Adventures on Lake Malawi

I’m a bit behind on blogging due to being under the weather last week, (more on that later) so let’s catch up!

Two weekends ago, Andy and I went on a group trip to Lake Malawi, one of the biggest lakes in Africa that has over 1,000 species of cichlid fish!  One of the local travel companies puts together a trip to Cape Maclear (the spot on the lake where we were) once a month.  You stay in a less than luxurious “cottage” but it is right on the lake with a fantastic view and since it is a group trip, the prices are very, very reasonable.

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We woke up very early to head out to Cape Maclear on Friday morning and met up with some others to car pool down to the lake.  We arrived at the lake before lunch time and immediately got into our bathing suits and went out on the company’s boat for some tubing and swimming!  After boating and tubingfor a bit, we came back in to eat some fish that was caught right in the lake and headed back out for something that we both love, snorkeling!  I hadn’t been snorkeling since I was in Mexico as a kid, so it was such a treat.  The fish in Lake Malawi are really incredible.   I wish I had had an underwater camera to take pictures of them.  There were truly fish of every color: bright blue, light blue with black stripes, neon yellow, neon orange, orange and purple stripes, yellow and black stripes, and on and on.  We had taken a boat out to one of the small, uninhabited islands off of the shore where the fish like to hang out and the visibility was really great.   The water is so clear it reminded us of the Caribbean.

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 Our second day was another great day of snorkeling and swimming.  We headed out to a different island and snorkeled all around and laid out on the rocks on the shore.   When it was time to head in for dinner, one of the guys who works for the travel company bought some small fish from one of the local fisherman to feed the African Fish Eagles.  They are beautiful mostly black eagles with white chests.  We spotted them and then threw the fish into the water and sure enough the fish eagles dove right next to our boat to retrieve the fish!  It was incredible to see these birds so close.

Image Before we left on Sunday we headed out for one more round of snorkeling.  Unfortunately we went to an island that seems to be a bit more popular with tourists, so the visibility wasn’t quite as good and there was some trash at the bottom of the lake, which made me kind of sad.  Regardless, it was still great to get out and swim one more time.

Andrew and I talked about how we would love to come back here once we have kids because there is just so much to do here.  Snorkel, scuba dive, boat, tube, relax.  Another major plus of coming to Lake Malawi is that it is very inexpensive and not a tourist location.  I  think we saw maybe five people there that we not in our group.  We were wondering what this place will look like in fifteen years or so, and we both agreed it will probably be almost unrecognizable.  It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world discovers this beautiful little spot in Africa.  I think one of the main deterrents for people coming to Lake Malawi is the parasite that you are likely to get from swimming in the lake, bilharzia.  Bilharzia comes from snail eggs and can eventually cause liver failure if it is not treated, however it takes up to thirty or forty years for this occur.   The parasite did not used to be a problem in Lake Malawi at all until the 1980’s when overfishing began to occur.   When the fish near the shore that normally eat snails began to disappear, the snails began breeding without any population control.  There are now efforts in Malawi to try to bring these fish back into the lake in order to reduce bilharzia infections.  The locals use the lake to bath, cook with, wash dishes and clothes, and as drinking water, so almost everyone living around the lake is infected.  Fortunately, you can take one pill about 60 days after the last time you were exposed to kill the parasite.  Don’t worry, we will definitely be taking this medication!  The thought of snails swimming around in my liver is enough incentive for me.

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We were sad to leave the beautiful lake, but we had to get back to work on Monday, so we said goodbye to the lake and headed back to Lilongwe.  The day after we got back I started having really bad stomach pains, throwing up, and a fever.   Fortunately, one of the doctors we work with happened to be at our house that day and she immediately did a malaria test since I had a fever, which came out negative.  She put me on cipro (an antibiotic commonly used to treat traveler’s diarrhea) for five days.  Cipro is a really strong antibiotic, so we were getting a little concerned that while my fever was gone, I was still having really bad stomach pains days later.  I wanted to give it some time, but once a week had passed we decided to go to the doctor.  We went to one of the best private clinics in Lilongwe, African Bible College Clinic.  The public health system here is often very crowded and the care is not exceptional.  I didn’t want to take someone’s spot in line who was really sick and needed to be treated for malaria or something, and Andrew was skeptical about going to a public hospital, so we headed to ABC.  We expected it to be not very nice, as nothing in Lilongwe is up to America’s standard of “nice”, but when we walked in we were pleasantly surprised as it seemed like a pretty modern facility.  There were only two doctors working so we waited about two hours and finally got called back.   My doctor was a woman from New Zealand, which was nice because we didn’t have a language barrier.  She seemed to be pretty good and wanted to do a blood test and also to check for malaria again. I know everyone says you shouldn’t give blood in Africa because they used to sterilize and reuse needles (this was stopped years ago once the HIV epidemic got very bad), but we watched the nurse remove the needle from the packaging and were convinced it was new.  Once we were called back in after giving blood we were greeted by a Malawian doctor who told us that the doctor I had seen earlier was no longer available.   Our language barrier made it a bit hard to communicate, but we were really unimpressed with the level of care in general.  He didn’t read any of the previous doctors notes and didn’t ask many questions.  We had to pretty much do his job for him by offering all of the information about what had been going on all over again.  I could see the doctors notes on my blood work paperwork that said my blood work turned out to be fine and I again tested negative for malaria, so I was satisfied when he gave me medicine for my stomach and another round of antibiotics, but the experience definitely left both of us feeling very grateful for the level of care we receive in America.  When we went to the pharmacy inside the clinic, the pharmacist did not ask us if we had any question or really explain the medicine to us.  My medication was handed to us in a little plastic baggy with a picture of a sun rising, sun in the sky, and sun setting which meant I needed to take it three times a day.  When we went to pay we were shocked that the bill was over $50.   It seems that only the very wealthy in Malawi could afford to go to a private clinic like ABC, and even the level of care they will receive there is relatively poor.

Long story short, I’m feeling much, much better now and am hopeful that neither of us will have to go to another clinic while we are!

This week we worked on the company’s budget and spent a lot of time preparing for our next visit to our clubs to see the kiddos.  It is a lot of work and coordination to make these things happen in Africa when we cannot simply email the teachers in the villages and even when we think we have a meeting, they may or may not actually get the memo and show up.  The concept of being early to everything just doesn’t exist in Africa.  At home I feel like if I’m not early I’m late, and here I have to just go with the flow.

P.S. Last Tuesday was Malawian Mother’s Day!  Happy Malawian Mother’s Day to my awesome Mom, and all the other mom’s out there!

Ringing in the New Year at Lake Malawi

January 1, 2013

I didn’t get to write yesterday because we had a very full day.  After waking up, we immediately headed to Lake Malawi to ring in the New Year!  The lake is huge and beautiful.  You can see Mozambique from the shore.  The local people wash their clothes, dishes, and bodies in the lake.  The people here are without electricity or running water, so the lake is truly a God sent.  It provides them with a source of water and a place to bathe and clean their clothes.

Children Swimming in Lake Malawi

Children Swimming in Lake Malawi

At the lake, we stayed at a campsite called Cool Runnings.  The owner of Cool Runnings is an inspiring, white African woman named Sam with rings on each of her toes.  Sam is very involved in the community surrounding the lake.  She sponsors soccer teams, and schools and children in general.  Much of her profits from Cool Runnings go back into the community.  I didn’t notice a wedding band on Sam’s hand, or hear her speak of a husband.  I wonder how much Sam has given up in order to bless this community.  She would probably say that she hasn’t given up anything.  Listening to Sam talk was inspiring and invigorating.  She employees local people in her camp, but also has highly qualified volunteers and interns come to do work in the community.  The volunteers and interns are not allowed to learn the local language, Chichewa, so that the local people will use their English.  (In order to pass exams in school, the children must be proficient in English.)  She also does not give anything to people, because as she said, “nothing in life is free.”  Instead she shows the people how to help themselves.  I love this concept and I think it is fantastic that she is creating a self-sustaining community in which the people are not reliant on her.  Many times non-profits or NGO’s throw money or support at people who have absolutely no idea what to do with it.  When the money or support runs out, the people are back in the same position they were before they were given any aid.  My hat is off to Sam and the incredible work she is doing in her community.

Sailboat on Lake Malawi

Sailboat on Lake Malawi

After being at the lake for a little while, it struck me that there isn’t very much tourism here despite the natural beauty and plentiful wildlife (Lake Malawi has more species of fresh water fish than anywhere in the world!).  Why aren’t there more businesses here?  This place could be a mecca for fishing enthusiasts and outdoorsman.  A jet ski rental. A nice hotel. Guided fishing tours. Snorkeling safaris. Luxury resorts. Restaurants.  The possibilities are endless. I learned that the tax rate in Malawi is quite high, so that probably accounts for some of the reason that more foreigners aren’t investing and opening businesses here.  It’s hard to see a place brimming with such possibility, with such little actual development.

Despite the lack of development, there are many things I appreciate about the Malawian culture and life in Malawi.  The people are resilient and self dependent.  They have a high tolerance for pain and an ability to find joy amidst extreme poverty.  Because of the poverty that surrounds them, they have to creatively solve problems and be resourceful in a way that we do not.

View of Lizard Island

View of Lizard Island

Last night I got to play with a group of about 10-15 children on the beach. One thing I immediately learned about Malawi is that children are everywhere. Some were very curious about us and came right over to join in the fun, while others were content to observe us from a distance.  A couple of the children in particular really stood out to me.  Not because their clothes were any more tattered or their skin and hair any more dirty than the rest of the children, but because they were kind of slow…kind of off.  It’s hard to put into words why these children were different and not merely shy or unenthusiastic.  The light that most children (even in the poorest circumstances) generally have in their eyes was gone and replaced with a dead stare.  They were slow and lethargic and their skin was slightly gray.  I think the two girls could’ve been sisters.  The smaller of the two girls was probably four years old.  She had on a ripped dress that was barely hanging on her little body.  I wonder if these children were just malnourished, but my fear is that they were in a later stage of HIV.

Children on Lake Malawi

Children on Lake Malawi

I’m fairly certain that most, if not all, of the children we spent time with that night were orphans.   One of the children was younger than the rest.  She was probably about 2 years old, 3 at the most.  One of the other children who was about 7 years old seemed to be looking out for her.  This little girl only had a tank top on with one arm through the armhole.  No panties or diaper. There were scabs on her head and inside her ears.  When I held out my hands for her to come to me, she looked confused. It was almost like no one had ever wanted to hold her, just for the sake of holding her.  Not to take her anywhere or to be dragged around by her older sister, but just to hold her because that’s what kids do…they get held and loved by people who care for them.  Eventually she toddled over to me and let me put my arms around her for a minute.  It seemed completely foreign to her. Or maybe she was just scared because I looked quite funny with my pale skin and blonde hair.

Playing games on the beach

Playing games on the beach

We played games and laughed with these children until the sun went down.  As it began to get dark, no one came looking for these children on the beach.  There was no mother calling for them or father coming to collect them because it was time to go home and eat dinner.   I wonder where all of these children went.  I know that I will forever remember these children and pray for them.

Most of us have never had to know what it’s like to not have someone come looking for us when the sun goes down, or give us a bath because we were dirty, or give us warm dinner when we’re hungry.  We’ve never had to know what it’s like to live without love and a warm bath and dinner and a roof over our heads.   Today I am thankful for my family and their incessant love that they’ve given me every day.  I’m thankful that they have always had the means to care for me and provide what I’ve needed to stay healthy and live a fulfilling life.  I am thankful for these children for reminding me how very blessed I am.