Malawi: A curio-us encounter

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Phil Clisby meets a fascinating salesman on the shores of Lake Malawi

I awake early after a disturbed night’s sleep, convinced that rain was drumming down on the roof of our rondavel all night. I open the terrace doors to witness the sunrise over Lake Malawi to find a dozen monkeys frolicking on our lawn. I look up, and sure enough there’s some on the roof. No chance of rain here at this time of year, you fool!

I take a walk down the beach. A young Malawian strolls up to me and we strike up a conversation. Roger is 22 and a curio seller. I’m immediately on the back foot, but the curios hardly get a mention as we chat.

“Malawi means flames – hot,” he says as we discuss the weather.

The Makokola Retreat, where we are staying, takes its name from the neighbouring village, which in turn takes it’s name from the chief, who, it turns out, is Roger’s 43-year-old mother.

Roger tells me that he is saving money to go to college to study engineering.

“Most people in the village earn money by making carvings and bracelets – skills my grandfather passed down to me,” he explains. “Others fish. But there’s not so much fish anymore.” He plays football for his village, but, he says: “Boys are discouraged from playing football by their parents – ‘Go out into the lake and get some fish,’ they say.”

It’s a tough life, he says, but he agrees that it’s a great place to live.

Later, my wife, son and I walk along the beach, past the confines of our hotel. Women wash clothes in the lake, while the men tend to their fishing nets. We head inland, across an airstrip, complete with goats grazing on it, and head into the village.

The people are friendly, and an ever-increasing band of kids follow us around, wanting their picture taken, and then running away when I get my camera out. We find the ‘main square’ – a few shops and market stalls; one called ‘My Lucky Shop’. For some reason it has an Arsenal FC badge on it. I quiz the owner, ‘Mrs Lucky’, about her poor choice of allegiance. “And you?” she asks. “Chelsea.” “Ah, Chelsea,” she chuckles.

Another day we take kayaks out onto the lake. My son was reluctant at first, but quickly admits it’s his favourite part of the trip so far. As we paddle up and down, the locals who take their pirogues out every day to fish, look at us, as if to say: “You are doing this for fun?”

My son, confident in the ability of his life jacket to keep him afloat, rolls out of the boat cackling. Eventually, I have to abandon ship as we take on too much water, and who should appear to help us drag the boat ashore… Roger.

As if by magic, the rest of the curio gang appears. It’s time to shop. But I don’t begrudge them for one second. “Thank you for your support,” they say, as we buy a couple of elephants and a bracelet. One of the boys is saving for a wife. We wish him the best of luck with that.

 

Phil and his family stayed at The Makokola Retreat on the southern shore of Lake Malawi.

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