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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  The problem with writing a blog post like this is that it will probably be out of date by the time it’s published!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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Pretty Women

Malawi has been getting a lot of international press recently, and not all of it has been good.  The Guardian newspaper just published a scathing assessment of the current administration’s potential slide into dictatorship.  Citing human rights abuses and widespread oppression, the article paints an ugly picture of Malawian politics.

In January, events took place that also captured the world’s attention.  Women dressed in pants (or trousers) were attacked in Lilongwe and stripped.  It was a bizarre attack and one that was violent and traumatic to the victims.  Those responsible were local vendors, supposedly incensed at women wearing ‘modern’ clothing.  There are rumors that the attacks were politically motivated, but the vendors have since issued an apology.  You can read more about it here.  Women around the country quickly mobilized and held protests – many of them wearing pants and shorter skirts.

Dress in Malawi has always been an important part of culture.  I’ve written before about chitenjes, which are worn by most women to cover their good clothing while they travel, work in the fields, and do chores – kind of like a good pair of jeans – comfortable and good for wearing around the house.

When you travel in the rural areas, it is expected that you also wear a chitenje, or at the very least a long skirt.  This modestly is rooted in a conservative culture of respect and tradition.  Kamuzu Banda, the leader of Malawi from 1966 to 1994, codified a strict dress code, one that forbade women to wear shorts, pants, or dresses above the knee.  Banda insisted that the dress code was to protect women.  It wasn’t until 1994 that the dress code was abandoned.

Despite the lack of formal dress code, today most women in Malawi wear skirts – and almost all wear skirts below the knees.  If a woman wears a shorter skirt, she usually wears tights or leggings as well.  In the past few years, I have noticed more and more women wearing pants, but you would still never see a woman walking the streets in a miniskirt.

The women that I work with dress beautifully.  They wear tailored suits, bright colors, and killer high heels.  They always, always manage to look professional, classic, and fashionable at the same time.  Even if they have taken minibuses and walked several miles to work, there isn’t a hair out of place.  Even when it’s so hot all you want to do is cover yourself with wet towels, the women here look perfect in their fitted blazers.  Now you have to remember that these woman can’t run down to the nearest Bloomingdales, Banana Republic, or DSW.  They have to piece together their wardrobes from small shops with limited selections, friends who travel to the US, South Africa, and Europe, custom made pieces from local tailors, and second-hand clothes at the market.  It makes their style all the more admirable and unique.

When I first showed up for work in my ‘I work for a non-profit so I’m too busy saving the world to worry about looking nice’ attire, I could tell my colleagues were not impressed.  The first few meetings I attended, I was seriously underdressed – I apologized to my boss, who laughed it off, “ah, you’re a mzungu – they understand.”  Since then I’ve tried to up my game a bit.  I even bought high heels, which won subtle nods of approval.  When my French friend went home and left me some of her beautiful clothes, they started commenting, “oh, wow, you look so nice today!”  and I knew I was on the road to winning some fashion respect.  I still have days were I wear jeans, and my stylish, beautiful office mates just smile ruefully and I know they are thinking “ah no, maybe tomorrow she’ll look better…”

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A few treasures

When shopping for souvenirs and all things Malawian, there are really three options.  (1) You can go to a posh gallery in Blantyre or Lilongwe.  These lovely galleries stock beautiful, quality pieces and offer a calm, stress-free, clean environment in which to peruse them.  The downside is that in the gallery, you will pay five or six times what you would pay at a market.  No bargaining here.

Then there is option two (2).  Every few days or so, a young, enterprising gentleman, such as Eric, will show up at our door with a backpack full of curios.  Usually they bring a few carvings, paintings, and some jewelry.  Again, you can look over the items in calm and peace and can find some nice unique pieces.  You can also let Eric know if you’re looking for something particular and he will bring examples for you to see.  Here also, though, you will probably pay more than in a market – usually two or three times more.  You also don’t have as much of a selection.  You can bargain a little but you know that these young men are trying  to make a living and have been doing it long enough to be clever middle men.

Eric

Finally, the third (3) option is to go to a curio market.  There is a big one in Lilongwe and one here in Blantyre.  You can also find venders and artists selling their wares at the foot of Mt. Mulanje,  Zomba mountain, along the lake, and along some of the busier roads.

The market in Lilongwe is in a parking lot and hosts probably thirty or forty venders.  You can find everything from animal carvings, to colorful cloth, to musical instruments.

And the venders see you coming a mile away.

Sandy and I visited this market in Lilongwe a few weeks ago.  The second we stepped out of the car, we were besieged.  Each eager vender verbally pulled us and pushed us and assured us that he would give us a good deal.  We walked slowly up and down looking at everything displayed.  Each time we came to a new vender, he would pick something up and show it to us, explain how this particular item is the finest in the whole market, and for us – good price – special price.

So once you find something that you really like, or even kind of like, or something that they hold up to you and you thought it was really ugly, but you said it was nice because you didn’t want to hurt their feelings, they start to talk price.

I’ve found that if you’re clearly a tourist the price will be automatically jacked up by oh… around 10,000 percent.  And why not?  They are businessmen after all.  Here’s an example.  Sandy bought me a piece of this colorful cloth and paid 1,500 kwatcha.  He brought the guy down from 3,000 kwatcha so he was feeling pretty good about it.  He later learned from a colleague that it should have been about 500 kwatcha.

While you do have to negotiate and bargain, it’s definitely an acquired skill.

So the markets have their upsides and downsides.  The venders can be aggressively pushy, but there is an amazing selection, so you can find some really beautiful things and negotiate good prices.  You have to navigate through the tacky kitsch, but there are definitely some talented artists.

Here are some photos of the treasures we’ve collected so far:

Elephant Bookends

Watercolor

Zebra Butt Batik

Cedar Box

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Wal-Mart in Malawi?

Our first morning in our new apartment, we awoke to a knock at the door at 6am (11pm Washington DC time).  It was bright outside by then.  It was our house-keeper-to-be, Cathy, introducing herself and welcoming us.  She agreed to start working with us the next day.

Around ten, a wonderful Malawian guy came and picked us up and offered to help us run errands. He first took us by Sandy’s new office to meet a few people.  Bless their hearts – I’m sure we were so charming – wearing a wild collection of clothing and still not recovered from the trip.  I would be surprised if we even offered responses to questions that made any sense.  I imagine it was something like this: “When did you arrive?” “No, thank you.”  “Where are you from?”  “late last night.”  or “What do you think of Malawi so far?” “yes.”  Yet they were kind and understanding.

We then went to the “WalMart of Malawi”- ShopRite. It’s in a busy strip mall that could be in any small town.  It is right next to the “Target of Malawi,”- Game.    While these stores had a lot to choose from, please understand that neither were as big or shiny as the WalMarts and Targets in the US.  Both were busy and expensive – so expensive!  but we were able to find some things we needed and got SIM cards for the cell phones. It’s a real comfort to know that I can get Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips here, and it only costs $17 US.

We visited several places to figure out internet.  It sounds like we can get a little thing that goes in a USB port and get wireless wherever.  Unfortunately, they are all out of these devices and no one can tell us when more will be in.

Later that day, we went on a short walk outside our apartment.  On the way back, we bought fresh avocados and bananas from a farmer sitting by the side of the dirt road. He seemed pleased at our attempts at Chichewa (or at least didn’t laugh to our faces). He was really warm and kind, as was everyone we passed on our walk.

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