Sunday, 3 November 2013

The transient life in Malawi

As I face yet another goodbye, it makes me think of all the people who have left Malawi and left a bit of a hole in my life. Goodbyes are never fun, or easy but when you live in Mzuzu, with a very small community, you grow close to people in a short time and saying goodbye is even harder. These people are an integral part of your daily life and to suddenly not have them there anymore is hard.

Somewhere like Malawi is peppered with people who are here on one or two year contracts (or even shorter) it feels like you are constantly saying goodbye. It's very hard to say goodbye to people you spend most weekends with, knowing that you may never see them again. When you come to a place knowing no one, you latch onto some people (sounds clingy but that's how it works) and those people become your pseudo-family. They are people who you celebrate and commiserate with. People who know your life in this country inside out, people you text constantly, people you laugh and get drunk with, people you cry and sit in silence with, people who have lived (or in Ross' case squatted) in my house. When you have to say goodbye it is harder than the goodbyes in Dublin airport. I know I'll always return to Ireland but when will I go to Kitchener, Spring Lake, Santa Clarita or Saint Catherine's?

So here's an ode to our departed friends. You guys made Mzuzu a place I was happy to be and I just wish you were still here. Let me extend an open invite to all to come visit me in Ireland/wherever in the world I may end up.

All of these photos are people who have left, and I miss terribly. There are many more who have left and I don't have photos of (or only photos in which I look hideous). Miss you guys

Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.  ~Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve

Shortly before semester started, I organised a weekend away to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, a place I had heard many good things about which, despite the fact it was easily accessible from Mzuzu, I had yet to visit. Vwaza is managed by the Nyika-Vwaza trust, and has an open border with North Luwanga in Zambia which means that the animals freely move between the parks. In comparison to most other parks in Africa, Vwaza is small, a mere 900sq kilometers and is dwarfed by it's neighbour Nyika. However, being so compact makes for great wildlife viewing and a highly accessible park, just 40km from the nearest town of Rumphi. And so I decided to organise a trip there for anyone who was interested.

On the Saturday morning Sarah, Sanja and I set out from Mzuzu on a minibus to Rumphi (MK1600). We were keeping the trip as budget as possible, so Sarah had made her delicious veg chilli to bring with us for dinner that night. And I was tasked with breakfast. Once we arrived in Rumphi, I bought eggs, milk and bread. Then we started looking for transport to the park gate. We were approached by a minibus driver, however we looked at the minbus to find it completely empty. Now a tip about minibuses in Malawi, they will not leave the depot until they are full. Not full as in all the seats are taken but full as in 25 people in a 12 seater minibus. So an empty minibus could take hours to leave! After much negotiation with a local taxi driver, we got him to bring us to the camp AND collect us on the Sunday afternoon for the same price most were quoting just to take us there (MK18,000). So after about an hour on the dirt road we reached the park where, once again, I negotiated resident's rates (although in fairness they have a rate for "Non-Malawian residents".)

Our chalet
A short 5 min walk from the gate brings you to Kazuni camp, overlooking Lake Kazuni, home to hundreds of hippos who punctuated our stay with their constant grunting. Having brought tents and blankets (it gets cold here in winter), we found out that when there are 3 people, it works out cheaper to have a chalet. A chalet is MK6,600 with a double bed and a single, while camping is MK 2,750 per person. So we perched ourselves on our porch to have lunch while watching the hippos sun themselves about 20m from where we sat. Unfortunately as we had traveled here without our own car, we could not go on a game drive but the view of hippos, warthogs, baboons and impalas from our porch was more than enough for a few hours. That afternoon Sarah took an afternoon game walk (Sanja and I decided to wait for our morning one, 3 hours for $10). When she arrived back we had a few cheeky sundowners while watching the sun set over Lake Kazuni.
Girl's trip to Vwaza

After our delicious chilli and sweet potatoes we headed back to the chalet for a few more drinks. At about 7pm we were rewarded with the sight of 4 big bull elephants making their way slowly through the campsite. It was amazing. The elephants were framed by the trees, moon glistening on the lake behind them as they walked, no more than 10m from where we were sitting. We sat in silence and watched these amazing animals make their way through the camp before exclaiming like little children once they were out of view.

