Where are we? Ruarwe!

I wrote this back on 24/4/17, but just posting now we’re back to internet-land…

We arrived yesterday morning in Ruarwe (pronounced roo-ar-wee). Having boarded the boat in Nkhata Bay at 4:30 am, we sat on the chilly top deck and watched the sun rise. Ross went in search of coffee, asking at the bar, only to be told by a very drunk barman to find a steward and ask them instead. Actually it was pretty easy – just in the restaurant one deck lower… We met three Australian cyclists on board, who were making the trip from Lilongwe to Nairobi by bike.

The ferry is too big to come close in to the shore, so small motorised fishing boats are dispatched – say about 20 feet long and 6 feet wide and licensed to carry 22 passengers (they were actually the lifeboats Lily. Ross).

To get on and off the ferry you have to haul your bags (read goats, maize, speakers, tyres, cool boxes, children, wood or 101 other types of cargo) to and from the lifeboat that is rocking and rolling in the water down a ladder on the side of the boat.  It’s hairy, far more dangerous than you’d expect in 2017, and you can easily slip and fall.  Added to the inherent risk is the fact that Malawians are the calmest of calm people except when embarking or disembarking from any form of transport.  This goes for ferries too and elbows, knees, de-shoed feet, shouts and screams fly as the passengers scramble in near panic to either get on or get off the ferry.

When we left the ferry to get into the lifeboat at Ruarwe, there were about 35 people, two giant speakers, 15 50kg sacks of corn flour and shed loads more on board (though thankfully not the rather perturbed goat we saw getting on a stop earlier). Water slopped over the side into the boat and I said in a quiet strained voice, to no-one in particular ‘it’s too full’. Despite my superior boat knowledge (ha!), it wasn’t a rough day and the boat held up, but I still almost would have preferred to swim to shore. It was just near here that the boat sank the other day with 78 people on board. According to the local people, the numbers are very different to what’s been reported in the news, with 25 survivors, and 13 bodies found. Everybody else is missing still. The captain survived and has run away.

When we got to the beach Duwe (Dooway) from the lodge was there to meet us and helped us on the walk from the beach – up and down steep-ish slopes covered in boulders. It’s a well-worn pathway, but it’s a solid 15 minutes at a fast pace and it goes through streams etc. Ross’ 26kg bag was starting to get the better of him, while my choice of footwear (slippery flip-flops) didn’t really feel up to the job while I had my 17kg backpack to carry either. About 12 minutes in to the walk (or what felt like several hours to us), Ross turned and mouthed ‘where the hell are we going?’ We later found out that Charlie who owns and built the lodge (at the request of the village headman) initially called it ‘where are we?’ – a play on the village name (Ruarwe) and the fact that the same question occurs to everybody on the walk over from the beach. It’s now the proud owner of the more poetic name Zulunkhuni, after a neighbouring river.

Just a couple more turns and we were greeted with beautiful shade, lush green gardens, large trees, and small structures laying higgledy-piggledy over the rocks and land, interspersed with glimpses of the shimmering deep blue lake. It’s a paradise with no electricity, no phone reception, no internet and crystal waters lapping against grey boulders.

We were lucky enough to be put in the stone house, a beautiful spacious self-contained room, a good 150m from any of the other chalets, and with our own narrow lawned area directly above the lake. At around 5:30 in the morning, the sun comes streaming through the window and straight onto my closed eyes, but opening them brings the phenomenal sight of sunrise over the lake.

We were settled in by Philippa, a lovely woman, who jointly runs a small UK charity Phunzira, which set up the local community centre NYM (Nyumba ya Masambiro, meaning ‘house of education’). They’ve subsequently handed full ownership of the centre to the local community, but still arrange for volunteers like us to work with them. The work we’re doing here looks set to be very rewarding as well…



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