Malawi – so much more than I had expected!

"We are living happily ever after" - wall decoration at the Lark Cafe in Lilongwe, summing up the general mood of this amazing country!

“We are living happily ever after” – wall decoration at the Lark Cafe in Lilongwe, summing up the general mood of this amazing country!

Now, at this point in my life, I consider myself a reasonably well-traveled person, having spent a reasonable chunk of time over the past 5 years travelling around, and for periods living in, Africa. But for some reason Malawi, known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”, took me by surprise. My expectations for the country were not that high, and for some reason I had pictured it as much less developed, much more impoverished, and much more, simply put, wild than it turned out to be. In October of 2012, I went to Malawi for a short business trip – it was a 10 day trip, start to finish – and the country really made an impression on me. Truth be told, I really can’t wait to have an opportunity to go back. Perhaps it was the friendliness of the people. Perhaps it was seeing friends I knew from previous time spent together in other parts of Africa again. Perhaps it was the gratifying feeling that the people I was working with were genuinely happy that I had come there to work with them. Or perhaps it was the weekend I spent in a wildlife lodge watching the animals stroll past me along the nearby river. Or some combination of all of those things. Whatever it was, it was truly a wonderful visit.

Outside Lilongwe International Airport

Outside Lilongwe International Airport

I arrived at the airport in Malawi and, after some delay, was reunited with my luggage. During that delay period, all I could think about was the pounds of Halloween candy that I had brought as a treat for my American friends in Malawi, and that I was also planning on using as a teaching tool for some of my work. As an aside, I don’t care how old you are or what cultural background you come from, nothing motivates you better than the promise (or some might say bribe) of some tasty, chewy, sugary treat to raise your hand and contribute to a group discussion!! I’ve seen this technique work on adult professionals just as well as it works with a group of 5 year olds, so mock me if you will, but I was worried about the loss of my candy/motivational tool! Candy as the great equalizer…. who knew?? Anyway, I wasn’t too worried about my clothing or my personal effects as much as I as the candy and the other comforts of home that I had brought for my American hostess R, so I was quite relieved when I saw my big striped duffel bag coming down the conveyor belt!

Puma Gas station - Company branching out or copyright infringement??

Puma Gas station

Malawi’s airport is small, and reminded me a bit of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro airport as I got into the van that picked me up. R was out-of-town, so she had arranged another ride for me to take me to her house. As we drove to R’s home, I looked around on the streets of Lilongwe, and I found myself thinking back to the area outside of Arusha, Tanzania, as the view outside my window reminded me a bit of a trip there. But one big difference is that the roads in Lilongwe were much better paved, and the drivers were much better! Though the whole driving on the left/steering wheel on the right thing always throws me off. I kept going to the driver’s side of the car for my whole visit – though I had ZERO intent to drive….. I tried that in New Zealand, and I didn’t love that experience!!! One thing that elicited a chuckle out of me was the Puma Gas stations – seemed pretty reminiscent of Puma – the athletic wear/sporting goods company. I did like how many gas stations there were around town, and that some were 24 hour – much more convenient than in downtown Djibouti, which always made me nervous if I was going out at night with a low tank of fuel! (By the way, it seems I was not the only one who was struck by how similar the Puma gas logo and name was to the athletic company. For a discussion on potential trademark/copyright issues with these companies & logos, click here).

Massage menu for Tips & Toes

Massage menu for Tips & Toes

Once we arrived at R’s home, I met my friend F there, and I got a set of keys. We put my stuff inside of R’s house and F immediately took me off to the spa! What a welcome!! After a long trip, thankfully in business class, there was no time to rest because we had a spa treatment to enjoy!! I only had the rest of that day to relax, as I had to work the next morning, so darn it, we were going to make the most of it! So it was off to Tips and Toes in area 9/108 – a health & beauty spa offering “massages for true relaxation”…. sounds good to me!!

Now, I have posted previously about how to get over jet-lag, but after this experience, I have a new trick. The best way to get over jet-lag quickly is to get a massage as soon as possible after you arrive!! In my case, my massage came in the form of a Hot Stone massage, delivered with good, strong pressure by a nice Indonesia masseuse from Jakarta. Let me tell you, the restorative benefits of a massage to reduce jet lag are not to be underestimated, because without it (and the restful trip in business class), I suspect working the day after arriving from the US wouldn’t have been possible. But thanks to the wonderful massage and the fact that the trip was as restful as a travel possibly can be, I was up and at’em first thing in the morning, and ready to go for a full, and fairly intense, first day of work. R and I got up early, and went to work together, where I had a bit of time to finalize my preparations for the rest week ahead and check my email before really getting things going.

