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Harmony in Malawi

I had always dreamed of visiting Malawi. The main reason is because everyone, I mean EVERYONE, who ever visited there came back raving. As I was cycling north from Southern Africa I would meet travelers heading south and they continued to rave about the place. And after my struggles in Zambia and Zimbabwe, I was eager to discover the “Warm Heart of Africa”. I would not be disappointed.

I crossed the border from Zambia as the sun began to set and my mood was pretty darn great as I received a fine sendoff from the Zambians that last day indeed. There was something special about the FEEING of Malawi just across that border line. I felt warm, respected, embraced and peaceful. You have to experience this border crossing to know what I mean, it’s a magical transition you feel just going through a simple gate!

Unlike most “border towns” with the ugly hussle and bussle of con artists, fake money changers and riffraff, there was no real border town at all. There was just a perfectly paved road with a wide shoulder, a downhill grade, mild tailwind and dozens of smiling, waving, cheering Malawians to greet me. I immediately found a 10 year old guest rider who barely reached the pedals and off we went with cheers coming in every direction. They all kept just the right amount of space so I felt comfortable, but they were not distant either.

We only pedaled a short while then I think his older brother or even dad came running after us to end the fun. He was just too young for an adventure with a white stranger—point well taken. But just then a cheery 18 year old boy Joseph hopped right on saying he was heading to Mchinji, the “official” border town, where I planned to take a rest day as I had been 4 days without a break.

The 12KM ride was bliss. Friendly people running out of their houses to greet us, kids screaming “Mzungu!!!” at the top of their lungs (definition: white person), and fellow cyclists bunching together as a team to Mchinji. We had some great chats on the way and he pointed out every building, store, change in tribe, village sub section and sub-sub section, etc. He was a hoot. The golden sunset was priceless as it glistened off the clean villages growing their maize crops as kids with bare feet played with simple toys laughing and giggling. Everywhere I looked there were genuine smiles, peace, contentment. If Malawi is considered one of the “poorest” nations in the world I sure was not seeing it in these people.

I arrived into the buzzing town of Mchinji on a Saturday night and I was told to stay at “Joes Motel”. They gave me a two nights for the price of one deal, which I was super grateful, and I headed out to explore the town and get the word out that I was open to record musicians the next day at the hotel. My crew from Zambia gave me some nice beats and instrumentals and I was confident that I would find some musicians ready to sing to them.

As I was out eating freshly cut potatoes cooked in hot oil on the street I was informed of a reggae show playing that night. Of course, I hit the concert ready to shake my bootie with a few friends I met near the hotel. The music was stellar, the crowd friendly and open, the venue perfect, and we danced till 4AM with a great crew of new buddies from Mchinji. I loved this town!

The next day I woke up to someone at my door. It was a guy named Geneco who heard I was ready to record some musicians. We went into the back patio and there were three other singers waiting as well. The word got out fast, and these guys were ready to perform! I pulled out my computer, cameras, tripods, recording equipment and mics and we were off to the races. We recorded 4 tracks with two groups of musicians and boy were they grateful! They now had a demo CD to send off to bands around the country and to radio stations as well. Great footage for the show—you’ll love it!

I felt a strong connection with this guy Geneco as he was a real passionate singer. He told me he had a few other songs that we did not have time to record that day and he was willing to do whatever it took to sing them and get recorded. I invited him to come on the bike the next day and we would listen to more instrumentals and see if he found something he liked and perhaps record somewhere on the road. Within minutes he got permission from his parents to take the day off school to come riding!

Geneco came early next morning smiling ear to ear. The second we started pedaling away he started singing! I could not understand what he was singing as it was in his local language Chechewa, but it was with tons of passion and he had a nice flow. We were flying along on the flat terrain, listening to music, chatting about life, and philosophizing together about current issues like AIDS, alcohol abuse and youth education.

