– Jumoke Sanwo, Moving Motion.
After the rigorous (and burdensome) Covid regime of Rwanda, Malawi feels like total vacation. No arrival test, no quarantine, no curfew, no lockdown, zero travel restrictions, no more expensive private transport and haggling drivers, or cumbersome online road clearance. How sweet life once was pre-Covid! In the warm heart of Africa where communal living begins each morning with an aerosol-ful mwadzukabwanji!/good morning – instantly followed by NDADZUKABWINO!/GOOD MORNING with equal gusto – and many zikomo/thank you, social distancing seems practically impossible. Before long, I, too, try to imagine the virus is elsewhere…
I have been warned that there would be NO FREE WIFI anywhere in Malawi, so it is a long, obligatory stop at the Airtel shop upon arrival. I still have to teach, with a few occasional zoom sessions, voluminous emails, life-sustaining e- and audiobooks to download, whatsapp, Instagram… Oh, March and April would be tax season, too, so some T forms to upload. No film streaming, youtube concertos, or “hey, what’s up?” texting for the next while… Do you have a 100GB package? I ask. The truth is, being so used to having free access, I have little clue how much data one needs. I sign up for an extremely reasonable 6GB deal that comes with a bonus digital detox holiday during which my Mac OS and Office conspire to crash…
Where’s the next place with free wifi?
Time to open my eyes, not in front of a computer screen, but to see the light…
Skipping DR Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia due to Covid means bonus time in Malawi. From Lilongwe, I take a long eight-hour bus ride up north to Chitimba and Livingstonia, before retracing my steps down the mountain to go to Nkhata Bay. Then I catch a local boat to idyllic Likoma Island where I ease naturally into Lake Malawi time. After a week of near-zero activity, I board the legendary Llala Ferry to head down south to the once backpacker mecca of Cape McClear where I hunker down to do more of little. I understand why the owners arrived eight years ago and never left. Malawi isn’t known for game drives, but I am happy to pack a bit of action in Liwonde National Park. From there, it’s only an hour to the former capital, Zomba, where the plateau offers superb views and a surprise Italian feast. My visa is running out and it’s time to overland to Mozambique before the border closes again. In Blantyre, I get a BOGO (buy one get one) Covid test+vaccine before braving the crossing in Mulanje into a country in headline news: Beheadings by militants in Mozambique…! Oops, is that covered by the insurance?!
My stay in the bland capital city consists of excursions to various uninspiring malls, to change money in the open black market, replace my broken adaptor, and inquire about bus connections. In exchange for a free stay, I snap shots of twin beds with mosquito nets in beautiful Mabuya Camp. It feels so different from documentary portraits; my subjects aren’t moving! I am their first backpacker since March 2020!
Travellers go to Livingstonia to stay at the Mushroom Farm (no, not that kind of mushrooms!). The fun drive along the bumpy, pot-holed Golden Road up the plateau in the back of a pickup truck is itself worth the trip. Filled to the brim with heavy sacks of everything – potatoes, fishes, beers – village folks, and smart-looking University of Livingstonia students, the 1981 Toyota tries its best negotiating each of the 22 bends, huffing and puffing until the angle proves just a tad bit too much for the granddaddy machine and some of us volunteer to get off… What a way to start a trip with a bonus safari!
An hour later, the driver dropped us off where we followed a sign to venture into the woods. A late afternoon mist gave the well-hidden Shangri-la a magical first impression. Down a series of steps, the entire Chitimba Bay with Tanzania in the background unfolded in front of our eyes.
“This got to be one of the most beautiful views in Africa!” I exclaimed.
“You think so…?” Paul, the new owner, came to greet us.
Working with locals from nearby communities, Paul and his partner, Caitlin, are living their dream, putting sustainable living in practice. Permaculture, composting, organic vegetarian communal meals, lots of yummy-looking jars of everything, yoga, exciting projects of all kinds… Good, ol’ life, sans Facebook likes or Instagram feeds. At night, fishermen’s lights sparkle like little jewels on Lake Malawi. What an enchanting place!
Livingstonia is merely an hour’s walk away, passing through tranquil villages and the Manchewe Falls. Scottish missionaries came here in 1894 and built a hospital and university that still stand today. A sudden heavy morning mist gives the otherwise underwhelming one-street town an almost mystical appeal. I end my visit at the home of Chimwemwe who shared our ride up the mountain and insisted treating me to a delicious beef stew rice lunch at her restaurant with typical Malawian hospitality.
Helas, after only a few blissful days, ferry schedule dictats the time to come down the mountain. At six-thirty in the morning, villagers are already up and running (literally), carrying cooked maize, bananas, and whatever heavy loads, saving the two-dollar ride to town. The trip to Nhkata Bay via Mzuzu is a breeze. Like the Mushroom Farm, Mayoka Village is an institution. The owners, Gary and Kathryn, met 23 years ago at a nearby beach, and the rest is history. They were given the land (“Really?” “Really!”) and slowly built a cabin here, a chalet there. A true labor of love! I understand why people come and never leave. As the first overseas guests since Covid, I am treated to a deluxe en suite upgrade. Years ago, two Canadians arrived to camp and stayed for 10 years. I could well be the next one!
Gary’s celebrating his birthday, in super jovial mood, when I arrive.
“So you’re from Canada?” he asks. “Lyman, play that song… You know, that song that I always listen to…”
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river.
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her…
What a surprise to hear Leonard Cohen in Malawi! “Unbelievable!” Gary says, elated to meet someone who not only knows but loves the song. “I have been sitting here, listening to this song for 23 years!” he continues, filled with nostalgia. “You know, back then, in South Africa, we couldn’t get this kind of music. The disc was mailed to me by mistake… by mistake!” he breaks into a hearty laugh. I imagine young Gary playing the popular ballad in loop…
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And then you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind...
We couldn’t help but swirl into an impromptu dance, in homage to a legendary singer, to celebrate Gary’s birthday and my arrival in such a magical place!
When something is made with love, you can really feel it. My lake-front chalet feels like a palace: the silence, peace, and timelessness. When I open the door and see a bathtub, I almost cry of joy. I haven’t seen one since I left home seven months ago! But then I remember hot water in this part of the world is as rare as gold . A cold bath would do, like in a Turkish hamam, I console myself, fishing out my Moroccan bath glove ready for a scrub. Lo and behold, steamy water comes gushing out after five minutes. What a luxury in the middle of Malawi!
For a heavenly week, it is minimalist living at its best: a morning concoction of avocado and bananas (that I finely mash in the coffee pot! because there was no blender), yoga, walk to town, taking locals’ portraits, enjoying a yummy lunch of chilly beef brisket over a mountain of rice at a local joint in the market, before settling onto a chaise long, listening to the waves, watching locals going to and fro, balancing delicately on their dugout canoes – rain or shine – as Lake Malawi time went by…
To swim or not to swim, that’s the question! Bilharzia is omnipresent in Lake Malawi, even though one could just pop a few pills to take care of the problem. Despite everyone’s enthusiasm, I don’t find the idea of having little wormies swimming in my body months later appealing, so no dips unfortunately in the refreshing and enticing water. I kayak across the bay instead and take a pleasurable boat tour, watching fish eagles dive and fishermen go by…
“The Lamani leaves on Thursday!” Lyman, the manager, alerted us.
“The captain decides!”
Few things are as colourfully African as local ferry rides! A ritual and a lifeline, the Lamani is ageless. To play safe, I set my alarm at four in the morning and arrive at the dock by five. Loading begins earnestly; everything goes onto the ferry, 65% of which on the right side! Ah… where are the life jackets? I find one on the deck and sits on it, just in case, listening to Miles Kington’s How shall I tell the Dog and other Final Musings. The ferry leaves “on time” before 7am and reaches Likoma Island, 69km away, at 3pm. Of course, only I am still counting time!
I understand why people say Likoma Island is the most beautiful destination in Malawi. Wild, idyllic, with island vibes, on Lake Malawi time, it is one of those last unspoiled places on earth. On the motorbike taxi ride to the backpacker, Mango Drift, on the other side of the island, I see my first baobabs! Gigantic, majestic, and with a copper gold gloss, what sights these ancient trees are! In late afternoon, the colour, light, and sound of chirpy golden weavers busily building nests on large branches makes a real spectacle. Jane Smiley captures perfectly my feelings when she writes, “I felt I no longer needed a destination. The world had crystallized into one island, and its landscape and inhabitants served as an endlessly vivid setting and characters…”
I have a week of tropical micro-climate. My day consists of shuffling between the beach chalet and the salon – 150m that I cover in butoh-esqe walk – and desperately trying to keep my eye-lids open, flipping through the e-books that I downloaded in Kigali when free wifi was still abundantly available. I finish listening to Tom Vanderbilt’s Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning in Lilongwe and Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing: a Memoir of Two Years in Solitude at the Mushroom Farm. I do nothing while listening to Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing in Nkhata Bay. On Likoma, my mind drifts in and out of consciousness between the pages of Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), Matthew McConaughey (Greenlights), Azar Nafis (Things I’ve been Silent about), and Firoozeh Dumas (Laughing with an Accent)… Many tomes have been written trying to describe this feeling of floating between worlds but never fully landing, Dumas writes.
