Thursday, 26 January 2017

I know our teachers work hard, but here in Malawi it's beyond tough!

I made it down from the heights of the Nyika Plateau, to spent a few days on the northern shores of Lake Malawi. I began in Karonga, not far from the border with Tanzania. It's a bustling town, thriving on trade from the north. But - though it's the rainy season - the rivers are dry and fields parched. Maize is brown and wilting. The World Food Programme will need to step on or people will go hungry here.

Further south, around Nkhata Bay, there has been more rain and the maize is flourishing. As are the pineapples, mangoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, sugar cane ... over 80% of Malawis are dependent on the food they can grow for themselves. But there is rarely enough to share, and no structure (that I can see) to share bounty in one part of the country with famine in another.

I was also privileged to visit a secondary school for girls - precious here, as too few girls continue their education into their teens. I spoke with two teachers, comfortable with classes of fifty students, in low brick-built blocks scattered between the trees. There is a library (though a student told me it was not well-stocked), a domestic science room, a computer room (though no internet access), and a full curriculum - including agriculture.

Two students showed me their dormitories. (As secondary schools are few and far between, and populations scattered, boarding is essential for most). The blocks are divided into small sections (when I was working I saw bigger prison cells) each with two bunks and four small storage spaces for suitcases. Mosquito nets are provided - but too few are used as these little spaces get so very hot. Malaria, it seems, is just another African hazard. There is a block with showers, and outside sinks where girls wash their own clothes.

These girls are the lucky ones. Although in theory women have opportunities in Malawi, in reality almost all these girls will go back to their villages and marry. The head girl told me that when she leaves school she will help her mother to run her business - buying second hand clothes by the ton and selling them in the markets. So she will, at least, have her own money to spend. But university ...

However, I did have my picture taken with the teachers and three students - and they've agreed it can appear on the internet. They made me so very welcome.

And, following that, I managed to visit a primary school, where a teacher was doing his best with a class of 130 five-year olds. Somehow he was still smiling.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

North from Lilongwe, into the wild Nyika Plateau.

I knew my provisional itinerary involved taking the road less travelled from time to time. But remote takes on a whole new meaning in Malawi. We (Everlasting and I) left Lilongwe on the M1 - a single track road carrying just us and a bicycle or two. After four hours we turned onto a dirt road into the Viphya Forest Reserve - to drive for another 15Km to reach the Lodge.

This reserve began as a pine forest: the land was given by the government to a company who promised to build paper mills. When the first trees had matured, the company asked for more land. The government refused. Pine is not indigenous to Africa, and they did not agree with further encroachment on the natural forest. There was a stand-off; the government refused to back down and the company walked away leaving acres and acres of land covered in pine. In addition, bush fires and illegal logging have damaged the forest even further.

The Luwawa Environmental Trust is now growing thousands of indigenous trees from seed and beginning to replant the forest. And so my three days in their Lodge, deep in what is left of the natural forest, has contributed to a tree or two.

From there, we headed further north, to the Nyika Plateau. I knew, from my guidebook, that it could be a challenging journey. I'll leave you to imagine 140Km on dirt tracks in the rainy season. Well, most of it was dirt tracks. Sometimes the track had been washed away and we bounced hopefully or swished through muddy water until we found ground the tyres could cling to.

But it was worth the drive. The Nyika plateau, in the wet season, is lush and green. It's mostly sandstone, with granite outcrops. Trees cluster in the valleys. Kites and buzzards soar overhead. Tiny larks and pipits nest in the grasses. Herds of zebra, eland and roan antelope gather on the hillsides. Snakes slither across paths and up trees: grass snakes, pythons and spitting cobra. And, prowling among the trees and creeping through the grasses, the leopards stalk the unwary. One roared outside my chalet door the night before I left (I didn't open the door to take a picture!).

And it is a million miles, or so it feels, from a reliable internet connection. So I've had to wait until I've reached the northern lakeshore to post this. But here, is a glimpse of the coffee time on the Nyika Plateau, with the table set (complete with cloth) on the grass next to the truck, and behind it the rolling uplands of Malawi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Introducing ... Everlasting

I have made it to Lilongwe without adventures. Hurrah! And there, to welcome me at the airport was Everlasting. He is my guide, and that really is his name. He has slightly grizzled features and most of his own teeth. His trousers were made for a fatter man. And he laughs.

We will, I realise, be together for the whole six weeks I am here. And so I have set about finding out more about him. His children, all four, are young adults now (though he is not too sure how old they are). One son plays for the Malawi national football team - and Everlasting swells with pride just to think of him.

'How often do you see him play?' I ask.

'Oh I hate to see him play. In case someone kicks him and he is hurt. Nobody can bear to see their child hurt.' I can see from the look on his face that he may need to be restrained from running on the pitch to give the other lad a what-for, and to kiss his son's bruises better.

He has shown me Lilongwe - it is a complicated city, with some magnificent buildings (largely unused, and funded by loans from China), some huge houses behind walls and metal gates. And there are areas of high density housing with markets and African bustle. There are also significant areas which have been set aside for development but not yet been built on. The city is a 'work in progress'.

By the time you read this, I shall be on the road heading north. I may or may not have access to wifi. Please, should you wish to comment, be assured that I shall get back to this blog eventually, even if it takes a week or more.

But I leave you with a picture, not of Everlasting, but of some soapstone hippos - they perch by the pool of my Lodge in Lolingwe.  And I like the smiles on their faces.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Onwards and Southwards

So, the year has turned. All crackers pulled. All puddings eaten. It's time to gather ourselves for whatever 2017 will throw at us. After last year ... surely there will be some wound-licking, some serious reflecting, and maybe a change of heart or two.

However, for a few weeks, I shall leave most of that to you. Because I'm off to Malawi on Thursday. Why Malawi? I've had so many people ask me, so I'll share my somewhat tortuous decision-making with you.

I want to go to Africa, because it's the only continent apart from Antarctica (too cold) where I've not travelled independently. But - where to begin?

I fancied Madagascar - most of the time, I'm sure, it's wonderful, but there were too many reports of marauding gangs with knives for me to feel comfortable. Taxis travel in convoy, because it's safer. I was told I'd be fine if I had a guide with a gun ...

So, where else? The east coast can be very wet at this time of year, so I looked west, and was intrigued by Senegal. It looks fascinating, and not that difficult to get around. I was ready to book when I did my final check - on the UK Foreign Office website. They said that most visitors have no problems, but travellers should remember that it is UK policy not to pay ransoms if anyone is kidnapped ...

So then I went on the Lonely Planet forum. Where, I asked, would you go for a first visit to Africa. The first - and very quick - reply was Ghana or Malawi. There were elections in Ghana last November - largely, as it turned out, trouble-free. But I don't visit any country around election time, as feelings can run very high.

Which left me with Malawi. Which is relatively stable, and safe, and - I have discovered - beautiful. For those unfamiliar with African geography, it's north of Zimbabwe, east of Zambia and south of Tanzania. It's long and narrow, spanning most of the west shore of Lake Nyasa, with a high plateau in the north and mountains in the south. Livingstone, apparently, loved it.

What will I do there? I'm not absolutely sure. It is the wet season, which might make roads a bit too interesting to get to the more remote areas, but will bring plenty of birds. I know they have power cut problems from time to time - and one place I hope to go has no electricity at all. Who knows what I'll find in the way of wifi?

But I'll do my best to blog from time to time.