Malawi Wowie

25: Malawi

“It is foolish and hazardous not to dance in Africa.”

– Dan Eldon

A Legend Is Born.

In Zambia, children wrote songs about me, and Peter Dodd Day was just announced by Youth For Green Environment & Sustainable Development. Both of those things are true, Mom, I swear.

So raise your hand if you’re at all surprised that I would also go on to become a music video dancing sensation in Malawi, followed through the streets of Cape Maclear by throngs of children like some modern day Pied Piper. 

Really? That many? You bastards…

Okay, fine, whatever.

Sure, it’s possible that I was only invited to dance on tape for a little irrhythmic humor. And maybe the kids following me through the village streets only did so because word had gotten out that I just might be packin’ lollipops. But the only fact that really matters right now is that I am forever a legend in both countries, and if I play my cards right, I will never have to pay for dollar Castels in either place ever again. #winning!

My rise to fame came about because I’d gone on a solo hike through Lake Malawi National Park, out to Otter Point, a famously scenic spot for sunsets. The hike took me down dirt roads, past curious baboons, and through dense forest trails, eventually leading me to a rocky, bouldery point, with glass calm waters, blue skies, puffy white clouds, and brightly colored fish that came to me when I slapped the water’s surface. It was like a dream, a paradise within paradise. I sat, completely alone, soaking in the serenity. I’d brought water and snacks and a couple of Castels, planning to call my friend Julia from Germany. We’d met in the Faroe Islands at the beginning of my travels, and she was hesitantly planning her next adventure. I figured that sharing the beauty of the spot I was sitting in at that moment might be just the push she needed.

And that’s when I heard the voices.

No, not those voices.

At first I thought it might be a couple of hikers making their way to the point. But they weren’t hikers, nor tourists. A local man of about twenty-five came first, in shorts and a tee. Then a woman in a red top and a skirt, with a suitcase on her head. Then another woman, a man, a couple of teenagers, a woman with an infant in a chitenge, all carrying bags and suitcases and bundles, none dressed for the woods or a bouldery shoreline. In the end there would be twenty-five in all, my serenity and solitude going from one extreme to an absurd opposite in a matter of minutes.

It turns out they were a choir group from Monkey Bay, here to shoot a music video, and for the next two hours the women, men, and children alike danced to the same song but in different groupings, formations, and costumes, while fishermen rode past, catcalling and dancing and laughing from their boats, while still others stopped by on paddleboards to watch and dance and swim and leap from the rocky tops.

I would spend my time watching and filming and talking to the young man who had led the group, Promise, from Chembe Village. At the end of the two-hour video shoot, Promise turned and said, “They are asking me to ask you to please dance with them.”

“What? Me?” I asked.Are you serious?”

“Yes, they would very much like you to dance.”

At that moment two things popped into my head, the first being a quote by an inspiration of mine, Dan Eldon, who once wrote in his journals, “It is foolish and hazardous not to dance in Africa,” and the second being an earlier regret I had for not dancing with the villagers of Mukuni, in Zambia.

So, of course, I would be honored to dance with the choir from Monkey Bay.

As I climbed down the boulders, my anxiety rising, another man approached, a man I’d seen earlier, joyously cradling and playing with one of the babies when he wasn’t dancing.

“Wait, wait,” he said, as he reached into a bag and pulled out a set of clothes, one of the outfits he’d worn for the shoot. It was a bright red shirt and equally bright blue pants, both soaking wet from the sweat of having danced for hours in the unforgiving Malawi sun.

“Please, put these on,” he said.

Eesh. Y’know what…fuck it, Peter, I thought. You only live once.

I put on the pants and shirt, then tie, cufflinks, and even the shoes he had insisted upon, and took my place between two other men, the entirety of the choir now sitting on the boulders as audience, smiling, phones out.

I can confidently say now that they very likely expected my moves to be more amusing than socks-knocking-off-amazing, but once the music started and the cameras started rolling, well let me tell you that I shocked the entire entertainment world that day. The men would walk away feeling defeated by my moves (I presume), their spots taken by two women who likely believed they were more up to the challenge. They too would succumb, though they played it off quite well, feigning indifference. But I knew. They knew. We all knew. Something magical had just happened.

A couple of days later I would be back at Mgoza Lodge, having a beer and talking with Lisa and Elliott, when Jack, one of our amazing lodge hosts, called to me from the desk. 

