It is possible to cross the border between Tanzania and its Southern neighbour, Mozambique. There are immigration control posts on either side of the border which provide the required passport stamps. They are located near the coast and mark the only legally sanctioned way of crossing the border.
Coming from the Northern, Tanzanian side of the border, the first task is to get to Mtwara, the most Southerly large coastal settlement in Tanzania. Starting from Kilwa, 150km to the North, reaching Mtwara took 10 hours by public transport and required several changes. The condition of the roads and the vehicles continued to deteriorate the further South we went. The highlight was a precarious view from a seat right on top of a fully-laden Isuzu truck for a short section of the route near Lindi. Once in Mtwara, a simple hotel room and a dinner of the traditional chip-omelette regional dish is the best and only option available.
From Mtwara, one must travel by taxi out of town towards the South on an earthen track which eventually peters out at a small clearing. There one can find a wooden hut with an official sitting outside. Once the official has inspected and stamped the passport, the next step requires hiring a motorbike and driver to take one through the bush to the edge of the Ruvoma river, which marks the official border. At the riverside, enterprising locals with pirogues and paddles offer their services to the international traveller. The crossing is truncated in the dry season as the river shrinks to a central channel. After a few hundred metres of paddling, the river level becomes too low to continue and the passenger must alight to cross the remaining riverbed on foot, taking care not too wade through too many deep puddles and keeping an eye out for pesky crocodiles, hippos and snakes. A path rises from the edge of the riverbank and, after a 10 minute walk West along the banks of the dry river-bed, it turns to the left and into a lightly forested area to the South. A five minute walk along the path, which winds its way through the wild and verdant African bush, brings one to a clearing where a small group of transport entrepreneurs offer the traveller transport services in 4 wheel drive vehicles that they claim to possess. This is, apparently, the furthest North that vehicles of any type can reach on the Mozambique side of the border. A track accessible by regular vehicles remains some five kilometres further on.
In our case, we failed to negotiate a suitable contract with any of the hustlers in the clearing. We had no local currency and had to negotiate in dollars – they were looking for $50 for the trip and refused to consider the, eminently reasonable, offer of $5 that we proposed. A pleasant 5 km walk through the bush was our alternative. In this land without roads, there were surprisingly many people wondering through the bush, women carrying water on their heads, children carrying chickens and so on, and our path took us through several villages. Everybody stopped whatever they were doing in shock as soon as they saw us and turned to stare. Children formed large groups, the smaller ones hiding at the back due to their obvious terror. It’s not that unusual to attract attention and stares from children in Africa in areas where there are few Europeans, but this was extreme. This was clearly not a cosmopolitan border crossing.
After an hour of trudging through the bush with all of our luggage on our backs, we were relieved to finally find the desk of the Mozambican immigration official in another shady clearing. My immediate reflection was that this was definitely the major border crossing where the risk of not making it and being eaten alive by wild animals in no man’s land was strongest, of all those borders I have yet seen. We duly got our passports stamped and officially entered the country.
Mocimboa de Praia
This was the point where the Mozambican road was supposed to start. A pickup truck was gathering passengers on the edge of the clearing, destination Mocimboa de Praia, the first significant town in the country. We jumped on board. It didn’t take long to fill up – a steady stream of international travellers came stumbling into the clearing laden down with bags of imported goods. It was just after noon, and the sun was high in the sky. We set out, trundling unsteadily along the rough track, through a verdant landscape with long grasses fringing us and huge green bushes full of flowers overhanging the road. After 30 minutes our vehicle failed completely. We spent the next 4 hours waiting by the roadside as our driver wrestled with the engine while his assistant was sent to find a replacement to rescue us. As the afternoon progressed, groups of inquisitive local farmers started to form around the vehicle, in small clusters at first, standing 15 or 20 metres away, all staring at us in wonder. The crowd continued to swell as we idled in the sun – I amused myself by getting out of the car and walking towards a group of children – they would all simultaneously take a step backward in fear. By the time the replacement vehicle finally arrived a crowd of hundreds of people that must have been drawn from multiple villages had amassed to silently watch us depart with a thousand curious eyes.
