A Travellerspoint blog


15. Surprising Livingstonia

The road, the view, the historical past

Livingstonia is our next goal. So much about it amazes me – the atrocious road up to the town, the fascinating history, the beautiful stained glass window in the English style church, the modern university and significant hospital, the children at the waterfall, helter-skelter would-be tour guides. The town of Livingstonia, in northern Malawi, is not to be confused with Livingstone on the Zambezi River in Zambia. However both towns are named in honour of David Livingstone, the famous missionary, explorer and campaigner against slavery in 19th century Africa.

We continue north from Mzuzu up the escarpment, through hilly terrain, then down the escarpment again. We pass through a rubber plantation managed by a Dutch company. Some of the plantings are quite young, under planted with sweet potato. Lake Malawi beckons us, blue and calm and beautiful, and when we arrive at Hakuna Matata (a Swahili phrase meaning ‘no worries’, ‘no problem’) Campsite, near Chitimba, we are into the water for a swim.

The local fishermen haul in their fishing net onto the shore. They have taken it out into the lake between two dugout canoes and have slowly drawn it back towards the beach. We stand waiting to see the contents of the net as the fishermen pull it on to the white sand, but we are as disappointed as they must be, for the catch of pint-sized fish is insignificant . Eddie tells us that once the haul would have included much larger fish and unfortunately the lake is nearly fished out.

Our purpose in staying at Hakuna Matata, other than enjoying the lake again, is to visit Livingstonia, located on top of the escarpment. Our guides are setting us loose today, for we are on our own, which could mean the possibility of getting lost. Bu it is only 15 kilometres from the main road to Livingstonia, with no other side roads and we are armed with their instructions.

The road is bad. It takes us over an hour of slow travel but Martin enjoys negotiating the20 steep hairpin bends up the escarpment. He’s in his element navigating the rough rock and gravel surface of the narrow road. This is what he came to Africa for. It’s like the road to Haratonga on Great Barrier Island 30 years ago or the Skippers road in Central Otago, except that thick bush on the side of the road disguises the steep vertical stomach-in-your-mouth drops.

Fortunately we meet only three vehicles on the way up, and each time we hug the cliff or the edge and allow each other to inch past. There is another access road to Livingstonia from the south, but it is also in poor condition. Both roads become almost unusable in the wet season. Amazingly there are no public buses to the town. Locals and intrepid travellers do walk the hill, but it takes up to four hours and is, of course, physically challenging.

It is a great surprise when we reach the top to find that the terrain levels out to a flat plateau and there is an active community there. Its story goes back to 1874 when the Free Church of Scotland and Dr Robert Laws established the Livingstonia mission at Cape Maclear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. The site proved problematic from both the tsetse fly and the malaria mosquito and the mission eventually shifted north to the higher ground above Lake Malawi in 1894. Dr Laws worked in Nyasaland, as Malawi was then called, as a missionary for 53 years, establishing a leading school and a prestigious medical work.

We stop by the stone cairn marking the spot where he and Uriah Chirwa camped on their first night there and chose the site for the church. Robert Laws’ stone house remains as a museum to his work, and we just manage to spend an interesting half an hour there before it closes for lunch. Other brick or stone houses line the roadway, former European homes from the colonial past. Nearby is the David Gordon Memorial Hospital which opened in 1911 under Dr. Laws. It continues its medical work today, serving a catchment area of 100,000 people. I later learn that its 4 wheel drive ambulances travel the arduous and mountainous routes to serve the remote villages and rural health clinics that depend on the hospital for medical care.

The church Dr Laws built is another surprise for it would easily be at home in any town in Britain. Built in brick, it features a bell tower, ecclesiastical windows and even a splendid stained glass window, showing David Livingstone with his sextant, medical chest and his companions, against a background of Lake Malawi. The church seems now firmly in the hands of indigenous leadership, for we meet the present minister, Timothy, outside the church craft shop and spend a few moments chatting together. I take the opportunity to look around the craft shop and purchase a wooden African nativity set to add to my nativity collection at home.

The town of Livingstonia also has a university, we discover. Dr Laws dreamed of creating tertiary level education, but it wasn’t to be in his time. Run by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, the university was established in 2003 on two campuses in northern Malawi, one being the Livingstonia campus, which includes the headquarters, a college of education and a technical college. We wonder how the students find their way to Livingstonia with the roads so bad and the complete lack of public transport. But they certainly have new and modern facilities in which to study.

