Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Malawi: the virgin tourist destination

BY MADALITSO KATETA
The infectious friendliness is not only evident in smiling bare-footed people; it resonates through a huge billboard with the inscription ‘Exit the land Jeito, welcome to the land of Chishango’ as you enter Malawi from Mozambique through the Southern tip district of Mwanza.
As a first traveler to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member state, you are bound to be surprised why any country would be proud to align its identity to a condom brand. Well, the truth is that Malawi is one of the sub-Saharan African countries highly affected by the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Sub-Sahara Africa is said to be the epicenter of the HIV and AIDS pandemic- no wonder, Malawians seem to increasingly feel that a true friend is one who warns you about any possible danger, a gesture of good will, in a Malawian way.
However, despite the condom advertisement, Malawi, just as its neighbor Mozambique, has stinging statutes regulating sex work.
As if realizing that the sex industry cannot be fully controlled, especially behind the curtains, the two countries take pleasure in warning tourists in advance of the importance of safer sex during their days of stay as they remain some of the countries having high HIV and AIDS prevalence rates.
Reaching the border post on the Malawian side, you would have already started feeling as if you chose a wrong destination for your holiday. Occasionally, you see children begging for alms; however, these are just some of the few-orphaned children that survive on alms they solicit from the several travelers going in and out of Malawi.
The blur of some reggae music from the bars just near the border post will soon greet you with the spirit of the warm-hearted nation. As you wait for the immigration and customs officials, you probably will be enticed to go and try one Malawian beer and even food as most of these bars also have restraints serving a wide range of Malawian and Portuguese cuisines.
“The first time I traveled to Malawi from south Africa I found the border at Mwanza very boring. I felt like I had landed my self in a wrong holiday destination when compared to my home in Ontario,” said Christen Hoffman a Canadian national based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She recalled that whilst she was regretting having chosen Malawi out of all tourist destinations in southern Africa, a black market forex vendor who wanted to know if she wanted some local currency approached her.
“I did not have any local money at that point and was feeling very hungry having traveled the whole day from Johannesburg to Mwanza and the polite way he approached me just made me feel like I was in my second home,” she recalled.
She said, as opposed to young men from other countries she has traveled to, the young vendor treated her like a queen that she instantly fell in love with Malawi.
“The good thing about Malawians is that they are very polite and usually happily come to your side when you need help,” she said.
Driving from Mwanza towards the commercial city of Blantyre, a 110-kilometer drive, takes you about two hours and, as you drive in the December heat, the cicada tweeter greets you as you enjoy the best scenery of Malawi’s natural beauty.
The traditional mud huts along the M6 road that connects Malawi to the rest of southern Africa will pop their way up your camera lens even before you reach the shire river, one of the never-miss-to-shoot spots. You would be empty going back home without taking some memory shots at this place.
A word of comfort would suffice at this point: Never be touchy with the seemingly ‘raw’ treatment you get from overzealous police officers at police checks as they go about their routine search.
A tour guide, Edward Sakwata, renders credence to this. He complained in an interview that police officers usually wear hard faces when they see tourism in the company of dreadlocked tour guides. The reason, as you may guess, borders on drugs.
Sakwata alluded to the cat-and-mouse relationship that exists between Malawian police officers and dread-rockers, mostly young men: there are always suspicions of drug peddling.
“When a police officer sees a European tourist accompanied by a young dreadlocked tour guide, their impression is that the two are involved in a drug deal,” he said.
Arriving in Blantyre you will be feeling very tired. However, you have just started your Malawian adventure for nightlife in Blantyre is the most thrilling experience to many a tourist.
If you did not have advance bookings for accommodation, there are several backpackers’ packs offering a variety of affordable prices for tourists.
Most of these clubs do not close until the wee hours of morning, and you will actually realize the more reason why a huge condom billboard greets you at Mwanza border.
Girls that usually eke their living through commercial sex work will surely not leave the bar counters, their source of income, until they drop dead in sleep or get hooked up by some hot-blooded client. That is the cut-home point for them, when tomorrow’s financial mists are cleared, and they have only hope for better things to come.
Chris Johnston, a British national on some two-week vacation to Malawi, said his first day in Malawi was the most interesting one.
“Upon arriving in Blantyre, I did not have an idea of where I would sleep for the night as I was proceeding to Mulanje Mountain the following day; however, when I went to the Blantyre tourist market, I met this young girl who showed me the other side of Blantyre,” he said laughing.
