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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Chichiri Prison

There has been more important news in Malawi, as the government has worked to settle a three month strike.  The strike was over pay increases promised to civil servants and the magistrates went on strike in solidarity.  While the strike took place, the entire court system of Malawi, which is slow to begin with, came to an absolute halt.  No cases were heard and virtually no bail applications were granted, yet crimes and arrests continued.

Over the past few years, Sandy and I have gotten to become good friends with a group of English lawyers working here.   Of the many expats trying to make a difference, these people have one of the toughest jobs.  Whether they are working on high profile human rights cases or quietly churning out bail applications behind the scenes, I truly admire the work they do.

Because their work is so all-consuming (and probably because I’m the child of two lawyers) I find their work incredibly interesting and am constantly (and I am sure, annoyingly) asking questions.  After awhile, I’ve started to know the characters they work with – who’s productive and motivated at Legal Aid, which prisoners have a good chance of getting bail, which prisoners have been on remand in prison for more than five years.

Last Friday, Sandy and I got the chance to visit Chichiri Prison with two of our lawyer friends.  Chichiri prison is well-known and one of the biggest prisons in the country.  Nestled right in the middle of an affluent neighborhood, you could easily drive by the site and completely miss it.  While up-market chain stores, such as Game and Shoprite, are within sight of the prison, the prison itself feels like a completely separate world.

We walked there, on a packed clay path, over a wooden bridge that was missing every other slat, and past a steaming refuse pile.  There was a neatly planted garden outside the main gate, and skinny, aggressive roosters wandered around freely.

The guards recognized our friends immediately and greeted them warmly.  We had brought bags of books and magazines, clothes, and two soccer balls for the prisoners, which was our ticket in.

They opened a small portion of the green main gate for us to walk through, and waved us over to the guard house.  As we passed through the gate and into a large enclosure, surrounded by towering brick walls covered in twisted barbed wire, inmates dressed in white shorts and loose white shirts walked in and out, carrying heavy trash bins.

The female guard patted me down and held onto my cell phone.  Our friends led us through the main courtyard where prisoners were learning car mechanics in one corner and wood working in another.  Once inside the main administrative building, the guards were efficient and purposeful, but still wearing the warm Malawian smile.  The Station Chief, who was clearly a big fan of our two beautiful female lawyer friends, welcomed us into his office and with an air of formality, thanked us for the books, clothes, etc.  He gave a slight bow and said to us, “when you go back to your beautiful country, please tell people that Malawians are your brothers and sisters!”  Once done formally thanking us, he turned to my lawyer friend who was heading back to London and said “ok, now I am ready to come with you to the UK!”  He then laughingly produced his passport with a wink, and thanked her for all of the hard work she had done.

While our friends discussed some official business with the Station Chief, we waited in the main hall with the big gate into the prison courtyards.  On the wall, written in chalk, were the numbers of inmates.  In total, Chichiri prison, which was built to hold 800 prisoners, held 1,915 as of last Friday.  Of those, 8 are the small children of inmates.  Perhaps the most staggering number is that of the 1,915 prisoners, 851 are on remand, meaning that they have not had a trail and probably no bail hearing.  These prisoners are dressed in street clothes, while those who have been convicted are in the standard white shorts and shirt.  Everyone there seemed depressed by the numbers – the guards, the lawyers, the prisoners – it was the worst many of them have ever seen.  But when the courts are closed there is nothing to do but wait.

Eventually we were ushered into the upper courtyard where prisoners are allowed to be if they have a specific reason – going to the infirmary, a visit from family or friends, or an interview with a lawyer.  It is a small neat area with small patches of brightly colored flowers.  From this courtyard, you overlook the main prison courtyard, a long narrow rectangular space lined with people.

That was what made the most impact – the sheer number of people.  They filled the large rectangle, many of them sleeping against the brick wall.  We had brought the soccer balls, having heard that the prisoners had been asking for one.  The paralegal took one look at the balls we brought and suggested that we donate them to the women prisoners for netball – apparently ours wouldn’t last one match with the male prisoners.  Looking down at the red mud courtyard scattered with rocks, we could understand why.

