Friday, 26 February 2016

The southern highlands

In Malawian terms I see myself as a northerner.  We were based in Mzuzu which is the largest town in northern Malawi, my Malawian alter ego, Musopole, was from Kameme village in Chitipa district which is in the far north west where Malawi meets Zambia and Tanzania, and all our travels had been in the north. I liked the north.   It's green, the landscape is varied, it's not too hot (at least, as long as you are away from the Lake), and the people are friendly.  It's also a place that people in Malawi who are ambitious  don't want to come to or stay too long.  If you want the good jobs in government or the large Non-Government Organisations you go to Lilongwe in the central region.  If you want to make a career in business or commerce you go to Blantyre in the southern region.  So it is seen as more laid back than other parts of the country and I like the idea of 'laid back'.

So I had a natural prejudice against the south which was reinforced by the fact that the furthest south I had been was Lilongwe, a city that it is not easy to take to.  I talked previously about the contrast between the Old Town and the Capital City but, unless you are in a particularly charitable mood, it is difficult to see that either has much going for it.   The town is divided into Areas that are numbered not on the basis of location but how recently they were built - so it is impossible to find your way around.   Crime is seen as a problem - although I never witnessed it - so the only safe way of getting around after dark is considered to be car. It's in a part of the country that has little in the way of geographical features of interest.  And it's the base for a government that finds it difficult to deliver what Malawian people need. But maybe I am being over-critical.   The Sunbird Hotel in Capital City which we stayed in on the way south and the way back was comfortable, good value and, as with everywhere we stayed, had welcoming and friendly staff.  We had a wonderful host, Cecilia Cruz, who ferried us and our luggage around, welcomed us in her home, and took us to the Four Seasons complex which is an oasis of calm in the middle of Lilongwe.  All the taxi drivers we used - Elson, Bester, and Rhodrick - made sure that we didn't at any stage have to master the complex Area system.

Lilongwe is in the central region and the south itself was a revelation.  I don't know why - I knew about Mulanje as one of the highest standalone peaks in Africa and the Zomba plateau as an impressive geographical feature - but I had the idea that the south was going to be a lot less interesting than the north - generally low lying, featureless, very dry, and overpopulated. It wasn't like that at all.   Our first experience of the south was the coach journey from Lilongwe to Blantyre.  The first major town we passed through was Dedza which lies about 70 km south of Lilongwe; a fellow passenger told us it was the highest town in Malawi,  with significant amounts of rainfall and with snow not unknown in the winter (June to September) months. South of Dedza, the road runs along the border with Mozambique for quite a long way. with rolling hills stretching out to the west across Mozambique and to the east across Malawi (the south of Malawi is wedged into Mozambique with a western, southern and eastern border).  As we approached Blantyre, we moved into generally flatter country but with large hills dotted across the landscape.

Blantyre lies at the foot of at least three of these standalone hills and just about anywhere you are in the city you have a view out onto at least one of them.  The Sunbird Mount Soche Hotel where we stayed (Sunbird were doing special offers and we stayed in them in most places we visited!) was right next to the commercial centre of the town and had a busy city feel at its front - but from the back we had an idyllic view across open land to hills.  Blantyre has also developed organically as a city and there is none of the confusion caused by the artificial Area development structure in Lilongwe.   The centre of the city is the old corrugated iron roofed buildings from the original Scottish settlement which is one of the oldest European settlements in Africa.  The modern developed commercial centre, including the Malawi stock exchange, is on Victoria Avenue which runs north of the old city centre.  Haile Selassie Road, which runs east from the old centre, is a more traditional African commercial  centre, with lots of small shops and a whole phalanx of tailors busy making and mending clothes on the pavement outside the shop fronts.  Victoria Avenue, Haile Selassie Road, and Glyn Jones Road, which also has commercial buildings on it, form a compact central triangle of roads which encompass the main parts of the city.  There is a totally separate part of Blantyre, Limbe, which was developed in the early 1900s as the railway terminus and is some 6 km east of the city centre - but even this seems a logical development to meet the growing transport needs of what was at the time becoming an important commercial centre for the tobacco and tea trade. Blantyre also had a special significance for Nya Kaunda.   The town is named after the small Lanarkshire town that David Livingstone came from and where Nya Kaunda's mother was born.

