04.07.2010 - 09.07.2010
We arrived at Chilumba at about 5 p.m. in the afternoon. We knew that our ferry was due to arrive at midnight with our boarding time being 1:00 a.m. Soon after our arrival, we met Justice, the booking agent for the “Ilala”. He offered to keep our heavy backpacks safely in his office until we boarded. That was relief. We sat on a small beach in front of the office and watched the sun set which filled us with delight. As it became darker, we noticed all the little fishing boats, hollowed out canoes holding just two people, going out into the lake with lights on. I thought that the lights were to see where they were going, but later found out that the lights were to attract fish. All the lights bobbing out on the lake made a lovely sight!
We invited Justice out for supper. He took us to a very simple little café where we were served beans, vegetables and rice. It was wonderful talking to him - his English was very easy to understand. After supper, he invited us back to his home to meet his wife and his nephew, Dunno, who was staying with them while completing his high-school studies. Justice had to go back to tend to his job, but Chris and I stayed to visit longer with his wife, whose name I cannot remember, and Dunno. We learned a lot about conditions in Malawi and how difficult it is for young people to get a good education. A few days later, we were to find out that it is not unusual in that area for classes to contain more than 200 students taught by one teacher, so you can imagine how little individual attention each student gets. Dunno surprised us by knowing about Saskatchewan, Regina, Saskatoon and the fact that our province is a major wheat producer! Well before midnight, he took us down to Justice's office.
The “Ilala” docked at its expected time, and we boarded after saying our goodbyes to Justice. It was such a sweet way to begin our stay in Malawi. We felt truly welcomed and this feeling was to continue.
The “Ilala” had a few different classes in which its passengers could choose to travel. We opted for the first-class deck which meant that we would actually sleep on the top deck in our sleeping bags. We each rented a mattress so that we would be comfortable. I had fantasized sleeping under the stars ever since I had heard about this ferry trip. We had the whole large deck to ourselves on the first night and - as it turned out - the rest of the trip other than one night when we shared the deck with 30 to 40 other people. The one thing I had not realized was that the ferry's lights would stay on all night, which greatly interfered with my ability to star-gaze.
After a short sleep, we went down the restaurant and had a fabulous breakfast which was followed in times to come by many meals that we both found delicious. Over our five days, we started to feel very comfortable with the crew, who were great at watching our backpacks for us. We thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful trip down Lake Malawi which is huge, both wide and very long. Its maximum depths are around 2100 feet.
As we explored the ferry, we discovered how lucky we were to be able to travel on the first-class deck as the economy classes were much more cramped and uncomfortable, and did not have the beautiful views we were able to enjoy from the upper deck. The “Ilala” is pretty much the only major form of transport on Lake Malawi. As many of the villages on the shore of the lake do not have road contact with the outer world, the ferry carries everything into, and away from, them.
As most of the places that the ferry stopped did not have jetties, the two lifeboats - each supposed to carry a maximum of 22 people - were lowered whenever we anchored. Everyone who wanted to either leave or board the ferry was then carried in them. Every time, panic to board them seemed to set in. People disembarking would throw their bags and other belongings into one of the boats, then push and shove their way to the ladder or climb down the sides of the "Ilala" to get into it themselves. At one point, when two women fell into the water, I could not look any more. Most Malawi men know how to swim but the women generally don’t. Luckily, the two who fell in were dragged back into the boat. It was scary to see just how heavily they loaded the boats, so that there were only a few inches of clearance above the water. The whole operation became particularly dangerous when the water was rough. I found myself starting to worry about how we were going to get off the "Ilala" when we reached Likoma Island which I knew did not have a jetty.
We had some really lovely days just hanging out on the deck watching the beautiful scenery. One afternoon, I could swear that I was hearing music coming from somewhere. Chris was on deck soaking in the experience of travelling on Lake Malawi. I went on a search and discovered a large group of people on the deck below were singing gospel music - and as they sang, they swayed or danced. Often I heard people refer to this as “dancing for God”; earlier that day, we had seen an electric piano being loaded onto the ship but didn’t know then that this group of gospel singers was travelling to Likoma's neighbouring island to attend an event there. I spent at least an hour taking in this lovely experience and then went to find Chris so he could share it too. It was one of those special days though the lake-water was rough enough for some people to start getting seasick. Luckily Chris and I were spared this discomfort!
Normally the "Ilala" trip takes three days from the north end of the lake to the south, but it so happened that this particular trip was extended as the ferry needed to double back from Likoma Island, which is in the middle of the lake, to Nkhata Bay to pick up passengers who had been attending Republic Day celebrations on the mainland. This gave us an unexpected opportunity to stay on Likoma, where we arrived on the morning of July 6th. It was not clear when the ferry would be back at the island - we heard everything from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the 7th. We were assured that we would hear the ferry horn and that would warn us to get back to the anchoring area. We left our backpacks aboard in the dining saloon, just taking daypacks with us.
