Lilongwe, Malawi Report of what it's like to live there - 02/17/20

Personal Experiences from Lilongwe, Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi 02/17/20


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I previously lived in three Northeast Asia countries, three Southeast Asia countries, and Mexico.

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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?

Jacksonville, FL. It takes a while: two hours to DC, and then to Lilongwe via either Addis or Johannesburg. It takes at least 24 hours door to door. It's not the easiest place to get to as you are limited in direct flights to Harare, Lusaka, Addis, Nairobi, Dar, and Johannesburg. Addis and Johannesburg are daily.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two and a half years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic Mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is generally spacious ranch-style homes set in large yards: all with high, solid walls with concertina wire and guards 24/7. The Embassy staff live in only three neighborhoods, all no more than a 10-minute drive to the Embassy if there is no traffic, though there has been an increase in traffic in the time I have been here. The houses can be old and quirky and mostly 70s construction. Most are landlord owned and landlords do not seem particularly motivated to make repairs. Overall the Embassy tries very hard to make the repairs needed, but it can be an uphill battle. Overall though I really like my housing; I recommend you bring your Foreign Service "flexible" muscles and sense of humor.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can get most of the basics most of the time. Sometimes you have to go to several places to get even that, sometimes items are just out of season. For example, you might find expensive imported blueberries from South Africa maybe half the year. Broccoli seems to disappear for a few months each year. For about a year I could not find skim milk. Yet there are also surprises, such as an increase in "Mexican" food like tortillas, taco shells, salsa... Despite there being a Coca Cola bottling plant in Malawi, it does not make "diet" or "light" soda and so when you see Coke Light or Pepsi Light stock up! There is a once a month farmers market close to the Embassy where you can get lots of specialty items.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I will tell you what I did ship to Post: either in my original HHE or in consumables, flavor-ice (my kid's favorite), Diet Coke, picante sauce, speciality shampoos/conditioners/hair products (especially for my daughter), and sunscreen.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Restaurants are limited. Many are in the residential areas as its cheaper apparently to be there than in a commercial space. Sometimes restaurants open and a year later are gone, but there are a few really good ones that seem to have been around awhile - Mamma Mia and Mediterraneo for Italian; Latitude 13, Lark (both continental); Golden Peacock (for Chinese), and several Indian places. There is no food delivery service. You can usually pick-up.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Unusual for southern Africa? Probably not. But ants, wasps, bees, spiders, moths... termite season (rainy season -- especially early in the season) makes me crazy. And there are some green flying grasshopper-like things that also seem to have a particular season in which they are everywhere. I had a white moth infestation of my yard one year. All just part of the fun.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Embassy pouch. We keep hearing rumors of DPO... maybe someday. I have never used local postal facilities but would not have high expectations for them.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Employees of the Embassy often have at least a gardener and a housekeeper. As its a popular post for those with small children, some have a 2-in-1 nanny/housekeeper, but others have two. Others have drivers and cooks. Embassy and other diplomatic missions often pay higher than local employers and even then the salaries average about US$125 a month for a gardener and US$250 a month for a full time nanny -- both with additional benefits such as housing (there are some live in places on employee compounds), medical, food and transport allowance, school fees, etc.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The Embassy has a pretty good gym. There is another gym called 2Fit located in one of the residential neighborhoods where Embassy staff live. It isn't cheap, and it is on someone's compound, so it is not open on the weekends, but they offer personal training and group classes. I do not know of other gyms. There are almost no sidewalks, almost no shoulders, and the sides of roads can be tall grass and drainage ditches, and drivers are not the best -- so there are not a lot of expats that ride or run along the road (though a few hearty souls do).

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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?

I don't know about "widely" accepted, but you can use credit cards at the expat stores, upmarket hotels and lodges. I have rarely used the ATMs.

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5. 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.

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6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Most definitely. I have a friend who uses a wheelchair permanently visiting me here and I tried to find a restaurant where she could have easy access without anyone having to lift her or her chair over steps or across gravel or uneven ground and I struck out at all my regular places.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

You cannot take the local "buses" which are small vans that just go when they are full -- and often are over full. And generally have poor safety. There are no trains. There are no official taxis, just a few guys with cars.

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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?

Bring a car with some clearance: potholes are very, very common. Burglary/carjacking seems rare but not impossible. We drive with our windows up all the time and the doors locked.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

I was able to get my Internet set up on my very first day. I guess its high speed enough, but it is not cheap.

