Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life in Malawi

Some people are probably curious what my life is like down here. Where do I live? What do I eat? Are things expensive? etc.

Well, to give an idea, here's a day in the life:

I get up around 6am. By that time, I've usually slept through both the local mosque's alarmingly loud call to prayer (around 4:30am) and the sunrise (around 5:30am), so it's not as early as it sounds.

I haven't quite figured out a good breakfast routine yet, but so far I've been eating either a hard-boiled egg (eggs are cheap) or a Weet-bix biscuit with milk. There isn't a great selection of cereal available (and it's quite expensive). I haven't yet found a way to make the Weet-bix taste like anything other than cardboard, but I have a box of them to get through, so I plow on.

Assuming the water is working (and really, it has only been out one day of the three weeks I've been here so far), my morning routine isn't otherwise greatly different from what it is in Canada. With luck, my little lizard friend will make an appearance in the bathroom at some point (he comes in and out and often hides behind the water heater).

The front porch at home
I'm renting a room in a family home in area 3 (primarily ex-pat neighborhood close to the center of Old Town). My choice of places to live is mostly limited by my lack of a car - Lilongwe is very spread out (like a warmer, greener version of Edmonton, perhaps).

Work hours are about 7:30 - 4:30. I worried when I first heard this, but when the sun is up and bright before 7am and starts to set around 6pm, it isn't so bad. With no streetlights outside (not to mention the frequent blackouts), you don't want to be out and about after dark. (Nerdy aside: zombie-movie-style, we close the windows, bar the doors and pull the curtains shut at sundown. It's possible there are, in fact, zombies out there. Without a shotgun, I'm afraid to go out and check.)

Since the house is on one of the main roads into town, there's a steady procession of Malawians walking to and from most of the day (and especially in the morning and late afternoon, when I join them). There are also tons of rickety minibuses running up and down the road, which aren't really worth my while to take since the first major stop outside of town is past the house. Most people walk, anyway.
Stray dog in the drivewayWalking up to the gate
At work, I share an office with Dan, the MUSCCO IT manager. The office also doubles as a server room, which means that it's always air-conditioned. (Yes, even in exotic Africa, I wear sweaters to work and complain about the cold.) Approximately 20 employees occupy the MUSCCO offices, on the second floor of a commercial building right in the middle of Old Town. We work on laptops (useful when the power has a tendency to go out unexpectedly). The building as a whole has an inverter (which provides power for 4-5 hours in the event of an outage), and the servers are further protected by a UPS.

My desk
The "server room"
So far, my main task at work has been to set up a helpdesk. We get calls in from the 11 computerized SACCOs around Malawi (the furthest about 600km away), and we also deal with any technology-related problems in the MUSCCO office. There's a plan to hire a help desk manager, who will field calls and provide support instead of Dan spending all his time on it. My task in advance of this is to prepare a web-based help ticket submission system and knowledge base for the SACCOs.

The biggest challenge I've run into so far with that? Downloading Ubuntu, Apache, MySQL, etc. The wired connection tops out at about 20KB/s and probably averages under 10KB/s. The wireless is faster (averaging 50KB/s last time I downloaded something), but drops out frequently. Between the speeds and the connection drops and timeouts, it's taken me 4 days to download the 650MB Ubuntu image (I finally had to install a download manager to do it). 

Somewhere around noon, I go pick up a lunch (no microwave in the office, so bringing lunch is tricky - I'm limited to things I can make with a kettle, and I'm not keen on eating ramen every day). I won't spend too much time talking about food, because I want to devote another post to that (<3 food). Suffice it to say that despite some dire warnings that I would be eating nothing but nsima (the thick maize porridge that's a staple in this part of Africa) for 6 months, the fast food of choice here is actually chicken and chips.
Chicken & chips
This is too bad, because of the two, I prefer the nsima + stew. I didn't even see nsima on any menus until a few days into my stay here, and the first time I tried to order it for lunch, it "wasn't ready yet" and I had to settle for chips!  

Walking home
Back at home, life is pretty slow-paced in the evenings. I'll sometimes run around the yard with the kids (I haven't had a yard since moving away from my parents' house!), and otherwise read, play games, or work on my laptop.

Predicting that I'd need entertainment out here, I brought a multitude of books...
Startide Rising
The Plague
The Black Company
Shadows Linger
The White Rose
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
American Gods
Crazy River: A Journey to the Source of the Nile
The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge
The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism

and games...
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story
Chrono Trigger
Mario Kart DS
Pokemon Pearl
The World Ends with You
Etrian Odyssey
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Sonic Rush
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin
Fire Emblem (GBA)
Metroid Fusion (GBA)
Super Mario World (GBA)

...fully intent on clearing out my media backlog. (I'm currently reading American Gods and playing Advance Wars: Days of Ruin and Metroid Fusion. :)

It is true that there's not as much to do here (no movie theatres or ballet classes, for example), but it's a nice change of pace to kick my feet up and relax at home at the end of the day. There are some activities like yoga classes happening around town for ex-pats; I haven't yet decided if I want to take something up.
The view from the front porch

As for the remaining practicalities?
I get internet at home via 3G, using a USB dongle. It's all charged by the MB, and I pay ~50$/month for 1GB data. Blech. The speed is pretty good, though, and I was pleased to discover that Skype voice calls don't burn through bandwidth that quickly. In town, wi-fi coverage is surprisingly good - there are hotspots almost everywhere in Old Town, and I imagine it's the same in City Centre (where most embassies/commercial buildings are, about 3km from Old Town). It's still all charged by the MB, of course, which is a pain. Facebook burns a lot of bandwidth, even with images turned off.

I also have a local phone number, which turned out to be the least daunting thing to set up here. People sell SIM cards and minutes EVERYWHERE in town (there's usually a woman sitting across from our driveway at a little plastic Airtel-branded table, selling soft drinks and airtime). The prices are printed right on the airtime cards, too, so no haggling required. It's 15 kwacha (~8 cents) to text someone in Canada, about 1$/minute to talk. Local calls are around 30 cents/minute (charged by the second). SIM cards aren't explicitly priced, but I was charged 3$ (apparently on the high side), which seemed perfectly reasonable to me. 

And last but not least, the climate: It's pleasant, actually. Obviously I like it hot, but the heat here isn't usually the hot sticky kind that drives some people mad. It also cools off enough at night to make sleeping comfortable. We're presently in the rainy season, but it only rains every other day or so, and when it does it's that very tropical kind of rain that appears out of nowhere, turns the street into a river for an hour, and then disappears just as quickly.

View from my office, with rain
View from my office, without rain


  1. I so loved American Gods :-)

    I didn't have the $$$ to eat out much when I was in Africa; I mostly ate with locals. I'm not sure which of us has the better experience... I got so overstuffed on Nshima, but at least it wasn't fried. I die if I eat fried food all the time.

    Thanks for the entertaining read(s).

  2. Very interesting. Sounds surprisingly familiar. More! More like this! :)

  3. Glad you guys are enjoying the blog!

    I'm trying to work on my "foods of Malawi" post now, but every time I go out and get nsima for lunch, I end up eating half of it before I remember to snap a picture... oops. :)