The Breathtaking Lake Chilwa Basin

Did you know that Malawi has a salt water lake? It is situated in Zomba and it is called Lake Chilwa. That’s a strange name and I’m clueless of its origin. The lake is part of a basin that goes as far as Phalombe, a district that is adjacent to Zomba towards the rising of the sun. As a basin, there’s a marshland that is home to wild ducks and many more species of birds, some of which have become protected by the country’s laws.

I first visited the lake when I was very young. I could have been 12 years old or younger. There was one dirty road that led straight to the only jetty. The rest of the area was covered in reeds. It was very hot and the air tasted salty. Or that could have been my imagination playing tricks on me. I was told the water was not suitable for drinking, but added a special flavour to the fish caught from the lake.

The fishermen were still using primitive fishing methods. I found it colorful. One would take a circular net and flash it in the air before it landed in the water. Or so I think. (This fragment of flashback has to be checked with facts on the ground – and there’s your trip to this circular shaped lake.) The lake was not deep, as a result people were using canoes to cross it to the biggest island some kilometers away. The canoes had two large holes on their side. One was near the front, and the other near the rear. Instead of paddles, they were using long bamboos for propelling the canoes forward.

The boatman would sink the bamboo until it touched the seabed and then heave it backwards. Then he would proceed to pull it out of the water and cast it in front of him and repeat the process. The canoes would move forward very slowly. Everything was in a slow motion. Then someone would take a bucket and empty the water that was sipping into the canoe through the two holes.

No one could explain the function of the two holes. And no one seemed particularly concerned that the water was deliberately let into the canoe in the first place. This was a game of neither efficiency nor speed. Fortunately, it looked idyllic and artistic. There was no need to rush – the lake was not going anywhere. Incidentally, this is the only lake in Malawi without an outlet, so truly it was not going anywhere.

We bought bags of sun dried fish and headed back to Blantyre where my mum cut it open in the middle, opened it up, cleaned it, dipped it in a dough and fried it in cooking oil. This was a favorite snack, a fish finger of sorts, for those with melancholic attachment to village life. I ate my fill especially the one that was spiced with the hot peri-peri pepper powder. That was my romantic connection to the lake of salty waters.

But like many good things that must come to an end, the bags slowly disappeared and with it my crunchy snack. By the way, this was the only time my mum let me near this snack. Buying it elsewhere was a no, no! “Dirty, dingy kitchens and unhygienic preparation process”, she’d constantly warn me. My great uncle Mr Gwembere, an adventurer with fishing boats on Lake Malawi, who taught me fly fishing from our front lawn, broke the rules once and bought me a massive local fish finger under strict instructions not to share the secret with mum. I ate it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, waiting at any moment to break into sweat, my tummy churning into a storm. It’s a good thing it never happened, and after some time the secret bubbled into a confession to mum.

I never returned to Lake Chilwa until after college. I was with a friend looking for rice paddies where an aromatic rice variety is grown in the rice schemes dotted around the lake. But that is a story for another day.

The Lake Chilwa basin is now under threat from low rainfall, invensive farming methods, siltation and effects of climate change. With a history of drying up during acute drought spells, one only prays that conservation efforts from various players will be able to mitigate against the destructive forces bent on decimating this precious ecosystem.

2 thoughts on “The Breathtaking Lake Chilwa Basin

  1. Nice piece, liked the kanyenya stories. Looking forward to visiting lake Chilwa and enjoy the tasty fish from the lake.

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