An Insider’s Guide to Blantyre, Malawi

Blantyre – An Expat’s Guide to the City

I love our adopted city of Blantyre – it’s a beautiful, green city full of charm and history and is the perfect size.  Before moving here, I couldn’t find much on life here and how to settle in, so as we prepare to leave, I thought it might be helpful to provide a few notes for anyone lucky enough to come live here.

Please keep in mind that (1) I’m no expert – just enthusiastic and (2) as in most developing countries, things change quickly – roads appear or disappear, restaurants open and close, bars become en vogue or desolate, shops and lodges close down or open.  The problem with writing a blog post like this is that it will probably be out of date by the time it’s published!

So this post will probably bore 98% of you, but I hope it’s helpful to someone!

Facts about Blantyre:

Blantyre is one of the oldest cities in East and Southern Africa.  Predating Harare, Nairobi, and Johannesburg, the city was first established by Scottish Missionaries following David Livingstone’s trail blazing.  In fact, Blantyre is named after Blantyre, Scotland, Livingstone’s birthplace.  Soon after, the Missionaries started building the Church of St. Michael and All Angels (a magnificent brick cathedral constructed without an engineer or architect), the African Lakes Corporation established a trading post in the city, and built Malawi’s oldest building, the Mandala House.  Now a cafe, gallery, and archival library, the two story house has beautiful wrap-around porches, large windows, and is surrounded by massive trees.  Legend has it that when it was first built, people who had never seen a two story structure came from miles away to see the “house on top of a house.”

Down on Victoria Avenue, one of the main streets in town, are the original colonial administrative buildings.  While they are not in the best shape, they were built in the quintessential colonial style with thick brick walls and green corrugated tin roofs.

While Blantyre and Limbe are close together, Limbe has a distinct commercial feel, with a tightly packed ‘downtown’ area full of small shops and mosques.  Blantyre’s commercial district feels more laid back.

Blantyre is surrounded by three mountains, Ndirande, Mchiru, and Soche.  In addition to being beautiful, they are also helpful focal points when learning your way around town.  The streets of Blantyre feel like they were laid out by a hyper-active rabbit.  Every year, there is a three-peaks challenge, where fabulously fit people get up really early and climb each peak in one day.

I’m not sure the population – Blantyre was the biggest city in Malawi until two years ago and now Lilongwe has narrowly overtaken it.  While the townships surrounding the town are high density, the actual city itself feels quite manageable and intimate.  There is a constant influx of expats (mostly British, although there are also always Canadians, Dutch, Irish, and a few Americans scattered in as well).  The major hospitals, Queen Elizabeth (or Queens) and Beit Cure welcome expat doctors and while there aren’t as many NGO’s as before (they’ve all moved to be closer to the donors in Lilongwe) there are still a few expat NGO workers.

Blantyre has several neighborhoods and when people ask where you stay, they are generally asking which neighborhood you live in.  Sunnyside is a beautiful, posh neighborhood on the south west side of town, full of large old houses with sprawling gardens.  Mandala, more in the center of town, is also quite posh, although I hear they have more power cuts than in Sunnyside.  We live on the edge of Nyambadwe, on the north side of town, which is also famous for powercuts, but being on the same line as the ex-President’s brother’s house has made things easy on us.  Namiwawa is east of the city center and has some lovely houses, which are generally smaller than Sunnyside.  Kabula is one of the older neighborhoods and has some beautiful houses – and two of Blantyre’s best restaurants.  All of these neighborhoods are safe, but most homes are surrounded by large brick walls, sturdy gates, and have guards.

Most of the year, the weather in Blantyre is perfect – not to hot, not too cold.  Even in the rainy season, it rains for a few hours and then the sparkling sun is back.  October and November, however, can be torture.  I’ve never been so hot as I was last November.  On the flip side, June and July can be really cold – probably not cold to people coming from the UK, but cold to me.  I tell people to bring warm clothes because I was shocked my first June.  I had packed all light clothes, because hey, I was going to Africa.  I also thought I’d naturally loose lots of weight and be perfectly tan – oh well.

Moving to Blantyre

You must get on Carole Vardell’s email list – it’s the main source of information in Blantyre.  In an old fashioned way, Blantyre is a word-of-mouth town.  She sends out ads for homes for rent, cars for sale, deals on vacations, and a weekly summary of events.  Send her an email and she will add you to her list.  (

The Blantyre Chat Google Group is also a great resource – people often put up ads for cars, household goods, etc.

Tiyeni is a website with classified ads that should be really helpful once they get all the quirks worked out.

There is a Facebook group: BTXP+ with lots of good information – and a great place to ask questions of people in the know.

Once here, pick up a copy of The Eye, which is full of interesting articles, phone numbers, and important local information.

What to Bring

Again, bring a sweater if you’re going to be here in the winter months – it does get cold!

Also, I have a Kindle, which has been a lifesaver – books here are hard to find and expensive but with a kindle I can download new books really easily.

You can buy most toiletries here – they just tend to be expensive, so I would stock up on sunscreen!

Buying a Car

Cars in Africa are amazingly resilient.  The most popular Expat Model is a Rav-4.  We had one that was 18 years old and loved it.  We also had a bigger car, an Isuzu that was also 18 years old, but a tank – second hand cars are actually a great investment because they don’t really depreciate here.  We sold both for about what we bought them for.