It is very pleasant relaxing outdoors in the town café, enjoying a late lunch, watching the view across the farmland and out to sea beyond the coast, and soaking up the historic atmosphere. This is a place where the local people have benefited from their colonial past, both medically and educationally; it’s by no means all negative, as is sometimes the picture presented.

The children at the Manchewe Falls are a pack of entrepreneurial scallywags. They take our entrance fee of 500 kwachas each (about $1.40 NZ) and scamper along the 400 metre long path to the viewing places where we can see the several impressive drops of water descending into the valley below. When we return to the car, they demand their fee as tour guides. We laugh and refuse; after all, the waitress at the café only got 200 kwachas for each bottle of Fanta that we purchased at lunch time, and we have already paid 1000 kwachas to see the falls.

Our last port of call is Mushroom Farm and its café/bar, just below the top of the plateau. It’s an interesting place, with its location on the edge of the cliff, its sustainable accommodation, and its composting toilet reached by stairs. The view over the bay is fantastic. Imagine waking up in the morning and stepping out of your safari tent to the sparkling sea, the sweep of the bay and the luxurious green of the bush and crops. Wonderful. The day finishes with another great swim in the lake back at our camp site.

Posted by rhinospin 01:21 Archived in Malawi Comments (0)

14. Malawi, Nation and Lake

Traders in potato chips, tee shirts and postage stamps

I look around me dubiously. On the bare dirt ground in front of several rough brick shelters stand a couple of BBQs and some metal trestles. I inspect the chips on one of the tables with a critical eye. The tables look clean and there are no flies around. The chips seem well cooked, crisp and golden. On the recommendation of our guides, we have pulled into a roadside stall manned by several young Black Africans and the inevitable crowd of children. Jan and Eddie insist the fried potato chips for sale are very good. As we hesitate, Jan leads the way, buying a generous helping. Martin and Graham summon the courage to follow suit, while I take a photo of the transaction, certain that without Jan and Eddie’s example, we would never purchase, let alone eat, food from such an operation. The chips taste delicious and we suffer no problems afterwards.

We have crossed another national border into Malawi, our fifth country after South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Everything seems accentuated – more people on the roads, more police check points, more frequent villages, more trading of charcoal, firewood and crops. We enter Malawi near the capital, Lilongwe, and head towards the long narrow Lake Malawi, following its western shore north. Malawi shapes itself along the lake, wedged between Mozambique in the south and east, Zambia to the west and Tanzania in the north and east. The Great Rift Valley runs north-south through the country with the lake to the east of the valley.

Another ex-British colony, known then as Nyasaland, Malawi gained its independence in 1964. Of course the British heritage continues to have advantages for us – English is widely spoken and its people drive on the left hand as we do in New Zealand. It is one of the world’s poorer nations, with a large rural population dependant on subsistence farming. Many of its people struggle with problems of low life expectancy, high infant mortality and the prevalence of HIV/Aids. But they are a friendly welcoming people.

From my vantage point in the land rover, I view the green lush landscape dotted with crops of sorghum, millet, cassava and sugar cane. Sixteen million people live in this narrow strip of land. No wonder there are people everywhere. They walk along the side of the road, carrying their firewood, charcoal or market purchases. They crowd in the back of large lorries or small pick-ups; they peddle their cycles laboriously up the hills, laden down with heavy burdens. There seem to be so many more than in Botswana or Zambia.

We stop on the roadside for lunch, setting up our chairs and table on the rough ground, but before we can begin eating, crowds of children materialize, gathering around to watch the muzungu. Perhaps they are hoping for a gift of sweets, but we have made the conscious decision not to offer such, for the children have no way of cleaning their teeth, and we also don’t want to encourage the hand-out mentality. I cut up several apples and offer them around.

At each police check point we slow down and each time we are waved through. Mind you, the judder bars we saw in Zambia at each end of a village continue in Malawi and they ensure a drop in speed. Nevertheless, I encourage Martin to drive with care, for our guides have warned us that in Malawi, you don’t pay a fine on the spot. Instead you go before a court. This could delay our journey considerably, especially in the weekends, when we would have to wait till Monday morning for an open court. We see a speed camera in a 40kph zone on our way out of Lilongwe, and take comfort in the fact that, according to Eddie, it is one of the only two in the country.

