Saturday, April 25, 2015


The headman
In Peace Corps Zambia lingo, we were “bush rats,” content to stay in our remote village for weeks at a time, and only leaving for food supply runs and periodic vacations.  Although our time was not without struggles, we learned and grew from those experiences.  On our last day in the village in March 2011, we lugged several suitcases containing two years of our life onto the porch in preparation for the Peace Corps Land Cruiser’s arrival.  Then the village headman, counterparts, teachers, students, farming cooperative members, friends and neighbors trickled in to sit vigil with us in the front yard as we waited.  I don’t remember the words of our last conversations because we had been slowly saying goodbye for weeks, only a tone of finality and sadness.  There are snapshots in my mind: our village headman, a former Independence freedom fighter now wrinkled and greying, folded into a forest green canvas chair with a look of solemnity on his face.  Wilo anxiously pacing by our belongings so she would not be left behind, worry constricting her pumpkin-colored eyes.  Our host family’s younger daughters, usually spunky and talkative, sitting quietly in the shade of the mango tree.  Our counterpart standing next to our tall host father, talking animatedly with his hands.  After some hours, we heard the Land Cruiser’s engine as it pulled off the road onto the long dirt footpath leading to our house.  The sound of the deep engine was what made it become real, and we began exchanging handshakes, hugs and tears with dear friends that we were leaving behind.  As we pulled away in the Land Cruiser, my vision was blurred from unshed tears swimming in my eyes, and a part of my heart stayed behind.
Earlier this month, we were fortunate enough to be able to return to our village for a visit, the first time we’ve been back in four years.  The journey from Malawi’s Central Region to Zambia’s Northern Province, though geographically very close, took three and a half full days of bus rides and hitchhiking in private cars because undeveloped infrastructure meant we had to make a “V”, rather than a straight line, to reach our destination.  During this time, we were able to observe how much Zambia had developed in such a short time.  The main roads were in excellent condition, an improvement from the narrow roads we remember with deep craters.  Petrol stations and fast food stores had sprung up everywhere.  Kasama, once a forgotten back-woods provincial capital, now had more vehicles than the roads could handle.  Our friends, who moved back to Kasama last year, joked that rather than the chorus of “how are you’s” from the local children, they were now greeting in Mandarin.

Our counterpart Allan had told people in the village that we were returning for a visit, but it turned out to be a surprise anyways because no one had believed him.  Our Peace Corps predecessor, as well as Peace Corps volunteers in other nearby villages, had left and never returned, so everyone thought Allan was telling stories.  When we arrived the first day, people looked at us with interest, and gossiped with their friends: “Who are those white people?  They look just like Chrisi and Nikki, but they cannot be them.”  By day two, word had spread, and everyone we passed came up to us 
Greeting old acquaintances on the road
enthusiastically, asked how we were, whether we were eating (the consensus was that Chris is very fat, so I’m a good wife, but I’m not eating much myself), and told us how thankful they were for our visit and how much they liked seeing us.  Fortunately, despite not speaking much Bemba for four years, we are a bit rusty at speaking but still understand it we enough to carry on a conversation.  Every day, too, we were improving.  When we visited people at their houses, they showered us with food, which is the Bemba way of welcoming guests.  Upon our arrival, the woman of the house would begin cooking copious amounts of a snack like roasted maize, boiled sweet potato, or boiled groundnuts and serve it to us.  Then when we left, they’d bring us a sack full of groundnuts, pumpkin, beans or sweet potatoes to carry back with us.  We stayed with Allan, and his wife cooked us a full breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as several snacks throughout the day.  Combined with the food we received on our visits, we were eating about every two hours for the entire week we were there.  It is culturally unacceptable to decline food, and there are several varieties of Zambian food that we miss since they aren’t grown in Malawi, so we finished everything. 

