During our long travel days in Africa we had a lot of time to catch up on reading, and more specifically, to read about the continent which we were travelling through. Luckily, we were able to get our hands on some excellent titles which really helped us to delve deeper into the recent history of the continent, its current challenges and the possibilities which the future holds for the 1 Billion people who live in its 62 territories. Below we would like to recommend five of the best titles we read with you.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind – William Kamkwamba
The true story of a young Malawian boy whose scientific curiosity transforms the lives of his family and fellow villagers. After seeing a picture of a windmill in a science book, William begins a quest to build his very own turbine from scrap metal. This is a gripping account of triumph over adversity told with honesty and simplicity.
An excellent combination of blog, diary and personal reflections, this is the true story of a young Canadian doctor who decides to spend six months working at a rudimentary hospital in Abyei, Sudan with Médecins Sans Frontières. This is a warts and all account of working on the front line in a place which is off the radar for most westerners.
An insightful collection of non-fiction accounts of the experiences of Poland’s only foreign correspondent in Africa in the 1950s-1980s. A great read if you want to dip into the varying cultures of Africa from Angola to Zanzibar and beyond.
A history of modern Zimbabwe, interwoven with the biography of Godwin’s parents, who moved to Zimbabwe shortly after WWII. Godwin, a former National Geographic correspondent, charts the decline of the country over the past 50 years. The beauty of this book is its ability to use personal anecdotes to make the events of a distant, and largely forgotten, corner of Africa resonate so powerfully.
This book tells the story of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa through the experiences of a young boy and his adoptive mother. In this short volume we learn an incredible amount about the two worlds which exist in modern South Africa: that of the rich and the poor, the sick and the healthy, the educated and the uneducated. A fantastic book which although sad, is ultimately inspiring.
Other Suggested Titles:
Ja, No, Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa – Richard Poplak
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families – Philip Gourevitch
A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – Nelson Mandela
Do They Hear You When You Cry? – Fauziya Kassindja
The theme tune of our journey through Africa:
After a three-day delay at the Namib-South African border, we were finally hurtling across South Africa en route to the vineyards and the preppy university town of Stellenbosch, which was full of chic restaurants, wine bars and nightclubs. Stellenbosch, the location of one of South Africa’s best universities, with its distinctly European architecture, looks and feels decidedly un-African.
Unfortunately, the delay on the Namibian-South African border had eaten into our time, so we had to move on earlier than we would have liked to reach Cape Town for our onward flight. So, on Sunday morning at 8 am, we found ourselves commuting to Cape Town by the metro with church goers, city workers, persistent snack vendors, a one-eyed homeless man, an elderly leper and a constant convoy of beggars.
I have to admit that I was ashamed of being nervous about taking the train, but standing on the chilly platform waiting for it to arrive, I caught myself scanning the assembling passengers for dodgy characters: people who might try to rob us; those getting to close for comfort; the tall man who had stared at us when we entered the station and seemed to have his hand buried in his pocket – did he have a weapon? Remembering movies like Tsotsi, the story of youths trying to make it in a township, I found my imagination running wild. We were two obvious misfits. Martin was the only white person on the whole train. What on earth were we doing here?
The train cost 7.5 Rand (1 USD), while transfers on backpacker buses average 300 Rand per person. Looking back, it is insane (and shameful) to think that fear makes many visitors pay almost 40 times as much to travel to Cape Town (we did not see, or hear of any other tourists using this train, nor was it mentioned as a possible means of transport anywhere in our guidebook). Sadly, this fear may also keep tourists stuck in a parallel universe, preventing them from meeting many black South Africans (besides the waiters in restaurants and hotel employees) or actually speaking to the ordinary people who actually make up 80% of the population.
Taking the train gave us a chance to peek into the parallel world of ordinary black South African commuters. The carriage was a bustling marketplace full of snack vendors; seats were constantly claimed and given up; passengers were busily texting; reading well worn copies of Die Bybel; listening to their iPods and talking to their fellow passengers. As the journey progressed, we remembered a Belgian guy, we met in Bangladesh, who told us that he had travelled around South Africa on local transport; white South Africans had been absolutely shocked and unable to comprehend why he wanted to do such a thing.
