Malawi: First Thoughts

To understand any place, you have to leave it. It’s only with a comparative perspective that you recognize the significance of things you take for granted on the one hand, or the things you lament daily on the other. That’s how I’ve felt, anyway, during this past year of working on my dissertation, based in Uganda and working briefly in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and now, Malawi.

I flew into Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe yesterday afternoon. From Kampala it’s a short trip, feeling much like the journey from San Francisco to Chicago, and making intra-continental travel seem easier than it normally does.

There are no immigration forms to fill upon arrival in Lilongwe (at least the day I arrived), but they do check for your Yellow Fever card. How did Yellow Fever, a relatively uncommon disease, become the single most common (only?) vaccination required worldwide? I was thankful I had remembered my aptly colored yellow Yellow Fever card, but others who didn’t have one seemed to get through just fine. While the card is ostensibly a requirement in lots of countries, apart from Malawi I can only ever remember being checked in Nigeria.

At the immigration counter, I was not asked what I would be doing in Malawi, or how long I would be staying. There were no forms to fill out, no visa fees to pay. My fingers were scanned, photo taken, and off I went. I bought a SIM card at the airport, no registration required, and got cash from the ATM. The road from Kamuzu to Lilongwe was practically deserted; a few homes dotted the otherwise empty roadside. The road was smooth, the air hot, the ground dry. I wasn’t sure we had arrived in Lilongwe proper until I started to recognize the names of lodges I had seen in guidebooks. By contrast, coming from Entebbe you may think you’ve reached Kampala, only to find yourself snaking slowly through the city limits an hour later.

The quiet and winding streets of the Lilongwe, lined with trees, remind me of Kigali, as does the relative absence of people. While Kampala, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra are churning, bustling, and often overwhelming, Lilongwe has a distinctly understated presence.

Uganda’s economy is nearly five times the size of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana about twice that of Uganda, and Nigeria far bigger than all four combined. The largest bill you can get in Malawi $2.50, Uganda, $20, Kenya $11, Nigeria $6, Ghana $23. As you can see, there is no relationship between bill and economy size (or GDP per capita, for that matter), which makes spending and taking out money much easier in Uganda and Ghana than in Malawi or Nigeria. In both Nigeria and Malawi (yes, with my limited experience of one day in the latter),  ATMs appear to be frequently running out of money, and sometimes with very long queues. I’m no economist, but something about tiny bills seems very inefficient. Is there an upside? Any work on the politics of moneymaking, literally?

Finally, although I generally dislike the tradition (requirement?) of adorning the walls of every establishment with presidents’ photos, it is a welcome change to see — for once if not for long — a woman in the frame.

That’s all for today. More comparative musings soon.

Update: Relatedly, though I don’t fully agree: “Africa? Why there’s no such place” h/t to my partner in crime.