I’d been in Lilongwe for a couple of days, and it was the least African city I’d seen yet. Malawi’s capital was basically constructed to be an administrative centre, and I walked past countless government ministries and along wide avenues with smart villas set back from the road, a bit like finding Canberra dropped down in the middle of the bush – but rather more battered. The old town was more familiar, and as I headed to the bus station I wandered around the adjacent market, past stalls selling long bolts of colourful cloth, saucepans, ornately carved woodwork and mounds of silvery dried fish. At one stall a woman sold freshly grilled cow hooves, and a man nearby was skinning what looked suspiciously like a monkey. Hawkers drifted through the crowds with bowls on their heads selling roasted corncobs, fruit and sachets of brightly coloured liquid that was rich in E numbers; they gave curious hissing calls as they glided past to draw attention to their wares. I bought bananas and a large bag of peanuts for the bus journey. I was heading for the small town of Nkhotakota which lay on the shore of Lake Malawi, the vast inland sea which stretches almost the entire length of the country.
The bus station was chaotic, with a constant din of revving engines, conductors shouting to round up passengers and the ubiquitous kwasa kwasa music as the mellifluous voice of some Congolese crooner belted out a string of syrupy hits. There were some smart looking express coaches lined up, but the bus to Ntchisi, where I needed to change, was not among them. I squeezed my way through the crowd, but with my rucksack I became firmly wedged between the side of a bus and a large woman who was wearing a dress covered in pictures of the president. The presidential face stretched and frowned disapprovingly, folding itself into creases as she heaved herself up the steps. Arriving at a battered looking vehicle belonging to Shire Buslines I handed my rucksack to the conductor who stowed it on the roof. I fought my way aboard, finding a space on a hard wooden bench near the back above the rear wheel. We sat for an hour or so until the sweat was running off the walls and there was no room left to move, and then set off, the driver playing a tattoo on his horn as we negotiated the traffic of the old town along Malangalanga Road.
I looked out of the smeared glass at a river running alongside us before it abruptly turned away and leapt downhill. We’d been driving for hours through the highlands, and although the area was remote, everywhere there were people; children playing, people tilling the fields, a man pedalling along on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere, his wife perched primly on the back. As we threaded our way between the rocky outcrops the sun came out and the surrounding woodland shone in bright, lush shades of green. Cresting one more rise suddenly we could see Lake Malawi glittering before us, and we began to pass small villages of rondavel mud huts where children smiled and waved. Descending into Nkhotakota we passed a PTC supermarket, a Post Office and several guesthouses before pulling into the small bus station. It was much hotter here, and the humid lakeside air wrapped around you like a damp towel. The town had a laid back, tropical feel to it, and after checking into a guesthouse over the road from the bus station I headed into town looking for a bar. I halted briefly at the mission, site of Nkhotakota’s main attraction – a large tree. In 1863 David Livingstone arrived in “Kota Kota”, where he met Jumbe the chief beneath a wild fig tree and attempted to persuade him to abolish slavery. Nkhotakota was a major terminal for the slave trade, and as many as 20,000 a year passed through the market en route to Zanzibar, being shipped across the lake then marched down to the coast. Livingstone described it as being “an abode of lawlessness…literally strewn with human bodies”. Today the sleepy town gives no indication of its anguished history, but the fig tree still stands, marked by a placard commemorating the meeting.
The Karibu bottle store seemed to be a popular place to hang out, and the bar echoed to the lilting burble of Chichewa as a group of locals seated on the verandah played a game of bao – a fiendishly complex game like backgammon involving pebbles and a board made from a large slab of wood. I was getting hungry and adjourned next door to the “Anything Goes Eating House”, where I sat at a low table and ordered nsima and fish stew. A young girl carried over a large bowl of water and stood holding it while I washed my hands. The nsima arrived, large white mounds of thick porridge, and I took a handful, rolling it into a ball and making a small indentation with my thumb for the sauce as I dunked it into the fish stew, which had a spicy, smoky flavour. When I had finished the girl returned with the bowl and I washed my hands again before settling back with a coffee and a newspaper which someone had left on the table. It was full of bouncy, incomprehensible headlines like “Schoolgirl expelled for repeated spirit possession” – a story which did not involve a girl who was continually being caught drinking, as I had first assumed, but who kept going into trances during history lessons due to possession by a malevolent spirit. Looking back to my own school days I knew just how she felt.
Nkhotakota jetty at midnight was a hive of activity. I had packed in a few minutes and got a lift down to the water’s edge having been told that the MV Ilala was in, the ferry which connects many of the small settlements along the shore of Lake Malawi. There was some consternation due to the fact that the Ilala had arrived early for the first time in its life, although there was a school of thought that said it was in fact 6 days late and that this was last week’s boat. After being shown to my cabin I went to bed, but awoke when the engine note deepened as we headed out into the lake. I had acquired a room-mate – a figure lay motionless in the opposite bed, with the blanket pulled right over his head in the African manner despite the warm night. Shortly after dawn, having crossed the lake in the night, we docked at Metangula in Mozambique, a small place with a few whitewashed buildings and rondavels climbing up the hillsides. After a brief halt we headed up the coast towards Cobue, the engines thunking steadily away beneath us, a ribbon of dun-coloured bushveld punctuated by occasional baobab trees sliding past on the shoreline. Towards mid-afternoon the low silhouette of islands rose on the horizon, and we steamed into Likoma, finally docking at dusk.
Likoma was a small island roughly 8km long, dominated by the enormous St Peter’s Cathedral, which seemed wholly out of place there. It was easy to lose track of the days in Malawi, but there was no missing the fact that today was Sunday; it seemed as if the entire population were heading to the Sunday service. I walked up to the cathedral to have a look. In places vines grew over the walls and bougainvillea threw a shocking splash of purple across a rooftop. As I stood there watching people walking in, a small man in a dog collar approached me and said softly, “Karibu – Welcome.” I hadn’t been inside a church in years, but he was beckoning me inside, and I stepped into the line of people walking through the doors. Inside the air was cool and I could hear the cooing of doves high overhead. Women in white blouses and long skirts were taking their places in the pews on the left, men sitting on the right, and space was made for me on the end of a pew near the back. The sunlight streamed through the small windows, with dust swirling in the shafts of light. When the church was full, the vicar led the congregation in prayers, and they murmured their responses. Everyone rose to their feet, and then they began to sing. I had never heard singing like it. A lone girl in the choir quietly chanted a simple melody and was answered with a rich, booming chorus from a thousand wonderful African voices in a great welling-up of emotion that caused the hairs on my arms to stand on end and brought a lump to my throat. Mechanically I stood up and sat down when the others did, waiting for that beautiful singing to begin again, the sound washing over the congregation and vaulting high into the ceiling. Suddenly it was over and people were filing out of the pews, laughing and chatting together as they walked down the aisle and out into the sunlight.
That evening I sat on the beach watching a small boat chugging up the lake, carving a path through flat water turned pink by the setting sun. From the stark outline of a drowned tree came the cry of a fish eagle, and as I watched another eagle began circling overhead before settling on a branch nearby. They threw back their white heads and cried together, the limpid, haunting call hanging above the lake in the still evening. Suddenly they took to the air and flew towards the distant shoreline of Mozambique, wings perfectly in rhythm as they swept across the glowing water, heading over the land, climbing steadily into the darkness of the trees, and then they were gone.