Guest Post: 16 Things to be aware of when backpacking and hitchhiking in Malawi
1) Visa friendly if from the West
Depending where you’re from, the first 30 days are free. You can extend up to two more months – 30 days at a time – for $10 USD for every 30 days. Like in Zambia, you’ll need to extend a day or two before the expiration date visiting an immigration office.
You’ll find immigration offices in most large towns across Malawi.
ⓐ No visa – 30 days
Citizens of the following countries do not require a visa to enter for up to 30 days:
Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Fiji, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Sweden, Taiwan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, Zimbabwe
ⓑ Free Transit Visa – 24 hours
All countries not on the list below are eligible for a free transit visa, providing they have confirmed onward tickets for a maximum transit time of 24 hours.
Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Egypt, Georgia, Hungary, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen.
ⓒ All other countries
Citizens of all other countries (apart from in visa free travel) have to apply for and obtain a visa in advance before entering the country. A list of Malawi embassies can be found here and information on what you’ll need here.
Food & Drink
2) What food to expect
Like everywhere else I’ve been in Africa, the staple local cuisine is nsima (pap in South Africa, nshima in Zambia) which they eat three times a day. I can only tolerate it once a day as it sits like a brick in your stomach. It has no protein and is 100% carbohydrates. And very hot (temperature-wise) so let it cool down a bit.
It’s the cheapest feed you can get with a side of chicken/pork/goat/beef/fish and some steamed vegetable called rape (don’t ask). It’s traditionally eaten with your right hand. Rice and beans are also popular. A dish will cost you about 900 Kwacha (about $1.80 AUD) and it’s eaten everywhere (to compare, western food like pizza or burger ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 Kwacha, about $8-10).
The most popular fish you’ll find are bait-fish called ‘capiente’. They are usually eaten either dry or deep-fried – head and all. Other fish are catfish, also either dried or deep-fried.
Caterpillars and worms are also served (best grilled).
As with most African nations, Malawians cook with a lot of salt and oil and love sugar. A lot of the times I was tempted to ask for some food with my salt (or tea with my sugar).
All food is cooked over charcoal fire, usually outdoors. Order food about an hour before you actually want to eat. It takes that long to cook. African time.
3) Short on cash?
There is street food but since refrigeration is an issue I didn’t take the risk with the barbecued/deep-fried meat on offer (which will usually include goat intestines). Grilled corn (maize) and grilled cassava roots with salt are great. Deep-fried hand-cut potato chips are the thing (although how often the oil is changed is debatable). Great after a night out. You’ll find them outside of most bars.
If you hit the right season (Nov-Jan) mango trees are heavy with some of the best you’ll ever taste. You can go to any village or household and ask for mangos off the tree and no one will deny you the succulent fruit. In some places you can just pick them off the trees in the street.
4) What to drink?
Malawians drink mostly soft drinks (locally known as softies) such as Coke or Fanta. A lot of them will drink a cheap local beer that is sold in cartons and they start that from early in the morning. Cheap spirits are sold in plastic sachets. These are the burn-a-hole-in-your-stomach kinda spirits so eat something before getting on the piss. A local home-made moonshine is called katchasha which you can run a car on.
The local beer is KucheKuche. It’s weak, about 3% and usually sold only in long necks (or quartz; also known as 40s in USA). The most popular beer is Carlsberg known simply as ‘green’ (walk into a bar and ask for a ‘green’). Usually sells for 400Kwacha at a local bar or up to 800 Kwacha in most hostels and lodges and western-styled bars.
Tea is more popular than coffee (there are stunning tea plantations in the south) and they like it strong with a lot of sugar. Water is safe from the tap in most areas. Always ask first.
4) Where to sleep?
You’ll be surprised where you can find couchsurfers in Africa. From the smaller, lesser known towns and villages to the big cities. Hostels and lodges are abundant (I’m not sure about prices) everywhere – even by truck stops.
Wild camping is possible, just always ask someone local if it’s cool to pitch up.
Prices vary from a thousand Kwacha for camping up to 6,000 Kwacha for a dorm bed – depending on the lodge.
Nkhata Bay: Mayoka Village (amazing guacamole)
Senga Bay: Murfasa’s Backpackers, Lakeside Hotel, PTS Resthouse
Mzuzu: Mzuzu Zoo Lodge, Joy’s Place (great Korean food)
Livingstonia: The Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge (ask about Mr Banda’s restaurant. Don’t pass on the banana pancakes).
