Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Malawi's Emerald Islands

One of the world’s best hidden treasures lies in the warm heart of Africa. They are the materialization of the words paradise, beauty and tranquility. These are the islands of Lake Malawi. These priceless treasures are handcrafted by the sheer force of Mother Nature. One of the world’s well known geological wonders gave birth to these emerald islands, the African Rift Valley.

The East African rift valley that tears down to the very heart of Africa created a void, an abyss within this landlocked country. This crater is is no longer barren and desolate but it is Lake Malawi, the Lake of Stars, which cradles these spectacular emerald wonders. There are a few well known islands and dozens of smaller islands scattered across the crystal clear turquoise waters. Some of the islands are so remote that few people have ever had the chance to glance at the untouched beauty.

These type of fresh water islands are found nowhere else and are home to fish species found only in Malawi, thus the Lake Malawi National Parks was founded. This National Park is home to many hundred species of fish, nearly all endemic. The lake contains the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world, many of which can be seen snorkeling or driving near the islands. This was the world's first freshwater underwater Park. With the number of endemic found nowhere else on the planet, UNESCO declared Lake Malawi National Park a World Heritage site.

Photo From

Lake Malawi National Park is located at the southern end of Lake Malawi. The park includes Cape Maclear peninsula, three other disjunct mainland areas, 12 islands and lake waters that lie within 100 m of the park's terrestrial components. The park covers an area of 94.1 km2 of which 7km2 is aquatic zone. The environment varies from rocky shorelines to sandy beaches and from forests to swamps and lagoons. Apart from the Malawian Cichlids, there are also other animals such as hippo, baboon, monkey and elephant which can be seen on the mainland. There are over 12 islands, below are just a few.

In Northen Mangochi, around the Monkey Bay area, you'll find a cluster of islands. To the east you find Thumbi and Mumbo island.

Thumbi West and behind it Mumbo island

When the sun is setting on the golden sands of Cape Maclear, you will have a glimpse of the postcard scenery of the sun hiding away behind Thumbi island. There are actually two of these islands. There is Thumbi East and Thumbi West, they are either side of the Cape Pennisula. This is Thumbi West and it lies about a kilometer from the mainland. Behind Thumbi West is Mumbo island.

On Thumbi West Island

Mumbo Island

This island is simlply stunning. Virtually every picture taken of and on the island comes out perfect. Mumbo Island lies about 10km offshore from Cape Maclear. It is a beautiful deserted tropical paradise floating on crystal clear azure waters.

Photo From


 Just North of the Cape Peninsula is Domwe island. This island may have not been an island at all. From its  appearance it seems like it was the tip of the cape which broke away from the mainland but is ever so close. It is separated from the mainland by the narrow Ilala Gap. It is said that due to fluctuations in lake level over the millennia, the gap has been dry on several occasions, creating a passage to the mainland. As a result Domwe Island, unlike all other Lake Malawi islands, is well populated with mammals which have crossed onto the island during these dry times.                                    

The region of Salima is home to a group of islands called the Maleri archipelago. This chain of islands is one of the most well known on the lake.

The Maleri islands are a group of three islands that are visible just off the coast of Salima. The islands can be clearly seen from the port town of Chipoka in Salima.  The largest of the three islands is Maleri and it is about 168ha in size.

The second largest island is Nankhoma and it is about 65ha in size. This island is home to the Blue Zebra Island Lodge.

Photo by Marumbo Thindwa
Photo by Marumbo Thindwa

Nakantenga island is the smallest, only about 18ha in size.

Photo by Adrianus Franciscus Johannes Marinus Maria Konings

Besides these fairly small islands, there are much bigger giants floating on these pristine waters. The large islands are Likoma and Chizumulu. These islands are found in the Northern region of Lake Malawi, far east of Chintheche in Nkhatabay, closest to the Mozambique shore.

   Likoma is the larger of two populated islands in Lake Malawi. Together with Chizumulu island, it forms the district of Likoma. This island flaunts the historic Anglican cathedral of St. Peter, an airstrip, port and as well as the beautiful island resorts.

