As a kid I often dreamed of going on safari, seeing the ‘big five’, and experiencing a land so drastically different from my own. For a very long time, Africa has been high atop my long (and growing) list of places I’d like to visit; however, it always seemed like a longshot that I’d ever make it. That’s why, when a friend, Tom Pickering, told me he would be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi for two years I jumped at the chance to visit. So Constance and I are here now, to see some of the landscapes, people, and wildlife of southern Africa. Since internet access is so spotty, the blog posts will be added several at a time, but I will try to limit individual posts to the events of a single day, to make it easier to follow. I hope that you will enjoy following us on our first African adventure! --- Quand j’étais petit, je rêvais de faire un safari, de voir les grands mammifères terrestres et de découvrir un monde drastiquement différent du mien. L’Afrique a longtemps occupée une des premières positions de ma longue (et toujours grandissante) liste de région du monde que je voudrais visiter, sans vraiment croire que j’aurais véritablement l’occasion d’y aller un jour. C’est pourquoi quand un de mes amis, Tom Pickering, m’a appris qu’il partait pour deux ans au Malawi pour faire du bénévolat pour le Peace Corps, j’ai sauté sur l’occasion. C’est ici, au Malawi, que Constance et moi nous trouvons présentement afin de découvrir les paysages, les gens et la faune du sud de l’Afrique. Étantdonné que j’ai accèsà internet de manière très sporadique, plusieurs entrées de blogs seront ajoutées en même temps. Je vais tout de même faire un effort pour raconter les anecdotes dans un ordre chronologique pour faciliter la lecture. J’espère que vous aimerez suivre les péripéties de notre première aventure africaine!

Lake Malawi, day 3; Trouble in Malawi

Saturday, 23 July 2011

So, on Monday I reported that some demonstrations were planned for the coming Wednesday (now past). Well, here in Nkhata Bay, Wednesday came and went, and although we found it a bit odd that all the shops were mysteriously closed that day and the next, there was little cause for alarm. Then, on Thursday evening, we finally saw a newspaper, which informed us that shops in large cities had been looted and burned. There were also reports of violence directed towards government officials, and of machete-armed government supporters patrolling streets threatening violence. In Mzuzu, police, using live ammunition to break up protests, had even killed eight protesters in as many as three separate incidents. The situation seemed worse than we had realized, and it’s still unclear what the long-term effects of the violence and civil unrest will be. There is now a curfew enforced throughout the country, and the political rhetoric appears to be sharpening. For our sake and of course for the sake of Malawi, I hope that things don’t go from bad to worse.

On the bright side of things, today I began my first day of a four-day PADI scuba certification course in Nktata Bay. This morning began a series of boring, 1980s-production-value videos, teaching basic skills and safety information. In the afternoon, we practiced some of those skills in the water, as well as putting on and maintaining the essential gear. The pace was a bit slow, but simply breathing underwater is something that takes some getting used to. Tomorrow we’re slated to go a bit deeper, I’m very excited. I feel already that scuba is opening up another world of exploration that I’ve previously scarcely considered. I’ve already caught myself contemplating future diving prospects; I hope this does not turn into yet another hobby in my growing list that I cannot afford…

Lake Malawi, day 2

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Today Constance and I went for a swim in the lake, just in front of our room at the hotel. We brought masks and snorkels, in hopes of glimpsing some of the many cichlid fishes that make this lake so famous (to biology geeks like us, anyway). Not only did we see cichlids, but we saw tons of them! There were bright blue ones, yellow ones, pink ones – all easily visible in the beautifully clear lake water. These cichlids, which are found in abundant variety in the great African rift lakes (Lakes Malawi, Tanganika, and Victoria are the largest), are fascinating to biologists for many reasons. First off, they are almost entirely endemic to their respective lakes. For example, the majority of cichlid fishes one finds in Lake Malawi may be found only in Lake Malawi, with other lakes having their own assemblages of species. In addition, these cichlid species are all descended from a smaller number of common ancestors, and have speciated in a spectacular and rather textbook example of adaptive radiation, to fill a huge variety of niches in the lakes’ numerous microhabitats. There are fishes that feed on any type of available food imaginable from insects to other fishes (and even just the scales of other fishes) to algae. For us, this is a thrilling opportunity to witness, first hand, one of the world’s most fascinating natural phenomena, which also happen to be vibrantly colorful and absolutely beautiful.