'Old Boma' in Blantyre - the orginal colonial administrative office at the junction between Victoria Avenue and Haile Selassie Road
Tailors lined the pavement of  Haile Selassie Road 
View from our bedroom in the Mount Soche Hotel - the front of the hotel faced on to the busy Blantyre commercial centre 
St Michael's and All Angels' Church in Blantyre - headquarters of the  CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) in southern Malawi

From Blantyre we travelled east to the tea growing area centred on the town of Thyolo.  Here the green tea growing fields stretch as far as the eye can see - it feels like being in the middle of a wine growing area in the south of France.  We stayed in Huntingdon House on the Satemwa tea estate which is one of the smallest in the area but still employs up to 2,600 people between January and  May, when the tea plants grow fastest, and around two thirds of that number at other times of the year.  The estate was the first in the area to achieve fair trade status and this is reflected in the the work it does to ensure that people on the estate have educational opportunities, health facilities  and other community activities.  But life for workers on the estate is very hard.   They get paid 17 kwacha (around 2 pence) per kilo of leaves collected; 100 kilos in a day gives them a wage of 1,700 kwachas which is about double the minimum wage in Malawi but still amounts to less than £2 per day.   In addition, changes to weather patterns, with later and lower rain fall, are affecting yields which has a knock-on effect on the ability of workers on the estate to make a living. There is also of course a wider political undercurrent about the legitimacy of the original tea estate concessions and measures that might be taken to rectify what are seen as historical injustices.

Huntingdon House on the Satemwa Tea Estate

Tea pickers in the Satemwa fields

Tea tasting at the Satemwa factory
Our journey from Thyolo to Zomba took us past the Mulanje massif which is on the eastern border of Malawi with Mozambique.   Low clouds meant that we couldn't see the highest peaks but we did climb up to a beautiful waterfall with a pool at the bottom where we were able to cool off in the clear mountain water.  Zomba itself is at the foot of another massif - the Zomba plateau - which rises high above the plain.  The town, which was the colonial capital and remained the capital for the first decade of independence, is much smaller and less busy than Blantyre but in certain ways has a similar feel with a number of old buildings built in the late 19th century, a traditional African commercial centre and views of hills from almost anywhere within the town. It is also the home of Chancellor's College which is the top university in Malawi.

Waterfall part way up Mulanje - a dip in the pool allowed us to cool off

View of the Mulanje Massif
Hotel Masongola - built in 1886, it's the oldest building in Zomba
Mathews, who we had first met in Nkhata Bay, showed us round Chancellor's College where he is studying Economics

The  Zomba plateau itself is magnificent.  It's a huge mound rising out of the surrounding countryside. We spent two nights in the Ku Chawe Inn which is on the plateau and has beautiful views down to Zomba town and across the Malawian plains.  The Zomba plateau is the place that foreign dignitaries are taken to admire the Malawian landscape and we had a walk which took in Queen's view, where the Queen Mother was taken on her visit in pre-independence 1957, and Emperor's view where Haile Selassie was taken on his visit shortly after independence in 1965.

Emperor's or Queen's view - you pays your money and you takes your chances


Lake Chilwa from Emperor's View
Sunset - view from our hotel, Ku Chawe Inn, on Zomba Plateau
Looking back at Zomba Plateau from the road to Liwonde
Our penultimate night was spent at the Liwonde National Park which lies on the Shire (pronounced sh-i-re) river.  It was our first sighting of the Shire river and it was very impressive - a huge expanse of water which has its source at the south end of Lake Malawi and joins the Zambezi river in Mozambique.  On the 30 odd kilometre boat journey up the river from Hippo View Lodge in Liwonde Town to Mvuu Lodge where we were staying we passed large numbers of hippos, some elephant families, numerous varieties of birds, and fields full of termite mounds which looked like standing stones placed long ago by a pre-historic tribe.   The boat had to swerve at one stage to avoid a crocodile that had popped its head above the water.

