Halfway through Cohort One

This job sure does keep you on your toes. Just when everything starts to click, a routine forms, relationships form and the project is going swimmingly, things all start to fall apart again. I’ve had a hard week – a really really hard week, in so many ways. There have been many issues I have had to manage and in the end we’ve made the decision for two volunteers to go home. I have been reassured by the guys at International Service that I did all I could, and so I shouldn’t take responsibility that they have had to leave, but it’s still upsetting. I know it’s for the best for both of them though. I felt like I haven’t really had a break this week and there have been many tears, many phone calls to the head office, many late nights and early mornings, many moments where I’ve had to think quickly of the best solution or the right thing to say. I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I have really been tested this week but I’ve come through it and all the issues are sorted now. Looking forward to week 6 going back to normal.
Luckily, the volunteers are all awesome and so the project has been ticking along despite the team leaders being rather preoccupied. We’ve been doing our drop in centre sessions, also training some parents to run parenting circles to support their children, we’ve had the tournament semi-finals where we discussed human rights. We even had a cheeky morning visit to the botanical gardens where a gardener there gave us a tour and told us all about the plants and trees. The volunteers loved it! There may even be a chance for us to plant some trees around Zomba that are provided to us by the gardens.
On Friday we saw the guys from the Lilongwe office for our mid-term review. It’s always nice to get some positive feedback from them and also to reflect on how much we’ve actually done since being here; I felt proud of myself and of everyone else.
The Friday before, we visited Ntcheu where another YONECO team is based led by Grace and Tefadzwa. On the same day, the Dedza team led by Jason and Ernest visited – so it was like a big reunion! I can’t express how happy I was to see them again. I really love those guys. We will also see the Ntcheu team this coming Friday when they visit Zomba.
Apart from that, I’ve been getting on with other things… trying to keep up with gym sessions (although my visits are not as frequent as I’d like), also visiting the tailor a lot for African outfits, playing bawo which is the best game ever, spending quality time with my host family, colleagues and volunteers, occasionally participating in worship. I visited a church with a friend last Saturday which was a seventh day adventist church. Services are long and generally last all day, however I just went for the morning, and then joined them for lunch, which was really fun – met some lovely people. People just tend to assume I’m already religious so I don’t really get people trying to convert me, and it’s just a nice way to spend time with the communities.
It kind of feels like I’ve been here forever, but at the same time it’s going really quickly. We have less than four weeks left with these volunteers, and just four months left before it’s all over. I am gonna be really sad when these volunteers leave. They’ve become my whole world. I’m so proud of them and I’ll miss them so much. But at the same time it will be really nice to have a bit of a break from being on call!

 

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Guys, don’t worry, I’ve got this.

Ooh la la. It’s funny how it takes so long to find your feet sometimes, and then all of a sudden everything just clicks. I feel like I have this all under control finally. Of course there are still dramas and things that go wrong basically every day that have to be solved, but I can handle it, and it’s ticking along. Work relationships have improved drastically – me and my counterpart Samson have reached an understanding of each other, and despite being very different we stay honest and open with each other, build off each others’ strengths and try and mitigate each other’s weaknesses. I am learning to be more relaxed and flexible about things whilst I think the YONECO guys are also starting to understand the way I operate and that I don’t like to be messed around.

Something I didn’t anticipate here was that things would be a struggle because of my gender. Perhaps I should have thought about it; after all, the way women are viewed here is not great, as I experienced last time I was here! But in the sector I’m working in, I didn’t think it would be a problem. And most people are fine and listen to me, for sure. But there are a few who just don’t take me seriously, interrupt me or tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m not, who don’t appreciate the fact that I am assertive and organised and in a position of leadership. It’s very frustrating when my leadership behaviour is seen as something amusing, or annoying, or even “cute” (cue me being very angry) rather than, like, the only way anything is gonna get done in this place!

Week 3 has been successful, after a slow second week. We have finally started to do stuff on the ground; activities are beginning to get going, and our messages are getting through to people. The volunteers are so great at interacting with the young people and I really feel like the youths are listening and responding. It’s amazing to see. It makes me feel so emotional sometimes! I’ve had to leave the room to have a cry a couple of times, because it’s such a rewarding feeling and also because it’s just so nice to see how great the volunteers are doing. Some of them have really developed and blossomed since being here. Also I’m just super-emotional here all the time, kind of like a rollercoaster, but it’s good to be emotional.

We have been preparing our Theatre for Development sessions which Samson has experience in, so he’s been training some of the volunteers who are interested. It’s so much better than just contacting and booking some trained artists already, because when the volunteers actually are the trained artists, they can be actively involved on the ground, which is what they prefer. It’s also cheaper! We’ve also begun our sports tournament, using 8 under-17 football and netball teams from local schools, and playing SRHR-related warm up games. When we chat to them about SRHR and learn about their views, I can really see why all this awareness-raising is needed… some of their views are not healthy and/or are incorrect. Unfortunately, we’ve had two quarter final matches this week and in both of these, one team didn’t show up! This is a problem because people will hear about it and start to not take the games seriously, so I am a little worried about this coming week. Luckily we’ve managed to get the teams that showed up involved with the SRHR games and also playing a football game with them ourselves!

This week the volunteers finally got to run the sessions they had been preparing for the drop-in centres; life skills, art and dance sessions. They went so well and we had people begging for us to come back soon! We will do sessions every week if we have time. We also had a visit from the supervisors to check how we were doing, it was really nice to have a chat with them and ask loads of questions/rant about irritating things! Not that there are many irritating things any more… like I said, things are falling into place. We have had a few illnesses, hospital visits and also some group tensions, but nothing too serious so far… in general all the volunteers get on really well with each other.

It’s been a good weekend spending quality time with the volunteers, Thuliwe from the office, and my host family. We’ve even had a chance to try out some woodcarving after making friends with some of the guys at the market. Woodcarving is very famous here, so I’ll definitely pick up some souveniers. The volunteers loved the session.

Halfway through Week 4 now but I’ll talk more about that next time. In the meantime, internet really is too bad to upload photos onto this blog, so I’ll attach a few links so you can see some photos elsewhere:

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Meeting the team, and the first week of project

I’ve only been in Malawi for 3 weeks now, but the amount we’ve packed into that three weeks has made it feel like three months! It’s been non-stop and eventful.The remainder of the time we were in Zomba, we were working on finalising the team plan. We are given a project plan to work from, which runs for one year, and we have to split up the activities into four cohorts of three months each. Samson and I will be Team Leaders for two of the cohorts. It sounds simple to do the plan, but it’s complicated, since we need to consider which activities would fit best where, how long the trainings and sessions take, how best to reach as many people as possible, and we weren’t getting much guidance from the project partners unless we really pushed for it. I’ve done a lot of pushing since I’ve been here. I’m sure I’m annoying the hell out of everyone at YONECO, but these volunteers have a lot to offer, and I don’t want them to go home feeling like their skills and energy were not utilised because things were moving too slowly.

Obviously since this is the beginning of the project, and the first cohort of volunteers, we have to start from scratch and don’t get any guidance from previous cohorts. That also makes it harder, and budget/resources are another thing we have to consider. For example we are supposed to be training parent facilitators and then forming parenting groups who can talk openly about issues with their adolescent children. We have to train the parent facilitators in order to form the groups, so the training has to be done in the first cohort, but training is the expensive part, and the budget is split evenly amongst the four cohorts. Another problem is that the project assumes that we have one year so three months each, but in fact, these volunteers are only here for 2 months and the next ones only for 2.5 months. So we’re gonna be busy squeezing things in!

I did have some time away from the project planning to pop to church with my host family and met the Vice President of Malawi who was fundraising there. Luckily, we had a private car to take us back to Lilongwe, since another member of YONECO had to go there for a meeting. We stopped by Ntcheu on the way to pick up Grace and Tefadzwa. It was so good to see them again. After a quick photo opportunity at the Mozambique border, and a random stopover in a hotel in Dedza for an hour while the YONECO guys attended a meeting about gay people, we were in Lilongwe by the late afternoon, and found that half of the UK volunteers had arrived! Actually all the UKVs from Zomba were here, and I summoned my energy for some more socialising! They were all very cool and intelligent, so I was happy. It was good to see the other team leaders again too. Had some much-needed beers and a catch up that evening. Whilst we waited for the other volunteers to arrive the following day, we took some of them into town to get their phones and sim cards sorted, and to buy a few things. Explaining how the phones worked took forever, with all these scratchcards and inputting different codes! Why is it so overly complicated here? It was really fun helping all the volunteers out though, and showing them around, and answering all their questions (even if a lot of my answers were “I don’t know”).

The next couple of days were for training, and also getting to know our team and explaining a bit about the projects. All of my in-country volunteers were also very cool and intelligent, so I was happy with all ten of them! They also got on really well together, which was great. We’d been taught a lot about how to deal with the different nationalities not mixing, but our team didnt seem to have that problem. Don’t want to speak too soon, but so far they’re all getting on great. Whilst the volunteers were training, it was so nice to spend some time with the other team leaders. It’s amazing how quickly you can get close to people when you’re all thrown into the same situation and in a strange country. The last night, five of us went out to a local club conveniently located opposite our hotel; we really needed a break since we hadn’t finished work that night until 10:30pm, preparing all the volunteers to leave the next day. Our last night without responsibility, before we would be expected to be on call for our 10 volunteers! It felt so good to dance, and I also realised I love Nigerian music.

We figured that the following day would just be sitting on a bus going to our different areas and so we’d be able to sleep, but no such luck. For starters, we all woke up at 5:30am because we were told the bus would leave at 6:30 sharp. Of course, this didn’t happen. Oh Africa… the buses that turned up were so tiny, there was no room for our luggage (and barely enough room for ourselves), so they had to go back and get a roof rack fitted. In the meantime we had some more forms to fill out – there are always, always forms. Finally left at about 9am, all squished up so there wasn’t really a chance to sleep. Zomba and Ntcheu were in the same bus. Somehow the journey took hours, and we didn’t arrive in Zomba until late; we then had to try and find everyone’s host homes in the dark. The poor driver, and Jack our coordinator, had to drive all the way back to Lilongwe that night; a further five hours. I fell asleep pretty much as soon as I got to my home. It was so nice to see the family again and be back below the majestic plateau.

We had the Sunday to relax and adjust before our first week began on the Monday. I kept my phone on me, expecting at least one volunteer emergency in the first couple of days, but I got nothing! It was hard to relax though – my brain just kept whirring, as I planned how the week would go. I wanted to make sure the volunteers felt stimulated. We hadn’t been given much information, only that we would have some kind of orientation – it was all quite unorganised, which can be quite typical here, and it’s something I’m going to have to get used to because I’m generally not good with that style of things. It was great to see everyone on the Monday looking happy and settled. Of course there’s also been a few tears and struggles with the volunteers this week, but they are all very strong people and really they’ve done very well adjusting – I’m proud of them!

The first week went fast and slow at the same time. It felt like it had been a lot longer than a week, and I came home every day totally exhausted. We had some training on sexual health and rights as well as parenting, we had a tour around the head office and picked up some important contacts (namely the radio – some of the volunteers are very keen to feature on air!). Also had some time for a guided learning session focusing on culture and dance, which was so fun, especially when we got all the teenagers from the drop-in centre involved. Our office in Ndola is also a drop in centre, and we will be doing some project work there as well as in another drop in centre in Chinamwale. Some of the volunteers were still feeling a little disorientated in Zomba, so we found some time for them to explore the town, and I also took them to the Botanical Gardens which they loved – especially as it was full of monkeys! Zomba is such a good place to be, there’s always things to do and places to go. Friday was our first field trip; we visited a parenting circle that had been established by YONECO, to see how it worked and also to identify some parents who we could train to be facilitators, who could then set up their own circles. It was a successful trip and a great way to end the week.

I’ve also been working over the weekend – a couple of meetings, a host home visit, and some parenting circles to see. A quick feature on the radio too – me and a couple of volunteers were asked if we would give some advice on the radio to young people, about a half hour before the show began! So we quickly prepared something. I was so jittery but it went well and was really fun. I think I might have accidentally sung along to a song before the microphone was turned off though.

The workload is just because it’s a new project, and there’s lots to do. I’ve had a bit of time for a rest too, and have joined a gym here. I’m feeling happy – and a little tired, but I’ll get used to it! I value those odd hours I can sit in the park in the sunshine and read a book, while the monkeys run around me.

I’m feeling happy now, but the first week or so in Malawi was difficult for me. As I mentioned before, saying goodbyes again and again, because of always going off somewhere different, was starting to get to me. Arriving in Zomba made things even harder, because it was a familiar place where I had already made memories, and now I was here alone, and to start this new scary adventure where I had a lot of responsibility. The memories from my trip earlier this year kept coming to me as I walked past familiar places, and I couldn’t escape them. Now I’ve had some time, and I feel like I’ve made a little life for myself here, a life that is just mine. I’ve made new memories, and when I walk home from work and I see the sun setting over the plateau, I realise how lucky I am to be here. I remember why I like doing this kind of thing by myself, and just meeting people along the way. Lots of new people, and I know for sure this won’t be the last time I come to Malawi, so the goodbyes at the end won’t be as sad.

Bring on this week; week 4 of Malawi, week 2 of project.

NB The internet hasn’t been good enough for pictures, but I will try and get some up at some point.

Arrival, adjusting and settling in

Zomba, Malawi

So here I am, back in Malawi. I must say, it is so nice to be back somewhere familiar – where I feel at home, and I know how to behave and what to expect. I’ve gone through quite a few different emotions since being here. Sometimes I feel so alive and happy, and like I belong. Other times I have felt overwhelmed, tired and unsure. I think I am overreacting, because we have only been here a week so far, but it’s felt like a long week – we still haven’t met our volunteers, or started our projects, and so the time feels like it’s dragging sometimes, because we just want to get stuck into it now. But there are always formalities; lots of people to meet, host homes to investigate, timetables and plans to make, more training to do. I am excited now for the task to actually start so I can stop feeling a little bit like I’m in limbo.

Leaving the UK again was hard. Not because I ever miss England itself when I’m away, but just because it involved a whole bunch of goodbyes, yet again. It’s felt like goodbyes have become a normal part of my life, and every time I go away again or leave a country I’ve been for a while, it seems harder and more exhausting. Of course, my lifestyle means there are also a lot of hellos, but for some reason my mind seems to fixate on the goodbyes. I am not sure I can do this for much longer! Maybe it’s time to start thinking of settling somewhere in the next couple of years — but where??

I’m really happy to have some great Team Leaders alongside me. I met Jason, Adrian and Grace in Heathrow, and we will be leading the four teams of volunteers in various places in Malawi. We all get on really well, despite all being so different from each other! We won’t be living near each other, but we will get to see each other quite a lot during the six months, as we have debriefs in Lilongwe and also some project visits where we can see what the other teams are up to. The journey to Lilongwe from London went really quickly, because I slept most of the way, including during the 6-hour layover in Nairobi! Plus, we were all getting to know each other, so it was pretty fun. We actually ended up doing a detour via Mombasa (another place in Kenya) before reaching Nairobi because they hadn’t opened the runway for the plane. A little odd, since we were arriving at the scheduled time, but I’ve learnt not to question these things…

The first thing we saw when driving from Lilongwe’s airport was boys selling fried mice on sticks at the side of the road. This was something I hadn’t seen before! I hadn’t been to this region before either, so it was interesting seeing what it was like. Lilongwe looked nothing like a capital city, but I didn’t really expect it to – this is Malawi after all! We went straight to International Service’s new office where we would also be sleeping as there were several bedrooms. This is the first time International Service has worked in Malawi so we will actually be starting new projects here with their partner organisations (for me and Grace it will be YONECO, and for the boys it will be CYECE). As we were told by our programme coordinators Thomas and Lena, this means we are expected to do a lot! We had a few days of training after our arrival and also met our Malawian counterparts (so they will be a Team Leader with us); I am with a guy called Samson James, from Mangochi, and the others have Ernest, Sky, and Tafadzwa. They are all very nice and super intelligent. Also a little different from most Malawians I have met, in several ways. They have already told me not to buy food from the side of the road because it’s not clean – I’ve cruised through three months in Africa already without any tummy bug, so I’m not really taking much notice! They also don’t seem to eat much nsima. Once they arrived, Thomas and Lena seemed a bit more relaxed about us going out and about and exploring the area. They were a little protective the first couple of days. Not that I’ve really seen much of Lilongwe still; I think we are quite far out of the town.

After training, we boarded a local bus to our placement areas. For me, this was Zomba. We would be spending six days there checking out the homes where the volunteers would be staying, and settling in and getting to know the area before the volunteers arrived. The bus journey was really long, about 9 hours with loads of stopping and starting and faffing, but surprisingly it wasn’t actually too painful; I think I’m getting used to it all, plus I had a few naps. Samson and I were greeted by Felix who would be working with us on our YONECO project dealing with sexual health and rights, and drug and alcohol abuse. There are a lot of components to this project which I will go into as we go along. YONECO is pretty well-known in Malawi, with offices and projects in many districts, as well as its own radio station and many activities such as football tournaments and bands for the youth. I spent the rest of the afternoon meeting my host family who I would be living with for the next six months (!). I couldn’t be happier with the house, family and location. It’s right next to Zomba town, with views of the plateau and some other mountains. Really weird being back and recognising everything – brings back good memories! The house is pretty and has a garden. My host family are Akuzike and Kachengwa, a young couple with a new baby Mulunji (only two months!). She’s so cute and I love her name, because it reminds me of Mulanje mountain where I visited last time I was in Malawi. Aku’s sister Lisangu lives here also, and they have a maid who I call Aunty. Very lovely and relaxed family. I joined in with Bible studies that evening, and so met many of their neighbours. They are a very Christian family, and are aware that I am not Christian, but I’m happy to join in with things to get to know the community and the culture. The evening was really good fun.

The following day, Felix showed us around the office and we also met Jacob who we will also be working with on our project. YONECO’s main office is in Zomba, but we will mainly be working in the district office in Ndola, where we live. I met Thuliwe who is an intern there – I think we are going to be good friends. Also met some of the kids that come here for lessons, band practice and football practice. The rest of the afternoon was spent checking out the host homes, which are all really lovely; some are like mansions! Zomba is a very wealthy area; I noticed that last time I was here as well. Some of the other team leaders have had different experiences with houses in their area. Akuzike must have read my mind because she is getting a heated shower installed soon. Hot showers are the one ‘luxury thing’ I really struggle without; I can sleep anywhere, use any kind of toilet, eat most food, and bugs/spiders don’t bother me, but cold showers are something I truly hate. Aku agrees with me!

On Saturday, after a morning of work, I attended a Malawian wedding reception as part of the YONECO team. The bride worked for YONECO in Nkhata Bay, so we went along to show our congratulations. Lots of money was involved! First, people had to pay some money to go to the front and get a photo with the bride and groom. Then, groups of people went up one by one to present gifts, then dance and throw money over the bride. YONECO had their opportunity, and we presented the happy couple with a new mattress as a gift, then threw the money. I threw all my notes too quickly and ran out before the song was over. It was really fun! I am gonna have to try and get better at Malawian dancing though, I could really tell how inferior my moves were compared to everyone else!

We also had a meeting with the executive director of YONECO, and he expressed his wish for our project to include some environmental issues as well as SRHR. The original project also focused on environment, but International Service scrapped that part of the project, which I was disappointed about. I’m happy to try and include it in our activities, but it obviously wouldn’t be something that is formally evaluated. Not that evaluation is everything! Making a difference and changing perceptions is the most important thing. As the director said, “Every time I look at that mountain (referring to Zomba Plateau), I cry”. I agree. I remember very clearly, just a couple of months earlier, sitting on a bench at the top of the plateau and feeling so sad when I looked down and saw no trees, just a sparse landscape.

Soon we will be going back to Lilongwe to meet the volunteers, and then back to Zomba yet again to finally begin the projects. I’m full of anticipation, and can’t wait to settle into it all.

All good things come to an end…

 

Blantyre, Malawi

…But it’s not goodbye forever. I would be back in Malawi in less than 2 months, doing my project with International Service. For now, I just had a few more days to hang around Blantyre before my flight back to UK. I was kind of ready to leave, in a way – I find travelling totally exhausting. That’s why I prefer to have a base when I’m abroad, just like I did in China and Australia, so there’s a home to come back to and some familiarity. Africa has been a whirlwind. But now I’m back in the UK I can’t wait to get back to Malawi again, especially since I found out my project will be in Zomba, where I’ve already spent a bit of time. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do this trip before going over there to live for 6 months. I’ve learnt so much, made so many good friends, and understand a lot of the issues I will potentially face during my time as a team leader.

I will also be blogging during my charity work, so I’ll talk more about that when I’m back in Malawi. The last bit of time in Blantyre, I spent with Diana and her kids, as well as their neighbours. I had a bit of a crisis once I got to her village near Mangochi, because I couldn’t remember where her house was, and she wasn’t answering her phone! As a white gal wandering around the city suburbs by myself, I attracted a lot of stares, and was starting to feel a little anxious. The afternoon turned into a kind of treasure hunt, as I tried to jog my memory and find people who knew Diana or her niece who also lived nearby. My treasure hunt took me to a school, where Sabita (Diana’s niece) was studying. I walked in during the girls’ lunch break, and they all knew her but weren’t sure where she was, or her phone number. The matron ended up calling the headmaster, who said he would come and give me her details, so I hung out there for a while waiting. This headmaster never materialised, but the matron told me to go down to the church, find a man selling clothes on the corner, and ask him, because he lived close to Sabita. It was getting weirder and weirder! As I walked down, I came across a woman selling spices – I knew she was friends with Diana because Diana often came to buy spices, so I asked for her help and finally, finally arrived at the house!

The reason Diana hadn’t been answering her phone was because she had been checking out a new mosque that day, and there was no signal there. She wasn’t back when I got to the house but all the local kids were so happy to see me, so we played outside for a bit. Then Diana came home, dressed in the most elegant outfit and full of apologies, and we decided to climb the ‘mountain’ just next to her house. It was one of those moments I felt pure elation; with about 12 kids in tow, along with Diana and her friend Elizabeth, we walked along the village streets singing “Let’s go climb a mountain, let’s go climb a mountain!” Astonished locals stopped what they were doing to look, confused, at this procession, and kids ran up to us to join in. At one point I looked behind us and there were 20 children following! Before we started the climb, we had some help from a guy who advised that the younger children should wait at the bottom, because the climb would be too hard for them. They patiently sat and waited, and the rest of us went up. Farmlands covered most of the mountains now, but Diana told me that there were once lions here, and there are some folk tales about how it became barren and dry. Sadly, I think the most likely tale is that the people have ruined the land by cutting away all the trees… but, people have to eat. It’s really difficult to think about. We watched the sunset from the top, and could see all the way to Zomba. We waved at the little ones who were shouting at us from below.