Arrival, Lake Malawi

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Today we left Collin’s village early, destination Mzuzu, in the north. We hitched to a crossroads, then boarded a [crowded] minibus, followed by an equally crowded, if larger, regular bus. We originally planned to spend a night or two in Mzuzu, the largest city in the north of Malawi, but when we arrived, we took one look at the chaos in the bus terminal and decided we should try to get to our final destination – relaxed Nkhata Bay, on the shores of Lake Malawi – as soon as possible. So we hopped on our third [crowded] bus of the day and left for the lake. We arrived in Nkata Bay and made our way to our hotel just in time for sunset. The hotel is absolutely amazing, yet surprisingly affordable (this is Malawi), composed of a rambling spread of reed and mud huts built on a lakeside slope, right down to the rocky lake edge. Beautiful!

Village no. 2

Monday, 18 July 2011

We left Tom’s village early this morning, headed to the village of Collin, another Peace Corps volunteer whose site is just a bit further back towards Kasungu along the tarmac road. Before leaving, we stopped in at Happy’s Tea Room (a tea room run by a woman named Happy) for some Malawian tea, which is served with one part tea, one part milk, and two parts sugar. We were then off along our way, beginning the journey in an extremely crowded flatbed truck, which was transporting a rowdy football (soccer) team, among others. Then, at a crossroads, we transferred to minibus. As usual, this minibus was painfully overcrowded – in fact, there was actually no room at all, even by Malawian standards, so the driver simply had us sit on the rear fender, with our legs hanging out the back, bags on our laps, and holding on for our lives. The problem (the only problem??) arose when we had travelled a few kilometers or so, when we reached a police roadblock.

Although it’s standard practice to pack minibuses and other transports well past their capacities, Malawian law does, in fact, prohibit the practice. The police were obviously not pleased with our driver, and they instructed him to get out of his bus. He crossed the road, paid a bribe in plain sight, and returned to tell us to walk up the road, just out of sight of the police, where he would pick us up again. We agreed, but only for a discount. Maddeningly, the driver said no, even though he had given us the ‘mzungu’ price to begin with. We reminded him we were doing him a favor, and he relunctantly agreed. Yes, jam-packed transportation is certainly the overall theme of this trip!

Bribery here in Malawi is usually a problem, and it has recently been made worse by severe political problems. In the past several weeks, several major donor countries have stopped aid, which constitutes the bulk of revenue in this poor, tiny, landlocked country. The reason is not completely clear to me yet, but as far as I can tell, the government is up to some shady business, and I probably shouldn’t discuss it publicly anyway. However, what I can say is that there are major shortages of fuel and other commodities, since foreign exchange has been cut off – there are no U.S. dollars to buy goods at the moment. The government is raising taxes to compensate, quite dramatically (e.g. a loaf of bread went from 100 Malawi kwacha one day to 140 the next, last week -- an increase from about $0.65 to $0.90, quite a drastic change for a family earning a dollar a day or less). There are demonstrations planned, in fact, for Wednesday, and we’re glad to see that people are reacting to all this mess, hoping it doesn’t turn too ugly.

At any rate, we arrived safely in the early afternoon at Collin’s house. We needed to pick up some veggies from the local market for dinner, and despite warnings from Tom against the idea, I decided to bring my camera. As we were buying our tomatoes, a group of 3 small children asked if I would take their photo, and I agreed. Well that set it off – almost instantaneously, and out of nowhere, there were 30 children surrounding us, screaming for photos. They followed us through the village, eyes fixed on the lens, doing flips and summersaults and walking on their hands, and when I showed them the photos, they screamed in astonishment, nearly at the tops of their little lungs. That was fun, but the next time I need to pick up some groceries here, the camera stays home…

