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Malawi: The Land of the Lake
Anyone who has lived in Malawi (the former British protectorate of Nyasaland) knows that there is something very special about this place that grows inside you and eventually wraps you in its warm and friendly hand. You can’t put your finger on it; it’s just there, ethereal. But whatever it was, it certainly captured my little family for 16 years. Without a doubt, these are some of the happiest years of our lives.
It is a beautiful country, one third of its surface covered with water. From the low lake, the ground rises to the beautiful grassy hills of the Nyika plateau and up to the steep mountains of Zomba and Mulanje. Swimming in the freshwater lake is like diving into a warm, tropical aquarium with a myriad of sparkling, multi-colored cichlids. But in some areas, keep a watchful eye out for crocodiles (colloquially known as “flat dogs”) and hippos (“mvu” in Chichewa, the local language). Lake Malawi is called Lake Calendar, 365 miles long and 52 miles wide, and is the deepest in the Rift Valley.
What attracted me to the country, among other things, is its history. I was fascinated by all the former Victorian Christian missionaries who came to spread the Word over 150 years ago. David Livingstone was the first of this courageous group of individuals. His “Missionary Travels” opened up vast areas of Africa, including what is now Malawi, and his spirit lives there to this day. Five crosses mark the graves of later missionaries at the former Livingstonia Mission on the south shore of the lake at Cape Maclear. They bear witness to the evangelical zeal of the owners of the old bones now buried. These missionaries had to face unimaginable difficulties. The Anopheles mosquitoes claimed them; mass murderers, serial killers. Dr Livingstone’s wife Mary succumbed to it and she is buried under a baobab tree in an unguarded grave on the banks of the Zambezi River. Bishop Mackenzie, that tall, handsome and athletic man of God, died on an island near the confluence of the Shire and Ruo rivers, ravaged by pests.
Other missionaries, malaria survivors, were Chauncy Maples and Will Johnson. They were two remarkable spreaders of the Gospel who had been together at Oxford University and their combined efforts led to the building of the famous Anglican Cathedral on the island of Likoma in the lake. Johnson was the “apostle” of the shore of the lake, which was his parish for more than 40 years, striding, thin in his long white robes. But if Johnson owned the shores, Maples certainly owned the waters. He drowned there when his boat sank during one of those sudden, vicious storms that characterize the lake. His cassock dragged him under. The “Lake of Stars”, as Livingstone described it, is a very moody and often dangerous body of inland waters…especially when the southeast wind “mwera” is blowing. The spirit of another missionary, Dr. Laws, still ‘walks’ in the cool shade of the old ‘stone house’ where a new Livingstonia mission has been relocated to a high plateau overlooking the lake. It was high above the pestilential fumes on the shore of the lake which Dr Laws believed were responsible for the deadly fevers. Malaria permeates Malawi’s history and, like the slave trade, it decimated the population.
At Nkhotakota, the former Arab slave store on the shore of the lake, a sense of evil still permeates today. From there, thousands and thousands of captives were sent by dhow across the lake, then harnessed together and herded to the Indian Ocean coast, driven by the cruelty of the “ruga ruga” (wild beings, painted , semi-humans, carrying eyelashes). This was followed by a suffocating journey by boat across the sea to Zanzibar, the central slave market for the Arab world and the Orient. Only about a quarter of the slaves survived this trip to hell. Fierce battles took place to end this bestial practice in the Karonga region of Malawi, led by British settlers: Sir Harry Johnston, the Moir brothers, Frederick Lugard and Monteith Fotherington. These wars raged on for years, largely unnoticed by an outside world preoccupied with other wars of the late 19th century. Finally, the infamous Arab trader Mlosi was defeated and hanged in Karonga, marking the end of slavery in the region. But it was Livingstone who had first exposed the horrors of it all. This and his voyages of exploration form his lasting legacy. He died a lonely death in what is modern Zambia, kneeling by his rough bedside, plagued by dysentery and bleeding piles. Faithful African followers carried her embalmed body hundreds of miles to the coast from where it reached its final resting place at Westminster Abbey. His heart, however, remains in the soil of the Africa he loved.
