Postcard: Lilongwe


[In January 2018, I traveled with my family to Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi, to visit my daughter Joni, her husband Dennis, and their fifteen-month-old twins Noah and Abby. Up until May 2017, their family lived in Silver Springs, Maryland, but earlier that spring Dennis had begun a new job managing the planning and construction of over a hundred medical storage facilities throughout Malawi. The project required him to be in-country for at least 18 months, so after much discussion, it was decided that the whole family would relocate to Lilongwe until at least the end of 2018. From the moment Joni and Dennis left the U.S., we began planning a trip to visit them. Our intention was to spend about a quiet week in Malawi, and then fly to Zambia to meet Dennis’ extended family. This post was written on that trip, and tries to capture some of the impressions I had running with Joni on our last day in Lilongwe.]

During the short time I was in Malawi, I encountered some things that seemed foreign at first but quickly became routine, like driving on the left side of the road or seeing prices in Malawian kwacha (70 kw = ~$1 U.S., at the current exchange rate). I also encountered things that I found harder to normalize, like the high walls topped with razor wire that surrounded the houses in Joni’s neighborhood.  In time, I suppose I would have gotten used to the gatehouses and round-the-clock security that meant waiting for a guard to let you in and out of your own home, but in my short time there, it was always on my mind. I asked Joni and Dennis why, since Lilongwe is considered a safe and friendly city, there’s so much focus on security. The best we could come up with was the presence of so many more people on foot, moving about at all hours, creating the constant chance that any small thing left accessible and unattended would simply disappear. Dennis pointed out that this was true in the city and country, in richer neighborhoods and poor, but of course, it was only the better off who could afford razor wire and security guards.

Such were the thoughts running through my head as I waited with Joni for the guard to open the gate and let us out into the outside world, like convicts being let out of the county jail. It was our second run since I had arrived. The first one, three days earlier, had been a short and tentative series of loops that kept us close to her house. I had requested this, since I hadn’t run for about week, and the last time I had run (in Newton) had managed only about 3K before my calf injury flared up. This first run had gone well, however. Maybe running in warm weather helped, or maybe the fact that we took it very easy, but we had managed about 25 minutes and the calf felt fine. Thus encouraged, for our second we decided to go a little further and explore a little bit more of the neighborhood.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I never feel like I understand the geography of a place unless I have run there. I think that’s because I have a very poor sense of direction and am terrible at estimating distances by sight. But let me run the roads of a city for a few days, go hither and yon through the maze of local streets like a laboratory rat, and I will soon profess the confidence of a native. Perhaps this process becoming comfortable with the lay of the land is part of the larger process of feeling comfortable in a strange place. Travel to distant cities or foreign lands disrupts the sense of “normal,” but running helps to restore it. Air travel, especially, makes one feel very small in the world – so small that you feel in danger of vanishing completely. Going for a run makes you feel significant again, a part (albeit a small part) of the breathing, pulsing, chaos of street life, and not just a tourist passing through.

After passing through the gate and leaving the compound, we set off at a very gentle pace up the long driveway that led to the main road. Before we had gone 200 meters, we left the road and turned into a long alley formed by the back walls of two different compounds. There were many such alleys in the neighborhood, and they were fairly well-travelled, offering short-cuts to pedestrians and cyclists who didn’t object to the deep ruts and low soft spots that turned to reddish-brown mud after every rain. Once again, I was aware of how many people were walking here, and everywhere it seemed. I remember feeling from when we traveled to Tanzania seven years ago, the feeling that on every highway, town road, and back alley, people were walking or lounging or about their business. I’ve never had the same feeling in a Western City, where even among millions of people, there are empty spaces everywhere and extensive networks of roads where pedestrians are never seen. In Malawi, on every road, including the otherwise sleepy road to the airport, people walked and rode bicycles. The importance of the road for vehicle traffic didn’t seem to matter. On the highway to Lake Malawi, two hours to the West, we saw women walking with baskets of food on their head, men with huge bags of charcoal balanced on the handlebars of their bicycles, and young children with in school uniforms making their way home in the afternoon.