Sunrise before our game drive

The next morning we got up for our 7am game walk. Our guide (who had a big ass gun) was able to tell that the elephants who had walked through the camp the night before were male by their foot prints (to do with the amount of cracks on their feet). We walked past the hippo run, the path worn into the ground, surrounded by broken shrubbery. The hippos use the same path into and out of the water and you are not supposed to get between one and the water.And looking at the size of some of them, I reckon the sight of a hippo charging towards you would be enough to elicit some bowel movements. As we walked into the bush, my imagination ran wild. In my head, every branch that cracked under foot was a lion stalking us, any loud noise was an elephant about to charge. This was not helped by the fact that when we asked our guide when he last used his gun, his response "Not too long" and proceeded to tell us about a time when an elephant picked up a Norwegian tourist and THREW him. Luckily the guy was a gymnast and wasn't very badly hurt. However, the guide first shot the elephants leg, but he kept coming and eventually he had to shoot in the brain. The elephant stumbled off into the distance and was not seen again. Needless to say, I hoped we would have no use for the gun!

After three hours we had wandered through the beautiful reserve spotting many impalas and bushbucks, hearing the hippos constantly, spotting elephant and hippo tracks and dung! I look forward to going back to Vwaza, ideally with a car to go on game drives, hopefully to spot more elephants and ideally a lion! Who knows  but I did love sitting, watching the hippos, reading my book and generally enjoying the silence and break from city life.


The beautiful Lake Kazuni

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Capture the Colour

I was delighted to receive an invite from Colleen at the delightful Colleen Brynn Travels to enter the Capture the colour photography competition. Now, anyone who has met me knows I love photographs, I love taking them, looking back over them and I pester people constantly for pictures on nights out, at tourist sights or simply walking around town. However, again, as anyone who has met me knows, I hate being in pictures. I'm terribly unphotogenic and have the extreme fortune of being friends with some of the most photogenic people I have ever met. And so, I end up with lots of pictures of other people, pictures of scenery and sunsets (I do love a good sunset). Now to trawl through the couple of thousand of pictures I've taken over the last 3 years of travel.


This image of Malawian fishermen on Lake Malawi was taken when I holidayed in Cape MacClear in December 2012.

This is the desert oasis of Huacachina in Peru

Ok, I concede, this is more pink than red but it's one of my favourite pictures. Taken on an island on Lake Titicica Peru, the villagers had attempted to teach us their traditional dance and then the children danced and blew us away. 

An iconic image, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar

This was taken at the coastal town of Huanchaco in Northern Peru. I had spent some hours watching the fishermen fish from their reed boats and walked along the port to discover a delicious fish restaurant. The sunset was beautiful, framed by the boats.

I would like to nominate the following for entering: Melissa at No More Saying Someday, Nick at Beneath the African Sky, Kim at Pearl Grey Tea, Steven at A Backpacker's Tale and Amanda from A Dangerous Business.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The bay that is Nkhata.

It would be terrible of me not to write an entry on the place I visit every second weekend, my home away from home, away from home. I cannot believe I have been here over a year and have not written about the legendary Nkhata Bay. It seems fitting that as this weekend marks 12 months since I took my first trip to Nkhata Bay, I write about this place. (How I remember it was this weekend is because it is All Ireland hurling final weekend).
View of the lake from Butterfly
Butterfly beach and deck

Jah family playing at Kaya Papaya

Nkhata Bay is a small fishing village on the shores of Lake Malawi about 45kms south east of Mzuzu that attracts a large number of independent travelers. Most travelers stop as one of their first stops in Malawi as Nkhata Bay is easily reached from Mzuzu (which is on the main a.k.a only road to Tanzania). You can travel between Mzuzu and the bay by mini bus(MK800) or share taxi (MK1,200) and takes a little under an hour once your vehicle fills up. As is the norm with most transport in Malawi, the bus/car does not depart until it is not just full but packed to the brim. The taxis drop you in the centre of town and you emerge into the hustle and bustle of a busy lakeside town.

The difference in altitude between Mzuzu and the bay makes Nkhata Bay a welcome change from the cold winter months in Mzuzu. The difference in temperature starts to hit after about 30mins into your trip from Mzuzu and once I step out of the car, I am constantly surprised by how much warmer it is lakeshore. During the hotter months, it is the lake itself that draws me to it. There is nothing quite like the first dip into the lake after a week of sweating in the office. And so it began my love affair with this town, a place where I have been so often that people know my name, even if I don't know theirs, where the rastas no longer bother me to buy their wooden carvings. A place where I cannot walk down the street without bumping into people I know and a place where I have formed special friendships, over many greens, MG&Ts and bottles of Gold Label while gazing out over the blue expanse of Lake Malawi.

