A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about culture

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)

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)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]