Malawi is a country I was very aware of, even before we started the whole Africa trip. I had major visa issues and was jumping hoops for quite a while. Just have a look at the "How NOT to get a visa for Malawi" section below, it is a perfect example for how things usually go down in Africa.
Malawi is a relatively small country, at least for African terms. Gated by Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozanbique and Tanzania, it spans a narrow land corridor on the west side of the lake by the same name. The people here are quite poor - Malawi ranks among the world's least developed countries and 90% of the population lives in rural areas. But those facts don't seem to affect anyone here, the amount of positivity that pours out of these people is simply overwelming. While driving you will be facing bright, genuine smiles everywhere you go and by the end of the day your arms will feel heavy from waving to the kids. I don't think we ever felt this welcome in a foreign country.
Our stay was at Kande beach, a nice little camp at the white sandy shores of lake Malawi. It has a very strong tropical island vibe - the only thing giving the lake away is the lack of salt in the water. Like most accomodations and camps here, it is situated next to a village with a very strong community. Everyone knows everyone and there is a chief and a strong hierarchy. This is not something you realize straight away and during your "acclimatization" time you will be on a constant sales pitch, often without knowing. But all of this goes down in a friendly manner, the guys here are funny and not too pushy. Soon you will have talks with guys by the names of "Cheese and Toast", "Sugar and Spice", "Mel Gibson" or "Mohammed Ali". I guess the catchier the better. You will also be offered "Malawi gold" - I'll let you figure out what that might be.
Nikki and I did a guided village walk with William (no not William Shakespear, this was actually his real name), the son of the chief. He showed us around his house, the village crops, the school and the clinic. 1500 kids go to school here, with about 10 teachers - Nikki was in awe. Donations of all kinds are welcome. The clinic mostly serves two purposes: child birth and malaria. The later is a huge issue here - Nikki did a test, luckily she was negative (better luck next time Nics). There was a pile of positive tests on the table, over hundred just in the last couple of days. All positives get free medication.
If you want to buy African wood crafts, Malawi is the place. The work is of high quality, the carvings intricate and you usually buy them directly from the craftsman. Everything is open for bargain of course, the initial price is at least 30-50% over the actual one. You probably can even go lower than that, the people are often desperate to sell. Our advise is to bargain, but please keep in mind the real value of what you're buying. Even the initial price is by far lower than what you would pay anywhere else. Bartering is very welcome here, and often even preferred to cash - there are no supermarkets around, and most people never leave the village. The most desired items are the follwing: Socks, t-shirts, pens, batteries, old mobile phones, ear phones, make-up.
For us, Malawi left a strong and lasting impression. The lake, sceneries and artiseries were more than stunning, but this is not what made this country stand out so much. It's the people - the smiles we exchanged with the locals here seem to have a strangely long afterglow.
How NOT to get a visa for Malawi
Should you be Austrian, Swiss or Bulgarian, then you are one of the few unlucky people who actually need a visa for Malawi. And it's not a cheap one - $150 USD over the official channels. For everyone else it's free. I tried to find out why it is just that particular national selection, without success. By the time I found out that I needed a visa it was already too late. New Zealand has no Malawian consulate and we were leaving in a weeks time. So I started an email correspondance with the Malawian consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa. I'm calling it a correspondance because I might as well have written letters (at that point I was still not aware of the term "African time"). The plan was to send all my documents (including my passport) to Joburg the moment we land in Capetown and pick it up on our way up. I was told that the processing time was "at least 7 working days", which was unconfortably tight - we only had about 13 days in South Africa. In all honesty, this was not the smartest plan to begin with, but we were out of options.
We landed in Capetown on a Saturday morning and everything was closed. Monday was a public holiday and so was Wednesday. The following Monday the whole country was on hold due to national elections. This made everything much easier - the only thing left to do was to relax and watch our only plan melt away in the African sun. Resignation can sometimes be the greatest relieve.
And then we met M., our friendly guide from Zimbabwe. He was willing to spend the whole morning on the phone and try to contact someone at the consulate. Good 4 hours later he told me he managed to get hold of someone, let's just call him Mr. X. Mr. X was all hakuna mata, no worries, we just had to go see him in Joburg on Thursday morning with the money and the documents and we could get the visa then and there, no problem. He was also kind enough to let us know that that particular Thursday was actually his birthday. Funny how the world is full of conincidences.
Thursday morning at the consulate in Johannesburg. Mr X. was sitting behind a desk that was much too big for the stark and shabby room it was in.
"You are late, where have you been? I've been waiting all morning!" - it was 10 past 9, our appointment was at 9.
"Sorry Mr X., the Johannesburg morning traffic took us by surprise..."
"You should have known better! I'm a busy man, you know? I have to prepare for my Masters exam at the university, not to mention all my other duties"
He pointed at the books that were sitting in front of him at the desk. Then he decided to do some studying for a couple of minutes, while me and M. were sitting in silence and watching, a bit confused. He finally closed the books and asked for my passport and forms, then left the room. M. suggested to have the money ready by the time he is back. I asked him in return how much he would value a suitable birthday present for Mr. X, and we agreed to try it with a couple of hundred Rand. Mr x. came back into the office.
"And now the most important thing, where is the money?"
I gave him the money for the visa.
"Oh, by the way Mr X., I remember you saying it was your birthday today? We didn't have time to get you something appropriate, so here is a little something for your trouble".
He pocketed the money while mumbleling a "thank you". Then he put a sticker into my passport, wrote a couple of lines and stamped it.
"Here you go. Making me do the work of a whole week in one day..."
I attempted a smile but then I realized he might be serious. In the taxi on the way back I had a look at my passport. The visa stated that my last name was "Sarajevo", the city I was born in. It also stated that my nationality was Turkish, on a visa that was sticking in an Austrian passport. Why Turkish of places I couldn't even begin to guess. I was absolutely dumbstruck. We turned around. When we confronted Mr X. (very politely), he had a suspisous look at my passport.
"Ah, that's no big deal" - then he took a pen from a lady standing next to him and just scribbled over the previous entries. It was a mess. On the way out M. just looked at me and gave me a tap on the back.
"Don't worry man, TIA."