Read It Again: That Which We Have Heard

The Apostle John of the Bible is one of the most blessed men to ever walk the face of the earth. Jesus met him when he was a young man, and immediately took him as an object of love. He walks besides Jesus and grows in knowledge and character. He builds experience to the point that he becomes a veteran of the Gospel. In his ministry, he becomes a pastor of the Church of Ephesus, which was founded by the Apostle Paul. He also becomes a prisoner of Christ when he gets banished to the terrible and isolated isle of Patmos, which was reserved for dangerous and desperate rejects of the Roman society. John sees it all.

Light on the horizon. John saw the light in Jesus.
Light on the horizon. John saw the light in Jesus.

In the end, he gets to write one of the four cornerstones of the Gospel. Then while at the Isle of Patmos, he receives a series of the most spiritual visions ever recorded by man, and he as a faithful scribe writes the Book of Revelation, the last of the New Testament. And when John gets old, he writes the three beautiful books, I John, II John and III John. He gets to experience every facet of a Christian life first as a young disciple, then as a young Apostle, then as a pastor and as a prisoner of Christ.

So when he says that which he has seen, he’s reflecting across the entire spectrum of his Christian life. He identifies Eternal Life from the beginning and mentions it in all the three groups of his books. But he doesn’t stop there. He emphasizes that he has seen Eternal Life with his eyes, he has looked upon it, he has handled it with his hands. He calls it the Word of Life.

Read 1 John again. When he says he is a witness and that he shows us the Eternal Life, which is the Father, we better listen. Of all the people that ever walked on earth, he is the definitely the right candidate to make such a statement.

Read it again.

Read It Again: Lead Me to the Rock

Lead Me to a Rock That is Higher Than I

One of the toughest activities in the wild is rock climbing. At first sight, a rock may seem bare with no place for a foothold. Upon careful study a path appears and a pattern will reveal itself to take you to the top.

This is one craft I want to master. It will take years to perfect my skill but in the end it will be worth it. Which brings us to the topic of the day. In Psalms 61: 1 – 2, King David is in deep trouble. His heart is overwhelmed and he’s crying to God and he’s praying to God.

Then he asks for an impossible request. Instead of asking God to remove his problems, or to be taken to a soft bed of roses, he asks for a bigger challenge. He tells God “lead me to a Rock that is higher than I”. Neither does he ask God, fly me to the Rock, nor pull me to the Rock. Lead me he says. It means he’s ready to FOLLOW.

When he gets to the Rock, there will be the part of climbing it to get to the top. That is not a small matter. If this is a solution to solving problems when our hearts have been overwhelmed then help me Dear Lord.

So read it again. God wants to toughen us through the challenges we face. When we face problems God does not help us escape by running in the opposite direction. No, he leads us to a Rock that is higher than us. I want to learn from such a God. Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Birds of Childhood

Birds are probably the most fascinating group of animals outside fish. The colours, the sounds, the feeding habits, the locomotion all hold sway in our endless fascination with them.

When we were young we did not treat all birds equally. Some were good, some bad and others ugly. It had to take books, magazines, wildlife movies and talks to persuade us to regard them differently.

Here’s the list with an example from each category, not exhaustive for the sake of brevity:

THE GOOD

The good included the mighty fish eagle, the versatile kingfisher, the dashing falcon, the dainty sisisi, the feminine phingo, the ruthless mpheta, succulent pumbwa, the powerful tchete, the mysterious mwiyo.

If I’m not wrong, the biggest eagle in Malawi is nkhwazi the fish eagle. It adorns the official emblem for Malawi Police Service. It is majestic, has a sharp eye and its white plumage puts it in a class of its own. I first saw it at Blantyre Zoo then in the wild in Mangochi.

Urban legend raised its status even further. “It never misses a catch!” So we would often be told in our childhood circles. And when we learnt about refraction at school and realised that the eagle has to adjust the position of the prey on the account of bent light rays, it established itself as the ultimate predator of the skies.

THE BAD

Way before I could mention a dozen names, one bird had already stood out for being bad. Owls have very bad reputation among the locals in Malawi. They are connected to witchcraft and superstitions.

Its position of the eyes – in front instead of being on the sides – did not help its cause. And we were told it can twist the neck round and round, following your every movement. One time there was a big owl on the street light two houses away from ours. I shooed it, and it dove straight at me. I had to duck before it pulled back and flew away.

That fixed it as a bad bird. Only to be boarded by literature from the west that calls it wise. Old wise owl? I’m not so sure about that. Give me an eagle any time. Admittedly, owls have fascinating facts top of which is their ability to remain quiet while in flight. The feathers on their wings act as silencers.

THE UGLY

I hesitated coming up with this category least I may be misunderstood. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so the saying goes. It is indeed true. However, looks or habits might contribute to the beholder thinking otherwise. For example, bats may be interesting birds however the looks department is highly compromised. Their flight pattern makes it worse, and perching on a tree trunk upside down seals it.

Then there was this bird that loves to feed on tadpoles. It likes to stand in muddy or swampy waters. It has a dull brown for a coat. Its neck assumes a terrible posture. Then it decides to have the ugliest nest ever built by a bird. That is not helping the cause Mr Natchengwa. It’s called hamerkop in English.

Here is the thing, in life we cannot all be eagles soaring in the skies above storms and worries of life. Some may very well be the other birds. Don’t feel bad, just praise God for what you are. Don’t try to stick in feathers that don’t belong to you. If you are a hamerkop, build the best ugliest nest you can manage regardless of what one child who grew up in Blantyre thinks of you.

But more importantly, if you are an eagle don’t try to blend in. Reach out for the skies. Let out your scream and hunt for fresh food. Don’t try to please brother hamerkop by scooping out a few tadpoles – they will give you serious indigestion. Don’t dye your wonderful plumage dull brown to fit in.

Let’s remember to stay humble, for the mighty eagle might fly very high but he cannot twist his neck like an owl, or fly quietly.

Life, seen in the beauty of birds, is fascinating.

Childhood City Adventures: Kunkha (gleaning the harvest)

Some things we do as kids later on tend to be seeds of greatness or phenomenal success. However, there are other things whose intricate value is difficult to ascertain, other than that they were moments of pleasure. One such thing was the practice of gleaning. Whenever the sweet potatoes would be harvested in the fields just outside our neighborhood, we would go and glean after what was left. Usually, these would be little tubers too small to be worth the effort of getting them off the ground. We would glean with pieces of sticks, instead of the usual hoes. Nonetheless, from time to time, one would stumble upon a sizeable tuber.

Occassionally, we would be given a chase by owners of adjacent fields whose harvest was still full, and who would mistake us for thieves. At one point, a field owner who had a sugarcane field nearby gave us a chase while wielding a sharp panga knife. We later made peace when it became apparent to him that we were not after the sweet grass. In a way, this was fun – dangerous fun , if there’s such a thing.

After the exercise, we would put all our “harvest” together and head back home for a night of feasting. As indicated in the previous article, we would set up bon fires at the Lisimbas, who happened to be my next door neighbours in Nkolokosa, a high density location in Blantyre. We called our sweet potatoes kunkha, which simply means gleaning after the harvest. And it’s an expression not restricted to sweet potatoes. It can apply to anything that is picked up after the harvest.

Gathering around the fire, we would put the kunkha on the hot ashes, and wait for the sweet aroma to signify the roasting was complete. The potatoes would become soft to the touch and when poked with a piece of grass or wire, it would easily pierce through the skin. Again, ash was always nearby, so the face would become painted in strokes of grey and black, while we indulged.

As I recall, this was the practice year in, year out until one day the Lisimbas came up with a brilliant innovation. Instead of throwing the tubers on the direct fire, they put them in a tin and sealed it with a thick plastic cover. Our prized harvest suddenly became a steamed affair, and the improvement on taste was through the roof! No more ash on the face, no more burnt skin, and there was much consistent texture all around the tubers.

Come to think of it, years later, Kondwani Lisimba went into food production and is now a renowned chef, food production manager and owner of a food production company. So maybe after all, everything we do as little ones serves as tributaries that come together to form one gushing river further down in the stream of life.

Kunkha, both the old and new ways, gave us a first glimpse of camp cooking while in the comfort of our homes.

Childhood City Adventures: M’bulitso (grain popping)

The series on childhood adventures continues.Something inside each one of us wants to do more than merely just existing. This is best illustrated when we are young. And this could be because at that age there are no constraints yet on one’s thinking. Reality has not turned into an inhibitor, which is commonly the case when we grow up.

