Malawi: Lilongwe to Livingstonia

24th April - 14th May 2002


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It was 05.20 when myself and a local lady from Lusaka walked across the border in the dark from Zambia and into Malawi. We walked together along the road into the blackness; there was no traffic around, just the occasional cyclist appearing out of the gloom. We were walking east and the horizon in front of us slowly began to brighten as the sun rose to start another day. When we started our walk we didn't realise that it was 12km to the Malawian border post, which we eventually found out from a passing cyclist. We stopped and decided to turn around and walk back to the border gate. There were a couple of battered taxis waiting at the Zambian border. In the dark we hadn't seen them and the drivers had been asleep and also hadn't seen us walking past. We sat and waited as the sun rose, illuminating this new country that lay in front of me ready to be explored. After the sun had risen, a few more people wearily crossed the border and climbed into our taxi. Despite travelling all through the night I didn't fall asleep as soon as I sat down in the back of this old taxi. Instead as we waited we chatted; the lady from Lusaka was travelling to Lilongwe as well, but with a heavy heart, to attend her mother's funeral.

Soon the taxi was full to bursting point and we drove off to the Malawian immigration post just outside the town of Mchinji. We were the first visitors of the day entering the country and it didn't take long to go through the formalities with a friendly and helpful immigration officer. The taxi dropped us at the taxi park in Mchinji from where I took a minibus to Lilongwe; finally on this last leg of my journey from South Luangwa I fell asleep, waking up whenever we stopped and passengers squeezed past me to get on and off. The road followed the railway line to the city passing undulating hills that looked a lot greener than those in Zambia. At 08.30 the minibus dropped me off on Kamuzu Procession Road in Old Town, Area 3, Lilongwe. From here I walked the short distance up Glyn Jones Road to the Kiboko Camp by the Likuni Roundabout. As I walked in I met Graeme driving out taking Klaartje to an appointment with a government minister. The three of us were once again reunited.

Klaartje was researching a story about the current maize famine in Malawi. Nsima, maize flour, is the staple food in Malawi and this years crop had failed because the rainy season was so short, ending in late December instead of early April. Currently the United Nations and the World Food Programme are distributing food aid but in a recent report they found 30% of children in rural areas to be malnourished. The situation had been made worse by the recent advice from the IMF to the Malawi government. The government had always kept a large stock of maize flour in a warehouse in case of a crop failure. The IMF advised the government to sell the maize and the warehouses, as money is far cheaper to store than tons of maize. If there was a crop failure the government could then use this money to buy and import maize. The maize crop duly failed this year and all the money had disappeared. Around about the time the maize stores were sold the government purchased a fleet of twenty-three Mercedes, a coincidence or the misappropriation of funds? The attempts by the government to import 150,000 tonnes of maize from South Africa were also hampered in February when sections of the railway line in Mozambique were washed away in flash floods.

Lilongwe is the political capital of Malawi, superseding Zomba in 1975. The city is really split between two centres, the Old Town and the City Centre. The City Centre is a rather sterile place with wide, tree lined streets and was built during the 1970's to house government ministries and embassies. It didn't look much like a city to me and felt very impersonal with very little culture or local colour; the City Centre functions as it was designed, the government headquarters. The Old Town is also split in two by the Lilongwe River that meanders through the city. To the east are the bus and taxi parks, to the west the commercial district that doesn't consist of more than an intersection where there are a couple of shopping centres and branches of the main banks. I spoiled myself at the supermarket when I saw blocks of cheese, jars of olives and bottles of wine. That would be my treat while I stayed in the city. Lilongwe is gaining a bad reputation for theft and muggings although I wasn't there long enough to see any problems myself. The whole city was very green and spacious with trees growing alongside most streets. It was not a very built up and developed city with few tall buildings.

