The first stint of my recent African adventure involved spending a short time in Malawi, visiting and shadowing some friends who have set up an awesome charity out there.
According to the World Bank, Malawi is now the poorest country in the world. It’s one of the most densely populated countries, with around 16.5 million people, with over half below the poverty line, earning less than one dollar a day.
On a more positive note, Malawi is commonly deemed ‘Africa for beginners’, because, despite the bleak stats, it’s one of those places that makes you feel all warm inside.
So here’s my take on Malawi for ‘beginners’ to Africa – very first impressions having spent just five days there, and tying in what folk have told me stood out in their minds when they arrived.
Driving in Malawi is an adventure in itself – far more so than in the other African countries I’ve travelled through. Hordes of cyclists and pedestrians swarm into the roads rather than sticking to the verge, seemingly unconcerned by the cars approaching them at haste, honking their horns incessantly with no intention of slowing down. And it turns out that driving at night is even more lethal as there are no streetlights, making it difficult to spot animals and pedestrians crossing the road. This makes for a rather tense car journey!
Aside from the entertaining road etiquette, the first thing that hits me is, quite literally, the dust. I’d forgotten about how darn dusty it can get in Africa, but this is something else. It’s the end of the dry season and within minutes I’m coated in a layer of red grime. I lick my lips and that’s all I taste. Mental note: don’t bother wearing white.
Cruising along, the stats about Malawi’s poverty aren’t surprising. Mountains of litter are stacked around us and derelict, half-built and collapsed buildings line the roads and dirt tracks. It’s all the more stark when juxtaposed with the neighbouring plush petrol stations, banks and churches, all of which have clearly had a fair bit of cash pumped into them. Even they pale when compared to the brand new football stadium, built by the Chinese, that you can’t miss on the outskirts of Lilongwe. To say it looks a touch out of place would be an understatement.
As with any capital city, there is a constant buzz of activity in Lilongwe. Particularly lively and chaotic pockets revolve around dozens of battered minibuses waiting to be filled up with passengers – plus another nine or ten to hang off the back and out of the windows – before they depart for their destinations.
Throw in all the cars, lorries and trucks driving past honking their horns every few seconds, and add to that the cyclists and pedestrians, goats, cows and dogs that wander around wherever they please, it truly is a feast for the eyes.
It’s utter chaos, and beguiling to watch.
Then there are the people sitting by the side of the road, selling their wares or simply trying to shade themselves from the oppressive heat.
The Happiness and Kindness
But one thing seems clear to me – Malayians are not sitting around moping, whinging about their lack of food, jobs or money. There is an aura of happiness that cloaks all who I meet, both adults and children alike. There is good reason for its unofficial title as ‘the warm heart of Africa’.
This is particularly the case for the 35 orphan girls I meet at Tilinanu Orphanage that is funded by LoveSupportUnite, the incredible charity set up by my friends Alice and Nina.
These orphaned girls are genuinely happy – it’s almost fairylike. Their happiness and friendliness is infectious and it’s impossible not to feel joyful around them.
The same can be said for the kids I met at the self-sustaining school that LSU is creating. Check out these kids fascinated by their own reflection of the truck. They don’t really have mirrors, so seeing what they look like blows their minds. Friends recognise each other but not themselves, excitably chattering away.
And not once do I feel unsafe or intimidated in all my time in Malawi. Everyone waves and wants to chat as you travel around but, unlike many other countries, they don’t seem to be after anything. They just want to be friendly and welcome you. I meet quite a few girls travelling the country on public transport on their own and I’d have no hesitation to do that next time.
Over the following days, I shadow Alice and Nina to learn more about their charity, which I’ll be covering in an upcoming blog. The work that these girls are doing out in Malawi epitomises the absolute determination of many to improve people’s lives here. Their passion and commitment to make things better is palpable. Every day is spent talking, negotiating, investigating, planning and discussing what the issues are, where the challenges lie and what the potential solutions might be. This is not a tick box exercise. It is an unwavering, dogged defiance that things won’t stay the same… that they can and must change for the better.
There is a resolve from Malayians too. Take the volunteer teachers walking eight hours to school to teach every day, without pay, so that the next generation can have a better start than they did.
You only have to spend three minutes with the girls at Tilinanu Orphanage to get a glimpse of the changes already taking place. There is so much promise for girls like these through the incredible grassroots charities like LSU. The girls know it themselves, and bring it alive with their songs about how they will be the change in Africa.
The other thing that strikes me about the Tili girls is how bloody gorgeous they are. They radiate vitality and love. Each smile – and there are a lot of smiles – brightens up all our days.
I uncover even more exquisiteness when I head to the UNESCO site that is Lake Malawi for the weekend, to Salima Bay and Cape Macclear. The magnificence of Lake Malawi is stark and anyone visiting Malawi should hotfoot it there sharpish. When it’s flat, the lake is so calm, it’s like a mirror. I couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky started.
The sunsets were pretty awesome too…
Yet, back in Lilongwe, travelling to the airport for my flight to Zambia, I realise I am finding beauty in the sights that had taken me back a bit just five days before.
If Malawi is Africa for beginners, I don’t want to be an expert. I’m happy to stay right where I am.