Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Malawi – The magic of nguli wankulu

September 24-25

Hello everyone!

This is simply one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and something that few muzungus (white foreigners) would ever witness.

We were lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s local village for a funeral ceremony, known as nguli wankulu. This ritual can occur when a person dies if they fulfil the following criteria:
  • ·         they are not Christian
  • ·         they have been initiated into the local tribe
  • ·         they can afford a tombstone

Hundreds of people from this village and beyond watched the events

We thus drove about 2 hours (one hour of which was very much off-road) to the village of Kafele. Having left later than planned, we arrived in darkness, the only light coming from our car’s headlights.

I think we were somewhere between the forest reserve and the forest

Soon enough, we went to bed to the sound of shrieks and drum banging in the distance. A troupe of dancers work their way through each section of the village throughout the night, celebrating the life of the departed.

Moonlight in Kafele

We woke up at 4am to observe the night performance. Being pitch black and not being allowed to have light near the ceremony, we had to rely on following the sound. The main noise was the chanting of local women.

Another interesting sound we heard was throaty lolling – it’s hard to describe. To replicate it, try making a high-pitched ‘luh-luh-luh-luh-luh’ noise and hitting your throat on the side with your fingers. Quite haunting when many people are doing it at the same time. I’m not sure why it was done.

Throngs of women were dancing and luh-ing

We huddled in a circle around the faint outline of what seemed to be a tree. As our eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness, it became apparent that there were spinning creatures moving around it. The sky began to lighten slightly and we soon saw what these creatures were.

This was the dragon, one of the final beings to appear

I’m not 100% on the purpose of these African whirling dervishes (or why they are dressed as animals) but what I can say is that it is mightily impressive how they are able to spin quickly and to the rhythm whilst only being able to see through a small slit in their animal wicker basket. Not to mention that they are usually hammered from drinking throughout the night.

The drunken cow, heading home for a well-earned sleep

This was a fascinating ritual to witness. The volume of people was impressive considering the time of day – I guess it reflects the importance of the event.

A bull which was mocked remorselessly by the villagers

We were tired but mentally awake after leaving the event so decided to go to a local tea house for a much-needed energy boost. Tea houses such as this are visible across the country but are very different to what you expect them to look like back home. This was more like a saloon bar, with a rickety bench propped in front of a long, thin table. Tea was boiled out the back, before it filled – and I mean filled, the plastic saucer is there to catch the excess – the large, colourful cup. We poured our own sugar for the protection of our teeth.

A tea room in Kafele - most in Malawi look like this

A gigantic cup of tea with almost as much sugar

We were staying with the parents of our friend Joyce and met many of their extended family. Having one ‘muzungu’ is rare enough here; a car-load of us generates much attention. We spent time playing with and entertaining many delightful young children, all with cheeky attitudes and wide smiles.

The youngsters swinging one another 

Hannah receiving some fashion advice

In the afternoon, the main event of the funeral ceremony took place. A series of individual and small group dances were performed by special acts in remarkable costumes. These people are far from amateurs, often performing regularly on what could be brusquely described as a funeral circuit.

The Rastafarian crew

These dancers are rarely from the village of the deceased; instead, they are invited by letter from nearby villages to participate. They perform their dance to the beat of a drum (which was tuned by holding it over fire – clearly my ukulele tuning skills can be improved) and then get given small change from some of the hundreds in the crowd.

A man dressed like a character from Ghostbusters struts his stuff

There is an element of mystery to the event. The performers are not allowed to show their faces at any point – indeed, only men who have been initiated into the tribe can take part. Apparently men and boys who are yet to be initiated (that process apparently involves aspects such as eating a special chicken dish) are forbidden from watching the performances, though in reality everyone sees them. Well, at least until a ‘security guard’ bearing a metal chain starts threatening to whip the youngsters, making them flee.

Faces couldn't be seen at all

The dances varied wildly in content and quality. It’s best to let the videos do the talking for me here…

A particular highlight was when one of the dance groups got hijacked by a man climbing to the top of a very flimsy tree and starting to scream in order to get people’s attention. Another was when a man dressed like a character from Ghostbusters started fiddling with our friend’s hat.

