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Published: July 11th 2008
This is my front door.
After a grueling 36 hours or so en-route across the continent, I finally made it to Lilongwe. Thanks to a lot of effort on Mommy’s part, I had an apartment to move into the very afternoon I landed and didn't have to hole up in some grimy backpackers! I found the place through an acquaintance I’d made last summer, who it turns out is now my next-door neighbor. My apartment is HUGE—after living in Manhattan for eight years, even Ann Arbor, this place is a palace. It has very high ceilings and lots of windows, which I love. It was pretty sparsely furnished but I managed to spruce it up with some second-hand purchases.
I was supposed to have a couch, but thanks to some clever language manipulations on my landlord's part I ended up with a set of four chairs instead (“It’s a sofa, just in four pieces” the complex caretaker assured me). But I have a great little kitchen, a living room, a huge bedroom, dressing area, bathroom with a shower and separate bath, and a courtyard in the back.
I live in Area 3, which is the swankier side of Lilongwe’s downtown. My complex
Map of Lilongwe
This is a map I made and it's by far the best mapmake that the only mapI have ever seen of the city! It's not to scale obviously, the separation between City Center and downtown (Areas 2/3) is much longer than it appears. But you can get a sense of what the layout is, and I have tried to mark most places that I'll be mentioning throughout my time here.
is a stone’s throw from the huge city market, which is just across the bridge on the more local side of downtown. There are mostly expats living in our little compound, which consists of about ten three-bedroom houses and four one- and two-bedroom flats (I live in a one-bedroom). I live right across from Korea Garden, a hotel/restaurant I spent a lot of time working in last summer (taking advantage of what used to be free wireless!). I also live only a two-minute walk from one of the offices I work in, which is fantastic. Lilongwe is a pretty quiet little city, but the traffic here is murder.
Speaking of murder—just kidding!—safety is a major concern anywhere in Lilongwe—not because of the volume of crime, which seems fairly low, but because as a mzungu
you're a target. The average monthly salary here, I am told, is around 6,000 kwacha per month—that's $43. (For a college graduate, of which, sadly, there are very few, the average monthly income is $200.) Expats spend that in a couple of days, easily; carry around high-profile items like laptops and cell phones; and drive in really, really expensive cars; and are thus going
to be primary targets. So my compound is surrounded by very high walls, and has two guards on the premises at all times. Nonetheless, it's been broken into at least six times in the last few years! Not very reassuring. What is
reassuring is that in general, when you are robbed in Lilongwe, it's not usually violent—they are just after your stuff. However a friend of mine was recently robbed in her home with men carrying machetes, who apparently knew exactly what they were looking for—laptops. Scary!
Being robbed is probably my number-one fear here, even above getting into a car accident. Sometime during my first couple of weeks here, I locked myself out of my flat. I have a self-locking door, and while carrying in groceries, it slammed shut from the wind. The landlord doesn't keep spare keys (to a self-locking door!) so after an hour or so of desperation, one of the neighbors hanging out in solidarity with me on my stoop called over the senior tenants in our compound, an incredibly friendly Midwestern couple who knew exactly what to do. They brought over a carjack, pried open my burglar bars, in total silence, in about
View from my house down the compound lane
I live in a little walled-in compound, with a small lane lined with houses and ending in a little block of flats.
30 seconds flat. It got me inside the apartment, but I have never been as comfortable in that apartment since! It really shouldn't be so easy...
My first week at UNHCR was exciting for several reasons. First, on my very first day, I was boarding a minibus to get to City Centre where UNHCR is located only to discover that a municipal regulation had gone into effect that permits only three people per row instead of four! I had started climbing into a row that already had three people in it, and they all laughed at me and shooed me into a row luxuriously occupied by only two other people. I explained that I hadn’t been here in awhile 😊. Amazing!
Then, as I was walking into Kang’ombe House (see map!)—Lilongwe’s tallest building (eight stories!) where UNHCR’s offices are located, along with other “big shots” like the IMF and the World Food Programme—I heard someone say my name in French. I turned and there were Kalis and Demulu, my Congolese friends from last summer! They had left the camp for the day to come meet with someone at UNHCR. After some warm hugs Kalis looked me
My front door
This is a sneak peek at my kitty...I didn't actually get her until June but I didn't have a camera when I moved in :)
up and down and said, Comme t’as grossie!
(How you have gotten fat!). I tried really hard to remind myself that he meant it as a compliment, and prayed that it was just one of those things you say to someone you haven't seen in a while, the way we say “you look great,” even when there isn’t really any basis for it 😊. Yeah right!