As luck would have it, whilst we were sailing from Nkhata Bay to Likoma, I met a young woman, Natalie, who was living on Likoma Island and who invited us to stay in an extra room in her house. She was travelling with her friend, Jose. Before they had left Likoma, they had arranged for their own small boat to transfer them from the “Ilala” to the shore as they, too, were unwilling to risk the ferry’s boats to get them to land. I can’t tell you how happy I was to accompany them! The sea was very rough that day and it was even scary in their boat never mind the ones which were completely overloaded. We heard that, years back, one of these boats had capsized during loading, and eleven people had drowned.
Our time in Likoma was a blessing as ordinarily we would have anchored there for only a few hours and would not have been able to land on the island to explore it. Our first hour ashore was spent on the patio of Jose’s house drinking coffee and hearing about what Jose has been doing on the island. She had first come to Likoma Island some eleven years previously and had fallen in love with the place. She had worked as a psychologist in her own country, Belgium, for many years, but found that she was drawn to doing something that was, for her, much more meaningful. Through the following eleven years, she was able to raise enough funds to set up three pre-schools on the island. These schools now have over 600 two- to five-year-old students attending. Chris and I were very inspired by her work and decided to visit one of the nurseries located near where we were staying. We arrived unannounced and were totally delighted to see all the children in different classes with their teachers, singing and dancing, and learning English as well as their own language.
The teachers were amazing in their capacity to teach in a way that was obviously fun for the children. The headmaster invited us into his office and told us a bit more about the school and the principles that they aspire to follow. All the teachers have been trained there, so it is completely locally run. Both Chris and I were deeply impressed by Jose’s understanding of how to create a project like this that, every step of the way, respects and benefits the local community as a whole. We also met John, a Likomian who is her “right hand man”. He has the difficult task of balancing the needs of Jose as the manager with the ways of the community. I was inspired hearing just how skilled he needed to be to negotiate between staff and Jose who had her standards and, of course, is accountable to her funders (based mainly in Belgium).
Our visit to the nursery school was one of those numerous occasions when we had tears in our eyes!
On our second day there, John took us on a walk to the southeast part of the island which was a lovely way to experience more of Likoma. We passed lots of locals and walked on some beautiful beaches with water that was crystal clear and a beautiful turquoise colour.
We stayed with Natalie who is also from Belgium and who had originally come out as a volunteer several years before. On one of her visits, a situation came to light whereby, in one of the families on the island, a woman had died of Aids, leaving behind a three-day-old baby. The grandmother of the family, who was already looking after a number of other children, suddenly found herself in the impossible situation of being unable to afford to feed this new little person. The family approached Jose with their difficulty, which ended up with Natalie - with the family's blessing - taking over care of “Lucky”, who was found to be HlV positive. At the time, it was unclear whether he would survive for long, but now, looking at this beautiful, very chubby healthy little boy, it was hard to imagine how sick he once was. A miracle has happened along the way. Lucky (well named!) has been found to no longer be HIV/Aids positive! The challenge now facing Natalie is that she has been told she cannot adopt Lucky as the Malawi government wants huge sums of money to start the adoption process and she doesn’t have the funds. When we left Likoma, she was going to have to leave soon for Belgium, and Lucky's grandmother would have to take over caring for him again. Natalie has been supporting the whole family, so their financial burden has been alleviated. What really touched me was just how much Lucky’s family wants Natalie to be his adoptive mother. Hopefully some way will open up for this to happen.
We really enjoyed staying with Natalie and sharing time with her and Lucky. It was an amazing experience to be on the island and get a taste of the very laid back existence there. Chris managed to watch another couple of World Cup games on the TV with some of the locals. Needless to say, I missed that opportunity being a very poor sports fan.
After the second night’s game, John told us that he had heard the "Ilala's" horn so he escorted us to where the ferry was anchored offshore. I am really glad that he heard it as we didn’t! We waited for a few boatload tranfers to be completed in an attempt - not very successful - to avoid the pushing and shoving and overloading. John, very kindly, came over with us to the ferry and ensured that we boarded safely. We really have experienced such great kindness and care in Malawi.
Not long after we were back on board, we snuggled into our sleeping bags on our very own deck again. We were relieved to find all of our stuff safely in the dining saloon. The almost-48 hours that we had spent on Likoma added so much beauty to our time in Africa. Lucky us!
The next afternoon, Chris and I were sitting on deck when the ferry’s purser approached us and told us that they wanted to give us a cabin for our last night on the ferry. We were completely surprised by this as the cabins were at least three times the cost of the first-class deck. We gratefully accepted, and so slept the last night in the cabin. I must say that I probably slept better than I had on the deck. We docked at Monkey Bay, our destination at the south end of Lake Malawi, at about 5:00 a.m., but were permitted to sleep until sunrise before we left the boat. Sadly, we missed saying goodbye to everyone on board as they had all gone ashore by the time we woke up and packed. Normally the ferry would dock on a Wednesday and then re-commence the trip up the lake on Friday, but because of the just-completed extended trip (the Likoma-Nkhata Bay repeat leg had added almost two days), the crew had only hours before starting their next voyage. We really got to be very fond of everyone over those five days and felt very well cared for.
We will continue our with our stay at Cape Maclear in the next blog entry.