When we crossed the border between Zambia and Malawi, two things immediately became obvious. First, there are a whole lot more people in Malawi. Second, there wasn’t any gas. A petrol shortage had been going on for weeks due to a shortage of foreign currency--which we were happy to help remedy in a small way (at a very advantageous exchange rate.) It also became immediately obvious that the above two factors were symptoms (causes?) of a country that was much more poor than any of the previous places we had visited.
Our first stop was Lilongwe where we were hosted by Jeff Robison (a former Columbia co-resident of Meg’s), his wife Shima, and their adorable two boys Darien and Kian. We separated and spent the day in a world of two extremes. Meg went with Jeff to the local hospital, spending the morning at the “Under 5 unit” (which is the closest thing the hospital has to a Pediatric Emergency Room), and the inpatient wards- where it was not uncommon for 4-6 patients to be sharing a bed. The afternoon was spent at the University of Baylor funded HIV Clinic which while well-staffed and well-resourced, has a very heavy patient load (Malawi ranks 9th in HIV prevalence in the world.) Jed, on the other hand, spent the day eating cake (literally) at the British High Commission while discussing the efficacy of foreign aid. We had just read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari,which explores aid in Africa, and our experiences in Lilongwe helped bring the issue to life as we think about our future work in Latin America.
We left Lilongwe and headed up to Nkhata Bay, a small town on the northern part of Lake Malawi. We found a direct bus, but unfortunately it was the local bus, which stopped (no exaggeration) every 1-2 minutes, thus taking 8 hours to complete a 250km journey. On the basis of dollars per hour of travel it was a great value ($5) and it did allow us to get a real taste of the Malawian people and countryside (and we didn’t have to change buses!). When we finally arrived, we immediately jumped into the lake which made the trip worth it!
Following, an amazing sunrise and morning swim we were ready to begin another long bus journey. We got on the local bus (again) to the nearby town on Mzuzu (we hate repeating the same mistake); then hopped on a minibus which, despite being filled beyond capacity and having to sit with our knees to our chest, it took us to the border town of Karonga in a speedy 4 hours, making it the best bus trip in Malawi.
To continue our discussion of local cuisine, we certainly got a real taste of it in Nkhata Bay where we went to one of the two local “restaurants” (which looked more like a living room with some tables in it) in town. Meg went for the safe beans and cima (the Malawian version of mealy pap, the cornmeal-based dish common throughout the region.) Jed, on the other hand, asked what “chicken parts” were and was taken back to the kitchen so that he could see for himself. While we ate the meal and did not get sick, we learned a very important lesson—never look in a Malawian “kitchen” before eating if you want to enjoy the meal properly (Meg will never forget the look on Jed’s face the entire time he was eating his chicken parts.)