Mysteriously Mystifying Malawi

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Mysteriously Mystifying Malawi

In all fairness, I must advise you, dear reader, that my experience of Malawi is subjective and prompted by our mood and Butch's bout of malaria. Imagine you have a reservation at Passionné in Paris. It’s been a dream to dine there for ages, but the night before the big day, you’re kept up with a fever and the worst Gastroenteritis. This does not auger well for a successful dining experience.

That sums up our long-awaited entry into Malawi and, unfortunately, sets the mood for the rest of our journey.

I have a troop of nieces and a nephew who grew up in Malawi on a Mission station in Nkhomo near Lilongwe. My dream was to take them on a fleeting flight of rediscovery where their childhood memories are reawakened, inspiring them to return and walk in the footsteps of their great-grandparents who started the Van Heerden family’s missionary tradition in Malawi, and their parents, who devoted their lives to the service of others.


Butch was reeling in ill health. We would miss Cape Maclear, Monkey Bay and the usual tourist highlights and head straight to the Kingfisher Lodge. The owners, Paul and Casey Kennedy, came to our rescue.

Our campsite couldn’t be more perfect. We set up our table and chairs a few meters from the soothing lap of Lake Malawi’s restorative waters. Piped Fresh water was laid on, and our batteries were soon topped up with electricity.

The tail end of Cyclone Freddie and unprecedented high summer rainfalls had brought on a few cloud bursts, and much of the subtropical property was still flooded. The waters slowly receded a few inches daily, and the mosquitoes had a field day!

While Butch fought fevers and other Malarial symptoms, I hugged trees. Trees thrive in subtropical climates and are rarely disposed of in this garden. Massive Baobabs, big enough to walk on and ruby red Flamboyant to pick for your hair. An oasis where human disruption or interference is minimal, and people live an integrated life where nature sets the tone.

A local doctor diagnosed Butch with Malaria and suggested he overnight in the clinic where he was treated.


My time was spent exploring, writing and taking a break from my everyday routines. Occasionally I’d see other guests and chat to Casey when she made her rounds. My overriding memory of our time there is the quiet of the tranquil blue lake. The rhythmic, lazy plop-plop of boat oars into the water and the distant voices of the fishermen on the breeze as they went about their business on the lake.

The chef knew how to prepare delicious hamburgers, which became my standard fare. The potato chippies were the best too! All the dishes were prepared using the freshest ingredients sourced from the local market.

Our truck was parked only a few feet from the path used by the villagers, who would troop past all day. The other prevailing memory is the caution and hesitancy we were treated with. Children would hurry by, avoiding eye contact, and male adults would turn away and avoid us as much as possible. The lodge employed the only ladies I saw. I never got to speak to any women from the village just a few hundred meters from my front step.

The staff at the lodge were accommodating and kind. They couldn’t do enough for us, which did lighten my spirits, especially after I was hollered at rudely by a group of fishermen going out on their boat one evening at sunset. They were at a reasonable distance, and I couldn’t identify individuals, yet they must’ve found my presence intrusive.

I felt unwelcome and hardly tolerated, and for much of our journey throughout Malawi, this nagging, negative vibe followed us. The men were suspicious and sullen, and their body language bordered hostility. Yet, the cold indifference thawed after we approached them and greeted them, and they could see that we were genuinely interested in them and were not there to exploit them in any way. Once they trusted us enough to relax, we experienced the friendly Malawians we were told about.


I think there are a few historical factors which have led to this. Covid certainly knocked the tourist industry into non-existence which hasn’t improved as yet. We were often the only guests or one of two guests staying at a destination. Poverty is rampant in Malawi, with little hope of changing.

Primary school education is free and obligatory but not enforced. English is the official language of Malawi, while Chichewa is its national language spoken by about 57% of the population, followed by Chinyanja at 12.8%, Chiyao at 10.1%, and Chitumbuka. 9.5%. The 2008 Census reports that only 26 per cent of the population above 14 can speak English. We were told that English was banned at schools by one of the past presidents (I don’t know how true this is.)