It was at a rest stop when we found just the right instrumental pieces to put his songs to. We put the headphones on him and soon enough he was flowing perfectly. We spent the rest of glorious ride letting him practice his two songs with the Ipod on while riding along at 25KM/hour. We were flying over the rolling hills and tacking the headwinds with the help of other generous team player cyclists. The plan was to finish our ride then record that night but by the time we made it to the next town it was getting dark and the only guest house in the tiny village had no power. I decided to sponsor him to take a bus into the capital of Lilongwe and we would record later in the week.

Next morning I had about a 60KM ride to the capital of Lilongwe. At breakfast I met a strong, determined woman named Nia who said she was keen for a short pedal on the tandem. She was especially excited to be filmed and interviewed as she had important things to share with the African and global viewers. So off we went for our morning ride and boy did Nia open up!

She first told me about how the men always get the bikes in the households as they are considered “more important and doing harder work”. But that is nonsense according to Nia, as the woman works as hard if not harder. Also, she expressed in both English and especially in her local language Chichewa how frustrated she was that the men take the money they earn and go spend it on beer and even other women. They rarely bring home enough to meet the needs of the family as they waste it on useless things like alcohol, pool games and even other women. How ironic is it that my last guest rider Geneco has a song about this issue called “Chipanichamowa” about alcohol awareness and being responsible with your family responsibilities.

When I came to drop Nia off there was young man name Richard who really wanted to come aboard for the ride. Turns out, he is also an aspiring musician and heard I had the ability to record him and get him a demo CD. He snuck off work as a security guard and we were soon pedaling our way to Lilongwe. I was amazed how these musicians found me here in Malawi but it sure was fun!

Richard snuck around his co-workers and met me on the edge of town to begin our adventure into Lilongwe. Unlike Geneco, Richard had not really rehearsed most of his songs and while we were riding he never really got the groove with the beats I had available. But we had a blast anyhow and enjoyed each other’s company chatting about life, ladies and music. The hilly terrain was no problem as Richard had strong legs and was eager to show off his power.

We rolled into Lilongwe and hit the local backpackers where I planned to stay for a few days recording artists and waiting for my cousin Shannon to arrive from California. I recorded Richards songs using some software I got back in Zambia called “Cool Edit” where I was able to put the beats I had together with Richard’s vocals. After many failed attempts to remember his words I told him he had one more shot and I burned him a CD of his best attempt. He won’t be a super star anytime soon, but he was extremely grateful and we had an awesome time before he finally took a bus back home after sunset.

There was a downtown music festival going on over the weekend and the Budget Lodge hooked me up with 2 night’s free stay right in the heart of the action for my cousin and I to enjoy. Unfortunately, Shannon had some issues with her flight so I had to enjoy the place to myself. My cousin finally arrived two days later than expected and we spent the next several days in Lilongwe recording amazing musicians like the Makambale Brothers, who play oil cans as guitars with a unique, rural sound full of energy.

We then hooked up with a producer named Q who hooked me up with three different artists who sang their hearts out under a tree in his back yard. I asked them to sing their most progressive, meaningful songs and one song even put my cousin to tears. We got some great stuff for our soundtrack indeed!

The day finally arrived when Shannon and I would begin our Malawi adventure together on the lake. Shannon only had about 2 weeks so we decided to do about a week in Malawi and a week in Zanzibar. So we hopped some transport to avoid the diesel and traffic to the peaceful lakeside town of Nkhota Kota where we would begin our ride.

Nkhota Kota is a delightful town where we landed a cheap room for about 5 bucks and hit the town for some local food of more Shima, rice and veggies. The next morning we were all packed up and ready to ride when a cool cat named Gift approached me to show off his hand made bracelets. I was impressed with his art and especially liked his overall vibe—laid back, not pushy and pretty genuine. I invited Gift over to our room to meet Shannon and his eyes lit up when he saw the tandem all geared up for adventure. Shannon also took a liking to him so we decided to invite him along for the ride along the lake towards Nkhata Bay.

