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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  The problem with writing a blog post like this is that it will probably be out of date by the time it’s published!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.  (varndell@broadbandmw.com)

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

Furniture

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.

Groceries

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.

Meat

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.

Wine

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.

Clothes

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.

Habitat

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

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.

Lambats

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.

Sports

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!)

Other

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.

Vocabulary

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

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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And Back Again!

We’re back in Malawi and have finally settled back into life here.

Our trip home was fantastic – plenty of time with family and friends – and plenty of food – I definitely ate too much as it was a perfect storm of holiday gorging and “I-never-get-this-in-Malawi-so-I’m-going-to-eat-the-whole-value-menu” scenario.  Plus, being in the South – creamed corn means cream and some corn.

We had a long trip back to Malawi, but Ethiopian Airlines has new planes, so it all went smoothly and I slept comfortably, drooling – just a tiny bit on Sandy’s shoulder.  What wasn’t smooth was the boarding process at the Addis airport.  Our flight from Washington landed about 45 minutes late, which sent some of my fellow passengers into a complete freak-out as they tried to push their way through people, bags, babies, crumpled up blankets on the floor, to be the 153th person to disembark as opposed to the 158th person they would have been had they stayed in line.  When we finally made it to our “Gate” for our flight to Lilongwe, it was actually a small mob of people (say, 600 or so) crowded around one small Ethiopian lady and her small computer (not small in a sleek, i-pad kind of way – small as in seemingly not up to the task).  Her job was to call out the destination of the next departing flight as the crowd strained to hear her.  It took a long time for Lilongwe to be called – and then we proceed through chaotic queuing (while randomly someone would shout in a panicked voice, “Accra?  Where’s the plane to Accra?”), chaotic bus-boarding, and Sandy being told to leave his (not-oversized) carry-on right there on the curb.  While we were sure we would never see it again, we eventually made it to Lilongwe, along with all of our bags!

I slept most of our drive home, through rainstorms, thunder, and green fields of maize.  As we got closer to Blantyre, a beautiful double rainbow emerged as the clouds dissipated.  It was a lovely welcome home.

Cathy and her daughter Bertha, our rock star housekeepers, had left us a welcome home note and welcome home flowers.  Soche, the cat, ignored us for the first three days back, but is slowly forgiving us for having been gone so long.  She can’t fool me, though, I know she likes Cathy and Bertha better than she likes me.

The fuel situation was about as bad as I’ve ever seen it when we got back – cars and trucks in double lines winding miles from the petrol stations in either direction.  In the past week or so, though, things seem to have stabilized a bit – there were 8 petrol deliveries to Blantyre today!

The rainy season is in full swing – the maize is chest-high in most places and our yard has become a wild, green jungle.  It’s overcast today but at least it’s not raining as it has for the past six days straight.  It was lovely and cozy for the first few days of the deluge, but Sunday, when we also had no power all day, it was a bit dreary.

The only real drama has been that our car insurance expired while we were gone (we’d arranged for a friend to renew it and then forgot all about it).  I got pulled over by an affable policeman who was absolutely delighted that he’d caught me in an infraction.  I didn’t have the cash on me to pay the fine, so the policeman looked at me and said “ah, madam, what shall we do?  I think I’d better keep your license.”  He explained that when I came back to pay the fine, I could get the license back.  Convinced, as I drove away, that I would never see my license again, I had to admit that 1) the policeman was unfailingly polite, and 2) he was absolutely correct in issuing a fine.  Sandy went by the next day in a project vehicle and got it back.  I’ve got to stop doubting!  Luggage, licenses – things do turn up!

We’re happy to be back and are so looking forward to our next four months here.  It will fly by, I am sure, and we’ll be sad to leave what feels like home.

Rain Clouds with tea in the foreground

Welcome home flowers!

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