Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

The Warm Heart of Africa

Malawi’s advertising tagline is “The warm heart of Africa.” My friends who visited two months ago told me, “It’s true! Everyone is friendly for the sake of being friendly. It’s not like everywhere else in Africa where people are constantly asking you for money. If you’re going to go anywhere in southern Africa, go to Malawi.”

Although the country is beautiful and the people were indeed friendly, unfortunately I still found that people were constantly asking me for money or “donations.”

Despite the relentless requests, however, I would still recommend Malawi to anyone!

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. The hostel I had booked (Mabuya Camp) arranged for a taxi to pick me up at the airport: it was exciting to walk off the plane and see someone holding a sign that said “Bethany” – it made me feel kind of like someone important!

In my hostel room I met two women from New Zealand who were traveling around Africa together for 5 months. We chatted a bit and they said they were planning on going to Cape Maclear the next day. Excellent! That was my destination too! We agreed to travel together and, assuming they would handle the arrangements – they seemed very responsible – I went to bed. At 4pm. It had been a hectic weekend and I had barely slept for 2 days.

I slept straight through to 5:30am when the three of us got up to take a taxi to the bus station. We had been told to arrive by 6am and that the bus would leave around 7am. In very few African countries, however, do things like buses have a fixed schedule. I think South Africa might be the only one! The bus arrived around 6:30am and we climbed on. Then we waited. One girl took a nap for an hour, woke up, looked around, and was extremely disappointed that we were still in the parking lot.

You see, in Africa, the bus leaves when it’s full. We left at 9:50am.

Once upon a time, waiting for almost 4 hours might have bothered me. But I’ve finally accomplished a Zen attitude while traveling – although unfortunately it doesn’t carry over to the rest of my life. Those 4 hours didn’t affect me at all. I had a book to read. There were interesting people to watch. Maybe it was because I’d just slept for over 12 hours, but my brain went into standby mode.

Once the bus started moving, it wasn’t too long of a drive to Monkey Bay. We arrived around 4pm I think. Unprepared as usual, I hadn’t brought any food with me for the trip. Whenever the bus stopped, however, locals would rush to window and offer bottled drinks, deep fried dough balls, roasted peanuts, homemade samosas, fresh apples, fried fish on a stick, and other foods.

Thank goodness! The only meal I’d had on Saturday was lunch served on the plane.

On the bus we met another backpacker: a young woman from Canada. As soon as the four of us disembarked the bus in Monkey Bay, locals swarmed us to offer their services. We negotiated a taxi ride for the final half hour to Cape Maclear and set off.

Despite the bilharzia worms, Cape Maclear is absolutely stunning. The four of us booked a dorm room together at Fat Monkeys and enjoyed three gorgeous days at the lake.

The first morning, the two kiwis and I hired a local guide to hike up the mountain. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top, but we stopped and took lots of photos along the way. If you visit Cape Maclear, however, you don’t need to hire anyone: there’s only one path and it’s quite clear. At the top one of my new friend’s pointed to the closest island and said, “Bet you could swim there.”

“Let’s do it!” I exclaimed.

Our guide, Hastings, said that he’d swum to the island before. He said it was only 2.5km away.

“That’s what we’re doing tomorrow,” I declared.

The island we swam to

The island we swam to


Hastings also took us to Otter Point where two of us swam in the lake – very refreshing after hiking up a steep trail in the sun! Lastly he showed us the National Park education centre which once held tanks of different species of lakes, but is now falling apart and decrepit. The information on the walls, however, was still intact so we read a bit about the history of Lake Malawi and Cape Maclear.

For lunch we went to one of the local restaurants. I ordered a chocolate milkshake, one girl wanted a frozen banana smoothie, and another a regular banana smoothie: we were all given frozen banana smoothies. Although not what I had ordered, it was delicious nonetheless.

The next morning we met an American man who is currently living in Addis, Ethiopia. He was visiting Cape Maclear for a holiday. He decided to join us on our search for snorkels, masks, and flippers for swim to the island.

By the time we had walked to Kayak Africa, which rented snorkel gear, the whole town knew our plan. One local, Quinton, offered to rent us gear for 1000 kwacha/mask and 1000 kwacha/flippers. We also negotiated the use of a life jacket to tow behind us – just in case.

