Muli Bwanji, Malawi!

Dancing at a pre-wedding roadside celebration (ladies only!)

Before I got to Malawi, a flurry of well-traveled friends informed me that it was sure to be my favorite country ever. Being a bit of a contrarian (to be honest, a total hard-head), I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be … couldn’t possibly be after all the intense love affairs with other countries that I’ve had this year. But once I arrived in this desperately poor, achingly sweet country, I can clearly see why it’s called The Warm Heart of Africa.

At 45,000 square miles, Malawi is home to a densely-packed 14 million people, 85% of them smallholder farmers. Bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, Malawi is one of the least developed countries in Africa, with no wealth of natural resources (although promising oil and mineral exploration could change that in a hurry), and only 6% of its people have access to electricity.

Malawi’s biggest crop is tobacco, which it exports primarily to China– but with climate change inexorably increasing droughts, a long history of government corruption, and almost a 50% currency devaluation this year, it’s fair to say the Malawi economy is in shambles. And of course, the poor always suffer disproportionately in bad times: 46% of Malawi’s children suffer from stunted growth and the average consumption of meat is about 10 pounds/person a year.

New president Joyce Banda is giving people hope of a better future, but she has a long, tough road before her. Granted, we were there in the end of the dry season when everything looks particularly parched, but life seemed very hard.

Despite all those challenges, we met a lot of highly joyful people –which is the conundrum I always feel in Africa. You want development to lift the people out of poverty and hunger, but you also know that with industrialization and urbanization come a lot of side effects that aren’t so beneficial. (Which is one reason I love the Heifer model so much, with its emphasis on improving smallholder farmer productivity, environmental integrity, and community solidarity.) 

Malawi got its great reputation because of its people, I’m quite sure. They are quiet, peaceful and polite (“If somebody is arguing and causing a ruckus, they are probably from Zimbabwe,” a proud Malawian confided to me.)

Malawians have a gift for music and dance and like most people in developing countries, they somehow manage to smile and be cheerful despite the quite crushing amount of work they do every day.

In the north (where we didn’t visit) the people are obsessed with education and the literacy rate is almost 95%, but the southern part of the country (where Heifer works) has a more laissez-faire approach and it’s not infrequent for girls to be pulled out of school and married in their teens – which drove me and my friend Pattie Ross totally nuts. (Pattie is Vice President of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and my outrageously fun travel companion on this trip).

Pattie & some new friends.

Heifer is relatively new to Malawi – with 5 projects in 3 districts since its introduction here in 2008—but it’s already established good working partnerships with organizations like CARE, the Norwegian government, and local community groups that are working together to help empower Malawians to feed and educate themselves, conserve their land, and develop their great potential. Once you’ve fallen head over heels in love with the beautiful people of Malawi (and it’s impossible not to), you know that can’t happen soon enough.

Categories: Africa, Farming, Heifer International, Hunger, Malawi, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “Muli Bwanji, Malawi!

  1. nice pictures and write up!

    • Thanks, Cosmic (i just love writing that …) — really appreciate your comment!

      • I am following your blog from now. I enjoyed scrolling your write ups. I also love to write photo essays. Since i am photo journo with Indian media. The writing habit inculcated a feeling of combining my photos with essays in my mind and I started my own venture i.e.

        I will appreciate your support and valuable comments!


      • Sid, I am so impressed with YOUR blog and have been on it several times since you first wrote! I think travel is a way to bring the whole world together, and people can travel vicariously through blogs as well. Take care & keep writing — you’re doing great!!!

  2. Betty! I can’t believe you have another Pattie! What a wonderful post, and Pattie looks like fun 🙂

    Any chance you’d do a collage of photos from your year so I can send it out via social media to encourage folks to give Heifer gifts for the holidays?

    • I will certainly try to do that, Pattie! Leaving for Ecuador on Sunday and will be madly writing until then — on Malawi! — but once I get back, I should have some time & obviously, would love to encourage people to GIVE to support these amazing families around the world! xoxox b

  3. Martha Radatz

    A new country for me. Thank you for this lovely introduction.

    • It was a new country for me, too — and I just fell in love with it! Now want to go back during the rainy season — when it’s all green and lovely!

  4. Another lovely informative post Betty. Tobacco the biggest export … I don’t see that as viable in the longer-term, even to China.

    Heifer and you, ROCK !

    • Well, if you’ve ever seen folks in China smoke — it seems like a bottomless market! — but I agree, tobacco is on its way out. Hopefully they will discover more resources up north and be able to develop them in a not-harmful way. BUT .. it’s a very poor country…. with such lovely people!

  5. Fascinating, Betty. I knew none of this about Malawi. The bicycle photo is a hoot. I may have mentioned this to you alredy, so forgive me, if I’m repeating myself. But when we lived in Vietnam, I had a friend who took tons of photos of all the things balanced on the bikes–for her 5 year old grandson. She got some amazing shots, as you might imagine. Great post, Betty!

    • It’s truly incredible the things they can carry on a bike. I have one photo of a BIKE balanced on a bike — taking it in for repair I suspect — not to mention bookcases, etc. etc. It’s just amazing!!

  6. Beautiful people! Love all your photos. I have never been to Africa, but my old friend went to different parts of Africa a few times already. I asked her what attracted her. She said, it is the people!

    • Your friend and I are in total sync – it’s hard not to love Africa because of the Africans! What a great spirit and energy they have — I literally can’t wait to go back!!

  7. Definitely near the top of my list of places to visit. Your account makes Malawi absolutely compelling. Lovely…

  8. Anonymous

    Thank you, Betty, for once again enlightening all of us. I send your posts on to my important folks so they too can become more educated (who even knew where Malawi was?)and to enjoy your excellent photography. The photo with all the children is priceless!


  9. Thanks so much for that — I really do love learning about new places and trying to pass along what is special, unique and amazing about the place and people, because that is what travel means to me. I’m always taking photos of the children because they are just so engaging, unspoiled and joyful — even if they are poor, they are so full of life & joy — how can you not love that???

  10. Thanks for another eye-opener Betty! Here’s hoping a few huge oil geysers burst up soon for these struggling people…providing the government would allow its people to share in the profits of course!

    • I agree, FF — but it is also a case of “be careful what you wish for” … look at Nigeria and all the corruption and abuse that’s taken place since the oil revenues started rolling in! I do hope that the new president can try to get a handle on inflation (it’s 28% up in the last few months) and the currency — and then get electricity and clean water to the rural people. Such a lot of work ahead of them!!! Thanks for your warm-hearted concern!!

  11. I can’t believe a whole year has flown by and Malawi is the last stop on your incredible Heifer journey. Like others have said, Malawi would not be a nation I could point to on a map. I wouldn’t know one city in it, nor would I know what their people struggle with every day and why Heifer felt it imperative to be there. But now I know all that and have faces to match their longing.

    I don’t know how you do it all Betty. But I am glad you did!

  12. Another great post. Interesting that only 6% of the population has electricity. I hope the new president Joyce Banda is able to do something to help her people.

    Love this quote
    “[Malawians] are quiet, peaceful and polite. “If somebody is arguing and causing a ruckus, they are probably from Zimbabwe,” a proud Malawian confided to me. “

  13. Charles

    That’s true ..

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