Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Malawi, Chapter Fourteen

Here is Chapter Fourteen of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book, including a journey on the famous MV Ilala across Lake Malawi. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book for just $9.99 at, at, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $4.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Malawi Gallery at


“On your right is area 50. This here is area 28, light industrial area. Across the road there is fertilizer factory and tobacco factory. That is heavy industrial area.”

The national police headquarters came into view on the right.

“That is area 40.”

Just across the street, “Area 43,” Everlasting explained, “Is low industrial. It used to be only area ten, and area ten is still there, but it is full, so they have made area 43.”

“We also have names but our names are too long, so we just say, say, area 12.”

Malawi’s Ministries stood on the left.

“So, is that area 1?”

Logical, I thought.

“No, that is area 20.”

This went on all through Lilongwe.

“Ah, that is area 47. Up there, that’s area 49. National Bank. Bank of the Nation.” The tallest building in Malawi is the central bank.

“This is the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Malawi.”


When we met, our driver told us, “I am Everlasting.” We sort of looked away, and then we realized that was his name.

Everlasting was a slow, deliberate speaker, easy enough to understand once you got acclimated. His “S’s” kind of trailed off.

The Lilongwe River lolled by the market, near the old city administration building “from when Lilongwe was a small town.” The new city hall, beacon of progress, had a “Ready Print” shop sign in a window on the second floor.

Everlasting showed us the flame tree, its red flower. What he called a tube tree at the central outdoor market, where a smiling little boy saw my camera and excitedly grabbed his friend’s arm.

The mosque.

A few kilometers out of town, people along the roadside carried everything you could imagine. A stack of firewood, one guy with a dozen bright crimson pin wheels twirling in each hand.

“These people are coming back from the market. They have been selling.”

They were Chewa, originally from Congo via Zambia, and among the longest settled Malawian tribes. Portuguese contact with the Chewa came as early as 1608, with evidence of the first Chewa kingdom just before the 1492 voyage of Columbus.

Everlasting began a lecture on goats: They should be tied so as not to eat the maize. Sometimes you cannot see where the goat is tied because the rope is so long. But sometimes the rope is gone away.

If you see a forest, Everlasting said, it is probably a cemetery. Village people cannot use cemetery land for growing, so, sensibly, they choose stands of forest for their burial grounds.

On a flagpole the national flag hung limp.

“The wind is not blowing so it is closed,” Everlasting explained. Across the flag a red sun rose from the top of three bands, and Everlasting said that represents fire.

“The national team when they have done well we call them the Flames. When they have not, well, then it is silent.”

When Everlasting got particularly involved in his stories, he’d punctuate his remarks with the car horn. Talkin’ and tappin’ and tootin’.


The lobola, or bride price, is not paid here. A boy goes to a girl’s side and settles there. When they are blessed with children and they grow up to get married, the father cannot say no. That issue is referred to the boy’s uncle.

So as an uncle myself, Everlasting told us, I must think of character – if the boy’s family lives by fighting, for example, I might say no.

If we do not know the family well we can hire a spy to go and look at that family. The spy might test the boy to see if he will tell a lie. It may take a month.

The spy thing works both ways. His wife’s family sent a spy to spy on Everlasting.

For the parents (and uncles), of course, it’s all about character, not beauty.

“But for me as a boy, of course, I go for beauty.” Everlasting was smiling.

That is in south and central region (where we were), Everlasting was at pains to point out. In the north district, we pay lobola. I have paid lobola for my wife.

Everlasting’s wife cost four cows. She would cost considerably more today. If the cattle were too thin her family might say no, or okay, but you must pay something to help make the cattle fat. The lobola is 10 or 15 thousand kwacha now, he told us, but in those days it was four English pounds.


Lobola is a bridge between two families. Now Everlasting must care for his wife’s mother and vice versa. And now he cannot divorce, or he would lose the lobola and the children (he said, in that order).

Not that he would. He was proud as any dad of his children, four boys and two girls. His son Harry was captain of the under 17 national football team, and Everlasting hoped he would play in the World Cup in South Africa.

We drove past a healer, “Herbalist of the Century – Zanga Phee,” whose “Mult-Purpose Drug 1988 Centre” could handle “asthma, bp, cancer, diabetes, gout, jaundice, piles, ulcers and many more.” 


 Zanga Phee, the Herbalist of the Century.

