Sunday, 1 June 2014

First Impressions of Africa in Malawi

Arrival in Lilongwe

Seeing the land of Africa for the first time from the plane while landing in Lilongwe was exciting. Red sand, small little huts, lots of trees, flat land with some mountains in the distance. It did look like in the famous movie “Out of Africa”! Wow, I have arrived – I’m here – It is real :) I will stay here for 3.5 months doing my research! I feel grateful for having gotten this opportunity in life. It still feels very abstract I have to say, and for the first time the feeling of nervousness came up.
I got of the plane, walked down the steps and the first thing I observed was an airport worker laughing out loud, having fun with his co-workers.

Lilongwe airport

His laugh was electric and welcomed me to Malawi! I had a feeling I was in the right country. The customs officer was very welcoming. We even had a small little chit chat and it didn’t feel official at all, I could feel his warmth from his heart when saying: ‘Welcome to Malawi’.

Lilongwe airport
A man called Jonathan, a local who worked in logistics for a water company in Lilongwe, picked us up. We stopped on the way and got a first taste of the friendliness and curiosity of people in Malawi – the first impressions of a new continent for me! Three small little kids opened the tin door of a gate and steal a glance at us with a big smile on their faces and a bit of shyness. We arrived at a black gate with a big villa inside that belonged to St. John’s of God and we would stay there for the night. After we brought all our belongings inside we went for a walk to the nearest shopping centre with the janitor called Jack. He was a very friendly local man and we had a great chat on the way. I was excited to see the first shopping centre and super market in Malawi. Not that I was desperate to buy anything major. No, it was more curiosity to see what they were selling and what was available :) It was a big supermarket; it looked like one in the west. It turned out that they sold a lot of UK brands, the small bakery inside offered tasty ‘bakery items’. The variety of goods was impressive – I hadn’t expected any of these. Claire and myself tested the local ATM outside the centre and it gave us money :) Good news! The German credit card did work. I never doubted it, but I heard stories from other travellers that they had problems to access money in Malawi. Well, I was delighted.
Malawi reminds me most of Nepal, very unexpected, but small little things like people’s gestures, windows, red sandy roads and the slowness.

The next morning the local family of the janitor got up very early, washing dishes already at 6am at a small water basin behind their house. Then clothes were washed, brushed and hung up dripping wet onto the line. This could be in Vietnam really, same routines indeed in 2 different continents. The couple had a very intense conversation in Chichewa, the local spoken language in Lilongwe while washing clothes. It almost sounded like the woman was upset, but I guess it is just the way they speak – another thing which reminded me instantly about Asia ;)
We had a bit of a bus ride ahead of us from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi to Mzuzu (in the North of Malawi) and it would take approximately 6 hours. Yeah, that’s exactly what it took and we drove up in a small minivan, which was the same standard as the one’s in Nepal. 

Our Minivan :)
I had a really enjoyable trip up there, even if it was a long journey! I loved to just watching the scenery, the roads, the Malawi life around us, to suck all the impressions in :)

A beautiful telecommunication mast ;)

The Malawian police stopped us not long after we had left Lilongwe. 

Six police officers did traffic controls and making up any reason so they could charge a fine! So they did with us as well – we got a fine of 3000 Kwacha (€6) due to too many bags in the car ;) Ridiculous really, but what can you do! Nothing :( Other locals were charged as well and had heated discussions with some police officers. 

Discussion with the local police
I’m not surprised! I actually feel sorry for the locals.

Close to Mzuzu we were able to watch a beautiful sunset from the car! Just stunning :)

First sunset in Africa

1st day in Mzuzu

Sunrays touching the walls of your bedroom don’t make it difficult to get up at 6.30am. Especially, if you arrived in the evening at your new home the day before when it was pitch-black and curiosity is taking over how everything looks like ;) 
I was more than excited to explore Mzuzu, my new home for the next 3 months and therefore Claire and myself decided to go for an early morning run. The back garden of our house was beautiful. It felt like we had so much space here and it was in such a beautiful village with lots of hills and everything was lash green! 

Our back garden

Our kitchen

Our home for 3 months

Our road
We ran out on the main road and then down towards the village. 
Main road

It was almost deserted – at least until we hit town. Lots of bicycle, school kids as well as people who walked with their laptop cases over their shoulders to work. The earth is red here in Malawi and it reminded my straight about Nepal and the South of Vietnam, especially Phu Quoc Island. We ran through the local market, which was still closed, explored were the next ATMs were and stopped by the local ‘People’s supermarket’ to buy bread. Unfortunately they didn’t have any fresh bread. 

Local market in Mzuzu

Well, then we had to run the hill upwards back to our house! This hill was worse than the one in Dingle! Anyway, we made it back to the house, where John and Alepha were already up. They decided to drive to the bakery and get some breakfast for us while we could have a well-deserved shower.
The adventure began after breakfast! We got into the Jeep, which was indeed the best way to drive on these roads and drove to the Wells for Zoe pump factory. I was super excited! How long did I wait for this moment to see the actual factory. It was only a 15 min drive from our house and there was a beautiful sign welcoming us to the Wells for Zoe factory. 

The gate was also wonderfully painted. 

Wells for Zoe factory
We walked into the factory and John introduced ourselves to the local employees. 

Alfred was responsible for gluing the different parts together.

Alfred in action!
 Williams worked on the lathe machine to adjust the different pipes.

Williams at the lathe machine
 Harrison mounted the pumps together

 Stephen worked on a woodcarving machine to make the actual handles for the pumps. 

