Hi, I am a 24-year old girl from the Netherlands who moved to Malawi this year. Read all about my latest adventure!
Category: Personal blog
How is life in Malawi?
On my blog I describe everything I encounter during our life on the Malawian countryside. Read my personal blog if you want to know more about what it is like to live as a European woman close to the Malawians. I write about the things we miss from home (and how we decide to make them ourselves, like peanut butter), the unexpected visitors we sometimes get on the beach and the things we find when we discover Malawi for ourselves in our free time. No matter which way you look at it; life in Africa is a tad different from our life in the Netherlands. And then I did not even mention wildlife yet.
I hope I can sketch you an image of what it is like to live in Malawi compared to our old life in the Netherlands. Of course things are organised in a different way, but people here live in extreme poverty. The government arranged schools for most Malawians, but the quality of public school education is very low and world knowledge is rather small. The latter can be a cause of rather funny conversations: ‘But, are there no elephants in the Netherlands then?’.
Through my blog I hope I am also able to show you how most Malawians are very kind-hearted people. They are ready to share everything, while they own nothing themselves. Often times it is very difficult to constantly be reminded of how unfair the world is, but often we are surprised by the love we receive from Malawians despite this unfairness.
Welcome to a sneak preview of our life in the warm heart of Africa!
Today we went to Lilongwe again because we will have to pick up Roy (Riks uncle) from the airport tonight. This means we have spent a couple of hours in the car, but also that we’ve seen quite a bit of Malawi today.
I think that the biggest part of life in Malawi takes place near or on roads. People use the roads too to walk from one village to another, cows and their shepherds also find it easier to walk on the roads. Most of the markets are also on both sides of a road, so it makes sense that people gather around these places.
What I like to see on the road is how people are much more creative when it comes to transporting things. In the Netherlands we take a bike quite often for short distances, however I would’ve never thought that it’s possible to transport 2 pigs or 3 goats on the back of the bike. It turns out it is possible!
Cyclists also take up more space on the roads here. Some examples of things which I have seen being transported on the back of a bike today: goats, pigs, grass, a stack of firewood so big the driver could sit underneath out of the sun (convenient!), beams of 5m in length, etc. Then it’s easy to imagine a whole world of possibilities opens up if you have a car! Pickups are regularly loaded with people or goats, and today we even saw some cows in there for the first time.
But what if people don’t have access to a bike or car? Simple, then you just carry everything on your head (like a 20kg bag of corn). At least it frees up your hands, so you can wave at those passing by.
On the picture displayed below, you can already see a little bit how we live here: far away from the city. I was actually born and raised in a rural area, so it should not be very new to me, but it actually is. I have never lived really far away from the city, as I could still be in Rotterdam within in an hour or so. And even if that felt too far away there were always opportunities to buy stuff closer to home. Compared to my current situation here, doing groceries in the Netherlands was a piece of cake.
In Nankhwali (the nearest village) or Monkey Bay (a relatively touristic village a bit further away) there are quite some things we can buy. In Monkey Bay there are even supermarkets – although they are not completely like what I expected from a supermarket – and countless other little shops and market stalls. Supermarkets around here have a convenient selection of various items, but for fresh products like potato, onion, tomato and eggs we really have to go to the market. Very often we have to go to many different places, as one person only sells potato, another only onion and a third only tomato, through which buying 3 or 4 items almost always means making 3 to 4 stops. In the beginning this was even worse as we did not know yet where we could buy certain things, and as a result we had to make many stops to ask around before we actually found a particular seller. And some things, like catfood, are simply nowhere to be found nearby…
Fortunately, there are also supermarkets to be found which are structured just like the ones I am used to in the Netherlands (and many other countries I’ve visited). They have a fresh produce department with fruits and vegetables, meat and fish and many other isles with whatever you expect to buy in a supermarket (they even sell some things we do not usually find in Dutch supermarkets: we actually bought our oven at the supermarket). The most annoying thing about those supermarkets is that they are not exactly to be found ‘just around the corner’. The nearest of such supermarkets (to our knowledge) is in the capital, Lilongwe, which is a 3,5 hour drive away from here. So I write down everything we cannot find in the villages here on a list, and then we go for some big shoppings every once in a while in the city. And even then we try to combine our grocery trips with as many other appointments as we can think of, because driving for at least 7 hours just to do groceries is not our favourite thing in the world.
I like to spend time in the garden. On the beach we have about 20 people working, and in the garden we have two: James and Michael. So sometimes it is just nice to escape to the beach. James and Michael happen to speak English quite well, so in the end I actually speak more with them than with the other workers around. Micheal is the one who teaches me the most chichewa words, James asks many questions about the Netherlands.
Yesterday James suddenly asked us whether we havy many rivers in the Netherlands. I suppose we do have a reasonable amount of rivers in the Netherlands, however we Dutch are of course more famous for the tames variant of a river: the canals. After explaining the difference between a river and a canal we had to show a picture of Amsterdam. Immediately James asked whether we have a lot of fish in the canals. We had to think about this for a little bit. I mean, probably some pike and perch, but we already knew what he was thinking..
In Malawi fish is together with nsima (cornmeal porridge) the foundation of a proper meal. Here, it doesn’t matter which of the 850 cyclid species they find in their net (although some fetch a higher price than others), everything they catch will be eaten.
