Monday, December 29, 2008

Swimming with horses and cars (Dec. 13/08 - Kande Beach, Malawi)

The village of 'Mbamba' is located right beside our campsite here at Kande Beach, and this morning we were given the chance to walk through the village with its residents and get a taste for life in rural Malawi. We were met at the gate by a 20-something guy named Nick, plus about 17 of his closest friends. We walked in the morning downpour through the maize and cassava gardens, down sandy roads to where some modest mud and brick houses stood. Little kids peeked out from their houses, curious about the visitors, and eventually started to join us, grabbing at our hands eagerly. The town of about 4000 people is served by two water wells, which were donated by our good old Canadian government. Kids came out by the dozen as the rain let up, and they all wanted to hold our hands as we walked. I think I had two on one arm and three on the other at one point! They took us to the primary school, which educates some 1300 children from this and surrounding villages, with classes of between 103 and 164 students per teacher. Wow. But the headmaster said that kids attend on their own will since the government pays for a child's primary education (to grade 8), and this school has some of the best success rates in the country in terms of high grades and university attendance. For such a poor country, this was very encouraging news. The headmaster told us how much the school depends on outside funding, as parents often can't afford school supplies, let alone the school feel if a kid makes it to secondary school. We gave them what we could and took the school's address so we can make an effort to do more when we get home. We were also taken to the hospital, where kids clambered over us as we passed out stickers before we were shown the small but tidy maternity waarn, where the midwife was tending to a woman and her newborn baby, just hours old. This hospital serves the region's 20,000 people, and the nurse said they deliver about 20 to 60 babies each month. As we walked back, Nick and his friends told us about their lives, going to school, and how they loved Arnold Schwartzeneggar movies. We bought a coupe of paintings on our way back, pleased to see that these people are relatively happy despite the state of poverty they live in, but also overwhelmed at the same time. Either way, it was wonderful to meet some of the local people and to get a glimpse into their lives.

Before lunch, we decided to get wet finally and go for a dive in Lake Malawi. The little zodiac took us out to Kande Island, where we hopped out and were happy to discover that between the fresh water and the lack of a wetsuit, we actually didn't need a weight belt at all! The water was a balmy 82°F, and despite the 15 foot visibility, it was fun to cruise and check out the fresh water marine life. There are actually only three types of fish in Lake Malawi - minnows, catfish, and a broad type called chiclids, which come in hundreds of different colourful subspecies. We cruised around and found tons of them, some fresh water snails and crabs, and a few catfish - one up to about 2 feet long! Also notable was a 1970's era Volkswagen car that was randomly scuttled to the bottom of the lake. It was fun to get wet more than anything else, and to say we've done a fresh-water-high-altitude dive in Lake Malawi!

One of the other things we had heard about here that appealed to both of us was to go horseback riding. The two of us and Charlotte were paired up with some beautifully kept horses at the local ranch - Ken on a big leggy dapple grey mare named Clover, and me on a spunky bay gelding named Free Passage. We rode through the leafy forest, through maize and cassava fields scattered across the countryside and tended to by women and children who popped out of the bushes as we trotted by. We were able to get in a nice long gallop stretch across a field, jump a few logs on the trail, and eventually we came out onto the beach just south of our camp. We ditched the saddles and helmets and then piled back on for a bareback swim in the lake. It was wonderful - in the water up to the horses' backs, they grunted with pleasure as the water cooled them off after the hot and sweaty ride. We managed to attract quite a crowd as we splashed around and then let the horses get down and roll in the sand after.

Instead of our usual camp dinner, we were invited back to the village for a taste of the local fare and a little entertainment afterwards. We were seated on bamboo mats, and the women brought out huge pots of rice, sweet potato soup, beef stew, red beans, and sauteed cassava leaves - which they called spinach. It was delicious! We barely made a dent in the pots though, and soon they had taken away the food and brought out the bongo drums and about 25 adorable little kids who started singing some infectious local music. They sang and danced, and a bunch of the little kids would get out in front and shake their thang so hard that I thought they might lose it! Some of the moves the four year olds were doing would be right at home at a club in downtown Vancouver! It was totally entertaining - and soon they were pulling us up to dance with them. They wanted us to sing something in English, so we did a couple bongo drum assisted versions of Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman before saying goodbye. It was a wonderful evening - the stuff fond memories are made of.

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