I am drifting…
After a week (why am I still counting?!), it’s time to head south to Cape McClear.
“When does the Llala Ferry leave?”
“The captain decides!”
Ms. Zulu who booked me a cabin confirms thrice the 3pm departure, while locals insist the Llala always leaves in the morning. I arrive at 9am, just in case, at a pier that is already full. After four hours of loading and shuttling, we take off at 1pm. Compared to the Lamani, the Llala feels like a Princess cruise and the cabin like a first class suite! At the ripe old age of 69, the Llala continues to ply the length of Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay to Karoga. “The lake can change colour in no time. Once, it was so rough that my terrified friend tied his belt to the rail!” a fellow passenger says. I am blessed with a calm crossing that takes only 27 hours!
Situated in a little cove within Lake Malawi National Park (protected by UNESCO World Heritage), Cape McClear feels like an end-of-the-world getaway. “Guests come to see where their parents hung out when they were young,” the backpacker’s leaflet states. Except for my daily laps in the 5m pool, life screeches to a complete stop at Thumbi View Lodge where the friendly South African owner, Noleen, spoils me with hearty breakfasts, Rooibos tea, and yummy snacks that makes one feel homesick.
Once the richest town in Malawi thanks to tourism, Cape McClear today feels sadly run down. The parallel existence of beautiful lodges and sub-optimal local living conditions is striking. Where’s the trickle down effect? For sure, Covid hasn’t helped. Desperate families are waiting for the maize harvest season for subsistence and extra income. It’s disturbing to stay in a paradise that belongs only to a lucky few…
Malawi is not well known for game drives, but Liwonde National Park turns out to be a little gem. I stay at the extremely comfortable and welcoming Kutchire Lodge with five-star meals at backpacker’s price. The rain season is not ideal, as roads are muddy or impassable, the water level too high, and animals run for dry ground. The morning safari begins with a bonus view of a family of zebras out of the main circuit. Then comes a lone, handsome male kudu, a forest antelope, with impressive corkscrew horns…
Croc, croc! my guide, Grace, suddenly shouts. A huge, famished-looking lone crocodile is lounging on the river bank in early morning, ready for continental breakfast. Nearby, a herd of six bachelor elephants are enjoying slow food while baboons roam around the plain picking fruits…
As we drive back inland, a harem of impalas – a commanding chief with 24 wives! – scurry in the woods, in orange alert.
“A cat might be nearby for them to be in such a herd. Or maybe one of them has recently fallen prey,” Grace says, instantly upping our excitement by the prospect of sighting one of the eight big cats in the park. Only nine months ago, a lone male lion killed off his rival and all his offsprings in a jealous rage. We circle round and round, in search of the alpha male in vain, only to fall on a lone “loser” buffalo instead that seems to be still harbouring resentment and self-pity, visibly having a hard time to let go. Just as I am thinking of introducing him to Ram Dass, or better still, Krishnamurti, Grace yells, “Hold on tight to where you are, Jennifer! He’d be ready to charge, if he thinks you are making an unwanted advance!”
What a morning, watching adorable impalas and beautiful waterbucks, listening to rainbow coloured birds loosening their vocal cords… Nature at its most splendid and bountiful that makes you forget everything!
In the afternoon, we cruise along the Likwendu and Shire rivers, playing catch with hippos, watching rich local life go by…
I spend the rest of my stay in Kutchire, glued to the elevated viewing platform, oohing and aahing as families of impalas stroll by or a cute-looking waterbuck came to say hello, like live streaming the Nat Geo channel at an IMAX theatre with 3-D glasses and popcorn… It is not easy to focus on work!
From Liwonde, it is only an hour’s drive to the former capital, Zomba, where amazingly the backpacker, Packechere, offers unlimited free wifi! Wow, I feel like a kid in a candy store, opening 20 windows on my computer, all loading: wiki this, google that, work pages, Covid updates… I could finally try to upgrade my OS to Big Sur to see if that might solve the problem of apps freezing and crashing. Then comes a total black out! At 10.21GB (out of 12GB), wifi connection snaps… When I reboot the modem and try again, the screen now shows 195 days remaining for the update! Life’s only fair; you can’t have BOTH marvellous wildlife and fibre internet. Hippos/crocs OR wifi, you choose! If you need high speed connection, Malawi might not be your destination of choice! And if you are paranoid about malaria-borne mosquitos, this region might not be for you. No décolleté or mini-skirt at happy hour; time to don an anti-sex translucent mosquito vest and head indoor!
People go to Zomba to enjoy the plateau views where the beautiful hike is doubly rewarded by a mouth-watering meal on the way down at Casa Rossa, lovingly managed by an Italian couple who settled there ten years ago. Fancy a crocodile steak and amarula gelato, honey?