It was also an exciting week to start because a high court decision had just come down that could have serious repercussions for the 1,000-odd refugees who live outside Malawi’s only remaining refugee camp, Dzaleka, where about 9,500 refugees are housed. My first task was to analyze the decision for everyone in preparation for a big meeting with government that Friday. Some refugees, especially doctors, teachers, nurses, and other professionals, were given permission by some sub-committee to reside outside the camp in order to work—not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because Malawi is in desperate need of people with these skills as most of its own graduates in these fields move abroad. (For example, I read somewhere that there are more Malawian doctors and nurses working in Manchester, England,
View when you walk in my front door
This is my little sitting area! Pretty nice, eh? That chair you see in the foreground is Part 1 of 4 of my sofa :)
than in all of Malawi!) There are also many refugees who managed to afford to move ouside the camp, and did so without permission. (Though the international Refugee Convention, to which Malawi is a party, guarantees refugees freedom of movement, Malawi reserved against that particular clause and is thus not bound by it and is free to require refugees to remain in the camp.)
The court decision essentially held that the sub-committee that had been giving refugees permission to be “urban” had no authority for doing so. Naturally the Immigration Department sees this as a a go-ahead to round them all up and force them back into camp, without regard to whether they had permission to be outside the camp, whether they had children in schools, or owned property or businesses. So on Friday I headed to Capitol Hill, where Malawi’s government is seated, with the UNHCR representative to Malawi and the protection officer, for the big meeting. There were representatives from every imaginable government agency—national police, immigration, education, justice, women and children, national defense, etc.
Everyone around the table had a chance to express their persepectives, which ranged from reasonable to outright xenophobic. The media
in Malawi don’t help much in that regard; they regularly print stories that paint refugees as criminals and as taking away jobs from Malawians when in fact many of them have skills and training that Malawi is in desperate need of, like teaching and medicine. The conclusion of the meeting was that no decisions should be made until the Ministry of Justice has an opportunity to fully consider the implications of the decision. In the meantime, the national police and immigration have gone ahead with radio ads announcing that they will round up any refugees who aren’t in the camp. This coincided, unfortunately but perhaps not coincidentally, with the anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, which had repercussions as far north as Malawi. Some Burundian refugees residing in Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, were attacked by Malawians in retribution for the attacks on Malawians in S. Africa. Very logical! And the cycle of xenophobia and violence continues…
Finally, two huge boxes that Mommy had shipped for me a month earlier while I was in Senegal containing most of my clothes and toiletries—and, most importantly, the Czech grammar lessons Bába compiled for me and a couple of Extreme Sudoku books—made it
Sitting room / dining area
Walking in through the front door you have the sitting area on your left and dining area on the right, followed by the kitchen straight ahead...
to Malawi! This was extremely exciting because it meant that I could finally wear some clean clothes. (I still hadn't figured out where or how to do laundry in Lilongwe—no laundromats, and washing machines are a precious rarity here. Yes I know I could handwash but with a full-time job and cold nights there was no way that was happening!) We had been waiting with bated breath to see if the packages would actually arrive. The U.S. Postal Service claimed that if I paid for "Express Service" they could track the boxes, which made me laugh, having seen the Lilongwe post office. But sure enough, I went to the Area 3 post office (see map!), provided the shipping label numbers Mommy had given me, and they looked them up on a computer
and promptly retrieved them from a locked pen in the back. Amazing! It cost about $130 to ship one 30-lb box.
My first weekend was primarily spent trying to stock my kitchen with basics like pots and dishes and silverware so I could finally start cooking for myself. Unfortunately that proved harder than I thought. Most products here are imported from South Africa or even further
Spruced up with plants as you can see!
which makes them very expensive, and there aren’t second-hand shops like at home (except the kaunjika
(second-hand clothes) market where I bought my entire wardrobe last year!). A set of decent quality pots costs around $100 minimum, which is outrageous. I finally found a Malawian-made set of three pots for $15; of course, that night I took them home to make pasta, and they turned black inside, but hey, I had my first hot meal that night!
I also bought a whole bunch of plants to spruce up my place a bit, and got some great wicker furniture from an expat couple who were moving away. Finally, there was something like a yard sale (except that instead of being held in someone’s front yard, it was held at a tobacco auction house, and instead of items being sold by the owners, they were being sold by an agent who was a killer at bargaining), where I randomly scored all kinds of neat West African decorative items, like beautiful carved wooden spoons and a cloth map of Benin that I use as a tablecloth, as well as a nice wooden bookshelf and beautiful dark-wood vanity. I also bought my
Other side of the kitchen
See how clean it is? Mommy you would be proud :)
sheets and towels in the kaunjika
market, and somehow managed to locate two huge, matching Laura Ashley bath towels!
I also went car shopping; after one near purchase from a Rwandan, a refugee friend of mine who lives in town located a Malawian mechanic who sold me the same car but with five gears instead of four (I didn’t even know they made four-gear cars!) and a functioning radio for a lot less money. I have to say, I managed just fine last year without a car, but life is infinitely easier and more interesting here with a car. Within the first week of having one I had gone to two new grocery stores I hadn’t known about before because they weren’t on public transport routes. I can now find real, bona fide prosciutto di Parma
—I can’t afford it, but I can find it! I can also go to the lake at will, which, if you've seen the lake, is a huge, HUGE perk! Gasoline is quite expensive though—about $6.75 per gallon, but I hear the U.S. is catching up! Neither is anywhere near what it costs in Europe, but it still makes you think twice before driving
Bedroom sitting area
As you turn left past the living room, through the door, you walk into the bedroom, and this is what you see on your left... It doubles as the guitar-playing area.
somewhere in the car if you can walk or use public transport.
