Tag Archives: Culture

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

Safaris

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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