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.