Quinton then went one better. He and his friend offered to canoe to the island and cook us lunch. For another 5000 kwacha, he agreed to cook two freshly caught fish meals and two vegetarian.

We swam to the island in no time at all. Once we arrived, the other three got out of the water and sunbathed while I continued snorkeling around the rocks. The fish were beautiful! Blue and orange and white. I’ve never liked fish that much, never seen the point of having an aquarium, but they were like jewels among the rocks.

Eventually I got out of the water too and sat on the rocks with my friends. Quinton and his friend already had a fire going in the rocks. They made a huge pot of rice and fresh tomato sauce in pots of the fire. They smoked a batch of freshly caught fish on the coals. It took over an hour, but it was worth the wait!

My vegetarian meal got a huge handful of sliced cabbage on the side instead of fish. I know that doesn’t sound as exciting, but with the tomato sauce it was delicious. We all ate more rice than we had imagined we would and lazed around on the rocks for another hour or so. Quinton took us out in his canoe and his friend showed us how they caught fish with leftover rice.

Once we no longer felt painfully full, we jumped in the lake and swam back to the mainland. Quinton and his friend followed us in their canoe. Maybe they thought we’d eaten too much and were afraid we’d drown!

They offered to cook us fresh banana pancakes on the beach for dinner, but we were much to full for a big dinner as well. Instead we meandered back to Fat Monkeys, ordered drinks, and watched the sunset while chatting with other travelers.

After Cape Maclear, we decided to go to Senga Bay next. The other 3 backpackers were traveling north to Nkhata Bay and Senga Bay was on the way.

We awoke at 4am to the taxi we’d booked the previous night at 4:30am. It didn’t show up so we had to call someone else. We finally got a taxi at 5:30am and made it to Monkey Bay around 6am. Our bus was already there, about to leave. I think the taxi driver might have phoned ahead and told the driver we were coming.

It was surprising to get on the bus and have it leave right away! We arrived in Salima by 10am and took a minibus to Senga Bay.

I had thought Cape Maclear was isolated, but I was wrong. Senga Bay was really, really isolated. We were the only four white people in town and there were only four restaurants: two at hostels and two tiny local ones. Even though I had visited Zambia and Mozambique, I had only gone to the tourist-y towns. This felt like “real Africa” – whatever that means. I finally understand why people say South Africa isn’t really “Africa.” ZA is very westernized compared to these dirt roads and laughing children dressed in rags.

We wandered around the village, followed by a troupe of kids, and I bought supplies to make dinner: a green leafy vegetable with a similar taste to gai lon, tomatoes, eggplant, onion, eggs, a small packet of oil, and coals for the oven pit. I don’t like to barter, especially when everything is already super cheap, but I bartered for the green leafy vegetable. I asked the man, “How much?” and he said, “650 kwacha each.”

“In the last village they were only 100 kwacha for a pack of leaves.” I had bought a pack of 3 leaves but never had the opportunity to cook them.

“Ok 100,” he agreed. Then he gave me a huge bunch!

I’m not sure how well the locals understood English or numbers. The Canadian girl tried to buy bananas and the man asked for 200 kwacha for 3. “In Cape Maclear they were only 2o kwacha each,” the woman said. “100 for 3?”

But the man was adamant for 200 kwacha. Then his friend came over and demanded 250 for 3. “You’re going up! That’s the wrong way!” I laughed.

The Canadian became frustrated with them and said, “Forget it.”

That evening the two kiwis went to the other hostel for dinner while I cooked my food and the Canadian ate some things she’d bought at the market. She was impressed watching me cook over the coals! I’d never used coal before, but it couldn’t be that hard – right? I collected a bunch of dry grass and sticks started a fire over the coals. Then I let them burn while I chopped my veggies. Luckily we had a plug-in kettle which I used to boil water to cook the leaves and eggplant in a big pot – it would’ve taken forever to boil anything over those coals. I fried the tomatoes and onion in a frying pan, added the eggs, then drained the leaves and eggplant and added those two. I “borrowed” ketchup and peri peri sauce from the hostel’s restaurant and ate dinner with leftovers for the next day too.

After one night the kiwis and Canadian departed to continue on their journey north. I decided to stay in Senga Bay another night before going back to Lilongwe for a day and then my flight back to South Africa.

