While Lake Malawi – the big, long thin one that runs north to south and takes up nearly 20% of Malawi’s surface area – is formed in the bottom of the Great Rift Valley and is therefore surrounded by high sides and dotted with beach resorts, Lake Chilwa is shallow, saltier and almost seems like a mirage as it appears to you out of the remote, low lying reedy plains.
One the shore of the lake is a fishing village called Kachulu – one long wooden-shack-like-shop lined dirt road leads from the village of compound mud houses, through the reed beds and down to he harbour where a few dozen fishing punts wait to take out the nets which, when we arrived, were being dried and mended on the gound while the previous catch of small herring were drying on rows and rows of hand made racks.
This is an atmospheric place and by far the most remote and un-touristy place we have been in Malawi so far. When we arrived at our “resthouse” we found only three rooms, each containing only a bed, a handkerchief sized table with a candle and not room for much else. We are now used to mud bottomed squat latrines but this one was super basic and the bathroom was a bucket of water on a few bricks on the ground behind a reed partition. We thought perhaps this was a very local resthouse so with our bags, trailled by local children and drunks, we went to checked out one other resthouse in town but that one was bordering on the squalid so we returned – now very happy with our lot.
Not long before word got out and our little room was surrounded by children, initially frightened of us and now relentlessly curious, local women and some men from the church. All of whom fascinated to see what we might do. But of course we don’t really *do* anything. I was glad at this point to have brought some bubbles with me from home so to a tighter and tighter crowd of children I blew a few bubbles but was almost immediately upstaged by Dave and his camera flash I was astounded by their reaction to the flash of the camera – screams of delight and amazement - and then over and over again they demanded another picture, each time the flash went off to astonished and excited screams.
One of the church (or so they said at the time!) men approached us and one of them, Goodson, tried to tell us how the village worked, offered his services as a guide and invited us to his family’s restaurant. We promised to find him later and then locked ourselves in for 10 minutes breather before venturing out for some exploration and to find a beer. Which we soon found in the company of the interesting local policeman. We were in mid conversation when Goodson found us and insistently asked us to come to the restaurant so we thought we beter had. We spent a strange hour or so in the dark, eating gritty nsima (the maize flour staple here) while Goodson rambled and asked for our advices only to reject anything we said and then nearly had apoplectic hysterics when Dave added some salt to his nsima instead of his fish. He pointed this out to everyone else in the room and just couldn’t get over it. We’d found out by this point that he wasn’t a missionary at all, had only even been in town for a few days, he lied about the price of the meal and all sorts of other oddities and so we managed to make some polite excuses, insisted that we didn’t need a guide the next morning and left. Unfortunately the interesting policeman had also gone by this stage so we went home a little baffled by an intense and odd evening.
The next morning Goodson let himself into our room while we slept (!), apologised and left but was still there waiting when we got up – laughing almost uncontrollably as he us told us how he was telling everyone he met about the “nsima incident”. It took a lot to inist that we didnt want him to come with us to the nearby island and finally get some privacy to get ready for the day. We enjoyed a fun trip to the market, amusing all the ladies with our squeezing of tomatoes but then of course Goodson appeared asking if we’d buy him a couple of mangos and still asking when we were going to the island so we dropped the politeness, asked him to leave and in the end bribed him with a mango. We never saw him again. Blimey!
Down at the harbour, with the help of a crowd of friendly locals, we secured a punt to take us half an hour across to Chisi island to spend the night. We’d bought some of the small dried fish to try, some tomatoes and onions and were planning to camp and cook a proper local meal ourselves.
The punt across the lake was one of my highlights of Malawi, it was so serene and breezy while we passed through the reed beds and past several fishermen in dugout canoes hauling in their nets and waving to us. We arrived on the shore of Chisi and were met by Moses, brother of the chief of that village, and of course an ever growing crowd of children. Moses invited us to stay in his house on the shore that night but before that we picked up a young guide, Kenny, who showed us the fishermen’s huts built into the reeds further round the shore and then spent the afternoon with us showing us the villages on the island and sharing with us stories, rites and rituals of village life. For example we learned that after a couple is married they move in with the man’s family so that the mother in law can get to know the new wife and if after that three months the mother in law doesn’t approve she can ask the man to leave his new wife. He still has the choice but it underlines the importance of family harmony here.
As is always the case we had picked up a following of 25 children by now and so in order to provide them with some entertainment I’d start walking in a comedy way only for them to start copying everything I did. Hee hee, I could have some fun with this! So we played follow my leader all the way home. Fortunately I called Dave back and so we have some of it on video – it’s really cute. They absolutely loved watching the video afterwards. Later, with the help of Kenny’s mates, we shared some Sunday school songs before Moses sent them gruffly away from outside the front of his house. Cant say I blame him – they would have watched us sleep if they could
We spent a pleasant evening by torchlight in Moses’s front room sharing things about our lives (and trying to keep conversation from revolving entirely around money) and eating the nsima and fish he’d kindly cooked for us.
After another bucket wash in the garden the next morning we had a minor battle with the boat driver from the day who was trying to lie to Moses about our agreement but in the end we managed to get back to Kachula, into a pick up and back to Zomba.
In Zomba we bumped into the social worker who’d been on the pick up on the way to Chilwa so we had some lunch chatting together with the young waiter who’d studied media in Manchester, and waited for our minibus together having a really nice time. He said some really nice things as we parted and I was quite sad to see him go myself. We waved goodbye to him and Chilwa.