Difference between revisions of "Malawi"
Revision as of 19:02, 2 December 2012
Malawi (Chichewa: Malaŵi)  is a country in Africa, bordered by Mozambique to the south and east, Tanzania to the north, Zambia to the west. Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, runs along most of its eastern border. It's described as the "Warm Heart of Africa", referring to the friendliness of the people.
Established in 1891, the British protectorate of Nyasaland became the independent nation of Malawi on 6th July, 1964. After three decades of one-party rule, the country held multiparty elections in 1994 under a provisional constitution, which took full effect the following year. National multiparty elections were held again in 1999 and 2004 electing Bingu wa Mutharika as president. President Bingu died in office on 5th April 2012 and was succeeded by Joyce Banda.
Much of Malawi is plateau, often reaching to 1,000 m (3,000 ft), and the temperature in these highlands is moderate, with the hottest period occurring during the autumn rainy season and the coolest and chilliest in winter. The hottest region in the country is the lower Shire River Valley well south of Blantyre. Temperatures along scenic Lake Malawi are generally warm, but with a cooling breeze, especially in the evenings. Winters (May till July) are dry. The rainy season begins in mid-October to early November and generally runs until March.
Malawi’s people are its greatest asset - friendly, welcoming, colourful and vibrant. It is impossible to visit and not to become engaged with the people, but there are now opportunities to spend time in real villages (including staying overnight) for a first-hand experience of the cultures, traditions and daily life. This is an option pretty much everywhere in Malawi, and one well worth taking.
There’s also much to see of Malawi’s history, beginning with the pre-history remains of the Karonga district and the Stone Age rock paintings near Dedza. The Cultural & Museum Centre at Karonga is well worth a visit. Elsewhere, the colonial period is preserved in buildings dating from the David Livingstone era and the defeat of the Arab slave trade is well documented in the museums of Blantyre. Among other museums around the country are a Lake Museum at Mangochi, a mission museum at Livingstonia and a postal services museum near Zomba
Most visitors from industrialized countries, including the United States, Canada, most European Union countries, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan do not require a visa to enter Malawi. A tourist visa lasts for 30 days, but be careful as they sometimes only write '7 days' on your passport stamp upon arrival at the airport. A tourist visa can be renewed for an extra 30 days twice (for 5000 Malawian Kwacha each time) or for 60 days all at once for 10,000 Malawian Kwacha at the immigration offices.
Others (especially some Central and Eastern Europeans) can get the visa only when arriving by air. If you however require a visa and try to enter by land, you can request a conditional entry permit to be issued by the border guards. They are usually willing to do so, but for a (negotiable) fee. With that permit in hand you must report to the Immigration HQ in Blantyre or Lilongwe within a period of time specified in the permit. There they will then (usually) issue you the proper visa for the official fee of 70 USD.
Malawi's largest international airport is in Lilongwe, although there are also some flights from Blantyre to regional destinations. Most travelers connect via Johannesburg (South Africa) or Nairobi (Kenya). State carrier Air Malawi  claims to be "Africa's Friendliest Airline", but its limited network covers only nearby countries plus Middle Eastern hub Dubai.
Swift Air is a privately owned airline operating flights between Johannesburg, Blantyre and Lilongwe. It operates Boeing 737 aircraft. 
The previous international departure tax of $30 is now included in the air fare.
There are trains twice a week from Blantyre to Cuamba and Nampula in northern Mozambique, although a 77-kilometer stretch of track between the Mozambique border and Cuamba is out of commission and must be covered by truck.
The main road (M1) runs from the northern border (Kaporo) through Karonga, Mzuzu, Lilongwe and finally to Mchinji and is in excellent shape. There is an excellent road from Lilongwe to Mchinji on the Zambian border (120 km).