After an hour, we finally pulled into Cape Town, an amazingly beautiful city, set against the stunning backdrop of Table Mountain. The sun was shining brightly and the city was abuzz with marathon runners completing the last leg of their 42.1 km ordeal. Within minutes our train journey was a memory; an experience dislocated from the touristy Cape Town which we had entered. Although Apartheid is officially over, and economists speak enthusiastically of ‘Black Diamonds’ (the emerging black middle-class), the reality of economic inequality quickly becomes obvious in Cape Town.
A walk through the heavily protected neighbourhoods at the foot of Table Mountain reveals hundreds of signs advertising the security companies which are responsible for protecting properties. Exterior walls are topped with barbed wire and every window is protected with bars; prominent ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs are ubiquitous. Here nobody walks; the streets are eerily pedestrian free. One wonders if any of these residents have ever travelled by train in their own city.
On Long St, popular for its boutiques, hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars, most of the black people we saw were homeless beggars; literally and metaphorically they were standing outside, staring in on another country, a country that has found it necessary to erect police security booths to protect tourists from them.
Much has been written about the impatience with which many South Africans anticipate substantial change in their country, especially with regard to basic living standards. A large proportion of the population of this emerging nation effectively languishes in the third world, while a minority live in separately in their protected first world. Although progress has undoubtedly been made since the end of Apartheid, the South Africans we spoke to agreed that the process of destructing the mental, social, economic, cultural and racial barriers which remain is far from over.
Swakopmund, Namibia’s second city, is known for its Gemütlichkeit, German beer halls and German-speaking community, relics of the colonial period. We were more than a little excited by the prospect of decent German bread, Apfelstrudel, Bratwurst and beer which awaited us in this microcosm of Germany in this distant corner of Africa. Our three days in Swakopmund were spent recovering from the rigors of bush camping by enjoying some of the best South African wines, excellent cheeses and eating some amazing game including kudu and oryx steaks, which we highly recommend.
Situated on Namibia’s coast, Swakopmund is a pleasant seaside town popular with German holiday makers. Walking through the centre of town, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Germany, perhaps even somewhere in the former East Germany which has recently undergone a makeover. Along the seafront a number of ice-cream parlors serve up an amazing selection of flavours which you can eat while walking along the windswept beach or on the pier as you look back on the town and the sand dunes beyond.
Freshly painted colonial buildings sparkle in the sun – were it not for the giant palm trees lining every street, it could easily pass for a small German town. Hendrik Witbooi Strasse intersects with Rhode Allée and the Bismark Medical Centre is just down from the Hotel Prinzessin Ruprecht. More that 50 percent of titles in every bookshop we visited were German – one even had Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial ‘Deutschland schafft sich ab’ in the window!
Attracted to Namibia by the diamond reserves discovered in the Sperrgebiet, and prospect of securing a colonial prize for Germany, which arrived on the continent much later than other European colonial powers, the first German colonists of Namibia were able to make their fortunes in mining, .
It was surprising to see how strong the German influence in Swakopmund remains, especially given that Germany lost control of all its colonies after WWI in 1918. Sitting on the sundrenched patio of the Brauhaus we ordered (in German) Bratwurst, Schmorbraten, Sauerkraut and Rotkohl, washed down with Radlers and white wine. We found ourselves surrounded by local residents all of whom were German speakers. We heard that many Germans actually stayed in Namibia rather than retuning to Germany, which turned out to be a wise choice given what was to happen in Europe during WWII.
We had the opportunity to visit Kamanjab Cheetah Farm, a place where orphaned cheetahs are kept, and it is possible to stroke the ‘tame’ (if such a word can ever be correctly applied) cats. Before visiting we were quite sure that it would be a tacky, zoo-like experience, surely seeing cheetahs in such an environment was cheating? Shouldn’t they be viewed in the wild? Wrong. Our time there was one of the highlights of our entire trip to Africa, allowing us the opportunity to get an even closer view of one of Africa’s most magnificent cat species.
Arriving at Kamanjab we were confronted with a huge warning sign: WARNING: RING THE BELL! All eyes darted towards the lithe cheetah pacing back and forth behind the wire fence. Staring, pacing, prowling. Suddenly it dawned on us that the slightly muted sound of a boy racer’s suped up car engine was actually the sound produced by the deep vibration of the cheetah’s purr.
