An inspection visit to Malawi

by Keira Powers (GEI Director, Southern Africa)
Malawi, a small and little known African destination bordered by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, under-promises and over-delivers in every way. From the friendliness of its people, to the environmental concern of its formalized tourism industry, to its magnificent beauty of land and lake, no visitor will go unimpressed with this little landlocked country in southeastern Africa.

Malawi is 118,000 km2, but Lake Malawi on its eastern border is 29,6000km2. Hence with 15million people fitting into 88,400km2 of land area, Malawi is one of the world’s most populated countries and with a struggling economy reliant on agriculture and foreign aid, it is also one of the worlds least developed nations with one of the lowest per capita incomes.

Nevertheless, it is a country of smiles and welcomes, and we were not surprised to hear it known as the Warm Heart of Africa. Everywhere we went on our flying visit to Malawi was a place of welcome and wonder.

Over and above some remarkable African experiences such as game viewing on the Shire River and snorkeling in the crystal clear lake, we were most impressed with our visit to a local community… so often on a journey to the 3rd world, whilst staying in luxury accommodations, one does not get to grips with how real lives are lived.

Not so for us on this trip…

In a small rural community on the border of Lilongwe National Park we stayed in a remarkable township of inspirational people. They have created a “community camp experience” whereby we were accommodated in their huts, ate meals with their families and participated in their local activities such as grinding maize, howing fields and visiting with their witchdoctor. This entire initiative has been established in conjunction with the major tourism operator in the area, Wilderness Malawi, and aims to bring the tourism dollar directly to the local inhabitants. More importantly, however, it allowed us, the visitor, to live a local life for a couple of days whilst feeling included, not intrusive. It was a remarkable experience.

Most impressively, however, we visited the local school that was started by a staff member at Mvuu Camp in the national park. Having recognised that kids in the community weren’t getting an education, he and another staff member, with the support of the lodge and its managing body Wilderness Malawi, alternated (whilst on a rotational roster at work) teaching a class of 25 less than 10 years ago. It soon grew to over 300 as families learned about the project and, today, with government and international aid, it strives to educate over 900 primary school children.

As is understandable in a country as poverty-stricken as Malawi, service delivery is poor, the school functions with only 4 trained teachers and 12 untrained assistants, no teaching materials save blackboards, and most of the 900 children sitting on the floor of mud-hut classrooms. This school is severely under-resourced, yet it houses within it happiness, ambition and the thrill of learning under guidance by those in charge who refuse to be daunted by the scenario and who instill in their children a great passion for learning.

Early in the morning, on every little dust track nearby, one witnesses the emergence of a flock of school children – variously dressed in uniforms or scanty clothing as the afford of the family may be – with their notebooks encapsulated in clear, waterproof zip lock bags tucked under their arms, walking themselves happily and enthusiastically to school. Here they learn just English, Chichewe, creative arts and maths yet it is enough to instill in them a desire to expand their knowledge, and grow up to be lawyers, teachers and soccer players!

School assistance comes in the form of donations from visitors like us, to income generated from visitor purchases of craft items made in creative arts classes, volunteering from foreigners in a teaching capacity to financial aid from the government and international donations. In fact on a visit into a reed-walled, thatched hutted classroom, we found western-style wooden school desks inscribed with the names of Wayne Swan, Julia Gillard, Bob Carr and Tony Abbott (Australia’s Minister of Finance, Prime Minister, previous Prime Minister and leader of the opposition respectively!). Clearly even the powers that be of Australia have visited this quiet corner of the globe, and warmed some powerful hearts as much as they did ours.

From the school we toured the village on bicycle, meeting many locals and discussing life with them, all the while accompanied by the gentleman who started the school. Never at any time did we feel like we were being voyeuristic in our interactions, nor did the experience feel like a “living museum” as many other community interactions in Africa can often be.

We were there with a purpose – our foreign delegations visit this area to participate in sustainable initiatives in support of this community and it is wonderful to see again for ourselves the experience gained by our foreign visitors. It leaves an indelible impression, and lives – foreign and local alike – are richer for the experience!