The Shire river


Hippo (and friends) grazing on the banks of the river

Elephants wallowing in the river
A crocodile cools off in the river
The Saddle Billed Stork - some beak! 
Matthews, our guide, serves sundowners on the game drive at Mvuu Lodge
After a final night in Lilongwe, we travelled back to London with an overnight transfer at Addis Ababa. Like Dar es Salaam, Addis was a complete contrast to any of the towns or cities we had seen in Malawi.  It is a large, developed, modern city.  Our hotel was reached by travelling along what was the equivalent of the North Circular Road so we only got a limited sense of what the city was like.  There were aspects of a modern city that all of us would want to avoid - traffic jams, vehicles belching out noxious fumes and a low lying smog hovering over the city.  But there was enough excitement and potential to make us feel that Addis, as with Dar, is a city we would want to visit again so we could get to know it better.

View from Addis Ababa's equivalent of the North Circular Road
So now we are back in London.  There is probably one more blog left in me...to tie up the loose ends and give my final impressions of our 5 month sojourn in Malawi.







Monday, 15 February 2016

Travels and Travails



A lot has happened since my last blog. I joined Nya Kaunda in Zanzibar for a few days before we travelled back across Tanzania on the Tazara railway.  We spent our last seven days in Mzuzu, with me trying to complete the work I was doing and saying our goodbyes to the many friends we have made there. We’ve now left Mzuzu and travelled south.  We're in Blantyre, the commercial capital of  Malawi, and will be moving on to Thyolo near the Mulanje massif, which rises to over 3,000 metres,  Zomba, the colonial capital of what was then Nyasaland, and Liwonde, which is Malawi's premier game reserve.  Our final night will be in Lilongwe, followed by a flight back to the UK via Addis Ababa. So quite a packed schedule. 

Zanzibar is a fascinating place.  Its history is dominated by its role as a trading post between east Africa and the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.  For much of its recent history it was ruled by the Sultan of Oman; but there are also major British influences - and even after it joined Tanganyika to form Tanzania, it followed its own very distinct path. Whilst mainland Tanzania under Julius Nyrere was a leading member of the non-aligned movement, Zanzibar developed close relations with the East Germans. 

This history is reflected in the eclectic mix of architecture in Stone Town, its capital – narrow streets with bazaars of the kind you find in north African souks, sultans’ palaces, late 19th century buildings that reflect the then sultan’s wish to modernise Stone Town (the House of Wonders was one of the earliest adopters of electricity in Africa and the first building in East Africa to have a lift), an Anglican cathedral built on the site of the former slave market and, in the outskirts of Stone Town, flats that look as if they were transplanted from Soviet era Berlin or Warsaw – although unlike many in Berlin or Warsaw, they have never had any repairs or renovation.  



The House of Wonders in Stone Town - built in 1883 for Sultan Barghash bin Said

Christ Church cathedral in Stone Town - built on the site of the former slave market

The political climate in Zanzibar remains fraught.  There is still a huge pull toward Oman and this is reflected in deeply divided political views between the governing party, which is a sister party to mainland Tanzania’s governing party, and the opposition party which would like to strengthen links with Oman.  There is a history of cancelled elections or elections in which the opposition does not take part because they say the polls will be rigged.  When we were there, an election was due on 12th March and every time we were in a taxi the taxi driver would be attentively listening to the news to hear the latest update on the election.  And not surprisingly people are fearful of what might happen – thousands of people were killed and thousands of others (including the family of Zanzibar’s most famous son, Freddie Mercury) fled shortly before the amalgamation with Tanganyika; and political violence during which people have been killed has erupted sporadically since.

Jaws Square in Stone Town- a Speakers' Corner where topics of the day are hotly debated

Zanzibar is of course a beautiful place as well.   The beaches stretch for miles, the sea is an extraordinary turquoise, there are coral reefs where you can snorkel and see a range of colourful fish.  Our lodge, Villa Kiva, was on a wonderful stretch of beach which was practically empty.  The tourism industry is however a mainstay of the economy (along with export of cloves) and there are other beaches which seem to be overrun by visitors.

