Captain with his punting pole and Chisi island behind

Captain with his punting pole and Chisi island behind

The van rolled forward a few more metres, hit a stone then shuddered itself still. A despondent sigh gradually drew a dozen passengers from their day-dreams, staring through the open windows to the calm lake beyond. At the rear a couple of plump women struggled forward, collapsing their stranglehold over the back row and two skinny old men ever pushed further into the window. The driver grabbed up the handbrake, assured the widening crack across the windscreen could with-stand tomorrows bumps, and proceeded to spill out of the van much in a similar manner to some fish escaping from an upturned bucket on the nearby bank.

A quiet stillness permeated the vehicle, giving heightened credence to the pungent smell of smoked and raw fish that had swam its way into every pore and thread—embedded in one’s clothes and nasal passages with that stubborn tenacity of cigarette smoke and sweat. Pulling back the awkward side-door did not allow the stink to fly out like a freed bird, but on reflection to a bursting bubble, only parted a tiny fraction into a bigger sum. Unfolding oneself to the outside embraced the same fish-flavoured atmosphere, made slightly palatable by woodsmoke and synthetic pineapple, the latter bursting from a schoolboy’s bubble-gum.

Making fishing traps on Chisi Island

Making fishing traps on Chisi Island

Leaning in, the flabby women whose bodies had lost their identities like dust-sheeted furniture, pulled from the van a stack of shallow raffia baskets, shuffling round to throw them on a pile a dozen deep. Lined with scales, bones and dried out carcasses, the baskets odour, cooked under a two o’clock sun enticed a feline and a mangy dog to test their luck. Advancing with military caution, the cat favoured by size, made off with half a head, bolting under the van with mild astonishment. The dog sadly panicked, ran straight into the women and received a thorough hiding for its blundered efforts.

The lake and its tiny island had turned the sky on its head, and seen from above, reflected within a giant oval shoreline appeared reminiscent of a fruit stone on a polished blue plate. With the last few passengers combing the roof for packages and sacks, it felt pertinent to march down the embankment at Kachulu village and present myself to this calm, almost spiritual body of water. Lake Chilwa, Malawi’s second-largest lake rarely saw foreign visitors, making her something of a forgotten relative in comparison to the mother of Lake Malawi. Twenty per cent of the countries geographical territory lay consumed by water, and Lake Chilwa equalled that percentage again in her contribution to the fishing industry. One fifth, roughly seventeen thousand metric tonnes of fish, were pulled out every year.

Lady cleaning up a small fish

Lady cleaning up a small fish

 Lakes always belied their importance from hardly ever presenting an emotion beyond placid. Unlike the seas, whipped and toyed by storms, dragged back and forwards by the moon, and sped along on currents as fast as national highways, the lakes hardly broke into a chop. But that wasn’t to suggest Lake Chilwa hadn’t been immune to change.

David Livingstone had noted whilst visiting in 1859 the lake’s circumference extended westwards to the bases of the Mulanje and Zomba plateaus over forty kilometres away. With no outlet, it depended heavily on the run-off from these plateaus, as well the seasonal rains. But the fluctuations were substantial, indeed during the dry months when the lake severely narrowed in depth. Lake Chilwa’s volume supposedly lay four times greater than its present three-metre depth. Forty kilometres directly north at the far end of marshland, Lake Chiuta had once been contiguous with Chilwa, where large tracts of lake-bed sands and swamps were initially underwater. The same was to be said of Limbe Marsh, a hefty tract of wetlands around the lakes southern perimetre. In the 1960s, suffering from a severe drought, the lake almost dried up entirely.

Fisherman retruning to Kachulu from Chisi Island

Fisherman retruning to Kachulu from Chisi Island

Standing on Chilwa’s marshy terrain, partially watching my shoes sink into the mud, proffered ideas to the fate of a half-submerged canoe nearby. Those extreme climatic variations felt foreign and sensationalised, standing at odds with the three boats heading off for the double humps of Chisi island. Navigating through a thick band of reeds and the expansive gloss beyond, from where the serene quietness of the place portrayed an unassuming modesty. The shallow waters enticed an abundant amount of birdlife, and you didn’t need to be a keen birder to appreciate the varieties stopping off here. Moorhen, lesser gillinule, black crake, and numerous waders. Just in those few minutes when I realised my shoes had disappeared far enough, a heron emerged from behind a fence of reeds with the haughty stance of a conceited actor. I almost laughed at its broken demure when three screeching glossy-ibis flew overhead. Pigeons and hens may have a pecking order, but it appeared an entire class system banded the sky.