The Kiboko Camp is the place in the city where most travellers end up staying when passing this way. There were double rooms, a couple of dormitories or camping in the large gardens. There was also a small bar and food could be ordered from the kitchen. That evening a couple of girls from Australia, Ally and Victoria whom Graeme had previously met in Lusaka arrived. They were hitchhiking through Africa from Cape Town to Nairobi. It had taken them three days to make the trip from Lusaka along the Great East Road, a trip that's possible in one long day by bus. We were all travelling in the same direction the next day, north out of Lilongwe. The girls wanted to make an early start to hitchhike out of the city; Graeme and myself had business to do in the city, changing money and checking email before we finally departed at around 11.00. Klaartje remained in the city continuing her research.

There are two roads leading north through the country, one through the high rolling plateaus and one along the shores of Lake Malawi, the roads meeting at the town of Mzuzu, about 350km north of Lilongwe. We took the road across the plateaus as there was a bridge washed out along the shore road at the Bua River by the town of Mphonde. We drove north past the airport and on to Kasungu, the landscape very different to the endless mopane and acacia covered plains I had become used to in Zambia. The hills were gently rolling with rocky peaks. Deforestation appeared to be a major problem with the vast majority of indigenous woodland felled, mostly to provide firewood for the ever-growing population. Malawi has a population of about 12 million, about the same as neighbouring Mozambique, but is only a tenth of the size. Since the 1970's the forest cover has nearly halved from 4.4 million hectares. Agriculture dominates the economy and all along our drive north we passed fields of dead maize stalks and tobacco. Tobacco accounts for 60% of the country's export earnings and has over the years been encouraged by the government. This has meant that a lot of peasant farmers are growing cash crops rather than staple foods, which has also exasperated the current famine in the country.

Just past Kasungu we saw two hitchhikers standing by the side of the road, it was Ally and Victoria. Graeme pulled over and picked them up. The four of us now continued to the Viphya Plateau and stopped for the night at the Kasito Lodge in the Luwawa Forest. This is why I sometimes like to hitch a ride with another traveller as I can get to out of the way places that would be impossible, or impracticable to reach by public transport. This was definitely one of these places, about half a kilometre off the main road, surrounded by a large commercial pine plantation and a long way from the nearest major town. Bottlebrush trees grew in the garden, their red flowers dangling in the breeze, smoke drifted lazily from the chimney of the lodge and also from a shed next door. The climate was pleasantly cool and fresh; the views from the gardens of the lodge were beautiful looking through the trees to the fields and forests around us. Joseph, the cook at the lodge, introduced himself and showed us around. The interior of the lodge was just as beautiful as the surroundings. There was a well-equipped kitchen that Joseph let us use, a dining room and lounge with polished wooden floors and comfortable furniture. I just loved the rocking chairs around the log fire that burnt gently in a large brick fireplace; it really felt like home. After we pitched our tents in the garden under a huge jacaranda tree we went for a walk through the forest to a nearby lookout hill. It only took about forty minutes to reach the top, walking along shady paths across soft pine needles and along forestry tracks. From the top we had a panoramic view of the plateau, it was hard to think that we were deep in the heart of Africa, this is not what I had expected. We walked back to the lodge before the sun set to prepare dinner.

Nothing was too much bother for Joseph during our stay at the lodge. He brought us hot water to make tea with, let us use the kitchen and even did the washing up for us. I made myself at home in a rocking chair by the log fire with the remains of my cheese and olives to snack on, washed down with a cold beer, a leftover treat from when I had arrived in Lilongwe. Graeme and the girls were busy in the kitchen cooking dinner and Joseph was laying the table for us; I figured that too many cooks would spoil the broth and looked after the fire instead. We spent the evening sitting around the fire, I really felt that I was staying in a ski chalet in Europe and kept expecting to find a ski slope outside the front door. The only thing that was missing were the marshmallows to roast on the open fire.

It was a chilly night and it made a pleasant change to be drinking a cup of tea in the morning to warm up. We were all travelling to different time schedules, the girls had a couple of months to reach Nairobi, Graeme had to be back in South Africa in the beginning of June and I began to realise that six months is a short time in Africa. If we weren't on these time schedules, the Kasito Lodge would be the kind of place we would of all liked to spend a few more days relaxing, away from the day to day hassles of travelling through Africa. We packed up camp, said goodbye to Joseph and gave him a tip for all his help and hospitality during our short stay. We continued driving north across the Viphya Plateau and past one of the highest mountains in the area, Mpamphala at 1,954m high and on to Mzuzu. Mzuzu is a fairly large town where the two roads north through the country meet and is known by the local people as the capital of the north. It has all the facilities you may need and we stopped for about an hour to change money and pick up some food supplies at the local market and the supermarket; the girls also managed to find a bag of marshmallows.

