Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mua Mission

After driving past miles of cornfields whose plants had just barely started to emerge, and house after house surrounded by swept-bare earth, the Mua Mission is an oasis of lovely landscaping that surrounds beautiful statues and painted buildings. 

We weren't the only ones to appreciate the landscaping!  I was really excited to see this harmless  snake hanging out in a hedge.  We also found a cement statue of a python, which you can see in the picture above.

The Catholic mission itself dates back to 1902.  In the 1970s the European priest in charge added a woodcarving workshop to teach craftsmen the trade.  After Vatican II he also started a cultural center there, with the goal of preserving the cultures of three major local tribes and interpreting them for visitors in a museum.  There are also sometimes cultural performances with music and dance.

By this point Logan was feeling bad too and spent the time laying on a bench outside.  The rest of us followed the guide through the museum, though by now I was feeling pretty bad and Emma was starting to feel sick too. We were allowed to take pictures in the first room which told the story of the mission, but not in the other rooms.  The other rooms had life-sized carved wooden people wearing costumes and ceremonial objects from the three tribes, with pictures and text on the walls to explain various cultural traditions.

I was quite surprised to see a large collection of masks of Gule Wamkulu, the Chewa secret society, and to hear that the priest in charge had actually undergone the initiation ceremony.  This is the same Gule Wamkulu that Malawian friends of ours had told us they as Christians can have no involvement with, not even going to the funeral of a member of the society.  I am not sure our Malawian guide completely understood what I was getting at when I questioned him about the priest's involvement in the society.  It is also possible that I was not communicating as well as sometimes, since by now I was lying down most of the time and observing the displays from the floor!  But I think I heard that this priest saw understanding and preserving these cultures to be part of his God-given vocation.  I found this idea an interesting contrast to the ethos that has flooded Malawi with images of a blue-eyed Jesus, but wasn't sure exactly what I thought about this either given what I'd been told about Gule Wamkulu.  This topic led to an interesting conversation around the Maliro dinner table later.  I gather that this priest's respect for local cultures has in turn earned him the respect of many Malawians.  Our Malawian Christian friends see aspects of traditional culture that are worth honoring, like respect for elders and care for extended family members, but also identify some traditions as not compatible with a Christian lifestyle.  Obviously this priest feels that no cultural information at all should be lost.  As an academic I can see the argument for preserving information; as a Christian I can see the argument for identifying the aspects that should not be practiced. 

Long before we managed to resolve this complicated issue we had to cut short our tour of the museum, as I was feeling worse by the minute and Emma, Angie, Logan, and Andrew weren't getting any better either.  So we staggered back to the van and set off for Bunda.  I was disappointed to not spend more time at Mua, but glad for the chance to see at least a little.

Cape Maclear

Part Two of the Norde Horde in Malawi.  After leaving Liwonde with Chris, Angie, Andrew, and Logan, we headed for Lake Malawi.  We stayed at a lodge in the village of Cape Maclear on the southern end of the lake for a couple of days, spending time on the water, in the water, and in the hills behind the town.  This is a view of the village and the lake.  Below: setting off in a paddleboat and a kayak.  Below that: After all the time Joel has spent reading about sailing, he was eager to actually try it.  He, Chris, and Eric managed to have some fun despite very fickle, gusty winds. 

Joel was interested to try one of the dugout canoes used by the local fishermen, so we rented one for an hour and he tried it out.  His assessment: he thought the long heavy paddle was very hard to use compared to the light aluminum ones he's used to.  Emma tried it too, but also decided it was hard work with a very heavy paddle.   In the picture of Emma you can see a yellow square on the bottom of the canoe.  That is a patch, formed from a piece cut from a plastic five-gallon oil drum and held on over top of a piece of plastic bag by lots of little tacks.  Confidence-inspiring?  Maybe, maybe not  - especially since once Joel and Eric saw another canoe slowly sinking and the guy's buddies paddling over to help out.  Eric didn't think it would sink to the bottom because it's wooden; in fact he saw a moored boat floating just below the surface.  This did make him wonder, though, how you start bailing something that's underwater.

