Delights of my academic detour of Malawi's friendly, quiet town

It is a treat to spend time with intellectual giants. [istockphoto]

One of the joys of my newfound passion, the academy, is the opportunity to meet and interact with academics. For one who has never considered themselves an academic, it is a treat to spend time with intellectual giants one has held in awe for aeons.

Even more fulfilling is the opportunity to spend time with people one has only read in published works, people one quotes liberally, never expecting to meet in real life. That was my experience in Zomba, Malawi this week.

What would surprise you is that these very sombre names on first-tier journals and first-rate publishing houses are a garrulous and fun-loving lot who see the funny side of life and have hilarious but professorial humour.

Especially the lot from Zimbabwe. They are also amazingly humble, even though they put us, poor students, through tremendous stress as we walk this humbling journey of senior studenthood.

But without any doubt, Africa has great intellectuals, including from our own Kenya. Knowing the disrespect and disdain with which we hold academics and intellectuals, I am impressed by many who have stayed in the corridors of academia and shunned better-paying jobs and consultancies so they can transmit knowledge to our children. May their tribe increase.

Enough about professors. Having only passed through Lilongwe I had no idea what to expect of Malawi outside its capital.

Zomba, where the academic conference was, is about an hour’s drive from Blantyre, Malawi’s second-largest city.

The city which has a population of just about 100,000 people was the colonial capital of Malawi.

It therefore boasts reasonably good infrastructure and extensive “colonial homes” many of which are now official monuments.

This includes the State House that President Hastings Kamuzu Banda (and the official hostess, Cecilia Kadzamira) used to occupy. By the way, Cecilia is still alive. At 95 she has lived for 25 years since the “Ngwazi” passed away in 1997!

Zomba is a quiet delightful town in a valley surrounded by magnificent hills. The beauty of Zomba lies in these hills. Here you find scores of people hiking up early morning on a normal weekday.

In the weekends, it is a family affair with hundreds hiking and picnicking on the hillsides next to Mulunguzi dam which is up the hills and supplies water to the town. The latter is a sight to behold.

Further up the hills along winding and narrow roads, which gives one the occasional scare, you encounter Zomba’s gem, the Sunbird hotel.

Perched right on top of the hills, this antique hotel is everything you could ask for. Great service, great meals, and lovely ambience, it is a must-visit if you ever find yourself in Zomba.

From its terraces, one can view the expansive dam and rolling hills that seem to go on forever. While there are not many top-rated hotels, the few that exist outdo each other in friendliness including the new T&D hotel and the Casa Rossa.

Unlike bombastic Nairobi, you hardly see the lounge bars and loud entertainment joints that define every Nairobi corner.

The most vigorous one is named Vogue and because it is one of very few, it is a bustling 24-hour affair.

The town is defined by the University of Malawi Chancellor College where I spent most of the week.

This is a bustling college of about 6,000 students, about 5 per cent of the town’s population.

A lot of life in the town, therefore, revolves around students. I found the students quite restrained but friendlier when compared with Nairobi students, I suppose because they operate in a provincial town.

In Zomba, the best meals always have rice as an accompaniment, and I can say with conviction that Malawi has the best rice in the continent. They also eat a lot of fish.

The one mistake you must not make when ordering in Zomba, one that a professor from Zimbabwe made, is to confuse its local delicacy “Chambo”, local Tilapia, with the outlawed psychotropic weed, “Chamba”, that grows liberally in the locality. You may just be taken seriously.

Amazingly, Malawi has daily flights from Nairobi, so nothing stops you from a hop to this beautiful friendly country to savour its delicacies.   

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya.