Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Malawi's Modest Capital

Day 52: Lilongwe, Malawi
After a late night, I slept in Monday morning. I spent much of the day lounging around the campsite – and trying to get my 1,000 kwacha back from Black William, who seemed to have skipped town. In the afternoon, a few of us went on a walk to the village with some local guides. The school, while certainly struggling, seemed better off than the school in Chitimba, where there are five teachers for over a thousand students. The Kande school even has a minimal library consisting mostly of donated secondhand books from overseas. We also visited the medical clinic, which is also in better shape than the one in Chitimba – at least this one has an intact roof.

Village street, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Street scene in the village of Kande, Malawi

Grocery store, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Grocery store in the village of Kande, Malawi

School classroom, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Classroom at a school in Kande, Malawi
Sign on school library door, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Sign on the library door at a school in Kande, Malawi

We returned to camp in the late afternoon and lounged around in the hammocks overlooking the lake, and then we set off for a local dinner in the village. We sat outside under the stars, on mats normally used for drying cassava. The first pot that was brought out contained pumpkin soup, which was surprisingly tasty and boiling hot. The main course was simple: rice, beans, spinach, and cassava bread. The cassava bread was really more like ugali, a starchy white substance that is part of the staple diet throughout much of Africa. The rice was well cooked, but required careful chewing due to bits of gritty stone or sand that were missed when the rice was cleaned. After dinner, the children of the village sang and danced for us. As we walked back to camp afterward, the children were literally hanging onto our arms incessantly begging for water bottles, backpacks, money, anything we had on us.

Cassava drying, Kande, Malawi © Matt Prater
Cassava drying, Kande, Malawi
Woman cooking ugali, Chitimba, Malawi © Matt Prater
A woman cooking ugali, Chitimba, Malawi

Wood carving shop, Kande Beach, Malawi © Matt Prater
A curio shop with wood carvings, Kande Beach, Malawi
Early Tuesday morning, before our departure from Kande Beach, I walked out of the gates one last time to find Black William and get my refund for the botched fishing trip. Another local named Sisko owed $20 to a couple on the Oasis truck, Brian and Viviane, so they joined me in trying to hunt down the scammers. None of the men were anywhere to be seen, but a couple of women were working in the fields. We asked one of them where we could find Black William and Sisko, and she went into the nearby hut and fetched a guy named Sam (a.k.a. Samuel L. Jackson), who would show me to Black William's house. There were two curio shops near the gate, one of which was owned by Sisko. Sisko was absent, so Brian and Viviane asked Sam if they could take some wood carvings from the shop in exchange for the money he owed them. Sam agreed that it was fair, so they started rummaging through the shop and picked out a few items. Viviane headed back to camp with the carvings from Sisko's shop, and Brian accompanied me to Black William's house. A woman out front looked in the hut and said he was gone (surprise, surprise), so I asked if I could take something from the other curio shop in exchange for the money Black William owed me. Earlier in the day, I had been told that the second shop was owned by Black William, but Sam said it was actually owned by another guy named Neville. Receiving false answers seems to happen a lot in Africa – if you ask someone a question, they almost always answer "yes" even if they don't know the answer or don't understand the question. Even though the shop turned out not to be owned by Black William, Sam said that all the guys outside the gate help each other out and that I could take something from Neville's shop – Black William would repay Neville later. As soon as I started looking at the wood carvings in the shop, Neville appeared and said that I could not take anything because Black William was untrustworthy and would not repay him. At this point, it was obvious that I had lost out, so I left the shop and boarded the truck. At least I'm only out $6.

It was about a six hour drive to Lilongwe, the modest capital of Malawi. The city is quite attractive with its relatively clean streets and modern buildings. Before dinner, we paid a visit to the house of the British high commissioner (ambassador), whose son is an acquaintance of someone in our group. Each of us signed the official guest book and then walked through the mansion to the back veranda, where tea, scones, and cake were spread out attractively on a table. The back yard was lush green, and a croquet course was set up. I walked down to the tennis court and played for a while before going for a swim in the pool. The showers in the changing rooms by the pool were an absolute luxury – it was the first truly hot, high-pressure shower I've had for weeks. Finally, I played a bit of ping pong before heading back to the house. The American ambassador had dropped by for dinner, so we got to visit with him briefly before leaving the ambassadors to their dinner. It was fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of the issues affecting Malawi and Africa in general, and it was so refreshing to have an evening of such civility – a welcome break from weeks of camping and cold showers.

This morning, I set out with a few others for town. We ate lunch at Nando's, a South African fast food chain that specializes in chicken. The food was great, but the service was even worse than in American fast food joints, if that's possible. Once we had ordered and sat at a table, I had to repeat my order about three times and go up to the counter once or twice to ask where my meal was. I eventually got all the parts of my meal, but it was quite a hilarious ordeal to get them all. After lunch, I browsed the curio stalls by the Lilongwe post office, firmly ignoring any vendor who hassled me too much. I would say, "I'd like to look at your carvings, but if you keep bugging me, I'll buy from someone else." That seemed to work pretty well. I bargained hard for one piece, but the vendor let me walk away – even though I felt it was a fair price, he could probably get a much higher price from another tourist. You can't win them all.

This evening, we had a farewell bash for Deepa and Neerav, who are leaving the trip at this point. The 73-day trip that I am doing is split into several segments, so we occasionally lose and gain passengers when a new segment starts. Deepa and Neerav have been with us since the beginning, and we're all sad to see them go. Good luck guys!

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