/ 12 September 2014

Warm heart of Malawi: Africa’s imperfect charm

A country of contrasts: River view from a chalet at Mkulumadzi Lodge
A country of contrasts: River view from a chalet at Mkulumadzi Lodge

‘Diplomatic relations between Malawi and South Africa have always been good,” remarks Patricia Liabuba, the ministry of tourism and culture’s director of tourism, at a press conference to which dignitaries, guests, tour operators and members of the local and South African press have been invited on a crisp Sunday afternoon at the Sunbird Hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi. “It’s the first time in a long time that the minister of tourism has taken a keen interest and taken part in a session such as this,” she says, gesturing towards the minister, Kondwani Nankhumwa, seated next to her.

Three of us journalists are part of a media contingent from South Africa that has been invited to share the Malawian story with our readers. By singling out South Africa as a strategic market and strengthening partnerships, Malawi is attempting to rekindle the relationship that was formally established in 1967.

In the 1960s Malawians made up a good number of labourers on the South African mines. And during the height of apartheid, when most countries imposed sanctions on South Africa, Malawi, led by the late president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was the one of the few to maintain diplomatic relations. About 200?000 Malawians live in South Africa today.

As we drive through the capital as first-time visitors in the country, our tour guide, Salad Ntenda, points out corrugated iron roofs on some of the small brick and mud houses. “These roofs,” he explains, “are a sign that the family has a member who has been working or has worked in South Africa.” This is a status symbol, he says.

In May 2014, former president Joyce Banda was defeated by Peter Mutharika in a drama-filled election. She accepted defeat, making her “only the third incumbent leader in the history of Southern Africa to concede defeat in an election”, as reported by the Telegraph.

Still, the democratic victory rings hollow in the bellies of the barefoot, barely clad, dust-streaked children we see running alongside the Malawi Tourism minibus transporting us as we pass through the surrounding villages. “Botolo, botolo, botolo!” they shout, demanding that we hand over our discarded plastic water bottles for them to make use of.

“Zodwa, welcome to Africa. Jo’burg is not Africa.” Ntenda turns around to tease me from his seat in front. And I wonder at that remark. “Africa” remains a construct in our minds: a continent (or country — depending which part of the world you’re from) characterised by television and media as one of two extremes — a dusty charity case debilitated by hopeless poverty where wild animals roam freely, or a dangerous undeveloped world riddled with drugs and corrupt governments.

Fondly referred to as “the warm heart of Africa”, Malawi is neither drug-ridden nor corrupt. Former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died of a heart attack in April 2012, was credited with having had “good ideas” but died prematurely before many were realised. Under his rule, the Malawian government offered to subsidise fertiliser for farmers too poor to nourish their soil, which had been stripped of nutrients as a result of overfarming and drought. 

Many of the poor are at least self-sufficient. Roadside markets are jumping with traders selling their produce; brightly coloured printed fabrics sit in piles and hang on fencing waiting to be bought. 

Potential buyers chat and shop while bicycles ferry spouses and children. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport here in Malawi because they are cheap to buy and maintain. As we move through the market crowd, no one harasses us for attention or favours.

Lake of Stars festival

Bumping around and over potholes, zooming past makeshift housing that lines the edge of the road at various intervals, we are being shown as much as possible of this beautiful country, renowned for the annual Lake of Stars festival that takes place on the southern shores of Lake Malawi.

Acts such as Mercury prize nominees Foals, Groove Armada’s Andy Cato, The Noisettes, Selmore Mtukudzi, Beverley Knight and Hot Chip have played at the festival, alongside Malawian artists such as Tay Grin, Mafilika and Peter Mawanga. 

This year, the festival — taking place from September 26 to 28 at Sunbird Nkopola Lodge, Mangochi — features The Reason, John Wizards, Goldierocks and Christian Tiger School, among others. 

The festival draws large numbers of locals and tourists — the crowds have swelled from hundreds to thousands in its 13-year existence — and is responsible for generating millions towards the country’s economy.

But Malawi hasn’t really progressed. Ntenda, who grew up here and now works as the vice-consul at the Malawi consulate based in Johannesburg, is surprised to see little to no development. “The roads are the same. The country has stagnated,” he remarks. 

South African President Jacob Zuma’s comment at an address to the Gauteng ANC manifesto forum at the University of the Witwatersrand about the state of the roads in Malawi is a source of mild amusement as we swap stories about our respective countries’ sore points.

As the sun sets, we drive for several hours (owing to the state of the roads, distance here is measured by time, not in kilometres), headed for the Mkulumadzi Lodge run by Robin Pope Safaris, situated deep in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, part of the Great Rift Valley. 