“Mistah Petah, can you come for a second?” he asked with a wide grin. 

When I reached the desk, he turned his phone to me.

“Is this you?”

And it was. In all of my dancing glory, my stint as an Otter Point Dancer having gone viral, the fate of my fame forever etched into the history of Chembe Village, of Cape Maclear, of Malawi itself.

I Was. I Am. Forever. Legend.

Watch Now: Peter Dodd, The Dancing God

It hadn’t taken me and Michigan Lisa long to discover that our nightmarish travel adventure just to get to Cape Maclear in the first place had been worth all of the effort. We’d arrived at night, a couple of days before I’d become the darling mzungu son of Chembe. We arrived during the remnant rains and blowing winds of Cyclone Gombe. The dirt road outside Mgoza Lodge had been dark and windy and wet, the indoor reception area dimly lit, with windowless windows and doorless doors open to the dampness blowing in from the shoreline of Lake Malawi, a lake usually flat calm, but that night its waves could be heard crashing just beyond the darkness. 

We dropped our bags on the floor, immediately ordered drinks from our host that evening, Chikku, sat ourselves down on cushioned chairs, looked at each other, and immediately, we knew – our troubles had finally come to an end.

Lisa’s plan was to spend three or four days here before taking a ferry up-lake to Ncharta Bay. Elliott, who we would meet the next day, was to be there a couple nights more. As for me, I figured five nights, tops, and then on to Cape Town, South Africa. Or Mozambique. Or maybe Namibia. I hadn’t figured out the where, but I knew the when. Or at least I thought I had.

The three of us would end up spending the better part of the next 11 nights together at Mgoza Lodge, eating, drinking, hiking, kayaking, adventuring, sometimes just watching the world go by, the young kids swimming in the lake just feet from the front door of our huts, the older kids bathing in it, the women of the village washing clothes and dishes in it, the men setting out to fish in it each morning, returning to dry their catch in the afternoon sun. We showered little, though I did have my clothes washed in the lake, the same water that was pumped to our showers and taps.

Yes, we faced many of the same pressures as in Zambia and Tanzania, each of us being worked over by tourism-starved locals, fake forms for donations for school books or football teams, sales pitches for bracelets, wood carvings, boat tours, hiking tours, handmade clothes – even Malawi ganja and home-baked edibles. And we each had our own sales nemeses in the village, coming home more than once with the look of embarrassed defeat that simply said “Yeah, I caved,” before telling one another what we bought or ordered or gave away. 

Lisa’s nemesis was a legitimately disconcerting guy named QB, a local scam artist who last we heard had fled to Lilongwe while village elders prepared to decide his fate as a resident of Chembe. Elliott had Ben, a beachfront vendor who welcomed him the moment he sat down to coffee each morning, ready to talk about the custom-made Bao board he tried to – and eventually would – convince him to buy. The fact that my nemesis was a roving gang of hoodlums everyone simply referred to as The Lollipop Kids should in no way detract from the intimidation and danger I felt of my own circumstance.

Lisa, for her part, set the scam standard, coming home almost every day with a story of a brazen bait-and-switch to which she’d fallen victim. By the end of our stay, she too had become a legend – both famous and infamous, depending on who you ask. After leaving Cape Maclear, a complete stranger approached her on a ferry one day and thanked her for the viral Instagram warning her friends had forwarded about QB, while a detective would call to lecture her on the seriousness of making “false accusations” about the same. The detective might have begun by playing Bad Cop, but he clearly hadn’t tangled with the likes of Lisa before, and by the end he’d not only apologized profusely, but asked if she thought they could be friends. 

Lisa, of course, said no. 

It was on our second evening that we’d meet the aforementioned Elliott, Elliott Crabbe, a young man from the UK who was also on a solo adventure through Africa, and from whom we would learn terms like “in the bin” – a phrase we all applied to ourselves on more than a few mornings after evenings of too many Castels and cheap tequila – and “Banana Bum Wipe,” which Elliott still insists is a delicious dessert enjoyed by his entire family. It makes me want to meet his parents.

Before coming to Cape Maclear, like us he’d visited Victoria Falls, but from the Zimbabwe side. While there, he volunteered as guest speaker at a school, and also at a center that rehabilitated elephants, gathering food and mucking out their living quarters. These volunteer efforts were entirely unplanned, both the result of a couple pints too many at local pubs, but each was indelible, as is so often the case when the unexpected happens in Africa.