To get into Malawi from Mozambique, in the south, one can take the bus from Tete (north-west Mozambique) to Zobwe. After crossing, take another bus from the border to Blantyre. This crossing is quite hectic, and it is closed at night, so one should plan on getting there early, and trying to keep it cool with all the border-hawkers. Direct buses run from Lusaka, Zambia to Lilongwe, but are best avoided (or done in stretches) if 18-20 hours on a bus doesn't sound like your idea of a good time. There is also minibus from Mbeya in Tanzania to the border. From the border in Malawi Side, take a taxi to Karonga. The cost is around 400-500 MK depend on negotiation. From Karonga bus station, take a bus or minibus to other destinations in Malawi. Bus is cheaper than minibus. The easiest way take direct bus from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania to Mzuzu or Lilongwe.
Note that there are NO direct buses from Mbeya to Malawi although scammers in Mbeya bus station will tell you so, and sell you tickets. You must take a bus to the border and walk across.
Compared to its neighbors, the main roads in Malawi are in surprisingly good shape and travel times between major destinations should be reasonable. The volume of traffic is low and most people drive reasonably slowly. Road travel after dark is not advisable as road markings are poor to non-existent and not all cars have headlights.
The Malawian police force have check points along many of the major roadways. By and large, they are looking for illegal activities and bribes - but aren't too much of a problem. Expect to be stopped on occasion and asked where you are going. You should not have any problems if you are polite and have the correct documentation (passport, driver's licence, permission to use the vehicle, etc.) available if they ask.
Currently Malawi is experiencing many fuel shortages, so be aware to stock up in neighbouring countries unless you want to queue for a long time (without actually getting anything) or use the blackmarket - with fuel prices being almost double, even triple, usual prices.
Like most other former British colonies, traffic moves on the left in Malawi with most cars being right-hand drive.
Local car rental companies:
Apex Rent-a-Car Malawi (url="http://www.apexrentacarmw.com"). Sedans, 4x4s, even buses.
SS Rent-a-Car (url="http://www.malawitourism.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=112"). 4x4s, 16 and 26 seat buses, Motorbikes
Sputnik Car Hire (url="http://www.malawitourism.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=102"). 4x4s,buses,trucks
Unfortunately many car rentals in Southern Africa do not allow you to enter Malawi with their cars. You might have the best chances if you rent a car in Zambia.
Car rentals that allow you to enter Malawi:
Traveling by boat is surely the most enjoyable mode of getting around in Malawi. The Ilala ferry runs north from Monkey Bay to Chilumba (F 10AM-Su 6:30PM), and back southbound on the same route (departure Chilumba on Monday 2AM, arriving at Monkey Bay on Wednesday at 2PM). Prices are rising with every year, but so is the ferry's reliability: some years back (before its privatization) it was perfectly normal to arrive a day late sometimes. The Ilala thus connects Likoma Island twice a week with the mainland, and the much closer Cobuè in Mozambique, respectively. Prices in January 2006 were about 6000 Malawian Kwacha from Monkey Bay to Likoma, and 1600 from Likoma to Nkatha Bay.
Nyassa Air Taxi  is by far the preferred choice to fly guests in and around Malawi.
Swiftair operates scheduled domestic flights between Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Karonga and Blantyre on a twin engine, 2 crew beechcraft 1900 http://www.swiftairmalawi.com
"Luxury" buses, medium-sized buses, and minibuses all service the country. They vary in comfort and price. Vehicle condition can be very poor and road accidents are relatively common. Generally, if police are going to hassle travelers, it will be individuals using these types of transportation.
Taxis are available in any city, whether they are licensed or not. Be prepared to negotiate as quoted prices to tourists are generally two to three times the actual going rate. Ask a friendly local or expat what the price should be. Rental cars are also available in these towns. Costs vary depending on vehicle type, but expect a compact car to run about $60/day.
The official languages of Malawi are English and Chichewa. English is widely spoken in urban areas and by the well-educated upper class, though outside of that, a few words in Chichewa will go a long way. Chichewa is the first language of the majority of the population, and knowing Chichewa will get you by in most of Malawi though in some very remote areas, learning the local tongue might be essential. Locals always appreciate any attempts by foreigners to speak Chichewa and learning at least a few basic greetings would do well to ingratiate yourself to the locals. Tumbuka is the first language for many people in the north of the country. Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live mostly in the Southern District of the country. A multi-cultural country, Malawi has over a dozen indigenous ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language. However, even in those areas, many younger people will be bilingual in the local language and Chichewa.
