Thursday, May 26, 2011

What's this all about anyway?

Just in case you have arrived on this page and are asking yourself the above question I thought I should add a few closing words. These are the ramblings, or musings as it were, from our year in Malawi. It was meant to be at least two years but life happens and family matters called us home to Canada, cutting our stay shorter than planned. As brief as it was, we feel privileged to have had this experience. We met some wonderful people and discovered Malawi does live up to its name, the warm heart of Africa.

If you prefer to read the posts in chronological order you will need to click on the blog archive until you get to the post called Week 1,from August 2008. There the adventure begins...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24, 2009

From moody to amused, most of the time. How things evolve here in our little cocoon. I started this piece on May 5 with the following entry:

The caterpillars are cocooning and so are we, it seems. Here we are in a state of virtual immobility, with nothing apparent happening on the outside but preparing for change on the inside. Much of our time is currently consumed by battling the bureaucracy, filling out forms and attempting to hop through the hoops that will allow us to spread our wings and fly out of here on June 22.

May Day has come and gone. We celebrated Labour by doing nothing, well, not entirely. We played golf and did as little else as possible.The extra free time afforded by IGCSE exams serves to emphasize the futility of trying to get anything done, more time to wait. More time to accomplish less. If the power is on we make dinner early to avoid the blackout. Then, of course the evening stretches out interminably.

The election talk provides some diversion, but really it is another case of wait and see. No one really knows what will happen, if all will go smoothly or all hell will break loose. Not much use in worrying: just more waiting.Even the activity I have been assigned is much less than active. Wandering about the golf course supervising while the kids have their lesson, not onerous but hardly stimulating.

Practising patience,

Suddenly sympathetic,



Wanting to be

That beautiful butterfly.

Now here we are on May 24 enjoying another quiet but pleasant weekend. In the interim the butterflies have not yet appeared; however, Malawi has been quite entertaining lately. As some of you know, we played in the Lilongwe Open golf tournament two weeks ago and much to my amazement, and amusement, I won the ladies section, as well as the closest to the pin. Never having won a trophy of any kind before, I find it hard to suppress a giggle whenever I glance at this one. And although J-M didn’t bring home any prizes, he was also delighted to participate in both the Lilongwe and Malawi Open events over the last two weeks.

While J-M was participating in the Malawi Open I joined my friends, Jen & Pam, to form a dazzle of zebras at the Run/Walk for Wildlife in support of the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary. Isn’t that a lovely word for a herd of zebra’s? And as you can see from the photo we were quite dazzling.

As for the elections, they have come and gone. The concerns about post election riots were unfounded as the people turned out at the polls in large numbers to peacefully reelect the incumbent president and his party with a huge majority. From an outsider’s perspective it was all very colourful and interesting to see and hear the pre and post election discussions. Malawians also put the voters back home to shame as I compare the voter turnout here with that of the recent B.C. election. Most people here might not have much but they do appreciate their democratic right to vote and take this civic responsibility very seriously.

The next four weeks promise to be quite busy as we have all these triage decisions to make about what to pack and what to leave behind, plus the paperwork to get us out of here and back into Canada. Year end exams and reports are upon us as well as the various sporting and performance events not to mention the inevitable award ceremonies. It is that so-much-to-do-so-little-time part of the year. In the midst of which I have managed to book myself into a weekend yoga retreat at Pumulani June 5-7. What a lovely farewell treat that is going to be.

And with that mind, I had best get moving on all those other chores.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22 2009

Rainy season has turned into caterpillar season, well almost. The rains appeared to be over but today there are some heavy clouds dropping buckets here and there. At least it managed to miss us on the golf course today. Meanwhile it's certainly raining caterpillar droppings around the school these days. Haven’t seen so many of the little critters since we first moved to Alberta many years ago. The temperatures have also dropped considerably. It really does feel like an Edmonton summer right now, except the days are getting slightly shorter instead of those lovely, long northern evenings.

We also had interesting glimpses of Malawi election fever during our recent holidays. Travis, who had just dropped in from Australia, w
as rather impressed by the warm welcome northern Malawi had prepared for him. As we headed north from Lilongwe we met no oncoming traffic and brightly dressed people lined the streets each time we approached a town or village. There was much waving and even some singing and dancing. Of course, it soon dawned on us they were expecting someone much more important than us. Turned out our route coincided with one of the President’s election tours and, fortunately for us, we were travelling in the same direction, but at least 30 minutes ahead of him. We also found it interesting to see many pick up trucks along the way, filled with new bicycles, brightly painted in the government party’s colours. I guess there were going to be some “door prizes” at these events.