It’s important to have a trusted mechanic check out the car before you purchase.  We’ve had some run ins with terrible mechanics, but are very loyal to our current one.  If you’re ever in a position where you need a good one, let me know and I’ll give you his information.

Until you get a car, or if you decide not to get a car, minibuses are the common form of public transportation.  Exciting, interesting, a cultural experience, yes, yes, yes, but make sure, if you can, that the driver is not drunk before you get in.

Going Shopping


New furniture in Blantyre is expensive.  The best bet is to look for home sales or to buy locally made furniture.  There is great cane and wood furniture for sale around town – sometimes just on the side of the road.  We had great luck with Mr. White, who made us a beautiful cane table and chairs.  If you’re going to be here for a long time, or are moving back with a container, the store Habitat often has gorgeous wooden furniture – it’s expensive, but really beautiful.

Household Items

It’s tempting to stock-up at Game or Shoprite, but you can get much better deals at Sana or some of the smaller Chinese shops.


There are three places in Blantyre that really cater to expats: Shoprite, Chipiku, and Saver’s Choice.  I’m ignoring Game (the mega-South African chain that’s actually owned by Walmart) because it’s SO incredibly expensive that no one really shops there and I’m sure it will go out of business soon.

Shoprite: Also a mega South African chain, but it’s got so many of the things you crave (taco shells, spaghetti sauce, cream cheese, etc.)  It’s not a pleasant shopping experience, as it’s often crowded, but you’re sure to see someone you know.  It’s expensive (butter is now something like 12$) but worth it when you want to cook something special.

Chipiku:  a Malawi chain that is smaller than Shoprite, but often cheaper and much more pleasant to shop in – they have lots of stuff for expats (pasta, chips ahoy cookies, snickers bars, etc) but not quite the range that Shoprite has.

Saver’s Choice: on the road to Limbe, it’s impossible to get to, but it’s worth a visit. They often have really hard to find things like Thai curries, chocolate instant coffee mixes, and cranberry sauce.  Their baked goods are amazing and they often have the best mozzarella cheese.

Fresh Produce

The Blantyre market is a great place for fresh produce.  There are stalls full of colorful fruit, vegetables, and grains.  It is daunting, however, as you park your car and it is immediately surrounded by 15 boys wanting the job of either guarding your car while you shop, or providing shopping bags and carrying your groceries.  My tactic is usually to try and pick the same guy to help with groceries and the car.  I know it sounds pretentious to have someone follow you around carrying things for you, but it is providing an income – however small.

The Limbe produce market is even better.  It’s a massive covered building that feels clean and bright.  The prices are usually lower than Blantyre and the selection is better.  It’s just kind of a pain to get out there.

Just know that as a mzungu, you’re going to pay a bit more than Malawians at the market.

If you need fresh vegetables but can’t be bothered with the hassle of the market, there is a small store run by local farmers.  The selection is limited and the prices are higher, but it’s much less fuss.  The store is in the Tea Planter’s Association parking lot in Kidney Crescent.


You can tell if it’s a good day to buy meat at Shoprite based on the smell of the meat section.  Often it’s fine, but there are days when it’s best to just stay away.  I also buy meat at Superior Halal, on the highway b/w Blantyre and Shoprite or Meat Connection – across from Hotel Victoria – while it’s all frozen, the quality is excellent.  They also sometimes have nice splurges like frozen calamari.


Shopping for wine at Shoprite or Game can give you a heart attack – the prices are shocking.  But luckily, there are a few local places with better selection and much more reasonable prices.  Chipiku has a good alcohol section near their grocery store.  My favorite, though, is ASAP.  Located in a warehouse on Kidney Crescent, it usually has pretty good stock – they will also call you if they get a new shipment in.  It’s located behind Tiyeni and across from Blue Elephant.


Personally, I love to go market shopping for second hand clothes.  All those clothes you donate to GoodWill or Oxfam end up here, and after a good wash, they are almost like new!  I’ve found some amazing dresses – Zara, Banana Republic, J Crew, etc.  Limbe is better than Blantyre and again, you have to be patient, but it can be really fun and really cheap.  The market is also the perfect place to find costumes.

I really regret not having more clothes made.  Just as I’m leaving, I’ve found the most amazing seamstress named Clara – I have her information if anyone needs it – she’s so talented, her English is perfect, and her prices are amazing.

Curios and Decorative Items

The Curio market in town is well-stocked, but a nightmare.  It’s generally pretty empty, so when someone comes up to shop, all the vendors surround them.  It can be stressful.  You can get great deals there if you’re willing to be firm and to bargain well.  The vendors are pretty adept at sizing you up – have you been here awhile or are you fresh off the boat.  A general rule of thumb is that with curios, you should pay 1/3 of the original asking price.  For me, though, I try and figure out what something is worth to me and as long as I’m happy and the vendor is happy, everyone wins.

The Lilongwe curio market is better than Blantyre – it’s more spread out and I think they hassle you less.