Malawi has a massive diversity of beautiful landscapes. The highest peaks in Malawi touch 10,000ft (3,000m) while the lowest point is barely above sea level. This range of altitudes in a small area help to make the landscape of Malawi one of the most varied in all Africa. It is generally a green, lush country, with plateaux, highlands, forests, mountains, plains, escarpments and dramatic river valleys.
The Rift Valley is the dominant feature, providing the vast chasm that Lake Malawi fills, and extending to te south of the country following the Shire River that drains the Lake. The flatter areas of the Rift Valley in South Malawi are home to some important wetlands, including Elephant Marsh, down in the Lower Shire Valley.
To the west of the Lake and either side of the Shire Valley in the south is the Central African Plateau. The transition from Rift Valley floor up to the Central African Plateau is characterised by a series of dramatic escarpments, such as at Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, a protected area of rugged, unspoilt wilderness. The Central African Plateau itself is gently undulating land between 1,600ft (490m) and 5,000ft (1,500m), with the occassional lake (such as Lake Chilwa) and punctuated by more dramatic hills and forests.
It is the widespread highlands and forests that provide the most impressive of the Malawi's varied scenery. Up where the air is fresh and cool are clear mountain streams, heaths, rolling montane grassland and evergreen forests.
The southern part of Malawi has the best known highlands - Mulanje Massif and Zomba Plateau. The former is a massive wilderness plateau of syenite granite rising from the Phalombe Plains. It has a number of peaks, including the highest in both the country and the whole of central Africa: Sapitwa, at 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). The tea estates that stretch west of Mulanje as far as Thyolo, are also wonderfully scenic. Zomba Plateau is not as high as Mulanje, but none the less impressive. It is slab-like with a gently undulating plateau top which is accessible by road.
The Dedza-Kirk Highlands extend the rise from the Rift Valley on its western edge between Blantyre and Lilongwe. The northern part of these highlands is marked by the Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve and then the Thuma Forest Reserve. South-west of Lilongwe, the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve covers a range of hills at the border with Mozambique. The Dowa Highlands, north of Lilongwe, have their most notable peaks at Dowa and the Ntchisi Forest Reserve.
The Viphya Highlands - undulating hills swathed in evergreen forests - stretch north-south in north Malawi and reach the edge of the Rift Valley. Finally, in north Malawi is the Nyika Plateau, a rolling whaleback grassland plateau unique in Africa. Much of this highest and most extensive high plateau surface in central Africa is gazetted as the Nyika National Park.
For a small country, Malawi has a quite remarkable array of activities to offer its visitors. The magnificent Lake Malawi is a haven for boat activities and watersports, as well as having some of the best freshwater diving sites in the world, right in Nkhata Bay. Eight land-based national parks and wildlife reserves offer all type of safaris in a wide variety of natural wilderness environments. Liwonde National Park, along the Shire River, has hippos (including an albino one!), crocodiles, lions, elephants and even leopards (apparently). The mixed terrain and varied landscapes also provide for excellent outdoor activities, including trekking and mountain biking, particularly in the highland areas. Those seeking cultural experiences are also well served by sites of historical interest and simple village visits to meet the ever-smiling Malawians in their daily life. You can visit the Carlsberg factory in Blantyre, climb Mt. Mulanje (a series of high hills, mountains - making a good trek), drive up or climb Zomba Plateau, go horseback riding in Kande or Nyika, or just relax on the beaches of Cape Maclear.
Specialist tours/activities include yoga holidays, tea factory tours and art safaris. Pottery classes are available at two centres in Dedza and Nkhotakota. In the summer months of Malawi (September/October) there is the Lake of Stars international music festival on the beaches of Sunbird Nkopola Lodge in Mangochi. 2011's festival included Foals, Freshlyground, The Black Missionnaries, Lucius Banda, Beverley Knight and Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend. 2010's festival included The Noisettes, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. and Oliver Mtukudzi. This is a good festival, where you can relax in the sun on the beach having a few drinks and listening to some good music. Camping is the prominent form of accomodation, however many people do chose to stay in Sunbird Nkopola rooms themselves, or in rooms or cottages of nearby lodges.
