Monkey Bay

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October 17th 2019
Published: October 17th 2019
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We travel from Lilongwe to Monkey Bay on Mother's Day, a Tuesday this year. As it is a festival day, there are spirit dancers celebrating on the village roadsides. Dressed in grotesque masks and wigs, these dancers are incarnations of spirits and they perform at funerals and festivals. And for 500 kwatcha, 50p, a group happily dance for us. The dancing is not great but the costumes are amazing and quite scary. As well as ancestors, the sprits include a pink faced “white man” and wild and domesticated animals. The long haired elephant is amazing.

No drive In Malawi is complete without stops for the driver: “Excuse me but I just have to ...” They've shopped for beef, water, electric plugs and, on every trip, petrol – all bought after getting our fare up front. They put money onto their phones; phones here are used as bank accounts. The driver puts money – the rest of our fare – onto his phone at a roadside booth and then transfers it to his wife's phone. She can then take the money out and go shopping for dinner.

We had spent just a couple of days in the capital, Lilongwe. It was a difficult place to relate to. We couldn't find a centre, just wide streets lined by tall trees that lean out from the walled residential compounds. The jacaranda trees towered above us, covered in violet flowers. Bougainvillea blooms too, red blossoms on trees higher than houses.

We walked to get some exercise and to find food for a picnic lunch. The Golden Peacock sounded good – “Hotel, Supermarket, Spa and Building Materials”. It was true to its marketing and more, and the whole complex is vivid pink. The supermarket is huge, empty of shoppers and not very useful. Most of the aisles contain Chinese made household goods - from beds with built-in mosquito nets to TVs. The few food aisles contain nothing for making a picnic lunch ... but we did find cheap gin and Schweppes tonic.

By noon it was getting hot, so we took a local taxi back to our small hotel. The miniscule Chinese car had us back in minutes for just 3000 kwatcha, about £3. And there are cheaper alternatives – the popular motorbike taxis and push-bike taxis (the passenger sits over the back wheel).

But Monkey Bay is very different, a sleepy African town on the banks of Lake Malawi. This is one of the world's largest lakes and occupies one third of Malawi. We stay in a basic beach hut, basic by our standards but much more luxurious than the average Malawian’s home. In the evenings we watch African Fish eagles show off: diving and circling; calling out to each other; and then heading out across the lake for dinner.

We take a walk around the lake and meet three schoolgirls. They explain they are returning home as their teacher is unexpectedly away for the day . The girls lead us to their fishing village in the next bay. It is a small hamlet of just twenty families, 120 people. They live in brick thatched huts that climb the hillside from the beach, most families having separate huts for living, storage and livestock. The beach is home to many large fish drying racks. All the small fish must be dried before they take them to market to sell.

While we talk to the head man, who assures us he is 91, a shot rings out! People scream and shout and starting running and then cheering starts. “Baboons” the head man says. It turns out that a baboon had started to enter huts and steal food so the village had decided to shoot it. The baboon meat will be shared by the villagers. Baboons are a real nuisance and steal at every opportunity. They are vicious when confronted and can cause serious injuries to guard dogs.

At eight this morning our ferry, the MV Ilala, arrived in port, running 12 hours late. Early tomorrow we plan catch the ferry and head north up the lake to Nkhotakota.

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