The BEST place to shop for curios is on the Zomba road in between Zomba and Liwonde.  At the bottom of the big hill (going towards Liwonde) there is a row of shed son the right, mostly selling Chief Chairs.  The chairs are Gorgeous – beautifully and intricately carved.  Even if you’re the only one there, the vendors don’t pressure you – they let you look and decide on your own.  The prices are incredible.  We bought several large chief chairs for 3500 MK when in town it would be 13,500.

If you visit the lake, often vendors will come to the lodge or cottage where you’re staying – I like shopping this way too – it’s often low stress and cheaper prices.

While Malawi is known for its beautiful wooden carvings, the country also has a devastating deforestation issue – so if you’re like me, you’ll wrestle between trying to provide some income for the carvers and vendors and wanting to protect the natural resources.  I don’t really have an answer.

La Caverna

Situated in the first floor of Mandala House, the gallery has a beautiful selection of artwork, carvings, books, textiles, and jewelry.  Their prices are much higher than the market, but it’s a pleasant place to shop and the quality of art is always high.


A little more jumbled than La Caverna, Habitat also has some beautiful things.  The prices are pretty good and the selection is more varied than La Caverna.

Central Africana

A nice, but expensive bookstore.  A great place to find old maps or prints, and it has an amazing collection of antique books pertaining to Africa.

Kwa Haraba

Locally owned, it’s located on Glyn Jones across from Metro.  It’s a small shop and a little crowded with items, but the owner’s mission is to promote and preserve Malawian cultural heritage.  It has a great selection of artwork and carvings and has some unique items (like a hand painted sign illustrating the Chichewa word Umandigiligisha – or ‘you tickle me silly.’)


Ishq should really be its own category – it’s very upscale and expensive, but has some lovely things.  Located next to Wilderness Safaris in Ryalls, it has nice imports (such as paper and leather goods from Italy) but I really go there for the jewelry.


Located on Haile Salassie, this store has almost everything you need in terms of textiles.  You can buy kikois, zitenje, and fabric for making clothes.  They also copy keys.


There are SO many things to do if you’re sporty.  I remember meeting the legendary Maggie O’Toole when I first arrived and was so excited “do you bike? mountain bike? hike? play tennis? play squash? run up mountains? run on flat surfaces for miles and miles? play volleyball? do aerobics? play golf?”  I had to hem and ha and say that no, I really don’t do any of that, but the point was that all of that is on offer in Blantyre.

The Blantyre Sports Club

An old school colonial institution, it has a nice golf course but a tendency to be snooty.  If you’re looking for a place to play sports and exercise, the College of Medicine sports complex is nicer (especially the squash courts) and cheaper.

The Mountain Club of Malawi

A great way to meet people, the club hosts events, socials, and organizes regular trips up Mt. Mulanje (and other mountains too!)


Check Carole Varndell’s weekly email updates for more sporty activities – there is a golf tournament every Wednesday, Circuit training Tuesday/Thursday, Zumba classes, volleyball, etc.


Here are some words that I was unfamiliar with that are now firmly imbedded in my lexicon:

Braii – Africaans word for bar-b-q

Khonde – Africaans word for porch

Iwe – Chichewa for ‘you’ but is used informally for children

Mzungu/Azungu (Sg and pl) – word used for white person

Green – A Carlsberg beer

Bo – an informal way of saying ‘hi how are you’ – great for speaking with little kids

Sharpe – (pronounced shap) is usually said with a thumbs up – it can mean great, yes, thanks, you look amazing, you’re snazzily dressed, or I’ve run out of the four Chichewa words I know.

Bodza – (pronounced bode-za) Chichewa for ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ – kind of like accusing the speaker of exaggerating (especially handy if you’re in the market and they quote an absurd price)

Most of all, Enjoy your new Home!  Hope you love it as much as we did!


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Out of Africa

We can’t really believe that we’re back in the US and have left Malawi for good (or at least for now!).  We had a whirlwind last few weeks, packing, saying goodbyes, and cleaning out the apartment.  The most stressful moment was realizing that the bags that we’d packed and weighed so carefully had to be 23 kg each, not 30kg.  Luckily Sandy stayed calm and got everything under control.

The goodbyes were the most difficult.  It was so hard to hug goodbye Cathy and Bertha and thank them for all of their hard work and care over the past two years.   There was a nice goodbye event for Sandy at work, where they gave him parting gifts and spoke about what a difference he had made.  Sandy even got a little teary.  Our cat was adopted by a sweet neighbor, so we were confident that we left her in a good home.  We had goodbye drinks at Doogles with friends, but are sure that we’ll see them all again.  And we’re sure we’ll come back to Malawi.

Our drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe was uneventful, except for the police speed traps.  The driver got a ticket in the first trap (with one of the six speed cameras in the country).  The second time he got pulled over, outside Dedza, the policeman swaggered up to the car and told the driver that he’d been speeding – he’d been going 94 km per hour.  The driver got out of the car and went to negotiate with the policeman.  Fifteen minutes later, he got back and we asked what had happened.  Turns out, the police didn’t have a camera!  How hilarious is that?  They just picked a random number that he was ‘speeding’ and then tried to get him to pay!

Anyway, got to the airport, got on the plane (with all our bags!), made it to the DRC (with a team of soccer champions who got off the plane with great fanfare), made it to Addis, then got lucky with an extra seat between us on the long flight from Addis to DC.  There was a terrible movie selection, though, except for The Sound of Music, which I’ve discovered is not a good plane movie because one can’t (or shouldn’t) sing along.