Since Shannon is a strong rider she volunteered to take the BOB trailer behind her bike to even up the speed and make sure she got a nice workout each day. But what neither of us knew was how wobbly the trailer was at high speed on a lightly loaded single bike, and we were about to pay the price for that lack of knowledge. The early morning rains created a lovely temperature and the riding was divine with dozens of friendly cyclists, walkers and practically no cars on the road.

About 2KM into the ride we hit a fast decent and Gift and I were flying down the hill. Somebody from the road yelled something in Chechewa to Gift, which he quickly translated with fear in his voice that Shannon had taken a crash! My heart pounded as I made the u-turn and saw her bike tipped over in the middle of the road. I sprinted back there to see Shannon barely getting back to her feet, clearly with at least a mild concussion.

She was in pretty bad shape, but she was walking. Her helmet was full of mud and dirt, indicating that she took a mean head dive into the ground. On top of that, her hands were bleeding in multiple locations and the road rash scrapes on her arms, shoulder and legs were gnarly. She was in mild shock, shaking a bit, but in good spirits all things considered. The local Malawians were very respectful of her space and they all sent their kind words as they passed.

I broke out the first aid and we cleaned up her wounds as she fought off the pain of the harsh scrubbing I gave her fresh cuts. I knew it was best to get the pain out of the way now rather than deal with infection down the line so I got into her cuts big time to pull out the small stones and dirt. I directed her to gaze out on a beautiful pond as the scrubbing and bandaging job came to a close. She said she got speed wobbles from the trailer so we quickly put it back on the tandem and she charged on like a trooper without a complaint, although she was clearly in serious pain.

The adrenaline and fear soon turned to joy as we pedaled along the truly idyllic road with adorable villages, kids chasing and screaming “Mzungu!!”, and all the Malawian eye candy you could ask for. Huge cheers, genuine smiles and all the smells, sounds and sensations made us feel part of the community. On top of this, Gift filled my ears with positive conversations from a progressive young man of just 24 years of age. He is full of love for all humanity being an avid Reggae music listener and claimed himself to be a “Christian Rastaman”. He was a hoot!

We stopped several times to take in the amazing sites, did plenty of filming and rolled into a busy yet exciting town just before sunset. It was getting late and we did not want to send Gift home in the dark so Shannon and I invited him to stay for dinner and bought him a cheap single room at a local guesthouse for about 3 bucks. We had Gift go do the negotiating and got local rates so the whole accommodation expense turned out to be less than if Gift was not with us so he got a free room essentially! Bonus!

In spite of Shannon’s recent accident she was full of energy and full of smiles after her first day of bike touring in Africa. She settled right into the adventure of the unknown that cycle touring delivers—not knowing where you will eat, sleep, ride, meet, etc on a second by second basis is rough on some people, but not Shannon. Love my cousin!

We decided to eat street food for dinner and dove into fire roasted maize, fried potatoes, delicious sweet potatoes and random mystery meals from smiley vendors in their unique roadside stalls. Everywhere I went somebody wanted to share a sample of their food, which was rare in my experience in Africa. I was loving Malawi! And we loved Gift’s company as well as he was pretty genuine, easy going, and kept saying “For sure. Definitely”. Shannon and I soon added this to our daily touring vocabulary.

Gift shared with us that he had many friends in the towns we were heading and would love to stay with us for another day. Neither Shannon nor I were eager to get rid of our new friend, so we allowed him to stay on, but I was really clear that I was not going to sponsor his social life and he had to take care of his own finances after we departed. We did agree to buy some of his cool jewelry to support his business so he would have some cash to be able go on his adventures without us. I found it necessary in Africa to be really clear with regards to expectations, and Gift seemed to understand.

After some bike maintenance, cold bucket showers, battery recharging and footage offloads we were off to bed and up early for the next days ride along the lake. We loaded up on water and Scooby snacks and were soon pedaling along in a gentle shower of cool rain as multiple rainbows blessed our vistas over charming mud and thatch villages where white teeth gleamed out of smiling black faces in every direction. The roads continued to be smooth, perfectly hilly and practically void of any serious traffic with multiple river crossings. We were in heaven.

