The Gift of Late Rains in Northern Malawi
Rain on My Parade
By Brittany Caumette
Rain. Pounding down onto the empty road in Malawi. Gushing down the escarpment, gathering force and mud before plunging into the great lake.
Washing out fields of maize, soaking through colorful fabrics donned by wrinkled female farmers. Sneaking between cracks in red brick houses with steep straw roofs. Painting the landscape vivid green.
And ruining our travel plans.
Or so we thought.
The irony of the torrential downpour before us was that we’d driven down into Northern Malawi to escape the rainy season threatening us in East Africa.
But Malawi received its rain late this year. And when it came, it poured. Cascading down on us, for days on end, until we forgot what the sun looked like and what it felt like to be dry and warm.
We had planned to visit the rolling hills of Nyika National Park for game walks past herds of zebra and drives to archeological sites. We’d planned to take in the breathtaking views of waterfalls and valleys over days-long hikes around the hills of Livingstonia.
But first, we’d planned to make a be-line straight for Lake Malawi, where I’d envisioned myself snorkeling amongst tropical fish in between stints lapping up African sun laid flat on my sarong.
Northern Malawi’s rainy season had other plans for us, however.
Smiling in the Rain
It was not with a charitable spirit that I walked into the classroom, filled with preschool-aged children, at FloJa Foundation Lodge. I went to pass the time until the storm subsided and I could head out to my waiting sarong.
What I discovered within these four walls – the smiling faces of eighty young children – left me silently thanking the rain for hammering down outside.
FloJa Foundation aims to provide free preschool education for orphaned, disabled, and otherwise disadvantaged children around the forgotten fishing village of Ngara.
In addition to English-medium education, two substantial meals a day are provided – for many, the only food they receive during the course of their day. The idea is to give these children a proper kick-start at life.
“The government primary school in Ngara is wretched,” laments Floor, the cofounder of FloJa. “The classes are overcrowded, kids don’t even have their own notebook or pencil, and the youngest students learn outside under a tree rather than in a classroom.”
Top of their Classes
In these conditions, FloJa’s kids ordinarily wouldn’t stand a chance. But with their 3-4 years of literacy, numeracy, and English education, they are regularly at the top of their classes.
“We also offer free afternoon tuition for primary-aged children that have passed through our foundation,” pipes in Jan, FloJa’s other half. “We want our kids to know that they are not forgotten once they leave our preschool, that we will continue to support them throughout their primary school careers.”
I spent the day singing, dancing, and being incessantly caressed by the children at FloJa. I talked education – my vocation – with the locally-hired teachers, exchanging the ideas and methods from our two very different worlds.
Feeling too giddily inspired to sit still, I walked in the drizzle along the lakeside beach, past the fishermen tending to their nets and the families bathing in the water. Each time, I was greeted respectfully, with unusual kindness and genuine smiles.
Leaving the Beach
In Ngara village, I was forced to leave the beach, as it was filled with wooden platforms used for drying and selling fish. Today they were empty, as was the highway market. The village was dirty and congested, and music blared from mini shops selling nothing but phone airtime cards.
The rain had stopped briefly, and I sat down along the roadside to watch. Rarely a car went by – and when it did, it went by sagging with its bursting load of people and baggage. Mostly, bicycle taxis zigzagged by carrying entire families, men cycled past transporting heavy loads of charcoal or dried tobacco leaves, and women walked on carting water jugs or bundles of firewood on their heads.
And everyone, once again, greeted me with smiles that seemed incongruous in this unfortunate place.
As I walked back from the highway to my lodge, the rain began again and I beamed. For it was the rain that had allowed me to glimpse the kindness of the people of Northern Malawi. And that had been a much more memorable introduction to “the Warm Heart of Africa” than sitting on a sarong in the sun.
Seeing in the Rain
As we set ourselves on the road to Livingstonia – one of the worst in the country – a steady light patter of rain fell from gloomy clouds firmly set in the sky. The dense fog dangerously reduced visibility as we weaved up the muddy narrow cliff-side road through its series of twenty “hairpin” turns.
We weren’t going to see any breathtaking valley views in this weather.
Still, we hiked – or more accurately, slipped and slid – through the hills. Market stalls lining the road were empty, shops and restaurants were closed. Clothes were laid out optimistically on clothing lines and on thatch hut roofs, as if willing the sun to come out and dry them.
As we approached Livingstonia town, the rain only intensified, and the road turned into a muddy river. Umbrellas popped open, sprouting multiple pairs of legs below. Our own umbrellas did little to shield us from diagonal shots of rain.
Craft Coffee Shop
We sought shelter in the town Craft Coffee Shop. Set in a colonial red-brick building and run by volunteers affiliated with Livingstonia’s hospital, we sipped hot tea, feasted on homemade scones, and perused the curios until we were ready to face the rain again.
We waltzed past impressive buildings built by the Scottish Missionaries in the late nineteenth century, including the clock tower, the church, the technical college, and the hospital. We visited the Stone House museum, once the home of the mission’s founder, and marveled at the old glass plate slides and the anaesthetic machine.
And when we stepped out of the museum, the rain had stopped, the clouds had cleared, and the late afternoon sun was illuminating the glorious vista beyond. Before us was the Great Rift Valley, Lake Malawi sparkling in the sun, and a hint of the distant Tanzanian Livingstone Mountains.
With the thick cloud and heavy rain, we’d all but forgotten there was a scenic view to be had. We had instead become enthralled with what the rains had allowed us to see – the village scenes and historical sites.
On the walk back, another stunning sight was revealed before us – the fiercely flowing Manchewe Falls. Invisible to us as we had walked by in the morning, we soaked in the beauty and power of these falls, knowing this moment would be fleeting.
And sure enough, an instant later, the falls were once again obscured by rain and cloud. We walked home, silently replaying the countless sights – vivid in our minds – we had seen through the rain that day.
For the rain, in obscuring and revealing the landscape piece by piece, had forced us to be truly present in each ephemeral moment. And that had allowed us to see, rather than just to look.
Listening to the Rain
“The road is so bad, because of the rain. To top it off, locals pour water along the dirt path to make it impassible. When your vehicle is stuck, they “kindly” offer their help, for a fee.” This was the report repeated to us from tourists returning from Nyika National Park, our next planned destination.
We were beginning to understand the wisdom of the rain, and saw that it was once again beckoning us to throw out our travel itinerary and our expectations.
And so we did. Willingly, this time. Instead of Nyika, we headed to the little-known and rarely visited Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.
Hippo-Infested Lake Kazuni
From the moment we spotted the view from our safari camp, facing the vast hippo-infested Lake Kazuni, we knew listening to the rain had been the right thing to do.
“The bush is really thick right now. All the rain, you know. You won’t see much on a game drive or bush walk,” confessed Godfried, the lodge manager.
“That’s quite alright,” we replied, with knowing smiles on our faces. “We’re happy right here in front of the lake.”
Without leaving the comfort of our chalet veranda, we watched warthogs, impala, baboons, and vervet monkeys approach the water’s edge for a drink. We listened to hippos snorting, caught them watching us, spy-like, from the water, and watched as they slumbered en masse on a peninsula inhabited by a cornucopia of birds.
And we gazed at beautiful sunsets each evening, the colors and odd-shaped clouds formed out of our beloved rain.
And that’s when they came. From a distance at first, a herd of eleven strong. The dominant male leading the parade, the young trumpeting from the back. Elephants!
We watched in awe, the post-rain sunset spotlighting the approaching procession. Soon we could hear them munching on crunchy tree leaves, mere meters from our chalet.
We cautiously inched closer, hearts pumping adrenaline. A big male sniffed us out and turned to face us, ears stretched wide. A warning – this was close enough.
That was fine by us. Vwaza Marsh had just given us the best gift of all, thanks once again to the rain.
Brittany Caumette has been traveling the world non-stop for nearly a decade, and is now two years into an overland around-the-world trip with her husband. She photographs and writes about their travels on her website, Wandering Footsteps.