Zomba: Pakachere Backpackers
Nkhotokhota: YanuYanu Lodge
Cape Maclear: Cape Maclear Eco Lodge
Chilamba (bottom of Livingstonia): African Teacher’s Lodge.
5) Prepare for the heat and the rain
Malawi has a tropical climate. the rainy season runs November through April with very little rainfall in the remaining months.
From September to April along the lake and in the lower Shire Valley it is hot and humid with average daytime temperatures between 27 to 29 °C. Lilongwe has a similar climate but perhaps a little less stiflingly humid. The rest of the country is hot in this period with an average daytime temperature of 25 °C.
In summer, Malawi is an oven during the day with temperatures reaching mid-40s. From the crack of dawn it can already be in the late 20’s, cracking the 30° by 8 am. Temperatures can fall quite significantly at night to 10–14 °C. Higher altitude areas are obviously colder.
Daylight only lasts for about 13 hours. The sun begins its rise from about 04:30 (the coldest time of day) and it sets anywhere from 17:30 to 18:00, getting completely dark by 19:00.
Culture & traditions
6) Religious views
Malawi is a very religious country. It’s Christian (although there are pockets of Muslims) and everyone believes in Jesus and God (or Allah). The radio blasts gospel music and evangelical preachers. A lot of folk carry the Biible around and will even have a copy in their cars and grace is said at every meal. They’ll ask about your beliefs. I always told the truth, that I believe in Karma and explained the philosophy of do good and good happens.
7) What clothing is acceptable?
It’s inappropriate for women to wear short-shorts and revealing skirts in the day (go to a club/bar and it’s a whole different world) but you don’t need a head scarf.
There’s no issue in wearing bikinis while going for a swim although it might be better to wear short-shorts rather than the bikini bottom (a lot of African men I’ve encountered have aspirations of sleeping with a white woman. Regardless of marriage).
Men can wear shorts.
Women tend to wear shitenges. Their hair is usually a weave made of either synthetic material or for those that have money, human hair.
8) Gender rights and roles
Women do a lot of the field work. I’ve heard from volunteer medical professions that women will give birth and then 40 minutes later walk out with the baby strapped to their back and work in the field.
There is no gender equality. Once a man is married, the wife slaves about the house, cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping. She serves the man and any guests, pouring the water over his hands before meal times and at the end, setting the table and then clearing it.
Men and women don’t sit together at the table in most homes. The women will sit with the children on the floor in a separate room for meals while the men sit comfortably on seats and chow down.
Monogamy is non-existent on the male side. They’ll go out and have no qualms about sleeping with another woman. The wife, who may or may not know, won’t leave him either. He’ll probably father some kids from several different women.
You’ll always be asked if you’re married and if you have kids. In Malawian culture (as is with most African traditions) marriage is from a young age and the more kids you have, the wealthier you are regarded (although most families can’t afford to have more than two kids, the average is six).
Attitude towards LGBT is, I guess, hidden under social coverings. No one speaks openly about homosexuality and even though it’s common for men to walk hand-in-hand, it doesn’t mean that they’re in a homosexual relationship. It’s just part of the culture.
9) Conversation topics and how to be polite
Africans love the English Premier league. The majority support Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United.
When greeting elders, women should bend slightly at the knees as though bowing, both genders should shake hands with the right hand and place the left under your right elbow. Handshakes are in the 3-form variety – from the usual stance, to the switch back to the usual.
They’ll ask if you are safe which means, ‘Are you alright?’
They’ll say ‘sorry’ (pronounced: Soh-ri) if anything happens to you: If you trip, rip your bag, swallow a fly, spill a drink.
Africans talk loudly as though they’re yelling and use a lot of hand gestures. Make sure you don’t get whacked in the head. They also struggle to pronounce the letter ‘L’. It will be pronounced as an ‘R’.
10) How the locals stay clean
Folks that live by a river or the lake use it for washing, bathing and cleaning of the dishes. You’ve never seen anyone so meticulously scrub themselves down than an African.
Dishes are washed in waterways (rivers or the lake).
Toilets are usually outhouses and squats. Always carry toilet paper in case (most lodges have western toilets).