Another sunrise - this time over the Indian Ocean

The journey to and from Zanzibar took us through  Dar es Salaam, which is a bustling cosmopolitan city with a busy port, modern office buildings, and what seemed like an efficient and effective infrastructure.  But it was not just Dar where we noticed significant differences between Tanzania and Malawi. After travelling across Tanzania on the Tazara train, we spent our last night in Mbeya in the west of the country.  It’s not far north of Mzuzu and the countryside around it is very similar – hilly, green and fertile.  It’s also a similar size and acts as a regional hub.  But whereas Mzuzu has no proper town centre, a hotchpotch of buildings in varying states of disrepair, and mostly dust tracks for roads, Mbeya is a modern planned city, with  buildings generally in a good state of repair, a network of decent roads, and a centre with a range of shops and commercial premises that reflect its status as a regional hub.  To a large extent these differences reflect the access to the Indian Ocean that Tanzania has, with the relative prosperity this brings to the coastal areas trickling out to other areas of the country.   But I am talking about relative prosperity here.   The GDP per head of Tanzania is double that of Malawi’s which means it is around $600 per year compared to Malawi’s of under $300.  And we could see the extent of poverty that exists in the shanty towns around Dar es Salaam as we travelled through them on the Tazara train. 

Dar es Salaam port
Modern office buildings in Dar
Selling fruit in Dar
 
The Tazara railway was built in the early 1970s by the Chinese and does not seem to have been updated since.  It was a 24 hour journey from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya which at times became alarming when the train was going full pelt and hopped along the track – it felt slightly like one of those cartoons where an engine is dragging train carriages flying through the air behind it.  It certainly didn’t help us sleep.  We were told by an Australian that the man he was sharing a carriage with informed him that the track we had just travelled along was where the train usually derails!  But it was a great journey through varied Tanzanian landscape.  The track goes through the middle of a wild life reserve and apparently you can get good views of the animals from the train.  Unfortunately it was dark when we passed through so we didn’t see anything.

Nya Kaunda on the Tazara drinking Kilimanjaro beer
View from the Tazara - rice fields in western Tanzania
Our journey back from Mbeya to Mzuzu was also interesting.  We got a bus at the busy and chaotic Mbeya bus station but were told a few kilometres from the border that we would have to change to motorcycle taxis.  The conductor, who was very helpful, paid the taxi drivers the fare and we changed, suitcase and rucksack and all, onto the motorcycles.  A couple of kilometres from the border the drivers stopped and told us that they had only been paid to get us that far; we would have to pay 1,000 shilling (all of 30 pence) each for them to take us all the way to the border.  After the border we got onto a minibus which was meant to take us to Mzuzu.  But at Karonga we were asked to change into another minibus and again the conductor in the first one paid for the rest of our journey (in this case, there was no request for further money!).  The police in Malawi are clamping down on overcrowding of minibuses and ours were certainly overcrowded – the first one had about 18 people in it when there were seats for 14;  the second had up to 16 people on it – plus bags of maize, buckets of fish, our luggage – when there were seats for 11.  There are police road blocks between every municipality and we passed through at least half a dozen on our way down and were stopped at all.  On each occasion, the conductor went and had a chat to the policemen and we carried on.  Good business for the policemen, not so effective at stopping overcrowding of minibuses.
Nya Kaunda - with luggage - looking somewhat apprehensive

It was difficult to get a true impression of just how crowded the minibuses were

My last week at Temwa was busy.  Temwa’s focus is on delivering services in the Nkhata Bay North community and it has limited capacity in its finance and administration office.  They carry out day to day work but they struggle to find the time to develop policies and procedures or do detailed financial planning.  So I was able to add this capacity. I needed to ensure that as far as possible the policies and procedures and new budget process are agreed and become embedded in the organisation. 