We were near the lake in marshy conditions so I knew that Malaria was a huge risk and I was eager to start distributing medication to the smaller remote villages. About 25KM from the town we stopped in a cute village where we met many of the head men of the village. They shared with us that undeniably Malaria was a huge problem and they had lost several village members over the last few years with their location so far from medical clinics and lack of transpiration. I stocked them up with Coartem and they were incredibly grateful and shook our hands with warm eyes that stayed in my heart for months, maybe years.

We stopped at a few other villages passing out meds, meeting the locals, learning new words as we traveled from tribe to tribe. We filmed plenty as well, stopping to capture kids singing, the breathtaking scenery, and the action on the bike. I had a huge scare when one of my cameras fell when I had it on an arm while moving but the show must go on as it continued to function perfectly!

That night we were eager to stay in a village and have that special experience of living amongst the locals. We added the intention that we wanted to camp right the lake in a lakeside village and when we finished that day’s ride Gift and I went into action chatting with the locals telling them what we wanted to do. Before we knew it we were following a few guys down a dirt path through manicured gardens towards the lake. We pushed our bikes onto the sand right on the lake and met the owner of an adorable bamboo house on the lake who was preparing his fishing nets for the evening’s mission.

He was a bit hesitant at first, but soon warmed up when we offered to buy our own food for the evening’s meal of cassava shima, fish and veggies. He said if the chief gave it the green light we were in. So we were soon off to meet the chief. We took a long walk with some locals up the hill and met the cheery chief who quickly gave us permission as long as we came back the next morning to have breakfast with him and learn about his orphan project at his village. Of course, that was a win-win!

We played a wild sunset game of soccer on the lake and the deep sand reminded me that I had other muscles besides cycling muscles. At I took a cold plunge in the lake to cool my hot, stinky body and we went on to setting up the tent. As always, every kid around took some kind of role in the tent erecting process, from clearing the ground, to putting together the poles, to unfolding the Sierra Designs rain fly and clipping it on the tent--always an entertaining experience.

I had an extra sleeping bag and yoga mat for Gift who set up his camp inside the house near our bike and gear. He promised to watch all the gear and make sure nobody peeked into any of the Ortlieb panniers anytime. We trusted him and it felt good. Even with the events of theft from riders in the past I was grateful that my trust had returned as it sure feels better than always being on guard all the time.

Since we picked up the meager expense of the evening’s meal Gift decided to be the cook and whopped up fried fish with veggies as the mama of the house prepared the cassavea shima. She was too shy to prepare it in front of us so she invited Shannon to come over to her kitchen to watch her mix up the country’s staple food, which involves an artistic process of mixing just the right amount of water with the shima powder and stirring it just the right speed to create a creamy porridge that has a consistency “like bubble gum” as Gift describes it. Unlike the thick, sometimes crumbly consistency of maize shima, the cassava was much smoother and I fell in love with it!

We spent an unforgettable evening under endless stars on the lake, sitting by a camp fire, eating, chatting with locals, learning this regions flavor of Tonga language, and chillin big time. We hit the tent pretty early but were awoken in the middle of the night by drunken and rowdy fishermen who had just come in from their midnight run. I don’t think they had a clue how loud their earplug-piercing tones were until I came out half naked and yelled something that quickly sent them off to another location. That’s one reality of staying in villages—random noises at crazy hours can sometimes break up sleep and have you waking up groggy, but it’s worth it!

We met the chief the next morning and saw his run down orphan project. Like many western sponsored projects, the donors came in, built a building with no screens or doors, donated some money for food, then left. There was no plan for sustainability whatsoever, just the recognition from the donors that they did something good. But now they were just about out of food and the kids were getting Malaria sleeping in a house that had no screens or doors. Duh!

So I told the Chief we had a long ride ahead and I did not have time to stay there and strategize with him but I was willing to brainstorm with him on the bike. After a little coaxing he saw the value in coming out for a morning ride with me and we decked him out in Assos cycling clothes, gloves and helmet. At 62 years old he looked sharp and athletic so I knew I would not be struggling a bit. Of course, before we set off I set him up with plenty of Malaria meds for the kids and we were off and riding!

Gift was now part of our crew and we were all having a blast together so we invited him up to our rest stop on the lake called Chinteche. Gift took a minibus up 30KM to the next town while the Chief and I began our ride together. He shared his life story with me but was eager to focus our conversation on the dilemma of his orphanage project. He has about 45 orphans of parents who died of AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, meningitis or just other causes. He said during the peak farming seasons he has enough food to feed the kids from the village farms but there are a few transition months where food is hard to find. I told him I was happy to help him raise the money but that he needed to put it all in writing, even if it’s hand written, and send it to me. Sadly, it’s been 2 months and we have received nothing in the mail. If anyone wants to help, contact me and I’ll get you in touch.

The famous Chinteche Inn is where the Lake of Stars music festival happens each year. I had heard of this festival and knew there were lots of local artists to perform for the music section of my program so we decided to call their Inn home for a few days. Luckily, I met the manager of the Inn and they had some spare rooms on the lake and hooked Shannon and I up with a slice of lakeside luxury—stunning! Do check them out next visit to Malawi!

With Gift’s help we got right to work contacting local artists to come in for an impromptu private concert on their huge wooden stage on the lake. The final results were magical!
We were able to secure 3 groups to come in for the concert and they were all excited and eager to show their stuff to the future Peace Pedaler viewers of our TV series. We went from 2PM to sunset dancing, grooving, drumming and filming the various traditional and creative music and dance performances. You’ll go nuts when you see it on TV one day! It was dazzling!

The time finally came for us to say goodbye to our good friend Gift and make our way towards Tanzania. Shannon had limited time on her vacation and we wanted her to experience some new scenery and culture so we decided to hop a bus to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania then head to the island of Zanzibar for a few days of sun and fun together. We were sad to say goodbye to Gift and especially Malawi, but also excited for some island fun!

Unfortunately, our departure from Gift was not a very pleasant one. We invited our friend Gift to come and play, explore, learn and share with us for a day way back in Nkhota Kota. We fell in love with him and his positive energy so we allowed him to stay aboard and were very clear and upfront that we did not need a guide and that we were not going to be paying him to be our friend. But we were willing to pay for his food, accommodation and transport back home when done, as well as buy some bracelets to support his business. That was the deal, very clearly discussed and understood.

But when it came time to depart, Gift sat us down and asked us to give him $60, plus transport money and to buy some bracelets. I guess we did not over communicate quite enough. Shannon’s eyes dropped, she was crushed. I was used to it being in Africa for almost a year, but we both were a bit upset as it made us both feel like the only reason he was hanging out with us was to ask for money in the end.

We shared with Gift our feelings and he was crushed that we took it that way. He simply thought that we had lots of money and, since we were friends, we would part with 60 bucks to help him out. He forgot about the fact that we had been paying for his food, lodging and fun for 3 days and were prepared to pay for his transportation home as well. Basically, he got a 3 day free vacation and we felt that was pretty generous as it was. We finally parted by buying some of his bracelets and giving him plenty to get home. He was happy with it, but just the request put a damper on our feelings about him.

For me, having traveled for about a year in Africa now, this experience confirmed the fact that it can be difficult to find friends without the expectation of some kind of “support” or “payment” of some sort. But all this is just an opportunity to explore my relationship with “Tolerance and Compassion”, and to still love and care regardless of the differences in values and how those values shape the actions of the African people.

So we bid farewell to Gift and rode along the lake to a small town where we began a 48 hour crazy multi-transport adventure to the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam.

Looking back on my experience in Malawi, I have to say it lives up to its reputation as the “Warm Heart of Africa” and it is still one of my favorite countries on earth. It’s “Africa Done Right” as I discussed with so many folks, and should be on top of your list of countries to explore in Africa!

Live Big, Give Big,

Jamie ;)

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