Dining area at Butterfly
Bar at Butterfly
I always stay at Butterfly Space where the owners, Alice and Josie, have become firm friends. Butterfly Space is not just a backpackers hideaway but a community lodge with projects such as nursery schools, hosting a special needs club and helping womens groups. What the guys have achieved here is amazing and they host volunteers year round to help in their various projects. The lodge itself is perched on the lake shore overlooking Ilala Bay with a wide view over Lake Malawi where, on a clear day, you can make out the Mozambican coast. It has an unrivaled bar where you can challenge the local beach boys to a game of bao over a cold green, or where you can dance the night away at one of their parties. The next morning you can sit at their communal eating area and talk about the night before which may, or may not have ended with a trip to Izo Izo, an infamous night club that only closes when the last person leaves. The you can go to Aqua Africa, the local diving school, with, in my opinion the best view in Nkhata Bay, to drink coffee and fall asleep on their comfortable couches before hopping in a share taxi back to Mzuzu. Or make a trip to Chikale Beach for their famous Sunday parties with a DJ playing the best of African tunes while I like to lounge in the lake, the initial dip shaking off any hangover from the night before.

View from Aqua Africa
Beer, beach and bao. An afternoon
 on Chikale
Party on Chikale
What makes Nkhata Bay special? The town has an undeniable draw, it is a place where you can easily get "stuck". I have met many people who have planned a day or two and 2 weeks later they are still there. It differs from other lake shore resorts where the lodges are away from towns, here you have numerous options for food and drinks, lots of people who are here long term to socialise with (which is a welcome addition in a country where people are constantly leaving) and it's proximity to Mzuzu makes it perfect for a day trip or a weekend trip. I am loathe to write about it in too much detail as it's relative "isolation" from the main overland travelers itinerary means that very often, you can have the beach to yourself, but this is a place that captures the heart, the people who live there, Malawians and expats, are friendly and fun, it is a place where you can relax or party hard, a jumping point to explore the lake shore via the Ilala ferry, or visit the islands (Likoma and Chizimulu), Usisya or Ruarwe. I fear I am doing this town a terrible injustice with my descriptions but is really is a place that you have to visit to truly appreciate it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

What I do

Following my trip home it seems like not a lot of people are sure about what I actually do (apart from sit at the lake and drink Carlsberg which is what my photos show). In short I teach optometry at Mzuzu University and have done for the past 12 months. To answer some of the most common questions, No, I am not volunteering (I'm heartless, I like money) I am employed by the university as a lecturer, Yes, I have running water AND electricity (a big plus here), I have my own house on the university campus, which I do not have to pay for and Yes, it is completely different (and yet sometimes very similar) to Ireland.

So, if you have no interest in the mundane aspects of my working life, I would suggest you skip this post as it will deal with very basic (aka boring) information.

Let me start with a little background on the Malawi education system as I know it (NOTE: I am no expert and the information I give could very well be completely wrong). As far as I am aware, kids sit exams at the end of primary school. These exams have quite an impact on their education as if they do well, they may get a scholarship to a private secondary school. However, if they do not do well and/or their parents do not have the means to pay for a private secondary school, they end in a public secondary in classes of 60+ with little or no resources and often one book per class. (On a side not, a good friend of mine recently managed to supply 10 schools with 750 books see more HERE) At the end of secondary school they sit their MSCE which determines whether they will get into university or not. Pause for a moment and think how hard it would be to study English literature if you cannot read the books you will be examined on, how can you study Physical Sciences if you have never conducted a practical experiment or how can you understand the complexities of trigonometry if you have never seen a calculator or table book. I may be over exaggerating things but in reality, kids are up against it here. University is a privilege open to few, a thing I took for granted in Ireland where it was expected I would attend university.

Our students are, as a result, students who have done extremely well in their MSCE. We have an intake of 10 students per year (limited by our classrooms and clinical teaching space) and in third year we provide an opportunity for "upgrading students" where we increase the class size to 12. Currently in our upgrading students category we have and ophthalmic clinical officer from Malawi, two people with diplomas in optometry from Tanzania and a refractionist from Sierra Leone. In first year they take general science course and an introduction to Optometry course and then from second year onwards they receive lectures exclusively from our department (with exceptions for Research Methodology).

On a vision screening day at the local primary school
As for what I teach, a bit of everything. We leave the diseases courses to our ODs but so far I have thought subjects that include: Ocular Motility and Binocular Vision, Occupational Optometry, Practical in Ophthalmic Workshop, Basic Contact lenses etc etc. In addition to theoretical classes, we run practicals in most subjects and supervise clinics in the hospital eye department. We are also in the process of trying to get a vision centre, the first of it's kind in Africa, up and running.