The infrastructure of the colonial era was heavily focused on getting stuff, especially minerals, to and from the coast. Even internally to the British Empire, transport routes between African colonies that did not lead to ports were barely developed. This was partly simply due to the economic weight of the minerals and cash crops that were being exported, when compared to the expensive and vague aspiration of developing the economic potential of the colonies. It was also partly by design – the loss of the 13 colonies was still felt strongly by the Victorian imperialists and one of their infrastructural design goals was to prevent a breakaway alliance from developing in their new colonies.
While internal infrastructure appears to have been frowned upon, infrastructure that connects the territories of different colonial empires together, on the other hand, appears to have been considered positively criminal. Great efforts have clearly been expended to ensure that no roads, bridges or railways are allowed to cut across the important boundaries that define the spheres of influence of the great powers.
The riverbeds and bush trail that must be crossed at the Tanzania-Mozambique border reduces the flow of international travellers between the regions to virtually nothing. Almost all of the people we encountered were travelling between small local towns, not crossing into the other country except inadvertently. This renders the cultural shift stark. This was our first visit to a Portuguese colony. The style of the architecture of the seaside towns changed dramatically – the churches changed from plain British missionary chapels to classically Mediterranean whitewashed churches. The food improved considerably. Knowledge of both English and French were completely non-existent among the general population. I had heard Portuguese being spoken frequently on our short wave radio but had mistaken it for Russian due to the unfamiliar pronunciation. This was my first time hearing the language actually spoken in practice. Neither myself nor Deirdre could follow a word and we had to make do with gestures and stupid smiles to do our talking for us.
Portuguese Settler Colonialism
European settlement has deeper roots In the Southern part of the continent than East or West. Portugal’s colonies in Angola and Mozambique go back to the early 16th century in the period when their commercial strategy was evolving from piracy to protection rackets. The European monarchies had an insatiable thirst for gold to fund their arms races against one another. They didn’t care so much about trade itself – the traders and the merchant navy were both international and dominated by the city states – they cared about the taxes on trade. The Iberian kingdoms sought the route to the Indies in order to try to displace the Venetians and Ottomans as the tax-collectors on the trade between Asia and Europe. Wherever, they came across a location where lucrative resources were available – gold, spices or slaves – they would build a factory – a fortified base for royally licensed trading – and would assert monopoly rights on that trade by force of arms. Wherever they came across existing trading centres they would attempt to either capture them or destroy them. Mozambique formed part of the extensive network of trading posts that they built to enforce their monopolies on key trade goods and routes, all the way around the Indian Ocean and on to East Asia and Japan.
Wherever Portugal had trading posts and it was viable, they also tried to create colonies as microcosms of their own clerical-feudal social world. From their trading bases on the coast, they would give land grants for large plantations to military leaders anointed by the crown, who could assert the grants by force of arms – thereby creating a new colonial nobility. Their system depended heavily upon forced labour to serve the plantations – through slavery or a class of feudal serfs. The church was responsible for enforcing cultural control across the empire and its colonies. This included early introduction of the inquisition into Portugal’s Eastern empire. Because Portugal always had a far smaller domestic population than its major European rivals, they necessarily had to apply a more ethnically flexible rulebook than other imperial powers. They attempted to increase the effective colonial population by assimilating local groups into Portuguese culture through inter-marriage and by granting colonial titles and offices to non-Portuguese in response for military service. In Africa, Portuguese colonial efforts had limited success. They did not have a huge gap in military technology over the natives, unlike in Brazil. There were a variety of reasonably large kingdoms in their environs and their colonists had to forge delicate alliances with local powers. The colonizing forces that the Portuguese sponsored in Mozambique often became assimilated into local dynastic politics rather than vice versa.