The risks some dancers take to get attention...

So many amazing things happened this weekend that I don’t have time to express in detail. We also popped into Mozambique for an hour and tried nsima, Malawi’s staple meal, for the first time.

A Mozambican hostel?

Enjoying nsima, Malawi's staple carbohydrate
This is a world away from Lilongwe – probably a world away from anywhere I’ve ever been. From the lack of light to the lack of amenities, it’s a completely different way of life to anything I’ve experienced before. To them, of course, Lilongwe would be a radical change so there is no reason for them to wish for some of the comforts we’re used to in the capital.

Kafele's 'high street'

The whole weekend was eye-opening, humbling and inspiring all at the same time. We were told later that this was the best nguli wankulu that has occurred in years in the village. The ultimate feeling I took away from Kafele was that I’m honoured and lucky to have been invited to such an incredible event.

Love you all


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Malawi – Leisure at the lake

September 17

Hello everyone!

Malawi’s main selling point is its lake. Technically it shares the body of water with Mozambique (which calls it Lake Nyasa) but over here it’s known as Lake Malawi.

The lake takes up about 20% of Malawi’s land area, the eastern part of its long, thin land mass. It is the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest on the planet.

The lake has many nicknames, with the most intriguing being the ‘Calendar Lake’. This is due to its dimensions, which are 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.

From Lilongwe, the most accessible resort at the lake is called Senga Bay, approximately 120km away. An easy drive east, with only one turning and a few speed bumps, takes you to a completely different world.

In spite of the country being landlocked and thus not near the ocean, the shores of the lake are made up of pristine white sand.

As I suggested earlier, the lake is rather large. Though fairly narrow, the eastern shore is not visible at all. Sky and sea are separated by a single horizontal line, with only the occasional island in between.

This particular atoll is called Lizard Island, which we took a rickety wooden boat around. We also stopped at the island to do a bit of swimming and snorkelling. Lake Malawi is famed for having more species of fish than any other lake but there are far better places to see them than at Senga Bay.

Having quick and easy access to sandy beaches and a shimmering sea were major reasons for us moving to Malawi. I am sure that this will be the first visit of many to the Calendar Lake.

Love you all


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Malawi – Field trippin’ in the forest

September 7-9

Hello everyone!

Less than one month into my latest teaching position and I’m already off on a residential trip – a 3 day, 2 night jaunt with seventeen Year 5 children to a completely different world from the relative prosperity of Lilongwe.

We were heading 250km north to a place called Luwawa as part of our current unit of learning: equal opportunities.

The larger area is known as Luwawa Forest Reserve, which was once the largest manmade forest in Africa, full of an alluring mixture of indigenous trees and a towering Mexican species called Pinus Pitala. The latter was specifically imported due to its resistance to drought, a problem which is causing massive stress to the area and country.

Destruction and deforestation has led to Luwawa losing this title to a location in Kenya.

In spite of the decreased forest area, Luwawa Forest Reserve is a beautiful area to walk through. The gentle swoosh of the wind through the long grass is particularly relaxing.

Another spot of tranquillity can be found at the dam in Luwawa, built in the 1950s by the British. They actually gave the name to the area; it was originally called Mwawa, but the colonists couldn’t pronounce this correctly so changed it to Luwawa.

The place we stayed in Luwawa was also incredibly peaceful and enjoyable, with two wonderfully caring and sociable owners in George and Christine. Luwawa Forest Lodge is somewhere I can certainly envisage myself returning to without nine-year-olds in tow in the future, particularly to experience some of the other activities on offer such as abseiling.

More raucous was the local school we visited. It was certainly a humbling experience seeing a school very different from our own. There was one main classroom for all to use. We also played an entertaining game of football with the children from that school.

I hope the children learned a lot from the three-day trip: I certainly did. Unusually for a residential trip, it was relatively stress-free and relaxing as the lodge had organised all of the activities. Luwawa is a place I’m definitely looking forward to visiting again next year.

Love you all