Although it is widely accepted that “knowledge is power”, it is also a closely guarded commodity. Knowledge is not voluntarily shared but kept as a superpower, even by teachers who aren’t well educated. Girls’ education is limited, and the general low school attendance is contributed by illness, poverty, and children are part of a family’s workforce.

Because high school and tertiary education are private, few families can afford to continue a child’s education. This exacerbates the theory that education serves no purpose and children are dissuaded rather than encouraged to continue learning. After all, what difference will it make?

In all the African countries we’ve visited thus far, I have not seen one book store, the only shop I saw and investigated, thinking it was a book shop, was a video shop where hundreds of pirated videos were on display. The majority, I believe, were Indian or Nigerian videos. In one village, the community hall showed children’s movies on a loop 24/7. Not many children can resist a film conveniently situated in the town centre en route to school!

Classrooms are overcrowded and rumour has it that there may not be a teacher. School uniforms are supplied, but all other prerequisites are the parent’s indaba. Impossible.

I found this to be very disconcerting that a child’s instinct to learn was conveniently stifled. There were a few occasions when we passed classrooms, and the boisterous exuberance of the children was infectious and lifted our spirits. How can one deny this generation an education?


Missionaries and Malawi are synonymous, and Christianity and Catholicism infuses life there. We met a few missionaries or descendants of missionaries who sincerely believe they’ve been called to do or continue God’s great purpose for their lives. I certainly can’t judge anyone. We were treated with the utmost kindness, and the help and hospitality we received was heartfelt and generous.

Every village and town has a few businesses displaying religious slogans or adopting biblical names. There are churches for every denomination, some small and some mega-churches. I assume these buildings testify to the church’s success in filling pews with converts, which will inspire more conversions. No one likes to be left out.

Yet the community remains poor, uneducated and ill. The question “Who’s path to heaven was being paved?’ remains debatable, and wouldn’t the pooling of resources by these missions achieve more in a community instead of the one-upmanship and going it alone due to individual dogmas and mission statements?

The days when the church had any political influence or sway in Africa are long past (thank goodness). I wonder whether the suspicion and mistrust we experienced don’t stem from the failures of the missionaries who seldom identified as citizens but always as ex-pats on a personal mission or crusade but who rarely succeeded in the long term.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  Don’t good intentions become the cause of our failure? When personal success is so zealously sought that we overlook and neglect the people and communities integral to the process, we sow the seeds for failure.

My guess is it will take a prophet and a miracle to get Malawi out of poverty.


I’ll return to being a nice, pacifist Maricha, and stop being negative, especially about a subject I know nothing about. Butch’s health improved, and so did our spirits, we were ready to move on.

With a list of recommendations as long as my arm, a bag full of medications and a warning to be aware of Bilharzia, we continued our journey north all along the western coast of Lake Malawi.

How is Bilharzia (schistosomiasis) transmitted?

Human beings become infected with schistosomiasis when larval forms of the parasite, released by freshwater snails, penetrate their skin during contact with infested water. In the body, the larvae develop into adult schistosomes. Adult worms live in the blood vessels, where the females release eggs.


The beautiful green countryside is dotted with small subsistence farms growing maise and vegetables. Baobab trees, acacias, fever trees and other indigenous trees provide shade and are used for their medicinal and nutritional values. Unlike in Mozambique, we didn’t see many people on the roads and villages were spread farther apart.

Our next stop would be the Norman Carr Cottage B&B, where we understood by the notice board, “Ons praat jou taal camping” (we speak your language camping.)

Taffy and Leonie, our hosts and lodge owners, welcomed us and immediately made us feel at home. Butch was still in recovery mode, so we decided to opt for the full board option, which the doctor ordered.

We spent three lovely nights there being thoroughly spoilt. We enjoyed a sundowner cruise on the lake with Taffy and a family from The Netherlands who had come to spend a few weeks with their daughter, a doctor, and a Malawi National football player to boot!

