A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Cultural encounters

Rachel - Dedza and Mua Mission

After a brief stopover in the capital Lilongwe to sort visa extensions and pick up some bits and pieces we doubled back to visit a remote museum attached to an old Scottish mission settlement in Dedza.

The accommodation at the site is just outside the village so we went for a late evening stroll into town and while we were there we saw these three or four lads in proper traditional costumes painted in ash and with masks and feathery dresses running around the town. Nobody in town really explained what they were for other than to say vaguely that it was something from their culture. A bit puzzled we finally left and bumped into the boys in costume later in the graveyard of all places. A bit creepy but relieved when they held out their hands to beg for money :)

Back at the lodge we found out that this is a ritual that takes place for the anniversary of a death. The boys are to run around town and tell the villagers that someone is commemorating the anniversary of the death, that there will be a ceremony soon and that the spirit of those who have died are going to be at peace. Later in the week there will be a big ceremony with dancing and drumming to mark the end of he mourning. Finding this out was a treat for us because reading about that famous dance and the associated masks and costumes is partly what brought us to the mission and attached museum in the first place so to see it for real was pretty special.

The mission has an impressive museum describing Chewa and Yao tribal culture. It describes all their rites of passage rites for births, circumcision, puberty lessons, marriage, family life and deaths as well as village elder responsibilities and ceremonies and some witch doctor rituals. Together with all the descriptions and history were masses of artifacts and costumes. But the real reason we came was to see the masks which filled a whole room from floor to ceiling. In each ceremony there are actors who tell a story and each actor and mask has a significance and often illustrate a moral point. For example there is a character whose significance is to warn that bad deeds will make you ugly, and another to warn that a young man who thinks only of sex will not be a good citizen. Others represent characters in the creation stories, or represent typical village roles. Some were introduced recently such as a mask to represent the Pope when he visited Malawi, and several amusingly pink masks to represent various outsiders, ie. white people, in the historical stories.

There was soooo much to read, and an impressive art/carving gallery to visit as well, but we had to leave in good time to catch the lake ferry so we dragged ourselves away and walked/bussed/bussed/cycle-taxi-ed to the nearest harbour looking forward to be surrounded by the lake for a good amount of time.

Posted by rachndave 23:24 Archived in Malawi Tagged museums culture Comments (0)

Following our lead

Rachel - Lake Chilwa

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.

Posted by rachndave 23:18 Archived in Malawi Tagged lakes children food Comments (0)

Halloween in Zomba


There are three famous plateaus in Malawi: Mulanje, Nyika and Zomba. We were planning to climb Nyika later in our trip to do a three day hike and we had only recently climbed Mulanje and so we decided to give Zomba Plateau a miss (sorry Steve – hello Steve!). However Zomba town itself was conveniently located for one of the other main lakes which we wanted to visit, and the town is described in the guidebook as “often claimed to have been the most beautiful capital anywhere in the british empire”. That was before the capital moved to Lilongwe of course. So we arrived late and found our motel lodge which itself backed onto a late night bar playing live music. Drawn to the ryddim we headed round to investigate and found a local band playing to an outdoor dancefloor full of only men dancing while the women watched on – an interesting role reversal . We sat in the garden to listen and watch with a beer and soon got talking to one of the locals who seemed to know everyone in the bar. He and a friend were very keen to take us sightseeing to the lake the next day so we made plan to meet for lunch and see then if it were possible.

The next morning we woke early for some sightseeing and hadn’t been out 5 minutes before we passed a pub decorated like a Chibuku Shake Shake carton and full of people drinking the same…at 9am! Chibuku Shake Shake is a local beer that is hard to describe. It’s sour and savoury and contains a sediment of grainy slush which is why you have to “Shake Shake” the carton. Ideal for breakfast obviously ;) There is no alcohol percentage on the carton because each one is fermented separately so no one knows – I have heard of some cartons that have been almost spherical when they were served. The idea is that you slice the top off the carton and then share it around so it’s a very sociable drink. We stopped in to have a look at the decoration and because there was a toothless grinning and wrinkly old geezer playing his home made banjo encased in an outer guitar case and kicking his heels on a wooden box. At 9am! The price for a listen and a picture was a carton of Shake Shake so we sat for a while to listen and shared round the carton. At 9am!

Zomba was a very green and pretty town once you got out of the main shopping and market area. Leafy and relaxed at the foot of the plateau and full of old colonial whitewashed buildings. We strolled through the extensive botanical gardens/park, past the university campus, churches, archives offices and up to the grand old hotel looking out over the parks and golf courses. And then after a call to the friends we had met the previous night we went to the meeting place…only to be stood up. Without even a call! Hurumph! Humphrey and Matthew….shame on you. Never mind, we had provisions to buy and a pick up truck to find.

