lake malawi sunrise

Lake Malawi and Malawian culture

Up before my 5am alarm, I stood on the beach at Lake Malawi to see sunrise before breakfast. Full of natural beauty but very poor, how do the locals survive here?

Leaving Chitimba Camp, we wound round and up the hill at the side of the lake, stopping for a photo at a particularly beautiful spot. The sun was streaming through a gap in the clouds onto the lake, and there were swarms of flies in a vertical tunnel in the distance stretching from the lake to the clouds.
lake
Our next two overnights were spent at sunny, pretty Kande Beach campsite further south along Lake Malawi. The beach was just gorgeous!

kande beach camp
kande beach
My first afternoon and evening were spent on the Malawi village walk and traditional dinner excursion. Despite local guides and tour reps trying to discourage the local ‘beach boys’ from swarming around our small group on the tour, they did impart a lot of interesting knowledge about life in Malawi (in between trying to sell paintings and bracelets of course) whilst we walked.

Our guide showed us the furnace where they make the bricks for their houses, producing up to 4k bricks a day. Large houses take up to a month to build but smaller ones two weeks, using cement to hold them together. Those that can’t afford cement use a mix with mud, because the brick houses last so much longer than the 3-4 year lifespan of mud brick houses which the really poor still construct. We saw the inside of one of the houses, where the brick walls were not joined to the thatched wooden roof properly. In rain they leak so where people can afford to, they use tin sheets for roofing.

Cooking blocks are built separately from the main house so as to stop smoke from filling the living quarters and drying racks are built outside on wooden stilts, to stop animals rubbing against the clean dishes. The chicken houses were also built up on stilts to stop hyenas preying on them – apparently the chickens obediently come out in the morning and go back in at ‘beddy time!’

We were shown the town water pump which provides clean water for the village. Previously they dug their own wells in the ground but the water was not clean, so the Canadian government paid for one for each town in Malawi.

Our guide showed us the cassavah plants which are the locals main meal. They pull the plant from the ground and use a knife to remove the hard outer skin, then stick the top of the plant back in the soil for it to re-root and grow again. The root is either sweet and can be eaten alone, or is sour and needs to be soaked for a day or so to remove the sourness.

Cassavah is laid on bamboo racking topped with a woven bamboo roll to dry for one day in summer or two to three in the winter. Then, the girls put the cassavah in giant mortar and pestles, pounding the root for up to 45 minutes to grind it into a fine powder which makes bread and cakes. The local women are given ‘simple’ jobs and men the hard physical graft like preparing the land for planting, whilst women harvest, although grinding the cassavah looked far from an ‘easy job.’

cassavah

At the local primary school, the headmaster spoke to us in the volunteer-initiated library. They teach about 1500 children in 8 classes, between 7am and 1:15pm for older children and slower learners come back for remedial classes between 2:30 and 4:30pm. The teachers volunteer to do this to ‘help their school and country,’ as they are not paid after the end of the normal school day. Due to the amount of prep, large class sizes and marking, the teachers get very tired. They teach a range of subjects including Life Skills and Expressive Arts – which is where they learn to carve, paint and make bracelets to sell.

Primary education is free but if students don’t achieve at least 80% in exams at the end, they don’t get government help to got to high school (they can resist exams twice). High school costs $150 a year so the beach boys told us anything we buy from them helps them pay for their education. How can you refuse? I purchased a cord bracelet in Malawi flag colours.

The school accepts cash and resource donations – much of their library being made up of donations and some books from the national library. The schools library didn’t have enough bookshelves to display the limited resources, which are used by the whole community not just the school kids. Books aimed at older children, like advanced algebra, are used to further their education outside the school setting. We were shown a classroom and told the old, faded diagrams hanging off the walls were used as resources by teachers…

Next, we walked to the local hospital, comprising 3 blocks. We spent our time in the delivery suite and saw a mother and her tiny little day and a half old baby. It was sad to see the old wire frame beds piled together, missing basic comforts such as pillows, with varying degrees of ‘mattresses’ from thin pieces of foam to thicker PVC coated ones. Malaria is still one of the biggest problems in Malawi, so the hospital provide expectant and new mothers with a mosquito net if they have it in stock, but funds don’t always permit this.

The delivery room was a rather grim affair, basic and functional for the average 12 babies they deliver a week. UNICEF provides all the vaccines for newborns so at least they get that – no thanks to the Malawi government. Mothers also receive proper screening and ‘FUNK’ classes in all three trimesters, needing to attend 4 before birth to help prevent problems.

After nightfall in the town we ate a traditional Malawian dinner with the chief’s son in his house, on a bamboo mat on the floor. The starter came in a big plastic drum with lid, and was a really hearty and tasty sweet potato soup – we could have just eaten that and I’d have been happy! Then a woman brought in five big pots of shredded spinach, chicken in sauce, white rice, a yummy bean mix and boiled cassavah.
traditional dinner
The cassavah was what I really wanted to try; it tasted and had the texture of a root veg, with a stringy middle and potato-like mouth feel but it was nice and a really filling staple food. I can see exactly how versatile it is, with different seasonings and ways to prepare it offering endless possibilities. We left quite a large amount which I hope the locals got to share.

malawians dancing

Outside, we were treated to a collection of local songs sung by villagers of all ages and danced with the enthusiastic kids. I appreciated the locals opening up their homes and lives to us, it was lovely end to our evening and an experience I’m glad to have had.

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