A Virtual Tour of Malawi, the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Marcus Westberg shares a collection of images from Malawi.

When I stepped off the plane in Lilongwe as a 23-year-old, I had no idea of what to expect, though I was excited about the prospect of my first solo trip to Africa. I spent the first few days wandering around the city — it felt more like a small town than the nation’s capital — before deciding that it was time to see more of the country.

A landlocked country in southeastern Africa, Malawi is often overshadowed by its more better-known neighbors: Tanzania, with its abundant wildlife; Zambia, home of Victoria Falls; and Mozambique, with its picture-perfect beaches.

But Malawi — roughly the size of Pennsylvania — has plenty of natural beauty of its own: the clear waters of Lake Malawi (close to 365 miles long and 52 miles wide, it’s sometimes called the “Calendar Lake”); the magnificent cliffs of Mount Mulanje; the unique highland plateau of Nyika; and its wildlife reserves, including Liwonde and Majete, where cheetahs, lions, elephants and rhinos have been reintroduced.

Still, it was never the country’s natural charms that kept drawing me back. It was the people.

As a photojournalist and travel writer, I am wary of clichés and generalizations. But few countries have been awarded a more appropriate slogan than Malawi, which is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa.” While I have rarely been made to feel unwelcome anywhere during my travels, in Africa or elsewhere, Malawi has always felt different.

Of course, it would be unfair to gloss over the country’s many challenges. Crime has risen dramatically since my first visit. Sexual abuse of minors remains a significant problem, especially in more traditional, rural settings.

In addition to being one of the world’s poorest countries, Malawi has also been afflicted by severe deforestation, overfishing, high levels of infectious diseases, low levels of school attendance and election irregularities, although the newly formed government is receiving much credit for its crackdown on corruption and embezzlement of state funds.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought much of the country, including its international tourism, to a standstill, adding uncertainty to an already precarious existence for many.

On that first visit 14 years ago, I eventually ended up at a small guesthouse in the fishing village of Senga Bay. Initially intending to stay for a night or two, I didn’t leave for more than a week.

Much like the country itself, the appropriately named Cool Runnings made a lasting impression not because of its location or aesthetics, but because of the people I met there. Half a dozen visits later, I never fail to be amazed by the ingenuity of the proprietor Samantha Ludick and her small team, all of whom come from this small lakeside community.

The latest in their seemingly never-ending list of projects, ideas, and initiatives is Swop Shop, where plastic collected in and around Senga Bay is exchanged for points, for which a wide array of goods can be obtained. These range from biscuits and stationery (paid for from the proceeds of selling the plastic to a recycling plant in Lilongwe) to donated clothes, tools and soccer balls.

An astonishing 40 tons of plastic, and thousands of non-reusable glass bottles, have been collected in the two years since the project’s inception. This includes 180 pounds of plastic brought in during my most recent trip by the Senga Boys under-12 soccer team, in exchange for new uniforms. Despite playing barefoot, they comfortably trounced the group of visitors I had brought from Sweden in an impromptu match — aided in small part by the cows that kept wandering onto the field and in large part by being the far better team.

Experiences like that have colored virtually all my visits to Malawi. Whether planned or spontaneous, on assignment or while going to the market for vegetables, time and time again I have found myself staying far longer than intended. As is true everywhere, mutual respect, curiosity and trust — and knowing when not to take yourself too seriously — go a long way to establish genuine connections and create meaningful relationships, whether they’re are fleeting or last for a lifetime.

As a mzungu, the ubiquitous name for a white person in much of southern and eastern Africa, my obvious foreignness and my earnest, if seemingly hopeless, attempts to communicate in Chichewa tend to create enough curiosity to dissolve any awkwardness or tension, especially when accompanied by a big smile and an apparent appreciation of the rather complex local handshaking culture.

(It is perhaps appropriate to point out that the photos of children included here were taken in the presence of teachers or parents while working alongside the local staff of the nonprofit organizations funding the schools, boreholes or agriculture programs I was there to photograph. Whether in a school or a village, my general policy is to not take any photos until I have been introduced and done what I can to ensure that everyone is comfortable having me there, to the extent that this is feasible.)

Like anywhere else, Malawi is a complex a society, full of contradictions and complications. How could it not be? And yet, if you were to ask me where in the world I would feel the most comfortable walking up to a stranger — any stranger — to start a conversation, my answer, simultaneously recognizing and ignoring my own subjectivity, would unhesitatingly be Malawi.

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