Malawi: Africa for beginners
As I stepped out of the cinema in Leicester Square and adjusted my eyes to the bright lights of the city its vibrancy and energy careered through my body. It’s captivating, addictive, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
Not London. Africa.
It’s not often that a film catches me by the heart but The Constant Gardener leaves a resounding feeling that beyond the corruption and poverty that holds Africa down, there is a warmth, a spirit that cannot be crushed. That is what fuels people’s love affair with Africa and that is what, two weeks before as I left Malawi, had strengthened mine.
The guys hustled with each other, striking poses and playing up for the camera. They were beginning to look more like a Bronx boyband every second. But they weren’t getting ready for the release of their next single or trying to recreate the hip hop fashions of the season, they were taking a break from selling second hand shoes on a market in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
“Picture us?” Asked two more as they joined the group, their wide smiles lighting up their faces.
Here I was, a woman, totally outnumbered by a large group of African men towering above me and all vying for my attention, yet I didn’t feel intimidated. There is an innocent charm in these men that is so often lost when exposed to the excesses of the western world. The respect inherent in their communities is the base of their friendly approach and the main reason why this country feels so accessible. The lack of political or tribal conflicts make it a safe place and its small size and relatively good roads make it easy to navigate.
This is Africa for beginners.
Even experienced travelers can still be nervous about visiting Africa, a continent whose media image is notoriously characterized by death and destruction.
There is no doubt this country is desperately poor. With most people living on less than Â£1.50 a day it is economically one of the most poverty stricken countries in the world, yet socially, it is rich beyond many of its western counterparts.
As we approached Mcloud’s village home the girls were sat outside on a rug playing cards. McCloud had been our guide at the safari park and as we left he proudly invited us to his home. Dressed in a bright yellow head scarf and skirt, his wife’s welcome was as colourful as her clothing and as we took the children’s photos their huge eyes grew even wider with excitement as they giggled and pointed at their faces on the screens.
Even with a good job at the park, McCloud’s home still consisted of a tiny one room mud brick building with a straw thatched roof. In contrast to some of the scenes in The Constant Gardener though, there is hardly any sign of squalor in Malawi. The villages are sparse and the living is simple but these are proud and hardworking people.
The greatest draw of Malawi, unusual for a landlocked country, are the beaches and water. Lake Malawi takes up a fifth of the country and is the third biggest in Africa. Because of its dimensions at 364 miles long and 52 miles wide it has been nicknamed the calendar lake and is integral to Malawi’s economy. Each night thousands of fisherman take to the water, attracting tiny Chiclid fish to their torch light.
The lake is one of the biggest freshwater fish sanctuaries in the world, home to thousands of different species. The water is so clear that diving and snorkeling give a great introduction to this vast underwater world.
Eric, our Eddie Murphy look-alike driver, had accompanied us for our entire trip and gave us a knowledgeable inside view of life after independence in 1964 and the rituals and routines of family life. He regaled a story of a German group he had escorted. “They obviously had a lot of money,” he explained “and when I took them to a local village, the woman just broke down. The children were running around with no shoes on and ripped clothes. ‘How can they do this?’ she asked me through her tears. ‘How can the rest of the world let these children suffer?'”
Eric turned to us with that glint in his eye taking on a serious stare. “I told her: We may be poor; but we are not suffering. As long as we have food and our families. That’s all we need.” His periodic somberness was broken by his toothy grin as he launched into a tirade on his two naughty sons. And that is just it.
Leicester Square is captivating but once the lights are switched off the billboards are just expensive shells attached to industrial sized buildings. Natural vibrancy transcends the packaging. It’s in the African blood, and Malawi deserves its label as the warm heart.