RIP BashikuluPrince (L)
Some families had shrunk and some families had grown in our absence.  One of our neighbors, the brother of our host father and wife of the village’s traditional midwife, tragically committed suicide as a result of paranoia, possibly induced by local moonshine.  His house no longer stands, razed to make way for the village health outpost, and his wife and grown children have moved to the Copperbelt.  Our oldest host sister, Doreen, now 22-years-old, is now married with a nearly two-year-old daughter.  Our host father was disappointed that she married young, but she failed grade 8 and had no other options and was determined.  Her husband was educated to grade 12 and teaches adult literacy classes in the village.  With the birth of his first grandchild, our host father is now known as BashikuluMercy (grandfather of Mercy) rather than BashiAmose (father of Amose), to denote his new status.

One of the biggest disappointments was seeing one of our favorite little girls, Pati, now married and pregnant at the age of only 14 or 15.  Another stubborn teenager, she went to live with her boyfriend against her parents’ wishes, and became pregnant.  She now lives with him in a brick house across from his father and mother and in front of her cousin Doreen.  At least she chose well; her husband does not drink alcohol (so many young men do), is polite and a hard worker.  However, I am worried for her labor because she has growth stunting from a childhood of malnutrition and is very young, both risk factors for obstructed labor due to a small pelvic passage.  Bemba women also prefer to have their firstborn child at home, surrounded by loving aunts rather than skilled birth attendants.  It isn’t proper to talk about pregnancy, but we asked Allan to come with us and plead with her and her husband to go immediately to her uncle, our host father, if she is ever “sick” so that he may help her.  Then we left money with our host father with instructions that it should be used for transport to the hospital and/or hospital fees when she needs it.
Pati and younger sister Silvia; then and now
With Pati and a young neighbor at the house she shares with her husband


Chanda and her niece Mercy
When we left, we had high hopes that some specific children would be able to escape the poverty of the village and become educated.  Our host sister Chanda, then around 15-years-old, did well on her exams and was sent to complete grade 8 in Kasama.  However, she failed her grade 9 exams, repeated the grade and took the exams again, but still failed to pass and lost interest.  Our host father believes in education and has money to send his children to secondary school, but so far none of his three oldest children have done well enough in school.  The next sister, Maureen, as well as two cousins, was sent to live with an aunt in the Copperbelt in the hopes that a solid early educationwould prepare her for secondary school.  When she left the village, she was in grade four.  However, upon being tested at her new urban school, they placed her back in grade one.  Another student we had high hopes for was Kapembwa, my counterpart Ba Catherine’s firstborn son.  When we left, he was attending grade 10 at Kasama Boy’s Secondary School.  He passed grade 12, but then became involved with the headman’s granddaughter.  She became pregnant, and her parents insisted to Kapembwa’s parents that he either marry her or pay USD 250 for defiling her.  Kapembwa’s mother urged him to continue with his schooling, but he wanted to marry her and soon afterward had a second child with her.

Many of the elders are still going strong.  The former headman, one of our biggest champions, has since retired and his son has taken over.  He has to be in his 80s.  At Zambia’s 50 years of Independence celebrations last year, he was awarded with a gold medal which he now proudly wears on his suit jacket each day.  As a freedom fighter during Independence, he was imprisoned for one year by British colonialists.  He endured harsh punishments such as a severe beating that popped his eardrum, rendering him nearly deaf.

The grandmother who lived opposite us is still as feisty as ever.  Unfortunately she has cloudy
cataracts and probable glaucoma; there is no treatment for that here so she takes ineffective painkillers and snorts tobacco.

