Lilongwe, Malawi Report of what it's like to live there - 09/26/12
Personal Experiences from Lilongwe, Malawi
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
You can go VIA Europe, or on a long direct flight from SA to Atlanta. Wherever you're headed in the States, it's always about two days' travel time.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Government and has lived in Lilongwe for 21 months, a first expat experience.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Very large houses with very large yards. We have a trampoline and swing set for the kids, and a big yard to run around in, and a nice garden in the back. It's only about 10-15 minutes to get to the embassy and Nico House (where USAID and CDC are located).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and household supplies are really hit-and-miss here. Sometimes you find them, sometimes you don't. Most things, except for fresh local produce, are a lot more expensive here. I do a lot of shopping for staples online, and then get vegetables from the market.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I'm so glad we shipped a trampoline, since the yards are so big, and the kids love it. I'm also really glad that we shipped a projector, so we have our own movie theater at home. I would have shipped more liquids for household cleaning (my housekeeper goes through cleaning fluids a lot quicker than I ever did) as well as any favorite foods. We love Mexican food, so I would have sent more salsa and canned peppers and tomatillos, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
A few South African chains are available. I've honestly not tried the fast food, it doesn't look good to me. Nothing is really fast here anyway. There are a few good restaurants, although service is always a bit slow. Everything here is pretty expensive.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are a big issue, with anti-malarials recommended year-round. There are a lot of ants all around the houses, and depending on the time of year there can be a lot of grasshoppers and termites. Some people have problems with big roaches in their houses, but not many.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have the pouch. No liquids and certain size and weight restrictions apply, but it is a real life-saver for my family.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and very cheap. We have a nanny, a housekeeper, and a gardener. The nanny and gardener share the staff quarters on the property, so the nanny is around to babysit when we want to go out, and the gardener can water at the odd times when water is available. We pay each less than $100 a month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a gym facility at the embassy, and there is Nico House. You can join the Tamarind Club at the British High Commission, and there are a few private gyms in the residential areas.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
This is a cash economy, but we don't really trust the ATMs here, and hardly anyone takes credit cards. If a store does take them, the employee won't know how to process the request, and it will take a lot longer for your transaction.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are many Christian churches here, and I think that many do have English services. Most people go to the African Bible College. I know there is a small Muslim population, but I don't really know of any synagogues.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Most papers are English, and most of the TV is through South Africa. It's pretty expensive, and we don' t actually subscribe, so I don't know.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is the official language, though Chichewa is the dominant language, and many people's English skills are very limited. I've known a few expats who have learned some Chichewa, but it is not necessary.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be extremely difficult. There are just not the proper facilities for any of that. Lots of bad sidewalks. If there are sidewalks, there certainly will be no ramps. Not many elevators either.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
RSO suggests not to take public transportation. Most of the minibuses are falling apart, and many get in accidents. Some people take the nice buses from one part of the country to the other, but not often.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
I think that it's nice to have a big SUV (we have a Landrover) for anytime you travel out of the city---and even if you go into certain areas within Lilongwe. We also have a small sedan to take back and forth to work since fuel is so expensive. But it seems pretty important to have an SUV. The roads are severely potholed and the weather is really hard on your car, so I wouldn't recommend a nice car. The traffic is also a bit crazy. Toyota is the preferred brand because there are many here that parts are easy to come by. We've had to order our Landrover parts from the States. Not as easy. It's also right-hand drive, so we bought our cars here. Some still drive American-style cars here, but with all of the bicycles and pedestrians and even carts drawn by donkeys in the roads, I prefer to be in the middle of the road for better visibility.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available from a few companies, though service is spotty and not fast at all. I think that most people pay about $250 a month for their internet.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Everyone has a cell phone here. They are cheap pay-as-you-go phones. Zain and TNM are the two carriers. Some people recommend that you have a SIM card for each one since service usually goes out with one or the other. I've just had Zain and it's been fine for me.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Not to my knowledge. Lots of my friends have pets, but I don't have any myself.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are a few good vets in town, but I'm pretty sure no kennels.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