Marinus, one of the farm owner’s two sons, gave us a quick safety briefing before we entered the premises. He ran through a catalogue of don’ts: don’t touch their paws, don’t touch their tails and most important of all, if Marinus warned us to move away from a particular animal, we had to step away immediately.
When the gate was finally unbolted three cheetahs bounded excitedly towards us. Marinus led us around the back of the farmhouse as one of the three cheetahs trailed directly behind. It was deeply unnerving to be followed by an animal with the potential to kill.
In the garden we had the chance to stroke the cats as they lounged on the lawn. Terrified, I stroked a cheetah behind ears and felt the slightly rough fur on the back of its neck. There was a disconcerting power to vibrations beneath my fingertips as the cheetah purred with delight, meanwhile Martin was licked by the sandpaper tongue of another. When feeding time began each cheetah received its own hunk of meat, which it slowly devoured as we sat on the grass a couple of metres away, glad that none of us were on the menu today. Already the trip was proving more fascinating than we could ever have imagined, yet the best was still to come.
Piling into the back of one of the farm’s utility vehicles we drove into the wild cheetah farm enclosure located nearby. Here Marinus and his family were busy rearing cheetahs to be released into the wild in regions where the numbers were dangerously low. The Kamanjab Cheetah Park is one of several non-profit farms aiming to educate people in a bid to save this endangered species.
As we entered the sprawling estate a posse of cheetahs began to trail behind us. The setting sun was low in the sky and it was clear that they eagerly anticipated dinner. In the large plastic bin at the back of the vehicle we were carrying over 40 kg of meat to distribute to our hungry pursuers. When the lid was removed we could hear a laughably bird-like noise emanating from the waiting cats. All of us were taken aback by what sounded like a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park.
Hunks of meat were tossed from the back of the vehicle and it was interesting to note the solitary ceremony of eating, which began with a competitive leap into the air. Once the meat was secured, each cheetah would dart off to devour its portion in private behind a bush or under a tree. Once the last morsel had been retrieved we were left standing on our vehicle in the deceptively peaceful grass unable to identify a single one of the twenty or so cheetahs which had surrounded us only minutes before.
When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose the southern African nation as the birthplace for their first child, Namibia became front page news. Although it had long been a destination popular with Germans, playing host to a celebrity childbirth helped to put Africa’s youngest nation (until south Sudan is officially recognised) firmly on the safari and overlanding map. Now that the word is out, Namibia is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations in southern Africa.
Within 5 minutes of entering the country we were treated to the view of a male lion relaxing in the sun on the side of the road, followed by the rich wildlife of Etosha National Park the following day.
An abundance of colossal rock formations dot the Namibian countryside rearing up at the most unexpected intervals, they look as if they are transplants from Utah or parts of the Australian outback. This could easily be Marlboro country.
At Spitzkoppe in northern Namibia, we camped at the base of one of several red craggy peaks in the vicinity. When sunset came they glowed like red coals, blushing violently as the moon rose into the perfectly clear sky.
A day later, we were driving through peroxide blonde grassland and white sand contrasting starkly with the endless blue sky. It was here that we spotted our second African snake in the wild, a large black spitting cobra, slithering across the road. As our vehicle trundled past the Naja Nigricollis Woodi reared up at us inflating its hood. Though incredibly dangerous, the sight was strangely compelling; a stunning and contrast to the white glare of the sandy road.
Traversing the country we made our way to the Atlantic at a point where small white dunes tumble into the sea. It was hard to believe that just a month before we had been paddling in the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar on the other side of this vast continent.
Later we visited Cape Cross Seal Reserve a breeding ground for 50,000 seals which have commandeered the coastline (the stench was so awful that we got a nasal warning a couple of kilometres before we actually arrived at the site!).
Naukluft National Park must, however, take the award for the most impressive landscape we saw in the whole of Namibia, if not Africa. We camped just down the road from the gates so that we would be able to get in before the temperature soared. That morning, we carefully dragged our tent before putting it down so that we could dislodge any scorpions which might have been hiding under our warm groundsheet (after the spitting cobra and witnessing a scorpion being burned to death in the campfire by locals, we were beginning to take these precautions more seriously).
