Big Brother’s African Brother #40: Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu, Malawi

Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu, Malawi

‘Warm Heart of Africa’? Not if you’re a volatile minibus driver!
September 2002

Catching a minibus from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu, a journey of little more than
90 minutes, may sound simple enough, but proved to be quite an adventure.
The manager of Backpackers Connection, a flabby, pale-skinned twenty-something, warned us of the dangers of taking a pick up truck (not my transport of choice since being bruised and battered in Rwanda) and to watch out for drunk minibus drivers, an occupational hazard.

We had just missed a minibus, so we boarded an empty one waiting for it to
fill up. I didn’t like to ask the driver if I could smell his breath, so I
hoped that 7:30am wasn’t the ideal time to hit the bottle. Two locals
boarded with luggage stowed behind the back seats. We twiddled our thumbs,
noticing that another minibus had pulled up at the rear, ready to leave. It
was full to capacity, but one of the locals on our minibus made a run for
it, squeezing on. The other local wasn’t so lucky, our minibus driver
locked the boot door, stopping him from extracting his luggage. This caused
a fight to break out between rival minibuses over poaching passengers. A
few punches were thrown, everyone wrestled for a bit, then there was a
slanging match.

Not content with this drama, a hustler then boarded our minibus, asking us
the usual ‘Where are you going?, what do you do?’ questions, winding up to
asking us for money. He was forcibly removed for smoking on the minibus,
which was a relief. After witnessing all the aggro, I wondered why the
Malawians are described as the ‘friendliest people in Africa’. (Later in
our travels I would come to appreciate just how genuine Malawians are). I
did not feel entirely comfortable on the empty minibus, being guarded like a
prisoner – no one else was boarding, so this set alarm bells ringing in my

The local that had failed to retrieve his bag, much to his annoyance, made a
fresh attempt and we followed, avoiding a new outbreak of fighting, narrowly
squeezing into another minibus. I had just learnt a valuable lesson in the
art of catching a minibus; stand on the road, assess which minibus is nearly
full and will realistically leave in the next five minutes, then sprint for

Arriving at Mzuzu bus station, a crowd of locals jogged alongside the
minibus, slapping the sides and trying to open the windows. I was concerned
as I thought they could reach in and steal our backpacks. In fact, they
were only interested in the local produce on board, barely giving us a
second glance.

Mzuzu is a funny, busy little town known as ‘the capital of the north’; in
reality it’s hardly large by any stretch of the imagination.

Flame Tree Lodge, situated off the main road was an oasis of a place in the
middle of a hot, dusty dirt track. Beautifully clean rooms set in a
fragrant garden for MK900, including breakfast. They also did cheap, tasty
meals on request (order at least three hours in advance).

We were just enjoying the peace and tranquility, when a morose South
African, hitting the gin at two in the afternoon, interrupted us. We had no
choice but to listen to his tale of woe. His wife was in the nearby
hospital suffering from malaria and diabetes, due to his fridge packing up
in their 4×4 (this caused the insulin to overheat). Next followed a tirade
on what has gone horribly wrong with Africa in his expert opinion:

“This holiday is costing me a fortune, a fortune I tell you. They charged
me a packet to take my vehicle into the Ngorongoro Crater and we should
never have bothered – overrated, not a patch on our National Parks back
home. Zanzibar was rubbish and far too expensive. The collapse of the
Rand is terrible for our country – the whole of Africa is going to the

He ranted on in the same vein, pouring himself another gin, asking us if we
would like to join him for dinner at Polly’s Cafe. Obviously, he was
desperate for company, but I couldn’t bear an evening of more negative
comments on Africa, so we politely declined, escaping to the confines of our
room. We planned to avoid him in future.

We spent a pleasant morning poodling round Mzuzu, having a Bill Bryson
moment in the Mzuzu Museum. The curator gave us a guided tour, omitting to
tell us that the museum was being refurbished and only a quarter of the
displays are currently in the museum. Even so, he was a mine of
information, explaining where the tribes that settled in Malawi originally came
from. He was from the Tumbuka tribe found mainly in the north and his
friend was from the Nguni, found in the northern and central areas. Tribal
identity is still an important part of Malawi life, as is religion. Our
curator stressed that eighty percent of Malawinas are ‘serious Christians’,
mainly due to missionary zeal and British colonisation. There were two
stands on artifacts from David Livingstone and Dr Robert Laws, that
established the first missionaries in Malawi. We were shown hunting
weapons, cooking implements and traditional costumes.

Before we left, the curator pointed our the ‘Youth Centre Board’ aimed at
educating the wayward teenagers on the importance of preserving their
culture. There was a series of articles stressing the dangers of adopting
Western fashion, the importance of girls marrying early to gain respect in
the community and above all, being a committed Christian. I’m not sure the
youth of Mzuzu are regular readers of the board – I can’t imagine them
queueing outside for moral guidance.