Our pickup ride was shared with a couple of super friendly and informative couple of guys called Alex, a business man/pick-up-truck-fare-collector and another guy but unfortunately I’ve forgotten his name, which is a shame because we’ll meet him again later… an ex-teacher turned currently unemployed social worker. So we spent the long journey being given a history of the area, learning about the struggles of businessmen/ pick-up-truck owners/social workers and told local stories of bandits and the spirits that are reported to live on the top of mount Mulanje.

We were finally dropped off by the harbour in a fishing village on the shore of Lake Chilwa and they offered to help us out by driving us to a local resthouse they knew, which of course we accepted. As is often the sting in the tale of the traveler we were then ripped off in a minor way by Alex who pretty much doubled the fare for driving us this extra kilometer but after such a pleasant journey we found it hard to make a stand so with a sad sigh settled up and said goodbye. I mention it because this sort of thing happens so often it’s part of our story but this one particularly saddened us. Still, from our small glimpse of the harbour, it felt very remote and very different from anything we’d seen so far so we were very excited to be here for the next few days.

Posted by rachndave 23:15 Archived in Malawi Tagged cities Comments (0)

Happy Blantyre Birthday


We traveled to one of the biggest cities in Malawi, Blantyre (named for the town in which David Livingstone was born), still exhilarated by completing the Mulanje trek and and thoroughly awesome trip down. There was gospel on the minibus radio and I felt totally comfortable here.

We headed straight to the local backpackers hangout, postponed a jump in the little pool for now, had a quick shower, a few G&T, asked around about local places playing live music and then headed to one of the restaurants that promised the “best steak south of Nairobi”. And it was a great meal, a proper birthday-only treat. We even had a cheese board!

We both could have gone back and slept for a week but this was a birthday dammit so we headed over to “Motel Paradise” and arrived to see sweaty dancers in traditional bush dress stomping about stage banging spears down in time to some choral botswanian traditional-ish music. Perfect (if a little unexpected). Following that was an ex-MP Lucius Banda who we have heard on the radio a lot since. A local man translated some of his songs as we listened and although they sounded very upbeat they all had quite a serious message as you’d expect from a politician.

We were the only white people in the place and therefore a little conspicuous for dancing and had a host of people trying to teach us how to dance properly and make friends with us. In the end we started to flag and left about 3am, resisted the swimming pool back at the lodge again and snuck into our dorm room for a well earned lie in.

We decided to stick around in Blantye the next day since I had lost my watch which I wanted to replace, and Dave wanted to explore the town a little. Also there was a Lake of Stars after party (somewhat late but there you go) which looked worth checking out that evening. So we ran our errands, both luckily avoided being caught out in the 20 minute biblical downpour – the first rain of the rainy season! – and had a very relaxed night at the (unfortunately quite dead) after party, playing some pool and listening to one of the live acts Dave had actually met at the festival. He’s playing gigs to raise funds for a trip he’s making walking from cairo to Capetown. He’s not doing it for charity either, just to meet people on the road in a Forest Gump kind of way. Lovely lovely guy, and a shame there’s no website to track his progress but we hope to catch some more of his gigs round the country if we’re lucky enough to catch him again.

Could have stayed in Blantyre another day just to hang around the backpackers and enjoy the food and beer and the buzz of other travellers (and working internet!) but really there was no other reason to stay. Oh but we did see an enormous chamelion in the garden: while we were on the internet uploading pictures someone ran in to say there was one out there. It's the coolest animal - super slow and careful it seems almost mechanical. Next stop is another town though so we dont want to get city weary.

Had a great birthday precident set here though...wonder where we'll be for my birthday....?

Posted by rachndave 04:12 Archived in Malawi Tagged clubbing birthday Comments (2)

Ups and Downs - Mulanje Massif


We had gotten up before 6am to try and catch one of the more reliable but crack-of-dawn-leaving 7am buses but our breakfast took too long to be prepared so we took our time instead and caught a series of minibuses, via one of the big cities Blantyre to buy food and cooking pots for the walk and change some cash. The market there was huuuge and crowded with no real structure, which leant it the feel of a slum especially by being cut through by sludgy water in places and by having a nearby free bus station toilet which is honestly the worst I have ever…. EVER seen and I’ve been let into the squat toilets in men-only coffee houses in Iran. But the market sold clothes and gardening implements and more than we’ve ever seen before or since so we had no trouble getting everything we needed.

