Xmas in Malawi

From Nkhata Bay to Salima

31 December 2015

Almost 5 months we moved to 'the warm heart if Africa'. So far, it has been a fantastic experience and we have no regrets. We're healthy, meeting lovely people and the country is beautiful. The first 2 months we stayed in Lilongwe where I worked for Lake of Stars and with inspirational organisations like mHub and Music Crossroads.

Next stop Nkhata Bay where we rented a lovely white house near the beach. Three months in the bay was amazing and I fell in love with the north. I'll miss the good food at Kaya Papaya (great Thai curries!), the positive vibe at Butterfly Space with the media room and nice volunteers from all over the world, the barbecues at Aqua and in general just the fact to have a view on the lake from our patio and the fact we only had to walk 2 minutes to swim or snorkel in the fresh water with lots of colourful cichlids. These fish come in the brightest colours and can only be found in Lake Malawi 

Moving south again is exciting. Salima is in the central region, half an hour from the lake, 1,5hrs from the capital Lilongwe and 4 to 5 hours from Nkhata Bay. Not too far from the beach, close enough to see our friends from the international school in Lilongwe for a night or weekend but quite far from my beloved Nkhata Bay.

When we planned to come this way, I wanted to live in Zomba (south) or Mzuzu (north), the coolest places in Malawi because they are on higher altitude. We are ending up living in the hottest place of the country. That is something I am not looking forward to...

It has been my hottest christmas ever. Hot and humid, really sticky weather making us sweat lots and do nothing. It was too hot to do anything, so spend quite some time in bed watching series on the computer with 2 ventilators on us.

No ventilators in Kuti, as we will be having solar power only. Our fridge will be tiny, the nights will be dark and on grey days we might not have much power at all. We have to go shopping to Salima on a regular basis to buy fresh food as freezer space in the kitchen will be limited.

To get to Kuti you have to drive on a 5 mile / 8 kilometres dirt road, which is why we bought a big red 4x4 as the road can get tricky in the rainy season. I don't have a clue how to drive a 4WD but we have a playground to practice. Jeroen can learn how to drive in Kuti as it is private property and except for some locals walking or cycling through the reserve there is no traffic. He might hit one of the sable antelopes, zebra, or a monkey though.. ;) There are no dangerous animals in Kuti, so it is safe to walk and cycle.

We have big plans and it is going to hard work and it will be challenging. Managing the reserve means dealing with animals, poachers, fishermen who illegally fish in our wetland, 30 people local staff, 3+ international volunteers and 12 villages that border Kuti.

Twelve villages with committees and chiefs, all with their own wishes and needs and different characters. I am not sure what is happening in the villages with the famine that is hitting Malawi hard. Up to 3 million people in the country are going hungry because last year's harvest failed. Hopefully this year's harvest will be more successful so people will have maize (corn) again in April because it will be an even bigger disaster if the harvest fails again.

Most people here live on nsima, maize flour with water (like pap in South Africa or ugali). It looks like mashed potato, is rather tasteless so it needs a good sauce. For the majority that is a watery sauce made of tomato and onion. Sometimes with beans or something that looks like spinach, but that is a treat. If they are lucky they can afford rice for xmas and a very small group might kill a chicken to eat in christmas day, but it's just nsima for most people. So if there is no maize, they starve.

While they go hungry, we live the expat life. Enjoying Thai curries, full English breakfast, veggie burgers and steaks in the barbecue. We drink malawi gin & tonic or 'greens' (Carlsberg beer) and play a game of darts or drive to the mountains or the lake to relax. The majority of the people we hang out with are from Europe, people who live and work here. Most of them work to support the economy of Malawi. They hire and train local staff and try to upgrade the tourism industry. The volunteers teach or work in hospitals. People come to Malawi to run orphanages and build schools, or they run a lodge of travel agency.

Our lives are very different and it is much easier to befriend other 'mzungus' (white people) as we have more in common and we understand each other. Of course we met lovely Malawians as well and we do hang out with locals, but too often our worlds are too far apart to become friends. It is not easy to communicate with people who are very poor and who have other priorities. Many people here survive and a friendly chat often results in requests for money. They demand beer or a cigarette ("give me beer", "give me cigarette") or tell a story that their grandmother died (again?) and they need money for the funeral.

I don't give beer or cigarettes to strangers. I have a friendly chat, smile and walk on. I definitely do not give sweets to kids as they don't go to the dentist. And I do not like people begging, even though I do understand one can get desperate if your family goes hungry. I do not blame people for trying, but I don't want to give money as it stimulates begging. It is hard to find a balance, especially now I now people are starving in this country.

The famine (hongersnood) is something I do not want to ignore but at the same time there is not much I can do. I can spend my money here at places where local people find work, I book Malawian taxis and buy stuff from community projects. Thanks to donations from my sisters (dank je wel Janneke en Marleen!) I bought lots

Of washable reusable sanitary pads to give to girls so they can go to school when they have their period (women stay home from work and school during their period, because they have no (money for) tampons or sanitary towels), I donated books to the library of Mzuzu University, I share my knowledge with musicians, I help updating the curriculum of Mzuzu University, I do voluntary work for Lake of Stars, and soon I'll be working with 12 communities around Kuti Wildlife Reserve. I cannot feed the hungry, I cannot eliminate poverty or solve the problems of corruption. I don't want to be an aid worker or 'save Africa', I do not believe in handing out money or food, but again, it is a challenge to find the right balance. I do what I can and hope that I can contribute something positive to Malawi. The people are so nice and friendly, the scenery is amazing, and I feel safe and welcome here. It's beautiful here and I love it!!