As usual, we have struggled a bit to get back into the swing of life in America – they drive on the wrong side of the road here!  We can go to the grocery store and buy any kind of cheese we want!  How do I work my new Smartphone?  What do you mean there’s an app for that?

Our Southern accents are coming back, but we’re still using British/Malawisms.  Sprinkles will now always be 100’s and 1000’s, overalls are now dungarees, soccer is football, and for a while, french fries will be chips.

As I reflect on our time in Malawi, we feel so fortunate to have had this experience.  I’ve grown as a person, matured, and become more confident.  We’ve made lifelong friends, learned to keep life’s real priorities in perspective, and had two and a half amazing years.

It feels like forever since I was that recently-arrived girl thinking that the minibuses were honking just to be friendly.  I won’t really miss minibus drivers.  Nor will I miss the snakes in our apartment (three in 2.5 years!  and we lived on the second floor!).  Or the cheap light bulbs that fall to the floor and shatter every time there’s a power surge, or the water cuts, or the fuel queues.  I won’t miss the s…l…o…w internet and the lack of communication with friends and family, or the potholes, or the high pitched hum of mosquitoes that have snuck into your net and hover around your ears in the middle of the night.

But more importantly, there are certain things we will really miss:

The people

The babies and team at Open Arms

The calm and relaxation at the tea estates

The magnificent Lake Malawi

Real produce in vibrant markets

Our cars

The mountains and plateaus


Travel to Mozambique, Zanzibar, Zambia, and Zimbabwe

Our adopted hometown

The Rains

The Dry Season

Dinner parties (Including Malawi Thanksgivings!)

Switching our L’s and R’s (exactry!)

Market shopping

The Coffee

The adventure of everyday life

I just wanted to thank all of you for your support, readership, and especially your comments.  This blog started as a way to keep in touch with family, but I am so glad we stuck with it – it’s so fun to go back and read posts from the past.

This is my last post, except for an upcoming Insider’s Guide to Blantyre – it might be helpful for people moving to Malawi.

We’re beginning a new chapter in Columbia, SC, as Sandy starts his International MBA program and we have a baby boy on the way.  We’re convinced we’ll end up calling him Iwe!


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The Baobab Tree

The baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is a common sight in Malawi’s varied and lush landscape.  Standing sentinel, the trees seem ancient, immovable landmarks that connect the present with the past.  Not necessarily beautiful, the trees look odd, even upside down, as their often bare limbs stretch out like a complicated root system.  The bark is tough, steel gray with wrinkles like elephant hide.  The trees grow to massive size and girth and virtually every tree has a unique silhouette and numerous scars that remain permanently ingrained in the bark.  Baobab trees are the subjects of legends and spiritual stories, while scientists continue to try and better understand what makes them grow and thrive.

Humans have benefitted from baobabs for generations.  Each part of the tree can be used for a wide range of products, such as fishing nets, cords and rope, mats, containers, cloth, hats, and shoes, and the bark has even been used for elephant saddles.  The bark, wood, seeds, piths, and leaves offer great medicinal value and have been used in traditional medicine to cure asthma, dysentery, diarrhea, colic, eye infections, malaria, fatigue, fever, inflammation, ear aches, tumors, kidney and digestive problems, as well as open wounds.  Because baobab trees are mostly hollow, people have also used the inside of the trees for all sorts of purposes, making them into shops, bars, stables, a dairy, a bus shelter, prisons, postboxes, burial sites, wells, and even a flush lavatory.

The baobab tree is synonymous with the African landscape.  One can find the resilient baobabs surviving in even the most unforgiving landscapes: on rocky outcrops, high on mountains, and deep in deserts.  Usually solitary, the trees survive droughts, aggressive elephants, and human contact.  Despite their massive size and unusual shape, they rely on a system of hydraulic pressure to stay upright, as the porous wood retains water.  The trees have extensive root systems that remain close to the surface.  Remarkably immune to destruction, those trying to clear a tract of bushland in Tanzania after World War II used bulldozers, military tanks, and even tried dynamite, but failed to move the largest of the baobab trees.

The first recorded description of a baobab tree was written by Ibn Battuta.  Born in 1304 in Tangiers, Battuta traveled throughout Africa and was fascinated by the unique specimen.  From then on, travelers have remarked on the extraordinary size and strange form  of the trees.  David Livingstone’s companion, Thomas Baines, wrote that one tree in particular was “10 times the span of my extended arms, or perhaps, nearly 50 feet.”  David Livingstone also recorded the circumference of several baobabs during his expeditions and even carved his initials into the trees along his routes.  One can find traces of others doing the same, including the Green brothers, a pair of Canadian hunters who carved “Green’s Expedition 1858, 9” into a baobab that is still standing in South Africa.

Scientists have not agreed upon an equation to determine a baobab’s age by its size.  E.R. Swart published his study in 1963 that used carbon dating to determine that a baobab specimen with a radius of 2.28 meters was 1,010 years old.  In Malawi, many say that for every meter of circumference, the tree is a hundred years old.  The largest tree on record since scientists began a registry in the 1980’s, has a 25 meter circumference and is 33 meters tall.  In South Africa, owners of a baobab tree claim that it is the largest in the world, with a circumference of 46.8 meters.  While it is difficult to determine exact age without carbon dating, it is clear that these monolithic trees look and feel permanent.  The Prussian explorer Friedrich von Humboldt described baobabs as the “oldest organic monuments of our planet.”

