A Travellerspoint blog


Doctor Doctor, I think i'm a loaf of bread

Rachel - Likoma Island

The Ilala arrived predictably late due in part to slow running down to countrywide lack of fuel, and in part due to some long stops for loading. We were met at the port by one of the managers of the lodge and given a bumpy ride in the back of their pick up – a godsend because it’s a 45 minute walk and by now it was dark.

Mango Drift was a collection of bamboo and grass-roofed huts and a bar on the beach. The only frills were a resident dog, a well stocked bookcase and some toys to use on the lake. This was a place to completely relax and that we did. The dorm room had a door that opened straight onto the shore and so we started the day with a swim and settled down with the magazines.

Later on we made the long walk into town which was surprisingly extensive with a sandy main square, a market area and oddly one of the largest buildings in Malawi – a huge redbrick cathedral. We stopped for a while to watch a pretty thrilling netball game in the square before being shown to the cathedral by some kids who grabbed our hands and insisted on showing us the way. We managed to lose them when we snuck up some dark stairs into the clock tower!

After that we left the main town and headed to the outskirts to find out if we could make an appointment the village witch doctor mentioned in the guide. Dave was a bit more keen than me, partly because he had a genuine niggling back to present and partly because I wasn’t sure I could disguise any skepticism if he seemed to be a total quack. But in the end I was too curious to pass up the chance to meet him. When we arrived outside his compound the mood was solemn and serious. We were made to wait for a long while and then instructed with import to choose a stick from a pile with our *left* hands and then we could enter the gates where we were to place the stick in the circle on the ground and wait there. So we did, removed our shoes to enter, passed a monkey tied to a tree with a rope and passed lots of lounging people and told to wait seated there for 15minutes. After a time we were indicated to enter a large dark room with pigeons flying eerily around the eaves and in the corner in the dark was a man lying down – a scene straight out of Apocalypse now or something! The man hacked and groaned loudly and made some strange noises so dramatically that I thought it must have been an act to intimidate us. We were shown meekly and respectfully to a mat in front of his bed while he sat up. And what a surprise we had. This 60 year old but fit and cheeky man with dreadlocks was the height of politeness! Turns out he was feeling sick with a fever so we’d woken him up. He told us he was really happy to see us but he couldn’t “enjoy us properly”. He wanted to tell us all about the history of how he became a doctor and maybe sit in on a session so could we return tomorrow…with two bottles of Carlsberg ;) But first if we wanted we could take his picture so he posed with us both and his magic fly whisk! We left laughing and joking, promising to return while wishing him better.

The next day we spent the whole morning and well into the afternoon with him hearing about his methods and the types of people he treats, even meeting some of them as they entered the room waiting to see him. He has a partnership with the local hospital so that if something is medical case such as malaria or dehydration he sends them to the clinic saying “these are not problems of magic, this is not my job”. Somewhat surprisingly if the clinic has cases they cannot find a cause for, or people are not responding to treatment then they will send them to the witch doctor to find a magic cause. I think he was totally genuine in the sense that he believed that there were cures for magic diseases and we met plenty of people who claimed to be made better.

The methods of cure ranged from the benign “herbal teas” to the frankly bizarre. Such as one particularly difficult “mental disturbance” case which his guiding spirit told him, after an overnight drumming and chanting session, could only be cured by feeding the man with the meat of a dog as requested by the trouble causing spirit who currently resided inside this man as a way to release it. We met the man who had been cured who is now in training to be a doctor himself who swore it was indeed the case and now he says is fine. The causes for illnesses and the reasons for cures are up for debate of course but I have to say I found the healer totally charming and with a real concern for his patients and the community. In Mua at the museum the information about witch doctors did say that while some can perpetuate revenge attacks against perceived jealous spell casters or charge extortionate costs for repeat treatments, but that the good ones are aware of village politics and will often prescribe restoration of harmony and reconciliation and are therefore important maintainers of village cohesion.

I promised I would make an appeal for donors to build housing for patients in the compound – many people stay for days or weeks while they are receiving treatment. If anyone is interested in hearing more about his story and would like to help this unusual community project then contact me for details (promise fulfilled).

He made us some lunch, sent out for several more beers and seemed happy just to hang out with us. He was particularly chuffed to read about himself in the guide book and had someone copy it out for him. But eventually we headed back to camp for a lazy evening with a local musician and some star gazing. The island runs on a generator and so the electricity goes off at midnight and so the stars are super bright, we even saw some shooting stars.

We could have done with another day on the island just to enjoy the beach more and we had a pretty good extension because the Ilala ferry was about 10 hours late so instead of leaving at 3am we had a great morning lounging round the bar watching the horizon.

The ferry back to the mainland was just as initially chaotic then fun and relaxed as the way over and we managed to make better friends with one of the lovely families staying on the island who had just had a wedding-festival with guest appearance from the Bees (they live on the isle of wight and everyone seems to know everyone) and met some new people on the ferry who had been working at the Lake of Stars festival. All very rock and roll. Our time with the Ilala and the islands is sadly over. This has certainly been a great way to see the country. Don’t think i’ll be signing up for a cruise ship just yet mind :)

PS. A. Stop loafing around then

Posted by rachndave 23:32 Archived in Malawi Tagged islands culture Comments (0)

Community on the waves

Rachel - The Ilala

Hoonnk Hoooooooooonnnnk. The Ilala is the old, Scottish, iron passenger ship that makes a weekly trip north and south, up and down the lake stopping to pick up passengers and cargo, service the islands and take people between Mozambique and Malawi. It’s super important to the trade and lives of people, especially the islanders, and it even takes tourists.

Most of the harbours don’t have a jetty and so people and all their cargo are piled high onto the lifeboats and everything is then passed up through the door in the side of the hull. And there is a *lot* of stuff. Enormous bags and bags and bags of dried fish and maize flour, sheets of corrugated iron, bundles of hand brooms, suitcases and rucksacks and all sorts of things you just wouldn’t expect to see; a bookcase, a double bed, a live goat tied by the legs…. Tales are told of a speedboat that was to be used by one of the high end resorts lost into the water after it was dropped by the winch. Oops.

Once you make it through the doors with your stuff the corridors are full of sacks and boxes that you have to climb over and under to reach the stairs and then fortunately for us the breezy top deck. I was a little guilty to find that everyone on the first class top deck was white and there were only 20 of us compared to the hundreds of people crammed below. And the costs aren’t *that* different. But anyway for the next 24 hours or so we hung out chatting to fellow travelers, playing poker on the floor with bottle tops and daily disposable contact lenses, watching the cargo loading at the stops (each stop being about 4 hours…there’s a lot of stuff to load), and of course drinking beers. All very civilised and a gentle way to travel such a distance. There was even a shower on the deck below although having a shower on a rocky ship is quite a strange experience I must say.

At night we all slept out on the deck under the stars on foam mattresses where it’s breezy and cool. If you pay for true first class you get a cabin but that *is* much more expensive and apparently very hot so no-one really bothers. Lined up on the deck like that it was a bit like a camp out :) At one point I woke up in a mozambique port with the sun rising over the lake and the engine gently throbbing which was pretty special.

Some people were getting off with us at one of the islands, and there’s really only one place to stay on the island, so we all became pretty good friends and have all unexpectedly met up again since which is one of the other nice things about the Ilala; the sense of community that develops.

We’ve heard that they’re taking it out of service for a while for maintenance but there are no plans to replace it with anything, I can’t imagine what would happen in that case because it seems to be the heartbeat of the lake.

Posted by rachndave 23:26 Archived in Malawi Tagged transportation companions Comments (0)

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)

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