Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why you should visit the world’s poorest country

There are over 10,000 animals in this photograph from Nkhotakota Game Reserve.

This country might be more known for hunger, floods, corruption and poverty than tourism. But go, and you will be rewarded by beautiful beaches, safaris, natural attractions and friendly locals. And I guarantee you won't meet your neighbour.

Written by Øystein Garfors
People travel to Malawi for a variety of reasons, but few tourist are flocking to experience the country’s attractions. This might change. And it should. Lonely Planet added it to its top 10 recommendations for 2014 while Huffington Post proclaimed it the winner of its “top emerging travel hotspots for 2015”. I have lived there for 14 months and made 10 visits. That made me fall in love with the beautiful country and its beautiful people.
Help a non-profit organization get solar powered lights to poor families in Malawi.  
Malawi has had for several years had the dubious honour of topping The World Bank's “countries with lowest GDP per capita” list - or the world's poorest countries. Norway, my country, is on top of the list of the richest countries with a GDP per capita that is 384 times higher than Malawi. There the GDP per capita is as low as 253 US dollars.

But thanks to the countless smiles that meet you, the poverty doesn’t show. And every time I return home from a visit, I am ashamed of us Norwegians. Why? I dare to say that we are introvert, self-centred and shy. At our best we might share a modest nod to strangers.

Not so in the little African country, the size of Pennsylvania. Malawians greet all visitors with a beaming smile and with genuine, disarming warmth. They will go out of their way to be friendly and helpful to anyone who honours them by visiting their country. And one little trick will make them smile even broader, if that is even possible; learn a few greeting phrases in Chichewa, their language.

Say “muli bwanji?” (how are you?) and “dili bwino kaya inu” (I'm fine, and you?), and you will be adopted as a lifelong friend on the spot. But there is more. I will give you another five good reasons, why Malawi better come high on your next gotta-go-to list.

1. Lilongwe

Malawi is a landlocked country, making it a bit difficult to reach. If you fly in, you will arrive in the capital, Lilongwe. The dirty unorganized city comes with few facilities for the keen shopper, the hungry gourmet traveller or the sophisticated night owl. During daytime the roads are packed with 4WD NGO owned Toyota Prados and hawkers trying to make ends meet.

In my opinion Lilongwe is actually best avoided. Except for getting that genuine feel of a real and chaotic African city. And most travellers will have to spend at least a night or two upon arrival or departure, so make the best of it. The main market in the old town is huge and interesting place to get lost during the day. Just watch your belongings. And if you are into dodgy nightlife, Lilongwe is your new hotspot for years to come. There are fun discos and nightclubs where you can exhaust yourselves until next morning. Just don't judge them by the volume. The worst ones usually play the loudest music. If you stay centrally in the Old town, you are safe to walk as long as it is light. I'd recommend to go by taxi after dark, and especially when looking for nightlife.

And despite of Lilongwe's drawbacks, this is actually where you will find the best restaurants in the country.

2. Senga Bay

Senga Bay Beach is a weekend retreat for NGO (non-government organization) workers and the wealthy Malawians, primarily based in Lilongwe. A broad stretch of sandy beach is home to a range of hotels, everything from luxurious resorts to small lodges and campsites. The availability of facilities, mixed with village life and fishermen at work make this a place with a great atmosphere. If you get bored it is only 16 kilometres to the town of Salima where you can visit the markets or have a game of pool or a drink with the locals in one of the many bars. Remember that 9 out of 10 girls you will meet in pubs all over Malawi will be there for work, and that few of them are with good health. Be warned. Senga Bay's proximity to the airport makes it my favourites end stop on my way home. If you end up at Cool Runnings, a brilliant but simple lodge, please keep it a secret.

3. Lake Ilala ferry service

This motor ship has plied Lake Malawi since 1951. Go as a passenger, I promise that it will be a remarkable experience. Starting Fridays from Monkey Bay in the south it continues up the coast to Nkhata Bay, Likoma and onwards to several other interesting stops. You will even get to visit the Mozambiqian side of the lake. It always gets lively during stopovers where sometimes hundreds of people will show up to witness and take part in the hustle. The ship is often late and has even broken down on several occasions, but remember TIA – This Is Africa – such experiences just add to the enjoyment of the ride. Expect to travel together with chickens, fish, goats, locals and maybe a few tourists. Ilala is 172 feet (52 meters) long and can accommodate up to 365 passengers. In first class, on the top floor, you will naturally be more comfortable, but see fewer smiling people. The majority of the passengers find themselves cramped together under deck. If you are white, chances are close to 100% that you will be the only one onboard. Book ahead to secure a bed in one of the 7 cabins. You should otherwise bring warm clothing for the night and sun block for the day.