By the start of the 19th century, when Brazil gained its independence, Portugal had long been a paper tiger, propped up by British capital and protected by the British navy as a counter-weight to Spain. Portugal’s last significant territorial holdings were in Africa and these took on special significance to their traditional dynastic and clerical elite. The Portuguese empire doubled down on African settlement even as Britain progressively threw away the props. Britain’s suppression of slavery in Africa, proved destabilising for the economy’s of Portugal’s African colonies. When Britain later moved its colonies to self rule and full independence, this ultimately destroyed the Portuguese empire entirely. Already by the turn of the century, Mozambique was being used as a source of cheap labour for British colonies and much of the infrastructure was British owned and connected mineral reserves in the Empire to Mozambiquan ports for export.
Once the scramble for Africa was complete and Germany was defeated in WW1, Britain was the only great power left in the region and could assert its power indirectly through control of the broader infrastructure that each territory was connected to. They had the resources and the long-term strategic perspective to invest heavily in modern regional transportation infrastructure at the turn of the century and none of the colonies would ever be realistically able to challenge their control by developing their own alternatives due to limitations of scale. Once they had monopoly control of the export infrastructure, they didn’t have to care what any of the countries did internally – they could even allow countries to go offline for a while and descend into disorder, they could just route around it, using different regional links to ports and markets. By the simple logic of imperialist competition, it is better for imperial strength if colonies are as autonomous as possible – cheaper to administer, more resilient. In particular, by pulling away the security blanket of imperial military intervention to save failing colonial regimes, they anticipated that the newly independent, experimental nations would struggle initially to provide secure and stable administration which would lead to humanitarian crises. Britain’s imperial architects reasoned that the sooner they introduced this shock the better. European settlers were a small minority everywhere in Africa and any new state based on their retaining a special status would always require the suppression of a majority of the population.
This sudden turn towards independence was a big shock to the European settler populations of Southern Africa, many of whom felt betrayed and abandoned by the Empire they had served so faithfully. They thought white supremacism and cultural chauvinism went deeper than that and it wasn’t just all about the power. The settlers believed in the superiority of their own European culture to that of the Africans among whom they found themselves. They felt that their presence in the colonies was a civilizing influence on the natives in itself and that the natives were simply insufficiently civilized to run anything properly by themselves. When the tide turned increasingly towards colonial independence in the post-war period, the settler regimes responded by building an of militarist, settler-colonial and far right forces, organized around a cold-war anti-communist narrative, to supply what became a vast international terrorist campaign against the native population of the region.
Portuguese settler colonialism was particularly incapable of adapting to the post-war changes. It was based on a corporatist model which depended upon the great majority of the population remaining as second class citizens subject to an externally appointed nobility. There was no way in hell that the population were ever going to vote for that. The British had been grooming and educating local elites for decades in their colonies. By contrast, by the time that the post-war independence movement emerged in the early 1960s, only a single Mozambican student had ever attained a high-school diploma. The Portuguese regime fought tooth and nail against all reforms and suppressed all opposition with traditionally demonstrative displays of extreme violence against the natives whenever challenged. As their neighbouring colonies gained their independence, they increasingly found themselves surrounded not by a world empire, which could effectively enforce its monopoly on violence within its realms, but by a number of small, poor, independent African states with very weak military and security forces. These states proved both incapable and unwilling to suppress cross border pro-independence rebel groups based in their territory. With the withdrawal of the security umbrella provided by the British Empire, the Portuguese increasingly turned to the post-war great powers to help them suppress independence movements. They were a founding member of NATO and through the late 1960s and early 1970s, the West German air force spear-headed a major NATO operation which saw intense firebombing raids targeting entire ethnic groups of subsistence farmers in Portuguese colonies on suspicion of being sympathetic to Marxist-Leninism. An opportunistic alliance of arms manufactures, cold-warrior politicians, militarists, drug-smugglers, mercenaries and shady businessmen was happy to pour weapons and public money into these wars of white supremacy.
