Saturday, September 15, 2007

Malawi: First Stop, The Mushroom Farm

We originally thought we’d travel to Southern Africa via Zambia and Botswana, but expensive visas, complicated logistics, and a gut-feeling that Malawi was calling our names prompted us to change our plans. While we’d love some day to return to visit these other countries, we can’t say enough wonderful things about Malawi, it’s people, food, and scenery. There’s definitely a reason it’s known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa.’ To cross the border near Mbeya, we boarded a 5:15am bus in Dar Es Salaam. We payed a bit more for a ‘Luxury’ coach that promised a bathroom and air-conditioning, neither of which worked. A fact that was hard to swallow, as we saw the cheaper bus rocket past us on the highway. Alas, we couldn’t complain too much, because as we drove through Mizumi National Park, we saw giraffes, gazelles, and monkeys, and had to stop the coach to let a family of elephants cross the road. Unbelievable. Fourteen hours later we finally reached Mbeya, where we crashed amid cockroaches, sparkly curtains, fake flowers, and candles to mask the scent of our shoes and socks.

We congratulated ourselves on not falling prey to the Malawi Border scam, whereby seemingly charming taxi drivers offer to ferry you across the border to your next destination for a fee. While far more pricey than the public route, they offered convenience, comfort, and efficiency. We smelled a rat. None of our previous buses had been comfortable or efficient, but they had been plenty entertaining and cheap, to boot. We opted for the local route, and thanked our lucky stars every time we met folks in Malawi who had paid anywhere from $30-$100 for this ‘service’---each and every one of them had been abandoned at the border crossing realizing they’d been duped. Not to say that our own route was crystal clear. We boarded one coaster (mini-bus that you sit and wait in until it fills---to the gills—at which point you get moving). Only to have to transfer after an hour to another rattletrap contraption with no working dash instruments that belched and backfired its way toward the border.

We arrived in Malawi with little preparation. Despite our best efforts to buy a guidebook in Tanzania, we were entirely unsuccessful. So we read people’s blogs, crossed our fingers, and with a roll of the dice landed at the Mushroom Farm. Happily, it seemed the fates were with us, as this ended up being one of our favorite spots. We were fully prepared to walk the 3-hours uphill to reach our destination, but we ran into some other guests who had already called for a lift because, "Alex is like the Queen, she doesn’t walk.” They were fun and funny; loud, brash, heavy drinking Londoners. Great company, really. And they had a guidebook that they let us borrow.

We spent the next three days in eco-friendly sustainable paradise. Composting toilets, outdoor showers, organic home-grown veggies, lantern-light, and stars for miles and miles. It felt like living in a tree house. Or rather the most beautiful mud house you’ve ever seen. Technically, we believe it’s called a ‘cob house’ and we plan to build one when we get home. If you want one, too, check out Becky Bee’s book, ‘The Cob Builder’s Handbook." Really! The downside of not having reservations, however, is that we got booted from our cob house to a tent on the second night. Alas, it was still a tent with a view!

The Mushroom Farm was near Livingstonia, where an important Mission dedicated to the works of Dr. Livingstone (we presume) has been in operation since 1875. The original mission was near the lake, but malaria sent the Scottish missionaries heading for the hills in 1894. There’s a reason the country is often called Malawia, as it has one of the highest malaria rates around, with still lake waters being a breeding ground for mosquitoes while a high population density made for tasty snacking. A fascinating museum in town marked the history and impact of Missionary work in the area. While we tend to be extremely skeptical of the process of converting people away from their own native beliefs, there is no denying that the original missionaries in Malawi did a world of good. They played an instrumental role in abolishing the ruthless slave trade that had been ravaging the area, introducing health care, and providing education. They introduced new farming methods and carpentry skills, and their schools gave rise to many of Malawi’s most influential nationalist politicians. That’s not to say that colonialism didn’t eventually rear it’s ugly head of exploitation and self-serving subjugation, but it does seem true that the original goal of ‘Africa for the Africans’ was the initial intent of the first missionaries to get involved in Malawi.

The Mushroom Farm was also near Manchewe Falls, an impressive waterfall simply for its sheer drop and beauty. But also notable as the site where locals used to hide in caves behind the falls to avoid being sold into slavery. The history of the slave trade along the East African coast is horrific and unfathomable, with men and women captured in their homes, shipped across Lake Malawi, marched forcibly for months, and then shipped to the slave market in Zanzibar, with hundreds dying well before they made it to the auction. Now, however, Manchewe Falls is where barefoot kids run and play and tell jokes and act tough, hamming it up for the camera.

Back around the fire at the Mushroom Farm, we cracked each other up by demanding, ‘How many kwacha for a kuche kuche?” (Kwacha being Malawian currency and Kuche Kuche being the local beer.) Speaking of kwacha, it’s incredible to comprehend that the largest bank note produced is 500 kwacha (approx. $3.50 USD). And even this note is rather new. Which tells you something about the economy. While rich in scenic beauty (including the greatest diversity of fish in the world!), Malawi does not hold the same degree of natural resources as some of her neighbors, and sadly the economy suffers as a result. That being said, we met a tremendous amount of doctors and medical volunteers in Malawi. We heard mixed reviews about the success and efficacy of Malawi’s medical officers, which prompted interesting conversations about the role of NGO’s in developing countries. Overall we were inspired by the amazing programs that seemed to be in place to bring healthcare up to suitable standards in rural villages although they certainly have a long way to go.

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