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MALAWI: LOOKING INTO THE WARM HEART OF AFRICA

See all Great Stories by Rachel Bray



How about a spotting game?' suggested our six-year-old as we entered Malawi through its western border with Zambia.

Malawi Warm Heart - Malawi [2010 © greatguides.org]

How about a spotting game?' suggested our six-year-old as we entered Malawi through its western border with Zambia. 'There's no need to spot people' replied her younger sister, 'they're everywhere!' The road into the capital, Lilongwe, is indeed alive. Colourful pedestrians and cyclists balance enormous bundles of sisal and baskets of chickens expertly on heads or across handlebars on their way to street-side markets. 

Densely populated Malawi functions primarily on subsistence farming with little major industry. Even tourism is limited despite beautiful destinations and marketing efforts: 'Welcome to the warm heart of Africa' is splashed across guidebooks and brochures. Friendly smiles and easy conversation were certainly what we found. But looking a little more closely we soon caught a glimpse of a troubled heart: grinding poverty and particularly heavy demands on girls and women. 

One such occasion was at Mount Mulanje, an imposing granite massif flanked by tea estates. Aware of the many mysteries surrounding the peak and the limits of four-year-old legs, we were keen to explore its lower slopes. Drawn upwards by paths through lush indigenous forest, we saw a sign to a waterfall. No-one else was hiking this path for pleasure, but a steady stream of young women and girls – some seemingly no more than eight years old – passed us, large bundles of branches tied and balanced on their heads. We greeted with gentle and admiring 'hellos' but many avoided eye contact, and the few responses ranged from a brief nod to a hard stare or muttering of 'give me money'. At the falls we found the boys, laughing and playing in the water. 

 

Malawi Warm Heart - Mulanje, Malawi [2010 © greatguides.org] - Malawi: The Warm Heart Of Africa - Roddy Bray's Great Guides

Utterly humbled by the daily work burden of the girls – their families could not cook or keep warm without the wood they carried – we withdrew into our own thoughts, not quite sure what to make of it all. As we descended, hungry for lunch after a swim at the falls, girls were still coming down the mountain laden with wood. They had probably been walking, chopping, stacking and carrying for at least six hours, and who knows if they ate beforehand? Rounding a corner we saw a very young girl, last in line of a group of five, drop her enormous bundle, the ties breaking and her hard-earned branches scattering on the path. She cried out, frantically gathering the pieces together.

Girls in Malawi carry heavy burdens from a young age
None of her friends stopped and her sobs grew louder as she fumbled with the ties then gave up, running after the others weeping with distress. My prior musings on whether I should be seeing all this not as sheer hard labour but as a culturally valued, appropriate and even enjoyable role for girls, soon vapourised. This girl was utterly overwhelmed by the weight of the task – on her head, and on her soul. I wondered what awaited her upon return to the homestead. Would there be forgiveness and comfort, or punishment for 'failing' in her duties? 

 

Two days later we were walking in the mist high up on the Zomba plateau, where women, girls and boys chop and carry vast loads of wood each day. Here we saw men up in the trees hacking off branches with long knives then carrying entire tree-trunks on their shoulders, suggesting huge effort by all just to keep the family fed. And it was here that we met Adam, a man with many skills and our self-appointed guide, who was eager to share the intricacies of life for the plateau's residents as well as its stunning views. Conversations on the path and an invitation to his village shed light on the entrepreneurship that exists in what appears to be a very 'stuck' environment. 

Arriving at the village on the plateau's lower slopes, we were immediately struck by its activity. Everyone over nine years was working whether spreading out crops to dry, pounding maize into flour, mending tools, minding infants or tending cooking fires. The twenty or so children following us to Adam's riverside garden quickly became forty. Families are large and constant effort is required to grow and process food. Yet we soon learnt that there is more to life than this daily grind, at least for someone like Adam. 

Before meeting us at 8 am to begin a day's guiding on the plateau, Adam had already harvested raspberries, strawberries and mulberries and carried them to his 'shop' over an hour's walk away. Like his neighbours, he grows a large variety of fruit and vegetables in carefully tended gardens, and sells a portion of these in a makeshift shop, strategically placed opposite the entrance to the only smart hotel on the plateau. An astute businessman, Adam also carves beautifully and was quick to show us the Noah's Ark of animals he had hewn out of ironwood. He clearly has a number of viable options to support his family now, but his sights are now set on a significant step above the ordinary experience and earning potential of his neighbours. 

 

Walking the paths of the plateau, Adam shared his plans to begin exporting his berries to a couple from Cape Town who intend to order 200kg of fruit each month. We discuss the logistics and hidden costs of the exercise, and he speaks about learning to drive in order to transport his produce to the airport. Our conversation moves on to the prospect of importing the delicious berries to England, debating the carbon footprint and the challenges of keeping the berries fresh.  

Malawi Warm Heart | Adam - Malawi [2010 © greatguides.org] - Malawi: The Warm Heart Of Africa - Roddy Bray's Great Guides
Adam, community leader and master berry gardener at Zomba
We realised that despite a high quality product and likely demand, there were many barriers to creating a viable partnership with Adam. And regretfully so: In a country like Malawi where decades of foreign aid are widely viewed to have created a culture of dependency, it is precisely this kind of creative entrepreneurship and commerce that are needed to turn the tide. So too are fathers like Adam who wish to invest in their children's education whether they are sons or daughters.

 

In 2010 Adam Chipinga's numbers were 0999251317 or 0999271202.


Author: Rachel Bray
Published Date: 04 Jul 2010
Location: East Africa | Malawi
Themes: travel | inspiring, national