I had pretty much decided I loved Malawi within the first hour of my arrival. Firstly, it had the enormous plus point of not being Nairobi or having anything to do with the hospitals. But of more relevance were two small snapshots that I received whilst barreling along towards Karonga in the car we were hitching in.
The first was barely 20minutes in, when the driver suddenly slammed on the breaks and slowed to an almost pedestrian rate. 'What's wrong?' we asked. 'A policeman with a speed camera ahead' he answered. But I quickly saw that things weren't quite right. For one thing, you could see the plug dangling down by the policeman's feet and not, as one suspects is normally required from such plugs, being plugged in. Another couple of seconds and i burst out laughing and told the drive he could speed up again if he wanted to. 'But there is a speed camera ahead' he repeated in puzzled tones. 'No there isn't', i said 'It's a policeman pointing a hair dryer at us!!! In it's way it was utterly brilliant, especially as you know that there had to be one or two real ones around the area, or else people would quickly cotton on and ignore them.
The second incident was another 20minutes or so further on, when in a brilliant display of evolution at it's finest, we suddenly saw a monkey walking along the road towards us carrying a small plastic bag of chips he was eating from, whilst on the opposite side of the road walking in the other direction was a local man carrying a large bunch of bananas. Kodak moments are made of brief snapshots like this, though my camera was sadly not to hand.
Malawi is undoubtedly a beautiful country, and generally, a very friendly one as well. Malawi is the only place in Africa that I have been where random locals would regularly come up to me on the street in the bigger towns and cities – and I am not alone in this happening to me – to shake my hand and welcome me to Malawi, without anting anything from me at all. They would say hello, welcome, shake my hand and walk away. After being in so many places where everybody who comes up randomly to say hello either wants something, or wants to sell you something, it is great to actually feel welcome for being you, and not for being a walking (or hobbling) ATM. A surprising number of the expats and lodge owners I have come across are abut my age, and I have made allot of friends amongst them and other long termers.
This happy chap had apparently been on the bar all day, and was happily dancing to whatever music happened to be playing. I could have watched him for hours
Other guests/travellers could generally be split into a few small groups: People doing medical electives (EG placements) for 1-2.5months, and just traveling at weekends or for a short period after they had finished, or living in hostel for the whole time. These tended to travel in pairs, and a large number of these were Scottish, Dutch or German. Then there were mid-term volunteers who were mostly settled location wise for 3 or 4 weeks or more: Many had been to Malawi before, and pretty much all of those that hadn't declared their intention to return in the next couple of years. And then there were the backpackers/travelers/holidaymakers of whom there were a surprisingly small number and 95%+ were couples (or at least M/F duo's). I can pretty much count the number of solo travelers I met in the 7 weeks or so I was in Malawi on one hand.
But whilst on the whole I do still really like Malawi, there is much not to like about it, and I leave with mixed emotions. I still love it here and want to come back, but it's not a clean cut as all that. As previously mentioned I managed to prevent a bag snatchingand then got robbed in a dorm. When reporting the robbery, the policeman apologized profusely and said 'this is not normal. You must believe that such incidents are very rare, and Malawi is a very friendly and safe country'. I wanted to believe him. Yet from my experience, it is not and they are not. It has been the most striking aspect of my time here, but more than 50% of the travelers and mzungu's I have met have also been robbed. And that is a heck of a lot of robberies. There is no obvious link - some have been opportunist, some have been professional, some pickpockets, some have been well known cons, scams or tricks. A few have been violent. But the end result has been the same. The thing that intrigues me is that many chose not to report it, or didn't even mention it until they heard that I had been robbed – the attitude of 'these things happen' and 'oh well. I suppose they are so much poorer than me that it doesn't matter' are very strange ones to me. Yes, these things do happen, and yes, the locals are much poorer than the average backpacker. Old fashioned and colonial as I may sound, to my mind that still does not make it right or OK for them to steal.
From personal experience, i would say that Malawi is the one place I have been (and over the years i have been to a few places) where you are most likely to be robbed. And I would never have expected that.
But more than the frustrating but often vaguely amusing TIA moments and more than the robberies, the one thing that really made me think twice about Malawi was an incident at a club in Lilongwe a few weeks ago. A large group of us had piled into back of 2 pickups (much to the amusement of the locals to see so many mzungus in one pickup), and we were going out to one of the more well known night spots in town. We were a fairly diverse group in terms of ethnicity and nationality, and two of the DJ's were friends of at least half of our group. I was looking forward to it. At the club, as we slowly paid our entrance and shuffled in, I heard the (local) bouncers suddenly say 'I'm sorry, this is a private party and you are not welcome here'. I turned to see them talking to Max, a really cheery young guy with a London accent. He protested, as did the rest of us who were still within earshot. This is just not on, we argued. Why is he not allowed in? 'Policy' we were told. The rest of our group was recalled from the club, along with some extras who were just as outraged, and we left on mass, disgusted that such a thing could happen in Malawi.
Why did this p1ss me and everybody off quite so much?
Max is a black Malawian.