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Waking up in Malawi

The morning song, sung by women in a nearby village, slowly but surely moves from my dreams and starts to fill up the room. Note by note, rhythm by rhythm, I feel like the women are singing for me, encouraging me to open my eyes and embrace another day in Malawi – the warm heart of Africa. As the tempo rises, birds start to sing along, and sunlight pours through my window as if it were a part of the song itself.

I take a deep breath and jump into my next adventure in Malawi. Travelling from the capital Lilongwe, towards Lake Malawi. The lake of Stars, as was called by David Livingstone, the explorer, who by no means discovered the lake but might have been the first European to spend time there. I grab myself a fresh mango and try to imagine him there. I wonder if he knew about the paradise islands quietly floating on the lake as if they were big bright green cichlids, few of the several thousands, who make the lake their home. At least I am sure he must have felt the same magical feeling as I did when I laid eyes on the lake for the first time, and perhaps, he was also taken by surprise with the freshness and clarity of the water, expecting a salty taste because of the mere size of it and the roaring waves that give you a sea-like feeling.

I will be spending the weekend on one of these paradise islands with my husband and good friends. We have all been living and working in Malawi for several years, developing a strong sense of belonging to this beautiful country. We drive through our neighborhood in the city of Lilongwe, stop at our local fruit seller who also offers helpful advice, concerning which fish we should try to catch and put on our barbeque, since we are heading to the lake. Despite early hours, the streets are full of people on bikes, motorcycles and in cars, but also with animals. Three proud roosters and a friendly goat block the road just outside the capital and refuse to move, so we patiently stop the car to guide them off the road. The drive continues, we move pass diverse and lively neighborhoods where carpenters, metal-makers and other craftsmen and women offer their goods for sale. We soon find our way to the main road leading from the capital to the lake. Rolling the windows down we place a CD in the stereo featuring Nkomba one of Malawi´s great folk bands. The perfect listening for our road trip and the mini break ahead.

"Note by note, rhythm by rhythm, I feel like the women are singing for me, encouraging me to open my eyes and embrace another day in Malawi – the warm heart of Africa."

We are heading to Mumbo Island, an unpopulated tropical island, situated within the boundaries of Lake Malawi National Park. After a two-hours drive, we stop at the township of Dedza to enjoy a light lunch and coffee at the Dedza Pottery, a place which has become a regular stop-over on our way to the lake for good food, relaxed atmosphere, and the most beautiful ceramic in Malawi. An hour later we arrive at the beach of Cape Maclear, park the car, and hop into a slow-paced, dark-green, wooden boat setting the tone for the days to come. On our way we pass Domwe island, a sister island to Mumbo. Both islands offer fully (and I mean completely) ecological accommodation for only a few guests at a time, to preserve the islands´natural uniqueness and sustainability.

As we get closer, we notice small wooden chalets who are built right into the island´s high rocks, looking almost inaccessible as they soar above us overlooking the water. The only clear sign of people so far are the colorful hammocks rocking slowly in the afternoon breeze outside the chalets. We spend most of our time at Mumbo lingering at the beach with sand between our toes, slowly kayaking across the island offering opportunities to hop into the crystal-clear water and snorkel among cichlids. Following recommendations from the local staff we also hike across the island. The hike is just about hard enough to get the heartbeat up in time for a cool sundowner at one of the highest points of the island. As the four of us sit down to catch our breath and marvel at the lake view, we are honored by a magnificent African fish eagle who spreads his large powerful black wings as he takes off from an ancient Baobab tree flying just over our heads towards the open lake, perhaps searching for his last meal of the day.

The mornings at Mumbo bring true magic to our stay. Waking up feels like being in the arms of nature. A magical and serene feeling where the sun takes on a motherly role, gently stroking your cheek, just to remind you that it is the weekend, so you are allowed to sleep just a little bit longer. But it is also a slightly wild feeling as you start to notice the sound of waves hitting rocks, small animals waking up and trees talking (make no mistake, trees can talk). This combination of serenity and wildness with a hint of fear or confusion due to the dislocation from our daily routine turns into a truly humbling moment where I become acutely and almost uncomfortably aware of how easy it is to fall in love with nature and feel loved by it. But also, how truly small, and insignificant we are as human beings, before nature. Every morning nature begins a new circle of living, breathing and being and the moment we open our eyes to it – there is the possibility of a new beginning.

I no longer wake up in Malawi, but I carry the same feeling with me and try to work on my own beginnings every morning. Whether waking up on a tropical island at the Lake of Stars or in a small snowy village during winter in Iceland, we are exposed to all the same elements of the world, allowing us to fall in love with it and be loved back.

WORDS Eva Harðardóttir
PHOTOS Phiri Godfrey

Eva Harðardóttir is currently a doctoral student at the University of Iceland. She used to work as a specialist for UNICEF in Malawi .