4. Lake of Stars music festival

The biggest art event of the year takes place every year in September and October in beautiful surroundings somewhere around Lake Malawi. In 2015 the 10th edition will take place in Mangochi. Look forward to three days of great music, art and performances by local and international artists. October is the warmest month of the year, so if air conditioning is your cup of tea, make sure to book a room ahead. Earlier this year, Time Out magazine named Lake of Stars as having the most beautiful festival location in the world. Just sayin'.

5. Nkhotakota

Welcome to what is allegedly Africas biggest village south of Sahara! Nkhotakota (Chichewa for "Corner Corner") is both a town and one of the districts in the Central Region of Malawi. It is on the shore of Lake Malawi and one of the ports of call for M/S Ilala. Nkhotakota is a great place to get a feel of real Malawian everyday life. The population of the town feels like 5,000 but is actually estimated to be closer to 50,000. The town is my Malawian hometown, and where I travel for business. It has several uncrowded jewels that are waiting to be explored by you. Just to stay, observe and take part in daily life at the market, the beach or a local pub will make your day. I promise. You will experience great vibes and most people are up for a chat.

Nkhotakota Youth Organization is a superb source for further exploration. They run a Cultural Centre, a vocational skills school and a rural electrification company where you can volunteer for shorter or longer periods. They have a pleasant outdoor restaurant where they arrange concerts and the occasional music festival. They will also arrange tours in the district for you. Such as sending you off to Bua River Lodge, a good place inside the game reserve to chill out while waiting for crocodiles and elephants. Beach bums should head for beach side lodge Fish Eagle Bay where you can relax, kayak or simply down a MGT (Malawi Gin with Tonic) or two.

6. Safari

You may not associate Malawi with safaris, but this is actually often the main reason why people travel here. The country has never had the reputation of being a prime safari destination like Tanzania or Zambia, but this is about to change. Let me just mention brand new wildlife lodges, initiatives to stop pouching and governmental plans to improve the parks

In Liwonde National park you can for instance get a 2 hour boat safari for less than 20 USD. Last time I saw plenty of large animals like hippos, crocodiles, antelopes and elephants. There are also all sorts of animals at Nkhotakota game reserve, but they are harder to spot as the the vegetation makes for some pretty good hiding places. This also makes for spectacular and exciting walking safaris with some of the wildlife rangers. Both Tongole Wilderness Lodge and Bua River Lodge offer quality accommodation in locations that make you feel like you are further from rest of the world than ever.

So why visit Malawi?

You mean you are still not convinced? Tourism is also a good way to support a poor country since most of the companies contribute greatly to the local communities. And in addition to the handful of tips above, much more is on offer. The friendly and easy-going people are still the main reason to go. They will inspire you to continue to shake hands of unknown people even upon your return home. You are likely to pick up the habit of asking “how are you?”, “where do you come from?” and “how are you family?" and actually want to hear their response.

And I am pretty certain that a trip to Malawi will inspire you to share more smiles and pay more attention to the people around you than to the overflow of social media updates. At least for a short while. It won't take long until you will want to go back again, either. Enjoy!

Getting there and around 

Øystein in Lake Malawi.
Lilongwe is not in any way a hub. It is barely connected to any, even. You will have to transit in at least one other African city. KLM/Kenya Airlines flies daily from Amsterdam through Nairobi, while South African takes you there directly from Johannesburg and Ethiopian does the same from Addis Abeba. Economy flight tickets from Europe range from 670 to 1100 USD return.

Public transportation is poor, crowded and irregular. I would recommend renting a car, or getting the lodge where you will stay to arrange for a pick up from the airport. Most are more than willing to combine a visit to town with meeting a guest.

You can go - and make a change for 1001 families

But how about experiencing Malawi in a totally different way? I’m involved in a non-profit company that provides solar energy solutions to locals and businesses in one of the poorest regions in Malawi. Less than 3 percent of the households there have access to electricity. Within the next year we aim to provide lights to 1001 new households in the poorest areas of villages. To help us achieve our goal, please consider contributing to our crowd-funding campaign. One of the bonuses is the possibility to sign up for a trip to the country in October, 2015. 2,700 USD will include flights (economy class) from a European capital city and accommodation in a double room during ten exciting days. We will bring you to Nkhotakota to learn more about our projects, you will relax by the lake, go on a safari and really get a good feel of the real Malawi. But the best bit is that that you will support installation of lights to several poor families.

For more details of this trip and other ways to support, please visit our crowd funding site.

Relevant links

Nkhotakota Youth Organisation
Fish Eagle Bay, Nkhotakota
Bua River Lodge 
Tongole Wilderness Lodge
Hippo View Lodge, Liwonde National Park
Cool Runnings, Senga Bay
Ilala Ferry timetable (from May 2015)
Lake of Stars Music Festival
List of companies doing Safaris in Malawi