Climbing Mt. Chipata

Sunday, July 17 2011

This morning we had an early breakfast and head out to the nearby trading post, a cluster of mud and brick huts near Tom’s village, to meet Nico, a park guard at Nkhotakota Game Reserve. Nico agreed to accompany us to the top of Chipata peak, a mountain of about 1400 meters in the southwest of the park. Nico would guide us to the top, and would carry a machine gun as protection from any animals or poachers that might cause us trouble. Crosby, a local villager, and member of the village Natural Resources Committee with whom Tom works closely, also came along. Together, we hiked down a small dirt track, past several villages, until we arrived at the border of the park. We entered, and immediately the landscape turned from dusty, open cropland, to some of the most beautiful habitat I’ve seen so far in Africa. This was miombo woodland, an open forest type dominated by short trees with broad, flat crowns, rather reminiscent of Acacia. We walked uphill, up a narrow path, spotting scat from reedbuck, porcupine, and civet. We also stopped for a few minutes to observe a troop of baboons going about their business. The miombo was absolutely beautiful, and we walked through it for a couple of hours until reaching an open field, at which point the hike grew steeper. After crossing the field, we arrived at the edge of a tropical forest that capped the top of Chipata. It was amazing how quickly the habitat transformed – in literally one step we had entered a different world entirely. The climate instantly grew cool, and the rainforest trees almost completely blocked the sunlight. Above our heads, a troop of blue monkeys foraged in the treetops. After a delightful hour-long hike through this tiny patch of rainforest, we arrived at the peak of Chipata, and we enjoyed an incredible view of the surrounding landscape, including Nkhotakota Game Reserve and adjacent villages and farmland.

This evening, the chief’s wife, Catherine, showed Constance and I how to make nsima. While we seem to have gotten the main idea, she almost certainly made it look easy, and it remains to be seen how well our first batch will turn out when we return home…

Village life...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

We’ve spent the past two days soaking up as much of Tom’s village life as possible. This has meant meeting people – lots of people. The immediate village consists of his local chief and his family, as well as several other families under this chief’s ‘rule’. We met all of them. We also met families in adjacent areas, which can be considered part of the same greater village, but are quite a distance away on foot. Meeting people is a very formal affair here in rural Malawi, and it is considered respectful to seat one’s self before introductions. By now, Constance and I are veritable experts in Chichewa – at least in saying ‘Muli Bwanji’!

Last night for dinner we wanted to do something special, so we arranged for Tom’s chief to purchase a chicken from one of the neighbors (even though there are chickens all over the village… I’m told these are for eggs, although we haven’t seen any since we’ve been here). Constance had the privilege of slaughtering the chicken, which was done by stepping on the wings and cutting the head off – pretty gruesome, but probably one of the better ways a chicken can go… Just yesterday we were startled by a commotion in the early afternoon; a group of chickens in front of Tom’s hut suddenly caused an uproar, and when we looked, a falcon was taking off again after having swooped down to grab a young chick. Luckily for the chick, and for the egg lovers of the village for that matter, the falcon returned to the sky empty-taloned.

On our way to the village from Kusungu, we noticed something particularly strange. There were lots of young boys with what looked like charred mice wedged between small slivers of bamboo, patrolling the roadsides and waving their wares at the bus windows as we stopped to let people off. It seemed they were trying to sell them, and while I couldn’t imagine for what purpose, Tom confirmed my worst fear – they were for eating! We didn’t buy any, but for some reason, I became more and more curious what the tiny mice might taste like. So today we asked Ambrosi, the chief’s 9 year old son, if he might be able to score us a mouse or two. In the afternoon, Ambrosi and a friend found a mouse burrow, and we set off with the two boys and the friend’s older brother to try and dig them up. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, and we found an impressive network of subterannean tunnels, but no mice. Hopefully when we head on to our next stop in Malawi there are still mice to try - I wonder if they’ll taste as disgusting as they look.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Yesterday we met Tom at our hotel in Lilongwe. I was very impressed – whereas Constance and I only bumble along in English here (luckily for us, many people speak at least a little), Tom greeted the hotel clerk in Chichewa, the language spoken most commonly in Malawi. Not only could Tom greet in Chichewa, but he was having a full-on conversation with the clerk, and it seemed like he was even making jokes! I was very jealous – this is the first trip I’ve ever taken to a place where I am 100 percent unable to communicate with the people. Of course, pointing and using body language and hand gestures helps one to get by, but I want to learn more. So, as we walked about Lilongwe this morning to visit the bank, eat lunch, check out the market, etc., I was busy asking questions. For instance, it bugs me that people greet me in Chichewa, and although they’re almost certainly saying ‘Hello’, or something else like ‘How are you?’, it’s not entirely clear how to respond. So I learned the basic greeting, ‘Muli bwanji’, which means ‘How are you?’ The standard response is ‘Ndili bwino’, which means, literally, ‘I am good’. The ‘n’ is basically not pronounced. I haven’t yet learned how to respond if you are not, in fact, good, but let’s not get crazy just yet. Another very important word is ‘Zikomo’, which means ‘thank you’, but also seems to be a polite way of ending an encounter. We also learned the meaning for ‘Mzungu’, which is ‘white people’, as in ‘Mzungu trap’ (the name for the deep, uncovered ditches filled with rotting garbage and fetid water that swallow unsuspecting tourists in larger cities and towns such as Lilongwe). I have heard that term quite a bit, and was relieved to learn that it is not at all derogatory. There are many formalities and rules in this language; for example, there are different greetings that should be used when meeting someone you haven’t seen in, say, two or three days, versus someone you’re seeing for the third time in a single day. I only hope that in the short time we have here in Malawi, we are able to grasp better the intricacies of communication, but I’m not expecting much… I’ll be happy if I can just get ‘Hello’ right!