I slept so well that night, and rose early the next morning to walk the kids to school. One of Diana’s kids, who was a total drama queen, had taken a shine to me and screamed and cried when we left her at the gate, knowing that when she came home from school I would be gone. I really feel like that child is gonna go somewhere – she has a spark about her. I met some of Diana’s friends and we went back to the house for some tea and bread. Later, we went to visit her father, who is one of the most intelligent men I have ever met! His English was impeccable and he knew so much about what was going on in the world, through newspapers and radio. I can definitely see where Diana gets her worldliness from. We discussed philosophy and politics among other things. He was a tailor, and his small house was dominated by his trade, as suits and shirts hung down from the shelves and his sewing machine took up most of the living room. It was really a pleasure meeting him, and I hope to see him again.

Meeting Diana and her family was definitely a highlight of my trip, and there have been so many other times that people here have shown me such kindness, and been so accommodating. It leaves me with a warm feeling in my heart. This is how people should be; we are all together in this weird experience that we call ‘life’, and sometimes we need to help each other out, or show some acknowledgement towards each other.

Each trip I take gives me a totally different kind of education. Africa, you’ve been very special. See you again soon.

Mulanje Massif

 

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Mulanje, Malawi

After our night in Zomba town, we treated ourselves to a fairly fancy breakfast the next day of pancakes, waffles, honey and fruit at the backpackers in town. It was mainly so we could use the WiFi as I needed to book my flight home, but it was so slow that it wasn’t even worth it. Then we took the minibus down to Blantyre. Adrian was ready to get back up to Lukwe and start working – he would be working there for at least a couple of months. I was going to spend some time with Diana, who I had met on the bus from Mangochi, and also sort out my Mulanje hike. Diana said she would pick me up at the bus station, but she was a bit late (coz Africa) so we stood there for a while and it wasn’t the nicest area, we had some drunk local guy who wouldn’t leave us alone, so I was glad Adrian was with me. I could not understand anything this guy was saying, but Adrian seemed to understand him perfectly and was chatting away. Apparently he was quite philosophical.

Eventually Diana arrived and took me to her place. It was a bit out in the sticks – not near the city at all, and we had quite a long minibus ride, but beautifully located under a huge mountain that Diana thought looked like an elephant. After the minibus, we had a long-ish walk down a dirt track and farmlands, also the occasional vibrant (but small) shopping area where she waltzed around buying spices and chatting to her friends. Everyone was very surprised to see me! She lived a very simple life, with a small house consisting of a living space and also a bedroom with one bed which she shared with her four children, including one baby. Everything was slow and relaxed. The children played all sorts of games outside with the neighbouring kids; they have no special toys or technology, but all games come from the power of their own imagination, and maybe the odd discarded flowerpot, plastic bag or wooden stick. Apart from Diana’s eldest daughter (who had grown up in South Africa), the kids didn’t speak any English, so they seemed to find it hilarious to hear me speaking! Although we spoke different languages, it wasn’t hard to communicate, and to join in the games and dancing. Dinner was a lovely spicy curry with rice – Diana is the first Malawian I’ve met who doesn’t really like nsima – and we ate with our hands. I crashed at 9pm on a mattress on the bedroom floor, whilst Diana and her children sat in bed eating spaghetti from the pan.

The following day was also relaxed – it was a bank holiday, so no school. Everyone was up early, but there was no rush to do anything. We strolled around the market and the base of the mountain before breakfast, and then went back for some porridge, followed by bread and tea. Bread and tea is a standard breakfast here and is almost like a ritual. We sat on the floor to eat and drink. Late morning, Diana walked with me back to the bus stand, as I would be going back to the centre that day to start organising my trips. I promised to return before I flew home; it was such a fun place to hang out especially with all the kids around, and Diana is a great person to talk to, as she is so open-minded and I feel like I can ask her anything and she won’t be offended. Adrian was still around in Blantyre, he would be leaving that evening on the night bus, so I met him and we had a drink followed by some nsima. Another guy eating in the little hut with us was so happy that we were eating the local food, especially when we told him we really loved it. We both had plans in mind for that day – I wanted to get down to a marsh-y place in the south where you can go on boat rides in a dugout canoe, and Adrian needed to whizz back to Zomba as he’d left some stuff there, but somehow neither of these things ended up happening and instead we went into the centre and ran around the markets buying random things and eating satsumas. It was such a cool market with a light-hearted vibe.

Later, me and Adrian said goodbye yet again. This would be the last time we’d see each other for at least a couple of months. He’s been such a big part of my trip that it felt strange waving him off on the bus. The following day I was hoping to head to Mulanje town to organise my mountain hike, but I woke up feeling very ill, and had to spend most of the day in bed. I’ve been on-and-off sick since the beginning of my time in Malawi, so I really hoped I hadn’t got some illness or infection. Sometimes I’d feel fine and other times I would feel awful. So I ended up going to Mulanje the following day instead. Apparently the minibus only took about an hour, incredibly short for Malawi, but the one I got on took about three hours – I later found out that there were two routes and I had got on the slower one! The bus kept stopping at all these random towns for ages, so I was glad I had my book and some music.

Because I hadn’t been feeling well, my plan was to just do a short, easy-ish hike for 2 days. However, when I arrived and I was under the shadow of the dominating mountain, I fell in love and I just had to spend more time there, and do some more challenging hiking. I organised a three-day hike, climbing to the top of one of the peaks also. Mulanje is like a huge plateau rising up from the ground below, of which most is just over 2000m in height. From this plateau rise numerous peaks, of which the tallest is rocky Sapitwa, at 3002m. It doesn’t seem so high when you compare it to beasts like Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya, but it should definitely not be underestimated – it’s a powerful, prominent mountain and the climb is tough and steep. That goes for most of the peaks on the Mulanje plateau, and even getting up to the plateau is not easy.

