Malawi (Part 1)

We know the saying about “when in Rome”, but what about when in Lilongwe? On a brief hiatus from Jozi-living and all it’s trappings, Lelethu discovered her hippie side and became one with the locals. And, in the end, she discovered more about herself, her peers and the continent, than she’d expected. (This was to be her last holiday.)

LILONGWE, MALAWI

First thought: I WANNA GO HOME! I haven’t travelled on my own since 2002, and being in a new space with just me, myself and I is quite scary. I can’t help thinking how much cooler it would be if my friends were here…

6pm. So, after fronting for the place where I’m staying: Mabuya Camp, which is a few kilometers from town – a cluster of tents, chalets, dorms and thatched rooms. I decided that I needed to be here, because, well, I can’t afford the high rates at Kiboko Hotel down the road. And, more than that, Mabuya is where all these tourists from Germany, the UK and everywhere else in the world are staying before we head off to Senga Bay for the Lake of the Stars Music Festival. Also, if I’m going to do this travel thing right (whatever that is), I must be willing to rough it and have fun. So, last night I slept in a dorm with about seven beds and seven strangers, whose introduction to me was their snoring, slumber farting and sounds of skin scratching at mosquito bites. It wasn’t bad and I think as the days wear on, I’ll have even more fun.

For supper, we went to this great, Italian-looking restaurant in the middle of town called Don Brioni’s Bistro, which is on the lower level of Kiboko Hotel, the other favourite place for festival-goers. The restaurant is very intimate – the décor is a fusion of kitsch red and white table cloths, long candles on wooden holders, walls lined with mini-blackboards of people who’d reserved tables, and a terrace which looks out into some of the shops in the city. The food was great – we started off with a mixed salad of red beans, lettuce, coleslaw and sliced cucumber. For mains, I had the peppered fillet mignon while my companion, Antonio from Moz who’s also staying at Mabuya Camp had a chicken peri-peri (or piri-piri as they call it here) with lemon. I really want to go back there again before I leave. Travelling alone can be quite lonely but I’m realising that if you just immerse yourself in the life, talk to the locals and just get out of that fear of something new, the experience can turn out to be quite amazing.

DIS-CONNECT

Ok, so today the electricity’s been on and off the entire day – eventually Escom (correct spelling) had to come in and fix everything, which took a while but it was done. After that, you could see all of us, the so-called “we’re here to get away from it all” crowd were itching like cyber-starved addicts to get online, even though this kept tripping too.

So I made a new friend, Salim (the universe refuses for me to be alone on this trip!), but he turned out to be pretty cool. The fashion scene here is really not that distinct; just shops filled with stuff imported from China. There’s nothing that’s authentically Malawian, or being created by young local designers, save for the tailors that sit outside textile shops and in markets, making authentic Malawian garb. I thought that was pretty cool. In the space of a shopping run around town, you could have a whole outfit made for you. We saw some cool curio shops like Into Africa, where they sell everything from ethnic chic bags, artefacts, earrings, traditional clothing, some in contemporary styles, others not. Going back there tomorrow to buy gifts for the fam. We also went to Old Town Mall, where there’s a collection of restaurants, art galleries, curio shops and fashion stores but more upmarket and expensive than everywhere else we’d been. Found this amazing art gallery, La Galleria which sold beautiful pencil art (don’t know if that’s what it’s called), intricately carved chairs paintings etc.

Really stunning. I found this really cute boutique in Area 43, called Ravalicious. They sell very stylish, summer dresses, shoes, bags and sunnies. Still looking for that thing with the Malawian oomph though, but this shop was cool.

EVERYONE HAS THEIR LITTLE RELIGION HERE

From the tourists at the camp who go for morning swims in the pool; the cleaner at the camp who, after cleaning the pool, promptly goes for a dip in it; to the people outside the camp whose singing ritual while travelling on a bus to school or work is their “good morning” greeting to the world. On a bigger scale, religion is integral to the Malawian society. I don’t have the stats but everywhere you go, there are churches within streets of each other, neighboured by Mosques just down the road. Even businesses are named religiously (think “Psalm 23 Motors”) and like other African countries, churches, pastors and religious groups are billboard-makers. Religion, rituals and God are the things these people tap into to keep their lives going.

While I’m here, my religion has been to wake up early in the morning, sit by the pool and write. I wanted to include my yoga practice in this, but so far that has eluded me! So now, I’m falling in love with my craft again… So I’ve been scouring shops and markets for great Malawian music and eventually I got a taste of it when I sat in on a studio session with some young artists in Area 3, Lilongwe.

Their studio is a room at the back of someone’s house with the most basic of equipment – they call these the “bedroom studios”. But there’s nothing sleepy about their music. Their voices belt out powerfully as each of them – from the producer to Salim, the hip-hop lyric composer lay down vocals.

Once these are stacked, they’re laid on a fusion of R&B/soul and traditional sounds. Apparently bedroom producers and studios are sprawled across the city, as the music industry isn’t that organised down here.

Currently, the artist is on everyone’s lips is a guy called Tay Grin. His style is hip-hop infused with traditional beats, with lyrics specifically targeting spreading a positive message to the youth. He’s been nominated for a Channel O Best Southern African Artist Award and also performed at the Big Brother Africa eviction party. This guy has everyone backing him from the Malawian Bank, National Building Society to the British Council. The latter has become quite involved in the music and cultural scene here, using artists such as Tay Grin as a vehicle for their cause. “Ze Germans” have also started doing some investments in Malawi’s urban culture. Tay Grin will tell you any day, that the reason he is as successful as he is, is because of 10% his talent and 90% business savvy and hard work.

His ethos is to build a cultural movement with fashion and sound and on the fashion side of things. He’s got a statement T-shirt label and a website (www.taygrin.com) from where all of his efforts are driven. Am looking forward to jamming to more Malawian Music at the Lake of Stars Fest. Heading there tomorrow…

Writer: Lelethu Lumkwana

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