As with every job in life, there are challenges encountered everyday. Little things that make life slightly more difficult, that make my work day just that bit more, well, work. Things that I won't go into here. I like lecturing, I like using my brain and realising I remember more from DIT than I thought I did. I have also realised that students are the same everywhere. My students do the exact same things I did in university, they try to predict what will come up in exams, they try to get away with mild plagiarism (which I did not do), they try to convince us that the due date for the assignment is a week away when really it was today but overall they are a good bunch.

Our most recent graduates
Celebrating with the graduates
We recently graduated our second cohort of optometrists which more than doubled the Malawian trained optometrists who will work in the public sector and provide a service that was solely lacking previously. This was a special occasion for me as I actually taught this group. I spent time in classroom and clinics with them and I supervised their research projects. They made me proud and I hope that they continue to do so in the future as they venture out into the big bad world.

Where do I see myself in the future? To be honest I don't know. I cannot imagine staying in Malawi long term. I really like this country but there are so many things that you are up against when working here. It feels like you are constantly banging your head against a wall.
Will I return to Ireland? Eventually. Ireland is, and will always be, my home. How soon I return there is another question.
Where to next? Who knows. I have said I will stay here another year, we'll see how that goes and make a decision from there.
Our students really like "crazy photos"

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Nyika National Park

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to score a seat in the Go Bananaz safari car to Nyika. Luckily the guys who run Go Bananaz are good friends of mine and I could go and just chip in fuel and food costs. Result! It pays to be friends with these guys at last!

Nyika is one of the national parks in Northern Malawi. Based about 100km from Rumphi, a small town located about 65km from where I live in Mzuzu. Nyika is the largest national park in Malawi and is also the oldest. It is accessed by a dirt road that really is 4WD only. At points the road is very loose and and very steep and you would need a driver that is confident with 4WD. Luckily Puncque had driven the road over 100 times and knew it well. We made it in a little over an hour from Rumphi where as normally it would be at least 2.5 hours.
Terrible to see the deforestation. 

Once you arrive at the park gate, Chilenda Campsite is another 60km inside. We all got residents rate as we all live in Malawi and the game viewing started as soon as we drove away from the park gate. Nyika is a beautiful park with, what is said, the highest concentration of leopards in Southern Africa. The rolling hills, the scenery and the peace make it the ideal place to get away from it all.

We drove slowly to the campsite, eyes peeled for spotting roan antelopes, impalas and zebras. Stopping en route to pose at the Zambia border (no immigration post here so no new stamp :( ), allowing Bjorn to take a piss, we went leopard spotting before arriving at the camp at dark. It was all hands on deck with people putting up tents, chopping veg and boiling water. It was bliss, we had the campsite to ourselves. So following a few drinks around the campfire I retired to be lulled to sleep to the sound of distant hyenas (or possibly Gareth's singing).

View from Chosi point

Next morning, I awoke to Gareth's delightful tones as he attempted to light a fire and cursed at the wood, the matches, the distant impalas. Luckily on of the campsite attendants put him out of his misery, and by the time I had showered (hot water showers, at a campsite!), there was coffee ready. Result. After a hearty breakfast, we went off for some more exploring. After a spell driving on the air strip, spotting some more impalas and seeing the devastating effects of logging, we returned to the campsite for some nsima and usipa and after packing up the car again we headed off on our last drive of the day. At this point we passed the dam en route to Chosi point. Here we were greeted with a beautiful panoramic view over Nyika National Park. At this point, the vastness of this place hit me. We had just barely scratched the surface of this amazing place. At no point did we encounter other visitors to the park and our only human interactions were with park employees. True bliss.
"I'm on top of the world"

>Travel information< It is impossible to get to Nyika national park on public transport. You need to have a 4 wheel drive or go with a safari company. From my experience, the park is vast and if you want a chance of seeing wildlife, as opposed to just admiring the beautiful views, you would need a good map or guide. I can highly recommend the guys at Go Bananaz (check out their Facebook page) safaris, as people who will not only show you the amazing sights but who you will have fun with also.

Costs: As I am a resident, I had a discounted rate of MK3,000. Camping at Chilenda camp is $15 per night which includes camp attendants who will light fires for hot showers, do your washing up and light your campfire for you.
Once you are there, there are options for mountain biking, horse riding or further game drives, including night drives to try spot leopards.

Goodbye Nyika