I found a really cheap guesthouse ever to stay in that night – $2! There was a huge green bug under the toilet seat, and it had a tendency to pop up while you were sitting down, but at that price I didn’t mind. Actually I probably wouldn’t have minded anyway; it was a cute bug. Spent the evening stocking up on fruit, milk, biscuits, and other things that were easy to snack on. I had an agreement with my guide that we would share dinner and he would just buy some nsima and meat, so I didn’t have to worry about carrying pots, pans and heavy ingredients. Once it got dark I retreated to the guesthouse, stood in the courtyard and managed to make out the silhouette of the great mountain by noticing the absence of stars. I was nervous, but couldn’t wait.

The first day was an uphill struggle, literally. With my big backpack loaded and along with my guide (whose name unfortunately escapes me) we began to scale through the trees to get up to the plateau. On the way we met two Portuguese ladies also trying to reach Thuchila Hut for the night (there are several huts on the plateau provided for you to sleep in). The steep climb went on for 3.5 hours, but somehow it felt shorter. I remember hoping that I would see the hut after every corner, and always being disappointed, but when my guide finally pointed it out, snug in-between a spotting of trees, I was surprised to see it so soon. Despite feeling unwell the days before the hike, something about this mountain had temporarily cured me. It had a special power, just like the lake. Maybe it was to do with the beauty of the views and surroundings, the fresh air, or simply the lack of the bustle and stress of the modern world. Nature can do incredible things. After a quick bit of lunch I was ready to climb the nearby peak. There are three near Thuchila Hut, and I can’t actually remember the name of the one we were going up, but I think it was Nandalanda. This would be my afternoon challenge, and it was supposed to be the only peak I would climb – I was hesitant to try the famous Sapitwa Peak, because of not feeling so good. However, I was suddenly feeling so energetic I could have probably jogged up one of the peaks, and so I bugged the guide to take me up Nandalanda as well as Sapitwa Peak tomorrow. Persuading him took a while – he kept making excuses about why we couldn’t climb both, but after offering him a bit more money and clarifying with him that I was definitely fit enough for the challenge, he agreed.

My guide took a while finishing his lunch, and we didn’t set off for our afternoon climb until pretty late in the day. I was a little worried about this, but figured he knew what he was doing. This peak is climbed very infrequently; overshadowed by its higher and more famous ‘neighbours’ Sapitwa and Chambe. However, it was a pretty climb over rocks and shrubs – it looked like the exact kind of place you might come across a leopard. Unfortunately, we got lost about halfway up. The path hadn’t been cleared and was overgrown. With the setting sun not far away, and no sign of another way up, I made the decision to go back down. It just wasn’t worth the potential risk of climbing down in the dark. I was a bit annoyed at my guide who had taken so long eating his lunch, meaning we didn’t have enough daylight hours to complete the climb, but he promised to take me up Sapitwa the next day with no extra charge.

I had a cosy evening by the fire with the two Portuguese ladies. It got very cold at night up there, so I was happy to have a very early night just for an excuse to get into my sleeping bag. We would be up very early the next day, as it was a couple of hours just to get to Chisepo Hut, and from there it was a 5 hour round trip to Sapitwa Peak. The hike to the hut was absolutely beautiful! Not only were we up high, but the plateau rises so steeply from the ground below, that it felt like we were floating above everything. A thick duvet of clouds below shielded the lower ground from the early morning sun, with the exception of a few little peaks who had fidgeted their way through and stood stubbornly, like teenagers who are awake and know it is morning, but are reluctant to get out of bed. But even this sleepy white blanket could not tame us, or Mulanje, as we rose with it, high above the clouds, a dominant and omnipresent part of the blue sky above.

It was like being on our own planet, as craggy rocks rose high above and little streams ran below. Thousands of yellow flowers surrounded the path and the foothills of the mountains. I love the colour yellow in nature. It was hard to remember to watch where I was putting my feet sometimes, because I didn’t want to look down at the floor, I just wanted to soak up some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever had the privilege to see.

I only had time for a very short break once we reached the hut; then we had to get going for Sapitwa if we wanted to get down before dark. I ate as much as possible in preparation for the steep ascent. Sapitwa is 3002m above sea level, which isn’t as high as a lot of other places I’ve been, so I didn’t really think anything of it – but it should definitely not be underestimated. It’s a hard climb; a really hard climb. Everyone wants to go up because it’s the highest point in Malawi (and Central Africa), but many end up giving up part way through. The route up to Sapitwa is defined by rocks, and there are times when it’s more of a rock climb than a hike. The first few parts were the hardest, because there were a few sheer rock faces to climb, that were so steep that I had to go onto my hands and knees for parts of it, and when I did stand up, my calf muscles burned like they’ve never burned before. Thin bands of mist came and went as we ascended, slightly engulfing us sometimes, but quickly passing on. Often the path became obscure, and we had to haul ourselves up big rocks or jump from one rock to another to continue. Occasionally I was a bit too short to climb to the next bit, and had to be dragged up, or attempt to shimmy up backwards. I definitely couldn’t have done it without a guide or someone else with me. I was so determined, and despite sometimes being a little scared (I have a bit of a phobia of falling), and a few cuts and scrapes, I made it! I was absolutely exhausted but that didn’t curb my elation at having reached the top, and I walked all around this area of rocky isolation, whilst my guide had a nap. It was quite misty still, but every so often I caught a glimpse of lower areas, which were mostly also these light-grey rocks.

As we descended along the same path, my legs were shaky from exhaustion, but my mind felt refreshed and calm. Unfortunately, this hut is very popular and when I arrived back, there were so many other people staying the night as well. When you’re on a mountain, most of the time you just want some quiet time with your surroundings, so I ended up going down to the stream to read and sit by myself. The Portuguese ladies were here as well, so it was nice to see them again. The hut was lovely, and watching the sun setting and then rising in this beautiful place was very special.

