Trees of Malawi, appreciation post
Back in April, when I first got the MFS-scholarship, Johan and Emil promptly decided to come and visit me in Malawi. A good excuse to go somewhere unlikely, and a revenge to the New Zealand trip that never happened. ‘Of course’ I said, but since I was convinced something would inevitable screw up, and my whole trip unexpectedly be cancelled, I could not imagine it would at all work out, and they (and me) actually get here.
But it worked, oh it worked! They are now safely back in Sweden, after a hell of a week, with what we jokingly called ‘Malin's adventure travels’ . So many sights, and so many stories.
Like that time we hiked to look at a bottomless pit.
That time Johan bought a tiny giraffe that could not stand up. And I bought a very, very ugly wooden hippo.
That time we were too heavy for the canoe we sat in, and all that awkwardness when the guide and the guy with the paddle had to push... and we were too heavy anyway. But hey, we saw hippos!
That time the Land Rover broke down in the middle of Liwonde National Park, and we sat in the shade of a termite pile, curiously observed by impalas and water bucks. For hours. And none of us were even irritated, amazingly enough.
That time we had wild elephants VERY close up, in and amongst the huts where we were staying.
That time we handed over a ridiculously thick bundle of money.
That time we got to sit in a car with actual working air condition! AND seatbelts!
That time we thought the minibus was full to the verge of bursting, and yet five more people got crammed in.
That time the minibus smelled of fish.
That time the minibus looped Mangochi for a full hour before taking off, attempting to pick up more passengers.
That time a child was handed to me, through the pick-up window. No questions asked.
That time when I had to choose between holding on the vehicle I was sitting on, in order not to fall off, or to make sure my chitenge (that is my wrap, or skirt) was indeed covering my knees. According to the other people on the pick-up, me not flashing (gasp!) my legs where more important.
That time we all fell to sleep at 21:00 (most nights actually)
That time (those times) we drank cold beer and watched the sunset.
That time we kayaked around and island, in a kayak that had a mind of its own.
That time we cooked a huge dinner, nsima and all, and had a long discussion about development politics together with friends.
That trip, when I was the boss.
View from South Peak
"Mulanje - Probably the best mountain in the world", was the message on the back of the official Mountain Club of Malawi t-shirt. It is a reference to the slogan of Carlsberg, and I thought it was a bit on the cocky side. But no, after three days and two nights on the mountain, sleeping under the stars, climbing higher above sea level than I have ever been before, and soaking up the sun, I am convinced the claim is not unjustified.
The only downside of the experience was the heat. The temperature was in the hight thirties when we started out on Friday morning. No shade, not much water, and 1400 altitude meters ahead. After 30 minutes, I thought I was finished, my heart beating too hard and too fast, and starting to feel lightheaded. But after a break in the shade of the banana trees, and some refreshing stream water, I was up to the task. And as we climbed, the temperature became more manageble, and even more so when the sun started descending in the afternoon.
Such a diverse landscape. Bits of jungly forest, rocky outcrops, grassy fields scattered with everlasting flowers, huge funky looking boulders and a view out of this world, looking over south Malawi and Mozambique.
We camped next to the South Peak Pools, where it was possible to swim a little, and day two we climbed South Peak, 2637m. Because Mulanje was not shaped by glaciation (unlike the Swedish mountains), the layer of sharp, lose gravel and rocks are not present here, at all. So scrambling up seriously steep slabs of granite was an absolute pleasure, with the rough surface of the weathered rock resulting in excellent grip.
And of course, after have made it down the mountain again on the sunday, with knees becoming very shaky, we indulged the compulsory post-peak-pizza, along with a few cold greens.
Mulanje - I like you!
Yesterday, I purchased one hundred empty 0.5 l water bottles, 60 kwacha each (~1kr), to use for my water samples. So the next thing to do is to actually go out into the field to measure pH, conductivity, temperature and turbidity, at my purposefully selected sample points. And also collect seven times six bottles of river water, for later analysis of metal and nutrient content in the laboratory.
The prospect of spending the bulk of the upcoming weeks in a chemistry laboratory, sweating and pulling my hair.. I don't know how I can possibly pull this of (the project, not the hair)!
I'm slowly starting to make friends here, both Malawians and non-malawians. Lake of Stars was very useful in that sense, with great may contacts being made. For instance, this weekend I was invited to a barbecue up on the plateau, overlooking Zomba. Unfortunately, the weather this weekend was unusually cold. Like actually quite cold, I reached for my fleece for the first time since I arrived. And the Malawians put on winter jackets! Climate change my friend, these weather anomalies are getting increasingly common they tell me.
And this coming weekend, I'm heading for the Mulanje Massif in the south, for some proper hiking. It is a cluster of some 25 peaks, the highest being 3002m, with green tea plantations covering the lower slopes. Three days hiking, two nights in tent and some 2200m altitude, together with the Malawi Mountain Club, which I was introduced to by a gentleman on the Lake of Stars. How exciting!