Living in Malawi is quite pleasant, though there are some things that take getting used to—or things you can't really get used to that you just have to let pass. For example, power cuts. The power goes out at least twice a week, and it's usually right around the time you are settling in at home in the evening, about to cook or take a bath. It's suddenly pitch black outside and inside, and you can't really do anything! In the beginning I would go across the street to Korea Garden to use wireless internet and Skype, but they started charging 1,500 kwacha (just over $10) for the password! So now I stick it out at home like everyone else.
There is also a remarkable lack of variety in food if you're on a budget. Now that I have discovered the full panoply of grocery options in Lilongwe I am no longer deluded into thinking that you can't get things like good olive oil and cheese—you can! They're just really, really expensive. And even if they're not expensive by what my standards were back
Bedroom with vanity and kitty
Due to the mosquito net you can't see the beautiful pillowcases I had sewn from chitenje fabric!
in the States, my standards have changed and I can't justify spending $10 on a meal anymore. Paying $8 for a pizza feels like a huge splurge, when you consider that $8 is a quarter of the monthly salary of one of the guards who works the night shift in my compound. That's right, for about 12 hours of work per day, 6 days a week, guards make about $28. One-way minibus fare here costs about $.65 a ride, so if you add that up, these guys can't even pay for public transport for half the month on their salary—and the poorer you are, the further out of town you live. (One thing I should have noted about my map: it is mzungu
-centric! Well maybe more Martina-centric. In any case it does not reflect the many, many outlying areas where the vast majority of Malawians live.) A beer in a local bar—not even an expat bar—costs around $.70—and that's for Carlsberg Green, the "good stuff" that most expats drink (but look down on). Most Malawians could never afford that.
Grocery store shelves are never fully bare, but there will randomly be a shortage of salt, or suddenly there
Part of bathroom
My bathroom is very luxurious...I have a shower AND a separate bath. It's so cold here in the morning and at night that I have taken to baths. However it took me about two months to figure out how to work the water heater :)
will be no more fruit juice for a week. Similarly, one day there may be lean ground beef, and for the next week there will only be super, super fatty mince; or sometimes there are chicken thighs, and only chicken thighs, and other times the only chicken you will see is chicken necks. You also can never get everything you need in one store. Shoprite, the big South African chain, has the best prices for imported things like potato chips, 100% fruit juice, canned tomatoes, and spaghetti, but their meat selection is terrible and erratic; Foodworth's is Lilongwe's most upscale grocery store, where you can find very fresh, consistent meat supplies, and even deli meats like ham (which are pretty terrible though), cooking herbs, and specialties like anchovies and frozen fish. People's Trading Centre is the Malawian grocery store chain. In the beginning I tried shopping there, just in order to support the local economy, but, sadly, it's considerably more expensive than Shoprite, apparently because Shoprite is such a behemoth they can buy in huge quantities which brings the prices down. But People's is the best place for vegetables like fresh peas, and for locally produced items like mosquito nets
This is where my clothes are kept...they practically have their own room!
and candles. Then there's Foodzone, a Lebanese-run (I think) shop where you can get Turkish olive oil and cheese puffs from Dubai (they're the best, but they always run out and I am so addicted to them that I am now privy to the shipment schedule 😊). Finally, there are the shops in the swanky Old Town Mall, where one can find parmigiano reggiano
—The Indisputed King of All Cheeses—for not much more than you'd pay at Whole Foods, and all the accoutrements
needed to make sushi (minus the fresh fish, of course).
We have a couple of ATM machines in town that I can use with my cards from home, but the queues are unbelievably long. Sometimes there will be more than forty people lining up for two ATMs—I have counted! Apparently it has to do with the time of year; this is the season when farmers are harvesting tobacco, so their bank accounts are full. That is also why I haven’t seen those mice-on-a-stick this year. Last year they were being sold alongside the road every day I went to the camp, but I only saw them once this year. I was told that the men and
Jewelry and toiletry area
I literally have a huge shelf for nothing but my jewelry, perfumes, etc. It's like a dream :)
boys who normally sell them are still harvesting tobacco. Every day there is at least one overloaded truck pulled off on the side of the road because one or two bales of tobacco fell off.
Lilongwe still doesn't have a movie theater! A friend of mine who lives in town invited me to the movies, but what we pulled up to wasn't a theater but a bar, and when we went inside they said they had stopped showing movies because it hadn't been profitable. A mzungu
did open up a proper theater which I hope will provide some cultural activity!
Well that’s enough for now…
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