Stephen - wood carving
We were able to chat to all of them to get an understanding how the pumps work. I was also able to get two handwritten books where the installations of the pumps were written down from 2012 – 2014. Some of the information had GPS coordinators. Yippie! However lets see if I could get the details from the other pumps which were installed before that time. I would love to have access to them to start mapping the pumps in a tool for my research und to give it to Wells for Zoe, so they can work with them electronically.

W4Z factory

W4Z Canzee pump

The drawing

After this exciting morning we drove back to the house, had some quick lunch and made our way to the Organic Farm, which Wells for Zoe is running just outside of Mzuzu town.
On the way we passed by Chipatala Health centre, which Wells for Zoe did built a few years back. 

Health center
This is the place, where local women come to when they give birth. You can see the bed, which they use.

Midwifes in the room where women give birth
It is more than basic and woman do go home after 3-4 hours with their new-born. Mary from W4Z arranged to meet with the local authorities in two weeks time to discuss to use this centre as well for AIDS/HIV treatment. I excited to get the opportunity to go with her!

Mary discussing the next meeting
The organic farm is a beautiful spot and we got to know all the workers on the farm. 


Seedling Targets
They showed us around and we got an idea what they were growing there. They are also working hard trying to improve things and making the farm profitable. I bought some bananas, herbs and green peppers for our dinner. We also got some tangerines and pomegranate to taste :)

Orange tree

My 1st field trip & 4 Water pump installations

1st water pump

What an eventful day! However, it was exhausting for sure!!!
I started the day with a run into town, down the steep hill. I love to observe the locals in the morning, getting a feeling for the country you are in and what customs they have, when they get up, when the shops open and so on! I ran past the local ‘People’s supermarket’ and it was already open. Further down I found the local bakery where I bought some Multigrain toast and some bakery items, which looked like ‘Americaner’ to me. When running through the streets of Mzuzu the locals gave me curious looks, some were laughing or made comments about the “Muzungu’. Muzungu is the word in Malawi for a Westerner or ‘white person’. I was so happy to have fresh bread!  I stopped at the supermarket to see if they have some natural yoghurt for me! It turned out they had a plastic bag with a milk product inside and I decided to go for it. It looked to me a little bit like the curd I was able to buy in Nepal. It was worth the risk! And guess what, it was curd! So happy, as I can have my muesli every morning!

After breakfast John and myself drove to the local factory again, where we picked up the other W4Z staff like Williams, Alfred, Stephen and Alepha to go on my first field trip! How excited I was. The Jeep was loaded with pumps and anything else we needed like tools and pipes. 

1st village - unloading the pipes
This was not only my first field trip; it also meant that we would install the first pumps from the donations I got for my four runs back in Ireland. I was so happy! What a great experience, I can’t tell you how grateful I was. 

Water pump 1

1st village
When I was standing on the green field beside the first pumps, surrounded by people from the local village, women and kids and saw their emotions and gratefulness for the installation of the pump I had once more known, that this was the right decision to give up a well paid job and doing this wonderful Master program. That’s exactly what I wanted to work for and I loved to be out and about and experience the local village life, understand their issues, see how they live, what houses they have, if the kids are healthy and go to school.

local community - 1st water pump
Local woman supplying bricks for the pump 
Local children
Water is flowing!
Local women singing and dancing around the pump!

We did install 4 water pumps today in 4 different villages and we laid out one more cement slab in a 5th village where we will come back to next week to install the pump.

Water pump 2

Local village
Old water resource where they got water from
The slab
Pipe preparations
Pipe adjustments
Kids from the village

Williams explanation how the pumps works

More instructions and lots of fun!

Pipe goes into the well!

Last bit adjusted
And the water is flowing!

Brilliant video!

One family

House from the village

Old slab is carried up to the village to use it as a bathing stone!
Local lunch: Sima, pumpkin leaves with tomatoes and eggs

Water pump 3

Surroundings of the village

Preparing the slab

Brick supply

Local kid with a bloated belly

Woman helping installing the pipe

Water is flowing!

Proud & happy child

Water pump 4

Local kids singing during the installation!

Local children curiously waiting for us!

Local girl carrying down the water pump to the well

Almost done!

Kids singing during the installation

4 local girls

Local women!
Happy kids!

Proud of the new water pump!

Water is flowing! 
The kids are so proud to be able to do it themselves! 
Locals getting a lift to the next junction!

5th village - preparing the slab

Florence and children from the village

Slab preparation

Children helping me to clean the sticky flowers from my shirt

Beautiful people!

Happy child!

All walking with us to the Jeep!
All 5 villages we visited today were so different from each other, but all beautiful in their own way. People behaved in different ways, even children. Some villages had such a nice vibe and atmosphere going and the women even sang songs after the water was flowing out from the pipe for the first time. In other villages children were singing songs for us. Most of the children were wearing t-shirts, which were torn with lots of holes in them. Most of the kids had no shoes and in one village a lot of children had health problems. Bloated bellies and some wounds around their necks.

The roads we drove on today were dreadful! They reminded me about the worst one’s I had experience during my stay in Nepal. However, not to forget we had dry season here in Malawi. Imagine how they would look like during the rainy season?!? William said some of them would be impossible to use and I have no doubt!


  1. Great blogging. Look forward to the next installments,

  2. Wow Kerstin, I had no idea that you're up to something like this! You are such an inspiration to me, please keep on blogging :) Take care!

  3. Thanks Eamonn and Annika for your lovely comments :) Glad you like reading it! Greetings from beautiful Malawi :)