Zanga Phee drove Everlasting from his bride price reverie to make this point: At the regular hospital they had nothing. They got aspirin. But they had aspirin at home! So they’d go to a traditional healer to at least get something.
Everlasting’s family said no to his first love. They sent him to tell her it was because they were distantly related, which was a lie, but nicer than telling her it was because she was Zambian.


Along the road a queue of women lined up in front of the maize mill holding baskets. Others, who had been through the mill, dried their production on mats. Maize makes sima, which is sticky grits.

Big sacks of cassava root lined the road. You can make cassava sima, and Everlasting maintained it’s just as good as from maize.


As we moved further north we entered the land of the Yao (pronounced “Ya-wo”). There was a smaller Zulu tribe hereabouts, too, called Nguni. They were losers of a challenge to Chaka, the Zulu leader, and exiled as a result.

Forced from their homes, they fought under their leader Zwangendaba through Rhodesia, Mozambique, all the way north here to Nyasaland, the land of the lake people.

Finally the Bantu Yao, brandishing firearms supplied by Swahili-speaking Arab traders on the coast, checked the Nguni’s northward spread, capturing and consigning some to slavery.

At their peak about 170 years ago, Arab traders from the coast moved as many as 20,000 slaves a year through the Lake Malawi port of Nkhotakota. The MV Ilala, with us aboard, would call at Nkhotakota two days later, from 3:00 to 5:00 in the morning, but in spite of the hustle and noise, neither of us woke.


A bridge was out on the most direct route from Lilongwe to the lake, so we swung south along the Mozambican border, and this brought us through the village of Kadambo.

“That house is in Mozambique.”

“That tall tree there, it is in Mozambique.”

“That goat is in Mozambique.”

“The border is open. They are free to come and go,” Everlasting explained, not condescending, but evincing a specific separateness.

“Some are our uncles. Some of us are their uncles. They sell in our markets. They use Malawian currency.”

“This village was a refugee camp. Mozambique was a war-torn country. They build close to the border because they are afraid it will happen again.”


On the road to Lake Malawi.

An expansive view opened up with our descent into the Great Rift Valley, stretching all the way out to Lake Malawi. There were mango and sausage trees and a particular acacia that actually fertilizes the soil (“See the maize near this tree is so green”), but Everlasting said it’s unable to hold its leaves in rainy season and so appears dead.

These are mean people. Snakes stay away from people around here, Everlasting testified, because they know how dangerous these people are. When they see a snake they cannot go to bed until they kill it. The snakes know this.

Along the roadside baskets heaped full of mangoes for sale stood alongside bags of charcoal. Everlasting pointed out what must have been centuries-old baobab trees, at the rule of thumb of one meter of thickness per hundred years.

“The other way we differ, northerners and southerners, is the length of the handles,” Everlasting was explaining.

He meant the handles of their hoes.

“In the south, they are bowing,” Everlasting pointed out, indicating a man just there, in the field. This is because of their short handles.

“But we do not bow in the north. We have longer handles.”

The northern tribes were historically more warlike, Everlasting posited, “So we cannot bow, we have to see.”


Hastings Kamuzu Banda was the leader of Nyasaland at its independence as Malawi in 1964. He ruled until 1994. By 1993, under pressure and protest, President for Life Banda called presidential elections and was soundly defeated.

Guidebooks tell tales of travelers being forcibly given haircuts at the border, and quote this regulation from the 1970’s:

“Female passengers will not be permitted to enter the country if wearing short dresses or trouser-suits, except in transit or at Lake Holiday resorts or National parks. Skirts and dresses must cover the knees to conform with Government regulations. The entry of 'hippies' and men with long hair and flared trousers is forbidden.”

Like in much of Africa, every shop in Malawi had a photo of its leader, a smiling Banda, on its wall. When Banda visited a town, he expected to be greeted by dancing women.

Throughout much of his career, Everlasting worked as a bodyguard for Hastings Banda. For 25 or 26 years, he said, until 1987. Always armed with a pistol, Everlasting traveled ahead of the President sometimes, and sometimes he accompanied him. The President wore exotic three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs and carried a fly-whisk.

“He was a man of contact and dialogue,” Everlasting said with a smile. “He was a strong leader.”