Ironically, Johnston almost mistook the towering Soche hill- one of the green hills perched gigantically in the ever-clear Blantyre sky- for Mulanje Mountain. Blantyre, the commercial city of Malawi, is the anti-thesis of a European city: so many industrial establishments, little, if any, pollution at all.
Mulanje Mountain is among Africa’s three highest mountains in Africa, and a never-miss destination for any tourist visiting Malawi. Attached to the mountain is a rich cultural history.
To some hikers, the myths attached to the mountain’s highest peak, christened ‘Sapitwa’ (No-go-zone) sound more less like fairly tales, It would, however, be in your interest to heed what the locals say.
Only recently, Brazilian hiker Gabriel Bushman thought the locals, through a local Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust tour guide, were joking when they told him no one went to Sapitwa alone. Bushman so no sense in such sense and set on the journey himself, telling his guide to get lost! He never came back, only his lifeless body, and only after a tasking 10 days of searching.
What a coincidence that a plane sent by the Brazilian government failed to find his body; the locals did.
Some locals said Bushman was found because the spirits in the mountain liked him. They released him so he could meet his people; just unfortunate he tripped and fell on his way back. The locals wept heartily for him, as if he were their friend.
People of Mulanje have different theories about people who go missing on the missing. Others speculate that these people fall into Ruo River, whose source is the mountain that is Mulanje, are then washed away. Just like that.
Whatever the truth, the spirit tales dominate.
“When one wants to go to Sapitwa, there is need to offer special prayers- other wise there will be no return,” said Maxwell Chifika, a local from the district.
Chifika has seen people go on Mulanje Mountain and come; or go, and really go. No trace or clue to the living. Whatsoever.
After Mulanje, the Malawian adventure will not be complete if you do not swim in the warm, blue, fresh waters of the Lake Malawi. The country has one fresh lake, Lake Malawi, and three inlet lakes- Chiuta, Kazuni, and Chilwa.
The bus drive from Blantyre to Mangochi will take you four hours. The road from Blantyre to Mangochi has a rich vein of Malawian traditions.
The common sight is that of women wrapped in traditional Malawian Chitenje ‘Wrapper’. You will also not miss the art ware and handcraft merchandise
Skillfully displayed along road kiosks.
Zomba would be the next good stop over. Even if you arrive at night, you will not be up for a lonely night as the town that used to be Malawi’s capital city during the British rule has some interesting tourist spots.
Most of the Victorian houses that once housed the British administrators are now part of a flourishing hospitality industry, now serving as lodges and Restaurants.
However, of much interest would be a visit to Ku-Chawe just on top of Zomba plateau.
The trout farm on the plateau and the Chingwes hole have been some of the wonders that have made the Chawe adventure a must not miss for tourists in Malawi.
The emperor’s view just on top of the plateau offers you a rare opportunity to view places as far much as Mozambique. What is more, such a view at night offers you the tonic to appreciate the view of distant towns below.
“My Malawian experience could not have been complete without the Kuchawe sojourn; the tour to the plateau on a fair evening gave me an opportunity to enjoy a rare Malawian experience,” said Catherine Pereira a Canadian tourist.
As you go to your final destination, Mangochi, you will find lots of merchandise that would be good for take-home souvenir.
Namwera turn off, for one, offers a wide variety of sculptures and paintings
of high quality.
For Angela Tamayenda, a Malawian national staying in the US, says she usually finds time to stop at Namwera and buy her American friends some African crafts from this part of Africa.
“Every time I come to Malawi for holidays, I make it a point to visit Namwera and buy some art work. My American friends always appreciate these,” she said.
She said the unique thing about the arts and crafts at Namwera was that they had straightforward themes.
By the time you arrive in Mangochi, you really would have understood why the accolade the Warm Heart of Africa befits Malawi.
The beautiful lake birds and nice people you meet on the way could have long made their way into your camera. Sure enough, and the beauty of Malawian culture fully embedded in your bone marrow.
However, the best time for a nice Mangochi experience comes in the evening. Most resorts in the Lakeshore district organise scintillating cultural activities targeting both tourists and the local visitor.
Dances such as Gule wa mkulu, which UNESCO recognizes as a protected cultural heritage from Malawi, dominate in the evenings.
Just do not flit with a frying pan of commercial sex workers who flock into this area looking for the cash in the pleasure and fan. However, these women have their own sex styles, including ‘Aeroplane’ and ‘Winnower’. How they do it is another protected Malawian cultural heritage.
Warning: Please ‘get dressed’, Malawi has one of the highest HIV and AIDS prevalence
Rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Commercial sex workers have their own role in this!

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