Now, any traveler will tell you learning to read between the lines of the guide books and tourism ads is an essential skill. It tends to narrow the very important gap between expectations and reality: generally, the narrower the gap, the happier the travelers. As a case in point, one of the important discoveries of this trip was to interpret the phrase “the lodge is situated X number of kilometres off the paved route down a well maintained track” to mean four wheel drive with some clearance necessary, particularly in the rainy season. Happily our little car has four wheel drive, and the clearance was adequate to get us to the lodges of our choice. Another frequent claim is that “Malawi has some of the best roads in Africa”. Read that as, drive carefully. Expect giant potholes, unmarked speed bumps, pedestrians, cyclists transporting all manner of goods, and a variety of domestic animals at any time, not to mention police check points. Motorists who don’t have all their stickers and safety equipment in order, beware! In fairness, it must be said there are new stretches of road in excellent condition, and familiarity with some of the roads has certainly made travel less stressful over time.

All that b
eing said, Northern Malawi did live up to the guidebook claims of providing some spectacular scenery and hospitable lodges with good food. The rain and cool temperatures at Luwawa Forest Lodge made the fireside lounge even more enjoyable. J-M got a little soggy but thoroughly enjoyed one of the trails, while Travis and I experienced a rather wild Land Rover ride to the waterfall. Our intrepid driver was determined to get us as close as possible before we had to hike. Neither fallen trees, washed out roads nor parked logging trucks stemmed his enthusiasm. His trusty panga knife (machete) helped repair the chain saw and cleared trail when needed. We bounced, we cringed a little, but mostly we laughed a lot: a great adventure! From Luwawa we left the highlands and the rain for Sangilo Lodge, further north, tucked away in its own private cove on the lakeshore, just down one of those delightfully “well maintained tracks”. We were very happy colleagues at school had recommended this place, back in the sun, warm enough to swim, just plain relaxing.

Sometimes it pays off to just be a tourist. There aren’t really many tourist attractions in Malawi so when we see one we can hardly be faulted for checking it out. As luck would have it, the Kandewe Cultural Heritage site and suspension bridge was a wonderful find. I’ve lost count of how many guided tours and visits to museums, galleries and cultural exhibits we have experienced in the last five years but the guide at Kandewe gets top honours in the enthusiastic tour guide category. The bridge itself is interesting but the guide’s explanation of the artifacts and culture, as well as his evident pride in this tiny museum far surpasses most well trained professional tour guides. Our only regret was not having more time to go on the waterfall excursion he proposed.

Luckily there is a secondary road, also paved, that follows closer to the lakeshore from Nkhata Bay to Salima. This made an interesting route for our return journey and all too soon we found ourselves back in Lilongwe with just enough time to do laundry and get ready for Zanzibar.

Zanzibar highlights:
• Palm trees • White sand • The stunning blue waters of the Indian Ocean • Snorkeling around beautiful coral reefs • Trade winds: less heat, less mozzies to worry about • Sundowners in Stone Town • The Easter Day choir • Dhow watching • Great seafood • The Tembo Hotel in Stone Town • The Evergreen Bungalows on the East coast • Friendly hospitality • Backgammon and bao at the beach bar • Hisbiscus flowers on the bed • Do we have to leave here?

Zanzibar lowlights: very few

  • The touts in Stone Town: everyone wants to be our friend, guide and sell us something

  • The ferry to Dar Es Salaam: high seas, highly bouncy ride. Note to self: take motion sickness meds or fly if there is a next time.

Dar Es Salaam was a brief stay but enjoyable for the most part. We especially appreciated the Swiss Garden Hotel, truly a lovely little green oasis in the midst of a big city. Conversation was lively over dinner in the evenings as guests were all seated at one table, a great opportunity to meet some interesting people.

Overall: happy travelers, just sad to have to say good-bye to Travis in Nairobi on the way back. Now the countdown is on. We are into the final term of the year: headed for exam time, packing and for the trip home.

Pictures are available in these albums:

Northern Malawi


Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29 2009

It’s been a month of memorable Malawi moments. Highlights included the Domwe trip and a weekend in Liwonde National Park for a mini safari. There are not a lot of animals to be seen at this time of year but lots of birds and it is a beautiful spot.

My photos are posted at

The power outages reached a new peak this month as our spirits sagged to new lows with each black out. Fortunately our neighbours in this compound are kindred souls and we help lift each other up

during such moments. Poetry from the Powerless has become our evening sport as we send rhymes back and forth by text. Laughter is good, even if our poems are not.

Will the power ever come back?

In the dark our bags we will pack.

Tomorrow we are off to Liwonde,

leaving all our cares behind ‘til Sunday.

Once again in the dark.

Listening to the dogs bark.

Go out to eat, go to bed,

or make silly poems instead.

No light, no food, no energy,

How crazy can this be?

