Thursday, 27 October 2016

Malawi – The many worlds of Nyika

October 16-19

Hello everyone!

The middle of October brings a welcome break at our school. The one week holiday thus gave us a chance to explore parts of Malawi which are inaccessible on a regular weekend.

Malawi is a small place; covering less area than England, it is one of the smallest countries below the equator on the African continent. With the capital – and our location – being in the centre of the country, you would think that most places in Malawi would be within quick and easy reach.

There are many reasons for journeys taking longer than you would anticipate, ranging from Lilongwe’s sometimes choking city traffic to the danger of being on the road with local drivers.

It was going to take us a 10-hour, 2-day drive to get 480km north to our first destination: Nyika Plateau. The reasons for the long ride are twofold: the route and the road – of lack of it – in Malawi’s northernmost national park.

The amount and severity of off-roading would be too much for our beloved car: a monster is needed. We thus piled into our neighbours’ Land Cruiser and sped up to Mzuzu – Malawi’s third-largest city. Admittedly, calling it a city is a bit of a stretch.

Though only about 100 km away as the eagle flies, getting to Chelinda, the place to stay in Nyika, is a bit of an ordeal. The route involves driving along the western fringe of the national park, even momentarily popping into neighbouring Zambia, before driving into the centre over some rocky and undulating terrain.

But what terrain it is, unlike anything I’ve seen in Malawi so far. Partly this is due to the altitude, with much of the plateau rising to over 2000 metres above sea level. At times it resembled British countryside, with gently rolling hills awash with greenery.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the same as the Yorkshire moors. One reason is the wildlife; you’re not going to find herds of eland or zebra near Lake Windermere!

Many different species – exotic to us, indigenous to the national park – live in the vast and diverse plateau. Most common seemed to be reedbuck, which look a lot like Bambi.

We also often saw duiker and Roan antelope as we bounced and bobbled over the dusty tracks. October is dry – driving up here would be very challenging in the rainy season.

More exhilarating is spotting one of the rarer animals. On our night game drive we spied – admittedly from a distance – a beautiful serval cat, its ears pointed sharply to the black sky like pyramids.

The cat we really craved to see was a leopard. Nyika apparently has the largest concentration of them in central Africa. However, their secretive and solitary nature makes them very elusive to the human eye. I’m sure you can imagine our frustration returning to our camp, having spent four hours searching for one on our night drive, to discover that a leopard had casually sauntered through our campsite three minutes before our return.

We had more joy looking for the largest of Africa’s land mammals, spotting an elephant ploughing through a valley towards shade with three of her young, one of whom was flapping their ears in delight. We probably saw more elephants – and were closer to them – in Uganda but I can’t imagine I’ll ever tire of watching them.

Though probably looking for a shady spot, the elephants were heading in the direction of water. Nyika actually means ‘where water comes’ and, owing to the altitude, a lot of it passes through here. 30% of Lake Malawi’s water emanates from here.

The most spectacular water feature can be found at Chisanga, which is home to a stunning and powerful waterfall. The water itself was very refreshing!

The views across the plateau, particularly from Domwe and Jalawe, are also incredible.

On a clear day, you can see Zambia, Tanzania, Lake Malawi and Mozambique from Jalawe Rock. Thgouh we climbed it on a hazy morning, the view was still impressive. The rock itself was interesting, scorched from a combination of fire and drought and looking like a dry, bleak dystopia. Fires are common here and can ravage an area very quickly.

It was just another examples of the diversity of Nyika Plateau. Each day felt like we were visiting a different part of the world, even though we would still be within the confines of the national park. It is a lovely place and definitely worth the effort required to reach it!

Love you all,


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