Travelling from Cape Maclear to Dedza was quite a challenge despite the relatively short distance seperating the two. With no regular public transport between them we once again resorted to the ancient art of hitchhiking. Unfortunately the first four cars to pass us were other white travellers, and even though three out of four had empty seats, they turned us down because they were ‘full’ or simply tried to ignore us as they slowly drove past us at the crossroads. Thankfully car number five was a Malawian with an empty ute tray. No problems.
The remainder of the journey included standing up on the back of a truck for an hour and a half, being ignored by more white people with empty cars, and eventually a ride all the way to Dedza with a very helpful Malawian ambulance driver (Hello Mayeso if you’re reading!). The back of his ambulance was loaded with nearly twenty patients all on their way to the hospital. Unfortunately due to government corruption, funding for the ambulance and healthcare system in general is very limited. Mayeso explained that he needs to collect passengers like us, and a few other locals in the back, along his route to help subsidise the fuel costs. The small contribution we made (about $5) helps him reach the 8 hospitals within his district without having to dip into his own pocket. We were saddened to hear that many times when patients reach the hospitals there are actually no drugs there for treatment due to the same knock on effects of corruption. Mayeso gave us a great insight into Malawi’s current political situation and how it affects the lives of the people around Dedza. Being within 1km of the Mozambique border, conversation eventually turned to international relations. He told us that Malawi and Mozambique don’t get on very well, and that people there in his experience were very cold. He told us that a Mozambican had recently died in Dedza, and as they didn’t know anything about the deceased, he tried to repatriate the body. Upon arrival at the border, the guards refused him entry to Mozambique and suggested he simply push the body from his ambulance onto the ground and return to Malawi. I cannot imagine anybody in Malawi ever treating somebody in this way.
After exchanging goodbyes, and Facebook details as you seem to do even in impossibly remote areas of Africa, we had arrived in Malawi’s highest town. Coming straight up from the lake, it felt a little cold, but the Malawians in big winter coats were obviously feeling it a lot more than me in shorts and T-shirt. We stayed at the Dedza Pottery Lodge which was comfortable, quiet and friendly, and best of all they were serving a goat stew for dinner. With African portioning in full effect here, I’m quite sure I consumed a full goat by myself over two meals and it was amazing. The only downside to staying at the Pottery Lodge was the sawmill across the road. During the night the watchmen would stay awake by ringing a bell, every hour, on the hour. How this helps is beyond me… Obviously if thieves don’t hear the bell they know the watchmen have fallen asleep?
Our main reason to visit Dedza is that the surrounding Chongoni mountains contain sites with cave paintings said to be up to ten thousand years old. We took a full day trip, taking in both the Nanzeze and Mphunzi sites which were equally impressive. The caves were originally used as homes for nomadic pygmy tribes, and the red artwork created by them millennia ago still stands today. Though much is quite faded, and some even defaced with graffiti (some would argue this saying the modern additions are simply people continuing a tradition, one kid has even drawn a car!), the fact they are still there at all is astounding.
These same caves were also used by the migrating Bantu tribes approximately two thousand years ago, and their distinct artwork is noticeable by the white paint they used. The paintings include both human and animal figures as well as tools and weapons. Our expert guide was also able to point out that not all of the animal figures were actually real animals, but many were representations of an animal “Mask” used in the Chewa tradition of Gule Wamkulu. Considered both a secret cult and a ritual dance, Gule Wamkulu is performed by the initiates of Malawi’s secret Nyau society. The dancers invoke ancestral spirits by wearing carved wooden masks and elaborate costumes, performing at the occasion of weddings, funerals and the installation of chiefs. The largest and most important of these masks being the elephant which takes four men to operate. Despite Christian missionaries trying to stamp out the practice of Gule Wamkulu, it still stands strong and has even been proclaimed by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
I’d read about the secret bush societies of West Africa in a book by Tim Butcher, and the more I heard about them in Malawi, the more they sounded the same. Teenagers are sent away to live and learn in the bush for several years to be initiated. I know that they learn a lot about traditional rituals and practice, but what really goes on is a closely guarded Chewa secret. I tried to coax some answers out of our guide, but he was very good at skirting around the topic and feigning ignorance behind a wide smile. I’ve become obsessed with asking people about the Nyau, and every now and again people will reveal a minor fact, but mostly they will avoid the questions or give misleading answers. It’s a great way to get Malawians laughing as they always know what I’m playing at.
Our next brief stop is Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, a place we have not heard a single positive thing about. Here’s hoping it’s not too terrible…