The cold war had very little real impact in Africa. The other side of Britain’s great game strategy in the 19th century was to keep Russia contained in Asia in order to prevent allowing it to attain warm water ports from where it could challenge British control of the oceans. This worked – by the time Russia broke out after the second world war, they were 150 years behind in the game and the scramble for Africa was long over. Neither of the postwar super-powers showed any appetite to attempt to challenge Britain’s control of the continent’s resources by developing alternative infrastructure. The superpowers had continental sized territories of their own and were far more self-sufficient in minerals than the old European powers. The only efforts in that direction have come more recently from China, but they are also 150 years behind in the race and their investment and influence is still a tiny drop in the ocean compared to Britain’s long term investment. None the less they are the only power in a century who has the economic strength to make such long term strategic infrastructural investments. The USSR’s influence in Africa was limited to supplying arms for free to governments and armed groups that were being boycotted by the NATO side of the cold war. The US, on the other hand, normally provided arms, money and political support to all sides of the conflict at once, through one or other of its variety of different covert or overt agencies. They never had any reason to attempt to displace the hegemonic position of their trans-Atlantic British ally in its traditional sphere of influence.
The white-supremacy wars were particularly disastrous in the Portuguese colonies for everybody involved. From 1961, when the first Angolan independence group emerged, the Portuguese fought an escalating war on all fronts against the natives of the whole region, which saw them deploy an army of hundreds of thousands of troops with all of NATO’s space age weapons against villages made of grass-huts. This included sponsoring ethnic insurgencies across their borders in neighbouring independent countries, fostering ethnic militias and massacres in order to undermine rebel support and so on. After 14 years of bitter colonial guerilla warfare, the Portuguese regime collapsed and the whole empire died with it. The racial bitterness that the long war imbued in the native population meant that the settler population was expelled en masse – 1,000,000 Portuguese colonists and 500 years of effort reduced to cinders in a stroke. For the natives, the wars of racial supremacy continued to rage until the end of the twentieth century. In both Angola and Mozambique, the post-independence governments were immediately plunged into civil wars, with multiple rebel movements battling the new regimes, based on different ethnic groups, sponsored by a changing patchwork of South Africans, US right wing hawks, Thatcherite British Tories, Rhodesians, Israelis, Zaire, or one of the other cold-war puppets. It was only with the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 and the demise of the last white supremacist settler state in the region that these civil wars finally started to subside.
The Conflict Landscape of Mozambique
In Mozambique, the FRELIMO government party and the RENAMO rebel movement started an uneasy transition to sharing a parliament in 1994 and although the peace was still considered somewhat shaky while we were there in 2000, a recent election had passed without violence. The country was well on its way to returning to its peacetime state of abject poverty and neglect. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, for good measure with the highest prevalence of landmines in the world and the consequent ongoing social burden of wartime death and injuries.
The physical artefacts of the conflict were everywhere as we travelled through the countryside. Little white and yellow stickers fluttered over fields of grasses, indicating the presence of a mine-field. Vehicles and equipment trailers of teams of NGO workers wearing protective suiting, specialising in mine-field clearing and detection were often visible in the bush off the road. Whenever public transport alighted at a stop, everybody was reminded not to urinate off the side of the road so as not to trigger a land mine – the force embodied in a stream of urine is not a thing that one is used to worrying about. Virtually all of the solid, stone and concrete modern buildings in the countryside are in ruins. The expelled Portuguese destroyed as much of their property as they could before leaving – tales of settlers, burning down their factories and villas and destroying infrastructure by pouring cement down drains and poisoning wells are common. Outside of the large towns, these ruins are all that remains of the coloniser’s settlements – all else has reverted to palm-fronded huts, subsistence farming, sheep and chickens.
In a remote period sometime in the middle of the 20th century, Mozambique had a reputation as an unspoiled natural tropical paradise just off the beaten track. It attracted South African frontiers men, divers and watersports enthusiasts, hippies and backpackers and adventurers of all sorts, all looking for a less rule-bound and constrained society in which to live and express themselves. With the end of the war, this aspect had started to return, although after 40 years of brutal violence, it probably remains somewhat less innocent than in times of yore.
The modern expatriate community is found at a handful of bars and compounds that are set along the beaches and shores which surround the coastal towns. They have bars, barbecues (known as braais in the South African), big video screens for watching sport and movies, games, activities and sometimes rooms to rent and camping areas. They are typically set in a garden compound maybe 100 metres square overlooking the sea. They serve as centres for expatriates and adventurous tourists throughout the hinterland of the major port-towns along the coast.
