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At first, I didn’t even like Malawi. I hadn’t been there before, hadn’t even heard much about the country, but getting a visa was so incredibly tedious, that I had already written off Malawi before I even got there.
If you are a Swiss citizen, like myself, you can’t just waltz into the country like a lot of other nationalities. No, the Swiss have to get a visa first. Initially, this doesn’t sound too bad. But the Malawians don’t run an embassy in Switzerland and the nearest authority responsible for Swiss citizens is located in Brussels. Consequently, I sent my passport to Belgium, complete with thick application forms, all the while hoping sincerely that the envelope would make it there and back again safely. If a passport gets lost in the process, all travel plans will be screwed over as well. When calling the embassy to ask for an update on the visa, the officials answer in very fast and perpetually angry French. Five weeks after throwing my passport in a mailbox I got it back again, but the whole venture has definitely cost me a few nerve cells too many.
At the border, things don’t get any easier. The man at the immigration counter is very friendly, but keeps browsing through my passport for what feels like an eternity and then calmly tells me that, as a Swiss citizen, I require a visa and therefore can’t enter the country. I’m confused. No cost and effort was spared to obtain said visa and it is glued right into the middle of my passport. I point the man to page 14 and wait some more while he inspects the piece of paper in a way that suggest, that he has never seen anything like it before. I’m starting to wonder if I’m the first traveller who ever went through the pain of obtaining a visa. Maybe other tourists just push a wad of cash across the counter? The immigration officer disappears into a back room and I observe how several other people gather around and inspect my visa with distrustful looks on their faces. Two more questionings and another trip to the back room are necessary before I’m allowed to pass the border.
My start in Malawi may have been a bit rocky, but upon passing the border the country blew me away immediately. Approximately 25% of the country consist of water – Lake Malawi is the ninth-biggest fresh water lake in the world and I spend a few days in Kande Beach, exploring the surrounding villages and relaxing by the water. The coastline is beautiful and offers some of the best views I have encountered on the whole continent.
What I like most about Malawi, apart from the fascinating nature, are the people. Before my trip into the East African country I spent some time in its way more touristic neighbour Tanzania, where I was incredibly impressed by the wildlife and the national parks, but less so by the general population. Money seemed to be the driving force in most encounters with the locals, which kind of dimmed my initial enthusiasm about the friendliness of the African people. You want to take a photo? Better hand over money or prepare for some aggressive behaviour. Need directions? Another opportunity to get some cash out of a clueless traveller. And of course there is usually the cluster of people following you around, trying to sell a myriad of things.
Malawi is a bit different. Soon after arriving I decide to venture into a small fishing village. Immediately children run out of the houses or abandon their play to surround the strangers. Little ones want to hold my hands and rub my skin, amazed by its white color. The biggest highlight seems to be my camera though. Although it is almost impossible to get them to stand still, the children pose for photos, run over to check out the picture on the screen and then break out in fits of giggles and screams. Some adults show me the days catch that they have spread out on tarps to dry in the sun, the children trailing behind in a gaggle of chaos.
Another village shows me how the maize for the east African staple food nsima (also called ugali or pap, depending on which corner of the continent you are from) is prepared. The sub-saharan dish has a consistency similar to polenta and is a part of most meals and beloved by everyone apart from travellers. There is no mention of money, although everyone seems happy to accept the bottles of water that I carry around as thanks for the good company.