Among all families with small children, we were surprised by how much they’ve grown.  Our neighbor BashiMapalo and BanaMapalo are now living in our old house after their house collapsed from heavy rains.  They now have four children including a new baby, and their baby born during our second year of service, Richie, is all grown up.
BanaMapalo and BashiMapalo and the children: (Clockwise) Mapalo (in red shirt), baby Vincent, Richie, and Juliet.  In front of our old house.
Mapalo: then and now
Our friend, BanaPeggy, has a lastborn daughter named Beauty who was another one of our favorite children.  BanaPeggy signed up to take adult literacy classes to learn English so that she could help Beauty with her school work, and she also promised to be able to speak to us in English when we returned again.  Beauty is now in grade 5.
With BanaPeggy and Beauty: then and now.  Cecilia, the older girl and another of our constant companions back in the day is now staying in Lusaka, so we were unable to see her.
Beauty and I, photo bombed by a rooster
Our neighbours BashiMutale and BanaMutale (the parents of Pati, the pregnant teenager, and the brother and sister-in-law of our host father) now have nine children.  They are very kind, nice people, but BashiMutale goes every morning to the station and drinks all day while his wife and children farm.  He always has, and as a result his family is very poor.  Their children are noticeably stunted in growth.  Their oldest son Mutale hung out with us a lot and was an adult literacy student of mine.  Unfortunately he is now following his father’s path and drinks heavily.  One of the youngest boys, Lazaro, we always suspected had some sort of cognitive impairment.  He doesn’t attend school because he becomes very frustrated and hits things if he doesn’t understand, and he listens fine but doesn’t talk much.  His younger brother, Benny, with huge chubby cheeks that we called the cherub before we learned his name, is attending primary school and looks very smart in his blue uniform.  The two youngest girls, Charity and Silvia, who were a toddler and a newborn when we left, are also growing up.  They have had a new baby, a little girl named Jacklyn, since we’ve left as well.
The youngest five: (L to R): Jacklyn, Charity, Silvia, Benny and Lazaro

Our host father and mother (BashiAmose/BashikuluMercy and BanaAmose/BanakuluMercy) have 7 living children and a nephew who've they adopted.  The oldest, Doreen, lives on the other side of the village with her husband and toddler, while the teenager children have completed their highest level of schooling and help at the family's field.  The second and third youngest daughters, Muso and Malama, were about six and four-years-old when we left and could always be found at our house.  They have grown rapidly like little weeds; the whole family is very tall. 

BashiAmose was proud to show us his new acquisition: a Canter truck.  During harvest, he drove his broken-down pickup truck back and forth between his house and field multiple times a day transporting maize, so he sprung for an upgrade. 
BashiAmose and BanaAmose with their new ride.
Longtime readers of TBPLTB will remember the pre-school for orphans and vulnerable children that I worked with, writing a grant, planning and implementing a training for the teachers, and also constructing a new classroom building.  Today, there is a new group of students, many of whom were only babies when we left.  The students I remember are now in primary school, and according to the headmaster at the primary school, are mostly in the top of their classes.  On the final day of the term for primary school, class dismissed early, and many of the pre-school graduates returned to the pre-school.  There were also a few teenager girls, whom lacking anything to do, came and helped the teacher, Ba Allan, with the lessons.

Pre-school graduates and current primary school students returning to the pre-school
 Another one of my large projects during Peace Corps was training community health workers, sensitizing women and men alike, and establishing a family planning supply chain, upon the request of the women in the community.  Previously, the closest Catholic diocese-run health clinic refused to prescribe family planning, and women had no other access.  When I left, the USAID-funded Society for Family Health was supplying us with the oral contraceptive pill.  Unfortunately, funding ended for the project in Northern Province and SFH left abruptly, taking health commodities people had come to rely on, such as the SafePlan pill, Chlorin for water purification and Maximum condoms, with them.  Despite this barrier, the family planning supply chain I established was still active, now sourcing the pill from SFH in Lusaka!  When their supply ran out, fresh boxes were put on a bus bound for Kasama, where they were then picked up an transported to the village.

