Star Date: August 2011
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"Wa wa! Muli bwanji? Ndili bwino. Kaya inu?"
( Hi! How are you? I'm fine. And you? Malawian Chichewa)
"We live outside the box."
There is nothing typical about our life. The unexpected rules. As we continue to travel and unravel Eastern and Southern Africa, for over 2 years now, we just greet the day with a smile, wondering what will unfold along our way. Finding the rhythm or going with the flow is the best way to honor the diversity of Mother Africa.
Staying in a fishing village for 6 weeks, along
the shore of stunning Lake Malawi, we had time to relax, talk with
travelers from every corner of the globe, read and write;
recharging our batteries for the next leg of our journey.
Africa can be tough going at times and this hiatus was good for our
soul. Every minute of every day we tried to observe, reflect and see the
joy around us. Smiles and laughter were the norm in this
little unknown corner of heaven on earth. No amount of costly
western therapy or expensive stress filled touring could come close
to this living paragon of enjoying the simple pleasures in life.
Two canoes take the net offshore and hours later a crowd gathers as the ends of each net is pulled slowly in. There is still time for the elders to teach the boys how it is done, still time to sit and visit, still time to tell stories of when they "caught that big fish" . Excitement mounts as the women now arrive, each carrying a small soup bowl to collect their families' share of tiny fish for dinner. Kids jump, dogs howl, fishermen sing as this lifeblood of the village is harvested.
All day long the shore is a blur of activity with women carrying babies and a small parade of toddlers and kids of every size, like Russian nesting dolls, following in a line. As Mom and daughters wash clothes and dishes, little critters get the dust scrubbed off and are left to frolic in the water. Chores done, Mom soaps herself up and has a dip. She then fills her largest bucket with water, often 40 lbs or more and balancing it on her head, she leads her brood, like the pied piper, back through the sand to the village. Clean, washed and refreshed they set to cooking in the hut's courtyard surrounded by a reed fence to cut the wind, keeping the fires burning. Without electricity an occasional transistor radio can be heard but batteries are expensive, so often the quiet of the evening is only broken by birds saying good night as families sit and talk around the glow of the fire. Smiles abound. Life is simple. Life is good.
There is pure joy as fisherman pull in a few fish for supper, or the little kids splash in the waves before throwing their glistening bodies into the warm sand, like sugar covered donuts. Everyone sings as they go about their chores. Often an ad hoc game of soccer, sometimes with a ball crafted of plastic and wrapped in twine, precedes the thorough soap up and scrub down of the young village males. Covered in bubbles they do cartwheels and flips into the welcoming coolness of the lake. The sheer volume of this massive lake washes away a multitude of sins.
There is a strong Islamic influence along the lake, and later following the arrival of missionaries many Christian churches sprang up, surviving to this day. Melodic singing flows out the doors of small brick churches and soothes the neighboring villages, as Muslims in full dress head to the tiny mosques. Conversion arrived from the Middle East with the slave traders. Once converted to Islam you would not be sold as a slave. Real incentive! Mohammed not only offered a chicken in every pot but Freedom!! Sign me up.
Possibly recognizing our genuine smiles and greetings, we were enveloped in the welcoming arms of the villagers who were busy with their every day life. After the first day of introductions (and establishing that we don't give money) we walked surrounded by hoards of excited children on our daily walks. First we would hear from the shadows of the baobabs, "Nan ceeeee" as masses of little bodies ran towards the water. Excited greetings were mixed with jumping, cartwheels and flips! Why contain excitement of a new friend from America? One day Joseph yelled, "Boo" and scared our collection away amid howls of laughter. From then on he had to "scare" them every day.
Feel the rhythm. All it ever took was a simple swing of my hips, a couple of claps and a full on dance party exploded amid enthusiastic singing and gyrating hips, all to a rhythmic African beat. They sure know how to have real fun!! (Dig Dig - diggy diggy diggy Dig Dig!)
Living along the lake for over a month we were introduced to the many moods of the lake, from gale force winds to glassy calm. When the winds howled and our van bounced around, Ross from the UK, working on a project in the harbor to refit an old ship into a sailing clinic, would wildly ride the waves on his wind surfer. Walking back from town one almost full moon night the winds were howling as we got near the lake. It was simply explained that the strong winds were filling up the moon. When the wind died down Joseph and I would jump in the kayak and paddle from one end of the bay to the other, careful not to get too near the reedy areas hiding crocodiles or hippos. The lake is so large that we often would think we were along the ocean, and the thought of sharks or whales crossed our minds.
Call me Ishmael. The young man managing Venice Beach, a joint family venture, didn't hail from Moby Dick but was one of the reasons we decided to stay put when petrol became scarce country wide. Ishmael and his staff (David, Paul, Muso x 2, Anna, Gren, Tiger and even 'Cheese on Toast') were helpful and genuine, creating a little bit of serene paradise along the lakes edge. Two kms from town, we would walk in to shop at the small local market or eat a tasty lunch of sima (corn meal), red beans, greens and Irish potatoes, drizzled with spicy fresh tomato sauce, at the Kingfisher Eatery. We became friends with many of the vegetable and fruit sellers, getting an extra potato or hand full of beans thrown in for 'good customers'. A ramshackle affair with jagged tin roofs, crooked tables and pounding music; only the smiles outnumbered the smells wafting by the meager produce of the day. This was the heart of town, the pulse easily missed if racing by in a car. Getting a ride home on the back of a bicycle, until the sand got too deep, was an option, and don't forget to grab an ear of fresh maize roasted over the fire along the road. Bags loaded we were ready for another 3-4 days of international gourmet cuisine in lakeside 'Che Maari Safari '.