11) What languages will you need?
Malawi’s population is made up of the native Chewa, Nyanja, Tumbuka, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, and Ngonde ethnic groups, as well as populations of Asians and Europeans. So as such there are numerous languages in use in the country. Some of the major ones include Chichewa, spoken by over 57% of the population, English, Chinyanja (12.8%), Chiyao (10.1%), and Chitumbuka (9.5%).
Other languages include Malawian Lomwe (250,000 speakers in the southeast,) Kokola, (200,000 people: southeast), Lambya (45,000: northwestern), Ndali (70,000), Nyakyusa-Ngonde(300,000 in north), Malawian Sena (270,000 south) and Tonga (170,000: north).
Money & Costs
12) What are the costs?
The unit of currency in Malawi is the Malawi kwacha (MK). It is subdivided into 100 tambala (t). Bank notes are in the following forms MK200, MK100, MK50, MK20, MK10 and MK5. Coins are MK1, 50t, 20t, 10t, 5t and 1t, although small tambala coins are in essense worthless.
At big hotels and other places that actually quote in US dollars you can pay in $ or kwacha. Be aware that changing money in the country can prove to be extremely difficult.
Health & Safety
13) Crime issues
I always felt safe in Malawi although, like with most big cities, it’s not recommended to walk the streets on your own late at night. Malawians love to drink and everyone is affected differently when it comes to alcohol.
I didn’t experience any crime but as is with anywhere, keep your valuables close. Walk in groups at night or with a local you befriended. Always ask permission to take a photo of someone.
I stayed up in the Mushroom Farm near Livingstonia and two Americans were struck with rocks and had gear stolen. I’ve heard of similar attacks on Mt Mulanji although now that you must climb it with a guide, I doubt you’ll encounter any issues.
I didn’t have any issues in leaving my bags by the roadside when a truck would take a runway’s length to pull over.
14) Health issues
Malawi has a high rate of HIV so if you’re going out and getting it on, always – ALWAYS – use a condom (most police stations give them out for free). You should always use a condom anyway but if in doubt, there are free clinics about to get tested.
Malawi is well known for malaria so travel with a mosquito net, use repellent and don’t camp by water ways. I don’t use any anti-malarial medicine.
Belhazaria is a parasite carried by snails that reside in and around Lake Malawi. They enter the human body by burrowing tiny holes. Once you play host, they go for the neurological parts of the brain and feast themselves. They can kill you but that can take anywhere from a year to ten years. There’s no known prevention but there is treatment. Over-the-counter medicine that is recommended to take 4 weeks after you’ve left Malawi. Always take medicine on a full stomach – especially this one. It’s powerful. It’s like dropping an H-bomb on your body. Each large pill equates to 15 kg meaning, if you weigh 60 kg, you’ll need 4 pills. I’m told it’s not the most sympathetic of medicines so clear out a weekend for it. Eat a full meal before taking the pills (if you take it on an empty stomach you’ll experience cramping of the likes of going into labour).
15) Wild animal issues
Wild animals are contained to national parks. Malawi is home to cobras, boomslangers and Africa’s deadliest and perhaps the world’s most aggressive snake – the black mamba. It’s notorious for its aggressive attitude and has been known to chase people. It just also happens to be the fastest snake with speeds of 25 K’s an hour on flat surface and the most venomous in Africa. It can reach up to 9 feet in length and sometimes hides in trees and may drop on you.
Although crocs are usually in the rivers, during the big storms some crocs can get washed down into the lake. These are usually hunted and shot.
Scorpions are abundant as are deadly spiders of the likes I’ve never seen before (and I’m from Australia). As well as scorpions, caterpillars that can leave you with a nasty itch, tsetse flies (that carry sleeping sickness) and centipedes are quite common.
16) Best stay clear
Corruption is rife in African politics. Some say the president is good. Others say negative things (in some countries you’re not even allowed to criticise the political leaders). I find it best to steer clear of political conversations.
written by: Simon (The Nomadic Diaries)
Tired of society’s rinse ‘n’ repeat lifestyle, Simon has decided to dedicate the rest of his life to hitch-hiking the globe without flying or using money. Instead, he barters for food and board and adventures. Life is one shot. Go live it.
Check out his blog at: thenomadicdiaries.wordpress.com