Lark Cafe

Lark Cafe

My first work day in Malawi, R took me to a lovely little outdoor spot called the Lark Cafe, which is within the Ulendo Safari group building. There, I enjoyed a delicious homemade chicken burger with caramelized onions & pesto mayonnaise. Delicious!! And a nice mango juice to go with it. A perfect meal sitting outside on a lovely day – hot, but not unbearably so – quite comfortable, actually. With a lovely atmosphere, and nice decor, I found this cafe quite pleasant, and suspect that if I lived here, I’d find myself here frequently.

Professionally dressed women at a course in Nigeria

Professionally dressed women at a conference in Nigeria

Speaking of working, another thing that I noticed in Malawi (well, in Lilongwe, I should say) was that local people who I interacted with for work were more formally dressed in a Western style than some other parts of Africa that I have worked in. In Djibouti, many of the women I worked with favored wearing a Direh to work (click here for a previous post on Djiboutian dress). In Yaounde, Cameroon, many preferred bright colors and well-tailored fabrics (click here for a previous post on Cameroonian dress). By contrast, in Abuja, Nigeria women wore much darker colors, and more Western-style professional dress – suits, or business separates. Still some traditional African patterns & styles, but much more Western suits. Lilongwe was similar to Abuja in this way. Professional women wore much more attire that I would describe at home as “business”. I think it’s a shame – African fabrics, colors and styles are so beautiful – why would they want to trade that in for dark & somber suits?? In fact, I brought one of my favorite African fabrics that I had bought in Cameroon and had a little sun dress with a matching jacket made by a tailor R found for me while I was here. And as far as the men were concerned, they were a bit more business casual – they seem to favor slacks & button-down shirts. I haven’t seen a single man wearing a macawiis (as the Somali call them – a kind of tie-on, wrap around fabric sarong type of thing that men favor in much of Africa). Perhaps it is the proximity to South Africa that influenced their fashion, as South African fashion is much more western-influenced, at least in my opinion.

Mrs_0020_balls_0020_chilliIn addition to my fashion observations, I also found something else that impressed me about Lilongwe: the availability of good food and good restaurants. It was a lot easier to find whatever sort of food we wanted. In my short time there, we ate at R’s home a few nights, but we also went out for Chinese food (quite good) and Indian food (excellent), and I found a whole bunch of the delicious Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Chili Chutney (and other flavors of this excellent South African chutney) to bring home. In Malawi it was maybe $3/bottle while on it’s $12.50/bottle, so I stocked up!! Thankfully, my Business Class ticket afforded me a lot of check in luggage, so I was able to bring a lot of things back on this trip!

Overall, I really liked Lilongwe. If the opportunity ever arose to move here for a while (maybe for a year or so) I would definitely be interested in taking it. It seems like a really nice city, with friendly people, and provides a really nice quality of life for ex-pats. I was definitely a fan!!

A place we stopped between Lilongwe and Mchinji to pick up something to drink

A place we stopped between Lilongwe and Mchinji to pick up something to drink

In addition to Lilongwe, I also got a chance to take a day trip out to Mchinji for work. We set off for our appointment early in the morning, and went out to this border town. Mchinji is near the borders of Zambia and Mozambique. It was a nice drive, and the meeting was quite successful, so I was happy with the outcome of the day!!

Next up, I will write about a weekend trip out-of-town that I took with my friend F and some other ladies for a visit at an incredible wildlife lodge, where we had some close encounters with some of Malawi’s wildlife….. here’s a hint: they were some of Africa’s giants…. grey ones, with four legs, big ears, and a long trunk….. that’s right! Elephants!!!

Until the next post,

Some shops

Some shops

[This visit took place in October 2012]

6 responses to “Malawi – so much more than I had expected!

    • Africa generally, and Malawi specifically, can be difficult and expensive to get to, but I highly recommend making the trip! Well worth it! Amazing place! As for the massage, even if it doesn’t work for you, any excuse for a massage is a good one, right? 😉 Really did the trick for me though!

  1. Sunny greetings from Diani beach! I plan to visit Malawi next year. I also found on TripAdvisor that you can even spot big 5 in Malawi and people are very much welcoming to tourists. I wonder what type of food you would suggest try and where? I want to visit in February, would it be good time?

    • I didn’t see the Big 5 in Malawi, but I did see a lot of elephants!! A great place to see the Ellies is Tongole Wilderness Lodge – I loved that place! And the meals are all-inclusive there, so you can try a lot of things there. As for what to try, I didn’t have much that was unique to Malawi – Nsima is similar to things I’ve had in Cameroon and Tanzania. The fish was very good in Malawi though. There were a lot of international restaurants in Lilongwe, so I had a variety of food during my visit. And I was not brave enough to try the grilled mice on skewers that were being sold by the roadside. Also, I have only visited in October when the weather was fantastic, so I don’t know what February would be like there, but I would look into when the rainy season is, if I were you. There is also good information available here: about travel to Malawi. Hope that helps!

  2. Hi, I’m staying in Lilongwe and would love to try Tips & Toes, but cannot locate it. Could you give me their phone number, please? Thanks so much.

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