Sunday, May 12, 2013


The Bradt travel guide to Malawi (2006) states that "Lilongwe is the blandest of African capitals."  It also notes that the city itself is "split into two parts" and that "there's not much to either of them."

"For short-stay visitors to Malawi," says the author, "it's tempting to suggest you avoid Lilongwe altogether or, if you're forced to pass through, to hop off the bus and get straight onto one heading to your next destination."

That's a rather poor review for Malawi's largest city and country capital.  Still, though, the author does make one allowance:

"Lilongwe..." he admits, "...takes time to get to know."

Well, Dan and I didn't have time on the order of months or weeks, but we did have several days. We also had a pocket full of Kwacha, a will to explore, and a certain lack of squeamishness.  I can't say that we fell in love with the entire city, but we did make an honest attempt.

I started at the Peace Corps Medical office.  It was 7AM on Thursday morning.  I introduced myself to the medical staff, waited my turn, and then rolled up my sleeve obediently.  The rabies vaccine (the first of two) took less than thirty seconds to administer.

"Is that it?"  I asked the nurse, turning and rubbing arm.  "Am I done?"

"Until Sunday morning," she said.  "You'll come back at 7."

"Huh," I said.

And then, suddenly, Dan and I found ourselves with three full days of free and empty time.  72 hours with which to explore and discover the sprawling town of Lilongwe.  The possibilities were endless.

I'll admit that the first thing we did was to go back to sleep.  We checked into our room at the Golden Peacock (a purely acceptable small room), dropped our bags on the floor, and squeezed onto the same twin bed for a long and uninterrupted nap.  That, in itself, was one of the biggest perks of being in the city.  Anonymity.  An ability to nap.  The feeling of not being needed.

Then, blinking awake to the slanting afternoon sun, I felt that it was time to go and hit the streets.

We had actually neglected to bring our Bradt travel guide with us, which meant that we were on our own in terms of navigating the city.  It wasn't so bad, though, since that meant that every decision and encounter felt like a personal discovery.  It was a nice way to go about learning a city.

Here is some of what we learned:

Lilongwe is the capital city of Malawi, built along the banks of the skinny Lilongwe River.  The city itself is sprawled across two distinct sections, separated from one another by a distance of five kilometers. The first section, Old Town, is the focus of most commerce and tourism.  The second section, City Center, is home to bank headquarters, business offices, diplomatic missions, and the seat of Malawian government-- Capitol Hill.  

Most visitors to Lilongwe will arrive in Old Town, find accommodation in Old Town, eat and shop in Old Town, and then depart from Old Town within 48 hours.  Most will never pass through City Center, and, in the words of our Bradt Travel professional, "there are few urgent reasons why visitors might want to visit."  

If the concept of the divided city is not enough, Lilongwe is further divided into a multitude of Areas. 

Area 3 is the most modern and bustling, home to lodges (Golden Peacock, Budget, Korea Garden, Cakes, Kiboko), stores (Shoprite, Game, Spar, Peoples), and restaurants (Pizza Inn, Papaya, Grill House).  It is also home to the Peace Corps office, curio market, and largest parking lot in Lilongwe.  Area 3 is clearly the place to be.

Budged up against Area 3, on the other side of the Lilongwe River, are Areas 4 and 2.  Though situated just minutes away from one another, these Areas clearly attract a different crowd. While Area 3 men dress in suits and stop to buy newspapers on the street, Area 2 folks rush by with their heads down, simply bent on reaching their destination.  The air is sooty and the sidewalks are grimy and crowded.  This, of course, is the Area from which all public transportation arrives and departs.

You would think that Areas 5,6,7, and 8 would all be located nearby, but the numbering system actually gets a little tricky from there.  The areas of Lilongwe were created chronologically, not spatially, meaning that there are a number of confusing discrepancies   Area 9, it turns out, is nowhere near Area 10.  Area 11 links arms with Area 42.  To any newcomer with a map, Lilongwe appears to be nothing but a nonsensical jumble of "areas" and unnamed streets. Thankfully, the most important areas (for us, at least) were both spatially rational and chronological:  Areas 1, 2, 3, and 4.  