When the gate opened at 6:30 am we entered a wonderland of massive sand dunes of Sossusvlei. The dunes are static – the heavier sand which they are composed of means that they only move a few centimetres each year, rather than changing positions overnight as is possible in the Sahara. Some of them are over 300 metres and as we found out that morning, climbing them is exhausting work.
Our final destination in Namibia, before the Orange River and the ‘new’ South Africa, was Fish River Canyon. Although it is the world’s second biggest canyon, most people we have met have never heard of it. Unfortunately, a few fatal heart attacks and other emergencies heralded a decision by the authorities to ban day hikers, so we were not able to descend into the monumental chasm, but walking along the lip of the crater gave us a couple of hours to admire it from several angles.
If only we had had the good sense to stay there a day or two more rather than proceeding to the Orange River where we spent three days waiting for a permit to enter our final destination on the African continent, South Africa…
One of the highlights of a trip to Botswana is a trip on a makoro/ mokoro (dugout canoe) in the Okavango Delta. Everyone we met seemed to agree that it was magical being out in the middle of the Delta, away from light pollution, traffic and modern conveniences. Assured that one night would not be enough, we signed up for a two-night trip and entrusted ourselves into the hands of a man named Zero, who headed up the troupe of polers responsible for transporting us.
Our brief introduction to the polers was punctuated by a warning from Zero before we departed.
“Please, nobody jump out of the makoro if you see a spider, a dragonfly or a frog. I have had clients capsize the makoro before when they have seen these things…”
Forging our way through the reeds of the delta, like Moses in his basket, our bodies and faces were constantly whipped by rough grass which was home to an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare: white, black, brown and green spiders of all shapes and sizes, coming at your face, crawling over your legs and arms; blown back at you with swarms of other insects, as the dugout ploughed through the foliage.
Like gondoliers, the polers make the arduous task of propelling the dugout canoes through the water appear effortless. Gliding through papyrus choked channels and across lily ponds, they steer through crocodile infested waters and hippo bathing pools. Whenever we asked them whether we should be afraid of an attack they nonchalantly dismissed our concerns, pushing ever deeper into the labyrinth of papyrus reeds.
After three hours, we arrive sun-kissed and desperate for shade. The camp is situated on one of the larger islands in the Delta. Under a canopy of large shady trees we erected our tents, a bush toilet was dug and a fire lit. Water was boiled for tea and we broke out the lunch provisions before reclining in the shade to while away the hottest part of the day.
As the day passed, the sting of the midday sun subsided to be replaced by its milder incarnation. At four o’clock we departed for a bush walk, knowing that we were not guaranteed to see anything, but equally excited by the lion prints we discovered on the way and the copious elephant dung which Julius, our guide breaks apart for us to analyse. In hushed tones he explains the ecosystem in which we will reside for the next 48 hours in his heavily accented English. Sounding like an Irishman trying to pronounce the word ‘film’ Julius struggles with his double final consonants.
“Palumz and elephant tusuks” (palms and elephant tusks), featured heavily in his explanations along with the alarmingly named “wild beasts” (hopefully he was alluding to wildebeests!)
After we return to camp, an inky black darkness encompasses everything once the last embers of the fire burn out after supper. When we retire to our tents the shroud of darkness is heavy, pressing down on us from above, so opaque that it is impossible to see our hands raised directly in front of our faces. If you think about the darkness too much, you start to feel claustrophobic, the best way to quell the workings of an over-active imagination in this dark place, in the middle of nowhere, is to fall asleep quickly and pray that you will not need to search for ‘Dug’ (as we christened the shovel) en route to the hole-in-the-ground toilet during the night.
The second morning begins with another bush walk. While listening to Julius explain the principles of termite construction and the role of elephant dung in the germination of Delta coconut palms, we accidentally venture into the path of an animal which makes the guide and two scouts insist on an urgent retreat.
The day before, we had practised non-verbal signals for communicating danger, including the clicking of fingers, as well as the merits of running zig-zag when pursued by certain predators; today we were going to have to put everything learned into practice.
I must admit that at first, I thought the warning might be an attempt to see how gullible we were – would we run on command or attempt to climb a tree on command? But after seeing the faces of the guides as they hissed the command to “RUN” in a zig-zag, I realised that Julius must have been serious.
