Nkhata Bay District and the Realities of Living in Africa

Initial observations about Nkhata Bay (positive):

  • The bay and the lake are beautiful, the weather is very moderate and the water looks quite clean
  • They have a dive shop in the main town! PADI certified and everything, I’ll definitely need to make use of their services on one of my days off.
  • Everyone is very friendly and fried chicken is available in the town market areas at least, so no danger of my starving due to lack of animal protein

Initial observations of Nkhata Bay (negative):

  • For the first week there has been a complete shortage of Coca-Cola in the district. Apparently a result of fuel shortages preventing the re-supply trucks from getting to every district and I’m not happy about it. Everyone advertises that they have it but no one actually does.

After staying in the district centre (known as the Boma) for two days I’ve now moved on to village life in a village about 6km south of a regional town called Chintheche. I’m here to live and work with one of the local water pump mechanics for one week in order to accomplish a few tasks:

  • Start to get used to village living and working in a rural Malawian setting
  • Gain a better knowledge of local area mechanics and the details of the work that they do
  • Follow-up up on and finish up two initiatives that my Junior Fellow (aka university summer student) predecessor John was working on in this same district

In terms of the village living part, I think the first day in the village was the hardest, and each day after that has gotten a little easier. I pretty much realized going in that this would be the part I would have the most trouble adapting to since I am not known for enjoying eating a wide range of exotic food products.

In any event the main food product is Nsima, which is basically ground up corn meal that is boiled into a big lump of mush that sort of looks like mashed potatoes. No utensils, so it’s eaten by hand, and it’s pretty tastless so it’s eaten with various side dishes to give it some taste. These can vary from the pretty good (chicken, but it’s expensive and hard to get in the village), to the mediocre (tomato paste), to the pretty bad (some sort of deep green vegetable that looks like spinach). For food at least I’ve so far been doing a sort of ‘village light’ lifestyle in that I’ve been going into Chintheche fairly regularly which has a wider range of available options, so by eating something familiar for lunch I can handle village food a bit better for dinners.

The specific village area I’m living in is about a twenty minute walk from the highway, and it’s basically a series of progressively narrower dirt trails leading off into the hills. The compound where Herbert lives consists of about four buildings. Pretty basic living. No electricity, no internet, no running water, no roads (just dirt trails), and no mattress, just a wooden bedframe. All of the cooking is done by cooking fire using firewood, and everyone pretty much goes to bed at about 8PM, since by then it’s completely dark and there is nothing else to do other than sit around and stare at each other in the darkness.

As far as villages go, I think this one is pretty well off. They have a functional water pump present right on their compound, which I imagine is pretty rare, plus I saw another four water points just during the twenty minute walk from the highway, which strikes me as a pretty high rate of coverage. Generally everyone seems pretty healthy and happy and active, and I haven’t seen much evidence of severe malnutrition, although I have seen a lot of adults who are shorter than I think they should be. Not sure if this is genetics or lack of nutrients in people’s diets, but I think at least partially the latter.

Herbert, who I am working with is semi-retired (he worked at one of the local resort hotels for many years), and for the last four years or so he’s been working as a local water pump mechanic to supplement his income. He’s got two wives, at least five children (not sure if this is total or the number who are still living, at least one of them has passed away), and some large but undetermined number of grandchildren. Specific family dynamics are hard to figure out since there are children who live in the compound permanently, some who are visiting for the summer, and some who are children’s neighbours but seem to be constantly around as well. Very few working age adults though, mostly old people and children. I don’t know if this is this is from disease (HIV/AIDS is at 11% in Malawi), or if they’re just off working in other parts of the country. There didn’t seem to be a good way to bring this subject up, although Herbert mentioned that he has one uncle who’s off trying to find work in South Africa, which is the economic powerhouse of the region.

I’ve included a few photos of the people in the compound that I’ve interacted the most with:

Herbert (Sr.) is the Area Mechanic I’ve been sent to work with. This is him with his bicycle and spare parts/repair kit.

Alice is Herbert’s first wife (out of two in total). Basically she’s the matron of the household and does a large chunk of the household work like cooking, cleaning, fetching water and washing.

Herbert (Jr.) is named after his grandfather and is 18. His English is pretty functional and he got assigned by his grandfather to be my primary guide and helper while I’m staying with them.

Arva Shira is 11 and the oldest of the girls that are around the compound. She’s pretty bright and her English is better at age 11 than many of the boys who are quite a bit older than her, so I have high hopes for her.

A sampling of the younger grandchildren. There’s a whole bunch of them between ages four and six and I had trouble telling them apart (I know that sounds bad). It didn’t help that they’re all boys and two of them are identical twins (I’m not really sure which two…)

So that’s village life in a nutshell. More details about the work that I’m doing to come in my next blog. Bye for now!

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2 Responses to Nkhata Bay District and the Realities of Living in Africa

  1. Kristina says:

    Nice to hear you’re doing well, Kevin.

    Thought I’d leave my two cents about this Coke shortage – there’s none in Ntcheu either… but I’m not sure if I believe the “fuel shortage” excuse, since I regularly see Carlsberg trucks going by (the town has no beer shortage), and I’ve heard from my host family that the fuel shortage is “over,” since he is no longer able to make a profit in the black market fuel business (since a few weeks ago he’s switched to loan collection) — probably an exaggeration to call it over, but that would suggest that fuel is more available than it has been since June, and this is the first spell without pop that I’ve seen.

    Take care,
    Kristina

  2. Jessica says:

    I really like how you don’t romanticize anything, you just tell it how Kevin sees it. One particular sentence in your blog that I really LOLed at was

    “All of the cooking is done by cooking fire using firewood, a”nd everyone pretty much goes to bed at about 8PM, since by then it’s completely dark and there is nothing else to do other than sit around and stare at each other in the darkness.”

    Keep up the awesome blog,

    Jessica

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