A number of years ago, the reserve, run solely by the government, had a significantly reduced wildlife count because of rampant poaching. It was facing closure until African Parks intervened and introduced animals from other parks to begin a rehabilitation project. Now there is an abundance of lion, leopard, elephant and rhino. Earth Watch Institute reported that, since 2003, more than 2?500 animals representing 14 different species have been reintroduced to Majete.

But when we arrive at the lodge it is eerily quiet. The chef who talks passionately about the succulent fillet in red wine jus we’re about to feast on has been doubling as host and chef for a number of days and goes on leave the next day. It’s still winter supposedly, but we’re wearing sandals and shorts.

As we tuck into the juicy meat, nattering quietly, marvelling at the still, warm winter air and the gentle humming of the river that sounds like an airconditioner in the background, two pairs of eyes glisten at us through the leafy bushes. And then another pair gleams like lamps lighting up in the inky darkness.

The following day we are transported to a family-owned tea and coffee estate called Satemwa. Malawi’s main export is tobacco, which, according to Trading Economics, accounts for 55% of its total exports. The other 45% is made up of uranium, sugar, tea and coffee. 

We drive for what feels like an hour after passing through the main gate, admiring rows of neatly trimmed translucent green tea bushes that cover fields and hills as far as the eye can see. Occasionally we see workers tending the rows, young children walking and bicycles laden with supplies meandering along the winding, stony road. 

The air is sweet and clean and a gentle calm descends over us as we finally arrive at Huntingdon House, described as a “colonial luxury in the heart of Malawi”. It’s not a lie. We hear French accents exchanging pleasantries while playing croquet on the well-appointed lawns, as if they’ve been living there for years. Dutch and German visitors talk over tea on the patios nestled under the arches of the 1920s homestead, where guests can also book into the French-style rooms for a few nights.

Presently, a young lady arrives with our pots of white, dark and green tea accompanied by a spread of pastries, rich dark chocolate cake, scones with jam and cream and savoury biscuits. We scoff down the feast, relishing the fine tea, temporarily forgetting that Malawi ranks 174th out of 182 countries on the  United Nations’s 2014 Human Development Index.

According to the UN, in 2009 about 74% of the population lived below the income poverty line of $1.25 a day. And that percentage has been steadily increasing.

Later that afternoon we are whisked past the freshly painted buildings branded in the bright greens of the Carlsberg Malawi Brewery and mobile operator TNM, where we are installed at Game Haven Lodge, Chimwenya Estate, in Blantyre, belonging to another old, wealthy Malawian family — this time their fortune was made from tobacco money. 

Two hundred hectares of land stretch into the distance — a golf estate on one side, self-catering rooms and chalets on the other, a clubhouse and lake for fishing, and a game park populated with kudu, eland, sable, nyala, waterbuck and prolific birdlife. It’s all very idyllic.

But nothing is quite as breathtaking as the sight of the glittering waters of Lake Malawi when we finally arrive there on our second-last day in the country. We had cut up a long and hot sojourn to this veritable oasis by popping in at various lodges that offer boutique-style accommodation for couples, a bushwhacker’s paradise of a tented camp and a lakeside dream called Makokola Retreat, where the manager tells us Gra├ža Machel came to rest and re-energise not too long before Nelson Mandela’s passing.

How fitting to spend the last night at an ecolodge, Mumbo Island, a sanctuary without electricity, where water has to be heated and bucketed for cowboy-style showers and meals are prepared simply, using plenty of fresh produce from the land and the lake. All thatch and timber and canvas, with lake views that draw tears to one’s eyes, the camp allows one to truly appreciate the beguiling and bewildering wonder that can be Africa.

How to get to Malawi from South Africa

By road: there are several bus companies that run from Jo’Burg to Lilongwe. The most reputable is the Intercape Bus. These buses run daily between the two cities and cost about $145. The bus travels through Zimbabwe and Mozambique (via Tete Corridor) so visas must be purchased for non-SADC passport holders. These range in price depending on nationality.  It’s worth bearing in mind that the bus does not stop regularly so bring lots of food and drink. The bus takes between 24 and 36hrs depending on how long it take to clear the borders. 

By air: there are two airlines that fly between South Africa and Malawi. South African Airways flies daily and costs in the region on $600 return. Malawian Airways (Operated by Ethiopian Airways) flies daily and also costs in the region of $600. 

More details: lakeofstars.org/index.php/travel

Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine’s flights and accommodation were fully sponsored by Malawi Tourism.

The competition to win tickets to Lake of Stars 2014 has been closed. Winners will be notified shortly.