Mbeya, Malawi

  • Date
  • 5 August 2000
  • Lodging
  • Mt.Livingstone Hotel
  • Distance
  • 398 KM
  • Total
  • 95220 KM

Small Malawi is densely populated in the cities with playing children, young women with babies on their backs, men with wheelbarrows, battered cars, overfilled trucks, goats, donkeys, cows and too many bicycles – all sharing the same narrow, bumpy, pot-holed roads. Some roads are worn and weathered away leaving only a single strip of asphalt making passing a nightmare. Two lane traffic means driving down the single tar slick as long as possible, almost in a game of cat and mouse with the approaching driver, but finally darting off the paved lane as not to have a collision.

Malawi homes, made mostly of dark red/brown brick, have thatch or tin roofs. Town dwellers live under tin roofs, which I figure are imported from South Africa, and country folks’ homes are covered mostly by thatch. Kilns – large brick ovens where clay bricks are baked – are scattered throughout the countryside. Fences surround homes of any size. Everyone is secured from others as a matter of safety, not due to culture as in China. And here they cement hundreds of small pieces of broken glass on the top level of the fences to deter people from scaling over.

All along the highways and town roads people sell whatever they have – tires, woodcarvings and furniture, meal maize, almost new clothes (from western charities), fruits and vegetables (tasty tomatoes), and straw chairs, hats, baskets and rugs. Every age walks the roads chewing on a short piece of sugar cane stripped of the exterior.

We’re stopped several times daily by police checkpoints – they admit we’ve done nothing wrong but that doesn’t matter. I have no patience for this. I’ve heard many remark and write in guidebooks that the police are just doing their jobs and this is the only power in their lives since they make so little. Well, instead why don’t the police stop petty theft, cease corruption, and stop attacks and murders – anything meaningful. But the police absurdities don’t happen only in Malawi. The Congo police outside of Point Noir held us for 1.5 hours asking us, “How do we know you are not soldiers or spies?

Malawi relies on tobacco, tea, coffee and sugar as exports. With all down in price except tea – the economy sure ain’t booming, but privatization is taking place and a stock market has opened with eight companies listed. Still the vast majority of the people live via subsistence farming. As you would expect, things are cheap here – the exchange is 56 kwachas to the dollar. A Coca Cola, in a bottle without deposit, costs 10 kwacha. But imported goods are expensive, as are the mid-to-upper range hotels that charge ridiculous rates for the quality and service provided. Low supply allows them to charge the high prices.

Some of the toughest times for me are when I see people with deformities or disabilities. No government funds and very few agencies exist to help. In the US or Europe, operations would have occurred at birth to correct many of these distorted bones and there are some homes for people to live and cope with these challenges. But not here: no one takes care of the less advantaged, who sit outside tourist places, markets and banks hoping for a few coins. I gave a blind man playing a wooden flute money the other day, but I worried all the non-working men standing around would rob him.