When Elliott showed up at the school on his scheduled volunteer day, for example, he was prepared to share mostly unrehearsed stories of daily life in the City of Bath, his home in the UK. Upon arrival, however, it was discovered the classroom teacher hadn’t shown up for several days, and so, Africa being Africa, Elliott was asked to teach in her absence. 

After protestations which included “I am in no way whatsoever a classroom teacher. I have never done anything like this before in my life, and I am entirely unqualified,” he would go on to teach the children, all alone, with no lesson plan, for more than two weeks. If Christmas break hadn’t come and given him reprieve, he might still be there, likely Principal by now, and we might never have met.

We would meet many others during our 11 nights – doctors and nurses doing volunteer stints across Malawi. A dozen 18-20 year olds from the UK, all here for eight months and assigned to different volunteer experiences, some in health care, some in classrooms, others working with animal rehabilitation. We all drank together at Hiccups Pub, one of the few formal watering holes in town.

Ravn, from Germany, had just completed a group fundraising bike trek across a few African countries. He’d sold his bike, and was taking a little holiday before returning home.

We would meet Jacob, a dreadlocked friend we referred to as “The Rastatalian,” who was visiting Cape Maclear – as best we could tell – in order to roll and smoke as many blunts as humanly possible, then dance around the property barefoot while wearing nothing but chitenges – and he wasn’t even staying at Mgoza.

Malawi and other African nations draw a lot of idealistic youth and adults alike, here to do their part in trying to make a difference in the World. In Lilongwe I would also meet Savannah, a 26-year-old IT Specialist from California by way of Connecticut, here on an environmental studies vacation. And Nina, 20, here from Belgium to do work at Lilongwe Wildlife Centre

But Elliott clicked with us right out of the gate – able to give as well as he got from Lisa – thus making him the logical third member of the The Malawi Three. Together and separately we hiked the National Park, Otter Point, and Missionary Trail. We kayaked and snorkeled – always wary of crocodiles. All of us took at least one motorbike taxi to Monkey Bay. Lisa learned to operate a boat, and she and Elliott mastered the game of Bao, each leaving with a custom-made board. We danced on the rocks, on the beach, and with the kids who gathered each evening to sing on the dirt road out front. We each tried fire poi, taught to us by Liam and his sister, Jade, taking odds on who of us was most likely to be engulfed in flame. Elliott, choosing to try two at once, was the odds-on favorite, Lisa and I promising to push him into the lake should things go horribly awry, though truth be told we probably would have been too busy streaming it on social media, counting on the other to be the one to put him out.

We had tailored clothes made or mended for a pittance, befriended the locals, vendors, restaurant workers and kids, people we met on the roads and in the park, in the lodges and in the bars. We ate, drank, smoked, tried space cakes, and we all bonded with our hosts at the lodge – Chikku, Jack, Jeremiah – each of them becoming friends during our stay, and remaining so after we’d left.

Elliott would meet his “tidy,” Jade, while Lisa would be falsely accused of adultery by the wife of the man she’d accused of stealing money from her. Typical Lisa.

But maybe most amazing part of all was we three travelers, different backgrounds and generations, each with our own tastes, likes, and dislikes, each of us on our own solo journeys, became the most unlikely of friends.

On my last day in Cape Maclear, Elliott and I were having a beer when he suddenly said, “It just occurred to me that none of us will ever see each other again.”

I’ve said goodbye to many wonderful people I’ve met during these past seven months, and I’d be lying if I said that thought hadn’t crossed my mind during some of those earlier goodbyes, goodbyes I’d soften by sharing hopes of crossing paths in future travels. 

But Malawi was different.

I’d also be lying if I said that watching Lisa ride out of Chembe Village on the back of a motorbike earlier that morning, heading for a ferry in Monkey Bay, didn’t leave me suddenly, unexpectedly, verklempt. 

“Don’t be so dramatic,” I found myself saying then to Elliott. “We’re both going to be in your and Tidy’s wedding party,” I said confidently as I turned away to finish my beer, looking down the beach at the fishermen I hoped to see in the distance.

