Lilongwe, Malawi Report of what it's like to live there - 09/17/18
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?
I've previously lived in multiple countries.
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?
Washington DC. Shortest flights are about 24 hours: IAD to Addis Ababa and then Addis to Lilongwe. Alternatively, some folks fly through Jo'burg.
3. How long have you lived here?
Just over two years.
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?
Housing is very large and nearly all sit on large plots of land with strong perimeter walls and an assigned guard. They have typical sub-Saharan issues with ants and other pests but the housing is overall really nice.
The diplomatic residences are well-consolidated into three adjacent neighborhoods. A substantial number of the INGOs and Gov of Malawi folks live in these neighborhoods as well. Commutes are about ten minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Almost anything is available in Lilongwe if you're willing to look and drive to multiple stores. The issue in Malawi is more about when it is available. As a landlocked country entirely dependent on the importation of goods, there is a "feast or famine" reality to popular consumer goods here. You just never know if something is ever going to be available again. Consequently, there is a decent amount of bulk purchasing and hoarding when something is suddenly back in stock.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I wish I had shipped more US cleaning supplies.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are a handful of restaurants in the neighborhoods and surrounding areas, usually built into residences, that everyone seems to frequent. The quality varies from not bad to shockingly good. Take out isn't really an option and the only dependable fast food in town in the KFC down by the Crossroads Hotel.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants...lots of ants. You just learn to live with them. I keep all my open food in airtight tupperware to keep the little guys out of the kitchen.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Malawi Post is not adequate. However, I am fortunate enough to use the embassy for mail services.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Help is cheap and, for the most part, eager to work; gardeners might get paid US$80-$100 per month. A good housekeeper might get paid US$120 and a good Nanny might make US$150-$200. However, you get what you pay for: the villagers that fill most of these positions do not seem highly educated and finding one with both experience around middle-class items (for example, knowing NOT to plug your 110v TV directly into the 240v wall socket after moving it to clean) and with the common sense to figure out the things he or she hasn't seen before can be very difficult.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
One or two local gyms catering to the expat community (2Fit and Latitude 13), but they are both expensive. The embassy maintains a small but adequate gym with free weights.
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?
Malawi is a cash-based economy. Major stores and hotels will usually take credit cards but its not uncommon to find that the power outages or a power surge has rendered the card reader non-functional. Because credit cards remain the exception and not the norm, the typical issues related to credit card fraud and credit card theft haven't cropped up in Malawi yet.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All major Christian denominations are represented (I think) and most services has a distinct evangelica/charismatic African flair to them. I'm not sure about synagogues and there are some mosques in the area as well.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with just English here but a little Chichewa goes a long way!
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Some accommodations have been made in the city for disabled access, but not consistently. This would be a very tough city for someone who is in a wheelchair.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local taxis (private minibuses crammed with up to 36 people and driven by drivers that seem to have no regard for the rules of the road or the mechanical condition of their vehicle) are not permitted. Hiring a private driver is possible, but you should ensure the driver is experienced (obtaining a driver's license here is a matter of paying the well-established bribe) and has a reliable vehicle.
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?
Nearly everyone buys a small SUV with decent ground clearance. Roads are in poor condition in much of the city and surrounding areas. During the rainy season, many of the dirt roads out of town can become a quagmire. Toyota and Nissan dominate the market and have the most parts available.
Carjacking isn't a significant risk in Malawi, but muggings while you are stopped in traffic are a concern. Young men come out of the bushes or the tree line with panga knives (12-18" stamped-steel machetes) and rob you of whatever they can reach. Sometimes they block the roads at night with rocks and other debris to get you to stop. Keep your doors locked and yours windows up. Make sure the A/C works in whatever car you buy.
Don't bring anything you're not willing to see banged up and scratched. It's not a matter of it...it's a matter of when.
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 not consistently available and very expensive. Many folks buy data packages that allow for downloading at 4G cell phone speeds, fast enough for most streaming services. Other services provide for unlimited nights and weekends and a small daytime data cap per month but they're operating at 3G cell phone speeds. Again, adequate for Skype but weak on streaming...and downloading a movie from iTunes feels like an exercise in multi-day Sisyphean patience.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cheap and readily available. Bring an unlocked phone with you and just swamp in the SIM from a local provider. Two networks currently compete for 99% of the business in Malawi: TNM and Airtel.
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?
There are one or two good vets plus one really mean lady here that everyone seems to complain about. Malawi is fairly pet-friendly once you leap the hurdles of importing your pet. Definitely bring pet food or have a way of dependably obtaining it. Most Malawians feed their animals kitchen scraps (or make a dedicated meal from scratch). Dogs are popular in the population. Cats, a little less so.