I have now been here in Malawi exactly one month, and I thought I would summarize some of my findings about the country, its inhabitants and me being in the midst of it.
- The people here are exceptionally friendly. Everyday, people approach me for some chit chat, some pleasant polite conversation; Muli bwanji? Ndili bwino, kaya inu? Chabwino! (How are you? I'm fine, and you? Very good!) or to ask me what brings me to Zomba. In the market, I'm likely to be charged a higher prize than my malawian friends, so called mzungu price, but it is never unreasonable. And when I get on a minibus, I always end up where I need to be without very much hassle.
- People here have such great names. I have come across people actually named Precious, Innocent, Blessings (all male names), Miracle and Gift, along with a wide range of Chichewa, Tonga names (both local tongues spoken here) and more common English names.
- During this whole time, I have seen only one male carrying a child on the back, in all the other cases it is mothers and sisters carrying the little ones. There are no such thing as baby strollers (barnvagnar) here, it would not work anyway with the way the streets look. Instead all small children are carried on their backs in simple colorful cloths referred to as chitenge, which is the same fabric most rural women wear as skirts, or wraps.
- Remember the lyrics to Toto's Africa? "The wild dogs cry out in the night, as they grow restless longing for some solitary company [...] It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you. There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do. I bless the rains down in Africa..". Well, the wild dogs are indeed crying out in the night. All night, every night!
- The bugs here are MASSIVE. Massive wasps and massive bumblebees. They seem friendly enough though. Thankfully. And the ants, on the other hand, are really, really tiny.
- I keep being surprised by my own skin color, repeatedly. All I see around me, all day long, is dark skinned people, and when I glance down on my arms every now and then, I still find myself thinking "Whoa! Pinkish white!".
- My feet always seems dirty, no matter how often I wash them (which is daily). The red, fine dust of Africa sticks to my skin as if its life depended on it. Even when I'm wearing socks and shoes.
- At home, I would never buy bananas. And I would not voluntarily touch brown ones. Here, I'm all of a sudden totally fine with brown, even black bananas. Even the ones that are ripe to the point of emitting a slightly alcoholic scent.
- Oh, and the trees are amazing! But I'll save them for another special post!
This festival only takes place once a year, and it was cancelled both in 2012 and 2013, so the incredible timing of me coming here just when the festival happened was just perfect. Me and my newfound friends rented a tent from the backpackers hostel in town and set out for the lake on Friday. The ride took us something like four hours in total, even though it is not very far, and for the bulk of that time I had two paper boxes of live baby chickens in my lap, chirping away. 'Just a minibus full of chicks heading for the festival', hilarious.
And the festival really was right on the beach, with a very (or so I imagine) caribbean feeling. And so was the campsite. Three small stages, a handful of bars serving 'green' for MK800 a bottle (~15kr) and some food and market stalls. Just lovely to dance to a great range of music, whilst having the feet embedded in the white beach sand. The audience was a mix of backpackers from abroad, volunteers and locals. Good times!
And yesterday, I set out on a mission to measure the water discharge at the main road culvert, using the super accurate (notice the sarcasm) 'orange method'. That is having a floating device (e.g. an orange, hence the name) travelling down a section of a known length, with a known geometry, and from that estimate the water discharge. I went there on my own, bumping along the road construction site on my bicycle. The spectacle of me walking about in the shallow water, with a measuring tape and a range of floaty thingies, caught the attention of a small crowd! Before I knew it, I had five school children inside the culvert, and another 15 outside 'helping' me!
Next thing is the third objective, which is the actual water sampling and laboratory work, but I don't have to think about that until next week!
Keen on exploring my immediate surroundings I decided to buy a bicycle, which I will sell later when I leave town. I wanted a used bike, but there was no one to be found, so I settled for the cheapest of the new ones; a Humber. MK23000 (roughly 450 kr), plus assembly and trimmings, and I sat down to watch the mechanics put together my new vehicle. It is a very crude and heavy thing, but it has got undeniable charm! I wish I could bring it back with me to Uppsala, would be the only one of its kind there!
And finally, after an hour and a half, I could zoom down to the college, with the warm wind in my face. And everyone seemed to notice me all of a sudden. I mean, I'm already very easy to spot with my pinkish skin and light brown hair, but this is different. Everywhere people whistling, waving, shouting and smiling. A muzungu woman on a bicycle is apparently a rare sight!
I woke up this morning, pulled away my curtains only to notice that it was not sunny?! We are in the middle of the dry season, and that generally mean sunny, quite hazy days with temperatures around 25° to 30°C. Funny how quickly one gets used to sunshine..
I also found myself adopting a very different sleep rhythm here, as opposed to back home. When its get dark at six, there is very little to do except watching the odd movie and do some knitting, or reading. So I have been off to bed around ten(!) most nights, and now struggling to sleep in longer than eight in the morning. I did not know I had it in me!