We made it to the foot of the Mulanje Massif, a plateau which rises to the highest point in Malawi (which looked like someone had painted it in the sky it was so pretty) as the sun was starting to dip and were immediately met by some porters and guides offering their services and accompanied us all the way up to the hostel. We had a bit of an ethical dilemma however because we had a personal recommendation from someone we met in Cape Maclear and who had climbed the massif, but the guides up to the plateau are supposed to operate on a rotation basis to provide everyone with some income. However we were too late to go via the official office and still be able to leave the next day, but these guys who had just followed us for 2km were sitting outside waiting to see in which way we were going to break the rules – in their favour or not. However the lady in the church-run hostel (in a beautiful setting by the way at the foot of the massif) associated with the plateau management assured us that the rota system didn’t really work for a variety of reasons and so if we had a personal recommendation then we may as well go with that. So she sent for the guide, Nedi, in order to vouch for his character and then we spent the night planning together. Dave and I really wanted to cross the whole plateau which should normally take an easy 5 days because some days you would only walking 3 or 4 hours on the paths between the various official mountain huts in which you would stay, and so we thought we could do it in 3 days. But Nedi refused to budge, doubting our enjoyment potential, so because of logistal constraints we agreed to explore the south west corner.

So on our first day we rose early, had a welcome wholesome churchy breakfast of porridge, fruit and tea and set off up the steep earthy, bouldery path into the sky.

Right at the top of this path (thankfully) I started to feel exhausted and none-too-right but after a whole hour the previous night trying to argue that we were fit and fast walkers, well, pride made me go on. Until I had to sit down, and then couldn’t move, and then was sick. How embarrassing. Hoping it was just the heat (and it was very hot), and actually feling a bit better I carried on but after some lunch which I brought straight back up again it was starting to look a lot like I’d caught the cape maclear bug. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to continue the mostly uphill path for another hour and a half, in the heat of midday, with an empty stomach, on an empty energy tank, knowing that noone could help, stopping often to pant or be sick (thank you Dave for always standing in front of the sun and creating me some shade as I did). But I did it and I’ve never been so relieved to see a destination before.

The hut was basic but cosy and full of other walkers making dinner in the fireplace and bedding down on the floor (adventure points to dave for earlier browsing someone’s Lonely Plant guide which warned that there were no mattresses in this hut which meant we brought our rollmats and sleeping bags with us…some people were caught out and were literally sleeping on the floor). There were even a few beers and cokes being kept cold in the nearby stream.

Weirdly I didn’t *feel* ill, just unable to keep anything down, so after a mostly good night and a test breakfast of porridge I decided to continue. Fortunately we were mostly going downhill on day 2, over areas that looked just like the Peak District or Yorkshire Dales withgreen rolling hills with the odd huge grey rock patches and streams. Unfortunately with an hour or so till home again I started feeling unwell again and have never been so glad to see a toilet when we arrived :) After a bad evening of cramps and dashes to the outside loos I thought it best to have a proper recovery day.

I’m so glad we stopped another day because the hut was like an american woodcutters hut with a open porch that ran all round the outside where you could sit and take in the tree fringed plains of gentle grassy hills. Although we were over a thousand metres up you’d swear you were somewhere in the middle of England – even weatherwise because it’s noticeably cooler up there with a gentle breeze. And it was the height of cosiness inside with old dark wooden furniture and bare floorboards, a roaring fire in the communal living/dining area and candlelight after dark. We were the only ones here so we ignored the dorms and slept on the “overflow beds” next to the crackling fire and I felt like I could move in and raise chickens.

Next day I made house and chatted to the workers re-planting local cedars to replace the non-indigenous and invasive pine while Dave climbed a nearby peak. In the evening we went to explore some nearby stream-fed pools and look out from the edge of the plateau over the towns below. A candle lit game of scrabble was the height of excitement and we enjoyed watching our guides try and work out how to cook the spare packet noodles we’d donated them (we’d all only brought enough food for the trip but fortunately I’d skipped a meal).

The next day was Dave’s birthday and back in tip top health (almost sadly) we trickled down easy tree shaded bouldery paths, broken by further views out over the side of the massif, getting more and more tropical as we descended. For lunch we stopped at a waterfall straight out of some advert for shampoo. Dave dived into the icy cold clear and deep water while I slid in ooching and eeking but it was sooo refreshing after the tropical trees. We dried out in the sun and then made the last few km back to base.
As a special birthday treat we were passed by a local church gospel choir who were staying at the hostel and were going on a trip to the waterfall but singing as they went. It was great to pass them one by one in a line and hear the different harmonies.

We finished pretty early in the day and Dave requested dinner out and dancing in the big city so we didn’t even have a shower but gathered our bags (dashed off that last blog entry) and hopped on a bus to Blantyre – after being given a lift to the next town by an ambulance who was returning to base and picks up some passengers for cash when he does. T.I.A. This is Africa.

Posted by rachndave 03:55 Archived in Malawi Tagged hiking muontains illness Comments (0)

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