Liwonde National Park, which has the best game and bird viewing in Malawi lies on the southern end along the Shire River where it enters Lake Malawi, the second biggest lake in Africa. Back on the bus, this time Ivey from the main office of WFP comes with us and brings her two young girls for the adventure. They have never seen big wild animals before and are most excited about elephants and baboons.
We are diverted from the heat, acrid woodfire smoke, and our swollen ankles (almost everyone has them now), by more Malawian tales. We ask so many questions of the staff, yet they never tire of answering, and truly enjoy passing down stories in their oral tradition.
Kelly asks, “Ivey, what was your engagement like?”
In the big cities many of the Malawi traditions have been ‘Westernized’. After dating a short time without family intervention, Ivey and her fiancé decided to follow their families’ old tradition for the engagement. ‘We gathered both families together for an engagement party. I was presented with a hen and my fiance with a cock, which we traded, symbolizing our acceptance of each other in our union. The chickens are then ritually killed, cleaned, cooked and eaten in the midst of great celebration,” Ivey smiles remembering.
The story of Nelson’s engagement and marriage takes an even more exciting twist. He and his wife Vera were brought up in separate Chiksa villages. Nelson remembers, “Both my parents were dead so my guardian uncle was sent to Vera’s village to ask for her hand in marriage to me.” He was summarily turned down for being unknown within the village. But they were too in love to be kept apart. “I took matters into my own hands, and with my uncle’s help we snuck into village in the dead of night, tiptoed into her hut and successfully stole her away, of course with her consent.” For his audacity he was penalized an extra cow for her dowry and they live happily ever after with their two daughters.
We arrive at the notorious Hippo View Lodge, a sprawling concrete complex rife with gaudily painted sculptures of hippos and birds. We’re so glad to get out of the city we love it. The gorgeous mature plantings are flowering in mass profusion.
We have enough time that afternoon to take a spin through the park which is a bit disappointing for Cindi and I because of previous extraordinary safari, but as dusk sets in we see herds of elephants and bands of baboons, which we haven’t seen before, in a totally different tropical setting of tall palm trees swaying through the mist on the river shore.
That night after a scrumptious dinner of fresh chambo, a succulent fresh water fish, and local favorites, pumpkin greens with nsima, something similar to grits but better, we hear, “Hippo! Hippo on the grounds!” I get my flashlight, follow one of the waiters and almost jump out of my skin when my bright LED light flashes on the huge hippo, jaws calmly masticating the flowers, grass and bushes on the lawn, and he’s only ten feet away. The staff tells us not to worry, “This is their evening ritual.” Once we return to the safety of the bar, the bartender disagrees with his cohorts. “Even though these big boys are somewhat tame, hippos are one of the most dangerous and aggressive animals around. Thank God you didn’t disturb them,” he laughs and shrugs.
In the morning we take a boat trip on the Shire amidst the fishermen throwing their nets from quaint dug out fishing canoes and skiffs. All around us the hippos emerge spouting loudly, sucking in air, pink iridescent ears flapping gaily, then quickly submerging.
All that’s left is reminiscing on the way back to Blantyre to start the 24-hour trip back home. Traveling with a group is a new experience for me. I’ve always shied away from tours, but this was different. We were thrown together for the common good of helping one of the most destitute countries and its people receive the basic essentials of life. We were united in that goal and became very close watching the bravery and optimism displayed especially by the women as they struggled to feed and care for their sick hungry children. There was no room for petty arguments, complaints, not so perfect accommodations. We were living like kings in comparison, coming home every evening disease free, to a toilet, hot shower, good food.
We leave each other with email addresses, phone numbers and promises to keep in touch. I resolve to check into joining WFP in Nicaragua, right next to my second home in Costa Rica. They have finished the initial stages of surveying and needs assessment and desperately need bilingual volunteers.
And that’s the end of Jill and Cindi’s Excellent African Adventure. Thank you for your comments. Watch for Chapter Two – Nicaragua. In the meantime, check in on more Slices and Crumbs of my life. Keep in touch.