It is the new Airbus 300 series 600, fourteen hours in air, direct from New York to Johannesburg (Joburg) just in time to change planes at OR Tambo Intentional for the two our hop to Lilongwe. If feels quite familiar. We first landed here in October of 1964.
As always you enter a new reality.
Already there are concerns about the impending famine from the devastation: 18 days of unprecedented rain that devastated the lower half of the country. The day it stopped, it never returned. Over 200,000 were made homeless and several thousand plus were killed from the ensuing floods. Roads and bridges were washed away.
And it is not yet over. The once yearly planting of the maize crop was all in vain.
Outside of the cities, this is a subsistence culture. If you do not grow it, or catch it, you do not eat. There are no government subsidies. Our friend Felix who has a farm across the road from where we stay usually gets 40 to 50, fifty kilo bags of maize from his land. This season he got five. And what was left over from last years crop in the country is going fast and the prices are going up daily-way beyond the reach of subsistence farmers
And yet back in our thatched roof cottage next to the fishing village, folks are as warm and friendly as if nothing had happened. I think it comes from a resiliency that has been hone by tragedy. The have survived the HIV/AID epidemic that ransacked the county, but still is not completely under control, a measles epidemic several years ago that killed over 300 children, and malaria that especially takes away the lives of those under five years of age.
Even though we have been here less than 48 hours, we have a parade of folks stopping by for tea on our khonde (porch) to tell of their lives since our visit a year ago. Who has died? They talk of the status of their gardens; who had babies; how the fishing has been and what the historic monsoon rains did to them. (even in the higher country that the floods did not reach, it was the horizontal winds blowing the rain against the side of the sun dried brick house walls that made them collapse)
This annual “review of the year” is a ritual that begins soon after the 5:38 am sunrise each day as the country side is waking up. Since there is little electricity, your days are set by the sun. This close to the equator, on average the sun rises at 6 am and sets at 6pm with less than a half hour variation throughout the year. One soon enters the rhythm of life here. Last night we were sleeping by 8:30 pm and awaken by the first birds at 5:30 am and had our first visitor by 6:15.
People visit each other here. We live in a more rural area of the country on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. The electronic connected world that we are used to does not exist here. The internet as we know it is virtually non-existent and you have to move around our yard to get cell phone coverage. Because of the expense of cell phone airtime, conversations are very short and the preferred way to communicate is by text messages. Our closest “hotspot” is about 14 miles away.
As a consequence you take an electronic holiday. After about three days of withdrawal for me, I realize how much of my life is controlled by the instant connection and information. This holiday is highly recommended.
I don’t want to idealize life here. It is tough and non-forgiving. I just reviewed the contact list on my Malawi cell phone deleting those who have moved away or died. It was an impressive list. Jobs are scarce. There are loads of idle young adults with nothing to do, most with less than a high school education. Teenage pregnancies are common, life expectancy is under age 50, and 6-8 children per family lock subsistence farmers, especially the women, into a lifetime of poverty.
But somehow is still deserves the motto of the country, “The Warm Heart of Africa”