As parents were busy buying what they assumed to be quality food to keep us at bay, and jerseys for cold evenings after the maize harvest, our minds were drawn to something else. This was the season of open bon fires made from piling up dried maize stalks, twigs and dried grass.

Sometimes we could make the fire at the Luphales, where Chifundo and Henry lived, or across the street at the Mkorongos where Gloria, late Joseph, Nebiot and Yotam domiciled. But the “baddest” ones were built at my next door neighbours. The Lisimbas had natural leaders in Chikondi, Fred and Kondwani.

One day we made one big fire whose flames overtook the power lines. When someone suggested that this could cause a huge electric fire, we all took off to our houses leaving Kondwani and Fred to sort out the mess. Fortunately nothing happened and one by one, soot covered faces reappeared to continue with the pleasures of the evening.

Amidst the dying embers, with wild stories making rounds, the highlight of the evening unfolded. The Lisimbas threw maize grains on the ashes and eager faces gazed intently on the fire. As soon as a popping sound was heard, someone would pounce on the pop, rake it off the fire, pick it up quickly, blow off the ash and toss into his/her mouth.

Since it was still hot, the pop would be chewed with the mouth open, pumping the cheeks at the same time to fan cool air into the mouth’s chamber. All this would be done in a fraction of a second, too fast for any outsider to comprehend the sophistication involved in eating local popcorn.

Put this on endless repeat. For whatever reasons the reflex of the big boys was as fast as lightening. After a few futile attempts, as the faces of the younger ones showed despair mercy would come with a pop extended to you on dancing palms. Holding it still would burn the hand of the benefactor. As soon as the transfer was made, the dancing of palms would switch to you before popping the food gem into one’s grateful mouth. Fanning the pop while smiling at the same time cemented the deal.

One pop at a time, with story after story while warming ourselves on the open fire, soot all over our faces, we passed many a pleasant evening. We used to call the pops, and the popping process, m’bulitso in the vernacular. A transliteration would be popping. No amount of modern popcorn purchased from the grocery could replace this fun.

Oh by the way, to the m’bulitso connoisseurs, they always knew the maize grain was about to pop when it would start hissing then whistle. Seconds later, there would be the familiar popping sound not unlike the sound of the opening of a champagne bottle. And within that second, the pop would be in the mouth. Any delay in retrieving the pop from the fire would burn it, sucking up its succulence.

Now, I look back at the bon fire on many nights, having forgotten all the stories that were shared. However, I can still see the reflection of the dying embers in the eyes of my friends, and watch in my mind once again the joys of m’bulitso.

Go ahead. Try it around a campfire with family and friends. It may offer a native alternative to roasting marshmallows.

Spankable Adventures Continue: Blantyre City Dams

My childhood years were never boring. Treasured moments abound. Having grown up in Nkolokosa Township in Blantyre, adventures were at every turn. As shared in the previous article, parents understood the need for us to explore our world. But they were also aware of the dangers that some places or events posed on our little souls. Despite being strongly discouraged to go to the so-called forbidden land, our incessant itch to discover was too much to ignore. In the end, the curiosity prevailed over the possibility of getting a reprimand, being grounded or occasionally getting a lash. In our little minds, it was worth taking the risk.

One such forbidden land were the city dams. Blantyre City, being hilly, has many rivers and over the years, the city council constructed dams for various purposes. The closest to us was Chimwankhunda down located at the bottom of Soche Hill. As a matter of fact, the dam stood between us and the hill. The second dam was much further away. Chiwembe Dam (it has another English name, which I can’t recall at the moment) was towards the east of Soche Hill, and was at the boundary of the Chiwembe neighbourhood. The last dam of interest was Mudi Dam, the official reservoir for Blantyre Water Board. It was located in Ndirande, probably the most popular township in the city.

No one was allowed access to these dams, and security patrolled them day and night. The older boys, from time to time, would dare a breach and venture into the restricted areas. On one occasion, we witnessed some boys going merry-go-round with the guards. They made sure they were constantly moving, and kept the guards on the other side of the dam as much as possible. It was silly but it was fun. We could only watch the proceedings from a safe distance away.

Then for whatever reason, the guarding services at two of the dams became erratic. This was a lifetime opportunity to visit the aquatic paradise. As usual, the older boys – Kondwani and Fred Lisimba, who happened to be my next door neighbours – went for an exploratory trip. They came back with stories of fishing, swimming and water games at Chimwankhunda Dam. What’s more, they managed to convince my mom that there was a shallow side, where little ones like myself could partake somewhat of the goodness of the dam. Reluctantly, my mum let go with strict instructions to Kondwani.

Chimwankhunda was indeed a paradise. Partly covered at the inlet by a type of reeds that gave off a sweet powdery fruit, it boasted of clear waters and had plenty of fish. Others ate the fruit as a snack, but the one I sampled was not sweet at all. The fruit was shaped like a double lollipop. Apparently, the sweet one was the one at the top of the stalk, but then boys from other neighbourhoods had an early entrance to the party and had wiped out the sweet ones before we showed up.

We went there several times, and I gave a try at fishing. When I accidentally dropped my line near where I was standing in the shallow waters, a little fish caught my hook. I yanked it up, and it was a tiny silver shimmering tube at the end of the fishing line. Being so lucky early in the day, I awaited for a bigger catch. The catch never came. And when we got chased by a guard, I became a little reluctant to return the following day. I think the tiny, little detail of guards chasing us as trespassers was left out when Kondwani was getting permission from my mum.

One Saturday morning the weather was perfect for a fishing trip. I wanted to join the older boys for another day of fun at the dam. Unfortunately, there was a day trip to the village, and that opportunity could not be missed. Thondwe, my dad’s home village in Zomba, was a house of plenty. There was a dambo (valley) full of sweet, sweet sugarcane, and grandmother always let me eat to my fill. There was bananas, guavas, mangoes, pomegranates, pawpaws, avocado pears, and nthema (wild round fruit). And then there were stories from my one late uncle, Uncle Gerald, and lots of cousins (led by George) of hunting mice and birds, and the occasional illegal traps for village chickens – told in secret with glee like someone returning from a trip from Mars.

On my return from the village, I was met with shocking news. Someone from our neighbourhood had drowned at Chimwankhunda Dam. Permissions were stripped off, and once again, it became a forbidden land.

After some time, our quest turned from fishing to keeping fish in makeshift, outdoor, local aquaria. We could also keep the live fish in bottles made from empty plastic juice bottles. Those with little talent would use used cooking oil bottles, but these were difficult to clean in the first place and usually small. That changed when Kukoma cooking oil started coming in 5 litre bottles. Then those with super talent learnt how to thoroughly clean the bottles, and made sure there was no layer of oil floating in the water. We had already figured out that the layer of oil was killing the fish. Actually, before Chimwankhunda Dam became briefly “accessible”, keeping live fish was much preferable to fishing. So this was basically returning to our roots.

In comes Chiwembe Dam into the picture. Again, the elder boys, led by the versatile team of brothers, Kondwani and Fred, opened the grail and found their way to the mouth of the outlet of Chiwembe Dam. By all accounts, this was a much more dangerous place to visit even by our standards. The dam was covered in namasipuni. This species of water hyacinth had commandeered the entire surface of the dam, and made it difficult to gauge the depth of the waters. And others added to the perceived threat by claiming that the weeds would trap its victim by engulfing you, sucking you under and suffocating you to death.

However, the outlet had terraced steps with mostly concrete surface. The few places where the water had dug through, were usually visible, and generally not very deep. There was plenty of fingerlings. So when the first party of the scouts came with the tales of the new adventure, and backed by solid evidence, there was only one thing to do. I jumped into the bandwagon the followed day and started off on the longish journey to Chiwembe. This time we didn’t even bother try to seek for permission. We knew what the answer would be. For some reason I took off my shoes, and later on stepped on a fallen branch of vicious thorns locally called chiwomba muluzi. These guys turn white when fully grown, and will easily pierce through even a tough cloth. Given an exposed skin, they did a mighty job and forced me to sit down with my foot hanging in the air and tears in my eyes. Kondwani or Fred did the honours of taking off the army of thorns, and after a while I wiped off the tears on my face, and happily resumed our quest.

Chiwembe Dam was everything I had dreamed of.  I had never caught so much fish before, and even since. We packed them in as many bottles as we could carry. We returned home triumphant. We dug a communal pool at my neighbours’ house and deposited all the fish in it. Later on I sneaked, and helped myself to a few fingerlings for my private collection. Being successful at it, I went for it again and again, until Chikondi, one of the sisters, caught me in the act. I talked out of it, but no one was convinced with the alibi. This is one of the very few cases where I stole something from anyone. Such was the allure for keeping fish in an aquarium. This perhaps was the most successful adventure we ever took in our neighbourhood. It gave us many days of pleasure, and the fish looked gorgeous in the makeshift pool that the Lisimba boys had made in the ground.

Mudi Dam was much further away, heavily guarded and only available to those who were looking for fishing big fish. This was above our punching weight. Without parents speaking against it, we had already declared it a forbidden land. I suppose anyone caught going there would have earned himself a thousand lashes – so I think.

 

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.

Dedza Mountain, An Adventure for the Child In Me

Having concluded my Q1 (January – March) with a successful visit to Bunda Hill on Easter Saturday, I thought I could finish the Easter break and start Q2 (April – June) with a visit to one of my favourite mountains in Malawi. Dedza Mountain was a natural choice, being only about 100 km from Lilongwe, my home ground, and being the second highest mountain in Malawi, standing a proud 2,000 m amsl tall (read it as the height of the mountain at 2,000 metres above mean sea level). Dedza Mountain has lost its mature coniferous trees in the forestry reserve areas due to legal but thorough log harvesting, and with it, most of its former beauty. Nevertheless, it still maintains sections where the trail from the bottom to the plateau is covered in dense foliage composed of indigenous trees and thick undergrowth.

 

There are two popular approaches when viewing the mountain from Dedza Town, one starting from south east, and the other from south west. My preference has always been the one from south east, which begins from the Forestry Office, and has a more direct trail to the top. The other one follows the road to the towers at the peak facing the town. This second trail snakes across the mountain as the road goes back and forth, infolding in many places as it traverses the rather steep contour of the mountain.

In the usual manner, my host was Blessings Chingaipe, the plantation manager for Dedza Mountain Forest and a very good friend. This day’s hike would see me only carry a two litre water bottle, and a walking stick. I wanted to see how I would fair without getting energy boosts from energy bars. This was exactly how I had started the year, when Nkhoma Hill, the cat’s ears’ hill in Lilongwe opened the door to outdoor adventure for 2018. The hidden purpose was to cut down my dependence on sugar whenever a physically strenuous activity was in play. The playful side of the matter was simply to add some garnish to the awesome dish called hiking. Having been on this mountain a few times, a variation to the hiking theme keeps each expedition fresh.

 

Again, this was a solitary adventure which would allow me to imprint the trail in my mind as I would navigate the path with multiple branches without a guide. Surprisingly, for someone who enjoys trekking in the bush, my sense of path details is completely terrible. I can only remember the big features, but the details easily fade away. In order to reinforce the little permanent markers on the trail, I need to train constantly to track my way without assistance. After all, others expect you to know the way, taking comfort in the number of visits to different mountains across the country.

As soon as the hike started, I noticed blackjack lining up both sides of the trail, ready to hitch hike to the top. The path was overrun with grass, as if it had not been used for a while. Being that the rainy season this year has decided to extend its period, the growth was very impressive. Such a state of the trail increases the possibility of crisscrossing the highways of snakes, with fair advantage being with the other camp. It immediately reminded me of the time when I was very young in Blantyre, the only designated commercial city in Malawi. The big boys had taken my friends and I into a forest near our neighborhood for a foraging adventure. We were hunting for guavas and other wild fruit that were a delicacy among us. Suddenly, Fred, who was the oldest boy, froze in his tracks and signaled us to stop. We picked the cue and stopped in our tracks.

I could not make anything other than a thick rope hanging directly in front of us straddling across our path. Then someone whispered, “snake”. Oh my goodness. It was one long snake, and others identified it as being venomous. It was my first time seeing such a long snake in the wild, and have not seen its kind since. Everyone was briefly mortified but after Fred chased it away, we bolted forward foolishly determined to resume our search for super sweet wild fruit. I was sure, without the sharp eyes of Fred, someone would have adorned the live coils for a venomous crown, with an accompanying hissing sound for a royal requiem.

 

So with that in mind, I kept my eyes open, pushed away any crippling fears, relaxed and proceeded with my hike. The trail was virtually empty except for a pair of loggers that had taken down a young supple tree near the edge of the trail. Despite the duo parking a sharp panga knife, which had sliced through the tree with a single stroke, the conservationist in me erupted into a concerned public lecture. In the end, we all agreed the need to preserve trees for future generations, and that for immediate firewood demands, it was best to harvest pruned branches laying around the forest.

The yellow on the flowers on this mountain was much brighter than the one I had seen on Bunda Hill, two days prior to this hike. Perhaps it could be that there was plenty of resources from decaying leaves and grass, and with a steady supply of water for most of the year, the plants could indulge a bit more than their counterparts on the nearly desert hill in Lilongwe. Some sections of the trail got swampy, and there was a significant presence of birds hovering near the trail, as if to say, this part of the mountain had been visited less by humans. At some point, I heard deep throaty grunts, and images of a leopard came into my mind. I wondered if it could be put off were I to confront it with the walking stick waving it frantically like a magic wand? Well, I thought those sounds better be coming from some huge monkey, or some strange bird. As much as I find the big cats fascinating, a lone encounter on a lonely path was not exactly something to look forward to.

Soon I was lost in the natural beauty all around me. Everything was green with endless variations of the colour of life. And the patterns and sizes of leaves were captivating. Others were small, while others big. And some were single affairs, while others were arranged in rows. Fibonacci patterns were in abundance, boldly challenging the mind to count, sequence and discover the beauty in mathematics expressed in nature. The mountain air was so fresh, it felt like walking in a luxurious air chamber supplied with platinum grade imported air. You know our love for imported stuff with a hint of exotic origins. Yet all this was homegrown, supplied for free, and open to anyone who would join the hike on this day.

 

The walk in paradise was rudely interrupted by red ants that had abandoned their orderliness. Instead of cutting across the trail in an organized rank and file, they were all over the grass in a chaotic fashion. There was no alternative path, and I decided to walk past their blockade. I immediately knew I was in trouble, and dashed to a safe distance before examining the damage. I managed to dislodge the ants that had quickly crawled up my boots and had started attacking my socks in an attempt to reach my lower limbs. Having thoroughly combed through the hiking bottom I resumed the hike. I had barely covered 10 metres up the path, when I felt a sharp sting right on the centre of my lower back. C’mon! How did it manage to get up there so fast within the short encounter we had just had? Before I could recover, there was another sting on the right flank of my belly, and then on the opposite side. Aha! I had not dislodged them from my backpack.

It was time for another thorough examination. Again, I remembered such attacks when we were young. And how it often led to complete disrobing in order to rid oneself of the onslaught from these fiery soldiers. I had no intention of disrobing, despite the fact that the mountain was virtually empty. Having examined every inch of the fabric, I resumed the hike without further incidents from the little but powerful guys. Adding insult to injury my no-energy-bar-with-me experiment was finally catching up with me. The steep portions were daunting to negotiate. But somehow I loved it. I knew there was plenty of energy stored as fat. I could actually see the store house around my belly. No, brain. Don’t play any tricks on me. Get the energy you converted from sugars to fat, back to the monosaccharides useful for cell function. After all there was nothing here to nibble on. The berries I had seen had not been touched by any insect or bird. And a friend of mine once told me that that is an indication to steer clear of such. If it was edible, he reasoned, the animals would have had a go at them first.

 

Well, before I knew it I was at the top. I had two choices, either to turn right and proceed to the main peak, or turn left and go to the Towers. I turned left. Instinctively, I knew the path to the summit would have overgrown and I had had enough drama for one day. The peaks on Dedza do not disappoint. The views are incredibly amazing. So after resting, and enjoying small sips from the water bottle, I opted to descend using the road to the Towers. I had lost appetite for a bushy trail. After all the red ants had made a strong point, and I got the message. I would not be interfering again with their foraging. When I finally reached the bottom, I had completed 10 km of walking.

Dedza rekindled my childhood memories, of snakes, predators, red ants, birds and wild fruits. Thank you Lord for affording us such moments to escape into precious flashbacks of a time long gone.

Bunda Hill, A Convenience Stop

Last Easter, the just ended one, was a near perfect break, what with the plans to scale a number of hills within Malawi. On one extreme end I was toying with a plan to hike at least five hills within four days, and on the other end of the pendulum, there was a modest ambition to attempt at least two hills within my home city. When all was said and done, I humbled myself and settled for a hill and a mountain.

I returned to Bunda Hill for the first time this year. This is a small hill on the south west of Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi. It is a dynamite in a small package, so to speak. With an elevation gain of a mere 284 metres, it does not boast of any worldly fame. However, this bare rock is not barren at all, and at the summit, it offers a smashing view of the city from a nature’s beauty point of view.

So on Saturday morning, equipped with just a bottle of water, two energy bars and a walking stick I started off to meet my small friend. The bottom of the hill was lush with greenery, mostly from the maize fields from the surrounding villages. Being on the outskirts of the city, the dwellings are informal and belong to the locals. Here and there, dotted across the land are the inroads of modern structures. As one approaches the hill, one is met with a dormant quarry mine. This should be an eye sore, especially with the mining hole that has not been refilled. But on this day, the water that has accumulated at the base of the gaping hole looked serene. Unfortunately, soon this will be a breeding ground, if not already, of the deadly mosquito, the vector that carries the malaria-causing parasite.

 

On the surface, the pool looked exotic, what with the jagged edges that flanked it on all sides. The hill, serving as a backdrop hinted a bit of color around the areas that are simply bare rock. It was not a bad sight. In fact, I could feel a deep beckoning to continue with my small adventure. The small village at the base of the hill was not active at this time of the day. Small children, who have developed skills as local guides, swarmed and offered to take me to the top. I recognized one or two familiar faces, and noted how the passage of time had transformed them into pre-teens. I politely declined their offers and proceeded to start my hike. Today, it was going to be a solitary effort.

Immediately, I could see I had made a good choice. The hill was in a blossom of a kind, but being economical with rich soil layers, the plants, shrubs and a bit of trees were all diminutive. The flowers were small in stature, but nevertheless, brilliantly displayed. The microscope has shown that beauty does exist even at a tiny scale too small for the naked eye to pick. These flowers were many magnitudes larger than other small natural structures. There was plenty of variations of yellow, and a tiny sprinkling of purple. White was rare except right at the summit. Red came in a rather dull form. The shine had been compromised by dust, and other negative factors. Considering how barren this rock dome is supposed to be, the ensemble of colour on this day was breathtaking.

 

The hill boasted a presence of little animals too. A curious lizard here, a multi-coloured one there. And one particularly obese lizard near the top caught my attention. At this height I would have expected a reduction in food, yet here was one guy happily imbibing more calories than his shiny body could spend. Abundance, it seems, is nature’s currency even in areas where conditions are expected to be harsh.

At the summit I was greeted by a chorus of people holding charismatic prayers. This is a haven for Christians from all walks of life. Others bring their families here, and it is not uncommon to see mothers with their little tots dotting the land. The temporary rock shelters speak of overnight vigils. Prayer camps for a day or two are a favorite to most dedicated pilgrims. Despite the presence of many people at the top, there was no interference in my quest. No one paid much attention to a grown up man trying to capture photos of a wild fly searching for nectar from a flower with tantalizing petals.

Beyond the summit, the dome recedes into some kind of a saddle, and a second peak emerges beyond that. This second section is less crowded, and it is my personal favorite spot on this hill. At this height the entire campus of LUANAR, the leading agricultural university in Malawi, is visible to the west. The woodlot with a centre full of indigenous trees surrounded by a brim of eucalyptus breaks the view between the campus and the hill. On the opposite end, there lies a grazing ground called dambo in the vernacular, composed mostly of thick clay soil, and short thick grass that stays green throughout the year. Small herds of cattle and donkeys could be seen sprawled across the land, hardly making any visible movement. Docility and tranquility rolled into a harmonious continuum.

 

My eyes then got drawn to a pair falcons precariously rising in strong winds that had suddenly come from the south. They gingerly balanced themselves, as if being borne by thermal currents coming from the bottom of the hill, oblivious to the pounding forces that were buffeting against their aerodynamic bodies. Then just as they had shown up unexpectedly they darted out of sight, accelerating against the wind like rockets. I knew it was time to take leave of the goodies. Few minutes later I was down at the bottom and just avoided getting drenched by a heavy downpour.

Bunda Hill and I got on the right footing this year. And I will be returning soon, especially when I’m searching for convenience, a quick bite of adventure and a place to say a short prayer within a stone throw distance from home.

Of A Shredded Suit, A Croc and A Hippo

A Taste of Lake Malawi
A Taste of Lake Malawi

 

Lake Malawi is the biggest and most famous lake in Malawi. It has two big islands – Likoma and Chizumulu. Those that have been to Likoma say it is an island paradise.

Malawi is a slender wedge sandwiched by three giants – Tanzania to the North, Zambia to the West and Mozambique to the East, South and West. The lake follows the same lentil shape from the tip of the country up north to the eastern region, tightly hugging the eastern boundary with Mozambique.

The lake is the most known tourist attraction in the country, with restorts dotted across its many sandy beaches. However, few establishments have resorted to perch on rocks for those that don’t feel comfortable standing on sandy foundations.

We have five lakeshore districts, Mangochi, once part of the southern region, but now apportioned to the eastern region; Salima and Nkhotakota in the central region; Nkhata Bay, Karonga in the northern region. I also understand that parts of Rumphi have access to the lake. As a tourist, both local and international, you are spoiled of choice.

My earliest trip to the lake was a family affair with the Makwitis’ – lifelong family friends. We visited the Kilekwas, a cousin to my mum, who had a lovely cottage by the beach in Mangochi. This was in the 80s. I was far from a floater let alone a swimmer, but that did not stop me or my cousins from splashing water among the gentle waves on the shore of this magnificent lake.

Stories of crocs and hippos added to the thrill. Any shifting shadow in the shallows would be followed by a yelp and a mad dash to the safety of the dry ground. My dad, in order to avoid our aquatic melee-like, preferred to swim a bit further from the shore towards where some soft reeds were flourishing. Despite getting a caution from my aunt, he continued showcasing his floating and swimming skills. After sometime he got bored and approached the shore. He had barely reached his beach chair when a hippo surfaced right on the spot he was minutes before.

We were told that it was most likely that the beast was busy foraging in the water, on the lakebed, while he was swimming above it. I wonder if he still remembers the story. Considering how savage hippos can be, this could only be a miracle. That night we heard the fellow locals clapping hands and singing songs to invite the hippos to come ashore and dance. Once the hippo approached the land, the group would give it a wide berth until it returned into the water. And the hand clapping and singing would continue, way into the night.  I have never heard that since my many returns to various parts of the lake.

In the morning, one could see tracks of a giant crocodile on the beach leading to the back of the cottage. It had grown a taste for local chickens and it had successfully managed to break into my aunt’s chicken roost few weeks before our visit. Like any thief, it could not walk away from its pattern of victory. The number one rule was to steer clear of any reeds, and stick to the sandy beaches. How this was not seen as a leaking advice is beyond me. Anyway, crocs or not, it was a nice time at the lake. After all, this one was after fat chickens and not our tiny, scrawny bodies.

On the last day of our stay, my mum decided to get me into a three piece suit. Yap! Right at the lake. I obliged. Somehow I wanted to stand on the beach again. I had to negotiate vertical stairs off the wall that separated the veranda of the cottage from the rest of the beach. There was a wire fence nearby. When I returned from the beach, there was a big tear in the pants of the suit. All the grown ups insisted that I had caught it again the wire, as I was negotiating the vertical stair.

Of course, I didn’t catch any wire but I had no plausible explanation either. We said our goodbyes and got into our car. I now had a second slash from the top to the bottom. More rents appeared as we drove away. By the time we reached Liwonde, a tourist stopover on Shire River just after Mangochi, where we stopped to have lunch at Liwonde Discovery Lodge, my pair of trousers was in tatters. I had to change into a fresh pair of casual trousers. Up to this day, I have no idea what caused this systemic wardrobe failure.

Lake Malawi, a fresh water body collected over a depression in the African Great Rift Valley many millions of years ago is a natural wonder. A place of crocs and hippos, it is also a place of unparalleled beauty and tranquility. For some reason this Lake of Stars, as it is popularly known, shredded my suit, and hosted a pacifist dancing hippo and a croc with a taste for chickens. Despite its twisted sense of humour we have been bonded together since.

Plan to pay it a visit this year.