At the end of the road, the former advance man and bodyguard for the president, Everlasting Nyirenda happily accepted an unruly wad of kwacha with thanks as we parted ways at our ship, the MV Ilala, at Monkey Bay.


Less than the usual panoply of miscreants populated the MV Ilala, I thought. Approximately one, and then came three local fellows, Ben and Al and Al’s cousin, who  climbed aboard, before departure, just to have a look. The Ilala made itself available for tours at its port calls, and local folks were drawn to its mystique, I think, in the same way we used to go to the airport to watch the propeller planes take off whenever my dad was inside one of them.

A family of five, man, boys and a baby daughter, two of the sons in black suits and white shirts, their best clothes, were here just to stand along the dock and watch the commotion.

The MV Ilala is a tradition on Lake Malawi. It steams the length of the lake, three hundred miles, from Monkey Bay in the south to the Tanzanian border in the north and back again once a week, and has since 1951.


Seeing off the MV Ilala in their Sunday best.

We made the distinctly good choice of joining the Ilala in its home port, at Monkey Bay, where it docks for a good cleaning and a fresh crew. Some time later that cleanliness and order began to break down, and the beer ran out causing a morning switch to gin by the locals on board. That was dangerous. But by then it was time for us to go.

Just now we had the catbird’s seat. Among the first aboard, we staked out more space than we were due on the second deck above the gangplank, in shade under a canvas awning. Our fellow passengers climbed aboard, but almost nobody came upstairs. The Africans, who came aboard carrying rugs and tubs and satchels, mostly traveled on the deck below, arrayed across rows of benches, in nooks and crannies.

“Oh those are just white people,” Mirja tossed off as the occasional tourist like us came upstairs.

The Ilala was scheduled to set sail at 10:00. About 11:00 the Carlsbergs and Cokes arrived and blocked up the entryway as they loaded them in. Worth the wait. It was a late start with hot beers, and the big white coolers behind the bar never quite got them cold.

They had a little morale meeting, a pep talk for the employees out in the sun on the top deck. Four leaders addressed the crew, there was applause, then some unintelligible public address announcements, and at 11:30 we slipped our moorings.


The MV Ilala at Monkey Bay.

Nuts, salty peanuts and fish and sticky buns went on sale from plastic tubs.

Willis, the steward, was replacing the screen in our cabin’s door. He’d done four round trips to the Tanzania end of Lake Malawi and back, and if he did this one and one more, he got two weeks off.

Up to now he was “passenger cook,” stationed below, and now he’d been promoted to first class steward.

He went to find Panadol because by now Mirja, like so often after a long international flight, was poised for full health collapse. Her throat was crimson. We began to steal all the tissues in sight.

Shortly before noon they loosed a blast from the horn as we cleared the point at Zongo village at the end of Monkey Bay and moved into open water. It was Friday, and the Ilala would return to Monkey Bay on Wednesday.

The ticket takers came around, a team of three, smiling, thumbs up.

We cruised up the western shore.

Light showers danced occasionally along the deck. We sat up top in rattan seats near the Karonga Bar, where they made an attempt to keep the beer cold.

The first stop, after four hours, was to be the town of Chipoka.

Martin and his girlfriend, both young and Dutch, shared the port side of the deck with us. Martin was on a three-week holiday to see his girlfriend, a national park volunteer for four months.

I asked when she had to be back to work in the park and Martin just shrugged.

“She’s a volunteer.”

Their destination, Nkhata Bay, was one stop past where we were headed, Likoma Island.

And there was Katie, with her Peace Corps friend – Katie from Buffalo, four months into her two years, teaching forestry management techniques in neighboring Zambia.

Katie observed of Malawians, “They know how to use each other and not in an exploitive way. They make you family.” A Finnish doctor at Monkey Bay said that, too. She said her own baby ended up on local women’s backs.

Big girls, Katie and her girlfriend were, in local wraps, hair on their legs, Katie reading a paperback by a female author, titled Stiff.


On the upper deck.

At the beginning they closed access to the upper deck when we were on the move. The folks downstairs had their own place for snacks and drinks. Martin and his girlfriend, the Peace Corps girls, another group of ripening young Europeans on the other side of the boat, and us, that was it.

It was a few days before Christmas and a deck hand played electrician behind the bar, trying to string up an elaborate array of Christmas lights. I lit a Café Crème and settled in with a Carlsberg. Two Carlsbergs were 160 kwacha, where 140 was a dollar. Mirja wrote postcards.

