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. 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. “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. 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...