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January, 2007


A Southern Africa Journey


Don and Peggy Connors


We have now spent almost two months traveling in, and learning about Africa - and we survived without TV, newspapers and our regular collection of magazines and friends. It has been a splendid experience! We enjoyed three weeks in South Africa partly on the Garden Route, and half of it in the world class city of Cape Town. South Africa has a spectacular natural environment, especially the Cape Peninsula and the beaches, which we thought were as beautiful as any we have ever seen. The S. A. economy and infrastructure is quite good and the country is similar in many ways to the U. S.; but some areas suffer terribly from the problems of poverty and disease that also plague other parts of Africa.


Our “home base” for 5 weeks has been in Lilongwe, Malawi where our son Brian, his wife, Mike and their children Maria, Caroline and Nicholas live. Malawi has been a real eye-opener for us. The experience has been powerful and humbling, as many here are desperately poor, yet they are so kind and welcoming. From here we took a long and fascinating journey to Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe where we marveled at one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and enjoyed cruising down the Zambezi River watching giraffes and hippos on shore. A high point of that trip was outdoor dinner at a world class restaurant with a couple from Moscow during which a herd of zebras passed in front of us. With our family we had an exciting wildlife safari in Zambia and the children delighted in seeing every animal we all wished for, as well as many new and colorful birds. For the New Year’s weekend we enjoyed Lake Malawi, which is the pride and joy of all in this country.


As in any good travel experience, something that adds color and will always stay with us, are the fascinating conversations we have had with people from all over the world. These fellow travelers we’ve met “on the road”, as well as colleagues and friends of Brian and Mike with whom we have had spirited dinner conversations.


We have many impressions of the country and the Sub Sahara region and thought you might find our discoveries to be of interest. What we say here about Malawi largely applies to other countries in this region of Africa. The following are some of our collected information and impressions with periodic fact checks from Brian, who is associate country director for the U. S. Peace Corps in Malawi.


Approximately 13 million people live in Malawi, a small country in the southeast part of Africa. Malawi has had very little civil strife, no revolutions, and maybe this is why Malawi is called the “Warm Heart of Africa”. Her people are friendly, warm, gentle, generous, and most welcoming.


Life expectancy is in the upper thirties for men and women. Aids and malaria are scourges, as well as poor nutrition and maternal health care.


There are approximately 1 million orphans in Malawi (Orphan is defined as a child under 18 that has lost to death 1 or 2 parents). Child mortality rates here are among the highest in the world attributable to inadequate neo-natal health care, lack of access to safe drinking water and immunizations, among other reasons.


Subsistence farmers, both men and women, work incredibly hard, by hand and without plows or mechanical equipment, growing produce to feed the family and, hopefully, producing a surplus for barter or to generate cash income. Most Malawians earn much less than $1.00 per day.


Electricity serves a very small percentage of homes in rural areas (about 5%). There is no electricity in most public elementary schools. The same applies to running water and plumbing. Cell phone usage is widespread.


Market Day, held weekly, is central to village and town life. In urban areas market day may well be everyday. All manner of products are available for sale from clothing to fresh vegetables. The impression is of a bazaar where people come together to trade, socialize and conduct business and political affairs with neighbors, friends and family. The young folks freely mingle and have fun. The beer drinkers find their spot to enjoy themselves. Frequently there are more or less permanent stick-built stalls without roofs for a person to use for trading. Certain areas within the market are designated for the sale of particular goods like used clothing, textiles, straw products, beans, maize, rice, fish, meats and poultry, even chicken and goats. The market is a dynamic, colorful and visually appealing part of the visitor experience.


Principal roads of two lane capacities connect the major urban centers and nearby countries of Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. These arteries for commercial traffic are used by trucks carrying all manner of goods and produce. Of course, they also handle the bikes and low density of passenger car traffic one sees in the country. Automobile ownership and use is not common, especially in rural areas. Travel off the paved roads is on dirt roads most often in marginal condition, especially in rainy season. Thus, driving off the highway is a real challenge, (but always interesting).


Getting around in urban and rural areas is largely a matter of putting one foot in front of another, riding a bicycle to and from a destination, riding in a automobile or bicycle taxi, or minibus or hitching a ride for a fee in small open backed trucks called “Motolas”. In urban areas there are more mass transit options such as the privately owned and operated Toyota minibus that one sees everywhere. Some appear well maintained and most show the effects of long and hard service. All are chock full of passengers, many carrying products for sale, luggage, animals in the country. Near urban centers one sees a stream of walkers including women and children, often a mother with a child snuggled to her back carrying water, firewood, baskets of food and/or tools on her head. Some we have seen carry hoes balanced on their head as they walk to or from the family agricultural plot.


Free public education is available for children through elementary school. They walk to and from school, sometimes a very long distance; and wear simple school uniforms, everyday but Wednesday, which is when they are washed. Secondary school has a small percentage of those eligible attending because it costs a substantial amount ($14.00 a term). The government recommended teacher/student ratio is 1 to 60 students, but some classes have as many as 150 students with one teacher. Some children attend private schools including international schools, which are very expensive. Student teacher ratios there are similar to what exists in the U. S. Higher education is even more uncommon with few spaces available,


and then only at high cost.


Malawians are a religious people and churches are everywhere: Roman Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostal, protestant denominations as well as Muslim mosques are well attended.


Lake Malawi is sometimes called the calendar lake because it is about 365 kilometers long and 12 kilometers wide at it’s widest. It is the biggest tourist attraction in the country.


The democratic government structure is interesting and unlike the US. A President and elected Parliament lead the central government. There exists the typical array of national ministries including education, health, economic affairs, environment, etc. The police are under national control. Three regions have general purpose district governments that exercise public functions delegated to them by the national government. Local affairs in the countryside are largely run by a Village Headmen and he exercises local affairs authority subject to the District Government. There exists a separate and independent traditional Chiefdom system which serves the ancient practices of Village life. The Chief exercises his authority through persuasion and example rather than under legal powers ceded by the national or district government. The Chief always acts according to traditional cultural practices and relies upon consultation with elders in the community and seeks consensus. His ultimate objective and that of the villagers is to achieve “harmony”. Disputes are usually resolved by negotiation and compromise. Succession in office is usually by inheritance. Tribes have a social and often a family identity within a geographic area and share a specific language. Urban centers have a more formal government structure.


Malawi has a number of languages which are dominant in particular regions of the country. English is the official language widely spoken as one might expect, as the country was an English Protectorate then known as Nyasaland. It gained independence in the 1960s. Chichewa (in the south and central regions) and Chitumbuka (in the north) are the languages most widely spoken.


Foreign Aid assistance is everywhere in Malawi. The USAID and agencies are committed to helping the people of Malawi. Canada, Taiwan, the European Union, Japan and a host of government, religious, NGO and other resources are here doing their best. Catholic Relief Services are highly regarded. CARE International is an excellent NGO helping in many areas, and in the development of village saving and loan initiatives. These programs, unlike micro finance, rely on facilitating the villagers saving their own money and thereafter making loans to villagers (members of the savings and loan group) for modest scale economic projects. Micro finance loan programs are also a feature of village assistance.


The United States Peace Corps has been a presence in Malawi since 1964, with two short breaks in service. Currently there are about 100 volunteers aged roughly from early twenties to late fifties with an average age of about 29. Their tour of duty is 2 years and they work for a small living stipend in the areas of environment, public health or education. The volunteer will generally live by themselves in a village where they work with the local residents.


Town Centers: People live in small grass-roofed clay/mud/brick huts in the countryside, but it is the town center that supports active community life and where local commerce takes place. Perhaps it is best understood by the signs over the business establishments. Here are some of the more colorful (and amusing) signs we saw while driving along. They tell the story of life in the town center:


Natural Herbary Healthy Clinic


Konkola Hypermarket


Try Again


Hard Days Bottle Shop


Smasher’s Shaving Den


Tiger Animal Feeds, more than just feeds


Feed the Children – Malawi


Salvation Army House


M.K.’s roadside Pub and Take Away


Fashion Fare Beauty Center


Tender Care Clinic


Out of Town Bar


Cosmetics Cave


Modern Life Bottle Shop


Lucky Star Butchery


Internet Café and Take Away


Dee Bees Coca Cola Shop


Happy Restaurant


Every Joy Restaurant


Tooter’s Eatery


Woman’s Beauty – Wigs Hairpieces and Combs


Spark of Hope Medicines (Groceries, too)


Investments, Pub and Coka Cola


The Hungry Lion


Golden Pillow Lodge


The #1 Chicken


We have really enjoyed “The Warm Heart of Africa”

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