Lilongwe, Malawi Report of what it's like to live there - 07/21/17
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?
This is our 4th tour. We have also lived in South America, Southeast Asia and Washington, DC.
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?
Home is in the midwestern U.S. Usually we fly from Lilongwe to Joburg to Atlanta to the midwest.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a single level home. Most homes are one story and have anywhere from 3-5 bedrooms. All have giant, lush yards. Most expats live in areas 10, 12 and 43, which are all a 5-10 minute drive from each other. Our commute to the Embassy is excellent - only 10 minutes each way. There are other parts of town that get more congested during commute times and lunch, but there aren't an excessive number of cars here. The bigger challenge is all of the obstacles on the side of the road. Bikes hauling all matter of things, people walking at night with no reflective gear, goats darting out into the street. You have to keep your wits about you at all time. And I try to drive after dark as little as possible because there are very few street lights.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Basic meat and produce are very reasonably priced and of good quality. Dairy products and other imported goods can be quite expensive. And compared to the US, there are far less processed foods (which can be a good thing). We have pouch, so we're able to ship in a few things to fill the gap.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Some of the biggies that can't be found on the local market include baking supplies, coconut/almond milk, black beans, refried beans, pumpkin, salsa, and taco seasoning.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are about 10-15 restaurants among which the expat crowd rotates. It is near impossible to go out to eat and not see someone you know (can be both a good and bad thing). There are several excellent cafe options that are only open in the day. My faves include Lark, Brunch and Ama Khofi. Persian, Indian, Chinese and Italian food can also all be found here.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
During rainy season, ants are everywhere. There are also frequent gecko visitors in the house, but you get used to them after awhile. I haven't seen any snakes or big spiders in the house, and for that I am grateful. There are a lot fewer mosquitoes than I was expecting. It's very pleasant being out at night.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have diplomatic pouch with the US government.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Help is plentiful and ends up costing about $120 a month. Everyone has a gardener and a housekeeper. Some will also get a nanny and a cook. Often a nanny or cook will also do housekeeping. Most people employ 2-3 individuals.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are no national gym chains here. The US Embassy has a gym and there are classes offered in people's homes.
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?
Credit cards are hit or miss. Always best to have cash on you. Most grocery stores take them, but often their card readers don't work. Most restaurants take them now. If you want to book a safari or something through a travel operator and want to use a card, they'll usually charge you 3.5%. I get my cash from the Embassy, so I'm not sure about the safety of ATMs. I do know that the denominations they'll give out are pretty small, so you end up having to do many transactions.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are several options for various denominations.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Little to none. Classes/tutors are available and affordable, although most don't use them.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Not a good place for someone with physical disabilities. There are limited medical resources, no sidewalks and often the roads are crumbling at the edges or full of potholes.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We are advised not to take the local mini buses. Some take taxis, but they usually have a relationship with one specific taxi driver and call them when they need rides.
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?
Definitely a 4x4 vehicle if you plan to travel around the country. Bring an extra set of tires too. You want high clearance. The roads are not well maintained.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High speed internet is available, but not super reliable. We had really bad luck with Skyband our first 6 months. We switched to TNM and had an antennae installed on our roof and our speed has gone up about 30%. Definitely would recommend going the TNM route.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Most people bring an unlocked phone and then get a SIM card with prepaid data and airtime plans. I use Airtel and spend about $10 a month on my phone bill. Most people text. WhatsApp is big too.
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?
Yes - there are good vet services in town. The vet will even come to your house. We don't have a pet, so I don't know much else about getting pets into the country. Given the large yards, it can be a great place for dogs. Many also keep chickens, rabbits, guinea fowl, etc.
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?
This is a great place for spouse employment. For Americans, there is a bilateral work agreement, so we're free to work on the local economy. Many mission members have great jobs at local ngos or health care organizations. There are also about 20 jobs for spouses in the Embassy. Most people seem quite happy with their work here (except for the hiring freeze that has been going on in 2017). I cannot comment on local salaries, but I think you can find a reasonably paying job here.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I haven't pursued this much yet, but I know they are available. There is a lot of need in Malawi and many great organizations out there trying to do something about it.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress is more casual. Most locals wear a type of brightly-colored fabric called chitenge (chi-ten-jay). Formal dress is rare except for a few events a year.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Most people have 24 hour guards for their property. Due to the extreme poverty, there are a lot of crimes of desperation such a burglaries, robberies and purse snatching. Overall I feel quite safe here though. I go out for long walks by myself almost every day.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is VERY limited here. Emergency care is practically non-existent. The Embassy routinely medevacs critical cases to Joburg. The Embassy has an excellent health unit, so we use that for most things. There is also a good dentist and radiologist in town. CMED is good for labs and xrays.
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?
Overall, the air quality is excellent here. There is one time of year where people like to burn grasses, etc, so the air deteriorates then. It's fairly minimal though. The air quality is a big plus here. I've been sick way less here than at our other more-polluted posts.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is hands down the best thing about Malawi. Highs between 65 and 85 year round, lows ranging from 40-65 F. The sun shines every day. Even rainy season wasn't that bad. It would pour for an hour and then the sun would come out.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most people go to Bishop Mackenzie or African Bible College Christian School. Parents seem happy with both for K-8 although many send their kids to boarding school for high school, as numbers drop dramatically in those grades.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Special need accommodations can be done for minor issues. This is not a good place to bring a child who needs a lot of help.
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?
The Learning Center is excellent and quite popular. It's a mix of Malawian and expat children. Cost is around $1500 a year and kids go from 7:30 to 12. Lilli's and Carmen's are also popular with the expat crowd and are around the same price as Learning Center. BMIS and ABC also offer preschool but it is significantly more expensive.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but mostly for swimming, soccer and ballet.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are probably a couple thousand expats in Lilongwe given the large number of missionaries, NGOs and embassies. Life is comfortable here, so morale is generally good. It helps to get to a first world country every once in awhile though. Most make frequent trips to South Africa.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
This place is all about BBQs, board games and house parties. It's a "make your own fun" kind of place, as there are only 1 or 2 attractions in town. There's a walking group (Walkie Talkies) that walk together every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There are also game nights at restaurants. It's pretty chill overall. Great place for young families who want affordable help and don't care much about the nightlife.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Fabulous for families with kids under 10. Options start getting limited for middle and high schoolers. Seems okay for singles and couples. Nightlife is minimal, so you need to be okay with that. Most socializing takes place at people's homes.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Inexpensive safaris. Great friendships. Enjoying the amazing weather year round. The kind Malawian people.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Travelling can be frustrating in Malawi. Lodges are pretty expensive for what you get. Also, with the exception of the main highway (the M1), many roads are in terrible condition. Most trips anywhere in the country are at least a 4 hour drive, which makes it hard to do quick weekend trips. You can get to the lake in 2 hours though (in Salima). The country's topography is quite diverse though and it's very beautiful.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You can get clothes made inexpensively here. There is also some good carvings and furniture.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
AMAZING weather. Cheap household help. Kind, friendly locals. Lots of work options. Large, lush yards with beautiful birds.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How truly small it is. Some days I hear more birds than cars! It feels more like a village or town than a big city. There isn't even really a downtown area. I miss movie theaters too.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, it's been a fascinating experience. I think two to three years is plenty though, as you start running out of things to do and see.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter coat. Left-hand drive car.
4. But don't forget your:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba.
6. Do you have any other comments?
This is a relatively easy Africa post. A great first Africa post for those who haven't been to the continent before.