Friday, 23 September 2016

Following the Scots to the Mulanje Massif

You may think that my life is a giddy whirl of foreign travel, and I suppose you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I seem to spend half my life in Malawi these days and the other half recovering from Malawi in graceful European cities or stretched out on a beach in Crete. This means, of course, that I am scarcely if ever in Edinburgh and have virtually no time at all to write my blogs.

Wipe away those crocodile tears at once! It is not all glamour, I would have you know. Most of my time in Malawi is spent typing away in government offices which are nowhere near as comfortable as any you may have worked in. The loos are a bit grim, often with buckets of water to compensate for the intermittent flush and no toilet seat, with down-at-heel colonial era decor and an electricity supply which is erratic at best. There is no internet access, only virus-ridden standalone computers. I have learnt never to share any documents with my colleagues by means of memory sticks. My colleagues have to pay for their own dongles or internet scratch cards or visit the internet cafe to pick up any official messages - or indeed, anything from me. There is minimal access to a printer, certainly not for me (remember the memory sticks!), little paper and no photocopier at all. The wiring is terrifying, sockets occupy crumbling holes in the wall and trailing cables hang unattached to anything workable. This is national HQ.

That said, there are, I admit, compensations to the life I lead, and those compensations largely relate to the interesting sights I see when I travel around the country. I am doing a fair bit of this just now, supported by GIZ which provides a robust four-by-four and a driver, so none of the scary stories which I have related in the past. Instead, I look out of the window and marvel. I just love it!

I'm quite often travelling around in the early morning or coming back shortly before the sun starts setting, so the light can be lovely. Actually, this post is really a series of photos, mostly taken from a moving vehicle and recording my journey as I travelled to Machinga, Phalombe and Chiradzulu to visit small rural teacher training colleges. These settlements cluster below the Mulanje Massif, which you see from afar as you traverse the plain, first encountering a few more modest hills.

Tea plantations line the road but, sadly, I failed to photograph them. Tea is an important crop for Malawi, though nowhere near as prolific as tobacco, but at least it is drunk by locals, unlike the excellent coffee.

Storms gathered over the hills as we drove, but they didn't come to much. It wasn't the rainy season after all, not that that means as much these days as it used to do. Clouds lowered over the usual half-ruined or half-built shops, somebody's ambitions defeated by malaria or AIDs or just bankruptcy.

The road was remarkably good: straight tarmac stretching all the way to Mozambique. The mountains hovered mistily on the horizon. We were never alone.  We passed cyclists carrying produce, women carrying children, water, and garden hoes. The odd goat grazed the verges.
Maize and vegetables were carried in woven baskets on planks of wood carried across the backs of the bicycles, off to market at the local trading centre.

We crossed half-dried rivers with banks of filthy mud. Nobody was washing clothes or fetching water from this one, thank goodness, though we were perhaps just a bit late.

And then there it was, the Mulanje Massif rising right before us, with Sapitwa Peak 3000 metres high, a popular destination with hikers and climbers (though not at this time of year).

The first people to live on the mountain were Batwa, related to the southern San Bushmen. Various Bantu tribes, principally the Maganja and Chewa, moved in from the Congo Basin, many miles to the north and lived peaceably enough for many years. Then in the 1800s came their nemesis: the Yao moved in from the north east.
The Yao were traders: ivory for slaves. They were fleeing from their own internal conflicts and ended up devastating an entire region. They still live there, around the southern shores of Lake Malawi. In 1840, they were converted to Islam by Zanzibari Arabs, who gave them weapons and deployed them to raid and capture their hospitable neighbours.

The fabric of society was ripped apart and communities broken up and scattered. Captives were marched through a gap in the mountains and across the other side until they reached Kilwa on the eastern shore of what is now Mozambique, a Portuguese colony. Here the men were castrated and sold as eunuchs to Arab and Portuguese traders, for onwards sale up and down the coastline, and to Zanzibar and Oman. The women and children worked in the fields or as domestic slaves.

And this is where David Livingstone came in. I am not going to repeat his story, I have told it often enough in other posts, but those of you who have read them will know in what respect I hold this great man. Yes, he had his flaws, but he and his fellow Scots missionaries and traders carried out the groundwork which eventually persuaded the British government to put an end to that dehumanising trade.

Mulanje Town, on the border of what is now Mozambique and at the southern end of the Massif, started off as Fort Anderson, built by the British in 1893 to control the slave trade. Fort Lister was built to the north. They were both staffed by Indian soldiers, the first of thousands to move to this part of southern Africa. The British developed tea estates, with expertise and stock from their Indian colonies. The mountains attract the rain so the climate is ideal.

Indeed, Mulanje's rainfall is the reason why it has been in the news over the last few weeks. Malawi had been experiencing a terrible water shortage which not only affects farming and family life but also threatens the viability of what little industry there is because of the resultant power cuts to the hydro electric supply. The newspapers this week were full of stories of inadvertent poisonings as shops have apparently continued to sell perishable goods kept in fridges and freezers affected by the outages.

Well, one of the places where there is still a good supply of water is the Mulanje 'mountain island' which breaks the clouds above the plateau below. The plan is to take water from there to the city of Blantyre, an hour away by car, one of the areas worst affected by the drought.

There has been an outcry. 'It's OUR water!' the people insist. Blantyre, just fifty miles away, could have been on another planet. If, like the little family above (overtaken by a man cycling with water cans), your world is circumscribed by how far you can walk at the pace of the slowest child, then it might just as well have been.

There have been civil disturbances, riots and village chiefs summoned to the authorities. Fortunately the conflict has now been resolved by the decision to plant more trees to encourage more rain so that there'll be enough for everybody. All's well that ends well.

Mulanje is covered in forest and has its own tree, the precious Mulanje Cedar, in 1984 named the national tree of Malawi, by President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Sadly it is now threatened by illegal tree felling. The Forestry Department reckons it will be gone in ten years, together with the endemic plant and animal species living beneath it.

Mulanje has a mission hospital, run by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, for the missionaries are still active in providing the services the government fails to provide. Surprisingly enough, Tim Butcher, one of my favourite travel writers, is a patron. The hospital serves the people on the southern slopes and plains of the Mulanje Massif.

And that is as much as I can tell you about Mulanje. As with all my trips, I see what I can see out of a car window, but am immensely privileged in being able so to do. Oh, there are wonderful national parks in the region: Majete, Liwonde - run down in the past but building up its elephant population) and once extensive forest reservations. However, I don't get to see them as, stupid person that I am, I am still working. Nevertheless, don't you sometimes envy me?

You may also be interested in the following posts

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear

Following the Scots to Karonga

Following the Scots to Zomba

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