At the gate to the lower courtyard we met up with Ephord*.  Ephord was the stuff of legend and was one of the characters that we had heard so much about.  He has been in Chichiri prison for over five years without trial.  Actually, that’s not strictly true – he went to trial, the trial started, but then it was adjourned for lunch and never recommenced, lost in the system.  Ephord has been waiting ever since.  Tall and well dressed, Ephord feels like he’s in charge of the whole prison – he seems to know everyone – and he volunteers his time to interpret for prisoners when they are interviewed by the lawyers.  Charged with murder (our friends say the circumstances of his arrest are strange – especially as the “signed confession” has “deny” scratched out and “admit” written in different handwriting over top),  he has a gentle smile and kind words for us.  It is very hard to imagine him as a murderer.

Many of the prisoners in Chichiri are charged with murder, but in roughly 70% of the cases, according to our friends, the circumstances of the murder are a drunken brawl.  Two men are drunk – one pushes the other – he hits his head on a rock and dies, and the other is charged with murder.

Ephord led us through another gate and downstairs into the rectangle courtyard – people starred, but kept to themselves.  They seemed interested in the bags of books.  The clothes were taken by the guards to be distributed to the most needy of prisoners – apparently there are several with nothing at all to wear, so they are forced to remain in their cells.

We took the books to the small library and got to see the prison drama group working on their exercises and traditional dances.  Enthusiastic and talented, it was a real privilege to see the drama group in action.  Anther of our friends was helping to run the group, impressing us with her chichewa skills as well as her dancing.  The drama group is small, but organized and an integral part of their rehabilitation process.

On our final lap of the tour, we saw the school, which follows the national curriculum and was just finishing exams.  We also saw the blocks of cells from a distance, the new building that would house the library, and the covered building that produced the one meal a day for all 1,915 inmates.

Before leaving, we had a chance to meet a few more prisoners.   I specifically remember Elias*, a 20 year old accountancy student who was arrested in January.  Our friend brought him to meet us because he loves to practice his English and discuss his plans to complete university.  Bright and engaging, he told us about his home and his family.  He recognized the damage that a prison stay can do to one’s career, but he remained optimistic.  We later learned the circumstances of his arrest – a robbery had been committed – it was rumored that a known friend of Elias’ owned a weapon – the police asked Elias where his friend was and he was arrested for not knowing.  Wrong place, wrong time, wrong friends.

There are other sad stories of inmates -there is the elderly man who is blind.  Until recently he was tied to a bed during the day because no one could be bothered to guide him around outside.  There are stories of prisoners being granted bail, but because bail is set so high, they languish in prison, waiting without any hope of paying it themselves.  There are those who are clearly innocent, but victims of the system, those who’s files have been lost or who come from so far away their families can’t visit.

The worst aspect of the prison is the sleeping situation in the cells.  Because the prison is so overcrowded, the prisoners have no room to stretch out to sleep.  Most sit up straight all night.  Recently we heard it’s so bad that they are sleeping head to toe and then more prisoners lay on top of them.  It explains why so many were passed out in the courtyard during the day.

Despite all of this, the guards seem to treat the prisoners with a sense of camaraderie.  They do the best they can with limited resources and an ever decreasing budget.

Visiting the prison was an experience that will be hard to forget.  The judiciary system being back in operation should help to relieve the conditions at the prison – there are rumors that they will hold camp courts and bring magistrates to the prison to fast track cases.  As our friends, the paralegals, the human rights lawyers, legal aid lawyers, and magistrates continue their work, we will be able to hear how the cases are progressing.  Maybe soon Elias can be out and back on track to finish his degree in accountancy, and Ephord can finally get his day in court and fulfill his dream of becoming a paralegal himself.

*I changed the names out of respect for their privacy


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From Bingu to Banda

So much has happened in the past week – we went to the lake with friends, relaxed on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of nowhere, and came back to a new President!