There were interruptions.  We had a swoop by the local Mzuzu immigration office to check that Jo and Sheena, who were over from the UK office, and I had the appropriate visas to work in the Mzuzu office – me as a volunteer and Jo and Sheena in their capacity as full-time staff in the UK who have oversight responsibility for the work in Malawi.  There were threats of confiscating passports and taking us down to the Immigration Office.   The immigration officers became particularly exercised when I told them that I had been asked to pay 20,000 kwacha (20 pounds) to an immigration officer in addition to the normal $100 fee for a Temporary Residence Permit and I had not received a receipt. This kind of thing should not happen in their office!  They said they would investigate it if I liked but pointed out that in Malawi both sides of the transaction would be investigated – not just the recipient.  The outcome was Jo going to meet the top official at the Immigration Office and getting advice on the correct arrangements that needed to be put in place. 

On the coach to Lilongwe, in the outskirts of Mzuzu, Nya Kaunda saw a sign which said “Trust Nobody Partnership”.  It is an interesting approach to partnership working which possibly has some parallels in the UK.  It probably is something that could be added to management text books alongside the “best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley”.  And it has a special resonance in Malawi where there is an understandable lack of trust.  But it is not inevitable. The culture that has developed in government, in officialdom, in business and in management circles is not one shared by the majority of people.   The programme and project managers, project and field officers, drivers, watchmen, cleaners and others that I have worked with in Temwa are the most trustworthy people you could come across.   They represent by far the majority of people in Malawi.   We had great fun at the leaving meal we had last Friday.  We will miss them all!





Our leaving dinner at A1 in Mzuzu- a truly great team










































Sunday, 24 January 2016

"...the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men..."

I've been premature in previous blogs about the rains arriving.  We had a  ferocious storm in November and some heavy rain in December but nothing lasting.  In Mzuzu, which is in the hills and has an abundance of trees, the rain has been sufficient to ensure the greening of the landscape. Other parts of Malawi are getting greener too.  I went to Lilongwe with Liz who flying to Dar es Salaam and it certainly looked a  lot greener on the road from Lilongwe to Kamuzu airport than it had when I arrived at the beginning of October.

The rains have arrived now.   In Mzuzu, it's still quite warm but there has been hardly any break from cloudy skies and, as I write this blog, sheets of rain continue to fall outside my window.  In a break in the rain yesterday, whilst walking into central Mzuzu through the maize fields that stretch out at the bottom of our valley, I started talking to Brian, who with his mother and sisters was working the family maize plot in the valley.  I asked him if the delay in rains had impacted on the harvest and he said 'no', pointing to the green fields stretching in front of us. 

But late rain is having a major impact in the much drier south and in areas of the north nearer the lake shore where there are fewer trees and less rain fall. Jo, the Temwa managing director and co-founder, has recently arrived in Malawi and says she has never experienced such conditions in the twenty odd years she has been living in or coming to Malawi. It's strange for me because what I see is lots of green.  Jo says crops have been ruined as a result of people planting in the expectation of rains that never came. There is increasing hunger (stores of food that people build up for the non-growing season have been used up) and reduced income, with farmers not having produce to sell at market.  

This has significant implications for Temwa's work.  Temwa's focus is on building sustainable communities in Nkhata Bay North by encouraging diversification of crops, working with communities to reduce deforestation, promoting education through bursaries and other means, helping address the scourge of AIDS, and providing micro-finance loans to strengthen local economies. But changed weather conditions, with significantly delayed rains, affects all of this.  Hunger prevents people having the strength to plant the tree seedlings that the communities have been cultivating;  farmers can't generate income to pay off their microfinance loans; and the general lack of income in the communities means that others who have taken out microfinance loans to set up shops and other trading activity have no buyers.  And there are other factors that add to the problems.   There has been an outbreak of cholera in the Nkhata Bay area, with a number of cases in Usisya.  More generally, the economic conditions in the country are getting worse (there were under 700 Malawian kwacha to £1 a year ago; there are now over 1,000 kwacha to £1) and, together with endemic maladministration, this is affecting the ability of the government to take action on any of the many problems the country faces, including helping deal with the food crisis.  So it's not going to be business as usual for Temwa in Nkhata Bay North.  You can read more about Jo's view on what she has found on this visit in her blog at http://temwa.org/an-update-from-jo-hook-on-the-food-crisis-in-malawi/.