We continued north towards the town of Chitimba on the shores of the lake. Along the way, a few kilometres north of the junction to Rumphi, we came to the amazing house of Mr Ngoma; we had to stop and call in and say hello to one of Africa's greatest eccentrics. Mr Ngoma lives in a very distinctive house; it is a colourful two-storey construction made mostly out of junk. It was once a grocery shop, but that apparently closed a long time ago, although the grocers sign still hangs on the front of the house. All sorts of things have been used to construct this house, car parts, furniture, road signs, brightly painted lengths of wood together with many other bits of junk that are now unrecognisable. We went to the front door and were met by one of Mr Ngoma's daughters or granddaughters who showed us in to the main downstairs room. There in the gloom of the badly lit room we found the ancient Mr Ngoma, aged 89, hunched over a desk that was covered in visitors books. Mr Ngoma has not been feeling too well recently and has taken to living in this one room, where the only other significant piece of furniture, amongst all the junk, was an old iron bed.

Mr Ngoma looked very old with a large white beard; when he stood to shake our hands he stooped and looked unsteady on his feet. His daughter showed us around the house. Mr Ngoma is obsessed with his upcoming death and has already made all the necessary preparations for his funeral. Upstairs in a small room he has his coffin all ready lying on a table. There is also a tiny chapel with an ancient record player that he plays hymns on. The walls are all covered with posters and pictures of Christ and scenes from the bible, a lot of it looked very kitsch and tacky. There are also hundreds of cards and photos stuck to the walls from visitors from all around the world. Outside in the garden he has already dug his own grave complete with a gravestone where the only thing missing is the date of death. His daughter lifted up the corrugated iron sheet covering the grave, the iron creaking nosily and we all peered down into the hole. He has also prepared the whole funeral service too and I'm sure that when the day comes and he dies it will make international news. We went back in to see Mr Ngoma and sign one of his visitors books; the smell in the room was too much for Victoria and she had to leave before she gagged. On leaving we gave a small donation for Mr Ngoma to buy some medicine and wished him well and hoped that he would feel better soon.

The road continued north following the valley of the South Rukuru River which cuts down through the steep, heavily forested escarpment of the Great Rift Valley to Lake Malawi far below. On the way down the escarpment we came across an accident, a minibus had toppled over on to its side at one of the sharp corners. It could not have been going too fast otherwise it would of left the road completely; I guessed that it was just too top heavy with cargo and tipped over as it tried to negotiate the corner. At a roadblock at the bottom of the hill we informed the police who were already aware of the accident. The road continued along the lake and was in a terrible condition; the European Union was funding a project to upgrade the road from here to the Tanzanian border.

We shortly arrived at Chitimba and camped on the beach at the Chitimba Campsite. The campsite was large but empty, there was only one other couple from the Netherlands camping, Judith and Paul. They were driving a Landrover around the world and had taken the route from Europe through Mauritania, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and from there south through East Africa. The chalets at the camp were all vacant, the bar deserted and the volleyball net on the beach underwater. In the evening while we cooked dinner the sun dipped behind the escarpment and the full moon rose on the opposite horizon over the lake. We acquired some firewood and lit a fire on the beach where we spent a mellow night toasting marshmallows and drinking cold beer while listening to the frogs and toads croaking along the shoreline.