Today’s journey from Lilongwe to Tom’s site in central Malawi began very well. We caught a mini bus from the old town, near our hotel, to the main highway that runs north towards Tanzania, and got dropped off at a busy stretch. From here we hitched, and after not even 10 minutes of waiting were picked up by a very nice Afrikaaner man in a pickup. As it turned out, he was going all the way to Kasungu,a medium sized town north of Lilongwe where we would need to take a second minibus to Tom’s village. Thanks to the hitch, we arrived ahead of schedule in Kusungu, so we decided to pick up some supplies and have lunch in town before finding a minibus to take us to the village. As usual, after boarding the minibus, we had to wait for it to fill up, and, as usual, just when you think the bus is full, they find space for an entire additional row of people. This time, they piled people into the trunk space of the bus – 6 people in the trunk! By far the most uncomfortable minibus yet. Making it worse, a fuel shortage has caused gas prices to soar, well above what they are in the U.S., and so the driver, in an effort to save fuel, was traveling at about 20 kph, almost a crawl; there were old men on bicycles overtaking us! The driver was even shutting off the engine going down hills – this was going to take forever! And of course, at one point, to make matters worse, we ran out of fuel, or the engine overheated, or both (actually I think it was both, and I think so because the driver both purchased fuel from a passing motorist and poured one of our water bottles over the engine block).

Nevertheless, we finally made it to Tom’s village, just a kilometer or so off this main road. The walk from the road to Tom’s hut was amazing. The scenery was absolutely stunning, with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, and even of the nearby Nkhotakota Game Reserve, which I learned is home to a decent number of animals, including elephants and even a few lions. We passed some of his neighbors, and said our awkward ‘Muli bwanjis’ and ‘Ndili bwinos’, and as usual passed tons of children who are almost flabbergasted when a ‘mzungu’ waves to them (actually, Malawi is chock full of children, with over 50 percent of the population under 15 years of age). Finally, after a typically exhausting day of travel in Africa, we arrived at Tom’s mud hut.

This evening we dined with the chief of Tom’s tiny village, and his wife. Their names are Ambros and Catherine, respectfully referred to as ‘Amfumu’ (father) and ‘Amai’ (mother), respectively. Catherine prepared nsima for us, which is the staple food here, and is served invariably at all meals throughout the country (and region). Nsima consists of maize (corn meal) and water, which is boiled and cooked until it reaches a consistency of thick dumplings. One eats nsima with the right hand, so before the meal a bowl of water is passed around for washing. With right hands washed, nsima is passed around, followed by bowls of sides, usually pumpkin leaves or mustard greens, and often beans. Meat is almost never eaten, although tonight we prepared some instant ‘Tasty Soy Pieces’ to supplement the meal. Small chunks of nsima are taken, rolled into a ball, flattened, and used to scoop up bits of the sides and then eaten. This is a practical, if messy way of eating, and we enjoyed it very much. The chief and his wife were very friendly and welcoming hosts, and we had a nice time asking about their house, children, etc., with Tom of course doing his best to translate. This was one meal I’ll not soon forget. The chief’s wife agreed to show us how to prepare nsima tomorrow, hopefully we’ll pick that up quicker than we have Chichewa!