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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?

Animals do not need to be quarantined. There is the Lilongwe SPCA which has been pretty helpful to us for both cats and rabbits. I know many expats here take their dogs to the LSPCA, and they do have kennel services.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual to business.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Malawi is critical for crime: it's one of the poorest countries in the world and thus, especially in the lean season, some people can become pretty desperate. I know of several attempts to rob Embassy or other diplomatic personnel or their families by machete (guns are very rare here). There has been an increase in politically related "violence" since the May 2019 elections. I would say that word is a bit strong, but there has been vandalism and looting following demonstrations, but also an increase in petrol bombing of the homes and cars of politically active people. Sometimes the violence has made its way into the housing areas where Embassy staff live.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Our medical unit at the Embassy is pretty good, but most illnesses that are above the basics will require a medivac to South Africa.

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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 it's pretty good. We moved here from Shanghai so that is our comparison. My child kept breathing in deeply our first few months telling me that Malawi air was wonderful. In the dry season it can be dusty; dust gets all over everywhere in the house. Then there are those that burn trash and yard rubbish.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Three seasons: Wet and warm (November-April); Cool and dry (May-August); hot and dry (September-October). One of the best things about Malawi is the weather.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are basically two international schools where Embassy staff (and most of the diplomatic population) send their kids. There is Bishop Mackenzie International School that is Reception through High School and ABC Academy, which I think goes only through the 8th grade. I understand ABC has more of an American curriculum; BMIS is the IB program. My daughter attends BMIS (Year 1-Year 3) and she has loved it. I have heard mixed reviews of latter high school grades.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I cannot speak to this personally just yet, but my daughter has been referred to occupational therapy testing and there are two places that receive good marks close to the BMIS campus.

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3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

The schools offer after school activities at BMIS and the most popular seems to be swim team. My daughter has been able to take after school activities in the following: capoeira, environmental club, guitar, swimming, tennis, yoga, art, ball sports, and book club. The activities fill up quickly, though the school keeps trying to find new ways for sign up (it's like the Hunger Games each and every time).

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

There are 18 diplomatic missions here, though most are smaller than the US Embassy, but many, many aid groups, missionaries, and others. I would say morale is quite good.

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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?

Most of the time its hanging out at one another's homes. There are no movie theaters in Malawi (at least not officially); though occasionally the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre will show films in the dry season, for people at the Embassy the Marines also occasionally show films. There are few entertainment venues. I heard Joss Stone came here once for a show. Rihanna and Madonna have come, but for humanitarian reasons. Mostly this is a "make your own fun" kind of place.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

I would say this is best for people with families, generally with younger kids. I am a single mom and Malawi seems to attract a good number of single parents. As for singles and couples without children, it really depends on what you like to do for fun. If you love museums, walking on sidewalks, clubbing, bar hopping, fine dining....then Malawi is NOT the place for you.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

There is a community here but sub-Saharan Africa is not generally a friendly place for LGBTI.

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5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

I expect its easier than many places, though harder than others. If you are looking for local friends of a similar socio-economic status, then sure, yes. But Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, some 70%+ of the population makes their living from subsistence farming -- it is hard to have friendships that can get over that.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There is some tension politically between the three regions (north, central, south), but Malawians are generally very tolerant of religious and ethnic differences. Despite women holding many prominent positions in government and civil society -- in fact Malawi had the second female President on the continent, gender equality isn't great.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting the tea plantations of Thyolo, spending time at Lake Malawi, particularly at the Sunbird Livingstonia (the oldest hotel on the lake) or Pumulani (a stunning small lodge within the UNESCO World Heritage Lake Malawi National Park), staying at Majete National Park in the south.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

South Luangwa National Park is just over the border in Zambia, about 3 hours drive from Lilongwe. I believe it has one of the highest concentrations of leopards of any park -- we saw a leopard within 30 minutes of setting out on our game drive.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

No, not a shopping post.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

It's generally quiet, commutes are short; we have been quite happy here. Many employees at the Embassy extend their tours.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, absolutely.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Trampolines for the kids. Sunscreen. Binoculars: Malawi, your very own yard in Lilongwe, is a treasure trove of beautiful birds

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4. 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 about a young, poor Malawian boy who teaches himself to build a windmill using textbooks from his schools library -- even after his family can no longer afford the school fees. It has been made into a movie. The Lower River by Paul Theroux, who was once a peace corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s.

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