One of the highlights of our time there was snorkeling off one of the islands. The equipment was a little sketchy and it took a while to get Emma's mask to stop leaking, but once we all got set it was fabulous.  The kids were soon powering through the water with the flippers and diving down among the boulders like old pros.  Lake Malawi is famous for its many species of small colorful fish called cichlids, and it felt like swimming in an aquarium.  Eric:  They were so diverse and colorful it would have been neat to figure out how to identify and photograph them, because they were so beautiful.  Joel:  I could have done that for a week and not gotten tired of it.  Emma: It was FUN!  I hope we get to do it again sometime!  By the way, I never did get my mask to stop leaking - it just leaked more slowly.  Are we raving about this?  Maybe.  It was just that great.
Since we don't have underwater cameras, I borrowed a picture from the internet to let you see what it was like (

We didn't actually spend a lot of time hanging out by the beach.  The lodge was right on the lake but it was also right in the town, which meant that if you went to the beach you were likely to be accosted by someone trying to sell you carved wooden keychains, or boys with homemade drums trying to get you to pay to listen to a song.  (We heard them performing for another guest at the lodge - they were actually pretty good.)  It also meant that first thing in the morning everyone goes down to the shore to wash clothes and pots, and maybe gut a fish or two.  It makes for interesting photography perhaps, but not for great beach lounging.

Despite the occasional persistent vendor, we actually felt less harried here than in some other places we'd been.  Nobody asked us for money, apart from a few kids doing a more-or-less organized fund raiser for their soccer team.  Even walking around at Bunda we were regularly asked for money by strangers, so this was a welcome change.

That is not to say we were not still an object of interest to the local kids.  Emma and I were out on the beach one morning and started picking up a few of the many little shells in the sand.  Before you knew it there were half a dozen kids surrounding us with big handfuls of shells.  What to do now?  I knelt in the sand and started making designs and patterns with the shells, and soon all the kids had their own designs.  When I took a picture, they all crowded around to see the picture on the little camera screen.

Emma:  Logan and I rushed for the pool every chance we got...when our parents chased us away from video games, that is!

The restaurant at the lodge was really, really slow.  One evening there weren't any other diners there yet, so we passed the long wait with Eric's guitar, Joel's recorder, and some hymn books.  The waiters seemed to be an appreciative audience!

One morning we went for a hike up into the hills behind the town.  They are part of Lake Malawi National Park and so are still forested, though the forest was open and scraggly rather than tall and dense, but made for interesting hiking with nice views over the town and lake.  Unfortunately Emma sprained her ankle on the way up, and after a game attempt to keep going decided it was best to turn back.  But they did get to see a beautiful red and black bird (Red Bishop) on the way done, as well as an amazing lizard, blue with a bright orange head.

 Walking back through the town after the hike.  The boys sensed breakfast ahead and started to pick up speed, though we did pause briefly to admire a huge baobab.  We came back later to take a picture, when Angie, Andrew, Emma, and I walked through the town to shop for a few souvenirs.

We saw some interesting birds but for me the highlight of the hike was this shrub whose flowers had the longest petals I have ever seen.  (Strophanhus sp., probably S. petersianus: Apocynaceae.  Just in case anyone other than me really cares.)  I saw some other beautiful flowers that day, but that Strophanthus was one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

And for those unimpressed by botanical wonders (Joel, snorting over my shoulder at what I just wrote, I do mean you) there were critters too.  A large resident lizard gave the term "poolside monitor" new meaning, and of course there were geckos for Joel to catch.

The last night at Cape Maclear Angie and Andrew got sick, and I (Andrea) wasn't feeling that great either.  But we loaded up the next morning and headed for the Mua Mission, our planned stop midway on the drive back to Bunda.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


The last major phase of our time in Malawi was to play host to Eric's brother Chris and family Angie, Andrew, and Logan.  They finally arrived in Lilongwe on Dec. 16, after several delays and a missed connection.  Eric had succeeded in selling our little Polo and we'd arranged for a Land and Lakes Safari van to drive us around, so we were looking forward to a relaxing trip letting someone else dodge goats and minibuses.  
After several hours of driving, and after the sun had set, we pulled up to a dock along the Shire River where we were met by the boat that took us to Mvuu Camp.  Mvuu is the Chichewa word for hippo.  This is the sign we passed to get to the chalets:

We actually didn't have to leave the camp to observe wildlife.  There were warthogs grazing outside the chalets first thing in the morning, big geckos on the chalet stone walls, monitor lizards crawling across the paths, and a vervet monkey that leaped onto the table one mealtime and stole food right off of Angie's plate.  One of the cooks came dashing out with a slingshot, or "catapult" as it's called there - it soon became obvious that the monkeys there know enough about slingshots to be wary of them.  
 In the heat of the afternoon the pool proved irresistible to a number of primates, the kind with American passports as well as the vervet monkey that made off with a banana.

Once Chris started sizing up the big baobab, however, it became a little more difficult to tell the different types of primates apart.