I haven't been down to the lake shore recently so I haven't really witnessed what has been going on and I'm not sure it would be obvious in a casual visit by me.  As I have said before, Malawians that I have met are very positive about life and the hardships they face. You will be told about them and the impact they are having but there is an acceptance that this is the way things are and, as far as possible, people just get on with life.  So we have been getting on with the things we do...

... which takes me back to "the best-laid schemes 'o mice an' men".  We had our Burns celebration on 14th January (wrong date for the cognoscenti but we had to fit it in before Liz's flight to Tanzania).  It was meticulously planned.   Johnny at Macondo Camp had contacted a  piper friend in Canada who piped the home-made vegetarian haggis in via skype.  John Fox, who is from Dumbarton and runs the Eva Demaya centre with his wife,   Jacqueline Kouwehhoven (MP for Rumphi West), addressed the haggis and gave a wonderful (abridged) rendering of the tale of Tam O' Shanter.   We had a beautifully spoken recorded version of Burns's ode To a Mouse.  Liz sang a number of favourites from the Burns' playlist - Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes, Ye Jacobites by Name, and My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose - as well as a few other traditional Scottish songs.  We missed out on My Heart is in the Highlands and, I'm not sure, but I think we overlooked Auld Lang Syne. The whisky wasn't flowing but Tom and I fitted in one before the evening was out.  So the  "the best-laid schemes 'o mice an' men" didn't "gang ... agley"...


John Fox addressing the haggis

Liz singing some Burns' hits

...but that can't be said for Liz's planned trip to Tanzania.  We took the coach from Mzuzu to Lilongwe (6am start - we're getting used to it!) a couple of days after the Burns supper with a view to having two nights in Lilongwe before Liz's Monday morning flight to Dar es Salaam.  After we got to Lilongwe, Fastjet, the company that was meant to be flying Liz to Dar, contacted us to say the flight for Monday had been cancelled but it was OK because they would put her on the Friday flight!  As far as Liz was concerned, that was going to "lea'e (her) nought but grief an' pain for promis'd joy!". She managed in the end to get on a Malawian Airlines flight which left on the Sunday morning.

Elson, the taxi driver who dropped Liz off at the airport, drove me round Lilongwe Capital City on the way back.  What a strange contrast to Lilongwe Old Town which is like any other town centre I've been to in Malawi except bigger, busier, dirtier and less safe.   Capital City was built in the 1970s with South African money to be a new independent capital (replacing the old colonial capital of Zomba). It's got a new Parliament Building, Capitol Hill (where all the government departments are located in identikit  '70s office buildings), a new Bingu Mutharika conference centre and hotel (Bingu was President who died in office in 2012 and brother of the current President, Arthur Peter Mutharika), large modern Reserve and National Bank buildings, a few empty shopping malls, a mausoleum for Hastings Kamuzu Banda (founding President of independent Malawi and an advocate of close relations with South Africa), well kept tarmacked roads...and no people (well it was a Sunday!).

Seat of government


A deserted Capital City

I'm due to fly to Dar es Salaam with Fastjet on Friday.  To Burns, "foresight may be vain" and "the best-laid schemes ... gang  aft agley".   There's an acceptance there that foresight has a role.    Malawian Air fly to Dar on Thursday - maybe I should just cut my losses.... 






Sunday, 10 January 2016

New Year on Likoma

Likoma is one of two populated islands on Lake Malawi, some 50 kilometres south east of Nkhata Bay.   It is close to Mozambique - no more than a few kilometres - and lies in Mozambique waters; but it belongs to Malawi.  There are strong ties with Mozambique though with regular travel between the two and Portuguese not uncommon as the European language that locals know.

Sunrise over Mozambique 
The journey to Likoma is an overnight ferry ride from Nkhata Bay, but heading south on this occasion, not north as we had when going to Ruarwe.  The Ilala timetable remains unpredictable. You will recall that on our journey to Ruarwe, we almost missed the boat because it left half-an-hour before its scheduled time.  This time it was in port for hours before its due departure time and we were on board an hour before.  But for some reason it sat in port and left an hour and a half after its scheduled 8.00pm departure time.  We had a further delay of at least half an hour, mid-Lake, when there was a major commotion after some backpackers on the top deck refused to pay the first class fare or move to a lower deck; the captain was in the process of turning the boat back before they  agreed to move.  We remained in first class but the degree of comfort was questionable - it was an overnight journey but the best you could hope for was to find a piece of deck to lie down on and that became difficult when it started raining and everybody had to move into the bar area.  The various delays meant our arrival at Likoma was after dawn which helped when we disembarked; at least we could see where we were going as we climbed out of the boat that ferried us to the shore...although in Liz's case she had the added comfort of a piggy-back onto the shore.
First class sleeping quarters on the Ilala
Our destination at Likoma was Mango Drift, a Mecca in these parts for backpackers (according to the Bradt guide book, although actual numbers don't compare!).   It's on the west side of the island with a view across to Chisumulu (the other populated island on the Lake which lies a couple of kilometres away from Likoma) and beyond that, in the distance, to the Malawi side of the Lake.   It was busy compared to other lodges we had stayed at - barring Mushroom Farm - but that isn't saying much.   There would be three or four people in the bar area at any time, either playing bao (a board game common in East Africa that is not unlike backgammon) or just chilling out on the comfortable seating which, like the bar, is made out of old boats.  Just as at Usisya Lodge, the bar area is built around a tree trunk which adds to the generally exotic feeling. Each night a candlelit table would be set on the beach for dinner and we would have the water lapping up to the Lake shore a few metres away.  On two nights we had live music in the bar - Gaspar Nali from Nkhata Bay who played an extraordinary home-made instrument (half way between a guitar and a double bass with a beer bottle used to play notes) and a local Likoma group who sang a lovely mixture of gospel and African music.  And we saw in New Year beside a fire that had been lit on the beach.
Dinner table being set at Mango Drift


Gaspar Nali playing in the Mango Drift bar
I've written so much about the wonderful landscape of the Rift Valley Escarpment that there is little to add on Likoma which is an outcrop from the Escarpment.  It is more rocky than other places and there are large numbers of supersized baobab trees...but for the rest,  there are the same sandy beaches with rocky promontories, hills climbing steeply above the shore line, areas of dense vegetation, variety of trees, and abundance of bird life.  Village life also appears much the same with villages dotted along the shore, fishing boats everywhere, fish and cassava drying nets, well tended vegetable plots, tethered goats and roaming chicken.
Nya Kaunda measures up in front of a baobab tree

Back on Barra? - a cormorant dries it wings in front of Mango Drift
The main town in Likoma is Chipyela.   This is where the Ilala comes in and shops, bars, community facilities and government offices are located.  But it is hardly a town, more a big village.  There are two particular features which stand out.  One is the small airport with planes flying in on a regular (well, at least daily) basis.  These are most often ferrying in passengers and goods from Lilongwe destined for the up-market Kaya Mawa Lodge (they don't publish prices on-line but the Bradt guide book has them at $335 to $495 per person per night!).  The other is St Peter's Cathedral which was completed in 1906 and which was headquarters of the Anglican Church in Malawi until after the Second World War. It is an immense structure to be found in such a remote place.
St Peter's Cathedral, Chipyela

Chipyela main shopping street
We were four nights on Likoma and wanted a bit of variety so we spent our last night at Ulisa Bay Lodge, around 4 kilometres along the shore from Mango Drift.  We were expecting a car to pick us up but instead we heard a chugging boat engine coming round the promontory from the Ulisa Bay direction.  The comfortable and serene boat journey was a pleasant change from either getting exhausted walking in the blistering heat or being carried on the back of a truck along the bumpy Likoma roads.  Ulisa Bay Lodge  is less backpacker and more traditional lakeside chalets.  The rooms are beautifully decorated and the Lodge itself is very close to Ulisa Bay village which means the bar had locals in it, not just backpackers. We also had a wonderful view of the sunset which was hidden  by a promontory at Mango Drift. We loved Mango Drift but it was good to get a different experience.
Arriving at Ulisa Bay Lodge

Gin (Malawian, of course) and tonic in the Ulisa Bay Lodge bar - Chisumulu can be seen in the distance

Sunset seen from the Ulisa Bay Lodge bar
The Ilala did not disappoint on the way back.  It was meant to leave Likoma at 6pm (or that's what the timetable says) and arrive at Nkhata Bay at 1am.  Instead it left at 2pm and arrived at 7pm; definitely good to arrive much earlier in the evening but a problem for anyone who is naive enough to believe what timetables tell them.

Stopping off at Chisumulu on the way back

So now we are back at Mzuzu again.   I am stuck into Temwa work and Liz spent last week at the Crisis Nursery and is starting back at Wongari School today - though only for a week after which she disappears off on her trip to Zanzibar!  Our valley is becoming increasingly green and lush as a result of the rains and the Temwa compound garden is in a productive state - maize cobs, aubergines and we hope shortly to be getting avocados.  Gift, the Finance Administrator, brought in chickens he breeds at home and we had a freshly slaughtered chicken for dinner.  Mpatso (Gift) and Chiwemwe (Happy) had their kittens before Christmas; they kept them hidden in the innards of the sofa and armchair they had chosen as birthing places but  Mpatso disappeared a couple of days ago with two of the kittens and we don't know where they have got to.  We are hoping for their safe return.

How green is our valley?
Oversized aubergine in the Temwa compound garden


James and Nkhoma plucking chickens in the Temwa garden
We visited Wellington's house on Sunday morning.  It was an interesting  experience for us - I think people are probably as used to seeing mzungus (white people) in some of the remote villages as in the Chiputula area of Mzuzu that Wellington lives in so we attracted a fair amount of attention.  We received the usual warm welcome at Wellington's house and were given tea and food - interestingly, in what apparently is a Malawian tradition, when the food had been laid out everybody else went out and we were left to drink the tea and eat the food on our own (well we would have eaten it if we had not had breakfast just before we went there).  We were then joined again by Wellington, his wife, his children and an assortment of neighbours.  Wellington's wife and neighbours wanted to find out more about us (Malawians have a touching interest in backstories) but none spoke English so Wellington had to translate which he was brilliant at (Liz and I think Wellington should move into a new career, translator not watchman).
Taking a bicycle taxi to Wellington's house in the Chiputula area of Mzuzu
Wellington, Nya Kaunda and Grace, Wellington's first born, who wants to become a nurse
Outside Wellington's house - his wife is third left  at the back

I have in previous blogs given some of my impressions of Malawian life and hope to again in a future blog. One issue you can't miss is the impact that superstition has on society  (I have just been reading one of the No.1 Detective Agency stories in which understanding local superstitions plays a key role in solving one of the crimes).  There has been more than one story in the Nation newspaper about mob violence following deaths from lightning strikes where individuals have been accused of casting evil spells - in at least one case, this led to the death of the supposed perpetrator.  A possibly more bizarre story which fortunately did not have such terrible consequences was the one on the front page of last week's Nation on Sunday where rioting started following rumours being spread that a local pastor had turned into a snake.   The article is accompanied by a picture of said Pastor sitting on a sofa looking just like a normal human being - clearly the rumours had no basis in fact!
'Snake' pastor looking very much like a human being

The Burns Supper is going ahead at the Macondo Camp on Thursday and we had a practice on Sunday night after dinner - Liz singing Burns and other Scottish songs and others (not me) practising their Highland fling.    Attempts to get haggis have failed but Johnny, who is managing Macondo whilst the owners are back in Italy (having just had a new born child), has found a vegetarian haggis recipe.  The feedback Johnny has  had from others is that the vegetarian version will be preferable to the usual haggis constituents.  Bagpipe and other Scottish music has been downloaded in preparation. I suspect there will be a bit of whisky as well.

Practising for Burns supper on Thursday