Chizumulu island is the smaller of the inhabited islands that make up the district of Likoma. The island has two large hills that seem to watch over it. From these hills you have some of the most amazing views of the landscape. 

In the waters of central Mangochi you have Bird Island. This Bird sanctuary can be seen from many of the coastal resorts.

Bird Island is actually far from emerald. From the mainland the island is virtually a blinding chalk white. The island is home to the biggest breeding colony of white breasted comorants in the southern African region. 

There are other smaller, more remote islands spread across the lake.


Photo by Adrianus Franciscus Johannes Marinus Maria Konings


Chinyakhwazi & Chinyamwezi

Photo by Adrianus Franciscus Johannes Marinus Maria Konings

These two islands, thought barren as they seem, are probably two of the most important in the region. The islands are used as key points in the Malawi Yatch marathon (First leg) and beneath the shimmering waters, are home to a unique species of Cichlid. 

These are just a few of the spectacular scattered emerald islands. With breathtaking views, crystal waters and untamed beauty, who could resist. I believe you would not be disappointed travelling to any of them.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Yao story of creation

Eons ago, before the dawn of time, God existed only with animals. As in many Bantu creation myths, God and animals were eternal, they have always been there since the beginning of time. They lived in a vast expanse of land and water, and the sky and earth were ever close to each other.

The chameleon was a mythical creature, a fisherman casting his fish traps in the mystical waters. The chameleon has always been an important animal in Bantu myths and legends. It is at the heart of many Bantu tribe creation myths. It is seen as a wise creature and also a herald of life and death.

One day the chameleon had set a fish trap in the vast sapphire waters. He went about his daily business, but when he later on returned to check the trap, he found that he had caught nothing. Chameleon was determined to get a catch, he set the trap again the following day and when he went to check the trap to his surprise he had caught some very peculiar creatures, man and woman.

Man and woman were such tiny creatures, the first of their kind. The chameleon had never seen anything like them and he did not know what to do with them. Man and woman begged the chameleon that he should set them free. Chameleon, confused about what to do decided to take them to God to seek advice as what to do with them. 

God, having seen the tiny creatures told the chameleon not to kill them. He told chameleon that he should set them fee so that they should live to grow to their full maturity. God summoned all the animals of the skies above and the earth and water below to inform them about the creatures and this marked the first encounter of human beings and animals. 

The human beings were smart and learned quickly. They started hunting other animals and the animals lived in fear. Soon the male creature started twirling sticks and smoke started to gather. This caused fear among the animals and they warned man to be careful. Man however did not heed the warning and in the end fire was created. Man created an unstoppable inferno that reduced everything to ashes. The grass thatched roof of God was set alight by the fire, chameleon managed to climb a tree, but God was very old he could not run, spider spun a web to rescue God. From that moment it is said that God said when humans die they shall join him in heaven and serve him as slaves.

This is the creation myth of the Yao tribe of Malawi. This myth has similarities to other creation myths of the Bantu tribes, including the Chewa tribe of Malawi.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Abyss of Zomba plateau, Chingwe's Hole

In the quiet town of Zomba stands a legendary, enormous plateau, known for its splendor. Trees, shrubs, grass and all sorts of flora embrace every inch of it and rivers and streams snake through its beautiful landscape. It is a serene and captivating wonderland, but it wasn’t always a sight of tranquility.

Many years ago, this calm haven was a place of fear and death. What happened on this plateau personified it as a devourer of souls. It had a horrible reputation. This majestic plateau has a cave and legend has it that this cave it bottomless, an abyss into nothingness. Some say it reaches the base of the Rift valley, others give specific depths.

It is said Village chiefs of the surrounding area disposed of their enemies by throwing them down the mouth of the plateau. It was not only enemies of chiefs that met such a hideous fate, but also lepers and people suffering from mental illness. There have also been rumors that political enemies were also silenced this way too.

One can only imagine that others suffered the same. Imagine a tale of love and jealousy, a tale of betrayal and revenge. Or perhaps someone was thrown into the abyss because they saw or heard something the shouldn't have. One of Malawi’s great writers and poets wrote a poem depicting what happened to people.