Dan and I were staying in Area 3.  Honestly, we probably would have been very happy to just stay and poke around our little area.  Lilongwe doesn't have much to offer an international traveler, but it's a haven for homesick foreigners like ourselves.  We ordered pizza and ice cream on our first night in town, and then replicated our order the next morning for breakfast.  We went to every single one of the fancy grocery stores, just to look around.  We compared cereal prices in four different stores before finally committing to the box that we wanted to buy. Mostly, we just walked about with mouths agape, marveling at civilization.  

Such wanderings could probably have kept us happy for the duration of our visit, but we also felt an itchy sense of responsibility.  We were far from home in a foreign capital city, after all.  There had to be something noteworthy about Lilongwe.  It was thus that we decided, for the sake of all other visitors and volunteers, that we were going to spend the next 72 hours finding something to love in the capital city of Malawi.

Our first foray was a trip to the super-markets.  We didn't intend to buy anything-- we just wanted to bask in the glow of the electric lights.  We wandered up and down the rows, picking things up, one at a time, and then shook our heads at the prices.  When that lost its appeal (and it didn't, actually, because we returned every morning after that), Dan and I each bought an ice cream cone and headed downhill to the bridge. 

The difference between Area 3 and Area 2 become apparent as we approached the other side of the river.  While Area 3 was tidy, well-swept, and full of electric lights, Area 2 gave the impression of being seedy and downright neglected.  The sidewalk started to give way as we neared the bridge, and the foot traffic picked up immensely.  We brushed past several men who, we realized belatedly, were openly peeing into the bushes.  Once on the other side of the river, we had to walk on the street to avoid the crowds of people that were stopping to look at goods for sale on tarps on the sidewalk.  

Dan and I climbed to the top of a metal pedestrian bridge to look over the scene.  Looking down in the direction of the river, we could see the size and scope of the outdoor market.  It was teeming with people and stretched beyond eyesight, continuing back along the river and even across to the other side.  As I looked out and photographed the scene, I noticed several vendors staring up at me.  One of them pulled a camera phone out of his pocket and raised it in our direction.  Mildly amused, Dan and I just waved.  After all, I was taking pictures, too. 

We descended into the crowd, making our way into the heart of the market.  I itched to take a picture, but, now that I was on the ground, I didn't feel comfortable.  I was acutely aware of my race, my camera, and the message that I might be sending if I started taking photos.  I didn't want to appear to be condescending (or out of my element), so I tucked my camera away.  It was one of those rare moments where I took in the scene first-hand, instead.  

The market was different than the ones I'd been to in Mozambique.  For one thing, it was bigger.  It seemed to go on and back forever, leading away from the main road in a series of twisting and progressively smaller pathways.  The stalls were organized logically, though they were densely packed together.  At the front of the market, we found several free-lance vendors selling whatever they had on hand-- shoes, phones, apples, bread, etc.  Then, as we continued, we found pockets of stalls grouped by goods or common purpose.  First, we passed shoes.  Then, we passed bags, backpacks, belts, and used bras.  From there, the paths became denser and rutted by muddy water.  We passed stall upon stall of used clothes.  We saw sweaters and socks, sweatshirts and prom dresses.   Some vendors felt the need to comment as we walked by, but most people were friendly, or said nothing at all.  Again, I was aware of my race, but not distinctly uncomfortable.  

The best part was found back along the water.  There, stretching from one side of the riverbank to the other, was a long and skinny wooden bridge.  As I stepped closer and looked out across the bank, I saw that it wasn't the only one.  At least twelve bridges were lined up, sometimes standing in pairs, stretching from one bank to the other.  They all looked terribly unstable.

