Diplomatic relations between Malawi and South Africa have always been good,” remarks Patricia Liabuba, the ministry of tourism and culture’s director of tourism, at a press conference to which dignitaries, guests, tour operators and members of the local and South African press have been invited on a crisp Sunday afternoon at the Sunbird Hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi. “It’s the first time in a long time that the minister of tourism has taken a keen interest and taken part in a session such as this,” she says, gesturing towards the then minister, Kondwani Nankhumwa, seated next to her.
Three of us journalists are part of a media contingent from South Africa that has been invited to share the Malawian story with our readers. By singling out South Africa as a strategic market and strengthening partnerships, Malawi is attempting to rekindle the relationship that was formally established in 1967.
In the 1960s Malawians made up a good number of labourers on the South African mines. And during the height of apartheid, when most countries imposed sanctions on South Africa, Malawi, led by the late president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was one of the few to maintain diplomatic relations. More than 200 000 Malawians live in South Africa today.
As we drive through the capital, Lilongwe as first-time visitors in the country, our tour guide, Salad Nthenda, points out corrugated iron roofs on some of the small brick and mud houses. “These roofs,” he explains, “are a sign that the family has a member who has been working or has worked in South Africa.” This is a status symbol here, he says.
In May 2014, former president Joyce Banda was defeated by Peter Mutharika in a drama-filled election. She accepted defeat, making her “only the third incumbent leader in the history of Southern Africa to concede defeat in an election”, as reported by the Telegraph.
Still, the democratic victory rings hollow in the bellies of the barefoot, barely clad, dust-streaked children we see running alongside the Malawi Tourism minibus transporting us as we pass through the surrounding villages. “Botolo, botolo, botolo!” they shout, demanding that we hand over our discarded plastic water bottles for them to make use of.
“Zodwa, welcome to Africa. Jo’burg is not Africa.” Nthenda turns around to tease me from his seat in front. And I wonder at that remark. “Africa” remains a construct in our minds: a continent (or country—depending which part of the world you are from) characterised by television and media as one of two extremes—a dusty charity case debilitated by hopeless poverty where wild animals roam freely, or a dangerous undeveloped world riddled with drugs and corrupt governments.
Fondly referred to as “the Warm Heart of Africa”, Malawi is neither drug-ridden nor corrupt. Former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died of a heart attack in April 2012, was credited with having had “good ideas” but died prematurely before many were realised.
Lake of Stars festival
Bumping around and over potholes, zooming past makeshift housing that lines the edge of the road at various intervals, we are being shown as much as possible of this beautiful country, renowned for the annual Lake of Stars festival that takes place on the southern shores of Lake Malawi.
Acts such as Mercury prize nominees Foals, Groove Armada’s Andy Cato, The Noisettes, Selmore Mtukudzi, Beverley Knight and Hot Chip have played at the festival, alongside Malawian artists such as Tay Grin, Mafilika and Peter Mawanga.
The festival draws large numbers of locals and tourists—the crowds have swelled from hundreds to thousands in its 13-year existence—and is responsible for generating millions of kwacha towards the country’s economy.
As the sun sets, we drive for several hours (owing to the state of the roads, distance here is measured by time, not in kilometres), headed for the Mkulumadzi Lodge run by Robin Pope Safaris, situated deep in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, part of the Great Rift Valley.
A number of years ago, the reserve, run solely by the government, had a significantly reduced wildlife count because of rampant poaching. It was facing closure until African Parks intervened and introduced animals from other parks to begin a rehabilitation project.
The following day we are transported to a family-owned tea and coffee estate called Satemwa. Malawi’s main export is tobacco, which, according to Trading Economics, accounts for 55 percent of its total exports. The other 45 percent is made up of uranium, sugar, tea and coffee.
The warm heart
We drive for what feels like an hour after passing through the main gate, admiring rows of neatly trimmed translucent green tea bushes that cover fields and hills as far as the eye can see.
The air is sweet and clean and a gentle calm descends over us as we finally arrive at Huntingdon House, described as a “colonial luxury in the heart of Malawi”. It’s not a lie. We hear French accents exchanging pleasantries while playing croquet on the well-appointed lawns, as if they’ve been living there for years. Dutch and German visitors talk over tea on the patios nestled under the arches of the 1920s homestead, where guests can also book into the French-style rooms for a few nights.
Later that afternoon we are whisked to Game Haven Lodge. Two hundred hectares of land stretch into the distance — a golf estate on one side, self-catering rooms and chalets on the other, a clubhouse and lake for fishing, and a game park populated with kudu, eland, sable, nyala, waterbuck and prolific birdlife. It’s all very idyllic.
But nothing is quite as breathtaking as the sight of the glittering waters of Lake Malawi when we finally arrive there on our second but last day in the country.
How fitting it was to spend the last night at an ecolodge, Mumbo Island, a sanctuary without electricity, where water has to be heated and bucketed for cowboy-style showers and meals are prepared simply, using plenty of fresh produce from the land and the lake. All thatch and timber and canvas, with lake views that draw tears to one’s eyes, the camp allows one to truly appreciate the beguiling and bewildering wonder that can be Africa. n