Malawi scenery

Seven days in the warm heart of Africa

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By Tim Chester
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Of all the sights, sounds and sensations stamped in my mind from my week in Malawi, one stands out above all others: Everlasting’s laugh. Our brilliantly-named driver was guide, companion and entertainer over several hours and countless bumpy miles around this sliver of sub-Saharan Africa, and his protracted guffaws were a law unto themselves. Oscillating from meek titters to all-out howls, they inevitably provoked a similar reaction from everyone else in the car, in turn sparking more from him, and fusing into one constant comic chain.

Everlasting was a font of near eternal mirth: giggling as he pointed out the upturned bottles outside houses that signified a moonshine manufacturer; chuckling as he gestured towards tyre merchants and Catholic churches; and all-out chest-heaving when we asked why he kept ignoring his wife’s calls on one of his mobile phones.

We were visiting the country for the annual Lake Of Stars festival on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, followed by a short safari at a luxury camp in Liwonde National Park, but it turned out to be the unforeseen elements of the trip – the journeys between these destinations, the daytime excursions, the incidental events – that proved most memorable in Malawi.

The five hour drive from Lilongwe’s airport to the festival, for example, went by in a haze of lethargy from either jetlag or the anti-malarials or possibly both, and offered initial glimpses of a continent I’d only experienced second hand. Burnt orange earth banks, sporadic tenements, police checkpoints and bunches of locals selling newspapers and sweets went by in a flash. Curious stares and manic waves accompanied us the whole way from children and adults alike, not least when we stopped at the Boyz Pub – essentially a brick shell with a TV hanging off the wall and a fridge full of beers.

Roadside children in Malawi

All photos by Tim Chester

The festival, meanwhile, mixing international acts from America, the UK and Japan with homegrown talent and one band who drove for five days from South Africa to play, was great fun (and covered in more depth on NME), but it was a shared carton of Chibuku Shake Shake (a strange, boozy concoction with, it must be said, vomity notes) with the locals in the nearby market that will stay with me longer than any of the performances.

Of course it was impossible not be moved by the obvious stuff: the local school, where children swarmed and knocked me to the floor for the chance of seeing themselves on my tiny SLR screen; the book bus, a travelling library surrounded by story-hungry kids; the HIV clinic, where locals are reluctantly starting to take the test and where one man tried to hustle some of the festival-goers into a jab, causing them to recoil in horror. At the school I met a pupil called Ronard. He followed us around, sold some homemade peanut butter and showed me his dusty patch of earth in the gardens, promising it will one day yield vegetables. He wrote down my email address but I never heard from him.

We were taken to meet a group of ladies under a tree in a nearby village, recipients of money from an organisation called Microloan who provide small loans to start small businesses. They stood up one by one and, through a translator, told us how they had used the money to make a living. It was moving stuff, as was the way they greeted and waved off our bus singing. Much like Everlasting’s laugh these women possessed an inherent musicality we witnessed again and again on our trip, and Foals’ afrobeat-inflected headline set at the festival later than night merely underlined Africa’s irrepressible pulse and its influence on the rest of the world.

Foals at Lake of Stars

It felt a bit wrong to disappear off into a posh resort to spot animals through binoculars after all that, and it turned out the place was more like a prison than a boutique retreat. It was reached by boat like an Alcatraz with better linens; each day began at 5.30am with oatcakes and tea; meals were non-negotiable; safaris were strictly scheduled. Leisure time, meanwhile, was only permitted for half an hour between the afternoon drive and evening drinks. It was lockdown after nightfall and you had to beat a drum if you needed someone to emerge from the darkness and safely escort you to another secure location.

Elephants in Lilongwe National Park

Of course we ticked off all the requisite beasts roaming the big wild nothingness of Liwonde National Park (alligators, monkeys, hippos – they hadn’t introduced the cats by this point), watching wildlife from a raised platform and sharing a deserted swimming pool with several simians.

My impressions of Africa were abstract and recycled before. They’re much more concrete now. I’ve fallen in love with the continent and want to return, to travel further and for longer. I was frequently told, by grizzled veteran travellers of the continent, that Malawi is “Africa for beginners”. If that really is so, then I hope to graduate to intermediate soon.