Baobabs are so much a fixture of the landscape that they were even used in the formal treaty that demarcated the border between Kenya and Tanganyika in 1900.  The agreement reads that “on the high bank the boundary goes from the baobab at No 5 past a second baobab to a third baobab.”

With such a rich and varied landscape, it is easy to take these behemoth trees for granted.  In Malawi, these trees are part of the history of the land, the culture of the people, and add to the beauty and mystery of the African panorama.


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Beany Has a Farm In Africa

Located just 40 minutes from Blantyre, there is a 200 hectare farm nestled in a patch of wilderness with views of Mulanje and Chiradzulu mountains and Zomba Plateau.  The tobacco farm, established in 1915, has 36 hectares are reserved for coffee.  Our friend, the farm’s Managing Director (appropriately named Beany), is an officially trained coffee taster and is trying to increase the farm’s coffee exports and develop the domestic market.  Desperate to visit and imagine myself as Karen Blixen on her coffee farm in Out of Africa (where is Robert Redford?), I was also interested to see how coffee gets from the plant to my mug.

Rows of Coffee Plants with Chiradzulu in the Background

Coffee Cherries

Beany showing the beans that come from the ripe cherries

We had a chance to visit the farm a few weeks ago.  It was a beautiful day, warm in the sun but with cool breezes, soft light, and big cream colored clouds.   Beany took us through the coffee fields, showing us the berries that are just beginning to turn bright cranberry red.  The berries are picked by hand and the reaping season will get into full swing in a few weeks.

The plants were three years old in the first field we visited and five years old in the second.  The plants are cut back but grow quickly.  The berries weigh down the branches and the weakest plants seem to topple over.  The spacing of the plants is very important – they must be far enough apart that the berries can get sunlight and then the rows should be far enough apart for a tractor to come through and spray.

Beany showed us the two white coffee beans inside the berry, covered in a thick coating.  The picked berries are taken to a de-skinner (my name for the machine – not sure of the official one) and the de-skinned beans tumble down into large concrete tanks where a naturally occurring bacteria eliminates the mucus coating.  From there, the beans are rinsed off and laid on burlap bags (or in concrete channels) to dry.  Left for about a week, the beans loose most of their moisture, becoming light and brittle, and turn from white to a richer parchment color.

Ripe red coffee cherries

The beans inside the ripe cherries

The de-skinning system.

Beans drying in the sun

The beans are then ready for sorting.  A coffee business oddity is that beans are sorted, graded and sold based on size.  Regardless of the flavor of the bean, the bigger the bean, the more expensive it is.  The beans are put into a large machine that has several layers of perforated metal; each layer has different sized holes, allowing the beans to fall into the different grades.  From there, people check each beans as they travel by on a conveyer belt.

Size and grading distribution machine

Most of the coffee is then bagged in 50 kg bags and exported to Europe or Japan.  Beany, however, reserves some for the local market and roasts and grinds his own.  Beany’s coffee, labeled Makoka Coffee, is widely sought after in Blantyre.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to stock up, we had made our coffee order before the tour and it was roasted while we were in the fields.

50 kg Bags

High-quality Makoka Coffee

The roasting machine was fascinating – the roaster is brought up to a high temperature, the beans are dropped in and as the heat increases again, they pop, like popcorn.  They expand with the heat and the hope is to cool the beans down again before the second pop.  The beans go through a range of smells as they are roasted  and you can pick up on the notes of honey and hazelnut.  After about 8 minutes, the beans are cooled and ready for grinding.  The whole roasting process seems to be a highly technical art form in and of itself.

The Roaster

Freshly Roasted Beans

The finished product

We enjoyed  warm cups of coffee at Beany’s home, high up on a hill, while monkeys jumped around the parked cars.  Beany showed us the case of coffee smells – small bottles that encapsulate each of the identifiable tastes and smells in coffee, everything from the predictable hazelnut and honey, to lemon and orange, and even earth and rubber.

We drove back to Blantyre, enjoying the rich smell of freshly roasted coffee and the spectacular sunset.


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Friendliest People in the World

The Lonely Planet Travel Guide Company has ranked Malawi as one of the world’s Top Ten Friendliest Countries!  Along with countries like Ireland, the USA, and Vietnam, Malawi is the only African country to make the list.


Malawians describe themselves as ‘the friendliest people in Africa’, living in the ‘warm heart of the continent’. Anyone who’s visited will know that the rare (for Africa) cohesion of the country’s ethnic groups is solid evidence for this, as is the people’s propensity to welcome you into their homes as well as their nation. Malawi is small, poor and without a lot of facilities, but with a greeting like that who needs Western-style comfort?