The following morning I would be taking the Chigamula path back down into Mulanje town. I’m not a fan of downhill hiking, so I kept wanting to ask “are we nearly there yet?” like a child! But it was impossible to really be that impatient, because it was again stunning scenery, and it was made even more fun when we were joined by hundreds of locals – men, women and children – who were almost running down these steep hills carrying firewood on their heads. It was the weekend, and after this ‘quick’ dash up and down the mountain, they would have a bit of time to relax, so they wanted to get down as quickly as possible. When you’re being overtaken by small kids carrying heavy loads on their heads, it does make you feel a bit embarrassed. The best part of the day was when we reached a waterfall with a huge deep pool, and the guide left me for a little while so I could have a swim. The water was incredibly cold, and the shock of it made me slightly giddy, so I hopped in and out, staying in only as long as I could bear, then drying off in the sun.

The first thing I did when getting back to Mulanje town was have a huge dish of rice and beans. Then I got a minibus back to Blantyre.

Goodbye lake, hello highlands, hiking and culture

 

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Zomba, Malawi

It was a really quick journey to Mangochi, at the very bottom point of Lake Malawi. I wanted to spend the afternoon here doing a few cultural things. I really liked Mangochi; it’s rare to ‘really like’ a big African town, but it had a certain charm – thousands of bicycles sped across the roads, and there were hardly any vehicles, which made for a completely different kind of bustle and noise. It felt rather calm and peaceful. The further down the road you go, the prettier it gets, until eventually you reach a roundabout with an old brick clock tower built in memory of Queen Victoria, and a cannon which was on one of the old boats which sailed on Lake Malawi. There is also a memorial dedicated to those who died when the Viphya (another boat on the lake) sank. Ironically (and sadly), around the time I was visiting Mangochi and saw this memorial, there was another accident on the lake, when around 50 Malawians died when a boat sank due to overcrowding. Tragically, drowning is something that happens very often here. A lot of people don’t know how to swim despite living in a country that is so dominated by the water.

The street then becomes a bridge over the river. On the other side of the bridge are some forested hills similar to those around Cape Maclear, and the river itself is really pretty, with locals paddling through in dugout wooden canoes and bright green grasses all around.

There is a Lake Malawi museum here and the guy at reception was delighted to see me. I don’t think they get many visitors, but it was a cute little museum and worth a look. Big displays about the environment around the lake, and the animals and plants that inhabit the area, and also a room with lots of photos and information about all the boats that had existed on the lake, for one function or another. Later, I pranced around the huge and lively market, picking up cheap bananas and apples, and looking at all the different fabrics (even making a cheeky purchase… not sure whether to make another pair of trousers, or a t-shirt, from the fabric?). It was a very good market. Had a really nice meal in the evening and also munched on some maize from the market. The first time I’d tried it, I thought it was a bit plain, but now I love it.

Unfortunately there was a bit of a dispute the next morning with my guesthouse, as we had agreed on a cheaper price for the room the day before, and now they were going back on what they had said the previous day. After I refused to pay extra because of our original agreement, they quickly changed tactic and tried to make me feel guilty about it instead of arguing. I left Mangochi feeling a bit miserable because of that, which is a shame because I actually had a really good time there. I quickly cheered up again on the minibus ride to Zomba, after meeting Diana who is just one of the coolest people I’ve met in Malawi. She is from Mangochi but now lives in Blantyre (a bit further south than Zomba) and was going back there. She lived in South Africa for a long time with her husband, he is still there but she is happily back in Malawi – Cape Town sounds a bit intense and I think she prefers the quiet life. She invited me to stay with her in Blantyre which was exciting. With her husband in South Africa she must get a bit lonely. As we were in the bus we passed a chameleon on the road which had changed to the tarmac colour. It seemed like a mistake to me – trying to be camouflaged on a busy road!

I liked Zomba immediately. I would be couchsurfing here with one of Camilla’s friends Ole, and his housemates, but they wouldn’t be back until later so I left my bags at the friendly tourist information place (which didn’t really have any information and looked more like an office… but it’s the first one I’ve seen in Africa!). I had some lunch at the backpackers and met the neediest cat ever who clung to my lap, and then the day seemed to go really quickly. I just had time to stock up on some food ready for the Zomba Plateau, and stroll around the botanical gardens which was full of cuddling young couples, before meeting Ole. He works as a bike mechanic here and has such a nice place – on the walk there we passed many different coloured flowers, and not too far away were all the mountains including the huge Zomba Plateau. Later I also met Sarah, one of the housemates, and the three of us went into town for dinner. Very cool chatting to some expats, and they have a really nice set up here in Zomba.

The following morning was hiking time! It had been a while… the lake days had been pretty lazy, so it was definitely time to get back into it. I carried my big bag with all the food and supplies up to the plateau from town, via the Potato Path which is a steep and muddy, but direct, route to the top. I found it tough, but I was out of practice. When I reached the top, I wandered around for a further five hours or so, through some forests and to the big Mulunguzi Dam and waterfall. It was a beautiful sunny day and the birds and flowers were plentiful. I was bumping into so many spiderwebs which was actually kind of nice as it made me feel like the only person around – obviously no one else had walked this path all day! It’s really easy to get lost up there with so many different dirt tracks, which sometimes look like they are going the right way but actually don’t. So it was late when I arrived at the Trout Farm where I would stay the night. It is actually a trout farm (seasonally) but also puts guests up in some of the workers’ houses. It was quite expensive for not very much – no hot shower, and the ‘kitchen’ I had heard about was actually just a fire in a shack. There was no electricity in the room either, and I’m pretty sure my bed had ants or bedbugs. I don’t mind these basic facilities, but they were charging too much money for them! However, it was by far the cheapest place to stay on the plateau, so I didn’t really have a choice.