Butch and I took short walks along the lake, boosting our energy levels which had taken a plunge during his illness. I bought a beautiful wooden spoon from a local artist and fell asleep on a reclining deck chair. My gentle purrs woke me when the sun dipped behind the candy-striped umbrella.

Taffy and Butch found much in common and have kept in contact since.



Cool Runnings was our next stop, where we met the delightful owner Sam. Everyone has a story, and we found Sam’s story particularly interesting. Sam, the last free-spirited hippie, came to  Malawi twenty-something years ago while mourning her late husband. As her healing softened the scars, she fell in love with the village and stayed. The tiny, colourful barefooted lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes runs a trendy campsite with accommodations and a restaurant with the tastiest local and internationally inspired dishes. We were treated to a delightful meal which echoed a celebration, probably Butch’s recovery.

Next to our Honey Badger, we had a big Triumph motorbike stop laden with saddlebags, backpacks and an array of exciting bits and pieces he’d collected along his trans-Africa journey was Vincent from Ireland, a chef working in the medical industry in Amsterdam. In one breath, Vince rattled off his love of travelling and overlanding and told us of his travels to the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. This fascinating vagabond had itchy boots, travelled on a shoestring, supported local markets and, as a vegetarian, found the best food on the streets. We were captivated and hung on to his every word.

One morning we made it out of bed as the sun peeked over the horizon as the sky turned pink to watch the local fishermen return from a night out on the lake fishing. Then we cautiously ventured nearer to listen to the auction as their cargoes were being sold to local housewives, merchants and chefs.

Later that day, we went with a local tour guide, Tonny,  who chartered his friend’s boat. We sailed to a nearby island to do some snorkelling, and I climbed to the highest point to enjoy the view while Butch relaxed.

Sam’s kitchen supplied a delicious packed picnic lunch which we all shared before returning to the mainland, where I went on a guided walk through the local village.

Unfortunately, the snorkel was disappointing. The tropical fish were in short supply, and the water was murky on the day, making visibility difficult.


The village walk allowed me to observe ordinary people living their day-to-day village lives.

I admired a lady brewing her local hooch using primitive distilling methods, which have stood the test of time. She paid me no heed, her customers were clanging their mugs and tankards impatiently on the counter. I can’t remember the alcohol content, but I’m sure it could knock the enamel off anyone’s teeth.

We watched a clutch of little girls, no more than seven or eight years old, making a fire using tinder and dried leaves. Upon their fire, they set a saucepan of water to boil and were going to cook a maise meal, porridge. They giggled when I told them to be careful. They’re hardly a brick and a tickey high, yet they’re already old ladies, their shoulders bent with responsibilities.

As stall owners set up for the evening’s clientele, I enjoyed the evening shenanigans in the market. I could see the longest queues for the freshest red ripe tomatoes, bananas and cucumbers. We were even presented with a deliciously sweet lady’s finger banana to sample.

Stuck away, hidden down a long alleyway, I met the baker who was bagging the last of his loaves and filling his daily orders. I could order six buns delivered the following day at six before we set off. He was adamant that his loaves had to be fresh and deliciously divine; they were too. The local bread is quite unique. Soft to the touch and  featherlight they're similar to our "mosbolletjies'. 

If I’d known there was a cobbler, I could’ve repaired my new, hardly worn leather flip-flops, but unfortunately, we were running out of time.

Driving past in a truck only gives one a colourful glimpse of all the hidden gems in these villages who live  and thrive in a warren of alleys behind cloth curtains and security-barred openings. For the fashion-conscious, there are mountains of colourful cottons, reams of printed fabric and tailors behind their Singers who can stitch anything within minutes.

Exhausted but excited to tell Butch all about my rendezvous, we had minutes to prepare ourselves to join our guide  Tonny for supper on the beach.


While I was being swooned on my village walk, our guide, Tonny, sourced a fish and prepared a traditional Lake Malawi dinner for us.

