Lake waves seem more frequent than those from the sea. Does that make sense? I guess a wave is formed when the roiling water is slowed down at the sea / lake floor – the lake here was pretty shallow (relative to the sea at least) so perhaps that explains it. Either way the frequent swishing of the waves was, strangely, less relaxing than usual. It was like my speed of sleeping was sped up.
A morning swim and a lie in were very welcome, though. By swimming we are, however, risking catching bilharzia. As our Toronto doctor showed us on a map, all of Malawi is the most dangerous part of Africa for this disease. The bad news is this parasite creeps into your body and can lie seemingly dormant for years before starting to destroy your organs from the inside out. The good news is there’s a drug that can deal with it. The reality is, you can’t travel half way around the world, be roasting from heat and not take a chance to get in.
Our main event today was a tour of the local village, lead by a young villager called Banji. Banji lead us from our beach accommodation through the paths leading inland between a series of homes. Compared with Zambia the places were more sturdy of construction with bricks being used rather than mud and sticks. There is a lot of clay soil in this area and it appeared common to make one’s own bricks – we saw at least one kiln firing the bricks solid in someone’s back yard.
Banji at his well:
We were shown one of the main crops, cassava, and how they work with it. The planting is done within domes of soil to make it easiest to extract the root – the edible part of cassava. They then slice strips of the white root off and leave them to dry on racks in the sun.
Ladies slicing the Cassava root:
The most noticeable thing is that this stuff doesn’t smell great – really it’s like sweaty-sock cheese. I honestly wondered at first whether it was my feet (and was sort of relieved when it wasn’t!)
After the drying they typically grind the cassava into a powder in a pestle and mortar creating a flour. This is then ideal to mix with water and boil into a “cassava pap” which is a staple foodstuff – it looks and feels a lot like mashed potato.
Banji took us into his home which he shared with his brother and grandparents – a basic place but, again, a step up from what Zambia had been like. It didn’t seem polite to ask him about his parents but what we learned is that Malaria is the biggest killer in this place. Perhaps this, or AIDS, were to blame. On this, Banji did seem quite optimistic and said, these days, everyone was very informed about the risks of HIV/AIDS and access to contraceptions was good.
The rest of the tour took us up to the local school and then the health centre. All the while we were being talked to by other villagers, who were all very friendly, but building up to asking for us to buy some of their handicrafts. Their English was very good, but it’s always a bit annoying to have a conversation while you question in the back of your mind the real motive. Since we’d already commissioned a magnet, they were destined to be disappointed.
The local school was basic, made from bricks with openings through them allowing light and a breeze into the classroom. The classrooms were a bit smaller than my primary school (I think) but apparently had to accommodate more than 100 kids at a time – today was a national holiday so nobody was actually there for us to see how cramped it would be.
Learning English sentences:
There was a lot of information on the walls and hanging from the ceiling – including one of David Beckham and how many goals he’d scored for Man Utd (!) – and we could look through some of the exercise books to get an idea of the curriculum. What was really interesting to see was that on the inside cover of each book were references to HIV / AIDS, reminding children that you couldn’t catch it by touching another child who had it. Also, we were told that through different lessons, messages about the disease are communicated. I’d read about the integration of this sort of eduction throughout the curriculum so it was cool to see it being in place.
We then got to meet the headmaster, who seemed like a hardworking old man. But it was the beginning of a guilt trip which lasted probably the entire time we were in Malawi. He explained that to go to school the children have to wear a school uniform and pay for their own pencils, pens and books. The uniform costs $10 and is often not affordable for the local families – even if hand-me-downs are common. Apparently the focus on uniforms can instil pride among the kids, ensure there’s equality in dress and, most peculiarly, help them be identified if they’re out of school or injured / killed.
I’m a fan of school uniforms, having worn one myself back in the day, but I don’t understand why it needs to cost $10 – surely it could be less – and it’s frustrating that this can stop the poorest children getting an education. I was a bit disappointed that the headmaster was blithely supportive of this, and didn’t see it as a problem. We gave some cash to the man at the end of the trip – and cross our fingers that it goes to good use. It’s a shame to be sceptical of where money goes when you donate – although, doing it this direct way gives a pretty good chance it’ll be used for the right purpose.
The health centre we then saw was very basic and we met a midwife who had that night delivered two babies. They had already left the small, 3-roomed complex, which seemed quick to us, but it wasn’t a particularly welcoming place with flies buzzing around and it feeling anything but hygenic. The nurse told us about the big health threats in the area – particularly malaria – and asked for our donations to help with this issue – so we duly obliged.
The health centre:
Then it was back to town to face the music with the teenagers who’d then look to sell us pictures or carvings. It got to the point where they started begging for dollars or some of our clothes, which left us pretty conflicted, and it was a shame that the whole tour had felt so much like a fund-raising mission.
To end the day we were treated to a pig roast which had been cooking all afternoon. Here’s a before and after:
We also welcomed a local church choir to come and sing to us. They did a good job (better certainly than something similar we’d seen from our guides in the Okavango delta) but they performed for about an hour which was probably 30 minutes too long. We weren’t particularly surprised to have another guilt trip at the end – this time they were looking for funding for their uniforms. It would have been a little more palatable if the self-proclaimed choir director wasn’t wearing a t-shirt that said “$5 Foot Long” (a reference to the Subway commercial) with an arrow pointing to his crotch. B, on the other hand, was almost willing to pay for all of the uniforms to get him out of that t-shirt.
Choir master (also our pig roaster):
So today was an interesting day, for sure. I do wonder about Malawi, though, and the culture of what I call “entrepreneurial fund-raising” (or, arguably, “entrepreneurial begging”). I remember donating money to Malawi when I was at school and I saw at least 2 major road constructions that were thanks to donations from other nations. It’s clearly not a rich country and has suffered under some poor leadership but I’ve started to wonder to what extent we create a culture of neediness.
If guilt-tripping tourists brings in a few dollars, perhaps you can’t blame them for doing it a lot. The fact is, it doesn’t feel that great, and it doesn’t make you want to go back so much.