We got an interesting introduction to the norms of this community when we first arrived in Mocimboa da Praia and asked people more or less at random for directions to a place to stay, expressed purely in gestures. We bumped into a friendly Portuguese guy named Carlos on the way to our room and he invited us to join him and his friends in the bar for a beer. A group of 5 or six Portuguese guys in their 30s and a few locals were drinking beers and smoking joints around the bar. An hour later they were drinking bottles of wine and constructing elaborate bucket bongs. By the end of the night they were all roaring drunk, some were taking heroin, while others were telling us all about an exciting drug importation business that we should consider investing in.
In Pemba, the next major town along the coast, we found a compound by the beach that had an immense wooden bar set into the base of a huge gnarly old tree. In the tree’s shade they served cheap cold beers, burgers and barbecues. The lodge had a steady stream of different groups of interesting people arriving regularly who were based in the region. The largest demographic was South African frontiersmen, effectively refugees from post-apartheid South Africa, who couldn’t deal with the new reality of black majority rule. There was, according to our new friends, a boom in timber plantations in Northern Mozambique, in particular Mahogany. Land was cheap and regulations were light – it was a place where the modern trekboer could return to a simpler life before political correctness gone mad had prevented a little bit of forced native labour. The boer refugees did not speak fondly of the new South Africa – “they’ve turned it to shit” and “they can’t run anything” were commonly expressed opinions, with the identity of “they” being left to the listener’s imagination.
The other major demographic was the water sports enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. There was a particularly spectacular spot of coral reef just off the Pemba shore that was apparently famed among divers. This attracted a community of water sports enthusiasts who were looking for a spot to drop out of society far from the beaten track. There were more entrepreneurs offering services than customers though – tourism in the region was new and the flow of tourists was still new. They entrepreneurs spent most of their time going on diving trips with their friends and were happy to loan their gear for free to people such as us who were staying in the camp. We thus got to go snorkelling properly equipped. We could experience a little glimpse of their tropical underwater paradise water sports dream life. We could see spiky pufferfish and a whole parade of weird, brightly coloured creatures hunting each other in surprisingly dense clumps, flittering in and out of the coral, oblivious to the snorkelling humans.
At the end of a hearty night of drinking with a group of South Africans frontiersmen called Rob, Pete, Nico and Russel, Rob invited us to come out with them on a boat and braai excursion the next day. He was the proud owner of a new dhow and wanted to show us his sailing skills. The next morning, the boat idea had apparently fallen through but the guys still showed up to collect us. They travelled in a convoy of 5 or 6 modern, heavy duty pickup trucks. Each vehicle had 2 or 3 white people in the cabin – and 2 or 3 natives in the back – the staff – along with the coolers for drinks and meat. Once we got to the venue, the staff constructed an elaborate grill and dining area for the guests, who concerned themselves with exchanging boisterous stories over beers before tucking into some sausage and ribs. As myself and Deirdre were the most exotic Europeans present, we served as the guests of honour and got to hear a variety of fascinating opinions from our hosts and their friends on what’s wrong with Africa and why we couldn’t possibly known what ‘they’ are like, not being from here. Particularly jarring was the congratulations that Rob, the host of the event, received on account of the quality of the food from his guests. Everybody just completely ignored the 5 or 6 natives who were actually slaving away doing all of the work.