On my own again, I rented a kayak from my hostel and kayaked to island about 3km away. I pulled the kayak up on the rocks and swam around the tiny island. It probably had a circumference of about 800m. Then I climbed back in my kayak and rowed to my hostel.

That evening, two young German girls and a group of American missionaries arrived at my hostel. I chatted with the Americans a bit then decided to go to the other hostel for dinner. It also had a guest: an entrepreneur from England who was attending a telecommunications conference in Malawi the following weekend. We talked over dinner and learned how to play Kharbage, a game kinda of like checkers, from the bartender. (I won.) He wanted to go out to the local bar afterwards, but we were facing east on the lake and I wanted to get up early and watch sunrise again. After all, I can party whenever I want but when do I have time (and such a gorgeous view) to watch dawn?

I said good night and watched 400m along the beach back to my hostel. The stars were out and it was a perfect night to be alone with the sky.

As soon as it began to light in the morning, I rolled out of bed and ran down to the water to watch the sun rise.

After a perfect morning, I gathered my stuff and walked to the street to find a minibus taxi to take me back to Salima. I jumped in a minibus right away, but then it drove up and down the street for 20 minutes, trying to find more passengers. Once we were finally on our way, it sputtered out and stopped on the side of the road. “Out of gas,” muttered the driver.

The other passengers and I all got out and stood on the roadside until a truck both by. Even though its back was already full of people, the 6 of us climbed in too. One man was kind enough to give up the truck’s side and he stood the whole way with nothing to hold onto. We crammed 21 people in the back of that truck along with bags and boxes.

Luckily we were only 10 minutes away from the bus station. Once we arrived, I was told the bus to Lilongwe had already left but there was a minibus taxi I could take for 1200 kwacha. I’m not sure if the bus story was true or not, but at least this minibus didn’t run out of gas on the way.

As we waited for enough passengers to leave – which funny enough eventually included the two girls from my hostel – I bought a bag of local berries from a woman carrying a large bucket of them on her head. The man collecting fares for my minibus wanted to buy them for me, but I declined.

He sat beside me on the minibus and chatted to the other passengers in Chichewa, Malawi’s local language. As we neared Lilongwe, he started to ask me about myself. When I told him I was from Canada he asked me to take him with me. I laughed awkwardly and looked away.

Then he asked something I didn’t understand through his accent.

“Pardon?” I said.

He repeated himself. I caught the word “beautiful” and assumed he was complimenting me.

“Sorry, could you please repeat it once more?” I asked.

“Am I beautiful?” he smiled.

“You?” I was surprised.

“Yes. Am I handsome?”

I laughed again – I couldn’t help it! What sort of pick-up line is that? – and looked away again.

When we arrived in Lilongwe and I got off the minibus, a man came up to offer a taxi. “No, she’s with me,” the fare man said.

I waited for the German girls to get off then asked, “Where are you going now?”

“Mama Mia’s. It’s a restaurant.”

“Can I join you? Can we share a cab?” I was starving too.

They agreed and we shared a cab to Mama Mia’s where they were meeting friends. I sat on my own and ordered an appetizer of grilled halmoui cheese, eggplant, zucchini, and sundried tomatoes on polenta. After not eating cheese for a few days, it was delicious.

I then walked around, bought some homemade ice cream from another Italian restaurant, and stood in line for awhile an ATM. Once I had money again, I decided to walk to my hostel even though it was half an hour away. As I walked along the road, men kept stopping and offering rides for only 1000 kwacha, but I declined. After sitting in a bus all morning, it was nice to walk.

Back at my hostel I put away my stuff, ordered a drink, and chatted with the other locals. I am constantly amazed by backpackers’ stories. They’re so cool! Part of me would love to drop everything and backpack for 5 months or so. I don’t think I could do it for a whole year: it’s exhausting to constantly be on the move. Maybe even 5 months would be too much. I love hostels, but I also love having my own shower.

Interestingly, the majority of the travelers I met were women. Moreover, they told me that most of the other backpackers they had met were also women. Most of them were volunteering for at least a month during their journeys. Maybe that’s why Africa attracts women more than men. Not that I’m making any gender-based generalizations!

The next day I flew back to South Africa. Even though I knew I was only going to Jozi for a week before heading to Canada, it felt like I was going home.

I enjoyed Malawi, but – oh my word – I’ve fallen in love with South Africa. It’s going to be tough to leave here.


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