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…