On the way back to the camp from the braai, it was getting dark and some of the drivers were less than sober, full of adrenaline after a hard day’s drinking with the boys. The road had a series of large culverts running under it to allow flood water to pass, and the road surface undulated in little hump-backs over the culverts. The convoy of vehicles approached the bumps too fast. One of them bounced so violently that it threw one of the staff in the back of the truck into the air and out of the vehicle onto the road, where he landed head first. Everybody came to a screeching halt. Blood poured from the prone man’s head. Nobody moved to help him. Everything remained frozen. We were two cars back so we couldn’t quite see what was happening but our driver explained. Everybody was too afraid to touch the injured man on account of the risk of getting HIV from his gushing blood. They also could not phone the emergency services as they were afraid of getting collared by the police for drunk driving – it turned out that they had significant history with the local police for drunk driving and had an elaborate mechanism for avoiding them. In the end, after 5 minutes of inaction, two of the other staff used a blanket as a stretcher and lugged the bleeding man back onto the back of the truck. The convoy restarted and winded its way slowly through the edges of town until it arrived outside the vehicle gate in front of the hospital. There, the two staff members again carried the man off the back of the van, then laid him on the sidewalk. The vehicle driver stuffed a couple of banknotes into his pocket, then jumped back behind the wheel and took off back to the camp as fast as he could.
Into the Highlands
Despite the warts of some of the expatriates, it is hard to overstate how pleasant it is to spend a week or so in a hammock with an unspoiled tropical beach, cheap and plentiful food and beer and entertainment to hand. The community who ended up at the camp were a varied and interesting bunch, dropping out of life for a variety of reasons. There were even genuine hippy travellers – Steve and Louise, a couple of Buddhists from London who were wandering around Africa trying to understand the native culture from the point of view of an esoteric Eastern philosophical framework. They were absolute sweethearts in contrast to the more mercenary minded around them – throwbacks to a more innocent time.
Steve and Louise were on their way to Malawi – they had heard on the traveller’s grapevine that there were two places of the most utmost spirituality and natural beauty there that visitors to the region should not miss – Mount Mulanje national park and Cape McClear on Lake Malawi. After Mozambique, our next destination was Zimbabwe, where we had political contacts to meet and wanted to visit Great Zimbabwe, the great monumental stone ruins of a pre-colonial kingdom. Our route was focused on politics and archaeology and we had limited contact with any type of grapevine to know where tourist attraction worth visiting might be. We had no particular plan to visit Malawi, but it was on the way to Zimbabwe. Thus we decided to tag along with Steven and Louise to see what the fuss was about. Besides, after a couple of weeks slowly making our way along the coast, lazing around in hammocks, snorkelling, drinking beer and eating braais, I was starting to feel complicit in colonisation myself.
To reach the border with Malawi from Nampula, where we had ended up on our journey along the coast, we had to depart in a minivan crammed full of passengers at 6am. It trundled its way slowly over the irregular surfaces and improvised roadways, occasionally picking up and unloading passengers, livestock and freight at random spots by the roadside. At 3.30pm it pulled into its destination Mocuba, 220km further down the coast. Waiting for us, almost ready to depart was a bus headed for the Malawi border at Mulanje. The rest of the passengers let out a huge cheer when they saw the bus – apparently this synchronisation was not to be taken for granted. The bus brought us West, away from the coast and uphill, onto the highland plain of the great lakes, where Lake Malawi and the surrounding area sits 500 metres above sea level. The quality of the road and vehicle were both considerably improved – by 8pm, we had covered the remaining 200km to Mulanje, the Mozambican border town. The border was closed for the night. We checked into a cheap hotel to wait for the border to open again.
Naturally, as we were crossing an old imperial boundary, the crossing was rendered comically inconvenient. We first had to walk 2km out of town on a foot path guarded by a chain-link fence, to reach the Mozambican border control point. Then we had to cover a further 500 metres through a no-man’s land of gravel, before reaching the Malawian checkpoint. There we had to wait in the car park for a minivan to fill up before transporting us to the corresponding town on the other side of the border, to our destination, the charmingly picturesque Victorian Mulanje view hotel, from where we planned to explore the nearby Mount Mulanje national park.
The park is set around a huge massif that rises out of the highland plain to 3,000 metres, the highest point in the country. We spent 5 days walking through the park. It contains a wealth of unique highland flora and fauna and is full of spectacular views and atmospheric camping cabins and places full of meditative potential for our Buddhist companions. In order to ascend the highest peak, for conservation reasons we had to pay for a license and each hire a porter to carry our bags for us and to cater for us at the cabin in which we would stay at the top of the hill. This journey introduced us to the bizarre micro-economy that has evolved around this highland park.