Glory be to Chingwe’s Hole

Chingwe’s Hole, you devoured the Chief’s prisoners
Once, easy villagers decked in leopard colours
Pounding down their energies and their sight.
You choked minstrel lovers with wild granadilla
Once, rolling under burning flamboyant trees.

Do you remember Frog the carver carving Ebony Beauty?
Do you remember Frog’s pin on Ebony Beauty’s head
That brought Ebony to Life? And when the Chief
Heard of a beauty betrothed to Frog, whose dogs
Beat up the bushes to claim Ebony for the chief?

Even when Fly alarmed Frog of the impending hounds
Who cracked Fly’s bones? Chingwe’s Hole, woodpeckers
Once poised for vermillion strawberries merely
Watched fellow squirrels bundled up in sacks
Alive as your jaws gnawed at their brittle bones.
Chingwe’s Hole, how dare I praise you knowing whose
Marrow still flows in murky Namitembo River below you?
You strangled our details boating your plush dishes,
Dare I glorify your rope and depth epitomizing horror?

Of Chameleons and Gods: Poems by Jack Mpange

One can only imagine what lies beneath. Perhaps there are thousands of bones or items of great value. Whatever the case, the secrets that the victims might have kept have long been taken with them beyond the plains. If you find yourself on the plateau, do you have the courage to gaze through the abyss?

Thursday, 14 February 2013

How To Make It Rain; A Malawian Ancestral Story of Mbona the Rain Maker

The Rain, some take it casually, not realizing how essential it is for life, but others know all too well that rain means survival. In Some places rain comes so frequent or so much that it is taken for granted or people wished it rained less often, and in other places rain comes so little or not at all that livelihoods are destroyed.

 In places where rain is crucial you'll probably find people of great faiths devoted to rain, the rainmakers and rainmaking cults. There are various cults around the world that practice or practiced some sort of rainmaking rituals. The native Indians of North America had rain dances and similar practices occurred and still do in parts of Africa including Malawi.

Khulubvi sacred shrine is located in Nsanje District, in the lower Shire Valley in Southern Region of Malawi, It is an important spiritual place among the people of Mang'anja tribe. It is a place where the Mang'anja worship the spirit of Mbona.

Mbona was a legendary rain maker with superhuman powers who lived in Nsanje. He had knowledge of medicine and magic, and he had a gift bestowed onto him from the heavens to govern the rains. Apart from bringing rain, he could also create wells of water on sandy lands, create forests where they did not exist and hide from enemies by turning into other creatures such as guinea fowls. He had a wife named Salima who almost always stayed in the compound, only visited by elderly women and children. She ventured on a few occasions to some villages assisting Mbona on matters of divinity.

Mbona's uncle Mlauli, who was also a conjurer resented his nephew and wanted to kill Mbona because of his extraordinary abilities. Mlauli, however, failed to kill his nephew because Mbona wished to die on his own accord. He told Mlauli and his enemies to cut his throat with a reed after other weapons had failed to harm him. Thus this was his was his fate. It is said that His head was cut and placed at Khulubvi sacred grove.

Mbona's shrine lies in the Sacred Khulubvi grove in Nsanje, protected by the shrine guardians. Mbona's head is said to have been entombed on the floor of his hut. The shrine is never cleaned or swept. Only those of the Mang'anja tribe are allowed with permission from the guardian. The sanctuary is sacred ground; no one can cut down any tree, plant any crops or let their cattle graze. 

There a number of huts in the area, but most importantly includes Mbona's hut and close to that his wife's hut Salima. After the death of Mbona she still played an important role, she would be visited at night by Mbona in the form of an enormous python and he would tell her the future, so as to inform the village of what to plant and what not to. She would communicate to the village via a trance like state, she was the oracle.

After her death the cult continued with succession of oracles. The ultimate responsibility for the cult lies with the Lundu paramount, who is to provide Mbona with a “wife.” This elderly woman, called Salima, lives in Khulubvi and communicates Mbona’s wishes received through dreams and possession. An outside medium may also perform this function, and local chiefs have subsidiary shrines. The spirits communicates via this medium and their lineages spans generations and there is a system of succession.