With a little table laid, we opened our chairs and poured our drinks, Stoney Ginger Beer,  while watching him do the finishing touches as the sun set on another perfect day.

Butch and I agreed this was the best-grilled freshwater Butter fish we had ever tasted: crispy skin and deliciously moist delicate flesh. Once again, the rice was perfectly prepared with a distinct nutty texture and flavour. The leafy greens also prepared on the fire was scrumptious.

Meals are not solitary occasions, and we were delighted to know that the crew and a few friends would join us for supper. This tradition of communal dining is heart-warming and pleasant. When we finished our delightful meal under the stars with the chatter of friends all around us and the gentle breaking of waves on the sand, our faith in friendship and community was restored.

Until very recently, Tonny and I still communicated.


After long protracted goodbyes with Sam and Vincent, who was also packing up to go, we returned to the main road to continue our journey. We saw Vincent a few weeks ago; he’s hale and hearty and still living his best life.


Butch’s sense of humour was returning. That was a good sign. I have this conversation jotted down in my travel diary.
Butch “Look, there’s a coffee shop, F@#k with coffins!” there were coffins in all shapes and sizes on display.
Me: “Yes, you have your coffee in a coffin,”
A few seconds later, scrolling through my photos, “No, it’s a coffin shop!”

The signs along the road were amusing, educational and a lesson in customer persuasion.

e.g. For Lent – Ice Brock
If God says yes, who can say no? shop
God Knows Investments
God’s Time Store
Eyewitness Investments and The Will of God Investments.
You Stole a Pizza my heart.



Following Vincent’s recommendation, we stopped for street food and tried the fried sweet potato. Butch might have been persuaded to try the sheep’s kidneys, but they weren’t ready yet, and we were moving. We did enjoy the small fist-sized doughnuts we succumbed to, and I bought a small paper bag filled with dried pumpkin leaves and flowers.


The stall owner, who sold an array of speckled beans, soya beans and rice, didn’t hesitate to give me her recipe for preparing the pumpkin leaves. Following her instructions to the letter, I dehydrated our leaves one evening, and we both gave the dish the thumbs up. Dried pumpkin leaves rehydrate very well.




After a long day on the road, we stopped at the beautiful Thai-inspired resort Makuzi Beach Lodge, set in tropical gardens where orchids thrive, in the district of Ta Malenga Mzoma.

We had the resort all to ourselves and could walk, laze on the day beds and enjoy candle-lit suppers on the deck overlooking Lake Malawi.

I even took this opportunity to get back into my book “What Remains” by Carole Radziwill, a journalist and socialite, John Kennedy Jnr’s cousin Prince Radziwill’s Widow—a well-written autobiography I thoroughly enjoyed while soaking up the rays. “When I get home one day”, I told Butch, “I’ll install a day bed in our garden.”


While there, we took a few long walks where I danced with primary school children during their break time and fell in love with these beauties who stole my heart and almost didn’t let me go.

We saw the catch of the day at the fish market but didn’t buy anything. Neither of us has prepared freshwater fish, which doesn’t appeal to me. Butch and I thought it prudent to try a chef’s take on fried or grilled fish later that evening for dinner. We loved our fish and agreed we’d made the right decision.


All too soon, it was time to press on.

At times the roads were becoming poorer, and crossing one make-shift bridge was a matter of touch and go with our heavy truck, but, thankfully, we made our crossing with no setbacks.



Once again, we stopped for supplies along the road, and it was with great excitement that I met Elizabeth, whose mother was born in Johannesburg in 1930, she said. Elizabeth has not travelled, and in a moment of over-enthusiasm, I promised that if I ever pass her way again en route to Johannesburg, I’d pick her up and take her with me to see the city of gold. She was delighted by this news. Her strong rice farmer’s arms wrapped me in the strongest hug leaving me breathless and light as a feather on a breeze. Elizabeth sold small scoops of rice, grown in the rich, wet soil. I served my purchase with our curry. 


