Friday, 10 February 2017

Walking from present-day Dedza back to the Stone Age

The trouble with working abroad is that you rarely get to see much of the country itself during your visit. That is why I enjoy travelling around as much as I can as at least you can see out of the car windows. I have been coming backwards and forwards to Dedza, in central Malawi, for some years now, but have not gone much beyond the town itself except on school visits. So any opportunity to spend an hour or two at leisure is a real treat.

At lunchtime I may just wander around the streets, enjoying the buzz of local life. Here are two out-of-school children playing with their homemade toys: a bicycle wheel and a little 'car' made of scrap metal wire on the end of a bamboo stick

When I have a bit of time at the end of the day, I usually walk until twilight, not that long as the sun starts to set at around 5.30 in the afternoon. By six it is quite dark. However, the landscape around Dedza is so dramatic that even a short twenty minutes' walk can provide lovely views across the plain, with the granite inselborg outcrops (kopjes) silhouetted against the setting sun.

I am rarely alone on my rambles. There are always people walking to and from their homes. We may try to engage each other in conversation, usually with little success. Groups of women with babies on their backs climb back up the hill from the trading centre.

Children and women carry home the precious firewood which denudes the country of trees but is essential for cooking and, indeed, for heating. These photos were taken in June, the coldest part of the year in the coldest part of the country. At 1590 metres above sea level, Dedza is the highest town in Malawi. The average daytime temperature in June is around 19 degrees C. At night, the temperature drops to around 9 degrees. When I was there it was actually about 7 degrees and I slept in my fleece. The wood, therefore, is also for keeping people warm during the chilly evenings.

So, every afternoon, you see the heavy bundles of firewood being carried back home. And heavy they are. I cannot even lift them, let alone carry them for several miles.

And, it is not just women who carry such burdens although women do much of the heavy carrying. If you do not have a bicycle, and most families do not, then the only way to transport anything is to carry it yourself. This man is carrying several heavy planks of wood for mile after mile after mile.

These are scenes you will see anywhere in present day Malawi at any time of year and at any time of day.

However, if you are lucky, as I was one Saturday morning, you may be able to walk from the present into the past. How come? The forested granite hills which surround Dedza are home to what UNESCO calls 'the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa'. Indeed, the Chongoni area has been designated a World Heritage Site. The art appears on 127 sites on many of the stark and rugged outcrops in this area. Sadly, I have only managed to visit one of these sites as you really need to be taken by somebody, for after bouncing along dirt roads for miles, you then need to walk, indeed, scramble up the rocky hillsides. I have waited a year and a half for another opportunity, delaying this post until I had done so. My time is now running out, however, so here are some of the photos I took in June 2015. Whether I will ever manage to visit some of the other sites, I do not know.

Most of the sites were developed by the Chewa farmers, the dominant ethnic group in central Malawi, who speak the main language, Chichewa. The sites date back to early Iron Age times and even earlier, but continued to be used right up to modern times. The paintings therefore span many centuries. Other sites dating back to the late Stone Age (between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago) were developed by Batwa pygmy groups, hunter gatherers who have largely disappeared as a separate group as they intermarried with the Chewa.

The art has been painted onto the natural stone of the rock shelters which have been used for various purposes over time. Their main use has been cultural and spiritual. Some of the symbols are associated with Chewa funeral rites, rainmaking and other rituals, particularly those connected with women, who probably carried out most of the painting. Chewa society used to be matrilineal. The varying design of the symbols also records the transformation of the local culture from one based on foraging to one of settled farming. Indeed, ritual painting continued right into the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most significant association of the paintings is with Nyau secret societies, an important element in indigenous religion in Zambia and Mozambique as well as Malawi. Nyau beliefs survived despite invasion by the Ngoni and opposition from missionaries and colonial authorities. In fact, these beliefs may have helped the Chewa cope with the trauma they experienced as their society and traditional way of life disintegrated around them.

Nyau secret societies carry out separate initiation ceremonies for men and women, where adherents learn about their ritual roles within society, depending on their age and gender. Nyau beliefs are represented in ritual dances during which animal masks are worn. The beliefs and traditions of Nyau continue today, though sometimes alongside Christianity. I have seen masked dancers myself a couple of times, just passing them by the side of the road, whether Nyau or not, I cannot say. It is said that the painted shelters are still used for initiation ceremonies, particularly for girls. These associations make the Chongoni sites important cultural centres for people across the whole of Malawi.

The shelters were used for more prosaic reasons during the mid-nineteenth century. At that time, the peaceable clans of the Chewa people were being attacked by the warlike Ngoni, a Zulu tribe who moved up from the south. The Ngoni captured Chewa villagers and sold them to slave traders. In order to escape these depredations, Chewa communities retreated to higher ground, using the rock shelters for protection.

Most of the rock art sites are within a forest reserve, set up in 1924 and from which the population was relocated. Much of the original forest cover has been replaced by conifers. Although local people have always known of the paintings, they came to public attention in the 1930s and 1950s and in 1969 five of them were opened to the public. Excavations have found artefacts dating back two and a half thousand years. 

One unfortunate feature of the sites is the lack of real protection, not just from the elements but from the tourists who visit them. These are not mass tourist sites, access is not controlled and there are no organised tours. Despite the fact that it is quite difficult to scramble up the hillside, even the few visitors who come here have not respected the integrity of the site. You may have noticed some modern graffiti on the stone, even covering some of the designs.

The paintings are of different kinds. During the first millennium AD, the Chewa farmers painted figures of people using white clay, whereas the Batwa mainly used red. Some paintings depict naturalistic representations of human beings and others show animals, while others still are geometric red designs.

It is a very strange experience, visiting a site like this. You are immediately aware that you are treading where generations have trodden before you. However, for someone like me, coming from outside the country and the culture, so much is mysterious. I can look at the paintings, but I do not know what they represent beyond the most superficial level. They may seem simple, even crude compared with better-known sites like the Lascaux caves, yet it is their spiritual significance which is important. They are not so much art as symbols of something beyond the natural world.
I have talked to my friends about local traditions, for example, when we have passed masked dancers at the side of the road. However, Malawi prides itself on being a Christian country and even people I know quite well shy away from admitting to the continuing existence or acceptability of many of these beliefs and traditions. I have even had deep discussions about whether or not drumming should be allowed in church. To me it seems obvious that drumming is part of Malawi's culture and should be cherished and promoted. Why wouldn't local music be part of Christian worship? However, to my Christian friends, drumming represents an aspect of 'pagan' belief which they feel they cannot accept. 
I am sure that Nyau secret societies would be similarly discredited from my friends' perspective. In my ignorance, I also cannot assume that they do not have very good reasons for this. We know from the survival of age-old traditions like child marriage or ritual sacrifice that the continuation of a tradition does not necessarily mean that it is positive. One man's traditional religion is another man's witchcraft. Indeed, in Malawian society, which is under serious pressure just now, some of the more negative behaviours have been returning. Sacrifice of albinos, for example, has become increasingly prevalent in both Malawi and Tanzania. And, despite the horror it provokes, you can understand that in circumstances when people feel powerless, they may resort to any activity which they think may enable them to control their environment and steer their future. Albino sacrifice, for example, is associated with the acquisition of wealth.
Who knows what Nyau secret societies may have contributed to the survival of Chewa self respect and pride during the colonial era? We cannot know the answer to that question because, of course, secret societies are secret. However, there is no indication that I am aware of that Nyau rituals are overly destructive or cruel. (See the links at the end of this post.)
I could not develop any deep understanding of the significance of the rock paintings. Nevertheless, I was very grateful for the opportunity to view them and would love to visit some of the other sites. I enjoy observing a bit of Malawi beyond the obvious. The visit to the Chongoni rock art was one which particularly moved me.

The Nyau
If you are interested in the traditions of the Nyau, follow this link to an interesting account told through photographs of their traditions and beliefs: The secret cult of Nyau dancers by Vlad Sokhin, who spent some time studying them in Mozambique. Sokhin has also written this article about them: The secret cult of Nyau dancers.

There is also this video: Nyau secret society and the occult which features some of the dances, together with interviews with participants.

Also The Day I infiltrated an African Cult:, which also features the photographs of Vlad Sokhin.

You may also be interested in the following post: Wandering around Dedza's green and pleasant land

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