Of course, we already knew that Malawi is one of the friendliest places on Earth.  And here are some more lists I would add Malawi to:

World’s Most Strong and Beautiful Women

World’s Cutest Children

World’s Most Gorgeous Landscape

World’s Most Beautiful Mountains

World’s Most Beautiful Tea Estates

World’s Most Crystal Clear Lakes

World’s Most Amazing Beach Lodges

World’s Greatest Game Parks

World’s Best Mangoes and Avocados

World’s Worst Public Transportation Drivers

Some of the Friendliest People in the World:


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Malawi has a small but booming film industry.  The Malawian film, Seasons of  a Life cleaned up at the Zanzibar Film Festival and created an international sensation, premiering at festivals in Egypt and Kenya.  It is no surprise that film has a place in Malawi – a place full of visual and oral storytelling.  It’s hard to find a community that doesn’t have its own theater group, so it’s only natural that the theater should gravitate to the screen.

Seasons of a Life

The Director of Seasons of a Life, Charles Shemu Joyah is now working on another feature length film, shot entirely in Malawi.  Working with local script writer (and Sandy’s friend and tennis partner), Michael Phoya, the film explores culture, clashes between generations, lakeshore communities, race, jealousies, and of course love and sacrifice.  Our good friend, Rob Loughlin, was cast as a lead actor, and plays a muzungu tourist with questionable morals.  With a thick Irish accent and no previous acting experience, Rob worked extremely hard during the two month shoot and is now a seasoned professional.

While the film is in the final editing process, there were a few last minute shots needed.  Rob volunteered his house for a party scene and volunteered his friends to be extras!  We, of course, jumped at the chance to participate, surprised that the film had made it this far without our acting skills!

One of many cameramen.

About a dozen of us met at Rob’s last weekend, had a quick dinner while they set up, and prepared for our cameos.  The crew had three cameras, plus one for behind the scenes footage.  I’m not sure what all the equipment is called, but there were lights, cameras, and some action.

What amazed me was that they were able to shoot the scene without the main character (who was late – it’s still Malawi).  Instead the Director explained what expressions he wanted and how we should clap or cheer or drink beer (props, of course).  The waiting around was long, but the shooting was incredibly short – they took two takes and we were done.  We must be exceptionally talented.

Getting ready for the Action.

It was exciting to be a part of it, not just because we’ll be famous and probably nominated for something, but because this team is really talented and it was interesting to see how it all worked.  I remember seeing films being shot in Washington DC when we lived there and the massive amounts of people and equipment that is required.  Here they make award winning films with a few cameras and a lot of imagination.

We had to imagine the scene unfolding..



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Lions Everywhere (Nkwali part 3)

In terms of sightings, we were extremely lucky – or as Nyambe pointed out, had excellent guiding. Our first night we came across two male lions who had just killed an impala as a snack. We watched as the two tried to politely share, but the bigger one (not the one who actually killed the impala, mind you) got fed up with sharing and took the impala and ran. The two snarled and argued and roared a bit but came to an agreement and manage to finish it off.

Brothers fighting over a meal.

Using his whole body to roar.

The next night we heard roaring throughout the game drive. We managed to find the source, a massive male lion resting in the middle of a field. Nyambe took us close and the lion looked over at the vehicle. Apparently, the lions see the vehicle and all the people in it as one massive object and so they leave them alone. We were cautioned not to stand up, as then the lion will realize the vehicle has individuals inside that might be delicious. As we watched the lion started to roar – it takes his whole body to produce the noise, and while it is not loud, the noise vibrates through you and carries far into the distance. We later heard the lion as we are enjoying dinner on our deck, amazed that the sound carried so far.
Our third lion sighting was during the day. Five lions, two females and three males were sacked out in some shade. As they hunt at night, they usually spend their days conserving energy. Before long, one of the females got up and seems to be feeling, um … randy. She went to one male lion who made it clear that he was not interested. She rolled over on her back and did a little seductive wiggle but he closed his eyes. She tried her luck with the other, more alert male lion. He had been staring at our vehicle, his yellow eyes were a color like I’ve never seen and gave me goose bumps. The lady lion sauntered over to him and tried again, rubbing her head and nuzzling his neck. He stood up and made it very clear that he also is not interested and swatted his massive paw at her face. Growling and roaring ensued in a brief standoff, but she finally gave up, flopped down and went back to sleep.

Relaxing in the shade.

Female in the back trying to win some attention.

He is more Interested in the vehicle.

Lions snoozing.

While we didn’t see leopards this trip, the lions more than made up for it. Besides, we saw so much else and saw them doing so many interesting things that we couldn’t be happier.

Tea break under a tree.

One morning we decided to go on a walking safari. Nyambe led us, along with an armed National Park guard, around a large area where he points out everything we missed on our game drive. He identified colorful birds in trees, found their feathers on the ground, explained termites mounds, told of spiders, ants, and other small creatures. According to Robin Pope himself, game drives are like watching a movie while walking safaris are like reading a book.

A better view of the small things.

A great place for a morning walk.

and a little learning too..

Our scout, making sure the elephants are not TOO close..

The staff at Nkwali Lodge had one more surprise for us. As the sun began to set on our evening game drive, we started heading for the river bank for our sundowners. As we reached the bank, we found a beautiful table on the edge, a bottle of champagne on ice, and some delicious looking hor d’oeuvres . We enjoyed the champagne and hot artichoke spring rolls by the river as the sun set, watching elephants on the far bank and listening to the hippos and their old man chuckles.

Champagne and hors dóeuvres!