The next day, Saturday, we drove up to the small historic town of Livingstonia, 20km up a torturous road that wound and climbed it's way up the escarpment through the indigenous forest. The road was no more than a track, just rough stone and mud; it would be impossible to drive up without a four-wheel drive. The drive took just over an hour, it's possible to walk up in a little more than two hours. Livingstonia was founded as a mission in 1894 by the Free Church of Scotland following the death of Livingstone on his search for the source of the Nile in 1873; his death lead to a renewed missionary zeal in Africa. The original mission was sited at Cape Maclear and was built in 1875 but the area proved to be plauged with malaria. The mission was moved to Bandawe, about halfway along Lake Malawi, before finally being sited here in 1894 on the high ground to the east of the lake. Today a stone cairn marks the spot where the missionary, Dr Robert Laws camped the first night when he decided that this was the spot to build the new mission.

Livingstonia is a fascinating town, something quiet unexpected to find in this small African country. It is like someone has transplanted a small part of Scotland to the centre of Africa. We drove into town along a dirt road lined on both sides with red brick houses, through the small town centre where there was a small shop and a clock tower and on to Stone House, where we planned to camp the night. Stone House was the house built by Dr Laws after he moved from his first house, named House No. 1, which was built next to where he camped on his first night in 1894. Today Stone House doubles as both the town museum and a rest house. The building looks rather dilapidated these days, it doesn't look like anyone has done any maintenance for a very long time. It is a one-storey building with a corrugated iron roof and a large wooden veranda which overlooks the escarpment towards the lake below. The interior is very atmospheric and definitely looks like a Victorian house in Scotland, complete with the original wooden sash windows, doors, creaking wooden floors, picture rail high up on the wall and a high ceiling; there was even some original Victorian furniture still dotted around the house.

We went for a walk around the town stopping along the way at the clock tower and the industrial block that was originally built by the missionaries as a training centre and is today a large technical college. We stopped outside some of the original missionary houses to take some photos and were quickly invited in by the family to say hello. We all sat down in the large front room, where the family were busy watching a video of Sheba Queen of the Jungle, and went through doing the introductions. After that we were shown around the house, which by African standards was huge and also had a veranda around the back as well as the front. The family who lived here worked at the technical college, around the corner, which is where most people in the town seemed to work. It was holiday time at the college so the town appeared fairly quiet as most of the students had returned home. Further along the road was the David Gordon Memorial Hospital, which was once the largest hospital in Central Africa. At the end of our walk we accidentally came across the only other rest house in town, imaginatively named, The Resthouse. It was situated at the edge of town, very similar in style to Stone House also with a large wooden veranda that overlooked the escarpment and the lake. The cost of a room worked out the same as camping at Stone House, so in the middle of the afternoon we moved house.

Overnight it rained heavily so we were pleased with our decision not to camp. It was Sunday morning and we had all decided that it would be a good experience to attend an African church service. The English service was due to start at 08.00, it was still raining and mist and cloud blew through the town as we drove to the impressive church dating from 1894. The church was huge, by far the largest building in the town, built of red brick, like all the other buildings in the town, with a corrugated iron roof. Above the entrance there is an extraordinary stained glass window of Livingstone standing on a hill overlooking Lake Malawi with two of his African companions, a gift to the church in 1952. The service was interesting, it was the first time I had been to a Sunday service at a church. The highlight had to be the choir that just consisted of four men, there were no instruments or organ, just the harmonies of their voices. Halfway through the service, as we were new faces to the congregation, we were invited up to the front of the church to introduce ourselves. Everyone seemed happy to have visitors in their church from such far off countries as England, Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile the preacher was not too happy about the number of people who arrived late because of the rain; the service didn't start until about 08.30. He told the congregation that, 'We mustn't steal God's time because he has given us the gift of rain.'

After Church we left Livingstonia and on the way back down the road to the lake, after about 4km, we stopped at Manchewe Falls, a spectacular 50m high waterfall that plummets off the edge of the escarpment. There is a cave behind the base of the falls where in the past the local people used to hide from the slave-traders. It is possible to walk to the base, but we really didn't have the time and the path was still wet and slippery from the overnight rain. We continued down the road at an average speed of 20kmh until we were at last back in Chitimba from where we drove north to the port of Chilumba. This is where I would be taking the MV Ilala south down the lake to Monkey Bay.

Continue reading this journey: Sailing on the MV Ilala