We heard the news that President Bingu had had a heart attack last Thursday – the news trickled in slowly – first through rumors and text messages from friends, then through overheard conversations in the grocery store, and finally through stories on the BBC.  For about 24 hours, nobody really knew who exactly was in charge.

Bingu wa Mutharika

The news from Lilongwe was confusing: he’d had a heart attack, but was being treated, he’d had a heart attack and was flown to South Africa for treatment, he’d had a heart attack and didn’t pull through – everyone had a different story.  The radios were silent on the topic and we were unable to access our usual internet news sources.

Vice President Joyce Banda

As expats, used to stories of political turmoil, such as recently in Kenya, we prepared for the worst.  One could easily foresee a violent struggle between the Vice President, Joyce Banda (who had recently formed a new presidential party after being expelled from the ruling DPP) and President Bingu’s brother, Peter (who was being groomed to takeover in 2014 ).  Both had significant support – the DPP was powerful and has shown in the past year that it is not above using violence and intimidation.  Joyce Banda’s new party, the People’s Party, is small but she has the weight of the Constitution behind her.

Versus the Foreign Minister, Peter Mutharika

We packed our bags, mapped our evacuation route (as we were headed to the lake, we decided we’d hop in a dugout canoe and paddle to Mozambique if necessary), remained in contact with our NGO Country Directors, and, with the rest of the country, we waited.

The next day, Friday, it was confirmed that President Bingu had passed away.  Almost immediately, the President of the Malawi Law Society publically announced that the only legal successor, according to the Constitution, was the Vice President, Joyce Banda, and that she had their complete support. Soon after, the Military also came out in support of Banda.

Malawians across the country waited peacefully for Banda to be sworn in, showing remarkable solidarity, patience, respect, and wisdom.

Friday evening, the former Government spokeswoman, Patricia Kaliati, denied the President’s death and announced that Joyce Banda could not be President because she had been expelled from the ruling political party.  She said in her statement, “If the Veep is concerned with the President’s condition, why doesn’t she go to the hospital? She should not speak on the Constitution because she is not supposed to.”  Kaliati, always appearing in inches-thick layers of makeup, is one of my favorite characters in Government – she can always be counted on to say something outlandish, incendiary, or ridiculous.  In any case, Kaliati’s laughable attempt at a coup failed almost immediately, as support for her and the DPP evaporated.

Patricia Kaliati all made up

Beyond that, the biggest worry was that many Malawians would celebrate President Bingu’s death too enthusiastically.  The new President, in her first address, urged respect, calm, and a ten-day period of mourning.  She added, “It is with a great sense of humility and honour that I accept the huge responsibility that the people of Malawi have entrusted me with.” While some do genuinely mourn his passing, it is a testament to how unhappy the general public was with the administration that a culture who reveres the elderly and venerates those in power should be asked not to celebrate the President’s passing too boisterously.

This below post, highlighting all of the shortages Malawi has seen over the past year, flew around facebook soon after Bingu’s death was announced:

‘Bingu woke up on the morning of 5th April and proceeded to brush his teeth but found no water. He decided to go and watch the BBC, but there was no electricity. Then he told his cook to make him a cup of tea but he was told there was no sugar. Angrily, he went into his car to go to town but there was no fuel. The pure frustration gave him a heart attack, and he was rushed to hospital where there was no medicine to resuscitate him.’

And while it’s true, no one wishes death on another person, there is suddenly a great feeling of hope – one that is almost palpable.  Even in the absurd fuel queues, people are talking about change.  Already, Banda, always a darling of the donor community, is getting promises of support from the West.  There is a feeling that Malawi, with its many economic problems, is on its way back up.

President Joyce Banda being sworn in, flanked by members of the military

There is solidarity and unity among the people in support for their new President.  The Guardian included these quotes in a recent article:

“We now have a female president, this to me is the greatest day because she is a mother and a mother always takes care of her children,” said Alice Pemba, a vendor in Lilongwe.