One of the most bizarre stories we’ve heard is an explanation of why there are no longer any goats in the village.  Apparently, one night all the goats in the village got together (and every family had at least a few), and decided to leave as one and go to the chief’s palace, 12 km away.  In the morning, people found that all their goats were gone, but the sheep apparently decided to stick around.  The chief told the people that if they wanted their goats back, they had to come to the palace and pay a fine.  Not many people were up for the long journey and then paying a fine, so they left the goats there.  Chris and I are whispering about witchcraft as a possible explanation.

When we left, we were able to bring Wilo with us but had to leave behind some other terrific dogs-Tiger, Chankulila, and Wilo’s eight puppies.  We prepared ourselves to the fact that they most likely were no longer living, since dogs in the village don’t have a long lifespan.  Chankulila (Wilo’s baby daddy) did pass away, they said he just didn’t come home one day and they never found out what happened to him.  Six of Wilo’s pups are definitely dead- one ate a poisonous grasshopper like she did when she was young and didn’t survive and another was attacked by a rabid fox.  We lost track of one, but last we heard she was a good guard dog for an agricultural camp officer.  The remaining puppy, Bwafya, is still alive and thriving.  He’s quite a bit smaller than Wilo and Chankulila full grown (ie, poorly nourished), and he looks exactly like Chankulila but with Wilo’s face.  He remembered us too, and ran right over a belly rub.  The most heartwarming dog reunion though happened with Tiger, who is still alive at age 7 or 8.  Tiger is a very reserved dog, wary of strangers, and Chris still bears scars from the time he was bitten by Tiger.  Imagine our surprise when after four years, we enter our host family’s yard and Tiger comes dashing over, his whole body wiggling in joy, emitting little howls for attention.  He greeted us that way every time we came over during our visit, and didn’t leave our sides.

Many people asked us about Wilo too (she was quite the celebrity), and were pleased to hear she was now in Malawi. 

Overall, our visit back to the village was overwhelmingly positive, and it was nice to be surrounded by our family on this continent again.  It was hard saying goodbye again,


Several kilometers before the Malawian border town of Mchinji, our minibus was stopped at a police checkpoint.  The stern police officer clad in a brown uniform asked to see our passports, as we were the only white people on the bus and obvious foreigners.  After examining them, he turned his attention to our fellow passengers.  He greeted each passenger in Chichewa, Muli bwanji?  He listened as each passenger replied, stating that they were fine.  As he walked away to open the blockade for our passage, a passenger mumbled that he was looking for Zambians because they have money.  The police officer was not truly interested in each passenger’s well-being; he was just listening to the accents and testing that everyone knew Chichewa language.  It could have been a simple immigration checkpoint, but that passenger’s comment implied that if the police officer had found an African foreigner, only kilometers from the Malawi-Zambia border, he could have invented a problem with that person’s passport or entry stamp and demanded a bribe.      

Zambia has changed a lot since we left in 2011.  Chinese and other investment has created a flourishing middle class.  The former late president, Michael Sata, developed infrastructure by repairing and paving roads strategic to trade and tourism. Copper prices, a major export, have risen again.  New malls have sprung up, with South African fast food restaurants and cinemas with the latest blockbusters from Hollywood and Bollywood.  Even in our village, several people now own vehicles and have new iron sheets on their roof replacing the traditional thatch. 

Neighboring Malawi is one of the poorest countries in southeastern Africa.  Most Malawians are subsistence farmers or small scale fishermen living in impoverished villages.  A small elite drive Mercedes Benz’s around the dusty streets of Lilongwe and send their children to universities in the UK.  But there are very few in the middle of this spectrum, because employment opportunities are bleak.  Forty percent of the economy is comprised of foreign aid, and dependency on aid has stifled entrepreneurship.  Massive flooding in January, which destroyed most crops in the southern region and foreshadows tomorrow’s famine, has also hindered the economy.  With no opportunity besides farming, an uncertain venture in the best of times, thousands of Malawians have been drawn to nearby countries, such as South Africa.

