My first taste of Malawi by Emma Langley
Nick: I'd like to introduce a friend who has very kindly agreed to share her experiences of travelling in Malawi as a young, single female traveller. Huge thanks to Emma Langley for this post:
My first taste of Malawian hospitality came before I’d even got outside Lilongwe airport.
I’d bonded with two strangers on the aeroplane over our two particularly tremulous flights from London: two brothers, Paulo and Emilio, then living in London on their way home to Malawi. I was supposed to be staying in guesthouse in Lilongwe before my friends arrived but the brothers had a better suggestion: “Don’t stay in the capital by yourself, stay with our family in Blantyre”. I can’t do that. My British sense of politeness said it would be imposing and awkward, and the single female traveller in me said you’ve known these guys for less than 24 hours. But the adventurer won out. It was a judgement call, the kind you don’t tell your mother about.
They were met at the airport by Manuel, another brother, a family friend and Paulo’s 10-year-old son. I had no idea how many ‘main’ towns there were – or weren’t - in Malawi. So when they said they Blantyre was just the next town down, the fact I was in a different country, no clue specifically as to where in relation to anywhere else, no means of communication, with complete strangers, seemed marginally less angst-inducing. Five hours in the back of the truck with a backside that had disowned me later, we arrived at their sister Clara’s house in Blantyre.
Blantyre is not five hours from Lilongwe – it was more like 2-2.5 hours on the return trip. But we stopped at every single small settlement or roadside gathering on route so the brothers could buy food, exchange clothes/cigarettes from the UK, catch up with friends. It was a five hour story with a plot as bumpy as the potholes and as characters as colourful as the roadside fabrics: I heard the life story of the man selling giant mushrooms on the side of the road, the business problems of their ex-primary school teacher’s wife, and the agricultural history of the fruits we purchased from children at a market. Of course, a random white girl in the back of a truck with 3 non-Malawian looking Malawians and a child attracted just a little bit of attention: I had come to Malawi as a tourist but was fast realising that I was becoming a tourist attraction. I figured out the meaning of “Musungo Musungo!” without the help of a translator. We drank beer watching the sun go down over the vast expanse of Mozambique to the right of the road and, as the brothers starting reminiscing about their childhood, I almost expected to pitch up with a campfire for the night.
None of the brothers or their 8 elder siblings were born in Malawi, they arrived here as refugees when Paulo, the youngest, was a baby. The 15 year civil war from 1975 -94 in Mozambique led a million and a half people to flee to neighbouring countries. Their father was a Portuguese farmer, their mother the daughter of Mozambican famer, Mozambique being an ex-Portuguese colony and trading port. Like many similar families in the very southern regions of Malawi, Clara’s household speak Portuguese as a joint first language with Chechwa, and some English. And when I say household, I’m talking six children, four adults and grandmother. It took me three days to figure out whose children belonged to whom: amongst their family and friends children seemed to be very communal. By Malawian standards, the family are relatively well-off, mostly through Clara’s marriage to a South African building developer. It took me a while to get my head around the idea that a nanny, a cook, a cleaner and a house guard constituted a normal lifestyle for anyone outside of aristocracy; to Clara’s circle of friends and family, hired help is entirely normal.
In between playing with six children and watching Nigerian soap operas, the family took me around Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial centre and second largest town. We explored Limbe, took in the awesome views across the Shire River and bank-side farms, and went clubbing – the least likely activity I thought I’d be doing in Malawi. Clara lent me a dress on account of the fact that very item of clothing in my rucksack screamed scummy backpacker. But I think the highlight for me was the party in an Iranian friend’s house, to celebrate the birthday of one of their Indian friends. If it wasn’t for grandmother busting her Mozambican dance moves until the early hours, you could have been forgiven for thinking you’d arrived at a United Nations conference.
It’s rare that over-used clichés are well-employed, let alone deserved, but I was starting to glean something about this so-called warm heart of Africa: I was taken in by complete strangers and they made me part of their family. The brothers delivered me safely back to Lilongwe and it was not the last I saw or heard from them – I’m going back to visit the family in October. This experience was the first of many encounters with friendly Malawians and I’m genuinely humbled by how I’ve experienced hospitality in a place so vastly different from home.
Nick: What was your first visit to Malawi like - we'd love to hear you experiences too!