Undiscovered Africa Never Heard of Malawi? Neither Had Most Americans, until Madonna Put It in the Media Spotlight

Article excerpt

Byline: Kathy Rodeghier Daily Herald Travel Editor

Confess. When Madonna adopted a baby from Malawi, how many of you said, "Where?"

Until the pop star set off a media frenzy, few Americans had ever heard of this African nation.

Most vacationers to Malawi come from South Africa or the United Kingdom, which ruled the country until independence in 1964. Only in the past three years has the government - stable and democratic by African standards - begun to market the country as a tourist destination.

But it will never attract the mass tourism of Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa. It doesn't have the means, and wouldn't seek the crowds if it did.

Malawi beckons the adventurous traveler, but not the backpacker type looking to travel on the cheap. This third-world country, one of Africa's poorest, is going after upscale visitors with luxury resorts and safari camps in unspoiled surroundings. Rather than busloads following the beaten tourist track, it hopes to attract well-heeled, well-traveled visitors looking for the elusive "someplace different" that their friends and neighbors know little about.

It wants explorers.

Dr. Livingstone, I presume?

Victorian England's legendary explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, set foot on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1861, the first European to do so. American travelers who now journey to this overlooked sliver of the Dark Continent feel the good doctor's sense of discovery.

But every explorer needs to get his bearings, so first some geography.

One of Africa's smallest countries - about the size of Pennsylvania - Malawi lies in the Great Rift Valley in south- central Africa. Its most remarkable feature, Lake Malawi, fills the valley's cleft and takes up 20 percent of the country. Landlocked Malawai is surrounded by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.

What does it offer vacationers?

First, cultural tourism, meaning the chance to interact with native people on their own terms. Unlike in Kenya or Tanzania, "there is an innocence here," says local Peace Corps worker Tim Clark, a native of Midland, Mich. The crime rate is low and Malawians generally are not aggressive toward tourists. "They've been much less exploited than other countries around them," even by what Malawians still call their "colonial masters."

Second, wildlife. While Malawi does not have the masses of big game found on the sprawling plains of the Serengeti, travelers see plenty of animals - sometimes at close range. A hippo by the swimming pool? It happens.

Warm heart of Africa

People remain Malawi's biggest asset. Simple farmers, they wear genuine smiles, not faces put on for tourists. They live in close- knit communities where one family helps another without expecting anything in return - an attitude that extends to outsiders. Uncorrupted by the material world - at least for now - they earn Malawi its reputation as the "warm heart of Africa."

"The people here are amazing, very welcoming," says Kerry Wright, who works for Wilderness Safaris in Blantyre, Malawi's largest city, which was named for Livingstone's hometown in Scotland.

The worldly travelers who come here don't want to be cut off from contact with the people, Wright says. They find it "unrealistic to stay in a five-star lodge and not see how the locals live." They are also "keen to see that something has been put back into the environment and the community."

To this end, Wilderness Safaris worked with the Peace Corps and COMPASS, a development group funded by U.S. aid, to create Njobvu cultural village.

No theme park where locals don native costumes and mug for cameras, this is an authentic Malawai village where people go about their day-to-day existence. Men work in the fields, women tend to children, take care of their homes and prepare food over a wood fire.

Visitors arrive in a van greeted by a crowd of happy, smiling children who run barefoot after it on the dirt road into the village compound. …