Home itinerary travelogues Photo Gallery ramblings resources About Us Contact Us

March 14, 2004 -> Man Overboard in Malawi

The local kids were laughing and jeering. Even the adults stopped to watch. One kind man had swum out to try to give us lessons, but we were impossible students. We tried everything: both legs in the canoe, both legs out, one leg out and one leg in; I in first, he in first, both in at the same time; one paddling, one balancing; two paddling and balancing - nothing worked. We simply could not paddle the dugout canoe for more than a few meters before one or both of us tumbled into the bilharzia-infected waters of Lake Malawi.

My partner in incompetence was Jason, a Canadian we had met in Mbeya. He wanted to spend the afternoon paddling around the lake in a local dugout canoe. It sounded like a great idea to me. His wife, Cecilia, and Nori had long disappeared around the bay in a modern 'Canadian' canoe; they had spent an hour waiting for us to make it off the beach, and had finally decided to go on their own. Jason and I kept doggedly climbing back into the canoe, only to fall out seconds later. We had to give up when our legs started cramping and our backsides became blistered from straddling the canoe's rough sides. The next day, I was so determined to succeed that I convinced two more people to rent a dugout with me. We fared little better. One of the victims was Marc, a Frenchman working in Zambia, whose connections and local knowledge would end up smoothing our travels for the next week.

Under the British, Malawi had been known as Nyasaland - Land of the Lake - a largely ignored colonial possession cradled in the north-facing 'Y' of Portuguese Mozambique. The skinny country stretches more than 1000 kilometers from north to south, yet nearly 25% of its official territory is Malawi's share of the giant lake. Lake Malawi is the the southernmost of Africa's Rift Valley lakes, and is the second-longest lake in the world; it is about 600 km long and 80 km across at its widest point.

Along with many other former British colonies and protectorates, Malawi had declared independence in the 1960's. As elsewhere in Africa, independence had borne bitter fruit in the form of a despotic leader, economic collapse, and deterioration of public infrastructure. Malawi is completely dependent on loans and grants from the IMF, the World Bank, and various donor countries.

I felt sorry for the Malawians. Their landlocked country had little in the way of natural resources. No diamonds, no gold, no copper, no cobalt; none of the underground riches that gave South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana a fighting chance. Though never wealthy, decades of mismanagement by "President for Life" Kenneth Kaunda had seen Malawi declared one of the poorest countries in the world. The AIDS infection rate was the 2nd or 3rd highest in the world, depending on who you asked and which statistics you believed. Even the fish in the lake were under enormous pressure from local fishermen. Despite all this, the population was growing at 3-4% per annum.

We stayed at the Njaya Lodge, the pioneer of tourism at Nkhata Bay, a backpacker favorite located on the northwestern shores of Lake Malawi. There were a dozen cute bungalows tucked into the hillside beneath the main lodge. The patio of the lodge had unobstructed views of the lake and wall of mountains that rose behind the eastern shore. A straight line drawn east from Nkhata Bay across the lake would closely parallel the Tanzania-Mozambique border. Sunrises at Njaya were spectacular. In the evening, storms rolled across the mountains and over the water, blowing a jet black squall line toward us. In the morning, the air was fresh and clear.

A thirty-second walk took us down to a small, sandy bay with jumbles of smooth boulders on either side. Ocean-sized waves broke on the shore. Local fishermen in dugout canoes cast out nets, while those less inclined to physical labor lounged on the beaches and tried to convince tourists to buy Africa-shaped key rings, poorly executed paintings, and marijuana. On the first day, the fear of contracting bilharzia kept us out of the water. On the second day, the cool, clear water was irresistible. We swam, we snorkeled, we jumped off the rocks, and I took in huge amounts of water falling out of the canoe. If there was bilharzia in this part of the lake, I would definitely get it.

Bilharzia (schistosomiasis) is a nasty disease caused by parasitic worms. The worms thrive in faecally contaminated water, and develop inside the bodies of certain types of freshwater snails. When the worms leave the snails, they survive for only 48 hours, but during that time they are able to penetrate the skin of people swimming or bathing in the water. If left untreated, the worms and eggs can cause serious damage to the intestines, liver, lungs and bladder. Occasionally, they can cause spinal cord inflammation, seizures, and paralysis. In short, this is a disease to take very seriously.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are over 200 million people infected with bilharzia - primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Most African lakes are infected, including Lake Malawi. Of course, the staff at the Njaya Lodge swore that we did not need to worry about bilharzia in 'this part of the lake.' The water was deep; supposedly there were no reeds to shelter the snails that act as the vector for the disease. The owners of Njaya Lodge had reputedly swum there for twenty years and never come down with the disease. Yet a Swedish girl that we met (who had been at Nkhata Bay only two months) had already contracted bilharzia. She had seen blood in her urine, and had to be treated. The CDC must be aware of the false promises of Lake Malawi lodge owners, because it specifically lists Lake Malawi as an infected area.

We had only a short time in Malawi. In Tanzania, we had decided that we would cut southwest across the width of Africa - visiting Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia - before reaching Cape Town, South Africa. This meant that we had to economize on time. No time to ride the old ferry that makes weekly trips down the lake, stopping at several ports. No time for the highly-recommended kayak trips to Likoma and Chisumulu islands (within Mozambican waters). No time to climb Mount Mlanje, a challenging peak that rises over 3000 meters. But we got a sense for why Malawi is one of the most popular stops for backpackers on the Cape to Cairo route. It is cheap, friendly, and very beautiful.