"What is this?"  I asked one of the men sitting at the foot of the bridge.

"Private bridge," he said.  "Twenty Kwacha."  

At first, I thought that he was pulling my leg.  Then I saw the painted sign at the foot of the walkway-  "Private Bridge.  20 Kwacha."  As I watched, I saw more and more people, some loaded up with goods, deposit 20 Kwacha and make their way across.  

"Well, I have to go across," I said to Dan.  

"Go ahead," he said.  

I fished in my pocket for a 20-Kwacha bill (worth one US nickel, approximately) and gingerly stepped out onto the bridge.  It swayed menacingly.  I crossed slowly, testing each board as I made my way across.  Halfway, I stopped to look around.  The Lilongwe River, 20 feet below, looked shallow and ugly and milky. There were at least ten other bridges within 100 feet of my own.  All were built in the same skinny-stick, haphazard manner.  All of them were in use.  

Giggling at my own bravery, I ran back to meet Dan on the bank.  

"Well, that's something to love, right there," I said.  "I wonder why they've built so many bridges."

"I guess it's to connect both halves of the market," said Dan.

"But why so many?"  I asked.

"Maybe one person built one and started charging for it, and then other people decided to do the same.  It seems like a good way to make money."

"Do you think that they're safe?"

"Oh, no.  Absolutely not."

And we made our way back to the lodge, pleased that we had found one thing in Lilongwe to love.  

(Things to Love in Lilongwe, Day 1:  The Outdoor City Market)

The following day, we went back to the market.  Again, I wasn't planning on taking pictures, I just wanted to see it.  I enjoyed the squeeze of the stalls and the rows upon rows of clothes.  I bought a blue cardigan for four dollars (from Express, no less!) while Dan waited patiently to the side.  Then I waited patiently while Dan admired, tested, and paid for a slingshot made out of rubber tubing.  

That afternoon, we met with a friend, Joe, and (somewhat unexpectedly) went to his birthday party. It was being held at "Mamma Mia," an upscale Italian restaurant.  Joe's personal driver picked us up from our hotel and delivered us directly to the scene, where we arrived to find ourselves severely under-dressed. Our friend then introduced us to his new ex-pat community which included, among others, a Costa-Rican accountant, a member of the Royal Norwegian Embassy, a Danish missionary, an English grad student, and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer working in the field of Agricultural research.  It was all very overwhelming and the food was expensive (at ten dollars a plate), but we felt lucky to be included.  We also ran out of Kwacha entirely and were indebted to Joe for the rest of the night.  

After dinner, we went out to a ex-pat hangout called Harry's Bar.  It was strange to see so many cars and so many foreigners all in one location.  I felt shy and out of place, of course, but I liked it because it was different from Zobue.  At the end of the night, we got a ride home from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, whose name was also Dan.  Along the way, we made plans to meet up the following day and get together for volleyball.  

Apparently, we learned, Lilongwe has a very large and very active expatriate community.  

(Things to Love in Lilongwe, Day 2:  Living the Big, Expensive Ex-Pat Life)

On our third day, we made our way to the Lilongwe Wildlife Center.  

This was something that I'd heard about, but couldn't exactly figure understand.  Some people seemed to think that it existed in two parts, and some people seemed to think that it was a single, compact entity.  One online review gave the name as the "Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary" and while another referred to it as the "Lilongwe Wildlife Park."  Some people thought it had a zoo, while others raved about the natural, fence-less wilderness.  All reviewers agreed, though, that the Center deserved a "moderate thumbs up" and was worth a peek, at the very least.

Dan and I took a minibus to get there, because we'd heard that it wasn't safe to walk.  We found a minibus easily enough, waving down an Area 12-bound chapa as it sped by the road that led past Shoprite.  I heard Dan say, "Nature Sanctuary," and saw the conductor nod his head as he slammed closed the sliding door.  I settled into my seat amongst a set of tittering old ladies in traditional dress.

