Malawi is one of those places where those who have never been don't understand its unique charm, and for those who have, it continues to capture their imaginations. Having grown up there and become used to its various quirks and differences, I can vouch for this. So why does Malawi, one of Africa's smallest countries , continue to be home for even those who have long left it?
Everyone wants a chat, and everyone smiles. A simple 'how are you' becomes a five minute conversation bouncing back 'I'm good thank you and how are you's in either English or Chichewa (muli bwanji? ndili bwino kaya inu? zikomo! zikomo kwabiri) This occurs with everyone, including the psychiatric hospital escapee who would have a chat with me every Tuesday whilst I was en route to my piano lesson. This willingness to chat still proves itself a problem when I attempt to answer an English 'alright' with a small monologue. Everyone wants to welcome you, and no matter how little they have, Malawians are always inclined to give rather than take.
Its giant freshwater lake which resembles a small ocean
Despite the Bilharzia, the risk of crocs in the Northern area and a very small chance that a hippo may arrive on your cottage lawn, Lake Malawi is known as the Lake of Stars for good reason. As an enormous body of freshwater which stretches further than the eye can see and is filled with around 1000 species of cichlid it is top scuba diving territory (worth forking out a bit more on travel insurance for). The shores of the Lake are clustered with accommodation ranging from the budget to the extremely high-end. Socially, New Year at the lake is notorious and so is its annual Lake of Stars festival which gathers artists together from across the world- Foals played here one year. There is absolutely nothing in the world which compares to watching the sunset over the lake with a cold Carlsberg in hand, listening to the insects come out.
In a country where 'winter' means thirty degree heat down in Chikwawa and a balmy fifteen degrees during the day in Blantyre, you can't really go wrong. The best time of the year is when the rains break around late October/ early November after temperatures climb to unbearable heights. The smell of dust and scorched grass is everywhere and the heat makes sitting on plastic seats in an un air-conditioned car a thoroughly painful experience. Eventually, the heavens open, a huge thunderstorm rips up the sky and torrential rain falls. The smell of rain hitting the hot ground is intoxicating, as is the drum of the rain on a tin roof.
Its massively diverse landscapes
The miombo woodlands of Majete, the savannahs of Kasungu, Mulanje mountain, the cooler pine forests of the Zomba plateau and the rippling grasslands of the Nyika Plateau all make for very varied settings. Despite not having quite the same vast savannahs as Tanzania and Kenya, it also has the positives of not having hundreds of annoying tourists fighting for a sundowner spot.
Everything is ten times more colourful than anywhere in Europe. The sky can only be described as azure, the grass is a lurid green and purple-crested louries with scarlet on the bottoms of their wings call from the branches of every other tree. Nothing is ever dull, life is a rainbow in this small corner of the world and every car journey has something to look at. Brightly patterned chitenjes fill the streets, and eclectically coloured beaded curios can be bought easily and everywhere.
Make sure to get your rabies vaccine because you're likely to have some fairly close encounters with vervet monkeys and /or baboons. Having grown up with monkeys causing carnage at every break-time, comparatively a fat squirrel scavenging in a bin is very vanilla. This is probably one of the only countries where you can get chased by a buffalo on a school trip (Lengwe 2008, the other year 6 class- N.B: they also lied about seeing a hyena) and have a baby crocodile as the school pet which then disappears, fuelling rumours that it's set up base in the swimming pool. On a less in-your-face level, Malawi's national park system has seen massive regeneration in recent years with African Parks taking over several of its big game parks. Majete now stocks the Big Five and Liwonde has just been subject to a massive translocation of elephants.
Kamba Puffs and Sobo
The food of youth- unadulterated preservatives and sugar. Nothing compares to either of these delicacies, in particular consuming a kilo's worth of kamba puffs in front of a DSTV delayed Disney Channel movie premiere. The classic orange Sobo has remained stalwart over the years, with various imposters trying and failing to make headway. Realistically, creme soda Sobo was never going to have quite the same kick as its orange sibling when you had to pour half the bottle in to get any hint of flavour.
The pace of life
Anyone who knows Malawi will realise that there's normal time and there's Malawi time. In Malawi, give any deadline an extra two weeks and don't get stressed if it's not done on time. There's no rat race here, and long days whiled away chatting on the khonde or swimming for hours on end are both perfectly acceptable. People have the time to sit outside and watch the world go by. Kaya Mawa (translated as 'maybe tomorrow') the name of one of Malawi's most luxurious resorts is evidence enough of this laissez-faire attitude to time and place. This also applies to getting your tourist visa- be prepared for mass frustration and make sure you give it approximately 10 years to get it sorted. (Just joking, a good few months should suffice)
If this has inspired you to visit the sunny climes of Malawi, make sure to visit the FCO country specific travel advice to get all your information on visas, vaccines and general visitation tips.