When I was in elementary school my class learned an East African board game called Mancala. Upon arriving in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, I took a walk to orient myself and I passed a group of men picking up and dropping rocks along four rows of holes dug in the ground. I stopped to watch and learned that it was called Bao, meaning board in Swahili, and though it is closely related to Mancala it has twice as many rows and rules.
Back at the hostel a young man named Moses, a local wood carver, taught me and a few other backpackers how to play. Together we figured out strategies and helped each other remember the rules. The next day I went to the craft market where Moses works with Rachel, a fellow backpacker, and we played so much Bao that we even won a few games. Moses invited us to his village for lunch and we hopped in a minibus with him and his friends Raz and Gift. All afternoon Raz cooked, stir frying pumpkin leaves, onions, tomatoes and soy chunks. He boiled a pot of water with maize flour, stirring quickly and adding more flour until it became thick. The result was nsima (n-see-mah), a white paste that is one of the staple foods in Africa, made popular by its efficiency in filling the hole in your stomach. We grabbed a small handful of nsima, rolling it into a ball before scooping up cooked vegetables into the same hand to eat together. The nsima didn’t have much flavor on its own but the fresh vegetables and the sauce gave it a delicious taste.
We went for a Shake-Shake beer at the bar in the village, a slightly sour and grainy drink which gets its name from the vigorous shaking before serving. I didn’t try the plastic 100ml sachets of hard alcohol with impressive brands like Joy, Boss, and Mafia, however. Moses, Raz and Gift also taught us some Chichewa, the official language of Malawi besides English, like “Muli bwanji” (How are you), and the reply “Chabwino” (I’m okay). While playing Bao we learned to say “Mavuto” (I’m in trouble) and “Pepani” (I’m sorry). My favorite was “Osadandaula”, the Chichewan version of Hakuna Matata.
“Where is the minibus to Monkey Bay?”
The boy took my hand and led me through a maze of minibuses to the one heading toward the village of Cape Maclear, located on the much acclaimed coast of Lake Malawi. I waited for more than an hour for the van to fill while vendors passed selling baggies of water, necklaces and earrings, apples, crackers and memory cards from door to window. Sitting next to me was a young man named Boston who was also going to Cape Mac, so when we arrived we hopped off the minibus and into the back of a pickup truck together. Unfortunately I had chosen to wear a skirt that day which added a new challenge to climbing in and out of the truck bed. Boston negotiated two motorcycle taxis (called Boda Boda’s) to take us to the lake so I shrugged and climbed on. I had my full backpack on my back and my fingers started to hurt as I gripped the seat underneath me, trying not to fall forward into the driver after each bump. We arrived just twenty minutes shy of the sunset and I marveled at the white sandy beach and calm water at my hut’s doorstep.
Over the next two days Boston taught me more Chichewa while we explored the beach and national park. Being so close to the water I realized I missed swimming so I came up with a brilliant plan to swim to the nearby island. Predictably it looked closer than it actually was. Boston paddled a canoe next to me in case I needed a break while I doggy paddled to Thumbi Island. He cooked nsima and fresh fish over the fire for lunch, and I tried not to think about my digestion system’s response to a meal cooked with lake water. I sat on a rock and watched the colorful fish swim by my toes while nearby fishermen called between their canoes.
Save the Rhinos
The following morning I hopped on another pickup to Liwonde National Park. The truck filled to the brim and soon everyone had formed a network of arms, holding on to the truck if they were able and others holding on to them. I was perched on the edge, my bottom aching after every bump that jostled my careful balancing act. After a butt-numbingly long ride I relaxed in the quiet solitude on the edge of the park, far away from car horns and blaring music.
Early the next morning I got my fill of elephants, impala, monkeys, and birds. While on the safari I ran into Frank, a guide I met in Zambia who worked with the black rhinoceroses in the park. Frank invited me to go rhino tracking and I jumped at the chance. Each of the nine rhinos has a chip in its horn which emits a tracking signal that the guides can read using a handheld antenae. We stopped every few minutes to check the signal for nearby rhinos, initially tracking one but switching to a mother and her calf that were within an electrical fence enclosure. We had limited time because the chip in the horn only emits a signal between 6am and 1pm to preserve the battery, which is replaced every two years. Both black and white rhinos are endangered with approximately 5,000 and 20,000 left, respectively. In 2013 alone 1,000 rhinos were poached. To help save them from extinction many rhinos will be transported next year from South Africa to a secret location in Botswana.
As the signal got stronger, Frank told me to “stay close so if something happens I can pull you into a tree”. He and the two guides kicked up dust every few steps to see which way the wind was blowing. Rhinos have poor eyesight but a very strong sense of smell so we had to stay downwind as they scare easily. If one smelled us and the wind was changing direction it could end up charging right at us since it wouldn’t know where we were. We walked quietly while I tried to focus on looking for a rhino and keeping an eye out for trees that I could climb if the need arose. Finally we spotted them through the thick underbrush and I saw the distinct horn shape of two rhinos grazing. After just a minute they got wind of us and bolted. We chased after them but they had outrun us. It was nearly 1pm so we called it a successful hunt and headed back to the lodge.
I returned to Lilongwe and stayed an extra day to recover from a round of food poisoning before journeying north. I spent a few days in the hillside town of Livingstonia and finally headed to Tanzania. Between the new friends I had made and the beautiful landscape in Malawi, I was sorry to leave the aptly named “Warm Heart of Africa”.