Speaking of charcoal, the smell of it was everywhere. In a city like Lilongwe, the air quality seems to be affected by two things: the noxious black fumes from poorly maintained trucks and cars that are about twenty years old, and the acrid smoke from the charcoal fires found in every settlement throughout the city. If I was dropped blind-folded into some part of the world and smelled that unforgettable waft of burning charcoal, I would be sure I was somewhere in East Africa.

We came out at the other end of the alley, crossed the main road, and turned into a side road almost immediately. This was a new neighborhood with larger houses and compounds. Large, leafy tress provided shade from the hot morning sun. Some of the houses had national flags of different countries, and signs identifying the residence of the ambassador to this or that country. Other than those trappings, the neighborhood seemed much like any other. Here, as well, there were people walking, people on bicycles, and the smell of charcoal.

It occurs to me now that the reason every neighborhood in Lilongwe teemed with people is that those with the nicer houses employed many people of lesser means. The surplus of inexpensive labor meant that it was far more efficient for anyone with even moderate income to hire people for most routine chores than to spend time on those chores oneself. This was a godsend for Joni, who had to balance a full-time job with being a mom for two vigorous toddlers. Unlike in the U.S., where the cost of childcare alone could bankrupt them, in Lilongwe, Joni and Dennis can employ four people: a full-time nanny, a part-time nanny/part-time housekeeper, and two gardeners. This demonstrates privilege, but is also an essential part of the local economy, because the supply of people is greater than the supply of jobs. In any case, every one of the nice houses we passed probably employed an equal or greater number of workers, coming at different times of the day or night for different purposes, almost always on foot or on two wheels. This, I think, must be the explanation for why we never saw a road that didn’t also have people walking slowly along the shoulder.

Running with Joni was wonderful for many reasons. It was wonderful to stretch my legs and feel my heart and breathing respond to the gentle but consistent pace. It was wonderful to tour this new neighborhood and absorb the sights and sounds of a different area of the city. And it was especially wonderful to share a run with my daughter, who has become my favorite running partner. It was easy to commiserate on how hard it has been to maintain a consistent running routine lately; for her, job and travel and motherhood take priority; for me, an aging body requires more rest and care to maintain. It was also easy not to dwell on those things, but to quickly pass on to more interesting topics of conversation: Life in Malawi, life in Newton, plans for the Spring, how much the twins have grown since Ann and I saw them last, and other pleasant things. It seemed like almost no time before we completed what had been a rough circle, and came back to the main road. Joni took us back to her house using a different route, and when we pulled up to the gatehouse, where we were let in by the slightly amused guard, we felt satisfied with a solid, trouble-free 30-minute run.

I knew it would probably be my last run before leaving Africa. In addition to all of the other reasons to love the run, it was great to run in the heat. I thought ruefully of what it would be like to return to sub-freezing runs in New England – one more mental obstacle on the way to a training routine that would actually move me in the direction of greater fitness, not just keep me from becoming couch-bound.

It was, I knew, also not going to go down in the log as a “great” running vacation. It wouldn’t compare to the last time I was in Africa, when I went to great lengths to maintain my daily running streak, a project that led me to run three miles one evening around a tiny campground in the middle of the Serengeti. This visit to Malawi, I never considered running every day, but instead let the runs happen when it felt right and didn’t disrupt or conflict with other plans.

The last time, I felt incredibly self-conscious, a white person running like a crazy man in the streets of Arusha, attracting the inevitable taunting of small children who yelled “Mazungu!” at me. This time, although I still felt self-conscious, that feeling no longer defined the experience for me. It was obvious that running was a privilege, in two senses of the word: it was a privilege to have the leisure time and the freedom from constant labor that allowed me to run a few miles for fun, rather than walk ten miles to get to work. And it was a privilege that I was able share something I loved with my adult daughter in the far-away place where she’s chosen to live, at least for now.

Who knows what the future will bring? Some good training, I hope, and a few more years of good health. If I get that, I’ll spend it doing more runs, and maybe — if I’m really lucky — get a chance to run with my grand-kids someday. Wouldn’t that be something! And if it happens, I’ll tell them how I ran with their Mom in Lilongwe, through alleys of red earth with the faint burn of charcoal in our throats.


Joni, Dennis, Abby, and Noah in their backyard in Lilongwe.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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