No, not unless you can get work with a development partner. Some jobs through the schools, but not many and the pay is fairly low.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Conservative in both places.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Because it's such a poor country, you always have to be careful about where you go and what you do. It's a cash economy, and things are expensive, so you carry a lot of cash around with you, and should protect it. I've heard of robberies, etc, but thankfully haven't had any problems myself.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Lots of health concerns. Malaria is always an issue, and we get tested for TB once a year. Hospitals are terrible, so pretty much anything serious or beyond routine results in a medevac to South Africa. Lots of people seem to have many allergy-related issues here as well.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality is pretty good except that people are always burning something or another, and that can really bother me. There is always some flowering tree in bloom, which, while very pretty, means allergies are often an issue.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The dry season is from April to November (give or take) when the weather is colder, but still nice and temperate (think 70s in the day, cooler in the morning and at night). The rainy season is from November until April, when it rains for a little bit each day, there is flooding on the roads, but everything is nice and green. It never gets too hot. October is the hottest month, before the rains come. You are really looking at 70s-80s pretty much year-round in the day time.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
BMIS is the most popular among the families. I sent my oldest daughter there for a year and she liked it. But when my second daughter was starting reception and my agency wasn't paying, I switched to ABC, the Christian school, which offered us a lower tuition. They have a beautiful school and we've had really good teachers. It is a very Christian-based curriculum though, so I know that puts a lot of people off.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I know that there are not many accommodations for kids with special needs. It is dependent upon who is currently in country at the schools and whether they can provide support.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
There are a few different preschools around. Rainbow is said to be good, but it's on the other side of town from most embassy houses. In our area is a new preschool called Kids Corner, which is where I send my son. The tuition is good for here, and he seems happy enough. Nannies are very inexpensive, and there are a lot of baby groups for nannies to take the kids to.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Through the schools. They have a lot of swimming and soccer. There is a local who teaches tennis to most of the kids.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Pretty big. Because it's so poor and there are so many health issues, there are a lot of development partners here, so it's a big and pretty tightly-knit community.
2. Morale among expats:
Generally really high. There are a lot of really friendly people here who genuinely like each other and are happy. There are a lot of things that can get you down about Malawi, because it's such a poor country, the houses are big but not without their problems, and it can be really frustrating to pay a lot of money for low quality food, and sometimes not even be able to find basics (like eggs). That being said, it's lovely weather, there is a lot to do, and this is a really great community to be part of, so those things usually outweigh the bad. However, while we have been here there have been severe fuel shortages which have resulted in very long fuel lines and people paying drivers to stand in line all day. This has resulted in very low morale. The embassy has its own fuel pumps, so we were not as affected, but the Embassy even had to close the fuel pumps several times as it could not get fuel either.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Lots of people make their own entertainment. There are many friendly people who will invite you to their homes for parties, game nights, etc.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I really think it depends on your point of view. I know happy people from each category, although I think it's more of a family post. If you like to spend time at home, with friends, and exploring the country, then you'll like it. There are no movie theaters, just a few clubs and bars, but really next to no night life here. You make your own entertainment.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It is a highly conservative Christian area, and homosexuality is against the law - - -sort of a don't ask don't tell system. Among the expats it's not an issue. We had a gay couple who lived next to us who seemed happy enough here. But again they were a family. For singles I think it would be pretty hard.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not really. They're warm and friendly people. It is a male-dominated society, and there are gender issues, but they don't affect the expats as much.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We have loved snorkeling and kayaking in Lake Malawi, going on game drives in Liwonde and South Luangwa (in Zambia), staying at the cottage in Zomba, and enjoying our big house with a big yard, and the friends we've made.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Lake Malawi is beautiful. There are a wide variety of fish if you go to the right places to snorkel, even some scuba diving, boating, and just relaxing on the beach. Gorgeous sunsets and sunrises. Beautiful mountains, lots of birds and flowers and some pretty good game viewing in Liwonde. I haven't been to Nyika which is also supposed to be good for viewing. We've also gone to South Luangwa twice so we could see more big game (leopards, lions, buffalo, etc.). It's a long bumpy road, but worth the trip. There are many beaches and forest lodges. Lots of options if you can travel a few hours or so.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Wood carvings and chitenje (fabrics). There are other fun local crafts, too, but I wouldn't call most of them high quality.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Malawian people are warm and friendly, there are a lot of great places to go on the lake, the weather is wonderful, it's pretty close to some really nice game viewing, and it has a nice, slow atmosphere for an African capital city.
11. Can you save money?
Yes. Things can be really expensive here, but if you camp instead of staying at all-inclusive lodges, and don't always go out to eat, you can save a lot here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, though it can be very taxing for long periods of time. You really have to get out and recharge.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Patience, sunscreen, bug spray, flexibility, and things you need to make your own fun at home.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Malawi travel guides, both the Bradt guide and the Lonely Planet guide.