We were ascending into the mountains and rubber plantations where we could see bottles hanging, ready to collect threads of rubber when tapped. All along the road, rubber balls were being sold. Although much larger and used for playing football, these balls were reminiscent of the insides of golf balls.

Before returning to Nkata Bay, we bought dried, salted bananas, a popular snack; I thought they were delicious. Fresh bananas are always on our list. Although not Baker’s biscuits, the lemony creams were an unexpected bonus. We were set for another camping stay along the lake.




This time we would stay at the King’s Highway composite, managed by Albert and Este, originally from South Africa. The campsite is well run, the ablutions first rate and our campsite under shady trees with a large a gazebo and braai area were great. Our laundry could be machine washed, a luxury I’d almost forgotten.

We were the only campers and had the freedom of the campsite. We tried to catch up with all our chores and decided to visit the famous Mushroom Farm on the last day.


Everything we’d read about the Mushroom Farm indicated that we’d be foolish to miss a visit. Never to be outdone, we climbed on the bandwagon and asked our hosts, Albert and Este, to book two motorbikes we were going for lunch.


Scepticism clouded their faces as they asked again whether we were sure about the motorbike. Is the Pope a Catholic? Of course, we were. We strapped our cycling helmets onto our noggins' and voila we were set to go.

Putting the driver’s reticence down to the “Malawi syndrome”, we knew we’d win them over as soon as we set off on our bikes. Butch wrapped his arms around his driver, and on my bike, we had Afro beats pumping from two bright red speakers mounted on the handlebars. The skilled rider could confidently change channels on his phone while negotiating tight corners, his bike balanced on a thin lip of road while I clung on for dear life.

With my phone clamped between my teeth, I recorded a short video of the return journey.

I could liken the trip to hell on a slippery slide up the Himalayas strapped to a vintage Lee Enfield bike in India. Honking, music, two-stroke oil and petrol fumes, a mountainside and a rutted, muddy road with a slippery decline thousands of feet into an abyss was how we got our kicks. The driver had no sympathy. He had a business to run and would give us our money’s worth.

Butch proclaimed this the most nerve-wracking journey he’d ever done, and he’s been to India in a car, Vietnam on a train, Namibia in a small plane and Botswana in a Ford, yet this surpassed the lot.

Lunch was a delicious vegetarian treat. I certainly would recommend The Mushroom Farm for lunch or a stay. The accommodations are uniquely positioned on the edge of a mountainside with spectacular views of Lake Malawi.

Mushrooms aren’t cultivated at all but are foraged in the rainy season. I think everyone thought we were hallucinating on magic mushrooms when they saw us arrive.

Our riders were a tad late, business is busy, we used the time to walk and meet up with them. The return trip was a breeze.



And then our journey took us through the northern sectiions and I was transported to Italy. I call this Little Tuscany. I thought it beautiful.

As we neared the border the architectural vernacular changed, homes were brick and mortar with high pitched roofs. This roof construction is quite commonly used in Tanzania.

I have been going through my photographs and realise I did not do Malawi and its people the justice it deserves. I do, however, believe that NGO’s, Missionaries, Aid workers, volunteers, and the Tsunami of enthusiastic workers who spend billions of dollars in aid, education, medicine and “charity”  have created an insatiable monster.

It’s no use doling out computers to illiterate homemakers or farmers (women are the workforce) without education or training and expecting miraculous results. It takes us decades to educate ourselves, yet we expect to sow seeds and reap the rewards during a “term of service in the field.”

To the kindhearted mothers who reward and treat children to cheap sweets (sometimes flinging handfuls from the vehicle window), please refrain. There are legions of bad tempered child beggars with bad teeth and no dental health system.



We hope to return one day and do the western regions and the parks.

The next day we departed early, knowing we would have a lengthy wait at the Tanzania border control. It is one for the books.


The gremlins have been at work jinxing my blog again. This blog should not have been posted yet, I have not finished with it I apologise. These things are sent to test us I suppose. The Malawi Magic. The photographs have been sprinkled ad lib throughout the blog, please forgive me!