So a whole month (approximately) has gone by since the end of my crazy adventure and I thought the time must be about ripe to write an Epilogue. This will be the first of many such efforts to make sense of everything I did, saw, heard, smelt and touched. (The skin of a baby elephant is really quite remarkable to touch.) But let me backtrack a little.
After a local fishing boat took me via Cobue to Likoma and I bade farewell one by one to the wonderful local staff getting off at Mala and Cobue, and on which trip I experienced the rare and wonderful treat of racing through the Cobue immigration process in less than half an hour, I hit the inevitable stumbling block of there being a conspicuous absence of the species known as Officius Immigracious (Immigracious, you want me to actually stamp your passport?) de Likoma-cum-Wonderland at the airport immigration office, and thereby gained a scenic if stressful voyage to the beach immigration office leaving about 5 minutes after my plane’s scheduled departure time. But that was alright because it was a chartered flight, taking me from Likoma to Lilongwe in a vessel which strikingly resembled a large washing machine (largely because there were only 4 seats and I was in the co-pilot’s) but which sounded, as the pilot pointed out to me as we cleared for takeoff, more like a lawnmower. This particular lawnmower deposited me in Lilongwe after about an hour’s pleasant and interesting flight (I found the flight manual in the pocket of the door beside me, which was rather huge, had a window with a mechanical latch which I could have opened at any time during the flight and rather reminded me of a Smart car. This is the customer experience that British Airways are missing) and afforded an amazing view of Likoma Island from above, which I have uploaded below.
When I got to Lilongwe I stayed one night in a lovely hostel in Lilongwe called Mabuya Camp, where I came to the acquaintance of a lovely Rhodesian Ridgeback who took an immediate interest in the smell of starched clothes coming from my bag – the Nkwichi laundry ladies had even ironed my underwear before I left ❤ ) and was so unbelievably huge that, sitting up straight on a chair by the entrance to the dorms one night and staying perfectly still with his eyes wide open, he came to a height about a foot taller than a grown man would have done and looked precisely and terrifyingly like a supersize model of Piers Morgan. When I eventually left Lilongwe I was still convinced that I had seen a ghost. In fact I still am.
The last stop in my journey was Nairobi, where I stopped for two days and was so well looked after I decided there and then that I would eventually come and live in East Africa. Both Nairobi and Lilongwe have an air of ‘You look after yourself, keep on your guard and don’t do anything stupid but chances are that if you do, one of the locals will spontaneously risk life and limb to get you out of trouble.’ A friend temporarily forgot himself and used a mobile phone in the back of a taxi in standstill traffic with the window open; inevitably somebody snatched it, at which point the taxi driver snatched it back from across the passenger seat before the thief could so much as withdraw his hand from the window. People in Nairobi are an endless spring of surprises. You have to be tough and resourceful to survive in such conditions, and by golly does that describe the East Africans.
On the outskirts of Nairobi I had the amazing privilege of visiting an elephant orphanage, employing rangers who roam Nairobi National Park rescuing baby elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers (there were about 20 such youngsters around when I was there) or who had fallen down wells or been caught in traps and left to die because their tusks hadn’t grown yet so there was no money to be made from them, of which there were a further 10 or so. A couple of ostriches completed the cohort but were much shyer than the elephants, who were happily oblivious of the rope barriers intended to demarcate their enclosure and made friends with every spectator present at their morning feed by showing us all just how much orange mud they were able to transfer to our hands when we stroked them and also performed admirable demonstrations of how to kiss unwitting passers-by from several metres away when you have the advantage of possessing a trunk. Man, elephant and dog in Kenya shares the same unconditional love for the entire universe.
If you climb up into the hills above Nairobi, however, you will find yourself in Yorkshire. I mean this quite literally. The forest above Nairobi contains evergreen trees, grassy hillocks, cows grazing in misty pastures and little streams whose tinkle mixes with the songs of birds. The only thing missing is people speaking funny, but to me the Yorkshire accent and Swahili amount to much the same thing. I even saw a tree with a hole in it à la Winnie the Pooh, which I’m not even sure you can find in Sussex any more. It was like a home away from home. (Well, maybe there are no wild elephants in Yorkshire and perhaps you don’t have to cut your way through the forest with a machete. But there are definitely stinging nettles in Nairobi forest and an Englishman simply cannot feel homesick where he finds stinging nettles.)