Cooked some spaghetti on the fire and then I was in darkness, with only a small candle and a magazine to keep me occupied. It gets dark so early here, about 5:30pm, and nothing to do once it gets dark so it was pretty boring. My kindle had broken so I couldn’t even read a book. Went to sleep very early and the next day I just did a shorter walk, as unfortunately it was cloudy and rainy, and most of the plateau is about having nice viewpoints. I just walked around some small paths, through some forest and meadows. At times, it was so misty I could barely see in front of me! Lots of animals about on this cooler day, and I saw a mongoose, some kind of grouse, and a big bird of prey which followed me for a short while. I got back just after lunch and had time for a long nap and a freezing cold shower before some welcome company arrived in the form of a very wet Adrian, who had just travelled from Blantyre to Zomba and then walked up to the plateau in the pouring rain. While I had been lazing by the lake, he had been climbing up to Malawi’s highest peak, but apparently still had some energy to join me for a few days on the plateau. After dinner we tried the famous Zomba Plateau rasberries, they were divine and I think I ate most of them.

So the following day the sun came out again which was awesome. Time for some viewpoints. We walked around the Eastern part of the plateau which gave nice views around Zomba town and the surrounding hills. It was a typical South Malawi view, with many peaks rising from the flat landscape. Could also see across to Mulanje which, despite being further away than a lot of the other peaks, seemed to dominate with its gigantic and overpowering breadth and height. It was all so beautiful, but also sad because of the lack of trees. Malawi’s population is huge and growing, and there are very few trees left in the country because of this – most being cut down to make way for farmland, and also to use for timber. This causes so many environmental problems, and landslides happen frequently, often killing people and destroying property. What will it take to make the locals see the damage they’re doing? It must be hard sometimes for them to see the bigger picture, when many of them are poor and just want to make sure they have enough food for themselves and their family.

There were some big rocks on the side of the road as we were walking around; it kind of reminded me of parts of Australia, which is a country full of random big rocks! We decided to climb up, and hung out at the top for a bit enjoying the view. When we got down someone had taken our water bottles, as we’d left them at the bottom! Strange and annoying.

We also stopped by William’s Falls, which was more beautiful than the Mulunguzi falls. It was getting quite late by this point, and a bit cold. Considering Malawi is in Central Africa, I’ve spent an abnormal amount of my time here being cold! I wasn’t wrong when I said it’s easy to get lost up here though, and even Adrian’s trusty maps app couldn’t help us when we tried taking many different shortcuts and always ended up in the wrong place! Eventually we just had to find our way back to the main road and walk the way we knew – after speed walking, we got back just before dark. We both desperately needed a shower but couldn’t face the freezing water, so we heated up some water over the fire instead and took turns splashing it on ourselves. In the dark. Luxury huh? At least it was warm! The dinner of pasta, soy and vegetables was also very welcome. Then we sat in the dark house, eating condensed milk straight out of the tin and playing Yahtzee by candlelight. A really lovely evening.

The following day I think we were both ready to go back down, but we wanted to do another walk first. We thought we’d just do a short walk but it turned into most of the day! We wanted to visit Chingwe’s Hole which is apparently just a really deep hole but is supposed to be interesting. Despite an American girl telling me that the path to get there was dull, I actually loved it. At one point, we waded through flowers amongst what felt like thousands of butterflies – as we rustled the plants, they rose up in a flurry, and zigzagged around us, unsure of their next move… sometimes trying to settle, but quickly being disturbed again by our presence. Nearly every flower had a butterfly on it. Being surrounded by this commotion of wings and colour was like a child’s daydream. We had some lunch on a big rock and continued out of the trees, onto the road and then through a meadow. We had promised ourselves that we would set off early and walk quickly to make good time for getting down to the town, but neither of these things happened – we set off later because we were being lazy, and we didn’t walk quickly because we kept seeing interesting bugs! First we had seen a giant earthworm (and I mean giant!). Then we kept seeing lots of red army ants behaving very strangely – it looked like some kind of war or massacre was going on, with two sides charging at each other, and plenty of casualties. I have never seen ants behave like that, it was really weird but also so interesting. After that, there was this beast of a beetle with the head of another beetle crunched up in its jaws – and of course we saw some giant crickets too. My inner kid was fascinated by this dynamic and brutal insect world.

When we finally arrived at the hole, we were really glad we came; not because of the hole itself but because of the mind-blowing view from the area! We actually walked right past this famous hole straight to the edge to see the view, slightly hypnotised by the beauty. Steep green cliffs spilled into a clumsy river below, and further away we could see the same river, but shining and sleek. We watched rock hyraxes far below us; despite the fact they were so far away that they looked like little lumps, they were still very aware of us and kept a close eye on our movements. A falcon made use of the thermal columns to take a lazy flight – how great would it be to be a bird in the mountains?!

We took a peek at the hole on our way back. One of the tribes used to throw their enemies down it, so it has some nasty history. It was very dark and you couldn’t see the bottom. It was interesting but I’d much rather stare at the awesome view for longer! After the hole we marched back to the Trout Farm to get our bags and then left the plateau. I had been starving all day and was tempted to get a motorbike taxi down instead of walking. I do hate downhill walking! But I was just being lazy really, so in the end I just did the walk. It wasn’t far. All I could think about on the way down was getting a big bowl of nsima, so that was the first thing we did at the bottom, although weirdly it was hard to find any restaurants – luckily there was a very small market so we perched on a bench with some street food.

We were going to stay at Ole’s place again, and I was confident I knew the way until it started to get dark and I got really disorientated, which made me stressed because I knew we were in trouble if we couldn’t find it. Both our phones were dead so we couldn’t even call him. Eventually we found it, after some help from a local guy (we just told him we were looking for our friends, and he knew exactly where the muzungus were!). It was so, so nice to be in a house, with lights and cooking stuff and some degree of warmth, although still no hot shower! Thanks Ole and the other members of the house, for all your help and friendliness in Zomba.