Ten minutes later we were still running, leaping and zig-zaging through the bush. Breathless, we stopped behind a termite mound and a felled log to look back at the thing which had been pursuing us. A huge lone elephant bull was walking between the palms, foraging for food. Luckily, we had been downwind, and had been able to retreat without arousing his self-protection instinct. Unarmed and miles from the camp, we would not have stood a chance if he had charged.
Later that afternoon, when the pilot of our scenic Cessna flight over the Delta dipped the wing 60 degrees to show us a herd of elephants walking below, we wondered where the loner we had run from that morning might be now.
After crossing the Chobe River, at the point where four countries (Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe) meet, we were finally in Botswana. Met by a group of police officers dressed in caps sporting a checked pattern, which bore more than a passing resemblance to that which adorns the helmets of London Metropolitan Police, we received a warm and mercifully efficient welcome the country.
As we drove away from the border towards the campsite, we realised that everything here was different from what we had seen in Africa so far. American style out of town shopping centres, KFCs, sealed roads, young women dressed in UGG boots; it was so modern. After the decrepit roads, inflated food prices and scruffy children we had seen playing in the dirt between chores in Zambia and Malawi, we encountered the most impressive façade of wealth so far in Africa. I say façade because much of the wealth in southern Africa is concentrated in the hands of the few. Though shopping malls abound and supermarkets stock imported wines, camembert and sumptuous steaks, for many ordinary Batswana these remain exotic extravagances, not part of their regular diets.
On our first evening we went on a cruise along the Chobe River which was teaming with wildlife, much of it perilous to humans. From hippos (Africa’s most dangerous mammals) basking in the shallow water as the sun slipped below the horizon, to crocodiles and elephants, it was a veritable feast for the eyes. The woman behind us was clearly enjoying the ornithological treasures of Chobe; with every sighting of a new species she almost leapt from her seat, naming each an average of 30 seconds before the official guide and boatman even saw it. When we came across a large herd of elephants drinking and grazing at the edge of the river, we stopped for a magical half hour to observe them at close range.
The river carves an impressive liquid border through the surrounding countryside. Away from the banks of the river, the landscape was dry and scrubby; in parts it was a graveyard of brittle trees bleached white by the sun, their jagged branches pointing up to the blue sky.
Perhaps this dryness explains why the national currency of Botswana is called Pula, meaning rain. For those born in naturally precipitous regions, rain is often depressing; a nuisance, potentially ruinous; a harbinger of bad omens. For the Batswana and the other tribes who have managed to survive the harsh environment of the Kalahari and beyond, the tiny Thebe coins – a hundred Thebe (raindrops) make up each Pula – jingle magically in the pocket, a constant reminder of the wealth which rain can create.
Our joy at making it to Livingstone, named after the famous Dr Livingstone, the first European explorer of this region of Africa, was palpable as we pulled in to town. Finally, we had made it to the halfway-point, from here we were headed south to countries which would be distinct from those we had seen in East Africa. From Livingstone onwards, wealthy tourists from Europe and America would become a more familiar sight: people flying in to luxury lodges in Cessnas, elderly tourists trying to check off some of the more adventurous spots on the globe before they get too old. We would soon be trading the bush and hills for the immense flatness of Botswana and the monumental sand dunes of Namibia. But first it was time to see one of the great natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls.
Even the most casual observer could see that life was tough for the average Zambian. Although the deceptively neat uniform of hand-me-downs, which the First World continues to clothe Africans in, makes Zambians (and most of the Africans we have encountered so far) seem wealthier than they are, you don’t need to look far to find evidence that many of those who live outside the capital, Lusaka, or the tourist magnet of Livingstone are struggling.
Like Malawi, Zambia seemed to be suffering from runaway inflation in food prices. Going to thesupermarket in Lusaka or Livingstone is enough to give you a heart attack as you try to make sense of the number of zeros forming the suffix to every price. It gave us pause when we saw sausages at $7 for a pack of 6, minced beef at $18 per kg and apples at $4.5 per kg. Cleary many of these prices were out of the reach of the average Lusakan or Livingstonian, and even if they were in reach, they were likely to be an occasional treat. No wonder our driver, Henry, was so convinced meat must be the essential component of every meal. As a Kenyan with first hand experience, he knew that if you are at the wrong end of the social spectrum, procuring meat in any decent quantity was almost impossible. Conversely, if you wanted anything imported with little or no nutritional value (and immense tooth decay potential) like Milo, chocolate bars or crisps (potato chips), you virtually needed to come up with the equivalent of the GDP of a small banana republic in Kwacha, the national currency.