There is a woman in our village who lives with her six children in a brick house bordering the primary school.  Her youngest daughter is a student at the pre-school our organization runs, and is six-years-old.  The father of this girl left to work in a mine in Johannesburg (South Africa) when she was just a few weeks old, and has not seen his children since.  He was sending part of his paycheck back every month for many years, but has since stopped and no longer answers his phone.  His wife has not spoken to him for months, and feared he was dead.  Then she heard through a friend, another displaced Malawian in the rainbow nation, that he had taken a girlfriend and planned to marry her.

Our village is full of women who rely on hard work in their fields and a monthly check from a husband in South Africa to feed their children.  Many of these men have not seen their children grow up.  Last week, there was a funeral for a standard 8 student, a girl being raised by her grandmother, who succumbed to asthma.  Her father is Malawian and her mother is South African, but the girl has lived in hot and humid Malawi since she was a toddler, a climate deemed better for her fragile lungs.  She had not seen her father in all those years, and the only event that reunited them briefly was his arrival for her funeral.

Nearly every family in our village has a member in South Africa.  These are hard-working people who have sacrificed family and community to chase a dream of a better future.  So when South Africans in Johannesburg and Durban, rallying with a Zulu king who urged immigrants to evacuate because they were stealing jobs, began fire bombing and stabbing foreign Africans and burning down their houses and stores, Malawians were outraged and saddened.  The Malawi government evacuated thousands of its citizens, returning them to their peaceful yet impoverished homeland on large buses.  All they had worked so hard for in South Africa had to be abandoned. 

Nearby African nations have rallied against what they view as black apartheid.  Mozambique, which supplies power to parts of South Africa, has cut off its electricity supply.  Malawian activists descended on the Parliament building and the South African Embassy in Lilongwe to protest.  Protests in the city have a tendency to become destructive (Malawians have much to be frustrated about), but we were in this section of the city during this time, and saw very few signs of it.  Although we did drive down Kamuzu Procession Road following a police vehicle with shields and officers in riot helmets, presumably en route to a post to ensure things remained peaceful.  These activists have promised that if there is no response or retaliation for comments made by traditional authorities that incited the attacks, they will shut down South African-owned businesses and products in Malawi.  This includes Shoprite supermarkets, Game stores (South Africa’s version of Wal-mart), and dozens of fast food restaurants.

There are always the stereotypes: Nigerians are untrustworthy, the Congolese are violent, etc.  While the Western world often views Africa as one entity, Africans never forget that they are many diverse people residing in 54 distinct nations.  This is apparent in South Africa, where black South Africans have forgotten their own history as an oppressed people upon whom tremendous violence was inflicted, and turned it on the influx of Africans from poorer nations taking advantage of the bustling South African economy. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Searching for Hyenas

The romantic notion of Africa invokes visions of lions stalking prey amongst dried elephant grass and towering giraffes foraging from baobab trees.  The reality however, is that large mammals have been poached to endangerment largely during colonialism, and are now confined primarily to national parks and game reserves.  In our area, the only land predators remaining are spotted hyenas.  They come down from the mountains at night and roam the village as people sleep, often eliciting a telltale chorus of howls from the dogs.  These nocturnal visitors leave little trace besides the occasional slayed livestock.  Last month, one of our nearest neighbors awoke with the sunrise to find a hyena had slaughtered one of his goats.  This happened within 20 m of our bedroom, but we did not even stir.  Hyenas are feared because they are associated with dark magic and death in Chewa folklore, but they represent little threat to humans.  The exception being drunks, who after downing too much local cornmeal beer, find themselves at the Lilongwe nature sanctuary after dark.  A few drunks who slept off their stupor in this tranquil area of the nation’s capital have been picked off by hyenas in recent years.