In the Netherlands we do not usually eat fish caugth in the canals. We prefer herring, salmon and tuna, opposed to the local carps, pikes and perches. This information was received with a puzzled expression: ‘So, you do catch them, measure them and then throw them back?’ Well yeah, it does sound a bit strange if it’s formulated like that.
Of course I needed to show some images again to show what herring, salmon and tuna look like. Especially the size of a tuna was unimaginable to James. How would someone ever eat such a huge fish? From there we went on to show pictures of the biggest fish, the whale shark, and the biggest animal on the planet, the blue whale (quick calculations revealed that a blue whale weights as much as 667 cows combined).
He was also curious about the animals that live on Dutch soil, but on that topic we did not get very far. I told him the biggest animal we have is probably a cow. James asked: ‘no elephants?’ Well, the Netherlands are in that regard not as exciting as Africa…
While my progression in mastering the chichewa language is very slow, there are some words and sentences that stuck. This time I wanted to share a saying which is typical for life here: pang’ono pang’ono. It translates loosely into ‘little by little’ or ‘with baby steps’.
A man alongside the road has already said it to us when the roads were quite bad because of the rains. Slowly we were driving through mud and large pits in the road, however an old man smiled genuinely and encouraged us: ‘pang’ono pang’ono!’ he meant that we would get to our destination eventually, as long as we would not stop. A lovely saying.
Sometimes days or weeks pass where we have the feeling that we are not really progressing with the construction of the houses. When people back in the Netherlands asked us for pictures we often realised we had not taken many for a while, simply because there were so few new things to show. This was especially the case when we were working on electricity and the water pipes (the pipes are in the ground now, but unfortunately we did not get the pump to work so we don’t have running water yet). Now all those pipes have disappeared in the ground again and on the pictures you cannot see that there is now power on the sockets. Electricity was a big step though! We now have a fridge, can cook without building a fire and we can charge phone – both our own as the phones of all our employees.
But suddenly it was the day on which the doors and windows were installed. We have made many pictures again! These kind of moments are a reminder to me that – even though we don’t always see it – we are still progressing with baby steps: pang’ono pang’ono.
Yesterday I wrote about the huge quantity of plastic bags I got with my groceries, however today I managed to avoid most plastic bags. I refused the plastic bag with the onions, I just took them with me as they were (it was only 3 meters to the car anyway). I had brought a cotton bag for the groceries at Asante shop and I even bought cooking oil without the plastic bottle! When we came here, Rik brought a bottle of whiskey with him, and now that one’s empty we had a beautiful glass bottle just laying around.
We had already seen big 20 liter buckets of cooking oil alongside the road and yesterday I asked Dany how it works when buying oil around here.
It turns out that you can buy set quantities, 500ml, 1 liter, and so on. The bottle I had was 700ml – which was too complicated – so I had it filled with 500ml cooking oil. For those who wonder how expensive it would be around here: it cost me 450 kwacha (which is about 0,56 euro or 0,62 US dollars).
Next to the fact that I avoided adding another plastic bottle to my collection, I actually like the look of this glass bottle in my ‘kitchen’ much better. Back in the Netherlands I would have never thought about it, but here this small victory made my day even better!
Now that I am here for a longer period of time, I think I have a relatively good idea of the country and its problems. Some problems affect me as well, like the lack of waste processing. I still own every piece of trash since my arrival, simply because I cannot bear the thought to burn it. So now it is just there, always in the way and an eyesore, but I just don’t have a way to process it myself (yet!). I have some plans to start processing my own plastic into new objects, however a lot needs to happen before I will be able to make my first bowl, plate or flower pot of thrash. And until then, all this plastic is just there.. And it’s not only on our little piece of sand, but plastic is also to be found alongside the roads and in the villages. Most common are the blue (sandwich) bags which the people here seem to love so much.
Recently, at a supermarket, we bought two packs of biscuits, a bag of dried soy and deodorant. How it was being packed: the two packsof biscuits went together in one blue bag, the deodorant got its own and the four items were then put in a black plastic carrier bag. They didn’t understand enough English to explain to them that I actually did not need any of those three plastic bags, so now those are also added to my personal collection: the bag on the beach.
Issues that do affect me personally, but which I still find difficult to see are all in some way related to poverty. Deforestation, overfishing, pollution, no access to education and hunger. With some of these the link with poverty is obvious, however for example the case of overfishing I find very difficult. How are you ever going to convince people to fish less if it’s the only way they know to get food on the table? The biggest part of the population is unemployed and have to be self-sufficient in order to eat. So they farm a small patch of land, keep some chicken or a goat and thus fish as much as they can.
Really not all is bad, because despite everything the people of Malawi are really very friendly and cheerful. Who has ever been here has undoubtedly seen many kids smiling, dancing and waving. Every time we drive to Monkey Bay – to get money from the ATM or to do some groceries – we pass some small villages where we always have to wave. ‘Azungu, azungu!!’ they call, which means foreigner or white person. In the village closest to us those calls have already changed into the names of Rik and his brother – Joeri or Reiki they scream (they don’t know the name ‘Rik’, and two syllable words actually sounds a bit better to yell on repeat). At least we feel very welcome here!