Zambian perspective on Blantyre
- Malawians are humble, meek, friendly
The Times of Zambia (Lusaka)
July 6, 1999
By Shapi Shacinda
Lusaka - Traversing Blantyre's landscape and its nearby 'twin' city of Limbe offers
the first-time visitor to Malawi, a breath-taking panoramic view of that country's
commercial capital. Inhabitants of Blanytre, whose weather is terribly cold this
time of the year, have overcome what would otherwise be a natural hitch.
They have erected wonderful pan-bricked houses at the foothills, and in the
middle of the hills. "This is beautiful, I wish we could do the same to our hilly
towns Chipata, Kafue and others," remarked a fellow Zambian scribe travelling
with me to last week's inauguration of Dr Bakili Muluzi's second term as
Malawian president in Blantyre.
The Malawian commercial capital, named after David Livingstone's Scottish city,
is a beautiful city. Though, of course, smaller than Lusaka. Blantyre resembles,
in Southern Africa, the tiny Kingdom, Swaziland's capital, Mbabane.
Building a house is an expensive undertaking for the average Malawian, but the
costs have been made somewhat affordable by the use of pan bricks, moulded
out of red soil. The local authorities have equally done good home work by
ensuring houses are built according to specifications. A visitor will notice very few
ramshackles in and around Blantyre. . . I did not go round the whole town
One striking feature in Blantyre, a common phenomenon each time there was a
national event, is the unwavering dancing queens: these are old women,
previously known as 'mbumba za Kamuzu.' The never tiring women, and in their
hundreds dancing on the United Democratic Front (UDF) of President Bakili
Muluzi ticket amazes many a visitor with their strong resolve in dancing. "These
women like dancing.
Some used to dance at the orders of Kamuzu Banda (late dictator defeated by Dr
Muluzi in the first multiparty elections of 1994 ). When governments changed
hands, they were told to stop dancing but they refused, stating they are used to
"The President (Dr Muluzi) told them he was not going to subject women to
dancing for him but they seem to have convinced him to continue with their act.
They told him they were doing it voluntarily now unlike in the past when Kamuzu
used to force them," commented Aubrey Mchulu a journalist at The Nation
newspaper in Blantyre. The women wriggled their waists at Chileka airport each
time a head of state or governement representative touched down to witness the
swearing-in ceremony of Dr Muluzi on June 21.
They plied their trade at Chichiri Stadium on the great and merry- making
occasion attended by President Chiluba, much to the delight of foreign
dignitaries. The women seemingly mastered the songs and lyrics of the TOK
jazz band of Tanzania which entertained guests to solidarity tunes for Dr Muluzi
and his government.
I stayed away from discoteques during my three nights in Blantyre but
colleagues in the entourage spoke glowingly of the 'fast' life the city offers. It is
just like Lusaka, with a lot of prostitutes.
The nearest I came to the real night life of Blantyre was when two teenage girls,
probably aged between 15 and 17 vainly stopped the foreign affairs minibus we
were driven around at about 20:00hrs. . . you do not need to be told these girls
were 'hookers.' Prostitution previously outlawed, I came to learn was now rife in
democratic Malawi. A receptionist at a Lodge I was spending my nights told me
poverty had resulted in the loss of social morals.
"Malawi has now changed," intoned Emmanuel Bodole a receptionist at
Namiwawa Lodge. "I am sure you have noticed women now wear trousers, a
thing nobody could dream of during the previous regime.
This democracy is properly understood by some women, but others dress
provocatively in the name of freedom." It is freedom everywhere. Street vending
especially in Limbe is a common feature.
Vehicles have to hoot for hawkers to give way as they trade even on roads in
some streets of Limbe. There is what one would refer to as 'organised' vending in
Blantyre, similar to the 'order' which was on Cairo road during the reign of the
people from the 'President's office'. I was struck with the faithfulness and humility
It reminded me of the old Zambia, a Zambia so full of promise, no thefts, people
respectful et cetera. My small recorder I use for interviews slid off my pocket as I
relaxed on a lounge seat in the Ryles Hotel lobby.
I realised my recorder was missing when I went to Limbe with colleagues. After
retracing my movements to only three places, among them a Bureau De Change
and the hotel, the following morning I went to present my problem to a female
receptionist at Ryles hotel.
She told me to wait for a few minutes as she attended to another guest. Within
five minutes she was pulling my recorder from a drawer.
I was so overwhelmed that I deeped into my pocket to present a token of
appreciation to her and another male receptionist. It reminded me of how
trustworthy some people in certain parts of this world are. But the other side of
life evokes the fact that you need a lot of Malwian kwacha as a foreigner to
A colleague at my work place tells me things used to be cheap in Malawi, but
this is no longer the case. Venturing into shops in the first class trading area of
Blantyre confirmed this fact. For instnce Nike T-shirts costing K25,000 in Lusaka
were pegged at prices twice as much in Blantyre.
This also goes for hotel accommodation. A superior room (single) goes for $130
in Blantyre something that would cover for a double room with a small addition for
a room at hotels of similar standards in Zambia.
A number of us who wanted to change the kwacha into foreign currencies
suffered a set back when a bank tailer at the National Bank of Malawi at the
airport refused to accept local currency from us. "We do not have enough money
to do the rounds," said the tailer apologetically.
"But of what use will this currency be to us in Zambia if you the owners of the
money cannot accept it. This is very amazing," one of my colleagues intoned.
It took more than half an hour to convince the tailer to give us South African rand,
Deutch Marks and US dollars she earlier claimed not to have. "It is a question of
having a poor economy," said another collegue who added he had been to many
African countries but this was the first time he was experiencing such an
incident. Whether the weak Malawian kwacha caused initial refusal to exchange
it with US dollars amazed me.
Malawians though are a friendly people. Their humility cannot be faulted.
Their patience is unwavering. But there is an element of doing things slowly too.
It took us 12 hours to convince hotel staff at the Mount Soche Hotel to change
our travellers cheques into Malawi kwacha. Reason! There was not enough
Malawi kwacha at any given time we attempted to obtain it. "Wait patiently sir,"
the receptionists would say each time we enquired whether things would work
But one thing visible is the new democratic culture prevailing in Malawi. People
are now free to discuss politics and even differ seriously with their leaders.
The recent elections in which Dr Muluzi narrowly defeated his closest rival
Gwanda Chakuamba in the presidential race was a pointer to this. However, the
mayhem that followed the elections, in which the North a stronghold for
Chakuamba's alliance of the Malawi Congress Party/Aford rose against
Southerners threatened to divide the country on regional lines.
The Moslems and some tribes such as Dr Muluzi's Yao, Lomwe, Sena have
been targets of violent attacks by their Ngoni, Tumbuka, Ngonde, Tonga brothers
and sisters. Dr Muluzi is a Moslem and Yao speaking.
Every Moslem has become an enemy of the Chakuamba alliance. Ten mosques
were razed, homes looted as people fled to the hills for safety in the aftermath of
the disputed poll results.
African opposition parties, counselled president Chiluba on arrival at Chileka
airport for Muluzi's inauguration, should learn to accept election results if
democracy is to be nurtured on the continent. Mr. Chiluba said there was a sad
and growing trend of disputing election results which should be curtailed.
Dr Muluzi when taking oath of office also attacked those branding his government
illegitimate, warning he would crush any upheavals when some sections of the
opposition threatened to take up arms. "Malawi, the warm heart of Africa" is the
tourism message you get in brochures.
Indeed it is a warm, and friendly tiny country worth a visit.
Publication Date: July 3, 1999