Around the marshy shores of Chilwa’s northern circumference, birdlife exhibited even greater appeal. Pelicans, black egrets, greater and lesser flamingos often took stock here, sifting through the silt-rich waters. The difficulties for humans to access the area worked in harnessing the bird’s survival. Neither Chisi nor Thongwe’s island populations had developed enough to encroach on birdlife here, and the wise-looking baobabs sustained the activities of trumpeter hornbill and snake-eagles. With all these areas combined, Lake Chilwa warranted some of the best bird viewings in Malawi.

Fishing boat out on the blue of Lake Chilwa

Fishing boat out on the blue of Lake Chilwa

Lake Chilwa, all 650m² of her had been for tireless generations a beating heart for the shoreside communities here. More so for the few settlements on both Chisi and Thongwe Islands, where their seclusion inadvertently protected traditional lifestyles which had hardly changed through the centuries. Fishing, just like Kachulu absorbed much of the population, one way or another in the local industry. Men would fish, and the women would see to everything else, the gutting, drying and smoking, before taking it off to market. It was very much a gender-defined industry, which on broader inspection covers the majority of Africa. The craft of fishing is exclusively a man’s responsibility, and the closest I have ever seen women get to fish has been on Lake Aheme in Benin. There, the boundaries remained clearly defined as only the men were deemed qualified to handle the complexities of net fishing. Women took to the work of crab catching, as baiting came down to timing and luck rather than any skill, and the device did not trap the crab but merely distracted it.

Once the sun had mellowed, allowing the colours to seep back into the landscape, the tall, lithe fisherman pushed off from the shoreline. Standing proud at the stern of his little vessel, attired in faded track-suit trousers half-hidden by a baggy polo shirt. With a wooden pole in hand and vaguely reminiscent of punting along the Avon, the captain pushed through the reeds and onwards to the dark mounds of Chisi island. A soft wind skipped across the lake and fell into the boat, helping to diffuse the sticky atmosphere that coated your body like a layer of grease—producing a rare moment of respite where movement felt as arduous as an astronaut. Sliding across lake Chilwa’s reflective surface brought a charming sense of surrealism fit for a Dali dreamscape, in where a tiny wooden boat passed over tremendous clouds, right alongside a flock of migrating birds.

Fishermen in their traditional dug out canoes

Fishermen in their traditional dug out canoes

 Peering out of the boat, it quickly dawned on me just how busy the lake was. A perspective not easily discernable from the bank when distance rendered everything into greyish specks. Now those specks passed by as hollowed-out canoes and fishing boats governed by young men. Some worked together, all part of one family while others were committed to the same employer. Fishing commenced round the clock with boats returning as new ones headed out. The authorities had introduced periods of complete inactivity, banning fishing in allowing stocks to replenish. But dependence on the lake remained paramount to most villagers whose sole income derived from the lake. The government failed to set aside adequate resources in dealing with the problem of overfishing, which given the lakes high yield, couldn’t be sustainable much longer.

  Looks were always deceptive, and Chilwa’s timeless beauty suffered the ageing signs of stress. As the boat closed in towards another maze of reeds, the amount of moored boats struck a deep chord of sobriety. In the dry season, fishermen slept and cooked on stilt platforms above the water, saving them the inconvenience of returning to the shore. Like an English coal-mining town, every one of its inhabitants relied on the industry’s ability to continually function. The wheels could not slow down regardless of the worsening terrain. In that regard, Lake Chilwa’s major detriment was the jettisoned speed across its own time-line. Increased by population and poverty as demand became ever more necessary. Climate and corruption ploughed along behind, further opening the wounds.