From Malawi come other fascinating stories; like the famous account of Commander Rhoades who initiated the first naval engagement of the First World War. He rammed the gunship Hermon von Wissmann while in drydock at Sphinxhaven on the eastern shore of the lake with a salvo from a 6-pounder Hotchkiss on his gunship Gwendolyn. Rhoades had had drinks and dinner shortly before with his old friend the German gunship commander who was oblivious to the outbreak of war, so Herr Brent’s apoplectic rage echoed through the smoke and fire at through the waters with, “gott for damn Rhoades, are you drinking?”
It has been my great pleasure to visit many of these places I have mentioned and reflect on the lives of great people. As a company pilot, I got to know the surrounding territories quite well between 1991 and 2008. My fascination with Livingstone spread to Tanzania where I explored the old house at Unyanyembe, (modern Tabora) the house where Livingstone and Stanley separated. society in 1872. Stanley returned home to England to bask in the fame of his famous newspaper article, while Livingstone went in search of the illusory source of the Nile. He was never seen alive again by another white man and within a year he was dead. I saw valuable pieces of Livingstone’s memorabilia at the Zambian Town Museum that bears his name. And I visited the museum in Blantyre, Malawi, named after his birthplace. And I gazed with morbid fascination at the tools of the slave trade, leg irons and wooden neck yokes, on display at the Bagamoyo Museum on the Indian Ocean coast. It was the last staging post for the hinterland slaves in Zanzibar.
History came alive for me during my travels. Old German coins, with the emblazoned eagle, could be bought from young people on the beach at Bagomoyo, the former capital of German East Africa. And KAR (Kings African Rifles) medals and old brass trinkets from ancient Arabia could be found in the crowded bazaars of Zanzibar. The Selous Game Reserve, named after the famous hunter who was killed there by a German sniper during World War I, was impressive in its vastness and diversity of wildlife. I have traced the journeys of Commander Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck with his askaris around this area and across the Rovuma and Lugenda rivers into Mozambique. I marveled at the boldness and skill of the man in leading guerrilla warfare against British forces in East Africa during World War I. He was never captured and eventually made it to Abercorn in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) at the armistice.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls, ruins in Zimbabwe, chimpanzees in Uganda, Caborabasa Dam and the Zambezi and Chobe rivers, circling the volcano in Comoros and catching sailfish and sea bream off Malindi on the Kenyan coast are deep-rooted memories. So are the memories of flying in formation with vultures in a glider over Wankie Game Reserve, stalking wild dogs near the Gwaai River Lodge (now raised on the ground), collecting spices and old books in Dar-es-Salaam. I chased the ghost of Beryl Markham (that famous aviator) at the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi where she lived and at the Wings Club of East Africa where she frequented. The stories of ‘White Mischief’ and the Ngong Hills intrigued me, as well as the mysterious unsolved murder of the Earl of Erroll in Nairobi and Van der Post’s ‘Ventures to the Interior’ on the Nyika set. The ruins of the Flying Boat base are still in Cape Maclear. These BOAC “boats” landed there in 1949, en route from England to the Vaal Dam in South Africa. In the nearby bush, the “Guru wan kulus” still dance around the night fires to the rhythm of beating drums. The ‘gurus’ are male secret society initiates who dress strangely and fiercely and are frequently seen running along country roads in Malawi; scary things. The children scatter as they approach and even the adults quickly flee.
Africa is a fascinating continent and Malawi is, for me, at its very heart. In fact, it is known as the “warm heart of Africa” and I often thought about this beautiful description at sunset in the tropics. Sipping Carlsberg frosty beer (locally brewed) with good friends as the sun went down in Monkey Bay was a perfect setting for reflection. Ask anyone who’s been there. But, I never reached the top of Mulanje mountain, and it is a big regret that I have since I left Malawi to live in Canada. So I have to go back to this Warm Heart one day.
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