Anyway, I have digressed enough, so before this turns into an economic thesis on Zambia, I should get back to the place in the title which probably drew you to this post: Victoria Falls. It probably sounds clichéd, but nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the mighty ‘Smoke that Thunders’, as it is known to locals.
At 1.7 km wide and plunging 107 m into the Zambezi Gorge, the 545 million litres of water which fall each minute create a truly thunderous sound and send a fine spray into the air which can be felt whenever the wind blows the wrong way. Providing succour to the surrounding rainforest which grows around the falls, the spray can suddenly, and without warning, give you the impression that you are caught in an intense rain shower.
There are a huge number of activities to engage in at Victoria Falls including bungee jumping, booze cruises, scenic flights and lion walks. On our first night in Livingstone we went on a wonderful sunset cruise during which we saw a hippo or two and tried and failed to drink the bar dry while devouring plates of barbecued meat. The drunken inclination to swim in the river was quickly scotched by the knowledge that crocodiles were abundant.
Martin wanted to get a bit more adventurous, so he decided to do his 5th bungee jump. Although we saw a married couple who must have been in their 60s doing a joint gorge swing and twin sisters who might have been pushing 70 doing a tandem swing, I was not going to be induced, for love or money, to jump off the bridge which connects Zambia and Zimbabwe!
As you can see from the photo below, he did a great job of launching himself into the air like a bird, swooping down into the gorge with its beautiful double rainbow below. Unfortunately, he came away with a souvenir rope burn which is still not completely healed a fortnight later!
Nestled between the two neighbouring ‘Z’ countries in south-central Africa, Zambia miraculously manages to avoid the international pariah status of Zimbabwe and the basket case label routinely applied to the failed state north of it, formerly known as Zaïre (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Most people we have told about our plans to visit Zambia have responded with blank looks as they hurriedly search their mental world maps, desperately trying to locate the country. Now that we are here it is easy to see why.
Zambia does not feature among the top destinations for Europeans wishing to take a holiday. Were it not for the instability in Zimbabwe, with which Zambia shares a crucial border at Victoria Falls, it is questionable whether as many tourists would make it here at all. Prior to arriving, we had no inkling of what to expect: unlike Kenya with its wildlife; Tanzania with Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar; or Malawi with its lake and famously friendly people Zambia truly is terra incognita.
So far on our trip, we have found border crossings and dealings with Immigration officers to be a good barometer of the service level and warmth to be expected in a country. Zambia was no different. As we entered Immigration, we found ourselves in a cramped office shared by nine staff, busy sipping coca-cola from bottles as they devoured BBC World News from a flat-screen TV and gossiped among themselves. They carefully avoided all eye contact with the rapidly growing crowd of visa applicants – we were invisible and inaudible until they chose to recognise us.
Nevertheless, having heard complaints from another group of travellers who had been waiting for over 45 minutes, we decided to try to alert a pretty young officer to our presence (we were after all paying $50 each). She immediately waved us off with a flick of the hand as she set about trying to crack open a bottle of coke with her molars, kicked back in her chair and proceeded to devote her attention to watching the news. Just one of the nine officers on duty was actually processing visas. There was little we could do but wait.
Scanning the room we noticed a large, prominently placed box of lubricated condoms, which were presumably provided to reduce the likelihood that tourists left the country with more than they bargained for or that any STIs were left behind by visitors. Nearby a large poster proudly proclaimed “A real woman waits.” Several of us wondered whether this was supposed to be a not so subtle reminder that using the services of prostitutes is inadvisable (the proximity of the condom box seemed to be confusing the message, though); perhaps it was intended to inspire guilt in women who were considering pre-marital sexual liaisons? Whatever the intentions of the poster, several of us wondered why a real man could not also wait, especially given that one in every seven Zambians is HIV positive; 79,000 new infections were recorded in the country in 2009 (an average of 200 per day); the current life expectancy is around 39 years.