“Is there anything you can’t find here in Malawi?” I ask Mark, the owner.
“Uum… parmesan!” he replies. “It’s cheaper for me to fly Ethiopian Airlines business class to Milan and carried 3x23kg – plus a few extra pounds in each of my two handcarry bags – of first-grade parmesan back. Once I lost an entire suitcase of parmesan…!” Mark says with a smile. I wouldn’t mind taking that wrong suitcase. Imagine heading home and finding 23kg of surprise fresh parmesan instead of dirty laundry… What bonanza!
Only chefs spin colourful tales like this, reminding me of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and the Bras family in Entre les Bras. Someday soon a slow food afficionado will discover this gem in Malawi and make a documentary called The Parmigiano of Zomba Plateau, about Mark’s annual intercontinental cheese-trafficking pilgrimage. Ah, what one does not do for the love of good food! I have my last pizza in Naples six long months ago. Casa Rossa deserves ten Michelin stars, for creativity, effort, commitment, and homemade gelato. Now you know which city to choose should you decide to move to Malawi!
After a month of small town hopping, what a shock to arrive in Blantyre, the second biggest city, where everyone looks well dressed – even chic – with shiny shoes. Few travellers stop by Blantyre except for travel logistics (there are always some!). For over two weeks now, I have been inquiring about border closure, visa on arrival, and Covid requirements. The conversations go something like this:
Is the land border in Mulanje open?
Yes… No… It was closed… I heard that it just reopened, but I am not sure… The border is open… But it might close anytime, you know, because of the South Africa variant…
Do you know whether we can get a visa on arrival at the border?
I think it’s better to get it in advance, just in case… No, I would not recommend getting it in advance. The Moz consulate in Blantyre is really strict [true]. You have to dress like Blantyrese, otherwise they won’t give it to you [probably true]! I am not sure whether you can get it at the border… You can try, and if it does not work, you just come back, go buy a nice pair of shoes and try again…You’re not in a hurry, are you?
Do we need a Covid test if we overland?
Yes, but you know it’s a small border [true], manned by one person [not true]. You think he will check?! [oh, boy, they do!]... There’s a team of Ministry of Health folks there [not true], issuing Covid certificates [not true]. It’s free! Just give them something like 2000 kwachas [cannot verify!]…
No way! Foreigners need to do it at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. It costs USD100 [unfortunately true!]… I heard that this private clinic can do it for K20,000 (USD25), but they can’t issue a certificate. All you have to do is walk your result to the Hospital and they will give you a free certificate [definitely not true]…
Are you sure it’s a PCR test?
Oh, PCR! No, they only do rapid tests. Sorry… But this one might do PCR [not true]… Let me call for you…
Half a day later, Sorry, no one picks up the phone [true!]…
I run around Blantyre in search of Covid half-truths, and end up in point zero: Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The impressively well organized Covid center is bustling; locals and expats alike come for free vaccine jabs that the Malawian government has purchased enough for 20% of the population.
“I’m Covid-bankrupt,” I tell the receptionist jokingly, before handing her a thick stack of kwachas.
“Sorry?” she says. “You can have the vaccine if you want. It’s free.”
I barely have the time to think through all the questions related to the vaccine and AstraZeneca before I find myself in front of the lab technician for my first dose.
“Come back on June 1,” he says.
“Uh… I am going to Mozambique…”
“When’re you returning?”
“Uh… when there’s wifi…”
“You can do the second dose there, just make sure it’s AstraZeneca!” The probability of getting a vaccine in Mozambique is zero, but he does not know that. I am now on the Malawian Covid vaccine registry and plan to ask my government to promptly reimburse this too-generous African nation…
With fever and headaches being common side effects, it might not be advisable to take the vaccine before crossing the border (oops, 41C! you’re hot, babe!). I spend a long semi-conscious night before returning to the hospital the following morning to get my Covid test results. With that pricey paper – plus a glossy vaccine certificate – on hand, I take three mini-vans to Mulanje, a beautifully green region famous for tea plantations and 3000m mountains that unfortunately I have no time to enjoy because I must cross within 72 hours…
On April fool’s day, I tumble into Mozambique – without a visa – and plan to go up North where everyone advises me NOT to go… Wish me luck!
Malawi, what a massively underrated country! My month-long stay couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this attractive destination with some of the most beautiful lodges and safaris at backpackers’ budget. As always, it’s the people who makes all the difference: their big hearts, hospitality, and bonne enfance. Everyone’s always ready to crack a laugh – and swing her hips. Life might be tough, but there’s always joy and hope…
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan