Last Saturday was another opportunity to go out and breathe fresh mountain air in Dedza just a district away from Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi. The centre of focus was Chongoni Mountain, which is part of the area famous for the ancient Rock Art. It was my third visit this year, and it proved to be an exciting outdoor adventure. I was in the company of Alick Bwanali, Benjamin Mandala and Grace Kafotokoza. AKB, as Alick is fondly called by his friends, was the hiking leader. This PhD student in local languages knows the Chongoni area like the back part of his strong hand. He grew up in the area and is very familiar with the life of the communities around the Chongoni Forestry Reserve, which covers two of the three sites that have been designated UNESCO’s World Heritage Site for the rock paintings.
The purpose of this trip was two-fold: one, it was to go and visit a new cave with rock paintings. Two, it was to use a route locals avoid, being famed for spirits and superstitious activities. I was eager for the first reason, and not too particularly looking forward to taking the trail with its twisted stories. Fortunately enough, our local guide, Mr Chikondi, an experienced hiker on Chongoni Mountain, avoided the trail and took us to a much more pleasant part of the mountain. We rather circled around the mountain, and we were able to approach it nearly from the southern tip. We headed straight for the biggest cave housing both red and white paintings. When we first visited this cave, we noticed the different colours for the artwork, but did not know much beyond the initial observation. On our second trip, that is when we were informed that the red paintings are believed to have been done by the Abatwa people also called Bushmen. The white paintings were done by the Amaravi people, who are the ancestors of the present day Chewas. The Chewa people form a significant part of the local communities around this area, and in most parts of the Central Region.
What I find intriguing are the time stamps on the rock art. I am told that the red patterns were done over 10,000 years ago. In contrast, the white marks were done some 2,000 years ago. Now, that is mind-boggling. To think that most patterns are still vivid to the naked eye, and that these paintings have been subjected to the elements, one stops to wonder how our ancestors managed to pull this one off. The ingredients even get the story more interesting. One set of paintings used animal blood, and hence the colour red. But the other set used part of the egg, which was mixed with some type of clay. Now, when you consider the extent of the range of paintings, you wonder just how many eggs were involved. How long would it take to accumulate the required eggs, and what would motivate them to use the eggs for art instead of being part of their diet? Even today, eggs are not just eaten anyhow among the local communities, being treasured for continuity of the chickens that are raised. Or perhaps the area had big birds like the ostrich in abundance, and that it was easy to meet the required volume of egg white for such a grand commission? Who knows? Anyway, the art just fertilises your imagination of what could have been beyond what has been left on the rocks.
Being neither an expert in art nor history, I approach each cave with the wide eyes of a child hunting for clues to fire up my imagination. Musing on what might be obvious to experts that which is hidden from the eyes of the ordinary, you are lost in the vast expanse of time and space whose tiny little slice beckons you through the stickmen and caricatures that stare back at you. Oh! Such trips are for enriching ones soul, and these caves manage to do just that. Each time I see such paintings, it makes me look around the local communities and take a fresh look. Isn’t art the output of advanced civilisation? Why could people living in mud huts boasting of rudimentary tools manage to draw such patterns with mastery of the stroke? You do not see any mistakes that would be an outcome of someone like myself, if a similar attempt would be made. I did basic art in Primary School, but I am smart enough to know that I would not be able to draw the shapes of animals, humans and tools in the manner you witness from cave to cave. Is this a mockery on our view of the ancient civilisation? Perhaps they were not as primitive as we are made to believe.
Anyway, back to the present we came across edible wild fruits. I was introduced to two new fruits that I had never heard of before. One was red, and the other deep purple. Both types were sweet and sour. I could only manage to eat a handful. The red berries are called nthenjere by the locals, and the purple ones, forowo. Then came waves of monkey sweets. We grew up feasting on masuku at the beginning of each rainy season, or towards the month of December. Seeing how the rainy patterns have chosen to be all over the place, maybe the description of when we were having the sweets loses a foothold of accuracy. Whether in December or not, we would be assured that the season would come and that we would do them justice. These fruits are all seed, but in between there is a thin layer of sweet juicy flesh. The way you eat it is to put it between your thumb and index finger. Squeeze hard until its thick skin cracks open. Continue to tear it in half. If it is deep yellowish-cream, it is ready to be eaten. If you are fortunate, you can see some juice oozing around the seeds. Well, at that point dig in by squeezing the contents of the opened fruit straight into the mouth. Do not pick it up with your fingers. Just let the tongue do its magic. Aah! The pleasure of finding a fully ripen monkey sweet. Now, the way I do it when no one is watching is to close my eyes and swirl the combination of thin meat and the seed slowly in my mouth. Suck out all the juice and spit out what is left of it. Yes, spitting out. Remember, we are in the bush and you can afford to put aside all table manners.
Along the way, we came across some colourful beetles. We found a couple that surely did not appreciate our intruding their privacy. At some point, we came across a pair of dung beetles. How that beetle is able to hold his head high, having such a socially challenging career is beyond comprehension. This pair was obviously proud of its job and perhaps would have loved to indicate how its kind assists in keeping the jungles clean and free of odour. I wish I could identify them by name but I never developed my skills when I was young as a collector of beetles and other insects. Perhaps, instead of collecting beetles I could just revive the part where you try to identify them by category and by name. Unlike many hills in Malawi, Chongoni stills has a cover of natural trees. So somewhat, it is easy to see how such an ecosystem can easily support different flora and fauna.
AKB came to his own when it came to identifying the natural trees. He knows them by various local names and is able to tell how the locals use them for different functions. Other trees are good for preserving food, others for firewood and even others for making implements and works of art. Most of the trees are hardwood, and face danger from those with nefarious intentions. Some of these trees could also have medicinal value, and must be preserved at all costs. Other than providing cover to important species like hikers, these trees are a source of food and shelter to sundry creatures. Herein lies the true meaning of Bed and Breakfast to caterpillars who eventually turn into beautiful butterflies and other equally mobile biological marvels.
Last Saturday, we were able to visit both the old and new caves on Chongoni Mountain, each with its own unique drawings. We walked in silence, we laughed, we danced. But mostly, we just enjoyed what God has given us in the name of wonderful nature. We will not return to Chongoni for the remainder of the year as we prepare to wind down the calendar for 2017. If you happen to be in the area, I would surely recommend that you take some time off and feast your eyes on the natural beauty permeating this corner of the world.