The local currency is the Malawi kwacha, abbreviated MK. The currency is freely convertible (but impossible to get rid of outside the country) and, as of December 2012, trades at around 330 kwacha to the US dollar, 425 to the Euro and 525 to the Pound. Forex will also be accepted by almost everybody, particularly for larger purchases. For the current exchange rate, visit i.e. xe.com . Bring foreign currency (forex) into the country and exchange on the black market - in Lilongwe this is by using the people standing outside Metro (opposite Spar/Shoprite). They can give you an extra 80-100 kwacha (use that as a general idea of how much you should get) to the Dollar/Pound or Euro. Get the taxi to stop by here on the drive from the airport! You can swap Malawian Kwacha to Zambian Kwacha at the border, either at the banks or on the black market too. Larger foreign bills are favored and can get much higher rates. At times, it can be easier to not even go to the black market and simply make purchases with the foreign currency.
Credit card acceptance is spotty but improving. Visa and MasterCard are accepted by larger hotels, including some ATMs, but you can leave AmEx or anything else at home. ATMs are becoming much more common and can be used at many banks in major cities, though most notably, VISA is the card of choice and many times the only option.
Travellers' cheques can be changed in banks, forex bureaus and in some high-end hotels. The number of hotels accepting payment by travellers' cheque seems to be shrinking. Don't rely on them unless you have spoken to the hotel. Also, banks often want to see your original paperwork from your bank when you purchased the traveller's cheques. Without it, you may not be able to exchange them. US dollars cash is your best bet, and it gives a better exchange rate.
Handmade wood and soapstone carvings, wood and cane furniture, colourful textiles, pottery, beadwork have high standards - especially at the Mua Mission to the south of Salima. They have their own shop and traditional musical instruments make good souvenirs throughout Malawi. Australians and New Zealanders will need to factor in the fumigation and quarantine charges when they return home, though.
Traditional Malawian food revolves around one staple, maize, served in one form, nsima (n'SEE-ma). Nsima is basically a type of thick porridge, rolled into balls with your right hand and dipped into a variety of stews known as relishes. Those who can afford them eat relishes of beef, chicken or fish, but the many who can't make do with beans, tiny dried fish (usipa), pumpkin leaves (chibwabwa) and other vegetables. At breakfast, nsima can be served watered down into a soup, maybe with a little sugar. Local restaurants will serve nsima and relish for less than MK500 (US$3).
Food options in the major cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre are good. Fast food — to include burgers, pizza, and fried chicken — is very popular in Malawi. For sit-down meals, ethnic eateries (thanks to a significant ex-pat population) are popular. Do note that, in many restaurants, pork products are not served to accommodate the Muslim population.
Outside the larger cities, however, you might be a little underwhelmed with food options. Along the major roadways, you will find "tuck shops" featuring packaged cookies or Take Away Meals — meat pies or sausage rolls, for instance — which may or may not satisfy you.
Finally, in terms of hygiene outside the major cities, you are unlikely to find a proper washroom with running water. You will probably be given a bowl of water, a piece of soap, and a (damp) towel. Therefore, some travelers bring small bottles of anti-bacterial hand soap with them.
Tap water in major cities like Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba and Mzuzu is generally safe. Ask at the lodge/house you're at. Some travellers with weaker stomachs may be advised to avoid this drinking water. Bottled water is plentiful in all the major shops.
A traditional local drink worth trying is maheu, a somewhat gritty and vaguely yogurty but refreshing beverage made from maize meal. Factory-produced maheu is sweet, comes in plastic bottles and is available in a variety of flavors including banana, chocolate and orange, while homemade versions are usually unflavored and less sweet.
The variety of soft drinks in Malawi is very popular - there's Coke, Sprite, Tonic, Ginger Ale, Soda Water, Cherry Plum, Cocopina and the very tasty, sugary Fanta's (coming in Orange, Grape, Exotic, Passion and Pineapple flavours). These are manufactured by SOBO, the glass bottles are on a deposit system. Expect to pay MK25 extra per bottle unless you bring some 'empties' with you.
The only beers you will generally find are brewed in Blantyre by Carlsberg, and it's products are available in restaurants and stores throughout the country. A normal Carlsberg is known as a 'green', but also come as Special Brew, Stout, Classic, Elephant, Light or Kuche Kuche. You can also buy imported drinks such as Heineken, Kronenbourg, Smirnoff Ice, Barcadi Breezer and some ciders in certain bars. Malawi also produces it's own spirits - notably Malawi Vodka, Malawi Gin, Malawi Rum, Gold Label Brandy and the cane spirit Powers. Malawi Gin & Tonic is a very nice, popular expat drink in the country.
There are high-level five-star resort hotels in some rural areas charging western prices.
Malawi's largest tertiary education structure at present is the University of Malawi which is made up of Chancellor College located in the heart of Zomba, Blantyre Polytechnic in Chichiri and College of Medicine. Bunda College of Agriculture and Kamuzu College of Nursing are located in Lilongwe. There is also Mzuzu University in the Northern part of Malawi.
Malawi has been known for years as "The Warm Heart of Africa", and Malawians are known for their friendliness and hospitality. Malawi is not known as a particularly dangerous travel destination for western foreigners and expatriates. Muggings and robberies have occured in the larger cities, most especially Lilongwe, as well as in some notorious places along the main tourist routes. It is advisable to avoid walking alone at night. If you go out for the evening, make sure you know how you're going back home. Car-jackings happen occasionally so be sure to keep windows shut and doors locked during evening and night journeys (though night driving is not advised - most cars have broken headlights and Malawians tend to walk in the middle of the road at night) and exercise reasonable caution as in any foreign city or rural area. Roads are less safe because many drivers are unlicensed and inexperienced and many vehicles are not inspection-ready; there is also the factor of drunk driving, especially in the evenings so be on the side of caution. However even half the taxi drivers you will get at night will be drunk... More recently there has been a lot of pickpockets operating in nightclubs and bars. Just exercise caution, don't bring too much money and cameras etc. 10 beers is no more than MK2500, so don't bring hordes of cash with you. Homosexuality is officially banned by the law, and gay couples should exercise discretion when traveling to Malawi. It took a presidential pardon to release a gay couple recently arrested for homosexuality and sentenced to 14 years of hard labor.
As with its neighboring countries malaria can be a problem. The lake is freshwater and is prone to bilharzia, especially in the Cape Maclear area. Symptoms of bilharzia can take months to surface, if you think you've been exposed to it you can get a very cheap pill from the local pharmacists that will kill it before it even shows its face. It's a good idea to take care of it before leaving Malawi as it will be much more expensive back home.
The adult HIV prevalence in the country is at 14% or 1 in 7 adults. Do not have unprotected sex. Do not use injecting drugs.
Malawi has both patriarchal and matriarchal ethnicities and cultures. In the cities, men tend to be more respected than women, but the reverse might be true in the rural villages depending on ethnicity. Whites tend to be well-respected, a holdover from colonial times, but this is largely a Malawian's way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality. They are an exceptionally friendly people.
Malawians, especially those from very rural areas where they don't see many whites, can be quite curious when they do come upon a white traveler. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to be greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! and to answer lots of questions about yourself. Even relatively mundane items like mechanical pencils can draw a crowd of onlookers.
Malawians are in general extremely courteous, and a part of that courtesy is shaking hands, speaking softly, and referring to travelers and others with respect. Malawians avoid rudeness. It is common for Malawi men to hold hands when they've gathered together to chat, and this shouldn't be given a sexual interpretation when it is encountered.
Culturally, women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially when traveling outside the lodge/camp. A woman in shorts or a short skirt is considered to be provocative, as well as rude. Many female visitors wear wraps that are available in the stores and markets of major cities. These are generally made of bright, colored patterns and can be extremely attractive. Low-cut tops on women, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative. Men in the cities tend to wear slacks and not shorts, as shorts are generally worn only by school-age children, so when a man wears shorts it can be viewed by Malawians as rather silly.
Finally, when meeting a Malawian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Malawian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply "getting to the point." Courtesy is a must, at all times, because not to be courteous is to show disrespect.
Malawi Travel Marketing Consortium for advice