What a surprise!

A final sunset over the river.

The trip was perfect – the accommodation was perfect, the food was perfect, the staff were perfect, the location was perfect, and the sightings were perfect. It was the perfect way to start to say goodbye to Africa. As we packed up and got ready to face that terrible road to Chipata, we were already planning our next trip back to South Luangwa.


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Buffalo, Zebra Butts, and Giraffe Ballets (part 2)

The Hyenas have found the feast

We visit the site where a buffalo was killed by lions and is now being fed on by vultures and eight hyenas.  The sound of the hyenas crunching the bones with their jaws raises the hairs on the back of my neck, but I am also glad that every bit of this animal will be consumed.  Sandy is fascinated by the hyenas – they scavenge for food alone during the night, but when they come across a carcass or a fresh kill, they call for their friends to come join them.   They are strange looking creatures with short back legs, long tails, splotchy coats, long necks, and a face that looks like a bear cub.

Hyenas will eat anything

Zebras – Always showing their backside

We continue our drive and see zebra, such beautiful animals but who always turn their backs right as you snap the photo.  I have so many photos of zebra butts that Sandy thinks anyone looking through them would think I have some sort of problem.  The zebra here don’t have the shadow stripe of brown so the starkness between black and white is more pronounced.  Apparently a baby zebra only needs six hours with its mother to imprint her stripe pattern and she will then always be able to identify her mother in a massive herd.

Baby Stripes

Finally..a front shot.

A lone male buffalo

We come across a massive male buffalo, sitting idly under a shady tree in a riverbed.  He refuses to acknowledge our presence.  We see elephants nearby and stop to watch as a small breeding herd stalks across the plain.  The matriarch leads the way while younger elephants follow behind with the youngest baby in the middle.  They also take no notice of us.  Remembering the chaos of the night before, I am amazed at how graceful and silent they are as they move.

Elephants crossing the river in the distance

We really hope to see giraffes.  South Luangwa is home to a specific breed called Thornicroft giraffes.  They are tall, graceful, and serene.  Our guide, Nyambe, manages to find a herd and we stop to watch their antics.  One female has the attention of three males and they follow her around like puppy dogs.  An older male stoops down to get a drink of water – balletic considering they can’t bend their knees.  A baby giraffe, less than three months old, and his mother share a tender moment.  Three are curious about our vehicle and approach – they lumber on, curiosity sated, after we sit staring up at them in their shadow.

Chasing tale..

Bending down to drink.

This one was not shy..


Robin Pope makes every guest feel special and they go out of their way to make each experience memorable.  On this game drive, as we are expecting to head back to the lodge for a shower and lunch, Nyambe takes us to a large grassy plain where there are safari camp chairs set up and they are cooking brunch for us over the campfire.  The surprise bush breakfast took lots of planning and effort, but means so much.  We enjoy our corn fritters, eggs, toast, bacon, and screwdrivers while watching elephants slowly move across the plain, puku and impala graze, and giraffes huddle around discussing who we are and what we’re doing in their field.

Sandy is ready for breakfast.

Cooking in the bush

A great way to spend the morning!

With elephants nearby.

And so we settled into the safari routine – up at 5:15, breakfast by the fire, game drive in the morning, stop for tea and baked goods half way through, back to the lodge for shower and a rest, lunch, the afternoon to nap or watch the crocodiles sunbathing on the island in the river, a swim in the pool that overlooks the lagoon, tea and more baked goods at 3:00 (the best were the carrot cupcakes), load up for the evening game drive, sundown drinks and snacks by the river while watching elephants cross in the sunset, riding in the cool evening under the stars while our spotter waves his powerful lamp across the landscape, finding genets, nightjars, and lions.  Then back to camp, add a few layers of clothing as it gets cooler, drinks at the bar sharing stories with fellow guests and guides, and then dinner at our romantic little table by the river.  A nightcap by the campfire before an early bedtime, and occasionally some nocturnal disturbances by hippos that particularly love  the grass right around our cottage.


So happy!


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Trumpeting Elephants and Zambian Sunrises (Part 1)

It’s the middle of the night and we’re both sound asleep.  We’ve been hearing roaring from the lions who are competing for territory right across the river.  Our cottage is right on the banks of the Luangwa with wide open green grass and a lagoon behind.  The bathroom in the back of the cottage is open, covered only by a canopy of sausage tree branches.

We are suddenly startled awake by the sound of very large animals right outside the cottage.  Elephants, who can be so astoundingly silent for their size, are shifting about noisily, nervous about something.

Something spooks them and they start stampeding and trumpeting.  They are so close, I’m pretty sure one stops in our bathroom for a quick look in the mirror.  You can almost feel the ground trembling as they rush past.  I swear I then hear a leopard screeching out either a warning, a threat, or a ‘please don’t step on me!’ call.

The whole thing lasts only a few seconds but we are wide awake.  After some time we’re able to drift back to sleep, only to be awakened by the drums that act as our alarm at 5:15 am.

Our cottage by the river

Our open air shower

We are at Nkwali Camp, a Robin Pope Safari lodge in South Luangwa, Zambia.  This is our last big trip during our time here in Africa and we thought it appropriate to spend it here, in ‘the real Africa,’ as Zambia is known.  The drive here was relatively uneventful – they have paved half of that miserable road from Chipata to Mfuwe, but the rest of it still looks like a rocky river bed.