People came to worship, bringing with them black cloth or a black goat, an offering to Mbona in exchange for rain, water, life. Escorted by the chiefs and village headmen they went to Mbona's hut. After they returned home and finished the sacred rites the sky would rip open and the ground would be blessed by rain.

The Khulubvi and Associated Mbona Sacred Rain Shrines are a world heritage site (UNESCO).

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Kasiyamaliro, consoler of souls

The Kasiyamaliro is the Great Mother of Gule Wamkulu and probably the most important Nyau. It is said to be the principle Nyau, symbolizing the mother ancestor. Serving as the consoler of souls and of transition, it is almost omnipresent at every performance such as Chewa initiations thus signifying its importance.  And it is of ancient origins such that Zaire cave paintings dating back 992 C.E have depicted the Kasiyamaliro.

The Kasiyamaliro is an ancestral spirit, an antelope of pure and ancient origins. It’s said to have arisen from the pure, white serene waters of the deep underground pool from which the Chewa spirits come from, the depths of the world.  Beneath the belly which it shuffles on is the abyss of the world, the womb of the Great ancestral Mother and the grave. 

Its name means 'to leave the funeral' and it plays an important role at the completion of the funeral ceremony as it accompanies the dead to the grave. It may dance around the house or be taken into it and this is believed to absorb the spirit of the deceased. It channels the deceased member into the ancestral spirit world with aid of the mask. Its horns and dramatic arches of its back emphasize is duality, its Ying and Yang function. The spirit embodies qualities of angelic and demonic entities, the womb and the tomb, life and death.

One similar ancient deity would be the Egyptian icon of Anubis. Though portrayed as a Jackal, he had a similar role as the Kasiyamaliro. He had a funeral role as well as protection of the deceased for their journey into the afterlife. He was also guardian of the scales of balance, the similar Ying Yang role.

The Kasiyamaliro is portrayed as an antelope, probably impala, kudu or eland. It may be up to 2 meters high with a trough in the middle of its back often covered in dried woven maize husks, these mask forms are the first to appear in performances to remember the deceased, as a sign that the deceased have now joined the sprits and ancestors. Similar to the way the boy is born into the womb of this ancient antelope, the deceased will similarly be reborn during the luminal period which follows death, led by the same spirit that gave birth to him.

The Kasiyamaliro is burned after returning from the grave, and its smoke that disappears into the air signifies that the deceased has crossed the realms and become an ancestral spirit.

Friday, 27 July 2012

A Dark and Bloodstained Past, Slavery in Malawi

"To overdraw its evils is a simple impossibility ... We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. Onlookers said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any longer. We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead ... We came upon a man dead from starvation ... ‘’ – David Livingstone

When we hear about slavery most people think about the Atlantic slave trade, but it goes beyond that as it affected all parts of the world. Even within Africa several nations such as the Ashanti of Ghana and the Yoruba of Nigeria were involved in slave-trading. Many countries including the peaceful landlocked country of Malawi were also subjected to the practice. Slavery, is the state of being bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder and is often associated with toiling under harsh condition, being unappreciated, being subjected to torture and death. Some of the horrific things have already been described by David Livingstone. There were multiple routes within Malawi and they acted as a channel to the east coast of Africa. Some people are unaware of the practice and what happened exactly happened in Malawi and I hope this will shed some light. And as you will see, nations such as the Yao of Malawi were not so different from the Ashanti or the Yoruba.

Slave trade was introduced in Malawi by the Swahili-Arab traders in the 19th Century following a great demand for ivory and slave in the East African markets of Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mombasa and Quelimane. The Swahili -Arabs travelled further and further into the landlocked counties of Africa that we know today including Malawi to obtain slaves and ivory. Malawi was an important and crucial area of operations for Arab slave traders as it provided a slave trade route to the east coast but the incursions of slaving took a heavy toll on the inhabitants. But with entrance of the Yao tribes which have said to come from the Mozambique and East Africa into the southern part of present day Malawi they proved to be a catalyst of the slave trade. The Yao’s had been converted to Islam by the Arabs and were allies to the Swahili-Arab traders and they were well-armed and facilitated the trade. Yao’s moved north killing, tormenting and capturing the Chewa and Maganja by the hundreds, tribes that had migrated from present day Congo because of war and disease seeking peace now only to find chaos yet again. Countless multitudes died on the forced march that often took as long as three months to reach the coast of East Africa. The tragic path finally reached the edge of the Indian Ocean and the hapless slaves were put aboard ships destined for Zanzibar. Here the conditions were so cruel that records show where a cargo of 300 could easily be reduced to only 20 or 30 reaching port.

The main Slave Route in Malawi, were Nkhotakota, Karonga, Mangochi and Phalombe where the Swahili-Arabs and their Yao allies built their headquarters. They organized expeditions to capture slaves and thousands were said to have died in the night raids by the Omani raiders. Some of the coastal trading centres on Lake Malawi became infamous as slave trading centres and these routes were the major and crucial terminal of the Slaves in the entire of Central Africa going to the East African Coast Markets of Zanzibar, Kilwa, Mombasa and Quelimane. Zanzibar, under Omani Arabs in the 19th century had as many as 50,000 slaves passing through the city each year.

One of Slave Trade Route was Nkhotakota where one of the Swahili-Arab slave traders, Salim-bin Abdullah , also known as Jumbe, a Zanzibar trader of mixed Arab and African Descent set up his headquarters on the shore of Lake Malawi in the 1840s. From here he organized his expeditions to obtain slaves and ship them across the lake to East African markets. The captives were kept until they number 1000 and taken across the lake and then forced to walk for three to four month journey to Kilwa where they were sold. And by the 1850s, Nkhotakota had become the main terminus from which as many as 20,000 slaves annually were shipped across the lake from present-day Malawi to the Indian Ocean port of Kilwa Kivinje.

In 1861, Livingstone became possibly the first European to reach Nkhotakota, and he described the area as ‘abode of lawlessness and bloodshed…literally strewed with human bones and putrid bodies’. Livingstone returned to Nkhotakota in September 1863, hoping to convince the incumbent Jumbe ruler to abandon the trade in slaves. Though the two men engaged in a lengthy meeting, Livingstone’s efforts were in vain, and slave trade out of Nkhotakota continued into the 1890s, when Commissioner Harry Johnston persuaded the ageing Jumbe to sign a treaty in exchange for British protection. However, the treaty did not last long as Jumbe continued with slave trade. It was up until Nyasaland came under the British protectorate in 1891 that slave trade completely came to cease. It was Sir Harry Johnston who was the first Commissioner in Nyasaland Protectorate who made a significant effort to stop the trade. Sir Harry Johnston with a force of Sikh soldiers attacked Jumbe in 1894. He was tried and banished to Zanzibar.

Another Slave Route was at Karonga where Mlozi, another Swahili-Arab, settled and terrorized the Nkhonde people and seized them as slaves to Zanzibar. He organized surprise raids as far as Chitipa and Zambia. He also employed a number of the Swahili from Tanzania who undertook such expeditions. He, however, came into conflict with African Lakes Company, formed by Scottish businessmen and brothers, John and Fredrick Moir in 1878. It was until Sir Harry Johnston yet again who sent soldiers and defeated Mlozi who was tried by the Nkhonde chiefs and hanged.

Another Slave trade route passed through the southern shores of Lake Malawi into Tete Province and Zambezi valley in Mozambique. Here the controllers of the route were the Mangochi Yao chiefs namely Mponda, Jalasi and Makanjira. The other slave trade route passed through the southern highlands and was also controlled by the Yao chiefs. Nyezerera and Mkanda controlled the sub route passing between Mulanje Mountain and Michesi Hill in what is now Phalombe District. Two other Yao chiefs controlled the sub route passing through the southern part of Mulanje Mountain and these were Chikumbu and Matipwiri.

Fighting ensued in 1887–89, and pacification was completed only some years after the British government had annexed the whole of the territory in 1891. Almost all the Yao chiefs stopped Slave trade after being defeated by the British Colonial Government forces led by Sir Harry Johnston. After the defeat, the Colonial Government erected forts along the slave routes to check slave trafficking and to bring peace in the area. Some of the forts are still intact up to date.

Slavery has been a great topic even up to today, not only because of its ethics but also because of it massive effect and implications that still linger on. Countless Malawians were affected then and even in a dark and bloodstained past, the fallen ought to be remembered.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Great Dance, Gule Wamkulu

The Gule Wamkulu (Great Dance) is a dance cherished and sacred to the hearts of the Chewa people of Malawi. It is a symbolic, religious masked dance performed by the Nyau society at various occasions such as funerals, weddings, installation of traditional chiefs and authority, initiations as well as ceremonies of local or national proportion.

Nyau is the presence of the dead, an encounter with a spirit and so it is associated with fear and ritual dread.  There are a variety of masks symbolizing different spirits or aspects of life such as fertility or death.  And the dance is seen as a gateway that transverses the realms of the present and that of the ancestors and spirits, once forming the cosmology or indigenous religion of the Chewa people. The belief system's foundation of the dance is based on communication with those who are dead, or their spirits, calling this act pemphero lalikulu (Great Prayer).

The dance fuses religion, centuries of tradition and rituals as it not only entertains but conveys a message. It makes the borders of the realms indistinct, blurring the senses, hypnotizing and draw you in by curiosity only for a while. The dance involves complex footwork, great stamina and flinging dust into the air to create dust clouds. The dancers shuffle, step and respond to specific drum beats and songs depending on the mask he is wearing. The purpose of the dance is said to be a way of communicating messages of the ancestors to the villagers and making possible continued harvests and continued life. But each particular mask and dance serve a particular role. Each of these figures plays a particular, often evil, character representing certain forms of misbehaviour in order to teach moral and social values to the audience, or to tell a story by dance.

The dancers are men who have been initiated, and it is the chief of the village who has appointed them. And Initiation of men into the secret society is said to begin with living in a cemetery for a week or more, but no one knows what goes on there. This Nyau brotherhood is then responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood, and the performance of the Gule Wamkulu at the end of the initiation procedure to celebrate the young men’s integration into adult society. The Nyau societies are found within villages but they are part of a larger network. With the society being so secretive, the dancer's masks become their identity and thus lead a secret double life. The society is said to have coded language, riddles, metaphors, myths and signing. The men are actual spirits in the ritual, and cannot be spoken of as men even though women may recognize their husbands, fathers, brother and uncles. Identifying the man wearing a mask is disrespectful to the religion.

Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made from a variety of things, wood, paint, feathers, metal, wool, animal skin, representing a great variety of characters, such as wild animals, spirits of the dead or slave traders. Some masks made of animal hide or horns are believed to capture the soul or spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life. Some have a blank but horrific appearance, others a fixed enigmatic expression. When the dancer wears the mask, not only do they change their appearance, they also evoke a persona to match. Fierce masks will most undoubtedly evoke a high energy persona that would breakout into a wild dance and would kick up a cloud of dust and leave bystanders in awe. With hundreds of masks out there, the dance and experience would always be different with a different meaning.

There are different perceptions about them either by gender, age or even race. Most children are frightened by them, even some older people are. During performances with the masks it has been observed that women and children often rush into the houses when a Nyau performer threatens. But generally tourists or foreigners are intrigued by them. Not all this holds true, as it seems that nearly everyone you talk with about the Gule will give you a somewhat different story about them.

There is evidence that Gule Wamkulu existed during the great Chewa Empire of the 17th century. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban this practice in Chewa communities in Malawi, it managed to survive under British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity. Due to Westernization the Nyau society is becoming weakened, but since 2005, Gule Wamkulu has been classified as one of the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a program by UNESCO for preservation of intangible cultural heritage. It is hope that the dance and traditions will be preserved for future generations.

Experience a world of ancient tradition and ritualistic mystery of song and dance that echo through time and space, transverse the realms of the present and that of the Chewa ancestors and spirits for a while, come and let your self be drawn in and experience The Great Dance.