In the Victorian era, a model forestry estate, based on imported European trees, was planted on the heights of the mountain by Scottish missionaries. The area was home to a number of tribes and it was hoped to foster a commercial forestry industry in the area to support their prosperity. The estate included sawmills and a steam driven cable-car pulley system, for moving equipment up the mountain and timber down. Today the local tribes are still there and the forest is providing them with work but there has been a significant technical regression since the Victorian era. The timber workers have established a camp-site and homemade-saw mill at the top of the mountain, at which they saw trees into rough-cut planks, by hand, on large home-made sawing frameworks formed from felled trees. It is cold at the top of the mountain and they wear woolly jumpers and hats and gather around campfires when not sawing.
Others work to convey their cut planks down the mountain. These helpers appear from time to time, running barefoot up the mountain. They grab a plank when they arrive, balance it on their head or shoulders to their liking, then turn around and run headlong down the mountain with the plank on their head. It took us 6 hours of hard slog to walk up the mountain from the base camp where the road ended. We were told that some of these runners can do 3 round trips in a day at running pace. The cable system stands idle – the cheapness of labour means that it is now more economic to pay a man to repeatedly run up and down a mountain with a plank of wood on his head than it is to pay for the fuel and maintenance of the automated system.
Blantyre and Malawi
Blantyre is Malawi’s main commercial hub and transport crossroads. It is an unremarkable commercial centre with a smattering of upmarket restaurants and supermarkets catering to a very small wealthy, expatriate and business elite, but is otherwise an overwhelmingly workaday African market town, with dusty, noisy streets and battered public transport in the form of crowded minivans. Women in brightly coloured wraps carry improbably large loads on their heads and street traders sell clothes and food to the crowds. It lacks a strong military presence on the streets, in contrast to some of its neighbours, nor is there much sense of urban strife, crime or violence.
Malawi is every bit as poor as its neighbours if not more so. It is landlocked, has a large subsistence agricultural majority, a small cash-crop sector focusing on tobacco and no other natural resources of note. There was never any real effort to settle Malawi by anybody. After a long-running media campaign by missionaries, it was incorporated into the British Empire in the 1890s, to block any risk of Germany extending to the South and West from its based in East Africa. Imperial interest never extended far beyond religious missions – they didn’t actually want to do anything with the territory.
In the absence of a major settler population, Malawi’s passage to independence was free of instability and civil war and followed the standard pattern of Britain’s post-colonial evolution. The first president established a one party state focused on suppressing internal conflict and dissent. The government avoided taking any position on foreign or regional security affairs, leaving that to the great powers, and successfully managed to stay out of the wars of white supremacy. By the late 1990s, the economy had undergone several structural adjustment plans, which had effectively cut back the scope of the state and delegated macro-economic policy to the international financial institutions. The evidence of the latest SAP was everywhere to be seen while we were there, in the form of posters advertising loans to fund private secondary education. The most recent plan had effectively privatised secondary schooling and left it in the hand of a range of highly dubious looking private operators.
Malawi is a country that hosts a large number of international aid programs run by the peace corps, US AID, the UN agencies and a wide range of charitable and religious groups. Their vehicles and logos are prominent on vehicles and buildings everywhere. As the state and the role of the government has been pared back to providing internal security, NGOs are increasingly providing basic services, such as water, medical care and nutrition to the population rather than the state. This is almost the ideal shape of the modern African independent nation – full sovereignty, no power, no options.