Walking to or from Monkey Bay town was always an event. Visiting with the women at the well drawing water or interacting with the endless children trailing along we heard a funny story after several little two year olds in succession ran away from us in fright. Seems when the children wouldn't go to sleep at night, instead squirming and causing a disturbance in the otherwise quiet hut, the parents would warn them that they must be quiet or they would put them outside and a 'muzungu' (white person), would come along and steal them. Our reputation precedes us. Racism taught early. Wonder if white parents worldwide ever warn their bad children that they would be stolen by black people lurking in the bushes? We have heard over and over of children of many countries being scared into better behavior by warnings of witches or demons or animals lurking outside waiting to get the 'bad little boys and girls'! Great way to make them afraid of the dark. In this village you could put your sleeping mat out in the sand and not a person, black or white, would bother you.
As we witnessed a boy running around with a large dead monitor lizard on a string were also told that most snakes or lizards were filled with demons and promptly killed. Isn't fear/superstition great? Better the energy be focused on the real danger hiding in the reeds on both sides of the bay, the haunts of cantankerous hippos, snakes and crocodiles. But have no fear, local animist herbalists will mix up a concoction or conjure up a spell to ward off any dilemma you are facing. For a fee that is. Church or state - money talks.
Further along you would cross the dirt runway of the airport. We were lucky enough one afternoon to witness the weekly landing of the small Cessna type plane. Appearing to have misjudged the approach it buzzed overhead just feet from the ground. As it circled then bumped to a stop it was explained that the first run was just to scare away any animals on the runway. Glad they don't have to do that at O'hare Airport!
Marching across the flat land leading up to the hills from the lake are groups of enormous baobabs. The trunks on these beauties measure up to 30 ft in diameter. Native to Africa, baobabs are only seen in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, northern South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and strangely in northern Australia, where Africans sailed thousands of years before. There is a humorous story of how God, in a hurry, got mixed up and planted the trees upside down, with roots in the air. Standing naked for the world to see, with only a few scattered leaves to protect their dignity, each tree has a personality of it's own. Walking by these giants we often circle them, pat their bottoms, and laugh at the personality traits that jump out: 'Bob', 'the General', 'the salsa dancers', 'Siamese twins', 'Baby Huey', 'knarly rasta man', 'the Baroness' and 'bare-naked lady' to name a few. The list is only limited by your imagination.
Malawi seems to straddle time. In the drier inland areas life continues much as it has for centuries. Men hunt or fish as women draw and carry heavy water on their heads for miles. That done they hoe the fields, pound maize or cassava into flour, gather indigenous plants to make into relishes or medicine, then cook for the family over a wood fire. As in most countries in the hope of making money, the men often leave for the cities and are faced with the rude awakening of urban life. At least back home in their rural village they can feed themselves, have quality family time and live with less stress. Even with their meager existence, villagers often have less diseases than the rich men's diseases prevalent in the more 'developed' countries.
Most Malawians are small subsistence farmers with the country's large farms exporting tobacco, tea and sugar. What was a thriving export ground to a halt recently by the thoughtless actions of the current president Dr Mutharika. Petrol shortages have slowed transportation and raised prices. Although we had to be flexible in our plans, lack of petrol allowed us to slow down, stay put, getting a closer look into Malawian village life. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Only the escalating prices are felt in these remote villages where politics and turmoil never seem to change life much. Politicians come and go and they remain poor.
During the colonial period Malawi was incorporated into the Federation of Rhodesia. Independence came under the leadership of 'life' President Banda in 1964. Malawi held its first democratic elections in 1994 with current Mutharika leading almost 50 years of democratic rule. Supposedly his first term was successful but something has soured in the last year, as is the case often in Africa. Five months ago he closed down all the Universities because they were pointing out his decline. The British Ambassador was summarily kicked out when he was quoted as saying that Mutharika was "acting like a dictator". No longer ruled by the colonizing countries every economy in the world is still tied in to the international business Forex system. Severing the ties with the E.U. has crippled the countries' exportation, with the kwachas useless out side Malawi's borders. Without currency for trade, petrol is a rarity nowadays and as transportation costs rise so do prices in general. To top it off Britain just stopped millions of dollars of annual relief aid. We all wish we could take back actions and words done in anger, but unless the president makes amends he is taking Malawi down the tubes along with his puffed up ego. Oh and did we mention that as the people suffer the president just purchased a $150 million jumbo jet - which due to lack of maintenance is in Europe being repaired. Complaints are valid and change is coming. We even thought that by encouraging poor internet service, communication amongst citizens is difficult. Without the web, finding the real truth is limited to government propaganda worldwide. While visiting Malawi the tension grew and demonstrations turned into riots with looting and burning. Eighteen people were killed by soldiers. As villagers gathered around the booming transistor radio across from the front gate, the President was calling for citizens to pull together. Enough is enough and the opposition gave the president 21 days to clean up his act. If not, the demonstrators are returning to the streets and warned that they will not leave until he does. Visas expiring and bad or cold weather gets us moving on. Civil unrest also catches our attention. Guaranteed we will be long gone before the show down date approaches. Growing pains of yet another struggling African country. Power corrupts and so the story repeats globally.
And so it goes.........................................Next month the forgotten country of Zambia. Until then let's take a walk outside the box. You never know what you will discover or who you will meet. Thanks for keeping an open mind as you join us on our journey into the unknown. Glad you stopped by. Keep in touch - we love hearing from you!
Love, Light & Laughter,
$1.00US = 160 Malawian Kwachas
Venice Beach Resort: Take transport to Monkey Bay and ask anyone how to get out to this waterfront resort. It is about 1 km from town. Worth the effort.