“She will be able to do a good job and surmount the challenges to work with the IMF and World Bank and win back the donor support which we need,” said a local businessman who gave his name only as Tiyazi.

She has two years until the next election.  President Banda has a lot of work to do and a lot of expectation on her shoulders.  But with all Malawi has to offer and with the strength of its people, one has to believe that better days are ahead.


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A Spot of Tea, Now and Then

As mentioned before, we’ve had some amazing weekends away at tea plantations.  Several estates have renovated the old colonial homes into guest houses, including Lujeri and Huntington House.  Both sites are stunning, as I’ve written about before.  There is something about the houses and the pace of life on the estate that makes you feel like you have truly gone back in time.  The weekends spent at tea estates are always full of time outside, playing lawn sports (including the newly discovered paddle tennis) and drinking tea or gin and tonics.  It is easy to take the sprawling, emerald tea fields for granted, believing them to have been planted there just to make the estates more picturesque, more breath-takingly beautiful.  Yet tea, as a cash crop, plays a crucial role in the history of Malawi and its current economy.

The Porch at Huntington House

Lujeri House and Gardens

So nice of them to plant all of this tea in which we can frolic

While researching tea for an article for Ulendo, I discovered that Malawi is the oldest consistent producer of tea on the entire African continent.

A Brief History of Tea Cultivation in Malawi

Deep within the Blantyre CCAP Mission’s botanical gardens are the two oldest growing tea plants in Africa.  These two plants are responsible for one of Malawi’s largest exports and some of the finest tea produced in the world.  Tea cultivation in Africa began as early as 1850 in Natal,  South Africa, where it was later abandoned to grow sugar.  After Natal, Malawi (or then Nyasaland) developed tea as a cash crop and is the oldest ongoing tea producer on the continent.

Tea at Setemwa tea tasting

The early European settlers in Nyasaland concentrated on coffee and tobacco but continued to experiment with tea, wheat, ginger, and fruit trees in their gardens.  The first shipment of tea and coffee plants arrived in Nyasaland in 1878 from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, yet only one coffee plant seedling survived the long voyage.  Mr. Elmslie, a missionary, brought another shipment of seedlings from Edinburgh in 1886.  According to most sources, the Blantyre Mission gardener, Mr. Duncan, was able to keep two of the tea plants alive where they continue to grow today.  Other sources, however, dispute the provenance of these two tea plants.  In 1895, the Nyasaland Foreign Office demanded to know why plants had not been sent by Kew Gardens. The manager of Kew Gardens at the time, Sir W. Thistleton Dyer, responded defensively that he had indeed sent several consignments of tea plants in June 1886, September 1886, and August 1894.  Sir Dyer complained that no acknowledgement of receipt had been sent.  We know the three shipments passed through the African Lakes Company and on to Dr. Laws at the Livingstonia Mission.  There is no record, however, of the tea surviving or being planted, but there is some speculation that the two plants at the Blantyre Mission could be from the Kew Gardens.

While the Missionaries were responsible for nurturing the first Nyasaland tea plants, Henry Brown is often thought of as the father of the Nyasaland tea industry.  He moved to Nyasaland in 1891 after his coffee plantations in Ceylon were decimated by disease.  Mr. Brown had seen the tea plants at the Mission and asked for twenty seeds, which he planted in Mulanje at his Thornwood Estate and at Lauderdale Estate.  Mr. Brown was passionate about the tea’s potential and replaced every dead coffee plant with tea on his estate until it became the predominant crop.  A contemporary of Mr. Brown, Rev. A. J. Smith wrote that “the real pioneer of tea in Nyasaland is undoubtedly Mr. Henry Brown who … for many years persevered through sunshine and storm to make the industry a success.”