Children posing from inside a rowing boat at Kachulu village

Children posing from inside a rowing boat at Kachulu village

A report carried out in 2012 recorded the dependency of 1.5 million people on agriculture and fisheries at Lake Chilwa. Fishing alone contributed $21 million to the national revenue, pushed higher during the significant drive of the rainy season and a re-emergence of the flood plains. At the opposite end, when the lake receded with reduced fish supply, it fuelled increased exploitation. Farmers who suffered from crop failure, livestock disease and unemployment during severe drought often migrated towards the lakes in the hope of a lifeline. With deforestation and inadequate sanitation from overcrowded villages adding to the difficulties, the scenario feels all but hopeless. But there is light from the concentrated efforts of several organisations.

RAMSAR has already designated the lake as a wetland of international importance since 1997, administering funds towards its protection. A Danish International Development Agency in co-operation with the Malawi government was helping to preserve the fragility of the lake and the surrounding wetlands. By establishing a catchment boosting scheme to protect the lakes natural resources, as well as teaching sustainable management awareness. The agency combined a field of experts in tourism, fisheries, agriculture and environmental affairs to develop ways of reversing the effects of overfishing. Some of this would come from educating lakeside communities in better management. The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Change Adaptation Program set across a five-year time frame, aimed at securing the livelihood’s of 1.5 million people within the basin area. They were working towards the adoption of sustainable work practices and resource management. It offered a way forward but to be genuinely effective the villagers needed to address the underpinning problems of population increase and the alleviation of mass poverty—two major obstacles requiring the sincere involvement of government, chiefs and religious leaders.

     Turning to face the distant Kachulu shoreline, the low sun had cast a mauve hue across the water. The beauty of Lake Chilwa seemed to give assurance that all would eventually be well. Could man readdress these issues, forming a coexistence with nature that benefited both? For now, however, there were many catches to overcome.

 

Facts: Current information set forth by the Foreign Commonwealth Office regarding Malawi’s Covid-19 bound regulations are listed below.

  • Land border crossings remain open only to Malawian nationals and foreign nationals with valid residency visas for Malawi.
  • All passengers entering Malawi must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within ten days of arrival.
  • The authorities may also test you for COVID-19 on arrival at your own expense. Passengers may be required to remain at the airport or a testing centre until their COVID-19 test results come through, usually within 24 hours. Individuals testing positive may be taken for treatment at a government facility. At the same time, current regulations will require all other individuals to self-monitor for COVID-19 signs and symptoms for 14 days after arrival.
  • On exiting Malawi, you must provide proof that a COVID-19 test showed negative within ten days of your departure.
  • Mandatory COVID-19 testing may also take place on departure if you fail to produce a valid negative test certificate, or if the airport staff judge you to display COVID-19 symptoms. This test will be at your own expense.

The current rules for returning to the United Kingdom require your journey and contact details, followed by 14 days of self-isolation. For specific information on each country

, go to www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, USA, and most European nations require a visa for Malawi, obtainable on arrival at the airport and border crossings. Prices are $50 for a 7-day transit, $75 single entry, $150 six-month multiple entry.

 

Reaching Lake Chilwa –Infrequent matola’s (mini-vans) leave on a ‘fill and go’ basis from Zomba’s bus station. You could charter a taxi for the 30-kilometre distance to Kachulu. or try your luck at the Kachulu junction,  flagging down any Kachulu bound vehicle from there. In Malawi, much like anywhere else in Africa, rides are not free, and the driver will expect at the very least, a contribution to the fuel.

Zomba Town offers a decent selection of accommodation in all price ranges with some good cafes and restaurants to boot. Kachulu is more limited, being a simple lakeside village. There were a couple of simple guest-houses with outside toilets and open-air showers. It would be worth asking in Zomba the current options for the village.

Taking a boat across to Chisi Island is a rewarding way to observe the lake. You’ll see plenty of fishing boats, some no more than hollowed-out tree-trunks, aptly manoeuvred by young men ‘punting’ along. Negotiate with a fisherman to take you there and back allowing time to explore the island. Don’t be tempted to take a boat out by yourself as dense bands of reeds around the island and the lake’s shoreline can quickly tie you up.

For a further overview on Malawi, check out the country’s tourism website www.malawitourism.com