Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)

I never gave a lot of thought to waste collection in the UK. OK, maybe my close friends will tell you that I give a little more thought than some – I have occasionally been labelled as the ‘bin police’ when I’ve fished through somebody else’s rubbish and asked why something isn’t being recycled or composted. Once or twice I’ve been laughed out of the shop as I’m trying to carry all my items instead of take a plastic bag… but that’s as far as it goes.

I separate my plastic from my cardboard. I try to not use or  reuse my plastic bags. I put my compost out. I wheel my bins out on a Tuesday evening and it’s gone by the time I’m leaving for work the next morning. But things are a little different here in Malawi. It requires a little more thought. There’s no waste collection service here in Mulanje. There are no recycling facilities. The waste from the house gets put in my back yard. Actually, it’s almost but not quite buried in the garden. Plastic is usually collected in a pile and then burnt. There are similar issues at the markets that we have visited (see picture below). A collection of animals appear at our garden ‘pit’ scavenging for food. Last week one of the baboons that frequents our garden came even closer and was found in the kitchen with a handful of maize flour.

waste dump at local market

I would consider myself to be environmentally minded, but being here in Mulanje is making me rethink how honestly I can make this claim. It is difficult to care about reducing, reusing, recycling when I can put my waste in a bin and it is wheeled away to become somebody else’s problem. I don’t even know where the collective waste gets taken. I don’t know whose back yard it’s in – I just know it’s not mine.

Although the lack of collection and disposal facilities here in Mulanje could be considered a problem, I think it could also be considered a positive. If my memory is correct (stretching back now further than is really comfortable), I believe in economic terms we could consider this ‘including the externality’. The negative effect is now felt by the creator – me. Why should my waste disposal be someone else’s problem? Why should it pollute somebody else’s garden? Why should it be taken away and kept in a big pile so I don’t have to think about it?

OK, I’m being a bit pedantic here. I realise that there are health / hygiene and sanitation reasons why this needs to be ‘managed’… but it’s made me stop and think. Even as somebody ‘environmentally conscious’, seeing my waste like this has made me stop and consider what and how I buy.


Here in Mulanje we are supporting a couple of local projects that have the potential to make a small difference to this big issue. The previous volunteer group supported a small youth group in establishing a paper recycling project. The group are collecting paper waste from local businesses and schools and generating a little income from the books and envelopes they are making. The current group have done a number of talks to youth groups about establishing composts. Once established these composts will help to reduce the garden landfill and can be used to support the tree nurseries that the groups are establishing to address deforestation and soil erosion and produce fruit that they can sell to support their activities. The picture above is from a tree planting exercise with a youth group yesterday. They are replanting along the river where flash floods killed two people a couple of years ago.


So, some questions for my friends back home…

Where does your waste go?

Would you buy / use this if it was going to end up in your garden?

Is there something else that’s environmentally friendly, or at least less destructive, that I could use instead?


In Chichewa, the letter L and R are interchangeable. It is a constant source of confusion and hilarity as this rule is carried into English conversations. It also creates a big challenge for people that I meet. Nobody here should have the burden of two L’s in their name. It seems that people either get it or they don’t. Rather than face endless ‘Jir?’ conversations, or be referred to as ‘ewee’ (you) I’ve adopted the name ‘Jen’ for new interactions. It’s going down very well. There are similar difficulties for others in the team – Sarah has become Sala, Ali is Ari, which is a little confusing as we also have Harry in the team. Our driver responds to both Lex and Rex. This shop pictured is the milacle / miracle shop. We have to double check if we’re playing or praying – we do a lot of both. Image

We’re doing really well learning Chichewa as a team, the in country volunteers are fantastic teachers and find lots of opportunities to impart their knowledge. There are a few dangers that visitors need to be aware of – don’t get confused between Mvula (rain) with an almost but not silent M and Vula (naked) and Mvuu (hippo). We were confused at first about why the in country volunteers found it so amusing when we told them that it rains lots in England. Other less amusing similarities can be found between hand (zula) and bin (dzula) – the d is almost but not quite silent.

My favourite words so far are ‘pompo pompo’ (immediately). To quote our charismatic field officer Chili ‘We need to do this on a pompo pompo basis’. And one that I love for its incredible functionality is ‘pangono’. It can be used in conjunction with other words to mean slowly or a little bit… speak slowly, drive slowly, not so much rice, I’m a little bit fine, a little bit further, a little bit sunny, can you reduce the price a little … exactly the kind of word that I need in my vocabulary! I’ve got similar love for Kwambiri, meaning very much – thank you very much, give me very much, I’m very fine, it’s very hot, it’s very rainy.