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?
Lots of NGO work is available here. No idea about salaries, though.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal dress is occasionally required for high-level meetings and evening events.Regular work clothes at the embassy tend to be business casual - think khakis, a collared shirt, and a tie. Or khakis and a polo if you don't have any meetings/engagements. I keep a suit and a blazer on a hook on my door for emergencies.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Malawi is critical for crime, but low across the spectrum for everything else. The RSO is fond of saying that Malawi is a country where the issue isn't a particular threat to the expat community but rather the lack of capacity to respond by the Government to any particular stress to the system. The police are mostly static with very few cars. They are flummoxed by any issue beyond basic investigating and note taking. There are minimal ambulances in the country and no functional 911. There is a no highway patrol. The fire department is always eager to play but they are minimally trained volunteers with poorly functional equipment and they may or may not have sold all of their fuel and/or water at the time that you call them to fight a fire.
Consequently, while the local services are filled with people eager to try to do their jobs, the dependability and capability of these services is weak. Many supplemental folks (like local clinics) attempt to fill the breach with mixed success. Ultimately, Malawi is a country where you are the number one person responsible for your own safety and security. The safety net of modern society just doesn't seem to be here.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria, take your prophylaxis or other appropriate cautions. Also, HIV remains prevalent and cholera is always a concern. Folks going to the lake also need to be mindful of the parasite that is endemic in the lake.
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?
I think the air is fine. Dusty in the dry season but otherwise fine. Lilongwe doesn't suffer the same pollution issues that other sub-Saharan capitals do...at least, not yet.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Bring an Epi-Pen if needed.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not that I'm aware of. However, it seems to me, from casual observation, that the availability and access to mental health professionals might be a bit hit or miss here.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Mild year 'round. Southern hemisphere so invert the seasons. In the dry winter, it can drop to low 40s (F) at night and climb into the low 70s during the day. In the wet summer, it might drop to the low 60s at night and climb to the high 80s during the day. Anything outside of those swings is abnormal.
The rains are December to May and usually involve afternoon downpours.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most embassy kids go to either Bishop McKenzie International School (BMIS) or the African Bible College Christian Academy (ABCCA). Both schools are fine for primary, but I can't speak to the high school curriculum. BMIS is an IB school now and has an old but comprehensive campus. It's been around for awhile.
ABCCA is newer and has a nice campus. The education seems strong but there is also a significant level of American Southern Baptist indoctrination mixed into the education. Just be aware.
2. 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?
Pre-schools are available. Talk to the CLO when doing your research. They're pretty good and pretty affordable.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, the schools all run robust after school programs for the kids. Swimming is big here.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
A few thousand in Malawi; mostly concentrated in Lilongwe and Blantyre and primarily focused in three areas: HIV/Malaria/Medical, Food Stability/ Agriculture, and Good Governance/ Anti-Corruption. Morale is overall pretty good. Everyone seems to know everyone else (or someone who knows someone).
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?
Malawi is a make your own fun post. Definitely a great chance to develop your hobbies. Lots of stuff to do outdoors: hiking, biking, and scuba at the lake. Not a lot of restaurants/night clubs (but there are a few) and no movie theaters. People host parties at their residences a lot.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for families with small children. Fine for couples. Difficult for single people: the dating pool is somewhat limited.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It's not actively hostile to LGBT, but this is not a country where you can be truly out. This is also not a country where LGBT activism seems to be well-tolerated. The culture is conservative and the social institutions remains somewhat closed and homophobic. Consequently, the LGBT population, particularly in the expat community, tends to fly under the radar for the most part.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Ignorance is global and stereotypes are commonly bandied about in Lilongwe.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Malawi is a beautiful country filled with a warm and hospitable people. Go to the mountains at least once. Go to the lake at least once. Do at least one safari if you can afford it.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Dedza is renowned for its pottery. Beyond that, it's typical touristy stuff here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The power grid here is the worst I've ever seen. Power outages are daily and the power surges can fry equipment regularly. Bring good quality surge protectors (and plan on replacing them at least once) and I even recommend little commercial UPS units just to cover the power gap from when the city goes dark and your generator comes online. That can make a huge difference in quality of life.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. My kids love it here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes and expensive electronics.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen and bug spray. Surge protectors. American junk food.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Frankly, everyone says to read "The Boy who Harnessed the Wind" but I think you're better served by reading the online papers before you come. Read The Nation and read Malawi Times. Particularly the opinion pages, which is the best snapshot of life at the moment that I've seen.