We drove past Shoprite and Game and the edge of the outdoor market.  We sped past a fenced-off, forested area and a few gated lodges.  We chugged up a hill and then sped past the City Center itself-- large, shiny banks, a few goverment offices, and the fancy Sunbird Executive Hotel.  Then, we dove past the outer edge of the city and down a steep hill.  It was around this time that I realized that something was wrong.  I tapped Dan on the back.

"I think we've gone too far," I whispered to Dan.

Dan glanced over at the conductor.  "Nature Sanctuary?"  He asked loudly, pointing at himself and me.  

The conductor muttered a rapid curse and then yelled something to the driver.  Our minibus screeched to a halt.  The conductor motioned for us to follow him as he left the minibus.  He crossed to the other side of the road and flagged down another bus that was chugging up the hill.

The other bus stopped.  Our conductor stuck his head inside and said something in rapid Chichewa, pointing at us and then back in the direction from which we had come.  The second conductor looked at us and nodded.  I assumed that, because the first conductor had made a clear mistake, an agreement was being made.  We climbed in and leaned back as our new driver stepped on the gas, watching as we sped past City Center for the second time, enjoying the clean-cut lines of the lawns and modern buildings.  

Our enjoyment, however, was exceedingly short-lived.

"Okay," said the new conductor.  "It's time to pay me now."

My reaction was one of fury.  "Absolutely not!"  I said.  "We've already paid our fare."

"Pay me.  Pay me now."

"NO," I said.  "We already paid.  The other conductor made a mistake.  You need to talk to him."

The second conductor said something to the driver and we pulled over immediately.

"You walk," said the conductor, sliding open the door.  "Get out."

So Dan and I piled out of the bus.  

We were lost, of course, but it wasn't hard to figure out where to go.  We just continued along the same road on which we had arrived, following it back to the forested area that we had passed thirty minutes before.  Ironically, we spent just as much time walking as if we had never taken the minibus in the first place. When we finally found the front gate of the Nature Sanctuary, I jumped and clapped my hands.  I had been unsure as to whether or not this was going to work out.

The Nature Sanctuary, we discovered, is the same as the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre.  The name on the gate reads "Lilongwe Wildlife Centre," but the signs within list prices of entry for the "Nature Sanctuary."  Our confusion was entirely reasonable.  

The grounds, it turns out, were actually divided into two parts.  One part of the sanctuary was devoted to a small zoo, while another, larger part was set aside for hiking trails and wilderness. An international visitor (such as ourselves) could pay 1000 Kwacha (US$2.75) for a Leisure Pass or 2000 Kwacha (US$5.50) for a Sanctuary Pass.  A Leisure pass would allow us to visit the trails around the park, but it would not grant us access to the zoo.  The Sanctuary Pass would give us both a tour of the zoo and unlimited time on the hiking trails.  

We chose to buy a Sanctuary Pass.  Together, with about ten other families, we took a guided tour of the only zoo in all of Malawi.  It was interesting, actually.  We weren't allowed to wander about by ourselves.  Instead, we walked with a guide.  As a group, we followed a clearly defined path through natural woodland, peering through the occasional nondescript fence.  In terms of providing animals with natural habitat, this zoo was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  In several, large, open-air enclosures, Dan and I saw owls, crocodiles, vervet monkeys, blue monkeys, yellow baboons, a porcupine, a leopard, and a lion.   It wasn't bad for just three dollars.

At the end of the tour, we were cut loose and allowed to explore the sanctuary on our own.  A single path led away from the zoo area and along the riverbank, eventually branching into a set of thin and winding, well-marked hiking trails.  This was the hiking option that a "Leisure Pass" would have bought, had we been disinclined to pay for the more expensive "Sanctuary Pass."

