Between the 27th of May and 7th June, I travelled to Malawi with my dad and 2 of his work colleagues from the University of Worcester. The purpose of this visit was to gather resources for a virtual field trip. These resources included 360-degree photos and videos captured with drones and various cameras, interviews with local farmers and NGO workers, and ambient audio recordings; the idea being that when assembled, they can recreate the experience of visiting and being there from the classroom.
Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranked 169th on the global Human Development Index, and with a GDP per capita of around $500. Malawi’s economy is mainly agriculture, where it exports crops like tobacco, sugar, and tea – this is because the majority of people live in rural areas. Many only grow enough food for themselves and their family – primarily maize – without any surplus to sell. One of Malawi’s most important features, both economically and geographically, is lake Malawi, the 5th largest freshwater lake in the world. It provides food and water for the Malawian people, while also being one of the largest draws for tourism in the area. Although I had seen photos and knew a little about the country, I was still a little apprehensive about visiting. I was nervous about many things – what the food would be like, where would I get water from, would it be dangerous, and would there be lots of insects! I was also very curious to see how people live and get by, what they did for fun, and whether the western image of a poor and miserable Africa has any truth to it.
When arriving on the plane, the first thing that struck me was the contrast between the dry land, and the wetland swamps (called dambos). These dambos were a lot greener than the surroundings, due to all the extra water which can be conserved through the dry season, allowing crops to be grown to supplement the harvest. Because of this, dambos are important for food security for many people.
We landed in Kamuzu international airport, which is massively different to any UK airport. It has only 1-2 arrivals and departures daily and just 2 terminals, but despite this, it is the busiest airport in Malawi! We spent a night in Lilongwe and the next day went to the shop to get a SIM card and data. Getting to the shopping centre was quite difficult; trying to navigate through the cars while crossing the roads was particularly challenging, as there are no road signs, traffic lights, or any crossing points.
After this, there was a long drive from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, along the main road. On the way, there were villages, hills, and a forest reserve in which pines are cut down to make charcoal to sell. The countryside was stunning, and completely unlike anything I’d seen before. We took some drone footage near a hill called Elephant Rock.
On the first day, we visited an NGO called ‘Tiyeni’, and saw their office, a very small building in the city of Mzuzu. Tiyeni’s focus is on spreading their deep-bed method, which is a specific way of farming that conserves water and results in higher crop yields. After speaking with the employees, we set out along the very bumpy roads to visit some farmers in the field. This was the first time I saw how little people had, and although I knew about the poverty and had seen photos, it was nonetheless very shocking and upsetting to see it firsthand. In rural areas, the houses are made of mostly brick with either thatch or corrugated iron roofs; they are built by the farmers and inside are the size of just 1 or 2 rooms in British house. Often, these are home to over 5 people. The famers greeted us and showed us around their fields, where we took photos and video using the drone. In Malawi, the maize crop is harvested in April/May, so the fields were full of empty husks. All the farmers were extremely welcoming and friendly, and even sung when we arrived and left! They said that the deep-bed method was good, and it allowed them to grow more food than they did previously.
The next 3 days were spent with another community in Chilembe village, near the town of Bula. Here, my dad had been involved with a research project investigating how sustainable use of dambos could bring about a win-win scenario for the people and the environment. When we arrived, we all shook hands with everyone, and I met the village leader Chilembe. Again, we took drone videos and images of the village and the surrounding farms and dambos. This area was in the mountains, and so the views were amazing; at some points you could see the lake in the distance. Everyone was very happy to talk and tell me about their lives, and while talking to the famers, I learned all about how they farmed and different methods to increase the amount of food grown. For example, I learnt that you can use two of the local plants mixed together in water to create a natural pesticide, which keeps insects from eating the crops, and is easy and cheap to make. We also visited the local school in Bula, and showed all the children the drone, which I think was very exciting for them!
On the last day in Mzuzu, we went to the market to look around. Because of the lake, fish are a very popular food, and so there were loads of market stands piled high with fish. It smelled very bad! There were all sorts of other things on sale, like clothes, farming tools, tobacco, and live chickens. One market stall was set up as a barber’s!
Next, we travelled south to Nkhotakota, where there is a huge nature reserve that is home to elephants, monkeys, and lots more. We travelled around the park with a guide/ranger called Brian, who took us to viewpoints to see wildlife. Although we didn’t see any elephants, there were baboons, kudu, and a massive crocodile. At the visitor centre, there was a statue of an elephant made of weapons and traps taken from poachers. I was shocked by the fact that many poachers make their own guns out of pipes and wood – it shows how important the work done by the park rangers is. Mzuzu was at quite a high altitude (1250m), and so there were not many insects, but here, however, we were low down (470m), and being near the lake meant that there were lots and lots of insects, mainly mosquitoes and tsetse flies, both of which bite. After my time here, I was covered in insect bites!
Once our three nights here were over, we travelled back to the airport at Lilongwe. The time had gone very fast, and I was quite sad to be leaving. There is still so much to see that I haven’t seen yet, and I hope to go back again soon. The things that I had been worried about before visiting had turned out to not be an issue at all! I felt very comfortable due to how polite, friendly, and welcoming everyone was, and despite being so far away from home and everyone having such different livelihoods, people share the same interests and sense of humour. I was surprised by how big football is in Malawi; I could always see fields with goals set up, and people walking around in Manchester United shirts. My visit showed me that the western perception of Africa being a horrible place seen in charity adverts and on the news is unrealistic, and a disservice to the people who live there. I would definitely recommend a visit!