I’ve wanted a glimpse of the elusive spotted hyenas, and have heard that they are plentiful in the woods surrounding the firing range where the soldiers from the nearby military base train.  The firing range is halfway down the 6 km dirt road stretching from the village to the paved M14 road to Salima.  Besides one small village, the entirety of the road is surrounded by miombo woodland, making it terrific habitat for wildlife.  A few times, our co-worker has asked us to drive and pick her up at the turn-off by the main road at night, since the bicycle taxis that are the main mode of transport down this stretch don’t operate past sunset.  Chris and I have turned these opportunities into what we call the “poor man’s game drive.”  Chris drives slowly down the dark road in first gear, and I point a bright flashlight out the window, scanning the trees for animals, specifically hyenas.  We’ve seen half a dozen civet cats, and a bouncing pair of glowing eyes from a tree that must have been a bush baby (the world’s most adorable nocturnal primate), but no hyenas.

Over Christmas, we decided to upgrade from the poor man’s game drive and traveled to Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi with two co-workers.  While living in Zambia we had the good fortune of being able to visit three national parks, but this was our first safari with our own vehicle.  

A fish eagle, Malawi's national bird
On Christmas day, after arriving at the lodge and setting up our tents, we took an afternoon boat ride on the Shire River.  On the 40 km stretch of the Shire River which runs through the park, there are over 2,000 hippos.  Much of the ride was spent traveling through schools of submerged hippos lazing in the river.  As the daylight faded, they began trudging onto land to graze.  We also passed crocodiles lurking near the shores, and in the far distance, a herd of elephants.  Liwonde, and Malawi as a whole, is a mecca for birdwatchers, and we also saw magnificent fish eagles soaring    through the skies, various hornbills, kingfishers, and other wading birds.

The next day, we awoke early to arrive at the park gates as they opened at 6am.  Unfortunately, we learned that the rains had washed away a bridge within, making much of the 50 km long park inaccessible.  The woman soldier at the gate, correctly appraising Chris as someone who liked to push the limits, warned him
repeatedly to turn around before the bridge to avoid getting stuck in the mud, since no one would come to our rescue.  That left us with an area with a 10 km radius to explore.  The backdrop of the park itself is gorgeous, with tall palm trees lining the river, expansive flood plains of burnt grasses fading into miombo forest, all bordered by blue mountains.  We saw all kinds of antelope:  large greater kudus with oversized ears, delicate tan impala with huge hooked antlers, and shaggy waterbucks.  We crept the car slowly towards them for pictures, but sudden movements made them flee.  We also saw warthogs, ancient-looking creatures which are built so awkwardly that they have to kneel with their front legs to graze.  At one point we passed a family, which startled and ran away with their bristly tails held straight in the air.  

After driving around for a couple of hours, we returned to the lodge to cook breakfast: pancakes cooked over the fire and drizzled with precious Vermont maple syrup.  We returned for another game drive in the late afternoon.  This time, Chris wanted to drive closer to the river on the smaller trails, like he’d seen a guide in a safari 4x4 do earlier that day.  This area was covered in deep mud, unlike the main road.  Much of the ride was spent careening around in the mud and sliding, narrowly avoiding trees.  It was a lot of fun, but I’d have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t in the company vehicle that I was responsible for.  The highlight of this drive was turning a corner and seeing a solitary, younger elephant standing by the road, playing in a large mud puddle.
Hornbill (think Zazu from The Lion King)          