After watching the BBC report on the earthquakes in Spain and bombings in Pakistan, our visas were processed. We were finally free to roll over the border and into the dry grassy landscape of northern Zambia. Travelling along potholed roads we trundled towards Chipata to camp for the night.
Finally we have made it to Malawi, a country which is two-thirds lake, famed for the friendliness of its people and known as one of the poorest countries in Africa we cannot wait to discover what it has to offer.
Ever since reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, we have both wanted to come to Malawi. The book tells the story of a young Malawian boy (Kamkwamba) whose parents have to pull him out of school when a famine hits the country, because they barely have enough money to feed the family. Despite this, his interest in school is irrepressible (he even tries to gatecrash classes in secondary school until he is kicked out by a teacher who discovers that his parents have not paid the fees!). One day he is captivated by a picture of a windmill in a science textbook, thus begins his unrelenting quest to build a replica from scrap.
Ignoring the relentless ridicule of his neighbours which lasts for months on end, he succeeds in erecting a windmill which brings electricity to the village for the first time, earning the respect of the naysayers and piquing the interest of a journalist who stumbles upon the wacky contraption. Once his story makes it to the wider world, the boy’s life is turned upside down; he receives a scholarship to a university in South Africa, gives a lecture on TED and travels the world telling his story.
Fast forward to our visit to a village near Kande Beach, Lake Malawi, on 11th May. We are seated in a small classroom with an alphabetic rainbow running along the wall, maps of Malawi hang near the blackboard; the obligatory picture of the president glares down at us. The Head Teacher, the vocal incarnation of Louis Armstrong (no, he did not sing!), introduces us to the school in his husky baritone. Serving 1500 primary school children in the area, each of its 10 classrooms holds an average of 150 pupils in a space which would be deemed fit for 30 students in the West.
Primary education is free, but not compulsory in Malawi. Secondary school costs $150 per year, yet the average income in the village is approximately $600 per annum. Consequently, most families struggle to send a single child to secondary school.
Before we leave, we meet a young trainee teacher finishing up for the day, her final task for the day is to finish a poster with some example sentences in English. She explains that her only felt-tip pen has dried out; she is waiting for the ink to drip down to the tip so she can finish the sentence. A feeling of indignation and pity overwhelm us as we listen to this smiling woman, resigned to her fate. Defeated before she has even begun, she is trying to do her job without the tools of her trade. This is one of the better schools in the district, but it is a wonder that any pupil ever makes it into the top 10%, the essential requirement for admission to university.
The village clinic is an austere place, sporting a few sun-bleached posters warning of the risks of HIV/ AIDS infection, one of the primary killers in Malawi. A gaggle of pregnant women wait on wooden benches outside the nurse’s office, toddlers crawl beneath their feet, babies are strapped to their backs; distended bellies protrude from their bright kikoys.
The nurse greets us in slurring English, firing off statistics about the clinic: it serves 25,000 people (an average of 300 per day); most of the patients are pregnant women and people with malaria (sometimes referred to as Malawi’s number one export); few patients are ever admitted to the clinic as there is a shortage of beds; serious cases are referred to the main hospital an hour or so away. Given that she only has one colleague to help her attend to the 300 or so patients per day (a doctor visits once a month), she has mastered the art of cutting consultations short. She ends abruptly with a request for donations to be placed in the wooden box on her desk.
The sun fades quickly as we make our way with William, the chief’s son, to the chief’s house. Everywhere we go, a gaggle of children grip our hands, beg us to swing them high into the air and beseech us for pens (why is it that nobody ever asks for paper?) and empty pet bottles (William explains that they are the latest status symbol at school).
Teenaged boys dressed in the ubiquitous hand-me-downs donated to charity by well wishers from distant shores. To the newcomer they appear wealthy, but that is a deception; these boys in football shirts and Adidas tracksuit bottoms reside in the basic mud huts scattered about the village. Their staple food is cassava; meat is a rare treat (once yearly or reserved for weddings and visitors like us). Many have no formal work earning just a few hundred Kwatcha here and there by carving souvenirs for tourists. The women are largely silent as they encounter us at the water pump or heaving heavy loads in the dying embers of the scorching day.
Soon dinner is served on the floor of the courtyard, the children are brought in to perform some rousing songs which echo through the inky night, perforated by the scant sliver of a developing crescent moon, which envelopes us here in the middle of nowhere.