Malawi Travelogue: Zombie Baboons and Bottomless Holes of the Zomba Plateau & the Maize Makers of Mwandama
Nkhata Bay to Lilongwe International
After my affair with Wittgenstein's Mistress in Nhkata bay, I caught a matatu to the crossroads where I was greeted by seven parentless brothers going to meet an eighth brother in Zomba, where I was also headed, in theory. They were smartly dressed and had no sisters, though I wasn't sure if that meant they had some at some point and now didn't, which is not uncommon here. They had no parents, but they obviously must've at some point. It's not uncommon here for kids to not have parents either. I didn't ask why. Assume either HIV or a traffic accident.
I think the chances of being 8 brothers with no sisters is 1 in 256, but I always sucked at probability. It seems it should be more unlikely than that. It's the same as Rosencrantz flipping a coin and getting heads 8 times in a row, which he does, and then some, much to Guildenstern's dismay. Regardless, both are dead.
I also didn't ask if they had more brothers that weren't living, chances are they did. The fertility rate in Malawi (in 2000) was 6.46 kids per woman, which is the 13th highest in the world. 23 of the 25 countries with the highest birth rate are in Africa. It's no surprise that 24 of the 25 highest infant mortality rates are also in Africa (Malawi is 14th, with 90.55 infant deaths per 1,000 live births). Life expectancy in Malawi is 42.98 years, which is the tenth lowest in the world. If I was born in Malawi, chances are I'd be dead in 9 months. The life in expectancy in Macau, the highest in the world, is 84.37 years. People in Macau get twice as much life as people from Malawi. Think about that.
When the bus finally came, only three people got off, so only three people could get on. Fortunately I was one of them, but unfortunately there was no room on the bus for the 7 brothers, unless they got split up. I was told this would be a "luxury" bus, running "express" to Zomba. My plan, in theory, was to bus it overnight to Zomba where I'd meet Jess and the Spicer the next day, though they were flying into Lilongwe, which was somewhere in between. The bus to Lilongwe, in theory, got in at 2 a.m., and even then I would have no way of getting in touch with them to coordinate meeting, so I figured it was easiest to take this "luxury" bus to Zomba.
"Luxury" was far from the truth. It was basically a large matatu, completely packed beyond it's capacity. I had to lift my knees up to get them to fit, wedged against the hard bench in front of me. And there was no headrest, like schoolbus seats. There was no way anyone in their right minds could sleep, which is not to say many people weren't. And I was packed in the middle, away from the windows so couldn't see shit as it sped and wound it's way through the dark landscape. And even though it was "express," it stopped for anything that moved. There was also no toilet. The kid behind me just peed on the floor, but I don't think that gave me the right to. You can only imagine the smell.
After about six or eight hours I had to piss so bad that I got off the bus when it stopped in some small town. Even if you could hold it in like that, it seemed crazy to go all night and not sleep or see anything. The town I found myself in was called Salima, not far from Lilongwe. It was one a.m. The bus left before I finished pissing, even if I did want to continue on. I asked the bathroom attendant where there was a hotel. I topped up his phone for him and he made some calls. He suggested I not walk at this time of night, so I hopped a boda-boda and got a moonlight tour of Salima on the way to some hotel on the railroad tracks. Slept in my clothes on top of the sheets in a mosquito-infested moldy hotel.
Waited for the sun to rise, got a boda-boda to some strange dinosaur museum, in theory the only place in town with internet. Googling now, I guess this dinosaur museum was actually in Karonga (home of the Malawisaurus), so my memory is far from reliable. All I know is I was looking for the internet, not dinosaurs, as I wanted to get a message to Jess and the Spicer. But as usual, all networks were down. Jess and the Spicer didn't know I was going to try to meet them at the airport and I didn't want to miss them and get left behind. I sat in a matatu for hours, waiting for enough passengers to be more than full, that much I'm sure of. After I had no more nails to bite, the matatu made it to some crossroads, and I got a taxi the rest of the way to the airport.
This "taxi" had no battery and no gas tank. He had to push start the car to get it going and then leave it idling when we got to the gas station, where he topped off a cut-open gallon jug he had manually rigged to the carburetor under the hood. Now it wasn't about getting to the airport on time, but getting there in one piece. Ends up I made it to the airport in one piece with time to spare. Lilongwe airport has a "spectator" area, where people go just to watch the three planes a day that come into Lilongwe, one from Ethiopia, one from Kenya and one from South Africa. I watched their KQ plane land and was reunited at last, two peas in a pod, with a Spicer kick on the side.