Cape McClear and Lake Malawi
The second place that Steve and Louise brought us to, as a spiritual highlight of the region, was a tiny village on the Southern shore of Lake Malawi, called Cape McClear. It was the centre of the tiny Malawian lake tourism industry. It consisted of a few hundred metres of ramshackle wooden lodges with bright signs advertising cafes, diving schools, boating excursions, bars and restaurants all connected together by wooden walkways through the reeds behind the buildings. All had comfortable seating and lounging areas out front, overlooking the water’s edge. There were very few tourists in town while we were staying there – the trade had apparently been in decline for the last few years but nobody seemed that bothered about it. The local culture was intensely laid back – everybody seemed to spend all day listening to reggae music, sitting around in hammocks, bars and lodges playing pit and pebble Mancala games in elaborate carved wooden boards. It was also the cheapest place in all of Africa that we had been in terms of quality of life – with high quality fresh fish, vegetables, corn, fruit, nuts and locally brewed beers readily available for a pittance, $10 a day was more than enough to live a life of luxury. The marijuana came served in the empty husks of cobs of corn, filled with grass and wrapped back up with string, retailing for a mere $1 a cob. There are many places in which people emphasise the easy-going nature of their culture in order to make tourists feel at ease. However, in Malawi, every individual one meets seems to be a hippy philosopher who has a variety of folk-stories available with which to explain the peculiar brotherly love of the Malawian people. People strongly identify with the notion of Malawians as laid-back, welcoming and above ethnic conflict and it makes for a very pleasant culture for those who get to lounge around by the lake idly for a week.
My principle interest in Lake Malawi was the marine life that it holds. It is host to some 1,000 species of cichlids, small, brightly coloured, wonderfully patterned mouth-breeding fish that are a famous example of massive speciation having occurred in a surprisingly small period of time. The Great Lakes were once full of unique cichlid species – the introduction of the Nile perch and other alien commercial fish had a devastating effect on the species of Lake Victoria. Lake Malawi is the great remaining unspoiled reservoir. Steve and Louise were intent on doing a full 5 day scuba-diving course while at the Lake because they wanted to get PADI diver’s licenses. I had never considered learning how to scuba dive before – I dislike cold water and avoid activities that have high mortality risks. However, in this case, the water was balmy, calm, clear and warm, the lake was not particularly deep no more than 15 to 50 metres, with a sandy bottom and little in the way of underwater obstacles or plants. Most importantly, I would get the chance to swim in a real life aquarium full of fantastic exotic colourful fish. I duly signed up. As a first step to gain entry to the course we had to swim 500 metres unaided, to a boat moored out in the lake and back to the shore. My athletic swimming skills are limited so I chose to complete the distance by floating along on my back and gently paddling my feet and hands – it took me an hour or so but I made the grade.
This proved well worth it – observing the complex interrelationships of this group of species in nature is fascinating. Around rocks and mossy outcrops, huge swarms of fish swarm in thick clouds and shoals, comprising sometimes hundreds of different species, each with distinct markings and colours and a wide variety of shapes. Each fish is specialised for feeding on a different part of the rock surface, or in a different part of the broader ecosystem.
Most memorably and poignantly of all, as part of their mating rituals, the male of some species build huge mounds of sand, carried grain by grain in their mouths, to mark themselves out to potential mates. These are hundreds of times bigger than the tiny fish that build them and stand guard over them in a peculiar mating ritual dance. The vast destruction that a stray diving fin might do to such a life’s work is horrifying.
Learning to dive in the lake turned out to be as straightforward and free of near death experiences as I had hoped. Swimming among the cichlids made the risk and effort worth it. Steve helped out considerably in overcoming my nerves – he could not resist smoking a whole cob of weed before the start each morning, then another at lunchtime. This meant that every time we had to complete a new and challenging underwater assignment, we could be sure that he would panic and bolt for the surface. Steve was guaranteed to panic before you would which was comforting, especially when the water became murky on the fourth day after a storm which reduced visibility to a few feet. A large fish startled him and he had to retire for the day, then cried off sick the next day.
Approximately six months later, in Mexico city, I walked into the urinal of a night club in the small hours of the morning to relieve myself. My urine came out bright red against the white porcelain. I was surprised and disturbed to discover that I appeared to be pissing blood rather than urine. I shouldn’t have been – it turns out that schistosomiasis, a parasite of freshwater snails is endemic in Lake Malawi, as it is in many of Africa’s placid waterways. The parasite burrows into the skin in freshwater and travels through the body before lodging in the bladder, where it extracts nutrients from the blood. Blood in the urine is often the first clear symptom of the infection – which I rapidly treated and eliminated thereafter – and most probably came with me as a passenger from Lake Malawi.