Lilac breasted rollers


A common waterbuck 

A herd of greater kudu and a baboon

 Another excursion this month was to Cape Maclear, which is situated almost on the far southern end of the 365 km long Lake Malawi.  One of the only accessible parts of the lake to face northwest, it offers protection from the winds and spectacular sunsets.  Cape Maclear is a quintessential Malawian fishing village melded with lodges catering to European backpackers, and it has a laid-back, spirited atmosphere.  Like many notable areas in this region, it was visited and named by the Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who named it after the Astronomer Royal at the Cape of Good Hope, Thomas Maclear.  Livingstone had 
     such an appreciation for its beauty that it was chosen as the original site of his mission.
Our organization has a partnership with a tour operator that had just opened a new lodge on the western end of Cape, so we were invited to a weekend of complimentary meals, lodging and water sports to celebrate its launch.  In addition to mingling with other expatriates working in Malawi and enjoying a new side of the lake, we also were able to go snorkeling and banana boating.  We went out in the speedboat to a small, rocky island and snorkeled among the vibrant, neon-colored cichlids that Lake Malawi is known for.  It was like floating in a giant tropical fish tank.  Later that day, we piled on an inflatable, banana-shaped raft pulled by the speedboat.  It was pretty unstable and we bounced high in the waves left in the boat’s wake, so we fell off often.  But riding on it at high speeds with the wind on our faces and spray from the lake kicking up, half expecting that every turbulent patch would cause us to tumble into the water, was exhilarating.  

Malawi is only the size of the state of Pennsylvania, and nearly one quarter of the country is freshwater lake, but there is tremendous geographical diversity.  An hour south of Liwonde National Park lies the breathtaking Zomba Plateau.  Zomba was Malawi’s colonial capital, and was claimed to be the most stunning, picturesque capital anywhere in the British Empire.  Rising to an elevation of 6,836 feet, the plate
au is covered in potato fields at its lower elevations and a pine tree plantation at its tips.  A steep, zigzagging road traversed by merchants selling fruit to tourists and women carrying bundles of wood on their heads to sell in town winds up to the Sunbird Kuchawe inn, Malawi’s government-owned luxury hotel chain, perched on the precipice.  From the top of the plateau, you can look upon the town of Zomba far below, looking like a child’s carelessly placed set of matchbox cars and other tin toys, and mountains in varying shades of blue stretching across the horizon.  The Shire River meanders through like a blue ribbon across the sandy ground, and from the opposite direction, you can view Lake Chilwa.

High on the plateau, options for accommodation are limited.  The Sunbird Kuchawe’s prices match its opulent atmosphere, so we settled for camping at a former trout farm that has seen better days.  Our travel companions until this part of the journey refused to camp with us, insinuating that the farm was sketchy and looked like the set of a bad slasher movie.  Their loss, since its location set amidst the forest was really rather peaceful.

 The lodges advocate hiring guides to lead tourists around the plateau, but we had a Bradt’s guide to Malawi with a crude map of the plateau, directions pirated off another traveler’s blog, and an optimistic outlook on our sense of direction, so the four of us set off on a hike to find Emperor’s and Queen’s view.  Amidst the rows of pine trees stretching off into the distance, the setting was not unlike the Adirondacks.  We enjoyed the tranquility of being completely alone except for each other.  At some point, we must have made a wrong turn, but upon reaching the top of the road, we had a spectacular view of other mountains in the distance. 
After a brief rest, we set off again, and that’s when we became utterly lost.  In an attempt to gain our bearings, we took roads heading in the vague direction of where we thought we should be, though much of the plateau’s landmarks look the same.  At this point, it was 3pm and storm clouds were moving in rapidly and ushering in a premature sunset, and we’d been walking since 11am.  With a new sense of urgency, we began following a road with fresh tire tracks, surmising that tire tracks meant civilization.  Just as we began to lose hope, a grey 4x4 appeared on the horizon.  After flagging down the vehicle, the driver stopped, and asked us for directions to the outlooks in an Afrikaans accent.  The two white South African brothers inside were also lost, but having a hell of a time doing it skidding through deep mud in their boss’s SUV, sipping gin from glasses, and chain smoking.  Hopping into the backseat, we continued on and found a sign for Queen’s View- named for Queen Elizabeth who visited in the 1950s.  After taking some pictures, we continued on to the dam, where the younger brother splashed around in the frigid water and we stood around like parents supervising a child’s first swim, instructing him to try different poses as his brother snapped photos on his iphone.  After thanking the brothers for sparing us a cold night on the plateau, we headed back to our campsite.