We did leave the camp, however: over the next couple of days we went on two game drives and two boat rides and a walking safari.  We didn't see the variety of animals species we saw in South Luangwa on our trip to Zambia.  This was due to the fact that this time it wasn't the dry season so animals weren't concentrated by the river, as well as the fact that Malawi has had far more poaching problems than Zambia.  There is one lone lion in Liwonde, who wandered there on his own from Nkhotakhota some years ago and stayed.  Apparently there has been some talk of re-introducing more lions, but the fact that the park is also home to around a dozen rhinos - an extremely endangered species - coupled with the ongoing lack of poaching control has so far discouraged that move.  While we didn't see the lion or the elusive rhinos, which tend to stay hiding in an inner sanctuary where tourists aren't taken, it was still a magical experience.  At South Luangwa we saw lots of different things; here we had the chance to stay put for longer periods of time and observe the animals' activities.  We watched elephant families leisurely feeding, and once the guide stopped the boat so we could watch an elephant cross the river.  This may not sound that exciting as you read it, but an elephant is such a massive animal that just to see it in the wild is impressive, and to observe it going about its daily activities in its extremely large, unhurried way is something I could do for a long time. We liked the way it held the end of its trunk above the water the whole way across.

Some of my thoughts about the Malawian landscape and wildlife prompted me to ask our guide if what I suspected was true: most Malawian kids have never seen an elephant.  He nodded.  Liwonde, and possibly the other parks as well, try to engage the local communities in environmental education and conservation, but how much can you do with a school system that doesn't even have enough money to provide its schools with enough teachers?  Besides, those efforts would only reach those kids who live right beside a park, and most Malawian kids don't.  It's something I noticed in South Luangwa too, that practically all the jeeps were filled with foreign tourists; we only saw one black tourist family in all the time we spent visiting natural areas.  The local people may indeed be benefiting from jobs cooking and cleaning for the foreign tourists (myself included), with a handful working as guides in the park.  I think kids in general are far more disconnected from nature in the US than in Malawi, where almost everyone has a little corn patch.  With poaching and firewood cutting being the serious problems they are I don't know what I would recommend.  But I still think there is still something impoverishing in having your only connection with the natural world being to see how much maize you can make it produce, and I still think it's sad that most Malawian kids have never seen and likely never will see an elephant.  (I also think it's sad that so many American kids are so clueless about their local ecosystems.)

One of the highlights of our visit to Liwonde was a "walking safari" with our guide.  (Would you go on a walking safari with a man named Danger?  No kidding.  That's his name.)  We were accompanied by a ranger with a rifle in case of trouble.  (I asked him what he could do with one rifle if an elephant charged; he said the sound of shooting into the air would frighten off any animal that might be posing a threat.)  I could have spent all day doing this: looking at plants, insects, birds, animals (sadly, no snakes this time), listening to Danger's explanations of various things.  I asked him if he grew up knowing all this but he said no, he had to study a lot to become a guide.  This walk was the perfect antidote to the frustration I was starting to feel at being in a natural paradise but not being allowed to get out of the jeep.  Everyone else loved it too - except Andrew and Logan, who groaned and snuggled back into bed when their parents got up at dawn for the walk!  We were all amazed when Danger pointed out a family of elephants feeding a couple hundred yards behind us: he'd told us that elephants move silently but I don't think we had really believed him.  The picture makes it look like we weren't very close to them, but believe me - on foot, we felt like we were probably close enough.

We loved watching the brilliant black and white Pied Kingfishers, which would hover above the river until suddenly BAM! they would plummet down into the water after a fish.

 Lots of crocodiles, both large (above) and tiny (below).  (The large croc was NOT photographed on our walk!)

 The bird life along the Shire here is spectacular.  We saw lots of African Fish Eagles but never got tired of them.  Eric got some great photographs, including these of a Saddle-Billed Stork and a Malachite Kingfisher.

 Animals large and small: waterbuck and hippos. We were also fascinated by the dung beetles that Emma spotted on a pile of elephant dung, forming little balls to roll away.  Andrew and Logan already knew a lot about them, since they'd both written reports on them for school, but had never seen any before.

 Can you spot the animals in the picture above?  In Joel's words, after years of being called a fruit bat he finally met one of his own kind.  Several, in fact, staring back at him from under an arch of reeds and vines along the river bank right beside the camp.
 One of the fun aspects of a safari at the beginning of the rainy season is the chance to see baby animals.  Above, an impala mother and fawn.
Below, a huge termite mound, a "candelabra tree" (actually a euphorb, Euphorbia ingens), and impala.