We stay four nights right on the lake, the first two at Kande Beach and the second two below the mountain top town of Livingstonia. At Kande Beach, Judy and Graham take the opportunity to go on a village tour, but Martin and I are lazy and decide to spend the day relaxing – reading, swimming, an iced coffee in the camp ground café, walking on the lake shore. The lake water is warm and a little murky after the recent storm and heavy rain, but we enjoy the dip and the scenery, with numerous dugout canoes on the beach or in the water. The Lonely Planet warns of the dangers of bilharzia, caused by parasites in freshwater lakes entering the skin and passing on to the bladder or bowel. Our guides think swimming in Lake Malawi should be fine, but, just in case, advise us to take a simple medical test when we return home.

Martin's always friendly to whoever is around. He greets and chats with our adventurous neighbours, Gareth and Kirsty, who have their name, Aussie Overlanders, painted on their vehicle. They have shipped it from Australia to Durban and are now travelling through Africa.

Just occasionally Martin’s outgoing sociable nature gets him into trouble and one such incident takes place at Kande Beach. He meets an entrepreneurial young African on the beach who is very keen to sell him some tee shirts with a printed design of his choice.

“What about the words ‘Cape Town to Nairobi’ and a map of Africa?” Martin asks. “Yes, yes,” says the young man, and he persuades Martin to part with $7US as a down payment. The shirts are to be delivered at 5.00pm on our last evening when the rest of the money will be handed over. Five o’clock comes and goes, six o’clock, and still no shirts. We conclude that it is all a hoax and Martin has been had.

“Oh well, I only lost $7. It could have been worse,” he says. And we laugh it off. Then in the darkness at 7.00pm, the camping ground guard appears at our cabin (yes, we have upgraded for the Kande Beach stay) with Martin’s trader in tow, wanting to finalize the transaction. He indeed has two tee shirts and they are printed with a map and the designated words.

“Let’s have a look at them in the light,” says Martin, his suspicions roused. “Hey, this one is not new; look, the collar is frayed.”

“What’s the printing like?” I ask, fearing the worst. We stare at the poorly executed art work.

“I am not paying for this,” Martin tells the entrepreneur, where upon he dissolves into a shaking mess of imploring entreaties.

“Please, mister, please, mama, you must pay me. I did what you asked. I went to the market and I bought the tee shirts and I paid my friend to print them.” Out flows his sad story, with copious theatrical hand waving and much pleading. We wilt before his outpouring of self-pity.

“We’ll give him something,” I say to Martin, “otherwise we will never hear the end of it. Twenty dollars?” Martin nods to me.

“You are lucky to get $20,” Martin tells him. It’s only half of what he wants and he begins to object, then thinks better of it, accepts the money and departs. We realize we are late for dinner in the camp café, and we slink into our seats, too embarrassed to explain what we have been doing. Later in the trip, when we have had time to laugh about it as part of the African experience, we show Graham and Judy the shirts; they have a clothing business in Australia and they know about fabric printing. They agree that the quality is sub-standard. We dispose of the incriminating items somewhere along the way.

On the road to our second camp stay along the lake, we stop in the town of Mzuzu, a pleasant place with wide clean streets and gardens down the middle. I go to the post office to post some cards we have written to the grandchildren in NZ and Turkey. When I see the large size of the stamps and number I need to purchase, I tell that clerk that there isn’t enough room and they won’t fit in the allotted space.

“Oh, I can fix that,” he says with a grin. He proceeds very carefully and neatly to layer them on, one on top of the other, with just the price of each stamp showing. I think to myself that he has obviously had experience with his country’s large pictorial stamps and has done this before. I thank him for his efforts.

What a contrast there is between the town’s Shoprite supermarket and the outdoor market across the road. The supermarket is modern, not too different from those at home. Perhaps it is one of the string of supermarkets in southern and central Africa owned by an Indian South African.

We are the only whites in the outdoor local market, covering a large corner lot of bare red earth. As we wander along the rows of items for sale, spread out on sheets of plastic or woven matting, the women shyly smile and the men are happy to answer our questions about the crops or the fish. I ask some of them if I can take photos and all agree, though I notice at home a man pointing at me as if he is unhappy with the camera. A cute plump baby sits beside his mother’s stall of potatoes and cassava. I ask if I can take his photo and she agrees. But Baby objects, bursting into tearful loud cries at the strange white face in front of him. Mother laughs, and picking him up, produces a breast from beneath her frock, and the little one is happy again. Malawi is a very different from home, but babies are the same the world over.

Posted by rhinospin 22:04 Archived in Malawi Comments (0)

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