The next day, Chris and I were alone, and we decided to hike to Chingwe’s hole, on the opposite side of the plateau.  In a second moment of grossly overestimating our abilities, we projected the trip to be about 3 miles one way, or one hour there and one back.  This side of the plateau had a landscape more reminiscent of New Zealand, with green plains, moss-draped trees, and small rivers cascading over the earthen path.  This hike was also completely vertical, and brought us up through the pine plantations, past temporary grass
shelters covered with black plastic where families lived while they harvested pine which they would later carry down the mountain to sell in Zomba town.  The mountain rang with the sound of pit saws as pine was cut into planks.  We did not see any trace of a larger scale logging operation; instead it seemed to be contracted to small groups of people living in villages on the plateau.  We continued ascending, past the woodsmen, and finally came to a meadow.  Though the view was lovely, we’d been walking for over two hours on legs sore from the previous day’s adventures.  But a sign promised us that Chingwe’s hole was only one kilometer away.  It must have been the longest kilometer of my life, since it took us another hour from there to reach the place.  Meanwhile, dark clouds approached ominously, heralded by high winds and distant lightening flashing across the sky.  We were on the highest part of the plateau in an open meadow, so being sensible and safety-minded, we doggedly continued towards Chingwe’s Hole rather than seeking shelter.  Finally, we arrived at a rather inauspicious small circle of trees huddling together near the edge of a cliff. 

Fog was rolling in, making it impossible to see what the circle of trees concealed.  Since the storm was imminent and there was no shelter anywhere, we huddled on a wooden bench that faced what was probably a magnificent view any other time, but now was only the opaque white of endless fog.  The wind blew ferociously, and we expected to be drenched with rain anytime, but it never came.  With awe, we realized that we were above the storm clouds.  While we were safely enveloped in a blanket of fog, beneath us, the rain pelted in sheets.  All our   The
rain beneath us was fierce but quick, and the fog dissipated.  The view in front of us was still only white when we looked down at the map, but when we glanced back up, it was like someone had thrown open the curtain.  Within a minute, the fog had vanished completely, revealing a view of the southern region’s raw beauty.  Our tiredness melted away with that distant rain, and we were left with a feeling of invincibility and immortality there in the heavens.

The retreating fog also left us with an unobstructed view of  Chingwe’s hole, hidden in that little unassuming copse of trees.  Despite the tranquil setting, Chingwe’s hole has a mysterious, deadly past.  Locally, it is said to be a bottomless pit stretching into the Rift Valley.  While it undoubtedly has a bottom, that abyss is littered with layers of bones.  In the past, it was offered sacrifices in times of drought.  They also used to throw people afflicted with leprosy into the hole, which is how it earned its name.  One day they visited the hole and found the unfortunate soul tossed in the previous day to be still alive.  In a weak voice that echoed throughout the 8m wide hole, he asked for a rope, chingwe in ChiChewa, to be thrown down.  His request was ignored, and he eventually died of injuries or dehydration.  Later, local chiefs used the hole to forever dispose of their enemies.  It is rumored that former dictator Hastings Banda (1964-1994) also used the hole for this purpose.  Under his reign, over 250,000 Malawians were detained without trial and tortured, and his dissenters had a tendency to die under mysterious circumstances such as car crashes, explosive blasts, or as victims of crocodiles on the Shire River.

Like the nocturnal hyenas that skulk around the village, much of our trip was shrouded in mystery.  Safari is always a gamble, since there are no guarantees you’ll see animals, and it’s harder in the rainy season when the herds move further.  Zomba Plateau is beautiful, but holds many secrets and no clear paths back home.  We left the village without a clear plan or itinerary, intent on uncovering more about Malawi.  While we did so, we’ve really only scratched the surface.  This is a diverse, beautiful country, and like searching for the elusive hyenas by flashlight, I can’t wait to have more adventures in the quest for knowledge.