clinics and schools, but since they had to service so many people, they were constantly crowded and running of supplies. Some of the primary school classes had 270 kids in one room (and these are not university lecture halls either!).

Malawi kids in front of some traditional boats in Nkota Kota

Malawi kids in front of some traditional boats in Nkota Kota

Suddenly An Auntie
We stopped in Nkota Kota to tour a village infamous for its involvement in the slave trade. Before our tour truck even stopped, we heard a something like Disneyworld then looked up the path to see a pack of excited kids, limbs flying as they generate a dust cloud. As they approached, we began to discern, “Uzugo, uzugo”(“White people! White people!” Muzugo is the singular version) and they assembled in a panting puff by the truck door. We tentatively disembarked when Nikka told us, “Don’t worry- the just want to be close to you- the kids love to hold your hand”.

The usual parade when we enter a village in Malawi

The usual parade when we enter a village in Malawi

Milliseconds later, we all had two to three small kids hanging off our arms and we struggled to hear the tour guide over their audible excitement as they looked at our bracelets and patted our skin. It was hard to pay attention to the tour when they were constantly blowing kisses, touching my hair, wanting to pose for pictures and squealing with glee when they discovered the German guy’s gorilla tattoo.
A similar thing happened during our village out the following day but there, they made the mistake of bringing us to a local school where kids abandoned their classes to poke their faces through the door and thumbs up signs through the windows as we sat in a classroom to learn about the curriculum. The tour guide shooed them away with a whisk broom and two minutes later, they’d be back but with a group twice the size since everyone grabbed a friend. When it was time to leave, quite a few decided following us was more important than school and accompanied us back to where we came from. Unfortunately, the tour guide told us too late that the Malawi kids enjoy donations like pens, notebooks, etc. so very few of us had any to spare but I made a girl’s day just by giving her a hair tie and a bottle of water. It was almost enough to counterbalance her sadness that she’d have to say goodbye to her new “Auntie”. It’s impossible not to let these kids get under your skin with their unimaginable enthusiasm and appreciation of the smallest gifts: all of them were so happy just to spend time with us.

Final sunrise in Malawi

Final sunrise in Malawi

“I never knew of a Morning in Africa when I woke up and was not Happy” -Ernest Hemingway

Time For Goodbye
Today’s the day we head to Tanzania, leaving the land of broken ATMs, entertaining phrases (“Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezie”, “Cool bananas” and more) and marriage proposals (I’ve been proposed to three times, although the men paled a bit when they learned I have a PhD… villagers still often pay the bride price in cows and a more educated woman deserves more cows. One younger guy was undeterred and claimed to be content with a courtship for now before he makes his millions playing football and can accumulate enough livestock). I’m leaving this country vowing to come back and spend more time amongst its highly entertaining people and lovely landscapes.

Song of the Moment: Mwana wa Munthu (Kwa Pilato)– Black Missionaries (Malawi is famous for their music and this is one of their most famous bands) and Mzimu wa Soldier– Lucius Banda (another favorite from Malawi)
Book of the Moment: I’ve been to busy to read ever since I learned how to play “Bao”. This board game originated from their country, named as such because it used to be played under the Baobab tree. Ever since learning it, I’ve had no time for reading since I’ve been busy challenging locals to matches.
If YOU want to come to Malawi: I highly recommend it! It’s one of the few African visas without a fee (unless you’re Swiss or Austrian) and amongst backpackers, it’s known as “Africa for beginners”. Because of the increased population, there’s a lot more buses and minibuses moving between regions and the places we stayed were closer to villages so it was easier to interact with locals. If you can bring any school supplies, linens, clothes, etc., village clinics and schools would highly appreciate any donations.

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3 Comments

  1. mark nyongesa
    Sep 18, 2015

    hi friend,
    i read your story with nostalgia, this is very true, you have just describe exactly what life is in east Africa, so is kenya. crazy marriage proposals, promises of lots of property if you agree to marry one, many cows, cattle for dowry. Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezie”, “Cool bananas…true, very true. karibu kenya..hakuna matata

    • MARK NYONGESA
      Sep 18, 2015

      hi friend,
      i read your story with nostalgia, this is very true, you have just describe exactly what life is in east Africa, so is kenya. crazy marriage proposals, promises of lots of property if you agree to marry one, many cows, cattle for dowry. Easy Peasy, Lemon Squeezie”, “Cool bananas…true, very true. karibu kenya..hakuna matat

      • Katie
        Sep 18, 2015

        Glad I had an accurate first impression! Looking forward to Kenya, @Mark