Joseph also took me to meet his mother at her house which is built with cinderbrick and a corrugated iron roof. He is saving to pay for the plaster on the outside. The house is fairly spartan, but his mother does have a bed, while I’ve seen inside other houses, where reed mats are the only bedding available for the inhabitants. But the people always have a warm smile for any visitor. The devil finds work for idle hands though, and at night we had to stick to the lakefront strip as in the other areas we were likely to bump into young men who had too much chibuku or cachaca to drink, and were already quite threatening during the day. I met one such man who was trying to sell me some souvenir or other, yet was completely drunk already and it was only 1pm.
We left Cape McClear on the 5:30am matola which beeped its way through the village, packing us in like sardines, and then returning to do another circuit to squeeze in a few more. I think he didn’t leave until he had woken everyone in the village. There is no happy medium in African land transport. For the 30km transfer from Cape McClear to Monkey Bay, you either you own your own car (and travel with a mechanic for inevitable breakdowns), you pay $50 for someone to take you, or you take a chapa which costs $2 per person. We connected with a coach from National Bus Co. in Monkey Bay to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. I had to stand as I was the only man (the bus was at least 50% men) who seemed to think it appropriate to offer his seat to a woman carrying an infant. Despite the men being young, strong and healthy, there is obviously no tradition of chivalry in Malawian society. On the other hand, it made a pleasant change to stand, as at least I wasn’t cramped in the same position on a small seat for 4 hours.Our first impressions of Lilongwe were not good. The bus station is full of more than the usual mix of touts, pushy taxi drivers, and beggars. Our hotel had arranged a pick-up (which never came) so we waited for over half an hour with all our stuff, which invited numerous, repetitive interruptions and annoyances. But this is generally the worst you will get in Africa … in daylight, and people are quite protective when anyone gets a little too insistent. When we did walk away into the town centre, we passed areas which were obviously no-go areas at night-time. In Africa, there are people everywhere by day, but at night “it’s a jungle out there!”. Power cuts and lack of street-lighting make you an easy target – you have to taxi everywhere, in some cases even if its only 200m down the street. But the taxi-drivers are fine and can be trusted. When we left Mamma Mia’s italian restaurant (which had espresso coffee – heaven!) we travelled with Amon, a soldier of God who doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke, and although this kind of person would probably bore me after a while at home, in Africa, they’re my kind of guy!
We liked Amon and he offered us a good price to go to the tobacco auctions the next day, so we agreed. We had intended to use Lilongwe for two things – a place to get good bus connections north, and the place to see the Malawi Tobacco Auctions. Tobacco is Malawi’s most important cash crop, and accounts for more than half of the country’s export earnings. Lilongwe is the place where the growers come to sell their goods to dealers represnting the global tobacco industry heavyweights. The tobacco grown in Malawi is of the Burley variety, which is an important element in a blended cigarette – the burley is sweet, and balances the bitterness of the Virginia leaf grown elsewhere. The tobacco is brought to auction in 80kg to 100kg bags, and is rated by the auction floor staff. A good quality tobacco will fetch over $2.50 per kilo, and poorer quality around $2. This year, prices were down around $0.50 per kilo due to moves by Canada to ban the use of burley tobacco in cigarettes worldwide, as its sweetness attracts too many younger smokers.
The activity on the auction floor is frenetic. The sacks of tobacco are lined in rows, along which the auctioneer leads a line of buyers, all armed with pen and clipboard. Around them, barrow boys sprint for their lives, moving the sacks from the high stacks in the warehouse onto the auction floor, and then out onto the trucks. Crashes are common, proving perhaps that tobacco can cause harm in more ways than one. The smell of tobacco is heavy in the air, and its a great experience to see how things operate high up the supply chain in a controversial global industry.
We left the auctions and went back to the bus station, and boarded a bus for Mzuzu, the northern hub of Malawi. We arrived late in Mzuzu, and paid a local 50Kw ($.033) to guide us the 500m through the dark to our guesthouse. Mzuzu has nothing much to offer the visitor except connections to Nkatha Bay on the lake, or to Karonga and Songwe at the Tanzanian border. We were opting for the latter, as overland travel, touts and drunken souvenir-sellers had tarnished Ninfa’s Malawi dream of the country living up to its reputation as the Warm Heart of Africa.So we had an early night and boarded the bus at 6am for Karonga with AXA coach company along with Juan, who was travelling as far as Dar es Salaam with us. AXA pride themselves on punctuality and reliability, but when we were still sitting in the bus depot at 7am, I was doubting this claim. I complained to the conductor about the delay, but to no avail. In fact the only thing that happened was that some passengers complained about me complaining, which I found very odd. In fact there are two rules about bus travel in Africa. One is that it is exceptional for a bus to depart at the stated departure time. The second is that arrival times are purely notional, overly optimistic and never reliable. In any case, we made it to Karonga a couple of hours behind schedule, and had to organise transport to the border, about 30 minutes drive away. At the bus station in Karonga, there are loads of taxis offering transport to the Songwe border crossing for 600 Kw per person. But on further investigation, it became clear that this price was only available on the basis of the car carrying 5 passengers plus luggage and driver. Our other option was a chapa which would be cheaper but no less crowded, so we eventually struck a deal to hire a whole car for the three of us for a total price of 2,000Kw, only 200Kw (1euro) more expensive. The 30 minutes in the beat-up old Toyota Camry were easily the most blissful moments of African transport we have enjoyed since our rental car in South Africa.
We got dropped off at the border, and completed our customs and immigration formalities. When we got to the other side, we purchased our Tanzanian visas. Tanzanian single-entry three-month visas are priced at $50 for all but two nationalities – the USA (as expected) and Ireland (???) both of whom pay $100. Well, I didn’t really have any option, but I’m still wondering what Ireland did to Tanzania to merit this.
The border crossing also turned out to be costly for another traveller who attempted to change money with some of the black market money changers on the bridge that separates the Malawi and Tanzanian offices. It seems that instead of changing his money, they basically crowded around him and ran off with his money instead. There’s a lot of shady characters at this border crossing, so fellow travellers should exercise more caution than usual. The problem is that there is no bureau de change at the border, so you will inevitably have to change money on the black market. We were advised by the police (yes!) to do so in some of the businesses further down the road, which we did, albeit at a terrible rate.
Our last stop was Mbeya, which was two-hours from Songwe. This time we took a chapa (or dalla dalla as they’re known in Tanzania) which only had one passenger per seat for half the trip – more luxury! We arrived just after dark in Mbeya, bought our bus tickets for the following morning to Dar es Salaam, and booked into a hotel to get some well-needed rest before our estimated 12 hour journey the next day.
So that’s it for Malawi. Next post will bring you a digest of some amusing Malawian news stories, and after that some accounts of our first impressions of Tanzania.