I’m having far more success with Chichewa than I’ve had previously with other languages and I have no idea why. Maybe my talent for linking it to amusing English words or scenarios has improved as I’ve got older. I definitely wouldn’t have remembered the word for finger if it didn’t sound exactly the same as the name of Kara’s dog Sharla! I’d never be able to ask Jess to pass the salt (ncheri) if it didn’t sound like a delicious fruit. And I’d struggle to say the sun (dzooa) is hot if it didn’t sound like the place animals are kept in cages.

Why every run I’ve done in Malawi feels like a marathon

OK, OK, I don’t actually know what it feels like to run a marathon.So here’s why every run I’ve done here feels like a half marathon… I’ll start with the obvious.Image

  • It’s hot. I’m hot even before I begin, even when I get up with the chickens and start my run at 6am. By one mile in I’m sweating like I’ve run six. By the time I’ve hit the half way point and turned around my colour has changed so significantly the kids I run past probably think they’re waving at someone else. I’m very red.
  • I get overtaken by a lot of people. Some of them are on bikes, but mainly it’s kids running past me, just because they can. And then running circles around me, laughing. It didn’t happen quite like that when I ran Henley half.
  • I get lots of encouragement and cheers. This morning I ran four miles and three separate people offered me words of encouragement ‘come on, pick it up, pick it up’, ‘you can do it’, and my favourite from the banana seller, who chanted ‘number one, number one, number one’! I do pick it up but I can only sustain it until I’m round the next corner and out of sight and then my pace drops back.  (Actually, I’m not sure I got this much encouragement when I ran Henley half! My lovely band of supporters for sidetracked by coffee and missed me at the half way point!)
  • People stand along the ‘race route’ and wave. And point. Maybe this is what it feels like to be Fearne Cotton, or James Bond. Or more realistically, maybe a minor C-list celebrity that I think I vaguely recognise but can’t name, or possibly just somebody dressed in a comedy chicken outfit. People are called out of their houses to look at me. I get waves and calls from them. I don’t quite have enough breath for the extended greetings AND running so mostly I just smile and wave.
  • There’s singing and dancing by the roadside. Especially when I drag myself out of bed early. Although the singing and dancing isn’t intended to motivate passing runners, it does work – though sometimes I’m tempted to slow down rather than speed up. It seems to happen where people stop and gather – particularly around water pumps in the early morning. This morning I passed a young boy who was doing incredible bottom shaking dancing with a full bucket of water balanced on top of his head. Amazing skills!
  • I’m left feeling like I never want to do it again, but in a couple of hours I’m planning my next run.

My route here in Mulanje from the house takes me along a dirt track (the one pictures is my drive way), down a big hill and into the patchwork emerald tea fields. It’s a great place to run! 


Lusaka Parade Day

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I spent the day walking around Lusaka. The guide book tells me that most people choose to bypass the city but I actually really like it. It’s much bigger than the cities in Malawi but it’s still easy to walk around the centre. I’m fortunate to arrive on National Youth day, a national public holiday. I reach Independence Avenue just as a massive parade is lining up to march past the Vice President. There are crowds of youth groups and school parties.IMG_7858

As I’m standing on the pavement I’m called and waved in to join a dancing circle. I’m feeling far too old to be joining these teenagers but they won’t take no for an answer so I find myself engaged in a dance I’ve not seen before… the group form a circle and sing and clap. One person is in the middle and they have to dance and strip!! I think the idea is to dance and strip to woo the crowd. The stripping stops when someone else joins you in the middle. I got quickly pulled into the middle to screams (not mine – the kids are loving this!) and am a little concerned that I’m not wearing nearly as many layers as my counterparts who all have blazers, shirts and vests on. Fortunately after a pitiful attempt at bottom shaking and merely touching my fly everyone rushes into the middle – presumably they’re as keen as me that I keep my clothes on!


The parade starts and my new friends march off. There are brass bands galore, probably thirty or more bands interspersed by school and youth groups all carrying banners, waving flags and twirling batons.


Livingstone Island


Livingstone Island is the spot where David Livingstone first viewed the falls. It’s in the middle of the Zambezi River and right on the edge of the falls.

We take a speed boat over and are shown around the small piece of land which sits on the Zambian side but pretty much in the middle of the river. I’m sharing the experience with three Zambian ladies who are local tour operators. They don’t fancy sitting in the water on the edge of the falls so I brave it alone. It feels particularly scary after hearing about the hippo and elephants that have been swept over the edge by the strong currents. I have confidence in the guides who are very strong and hold my hand and guide each step I take.


We go to both sides of the island. It is at this exciting moment that my camera breaks! I don’t mind too much, I’m excited to be able to experience it! So, with one guide holding each hand I move through the water to the edge of the falls. Just one step away I can see the edge and can look over the 100m drop to the rocks and river below. Terrifying!

The sun is bright and there is blue sky, and behind me the thick grey cloud created by the spray. Where these two mix I can see a single strong arch of a rainbow overhead. When I look over the edge I can see that it is three quarters complete. It is an absolutely breathtaking experience. An incredible way to see the falls. I can’t believe that I am here and that I am doing this! Seriously scary! I’m very relieved that I didn’t need to rely on the ‘safety rope’, which at first glance looks like a piece of twine that had got caught on a rock on its way over the falls!


Big thanks to the Zambian ladies who snapped me on their phone from the safety of the island after the spray killed my camera!  


We then chatted over high tea in a tent on the edge of the island, and the staff packed me a doggy bag to take home!  Success!




I’d hoped to spend a couple of days canoeing on the Zambezi… something calm and gentle with a guide who could tell me about the flora and fauna. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to do this so I opted for rafting instead. It started with a drive through some small villages and a steep climb down the side of the gorge. Fortunately we didn’t have to carry the raft. Rather ominously, as we were boarding the boat we passed some elephant and hippo bones. Not a good sign! Apparently they sometimes get too close to the edge of the falls and get carried over by the current.

There are six of us in the raft. Ivan has struggled to get this far – yesterday he was kicked in the leg by a zebra and so can’t bend his knee! 


The scenery is stunning. The banks of the gorge are 200m high, one side Zim and one side Zam – I’m between two nations. The water is very full, it’s amazing to think that every drop has come over the edge of the falls. The guide says he thinks it’s about 40 meters deep. It looks relatively calm on the surface, with a few exceptions!


Those exceptions are a lot of fun and tip us out twice, turning the raft over once.  In the water I can really feel the power of the current and I’m very grateful for the life jacket. Although I’m a fairly good swimmer I can feel the current pulling me under. I’m pleased to be picked up by the safety canoe and returned to the raft.IMG_9552

When we have passed all the rapids and reach the bank we are greeted by hundreds of small yellow and white butterflies. Beautiful.


I’d read about the microlight flight over the falls from home and was already excited. Standing in the park I had seen them flying over and could barely contain myself! Although it was possible to see both sides of the river from Livingstone Island, it was incredible to see right across from the air. It was only a 15 minute flight, but what a 15 minutes!


I could see Zimbabwe and Zambia and it was possible to look right across the falls and down the river. It was great to be able to take in the scale of them. We flew over the bridge and over numerous rainbows.

I hadn’t realised that rainbows are actually full circles. The pilot spotted one and changed our course. He redirected the microlight and I could see our triangular shadow in the middle of the rainbow, like a target. We flew straight through the middle. It made my spine tingle.


As we returned to the landing site he let me take the controls as we flew over hippos bathing in the Zambezi.

Stunning! Wow!




Mosi-oa-Tunya, the ‘smoke that thunders’, the spectacular Victoria Falls. The seventh natural wonder of the world. I can’t think of many places that I’d consider spending two days travelling on a bus to see, but this is one of them. And, for anyone wondering, the 40 hour return journey was time well spend for the week or so I had at the falls. Livingstone town is about 11km away from the falls, and even before you reach the town you can see the ‘smoke’ billowing into the sky. The local name is so apt – from a distance it really does look like the river is on fire.


It’s really difficult to comprehend the scale of the falls, even standing looking at them. The falls are 1.7km across a stretch of Zambezi gorge that is shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and 100m high. When the water is high 1 million litres of water fall per second.


 I spent three days in the park walking, sitting, looking. Every time I went back it was different. The water levels changed (we hadn’t had rain locally but it must’ve been raining somewhere!) and the wind blew the spray in different directions. In one moment I’m looking at the waterfall in bright hot sunshine, the next I’m drenched in spray and standing in a grey cloud, it shifts again to reveal a rainbow and before I have time to take it in the scene changes again. Every time I lift my eyes I am stunned. There are moments when the spray and sunlight mix to create incredible rainbows.


The falls are so varied. I stand trying to watch a single drop fall the 100m to the river below. It looks like a series of explosions. Mesmerising. It’s possible to walk along a piece of land and across a bridge in front of the falls. In this section the spray leaves me absolutely drenched. Like I’ve just been in the shower with all my clothes on. I’m dripping wet (a couple of days later this same spray finished my camera off!). It is possible to hire ponchos but I decide I’d like to experience the force of the falls, and spend the afternoon sitting by the river out of the reach of the spray drying off.


Around the next corner I can see the iconic Livingstone bridge that links Zambia and Zimbabwe. I’m chuffed to read that it was made by the Cleveland Bridge Company in Darlington! After passing back through the spray I walk down the steep bank to the ‘boiling pot’, a whirlpool of water beneath the bridge. It’s like something out of a blockbuster movie. There I sit on a rock drying off, reading, admiring the view and watching swallows playing in the spray and the rainbows catching flies. Occasionally I can see people who are clearly a lot braver than me bungee from the bridge. You may have read about this bungee snapping just three years ago!