Friday, March 28, 2008

Malawi-The Warm Heart of Africa

April 2004

From Argentina (see prior post) we were able to fly from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo and then secure exit row seats on Lufthansa on our flight to Joburg. The time change was 5 hours. We had 3 hours to transfer from Joburg to our flight to Lilongwe, Malawi and we just made the gate in time. We were in passport hell in Joburg due to long lines of foreigners and undermanned, slow passport officials. We had to reclaim our luggage because the agent in Buenos Aires thought Lilongwe was a city in South Africa and had to clear customs.When I was in grade school, Malawi was called Nyasaland and the countries surrounding it were Mozambique, Northern Rhodesia (now called Zambia) and Tanganyika (now called Tanzania). Lake Malawi (3rd largest in Africa and ninth largest in the world) composes much of the country. Tropically warmed Lake Malawi is reported to contain more species of fish than lake in the world.

In 1858 (about the time my great grandparents were born and just prior to the Civil War), Dr. David Livingston, a Scottish Missionary was given the task to try to open up trade routes to the African interior by the British Government. After several attempts to reach Lake Malawi, he finally succeeded through the Shire River, a tributary of the Zambezi. Livingston was a humanitarian intent on making Europeans understand Africans as fellow humans. He fought to end the slave trade and had some success. He also was the first European to discover the "smoke that roars", which he named Victoria Falls. At some point Livingston kind of disappeared and no one knew where he was or if he was alive. African explorer Henry Stanley was hired by the New York Herald to try and find Livingston. When he found him, he uttered the now famous line, "Dr. Livingston, I presume". This happened in Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika, November 10, 1871. See the top left corner of the map.

I learned much about the slave trade in Africa in my research of Malawi's history. Somewhere between the 14th and 16th centuries, two main tribes moved into Malawi: the Tumbuka from the Congo moved into the northern region, while the Chewa from Zambia moved into the southern region. They have remained in these areas to this day. The Yao invaded southern Malawi in the 19th century, capturing weaker tribes for slave trade. It is believed that they were armed with firearms from Arab traders in the area. The slave trade became a very big business in Malawi during this period. A heavy Arab influence in the area contributed to this. Of course, slave trading had existed throughout Africa for many centuries, but this era saw a new level of trade on an international scale. Malawi towns like Nkhotakota and Karonga served as major slave trade centers. The first exported slaves were sent to Asia by the Arabs.

The Arab influence is still evidenced in Malawi by the fact that about 15% of the population is Muslim, mostly Yaos. It is the Yaos who also practice male circumcision as all Muslims do. The Chewas are Christians and don't circumcise.

Judith has been to Malawi 5 times before, but this is my first visit. She was anxious for me to see the country as was I. When we landed at the small airport at Lilongwe, we were met by a driver in a van that Judith's research project helped obtain. The van is used for the staff to collect HIV/AIDS prevention program data. Very few people own cars in Malawi and the vehicles seen are mostly white vans purchased by foreign charities. They all have their logos printed on the door. Some say the influence of foreign charities on the country is not good in the long run because it develops dependency instead of self reliance.

About the only place for westerners to stay in Lilongwe is the Capital Hotel. It has a higher rate for foreigners than locals but I don't image it comes into play very often. The value received for the price does not measure up compared to other hotels in the world but really there are no options. We have a suite of two small rooms which is convenient because if one of us can't sleep, the other can go to the other room to read or watch satellite TV (when it works) without disturbing the other, which happened. Judith actually uses the room to meet with research staff members during working hours.

Lilongwe, as with any city in Malawi of size, is a combination of modern buildings mostly belonging to western companies and those housing government offices. We met up with Chrissie and Alec Kaponda the next day and they arrived in a white van. Alec drove us to the Livingstonia Hotel on the shores of Lake Malawi, where we spent two days. Chrissie was one of two women PhD's in the country and is the principal investigator for two research studies and is Malawi's co-ordinator for the Fogarty grant that Judith heads. The other countries covered by the Fogarty are China, Indonesia, and Chile. The two women worked on their HIV/AIDS intervention programs while Alec and I took it easy. Alec is an architect has has helped design many buildings. I really liked him and he was an excellent driver throughout our travels.

This is a photo of Lake Malawi at dawn.
Chrissie and Judith working on a patio on the water's edge. To learn more about their joint program visit
After leaving the Livingstonia Hotel, we drove to Monkey Bay and saw some indications of tourism being developed. Below are Judith, Alec, and Chrissie.
It was windy that day and people were at the lake washing clothes.
We started out to Blantyre, the largest city in Malawi and named after Livingston's birthplace in Scotland. Along the way we stopped at the Mua Mission.

The attraction of Mua is not just the buildings but its Kungoni Art Craft Centre and its Chamare Museum. Fr. Claude Boucher, a Canadian White Father, founded them during his studies of the traditions and mythologies of the local people to better explain to them the teachings of Christianity. During his work he recognized the richness of Malawian oral tradition and the danger it was in of been completely erased by western influence. He has dedicated his life to recoding and preserving a rich culture that till recently had been passed down only orally.

Below are women seen at the the Mission.
The Chamare Museum, is composed of three round buildings representing traditional huts. In the first room there is an exhibition explaining the history of missionaries in Africa, this is accompanied by symbols of the local mythology. In the second room you can see part of the vast collection of masks from the Guru Wan Kulu society. No photos were allowed as this would contravene Society rules. Along the walls of this room a photographic exhibition shows the major passages of Chewa life starting with birth and going though initiations, marriage ending with death and burial practices, a very important aspect of Malawian life. The Chewa is the dominant tribe of Malawi. Understanding the meaning of these passages through life will help understand the working of the Malawian mind. In the third room an exhibition of sculptors and photos explain the passage of life of the other two main tribal groups of the country, the Ngoni and the Yao.
On the outside of the buildings a series of panels each portraying an event in Malawian history starting with the creation of the world, according to Chewa folklore, to the foundation of Mua Mission.
We then drive on to Blantyre and checked in to the Protea Hotel Ryalls which is a 4 star hotel, very nice. The next day we drive around Malawi University and I take a photo of this fine building, St. Michael's church.
On our journey back to Lilongwe, we stop and have lunch at the Kuchawe Inn at Zomba situated near the top of a small mountain, 900 meters high (3000 ft.) overlooking the Zomba plateau. This is probably the finest hotel in Malawi.

Some Observations

There is a small, growing middle class in Malawi's cities, but everywhere else it is strictly tribal habitats. Amongst the poor, they are better off if they have a corrugated metal roof and brick walls. The bricks are not fired in a kiln but consist of red clay dried in the sun, so they don't last forever. The poorest have a bamboo frame and dried grass for the walls and roof. Open markets are everywhere and there is always a main market around where anything, I mean anything of value is sold. Stuff Americans throw away with no thought of recycling are used for a variety of things. Malawians peel worn tires and sell the strips. I don't know how they are used, but many are seen hanging along the roadside. Although I didn't see it, Judith saw the ever popular "mouse on a stick" sold along the road, but I think the government is trying to discourage it. Bad image to project to foreigners I suppose.

There are plantations of tea and coffee as well as tobacco and corn (maize) is grown in any little space that can be found. When there was a draught two years ago (now 2002) the maize crop was hard hit and many people starved to death.

Malawi has a new President. I think all African leaders start out as reformers, only to stay in office too long and begin to take away people's civil rights, stifle the press, and line their pockets with obscene wealth. The first Malawi President, Dr. Hastings Banda elected in 1958, served for 30 years without any organized political opposition (he saw to that) making sure women were arrested if they wore pants, among other injustices. The next guy, Bakili Muluzi, did have some opposition and ruled for 10 years under a parliamentary system and still is a member of parliament where he is trying to organize an effort to impeach the newly elected Prime Minister Bing wa Mutharika.

I read in the Chicago Tribune that he arrested two journalists for printing a story that he was afraid of ghosts and would not live in the executive mansion because he thought it was haunted. So I asked about it. According to Malawi sources, the story is completely false and placed blame on the journalist. They didn't seem to grasp that freedom of the press means you don't throw journalists in jail just because they write something untrue.

Everywhere in the world there are condom politics. During our travels the pope died. For all the good the pope may have accomplished, unfortunately, he saw condoms as a way to prevent life rather that a way to save lives, helping to cause millions of people to die. The local paper, the The Sunday Times, had a big headline asking,, "Is HIV Penalty from God". Another article quotes the South Africa Religious Leaders Formum that it disagrees with the need to use condoms to fight AIDS.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trulilio, in charge of family affairs at the Vatican said LAST YEAR (now 2002) that the HIV was 450 times smaller than spermatozoa and can easily past through the net that is formed by the condom. His remarks were later condemned by the World Health Organization, saying that correct condom use reduced the risk of HIV infection by 90 percent.

I find it appallingly ironic to find some religious leaders helping to spread ignorance and cause people to die.

On our way out of Malawi, we pay our $30, in US dollars, airport tax and fly to Joburg, then on to Cape Town. Malawi truly is the warm heart of Africa. The people was friendly and warm hearted.


Anonymous said...

Correction: Zambia was Northern Rhodesia and Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia

Dad E said...

Anon-Thanks for the correction. I knew I should have double checked this.

GETkristiLOVE said...

"condom politics" - I think you should coin that phrase, lord knows you've seen enough of it.

And Monkey Bay - hooray, I want to go to Monkey Bay!

Dad E said...

Condom politics example--In Chile taking about condom will cause the powerful Catholic church to dissend.

Stuart said...

Just read your blog with interest - I shared a flat with Alec Kaponda when he studied in Dundee (UK), it is good to see he is in fine fettle and still smiling - I had often wondered how he was doing glad he is well.

many thanks


Dad E said...

Alex and christie have been here in Chicago for about a month and we took them out for dinner once. They will be heading back home soon.