While touring the zoo had been a mildly entertaining event, the hike was legitimately exciting. It wasn't that the terrain was particularly beautiful-- the trees were skinny, the river was murky, and the light was bad for taking pictures-- but rather the fact that nobody else was in the woods with us.  Knowing that we were alone above a crocodile-infested river, peering around corners for a glimpse of a python or late-afternoon hyaena, made the whole endeavor seem much more daring than it probably actually was.  Several times, we startled bushbuck and water monitors from a patch of sunlight in the middle of the path.  It felt very wild, and that was what I liked about it.

(Things to Love in Lilongwe, Day 3:  Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary)

Finally, it was Sunday morning.  I found myself in the Medical Office for the second time, swiveling in my chair and rolling up my shirtsleeve.

"Did you enjoy your stay in Lilongwe?" asked the Doctor.  He drew a dose of vaccine into a syringe.

"It was great," I said.

"Good," he said.  "Okay, just wait for that alcohol to dry..."

And, thirty seconds later, I was done.

Backpacks on, Dan and I made our way out of town.  We walked past the Shoprite, past the Pizza Inn, over the bridge, and into the grime of Area 2.  We pushed our way through the crowd and shrugged off several very aggressive conductors, searching for a minibus headed towards the Dedza Border.

As we sat, waiting, the minibus slowly filled up around us.  The sun was coming in at an angle and the heat of the day was beginning to build.  I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it.

There is a lot about Malawi that isn't perfect.  Actually, there is a lot about Malawi that I don't like at all.   I have a complicated relationship with the country of Malawi, and I think that the feeling is mutual.  Joe suggests that I am simply too Mozambican, and that the most I will ever feel towards Malawi is a sort of grudging acceptance.  There may be some truth to that.

I will admit, though, that I had a nice time on this particular visit.  And I had found three things to love about the city of Lilongwe.

Not bad, considering it all came about from a dog bite.

A dog bite classified as a "Category II:  Nibble."

Trying to catch a ride out of Mozambique.
Note how the vendors have descended upon the minibus
Trying to catch a ride out of Mozambique
Arrival in Lilongwe-  Dinner pizza, then breakfast pizza
Also, grilled chicken.  In the Peace Corps world, "Medical" is synonymous with "Food
The Golden Peacock Lodge.  Could they be bothered to advertise, their slogan would read:
  "A purely acceptable standard of accommodation"
The Golden Peacock Lodge
For twenty dollars a night!
A Peace Corps Volunteer on medical leave.  Note the beer, chips, and Internet.
The Shoprite Supermarket.  Mostly, we just like to look at it.
Because we can't afford to pay $10-$15 for a block of cheese
Or $17 for a bottle of shampoo
But it makes us feel a little less homesick
Produce at the outdoor market.  Where real people shop.
A quick view of the Lilongwe City Market
A rickety bridge connecting one side of the market to the other.
The bridge in the background marks the divide between Areas 2 and 3
"Private Bridge, 20 Kwacha"
Market Bridge
Market Bridge
Eeh!  Market Bridge!
Herbal Medicine at the local market-  "Power Charge 24 hours"
Herbal Medicine at the local market-  "Large Machine for Men"
A one-ounce pouch of gin.  Found littering the ground everywhere in Lilongwe.
A very Malawian advertisement
View from the pedestrian bridge, looking towards Area 3
View from the pedestrian bridge, looking towards Area 2
Some very polite, religious graffiti
The Lilongwe Wildlife Center (also known as the Nature Sanctuary)
I am taller than a hippo!  
At the Lilongwe Wildlife Center-  Simple cages surround natural areas, marked with wooden signs
With other Malawian families at the zoo
Boy with a Minnie Mouse backpack on his first visit to the zoo
Simple fences, natural settings
Hiking in the "Wilderness Area."  With nobody else around and plenty of wild animals,
this actually felt quite daring
A sign in the wilderness area warns us not to proceed further along the path
Hitching a ride back to site from the Mozambique/Malawi border.  It's good to come back home.

1 comment:

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