The lodge is beautiful.  In keeping with the Robin Pope aesthetic, the decor is minimal but classic and luxurious.  The cottages are comfortable and open air, allowing you to gaze up at the stars (or the monkeys munching on sausage fruit in the tree) above while showering.  We are here for four nights, long enough to unpack and call our little cottage home.

Our chalet looking over the river

The staff, from the guys who met us at our car with cold rolled washcloths, to the manager, see to our every need – and then some.  In traditional safari camp style, the guests all eat meals together, but they sensed that we need some romantic time so they have set up a table for two on the deck overlooking the river.  The food is amazing – three courses with fresh ingredients and innovative techniques.  We have already had a chocolate pear pie that I will dream about!

The view from the lounge

Our romantic dinner spot on the river

Lodge sitting area

Our private safari vehicle

The lodge is situated just on the other side of the river from the actual national park.  In the morning, after our drum wake up call, we have porridge and toast cooked over the camp fire, warm milky sweet tea, and fresh fruit while we watch the sun rise and the mist clear off the water.  They load us into a boat for the short trip across the river and bundle us into our safari vehicles for the morning drive.

It is still cool and fresh this early in the morning and Sandy uses his colorful kikoi to keep warm.  The scenery itself is worth a trip to South Luangwa, with its wide flood plains, mopane woodlands, dry riverbeds, and thick savannah grasses.  We don’t see another vehicle during the whole drive.  It’s as if Robin Pope has its own enormous concession just for us.

Sandy and his colorful cover

Poor impala

Baby in the middle

More elephants!

Sandy and Nyambe


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Mumbo Island – Paradise in Lake Malawi

Mumbo Island is an uninhibited spit of land 11 km off the coast of Cape Maclear in Lake Malawi National Park.  One of the few classified tropical islands in Lake Malawi, it is surrounded by pristine waters that shimmer blue, turquoise, and green.  Kayak Africa manages a small camp on the island that caters to just 14 guests at a time.

To visit the island you can kayak or take a large motor boat called the “Feersum Endjinn.”  The trip takes about an hour (two if by kayak) and the voyage helps you feel even more removed from reality as your cares and stresses drift away, sailing through the placid waters of Lake Malawi.

The Ride Over

Over and over again you hear how remote, removed, and unique Mumbo Island is – a truly private paradise.   Empty except for playful otters, song birds, soaring fish eagles, and a few Jurassic-looking monitor lizards, the island is yours to explore by foot or by kayak.

The rooms, spacious canvas safari tents  with thatch-roofed porches, are perched on cliffs overlooking the bottle-green water.  They are sparsely decorated with comfortable beds, a few small tables, and an inviting hammocks stretched on the porch.

The Safari Tents

Our deck

The beautiful setting of the tents

This, plus the fact that Mumbo was recently rated one of the Top 100 Hotels in the World made us think that this would be the perfect place to take Will and Allison.  Will and Allison spent an action-packed week with us over Easter, a visit that included several visits to Open Arms, multiple rounds of golf, and lots and lots of good food.

Will and Allison are pretty much up for anything and take things in stride, but when we told them that the luxurious place we’d chosen to visit had no electricity and ‘eco-loos’, they had (they admitted later) a complete freak-out.

Why would we chose to go somewhere with no electricity or flushable toilets?

Mumbo, in addition to being beautiful, serene, remote, and luxurious, is also an eco-lodge.  It prides itself on being environmentally friendly and it takes that commitment seriously.  For example, the shampoo and soap are biodegradable and the only hot water on the island is heated by a solar geyser.  It makes such a small footprint that the camp could be dismantled and within one passing of the seasons, all traces of it having ever been there would  disappear.

Eco Loo!

So back to those “eco-loos”…  the bathrooms, with their dry composting toilets and bucket showers sound rustic and not very cozy.  They are, however, amazingly luxurious (the bucket showers especially).  The guys are incredibly adept at filling the buckets with water that is just the perfect temperature and the specially fitted nozzles give a good water pressure.  While showering, you can feel a cool breeze and gaze out at the stunning lake water below.

Needless to say, when Will and Allison got to Mumbo, all of their worries of discomfort disappeared and they ended up loving every minute of it.  We kayaked, snorkeled, walked, went for a sundowner cruise, ate too much, played bao, laid in the hammocks, enjoyed early morning tea on our porch, and sat around not believing that we actually got to spend the weekend here.

Kayaking around the island

On our sundowner cruise

Sandy enjoying tea on our deck

Mumbo is one of those places that makes you appreciate everything around you; you arrive overwhelmed by the beauty and simplicity of the island and leave refreshed and with memories to last a lifetime.

Will and Allison’s trip went by way too quickly, but we loved getting to spend time with them and watch them fall in love with Malawi.  Considering that they dealt with power outages, water cuts, our scalding hot shower (or alternately, our freezing cold shower), mosquito nets, and the aftermath of the death of the President, I’d say they handled their African journey extremely well!

And a special thank you to both of them for all they did for Open Arms, including lugging four massive suitcases packed full with diapers, clothes, shoes (and even Reeses for me!) across oceans and continents!


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