Technology has also hit an all time low at school since the school’s computer network was wiped out by multiple viruses during the Christmas holidays. Yes, that was during Christmas break and despite the valiant efforts of several techies there is no end in sight to those problems. However, report cards can be written by hand and notes can be posted on the bulletin board for all to see, when we get around to it. Whiteboards still work without electricity even if the new generator does not, and we do have books. So education continues. The real question is, can you run a school without caffeine? Is it not cruel and unusual punishment for children to have to endure teachers who have not had their morning coffee?

The other thing we have learned here is that just when we start to get depressed and or cynical about the state of affairs something or someone will come along to give us a whole new perspective on things. This morning as we arrived at the cash in Shoprite with all of our groceries, optimistically waiting to check out, the cash register broke down. We looked on as the young woman in front of us valiantly tried to get an answer to her question about how long it might take to restore the system and if she should change lines. Eventually she was shuffled off to another line and the cashier asked us to wait just a little longer. This really was worth it as we had the opportunity to see her supervisor try a number of innovative maneuvers with the recalcitrant machine that ranged from slapping all of the keys with the back of her hand to unplugging and re-plugging: also known as the “when in doubt, reboot tactic”. Eventually, we too were shuffled off to join the line behind the young woman who had originally been in front of us. Ordinarily the story would end here but not this time. The shopping gods were with us today, at least briefly. While we waited patiently behind the young woman with the very large basket of groceries the original cash register was resuscitated and the supervisor came and brought us right back to the front of that line, a gesture of kindness and good service that will not soon be forgotten.

However, as I said, the shopping gods were with us only briefly today, or sporadically might be more accurate. One of the items we were unable to find at the grocery store was an international calling card. Seems they usually have them but “not today”. That turned out to be the same response in the next 5 stores we visited on our way home. The good news: cheddar cheese and no fat yogurt are available this week. The bad news: no international calling cards. More good news: persistency does pay off. One more trip to a store near where we live resulted in the purchase of the coveted calling card. Bad news: when we tried to use it my phone suddenly had no network coverage. Good news: ingenuity pays off: J-M removed the SIM card, blew the dust off of it, and replaced it. VoilĂ  network coverage restored. I pass this on as a helpful high tech tip to all cell phone users out there.

More good news, our neighbour Jen is the new Malawi women’s squash champion and fellow teacher Ivor took the men’s title. Congratulations to both of them.

Then to top off a perfectly lovely day I happened to look at the calendar on the computer and we discovered it is our 23rd wedding anniversary today. So we are putting our power woes behind us, and my charming spouse is treating me to dinner at the Sanctuary Lodge. They, at least, will have a generator if the power goes.

Happy Anniversary, mon amour. Je t’aime toujours, comme disait le proverbe arabe, plus aujourd’hui qu’hier mais pas autant que demain.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 5 2009

Just back from a wonderful long weekend experience on Domwe Island and Mua Mission.

The former was a planned event and the latter a happy last minute addition to the itinerary.

Since Tuesday was a national holiday, the school had worked a four day weekend into the calendar, a very welcome break at this time of year. The rainy season is not particularly onerous, but it does bring with it a ridiculous number of random power outages that tend to get one down almost as much as a long dark Canadian winter. And if you combine that with a major computer network failure, well, let’s just say getting away from it all about now is a really good idea. So ten of us from the school, minus one family of three who had to beg off due to illness, set off for Cape Maclear and Domwe Island. And what a lovely weekend it was. Domwe is a self catering island. We brought our own food and took turns so each couple prepared one meal and then the staff on the island did the cleaning up. Bonus! Left us plenty of time for relaxing in the hammocks, snorkeling and kayaking. We did try hiking up the trail a bit but since that turned into the steam room experience we decided water based activities were more interesting, and those little cichlids are both colourful and cute. All in all it was a delightful time: good food, good company, great scenery. Getting out of Cape Maclear, however, turned out to be more of an adventure than planned.

The road to Cape Maclear is paved most of the way but the last bit is rather rugged, to put it mildly. And after two nights of thunderstorms I guess it should not have been much of a surprise to find our way blocked by a river in flood. When we first approached this part of the road the young men walking through it were up to their armpits in water. This is not a happy picture when you are driving a little Rav4. So the consensus was to turn back and hope the water would go down before it got too dark to drive out. Back at Kayak Africa we relaxed on the deck overlooking the lake, had some liquid fortification and lunch before setting off again. By this time the water was only up to the hips so we took the offer of the crowd of young men who were ever so willing, for a price, to push us through. With the exhaust securely wrapped in a plastic bag, off we went, fingers crossed that the car would start on the other side. And it did. Of course, the other side was blocked by a land rover having its tires changed, but that’s a small thing once you are clear of the water and assured your engine is not flooded. Our friends, who were following, had the same happy result leaving our little convoy clear to head on to Mua Mission. Even the cell phone gods were with us. We had coverage and were able to reserve three rooms for the evening and dinner.