Satemwa Tea Factory

Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, it took Nyasaland tea several years to develop quality and taste.  The Rev. Smith tasted local tea as early as 1887 and described his disgust, “oh the horror of it.”  Mr. Brown shared his home-brewed tea at Blantyre’s Sports Week.  Mr. Maw “tasted it and found it was awful, in fact so awful that it merited the well known word [bloody] which prefixed the ‘awful’.”  However, tea cultivation continued to improve and progress; the persistent Mr. Brown submitted his samples at the Agriculture and Sports Show in 1898 where his won first prize.  The report from the show indicates “tea perhaps is not generally suited to the Shire Highlands but Mlanje with its greater rainfall has produced tea which should become one of the by-products of the Protectorate.”

At the turn of the century, tea samples were sent to Kew Gardens, the Imperial Institute, and commercial brokers for evaluation.  Unfortunately, the samples were packed with tobacco, which overpowered the smell and taste so it could only be judged based on appearance.  In 1909 Mr. McClounie from Nyasaland’s Scientific Department toured several estates in Mulanje and declared that the tea bushes were growing well and found the tea to be “very palatable.”

Tea was also experimentally planted in Limbe, Zomba, Mwanza, Mangochi, Karonga, and Michiru but failed to flourish.  In Thyolo, however, tea grew well and the region slowly began to develop in the 1920’s and 1930’s as planters there abandoned rubber and tobacco.

1911 was a seminal year for tea production in Nyasaland.  Lauderdale Estate introduced a hydroelectric factory complete with rollers and dryers.  The Agricultural Department reported that “the local tea has greatly improved since the introduction of proper firing machinery, and The Blantyre and East Africa Limited are now erecting a large factory where they will carry out the making and packing of tea from their own adjoining estates: This is most fortunate as small estates cannot bear the cost of expensive machinery.”

Exporting the tea was a laborious and costly business. In the early days of production, J. A. Hutson writes that the “original route was by head load down the Shire River and thence by river steamer to the sea, and by 1903 it was estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 Africans were engaged in this work.”  The process improved in 1909 when the Shire Highlands railroad opened and was later extended to the Zambezi in 1915.

Despite the logistical challenges, exports continued to steadily rise; by 1905 there were 260 acres producing 1200 pounds of black tea.  In 1908 Nyasaland exported 23,000 pounds of black tea, which was valued at 598 pounds sterling.  By 1918 there were 4,523 acres of tea.  In 1924, Nyasaland was exporting tea worth one million pounds sterling.  The collapse of the tobacco market drove many planters to transition to tea and by 1940 there were 18,528 acres of tea, roughly divided between Mulanje and Thyolo.  While tobacco surpassed tea as the largest foreign exchange earner in the 1960’s, tea production continued to increase and in 2006, Malawi was exporting over 45,000 metric tons of black tea.

Today Malawi is making concerted efforts to promote small holder tea farming and fair trade tea; at least sixteen percent of tea acres are managed by small holder farmers.  Malawian tea is in high demand and is exported to over thirty countries around the world.  And this whole robust industry stems from the two 123-year old tea plants still growing on the grounds of the Blantyre Mission.


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The Reality of the Fuel Crisis

Members of the Blantyre Chat Google Group get daily updates from Malawi’s main fuel company, Puma.  They let us know when and where deliveries are being made – or not being made.  This one from Tuesday just sums it up:

Lilongwe and the Centre


Petrol is not available at any of our service stations in the centre at the moment.

 Petrol Deliveries

There are no planned petrol deliveries in the centre at the moment.


Diesel is not available at any of our service stations in the centre at the moment.

 Diesel Deliveries

There are no planned diesel deliveries at the moment.

 Blantyre and the South


Petrol is not available at any of our service stations in the south at the moment.

 Petrol Deliveries

There are no planned diesel deliveries in the south at the moment.


Diesel is not available at any of our service stations in the south at the moment.

 Diesel Deliveries

There are no planned diesel deliveries in the south at the moment.

 Mzuzu and the North


Petrol is not available at any of our service stations in the north at the moment.

 Petrol Deliveries

There are no planned petrol deliveries in the north at the moment.


Diesel is not available at any of our service stations in the north at the moment.

Diesel Deliveries

There are no planned diesel deliveries in the north at the moment.”

At least someone has a sense of humor about it.



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