The Tuk Tuk, my and Lisa’s preferred mode of transportation in Lilongwe, before heading for Lake Malawi. We need these on Block island and Newport and in the Vineyard and…
A shanty village in the Old Town section of Lilongwe, where life is a challenge.
Laundry day along the Lilongwe River, where the men were reacting to Lisa’s pokes and barbs, of course. She has this effect on people. Locals. Con Artists. Taxi Drivers. Police. Military. Immigration. She’s special.
A walk through Old Town’s market, where vendors line up selling anything from pants and shirts to belts and shoes and toys and food and…
There are truly so many delicious smelling foods that I simply had to pass on, my American stomach not yet hardened enough to fight off parasitic dysentery (no offense).
While life here seems difficult to the average American, smiles like this were far from rare. There’s a real lesson here about what it takes to be happy, and where happiness can be found.
One of many exceptionally talented carvers in Malawi. Pieces that most tourists assume are mass produced in China and shipped for sale in curio markets are actually beautiful creations by locals like this gentleman, who should be living a life of luxury – or at least have decent fucking shoes.
A master craftsman creating rings and bracelets. Artists like him receive a pittance for pieces that sell in America for an amount that here would provide income for a year.
And yet, notice the smiles?
The volume of passengers and gear in our four hour shuttle ride from Lilongwe to Cape Maclear defied the physics of nature. There would be 15 of us in total – with me sitting on the gear box. The packs and boxes and bags alone could have filled this truck…and yet…
One insane shuttle ride and two taxi scams later and we would arrive at our home away from home. Of course, when we arrived it was dark and windy and raining and lightning and thundering, the effects of Cyclone Gombe leaving their mark on Chembe Village in Cape Maclear.
The Ducks of Mgoza Lodge.
My and Lisa’s dorm hut.
My bed in our hut palace.
Thumbi West Island from the beach of Chembe, right in front of our hut.
The daily ritual from morning to evening – clothes washing, dish washing, bathing, swimming, playing, fishing, and even drinking from the lake, Lake Malawi is the life-blood of Chembe Village.
A dugout fishing canoe of Chembe Village.
Lisa leaving on one of her ill-fated tours. On the bright side, she DID learn how to drive a boat.
A typical afternoon view for me and Elliott as we drank Castels and Carlsberg Specials while Lisa was off being conned by a boat captain or fisherman or carver or tailor or…
All of you parents out there, take note of this ingenious approach to child control at the waterfront – whipping handfuls of sand at the misbehaving miscreants leaves no evidence while temporally blinding your little foes! They of course just laughed, and kept on being miscreants.
More miscreants, with a view of Thumbi West in the distance.
So, seeing this from the lodge, I asked our host, Chikku, what I was looking at – fire on the distant lake shore? Nope, these are swarms of Lake Malawi flies, thousands of them, maybe millions. “Locals will sometimes eat them when they appear,” he said. Unfortunately the winds were not in our favor, as I would have liked to seen that firsthand.
My walk home from Otter Point at dusk.
Sunset from Mphipe Lodge.
Tidy’s brother Liam – an expert at Poi and very nice guy – except when he kept bringing us shots of Malawi vodka. This was at Fat Monkeys, a very cool lodge owned by Liam and Jade’s family.
Yours truly “bravely” poi’ing just one sad flameball – but hey, how many flame balls have YOU poi’d???? Yeah. That’s what I thought.
The walk home from Fat Monkeys with Michigan Lisa.
Kayaking Lake Malawi.
Elliott kayaking around Thumbi West on Lake Malawi. The uninhabited island boasts otters and Fish Eagles and baboons and monkeys and cats (yes, cats) and tons and tons and tons of snakes. While we were there, the military performed survival training exercises, dropping young recruits for three days with no supplies. During the exercises, not even the local fishermen are allowed ashore.
The fish. My lord. We would snorkel here, where we were promised by Liam and Jade there were no crocodiles, “Except for that one I saw last year, but…”
Elliott checking out a rather uncoordinated Fish Eagle.
“What?

He would later fly away, embarrassed but unscathed.
A fishing boat and Fish Eagle in the distance. All fishing here is done by net and handline. The larger boats have crew of a half dozen, working with men in dugout canoes who help set and retrieve the nets. Other fishermen are dropped ashore where they pull nets by hand for hours in the hot sun. When they need to cool off – or quench their thirst – they simply jump into the lake and drink.
Yet another of the hilarious adventures Lisa would go on – this is her heading out with a local fisherman in his dugout canoe, where she would spend several hours with the handliners.
The fishing boats and dugouts work together to enclose the nets and gather the day’s catch.
Jonathan, a fisherman from Chembe Village, shows of the large Chimwi he caught from his dugout.
The day’s catch drying in the afternoon sun.
Drying and cooking and eating all take place at the same time.
Fish sustains Chembe in more ways than one.
Lisa giving me her look of dissatisfaction because when she arrived at Mgata’s for her private daily lunch – I was already there. To be fair, I found it first, so suck it, Detroit.
Elliott and I were walking back from an incredible hike on Missionary Trail when we heard a familiar voice saying hello – it was Lisa, who had spent her day working with master carver, Francis.
On yet another adventure, Lisa shows off her masterpiece. Okay, fine, she mainly sanded this one, but she still gets props.
Lisa’s and my shadow, Andalea.
Andalea by the Big Baobab tree of Chembe.
The children of Chembe accompanying me and Elliott to the edge of the village as we headed for Missionary Trail.
My friend.
Missionary Trail was steep and hot, and we were both “in the bin.” I’d dressed and gone to the main lodge to meet Elliott because Lisa had messaged to say he was ready and waiting for me to hike. He was anything but ready. Lisa had lied and laughed and laughed, but it was still enough to get us going. And she would eventually pay – in tequila.
The panoramic views were well worth the hike through the dense, apparently snake-infested park.
Stunning views from atop Missionary Trail.
I look…what’s the word….MAJESTIC. Yeah, that’s the word.
This guy was apparently not as impressed with me as I was.
Otter Point, moments before my rise to fame.
Otter Point, on the cusp of my legend…
The choir in full dance mode. Watch.
Everyone else sees what I do, right? Pure evil? Right? Hello?
Nice try, but I don’t find this adorable in the least. I don’t. Stop asking me.
Ugh, kids are so awful, ammiright?
Don’t worry, I contacted Stop & Shop so they can sue for trademark infringement.
Liquor Shop? Liquor shop.
“I’ll take 4800 in chicken parts, please.”
Amazing lunch at Mgata’s. I originally stopped here because I was walking to the National Park and heard a young woman singing. I found her behind the restaurant, which had dirt floors, no door, and no sign, sitting on her porch alone, reading a book while singing a local song in Afrikaans. Mgata’s would become a favorite spot for the three of us, sometimes eating together, sometimes stopping in alone, but always delicious.
Well that didn’t take long. Hello, my friend.
This is Popeye, not to be confused with Lazy Eye (later).
Main Street in Chembe.
One of the amazing Baobabs.
Horses? Camels? Motorcycles? Kids being kids.
Goats Being Goats.
Spiderman, Superman, The Hulk, the kids showed off their superhero muscles before striking a pose.
Watching the kids sing and dance, an evening ritual during school break.
A few of the ruthless Lollipop Kids (they still give me shudders).
Andalea behind the lens, catching me and Lazy Eye at morning breakfast.
Seemingly blind with little sense of smell, Lazy Eye would still find me each morning.
One sausage for me, one sausage for him, and the world would be right again.
Photography by Andalea. Attire by Ludvigsen.
The amazing Tipezananso, a privately funded playground where the children of Chembe can learn while they engage in games, puzzles and team activities, all funded by founder Gerrit van Engelen.
Some of the wonderful Tipezananso artwork by the kids of Chembe Village.
Games are just one way of learning. We attended a movie night with well over 50 children. All attendees must have a ticket, a ticket which is granted only to those who have turned in at least one recyclable item to Tipezananso.
Gerrit van Engelen has funded and managed Tipezananso for over 15 years, a labor of love not just for the kids of Chembe, but for the young adults he is mentoring into leadership roles, and the village vendors he supports. He’ll tell you he’s in his 80’s, but he has the energy of the youth around him.
Tipsy Lisa.
Drunk Lisa.
Sunburned Elliott, on his way into the bin.
The Rastatalian doing the things the Rastatalian does.
Go. I never liked you. You’re the worst. Just…just go already.
Watch Lisa Go.
St. Patrick’s Day would pass while at Mgoza, and it wouldn’t be St. Paddy’s without a toast to Dad.

Sláinte, Dad!

Next Stop – Cape Town.

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