Willis, newly promoted and earnest steward, came around with a “menu” and we set lunch for 1:30: shredded beef, sima and piri piri. After he took orders around the deck, he came back with aspirin for Mirja.

Once out of Monkey Bay in open water, you could watch the showers, in little fits of a hundred meters wide, play out under cumulous clouds across the lake. If it weren’t overcast, said Mirja, we’d be toast, and as it was, you didn’t pour sweat but you did glisten.

We shared lunch with Steph and Tom from London, doing an epic ten months across Africa, northbound, hoping to make it to Addis overland, and then fly to Cairo.

They vehemently confirmed tales from Teija Kulmala, the Finnish doctor from back in Monkey Bay, of the twelve-hour ride from Lilongwe to Monkey Bay on the local bus, and they vowed never again to complain about London Transit.

Tom was a free-lance art director and Steph a teacher back home. They were stopping at Nhkota Bay for Steph to volunteer as a teacher. She taught sixth form at home (that’s high school), and she hoped to teach primary school at Nhkota. Tom reckoned he’d be useless at teaching and so he hoped to maybe do some construction.

They were looking forward to structure, and after some time on the African road, they thought a job would be easier than the arduous business of travel by local means.

As they planned their itinerary across Tanzania to Kenya I spoke up for Zanzibar, the largely Muslim island a couple dozen miles off Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, claiming the call to prayer as evocative. Tom replied that he often worked round the corner from Finsbury Park, home of the rabble-rousing North London Central Mosque, and that was all the evocative he needed.


Get Dirty for God. Go Lay a Brick with Team Mission. Thirty or forty kids wearing missionary T-shirts with those slogans came aboard to tour the Ilala at the first stop, Chipoka, from about 3:00 to 4:30.

A boy drew a crowd on the dock putting on a show with two bobble head monkeys on a table. Some people wore lime green sandals and others sold them.

If you ever sail the MV Ilala, choose the rattan seats to port, just above the gangplank, for live theatre immediately below you at port calls. The same seats are great when the port of call doesn’t have a big enough dock for the Ilala to tie up. In that case an incredibly colorful, and incredibly crowded scrum scrambles onto and out of the tenders dispatched to shore. Just below you.

You learn to stake out your deck space. After that first stop, if you didn’t, you’d lose it. The Ilala was vastly more crowded as soon as we left Chipoka.

Immanuel, deck hand, remarked on the Indian owners. I spoke later with Malcolm, the Indian commercial officer, who described Byzantine smuggling ruses he has seen.

In the evening a loud, rollicking, mostly European time broke out around the bar. We joined Richard, a kitchen outfitter, and his girlfriend from New York, the Aussie from Queensland who Mirja always thought was called John but who was named Peter, Martin the Dutch banker with a hankering for a posting to Southeast Asia, his girlfriend the park volunteer who was beginning to feel ill, and Steph and Tom.

We laid back in our cabin late in the morning, until the horn blew us standing and we were in Mozambique. That was at 9:00 and we didn’t set sail again until after 11:00 because officials were involved, and procedures had to be followed.

We couldn’t dock but instead anchored offshore and a flotilla of small craft commenced shuttling over and back to Ngoo, Mozambique.

We heard a splash, turned to see a body fly by the porthole and looked to see it was Tom and Peter the Aussie boy out for a swim. Good idea because it was hot hot hot in Mozambique, early in the morning.
Some Ilala crew predicted that the Mozambican customs men would try to charge Peter and Tom some money – make them buy an “entrance visa” for jumping into Mozambican water – but they never did.


Tenders shuttle passengers and freight to shore.

People washed clothes, tended fishing nets and did the things they do along the shore, the Ilala’s two tenders shuttled over and back and I found a pitcher of boiled water down in the saloon for coffee. From shore, a little light, agreeable reggae gave it all a beachy feel.

We’ve been to Mali and Congo – Brazzaville if you count stopping at their airports, and according to Everlasting we have seen a goat in Mozambique. Now we were to spend days lurking just off the Mozambican coast, never quite making landfall.

Sign in the toilet:

“Navigation Hazard: Would passengers please ensure that curtains are drawn in cabin and bathroom before switching on lights after dark.”

The PA announcer blew into the microphone first every single time he said anything. Ever.

Now, after two and a half hours of tenders shuttling, we pulled back from Mozambique, the breeze resumed with our motion and it was quiet and cool again.

Malawi lake flies swarmed to form clouds over the lake. Frightening. Locals told apocryphal stories of fishermen suffocating in their canoes after being caught in those swarms.

Peter the Aussie said people eat them. They swoop baskets through the swarms to catch them, then eat them fried and pressed into cakes.


Malawi lake flies.

Schoolteacher Francis Osward Manjanja, of the Mulunguzi Primary School in Blantyre, sat with us on deck. He drew a useful map of the route of the MV Ilala that explained how we’d left Monkey Bay, stopped at Chipoka and then in the middle of the night at Nkhotakota, then crossed the lake in darkness to stop, when the horn blasted us upright in the morning, at Mtengula, and then Ngoo, on the Mozambique side of Lake Malawi.

He said that while the good people of Ngoo live in Mozambique, they are Malawian and they use Malawian currency.

This was Francis’s first trip on the Ilala, even though he’d lived in Blantyre since he was a boy of five. He’d brought his son and grandson.

Africans do not like to travel, he observed.

“We prefer to stay close to our families and learn of foreign lands and people from visitors. Like you,” he smiled.

He ducked downstairs and brought back six anti-biotic Amoxicillin pills, a day’s dose, and pain medication for Mirja, and once again disappeared onto the second class deck below, and though I looked for him, I never saw him again.

The Karonga Bar turned up radio coverage of a football match in a local language.

By lunchtime Mirja couldn’t breathe, her throat was raw, she just didn’t feel sociable and you couldn’t blame her. Downstairs, I found another carafe of boiled water for a freeze-dried pack of chicken Saigon noodles we’d brought with us. Didn’t need it from a hygiene point of view (which was the reason we’d brought it), but it allowed Mirja to eat in the cabin without getting dressed and then go back to bed.

The usual group of Europeans sat in the saloon talking about their dream vacations. Here we were in formerly deepest darkest Africa, and Steph was dreaming of a five star ski resort in the Alps. Africa weary? Perhaps just a tad.

While Mirja slept we enjoyed shredded beef again, by choice, and sima and fingers, or grits and okra. Just like back home in Georgia.


The Ilala ran out of beer at 3:00. They’d opened the bar at 6:00 a.m. and a crowd had stood drinking ever since. People crowded aboard at all the stops, and it hadn’t taken long for the upstairs bar to be commandeered by a festive, thirsty local crowd.

The Europeans worried they’d turn to the hard stuff now and turn rowdy, since one group of three fellows had already had most of the bottle of brandy even before the beer was gone, and there’d be no restock of beer until Nkhota Bay the next day.

They felt they were covered, though, if they were discreet. An Austrian girl had eight bottles of Malawian Gin secretly stashed in the kitchen fridge, bought back in Monkey Bay because it was such a bargain, just $6 each.

Meanwhile the Dutch girl was down, head in Martin’s lap, malaria suspected and, though they thought of heading on into Nkhata with the rest of the backpackers, they’d get off at Likoma Island, where there was a medical center where she could be tested. The boat arranged a car for her and would wait. Either they’d reboard, or not.


Anchored off Cobue village, Mozambique.

Six hours behind the timetable turned out to be a pretty good rule of thumb.

The main generators on Likoma Island had failed some days earlier and the government was scrambling to put that right. The Ilala anchored off Cobue village, off Mozambique again, in mid-afternoon, and Likoma was visible a short distance, maybe a half hour steaming time away.

The day stretched on, the tenders scooted over and back, shadows lengthened and no lights came up on Likoma.

A positive scrum erupted when it came time to leave the Ilala at Likoma after dark. Truth was, we’d watched the same thing happen at all the other stops, but now we’d left our little cabin sanctuary behind and had to descend, clutching our bags, into the bananas and bodies and bolts of cloth.

Malcolm, the commercial officer, suggested that the boat from Kaya Mawa, our lodge, would likely come alongside, negating any need to go ashore on the Ilala’s tenders, because Kaya Mawa was all the way around on the other side of Likoma Island. And so it did.

A man called James ushered us and four others aboard his motorboat and for the first time in days, as darkness surrounded us and the Ilala grew smaller, the main thing was the seductive, embracing quiet.


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