Mua Mission is a delightful spot that was on our list of places to visit, not necessarily on this trip, but as it turned out, a serendipitous turn of events. We arrived there before sundown, a very important factor in this part of the world, had time to look around and enjoy a leisurely dinner followed by a game of cards with our friends before turning in. At breakfast we met a very interesting elderly Swiss couple who are in the midst of returning home, by car, having started in Namibia, quite the road trip they have ahead of them.

Breakfast was followed by the museum visit. The Chamare Museum at the Kungoni Centre at Mua Mission is a little gem: beautifully organized and full of information about Malawian history and culture. The tour leaves one with the usual mind-spinning museum overload but well worth it, and hopefully we will get back again before we leave for a more leisurely stroll through. Here is the link to their site for those who would like more detail.

Of course no African adventure seems to be complete without a little car trouble. So what’s a blown tire among friends? Again, luck was with us as the tire had not even lost air when we heard the problem. And Kristen, who was driving, even managed to pull under a nice big shade tree where the replacement operation went off quite smoothly. Back on the road, to Salima and Lilongwe without a hitch, happy and refreshed.

Here are the addresses for my albums from Domwe and Mua:



Now to get this uploaded. If the electricity will stay on long enough…

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12 2009

J-M was having a Malawi Moment kind of day yesterday. What is a Malawi Moment you might ask? Well, it’s the kind of experience in which the simplest thing gets very complicated, or takes forever to resolve itself. Example? Getting the handle fixed that raises and lowers the driver-side car window. Yes sir, we’ll fix that right up for you, no problem, a simple thing, no charge. Three days, two trips to the garage, many apologies and 4,500 kwacha (about $32 US) later, the car is back and thankfully the window now works. Add to that: the Internet is down, you have to cancel your round of golf due to lack of transportation, can’t pick up your wife after work and can’t let anyone know about it because you are suddenly out of phone credit. Now, you are having a Malawi Moment, or perhaps several moments.

Planning a favourite recipe for dinner? Or perhaps a new one found on the Internet when it was working? Be prepared to adapt, substitute and generally be creative. On any given day all of the ingredients might show up at the store or market, some, or none. It’s the daily shopping adventure.

Lest this update sound like I am sinking into mid-February depression, do understand there are many good things on the horizon. We have a long weekend coming up at the beginning of March, with plans afoot for a trip to Domwe Island, a lovely spot off Cape Maclear. Shortly after that is a weekend safari to Liwonde National Park, one of Malawi’s best wildlife centres. And then there is Easter break, with Northern Malawi and Zanzibar to look forward to. Lots in the works and much planning to be done.

And who knows, maybe last year’s book order will arrive soon, the power will be on when we arrive at school Monday morning and the coffee maker will be working. The school network will have the virus issue resolved and our classroom projectors will arrive. I remain an eternal optimist. After all, the truck at the end of the street did move on the day after my last post and I am sure someone has happily received their load of lumber.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

February 3, 2009

Well the technology gods are not with us this week. The power outages increase, the school server is plagued by viruses and it seems impossible to upload images to this blog today, hence the lack of photos in my recent postings. You will, however, find links to a couple of the albums I did manage to upload in the January 6th posting. Hopefully, they work. I am an eternal optimist.

My campfire cooking skills are being put to the test again. What do you do when you have 14 people coming for dinner, are in the middle of preparing a big pot of chili and the power goes? You head off to the nearest store, find a charcoal stove and hope for the best. By the time the guests arrived the chili was well simmered, the power deigned to return, and best of all we now had a charcoal cooker for the next power outage. Hakuna mutata, as they say in Swahili, palibe vuto, in Chichewa.

Patience is definitely one of the lessons Africa teaches. In his book, The Shadow of the Sun, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, quotes a fellow traveler’s remark about the local people’s “fantastic talent for waiting”. It is a talent indeed, a talent I envy with each power outage, each time I contemplate the missing book order, the lack of a decent pencil sharpener… And yet, as we have seen countless times in the last few months things tend to sort themselves out in the end. The chili was just fine. No one went hungry. We had the charcoal cooker yesterday to get us through the dinner hour.

And just down the street another story of incredible patience plays out. Every afternoon for the past 9 days, we have marveled at the patience of the fellows camped out by the truck at the end of our road. Somewhere, someone is waiting, probably quite patiently, for a truckload of lumber which has been parked at the end of our road. It appears to have tire problems. Each day a different wheel seems to be off the truck. The driver takes refuge in the shade of his truck during the heat, or inside when it rains, guarding his cargo and his truck. This is a residential street lined with compound walls and maize fields. The nearest stores, restaurants and market, not to mention bathroom facility, are about 2 kilometres away but every time we pass there is someone sitting by the truck. It is never left unattended. Eventually the problem will be resolved. The truck will be repaired. The lumber will be delivered. Or we will have a permanent truck sculpture to mark the corner of our street.