Lilongwe to Zomba
Talk about night and day. Everything changed from this point on. I was no longer backpacking alone by my shoe strings. Now it was all expenses paid and I had my better half to share it with. No more cold showers or instant coffee or cramped matatus. We rented a car with a driver and traveled in style. Speaking of kids with no parents, our driver M had no parents, killed in a matatu crash. He had been taking care of his younger brother since he was 17. He was from the Dedza region, which we passed through on the way from Lilongwe to Zomba.
The scenery was quite spectacular most of the way between Lilongwe and Zomba. It was a good thing I didn't pass through this on a night bus. Lush rolling green hills with granite outcrops. At one point we were skimming the border looking into Mozambique. We got to Zomba and checked into the Ku Chawe Inn, which is perched up on top of the Zomba Plateau. Not what you might imagine Africa to be like—misty and foggy with pine forests. Until troupes of baboons would emerge from the mist and then you knew the only place you could be was the Zomba Plateau. And the lodge itself... if ever there were a place to write an African take on The Shining, this was it.
The Zomba Plateau
Except for one day where I went down into the field with Jess, I spent my time rehabilitating up on the Zomba Plateau with my baboon brothers.
To make up for my lack of exercise, I went running all over the plateau. There's a network of dirt roads and "potato paths" mostly used by these hardcore woodcutters, that would wheel their bikes all the way up the hill (too steep to pedal) from Zomba town, then chop a bunch of wood, load it, and then wheel it all the way back down the hill, a trip of I'd guess at least 10 km. And then who knows how far they'd pedal their product once they got down to Zomba. All for a few bucks. Someone needs to get these guys wheelbarrows or handcarts, something more suitable for wheeling firewood.
The combination of the woodcutters and great running trails induced a Prefontaine revival in me. I worked on my stache and went on insane runs everyday. Ran to the Queen's View one day, named after Queen Elizabeth. As if to up the ante on her, King Haile Selassie went down to the Zomba Plateau from Ethiopia and found an even better vista, proclaiming it "Emperor's View." Jah, Rastafari. From it, you could see the town of Zomba below, all the way to Lake Chilwa. If you use your imagination you can see all the way to Ethiopia.
I ran up there a couple of times, and also ran to "Changwe's Hole," which had been billed as this bottomless hole where they tossed convicts and lepers back in the day. Supposedly some "scientists" had come to study the hole, to search for the bottom, lowering themselves down into it with ropes. When they pulled the ropes up, there were no scientists. Spooky. This I had to see for myself. The most remarkable thing about Changwe's Hole is the location, an even more dramatic view than Emperor's or Queen's views. You basically run out onto this narrow ridge with cliffs on all sides.
It was hard to take pictures as clouds were forming before my eyes. The clouds would sublimate from the lush forests than spin off into the ether—a veritable cloud factory. In the middle of this ridge was Changwe's Hole. It's hard to see the hole itself as it's overgrown with bushes. (And it's hard not to consider the sexual innuendos!)
If you are reading this because you are going to the Zomba Plateau and want to find these places for yourself, all I have to say is good luck! The map and directions I was given at Ku Chawe were useless, and the only signs you'll see on the trails are to let you know that you arrived. Perhaps it's intentional, so you have to hire a guide. But my beta to you if you want to find these places on your own (at your own pace):
1. From Ku Chawe Inn, go down the hill past the wood vendor stalls.
The Millennium Village of Mwandama
I went with Jess one day to Mwandama, which is south of Zomba toward Blantyre. We went with the agriculture coordinator, Phelire, so got a good tour from an ag/food perspective. I've talked about maize in Malawi before, and how great the Malawian government's subsidies program is. All through Malawi I saw healthy maize crops, but Mwandama's were the best yet. In addition to the subsidized fertilizers, they were also using improved hybrid seeds (provided by, dare I say, Monsanto) and a Japanese method where they plant one stalk per node instead of the more typical three (which only leads to competition with itself). If you are interested in such things, this is a great read.
Some other things we saw:
P.S. Speaking of Mwandama, I just uploaded this "One Season" video that the Millennium Villages made about Mwandama circa 2006: