“There is something interesting up ahead that I know you will want to capture.”
The tour notes I had briefly skimmed made specific note to witchcraft belief held by the Chewa people living around Ntchisi Mountain in central Malawi. At the time of reading, spell casting barely registered but within the first hours of my arrival, the power of the craft was staring at me. But let me tell you more about my first eight hours in this east central African country.
Weary from over 40 hours of airplanes and ports I stared into the late afternoon where six months of dry season still held a grip. A rusty, dusty film claimed every aspect of the environment. Its grip was inescapable. My arrival had culminated with an administrative visa nightmare only a developing country could finesse, and, staring into the sun seared landscape, I was almost beyond rallying. Only humour could work, and thankfully, exhaustion was stayed by two amazingly jolly Scots coming to play at The Lake of Stars Festival, an annual event in late September featuring UK and Malawian music at Lake Malawi.
My driver, John, and I were still in the first hours of a week sojourn in central Malawi (with http://www.nyasaadventures.com/index.html) and most of my physical being was not biting the hook. Parched fields framed the red dust road, sloping steeply on the sides, no doubt a necessity for the wet season but for now, barely clutching the adjacent fields. In Malawi leaving the paved highways means slowing to pothole avoidance pace, past villages, rolling hills and fields manually being prepped for the coming rains. We had been creeping along backroads for longer than my fatigued body could manage when, down the road spread a procession of villagers followed by a creature that can best be described with a photograph. In my stupor I could make out a walking, shaking, or was that dancing, grass reed laden llama with cactus paddles for ears. This other worldly animal was surrounded by village men who looked at me just as glaringly as I looked at it. You don't have to imagine any more, just look below. What do you think?
My weary eyes began to rally to John's challenge and push sleep deprivation aside. Summoned to a higher purpose fatigue lifted as he explained that the death of a village dancer who warded off witchcraft had rallied the village to fend off the evil spirits for him. He had been a Gulu Wamkule (Nyau) dancer.
Moving on from this spectacle, after being awarded audience and photos, we soon came upon another village group, this one women and children with another witch hunt character, moon faced, grassy hair, fully dressed in an effort to remain anonymous. Noiseless (rather unAfrican), at least on the road, the show is about actions and coverup to avoid detection among neighbours.
Surrounded by mystery and intrigue, Gulu Wamkule dancers dress in masks, vegetation and the skins of animals. When they dance they even kick up the dust in order to help disguise themselves. The dancers belong to a secret society, only the chief who appointed them guardians of the village know who they are. Initiations are separate for men and women but the mask is core. They have the elevated responsibility of driving away evil spirits from the village. It is still a tribal world in rural Malawi where local governing is the reality for those who rarely travel beyond their village. The belief system in most developing countries has been upset by western culture and Malawi is no exception, where "religion" has merged into a blend of Christianity with a dose of Gulu Wamkule. Although it was only a three hour drive from Lilongwe International to Ntchisi, I was already in another world but those two surreal interludes transplanted me to another planet.
Back to earthly pleasures, we arrived at dusk at Ntchisi Mountain Forest Reserve Lodge, a colonial 1914 hill retreat managed by a Dutch couple, Rob and Irene. They greeted me like expectant friends and graciously invited me to dine with them and another guest Ray (a retired engineer who assisted the Malawian government installing the entire telecommunications in Malawi). I was soon dreamily sitting on the terrace overlooking the lower Rift Valley, listening to Malawian traditions and culture, a timely preparation for my three week visit far from mythological cosmology. Over cocktails we shared guesses on what kind of owl was serenading us. There at least fifteen to pick from. It is Africa, after all, diversity is the rule, where most species have at least three word descriptors. A side event that I was trying to ignore had been creeping up the mountain on my approach and was hard to ignore in the darkness. A forest fire was becoming hard to ignore but more on this later.
While sipping shade grown, fresh ground Malawian coffee (available at the lodge for lasting memories) my guide Evelyn arrived. The lodge makes an effort to hire local women, as well as promote conservation measures for the forest in a world where deforestation is rampant. We hiked in the reserve where she pointed out medicinal plants, and meandered her village, practising Chichewa with tolerant locals. Malawians are genuinely friendly people and this early impression remained throughout my visit. Over the next few days, when I wasn’t exploring the lodge (extensive library on flora, fauna, Malawi) and surrounds (an indigenous forest with over 400 orchid species, 280 terrestrial) and learning from my hosts and guide, I took a stab at IDing my first Malawian birds. The possibilities were among 250 species noted from this forest reserve. A fun challenge lay ahead for me.
One final note about the fire. I found out later in my stay that the lodge managers had calmly rallied local village men to fight the fire for pay. A controversial move, borne out of necessity, as natural disasters don't wait for diplomacy. Farming practices (some say poaching) and local need for firewood conflict with the need to preserve the forest reserve and, thus, the water supply for the area. Developing world challenges. As I tucked into the luxurious bed that first night with the unidentified owl still hooting and hinting, I pinched myself over the range of experiences over the past 12 hours. It is not every day you experience the supernatural, a new owl (super natural to me), an engineer who knows every telephone pole in the country, hospitality from strangers and a looming fire that had magically diminished, all finished off with a slab of fresh Macadamia Nut Pie. I pinched myself one last time counting owls in my sleep, under the spell of Malawis charms and challenges.
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