Into the Warm Heart

Weekends are for adventure. On Saturday, Elizabeth, Yiwen and I ventured into Lilongwe to get some groceries, look for electrical supplies and experience Malawi’s capital city.

The journey begins on the back of a bike taxi. You quickly learn to hold on tight and predict the bumps. Once you have those two things down, the 5 minute bike ride to Namitete is really enjoyable as you can sit and observe the winding roads, walking people and the beautiful landscape. After paying the 150 kwacha ($1) we caught a mini-bus. These buses ferry people all across the country, making a bunch of stops, picking and dropping off their passengers. It’s always an adventure to ride a mini-bus. You have no clue who (or what) will end up in your car, as they pack 25 people into the small space. We encountered men with body sized packs of beans, many babies, numerous chickens, what appeared to be flirting youngsters and an old lady arguing the price with the money collector.

After we were dropped off at the bus station, we set out to find Shoprite, the best place to buy groceries. This took us a while. We really had no clue where we were, and we walked around asking where it was, only to be directed to the wrong Shoprite, halfway across the city. Yiwen needed to exchange some money, so we went searching for a bank but had no luck. She decided to withdraw some money from an ATM, so while she was waiting in line Elizabeth and I ventured into the craft market.

This market has beautiful products. That’s an understatement. The things there would go for considerable dough in the States. The wood carvings – figurines, necklaces, bowls and more – are serious works of art. Elizabeth and I walked by every shop, which is essentially products laid out on a blanket with their creators standing nearby. Every shop seemed to be offering both “Saturday discounts” and “very good cheap prices”. I was very interested in the paintings: they were longer than a piece of paper but had a smaller width. Simply put, they were stunning. As I browsed one set of paintings, the man greeted me and I told him I was just browsing. Smiling, he replied: “Looking is for free, man”. I fell in love with the paintings, and decided I would purchase one, along with a small necklace that has a small carving of Africa, with the face of the Mother of Africa etched into the continents contours.

As soon as all the vendors realized that I wanted to purchase a painting, they came over. I mean it. Every single person with paintings to sell came over to me to show me their product. With about 12 different vendors shouting at me, I tried to make it a fair process and look at them one at a time. Some were very patient – others were not. After about 10 minutes of looking at a hundred different paintings, I decided on a vibrant blue painting depicting a elongated body of a women balancing a pot on her head with a baby slung on her back. It disappointed many of the vendors – they were all trying to make some money to get back home. One solicited my sister and we collected two more for a very cheap price of 500 kwacha, but away from the rest of the group. You can’t experience Malawi without going to the bargaining table with some vendors.

After doing some grocery shopping and grabbing a bite to eat at a relatively upscale restaurant, we headed back home. We stumbled upon an electronics store after failing to find any around Shoprite. The store ended up having all the parts we needed for the incubator – so the trip became a roaring success. The people at the store were very helpful (surprise, surprise). With electronics, bananas and oranges in hands and groceries in our backpacks, we made the trek back to the buses and then home.

After sleeping in late into Sunday morning, my sister and mother wanted to go on a long run and I decided to join them. We brought our cameras with us, intending to do a sort of Yes Man-jogging-photography thing. We ran the dirt roads for about 2 hours, and walked through the villages that we encountered.


Kids running after us as we exited the village, still very excited about the prospect of getting a picture taken

The kids were hilarious. They shout “Azungoo, azungoo!” every time they see a white person. Azungoo is actually not a derogatory term and the tone they strike when saying it reinforces that. We would stop and say hi to the mothers and kids as we passed through the plethora of villages that dot the Malawian landscape. On the roads we met lots of people on bikes and on foot. One group of women started to run with us, baskets on their head and all. My mom even attempted to balance one of the baskets on her head but with little success.

It was a spectacular day to be running through the countryside. The sky was the brightest of blues and looking down on the trails you could see off into the distance.


View of one of the long dirt trails we trotted upon

We came across a fence and decided to investigate. After walking up closer, we could see over and a man greeted us. He then went on to explain the operation – about 330 beds of tobacco were being nurtured inside the fences and covered with plastic. Typical of a Malawian, the man was friendly and wanted to chat for a few minutes.

We finally circled back into the area near St. Gabriel’s and stopped by at two of the houses of people we knew: Peter and Kennedy. On the way to their houses, we passed a women making sema (a staple food here – essentially corn, salt and water) and stopped to chat.


A smiling woman makes her n'sema

We finally made it back to our house. I passed out as soon as I had some food in me.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cracking the nuts that Kennedy gave me out of their shell in preparation for their roasting, reflecting on Malawi’s title as the Warm Heart of Africa. As I enjoyed the beautiful rays of sun on the stoop of our house, cracking nuts, with a friendly but humungous dog named Bobby sitting patiently next to me, greeting the people walking by our house – I again reflected that the title had little to do with the weather.