So I came back down to Earth in the clean efficiency of Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta Airport (Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s first President and his fourth wife bore him a son Uhuru, who is the current President), with an interesting taxi ride through the city centre which took me past the hotel/palace in which Barack Obama stayed during his recent visit to Kenya. I now take off again to move into my accommodation at Pembroke College, Cambridge to study Music for three years. My next epilogue will focus more on the wealth/poverty issue and on how I’ve coped (or not) with living inside a Cambridge college having recently returned from the 36th, 7th and 3rd poorest countries in the world (World Bank 2011-2014). Bye for now and happy October! 🙂
Last night’s Choir Festival was possibly the most unforgettably intense cultural event I have ever witnessed! The complex network of variety and diversity present was fascinating: unified village choirs, from the same region but several hour’s walk apart at the least, coming together to sing but also competing for prizes, with a band coming from across the lake at Likoma Island (the villages’ most important trading partner in fish, vegetables, timber and other goods) whose members were nonetheless widely familiar to the crowd thanks to population exchange between Mozambique and Malawi initiated by the Civil War, joined by international guests from Nkwichi Lodge, the International Potato Center, Wired for Sound, a local doctor from England who runs three health clinics in the Manda Wilderness supported by an extensive network of local volunteers, the Trust and Lodge management teams (nationalities including South Africa, Colombia and Tanzania) and the Chef de Poste, head of the local government of the administrative post of Cobue, which includes the entire Manda Wilderness. For everyone present it was a highly meaningful coming together which reaffirmed the social potential of music – and its potential to promote gender equality, for the prize of Best Choirmaster went to a young woman, the only female choirmaster in the entire competition! (‘Kwayamasta’ is neuter in Nyanja.) The first prize went to Chicaia village for the second year running, closely followed by Mbueca and then Chirola, all of which was announced at 3 a.m. following a stunningly energetic performance by the band and a dinner successfully provided for over 300 people. If there is any night in my life that I never forget, that one will be it.
Now begins the long and tortuous process of packing up after almost two months of living at Nkwichi Lodge, and the day after tomorrow I’ll begin the four-day chain of boat, plane, taxi and bus rides that will take me via Lilongwe and Nairobi back to London and thence home. It has been an immense pleasure and privilege to make music, to travel and to live with the wonderful group of people who have made the Manda Wilderness what it is. Special mentions to the members of all the village choirs and to the staff of Nkwichi Lodge, who have astounded me with their unstoppable energy, joie de vivre, physical and mental strength and never-ending smiles; to Patricia Black, volunteer English teacher at the Lodge, whose companionship, commendable Englishness and prowess at knitting have been a vital source of comfort; to Juliana Castellanos, Community Project Manager for the MWCT, who has been a constant source of support, encouragement and wisdom throughout my journey; to the General Manager of Nkwichi Lodge, who has been a father figure in the uncertainty of my first journey to Africa and whose home, patience, Mentos, tinned tuna, table tennis, endless knowledge and excellent company I have been privileged to share; and last but not least to Richard Stephano, Local Community Project Manager for the MWCT, my guide and colleague who has shown kindness and resource and patience above and beyond anything that I could reasonably have expected of him. I may not yet be able to knit multicolour cardigans without looking, oversee troublesome teams of local builders, drink half a dozen beers without batting an eyelid or single-handedly transport two days’ shopping (including 63 whole chickens) from Lichinga to Nkwichi using nothing but the ferry, the Chappa and the 20kg-cooler-box-on-the-head technique, but at least I can tell a poisonous snake bean from a scorpion and that’s a start.
My greatest thanks are due to the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, without whose extremely generous support the Choir Festivals of the past several years would never have been able to happen. Recognition is also due to Aldeburgh Music, specifically to Aldeburgh Young Musicians, who have not only provided me with the skill and experience I needed to do my job here but who also made the contact with the MWCT which led to my applying for this post in the first place. The Trust has already received enormously generous funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), but there is always more to do. Nkwichi Lodge, which employs several dozen local staff, has special rates for groups of 5, honeymoons and African residents (http://www.nkwichi.com/), and a proportion of every guest’s payment goes straight into the Trust; you can find out more about the Trust and how to donate at http://www.mandawilderness.org/index.html. Several communities I have visited are without safe drinking water, most have no sanitation and all have literacy rates significantly less than half; if enough people pitch in, we can continue the process that has transformed this area from a war-stricken wasteland into a thriving and grateful community.
So that’s the end of my blog! I neither recognise nor remember the pale-skinned youth who left London City Airport on 9 July, but he certainly had no idea of what Africa was going to hit him with. Whatever the extent to which you have followed my blog or social media, thank you so much for being such an essential part of the adventure: zikomo kwambiri, assante, pitani bwino and wherever in the world you live, take any chance you can possibly get to visit Africa. It’s pretty awesome. 😉
Surprise! I walked to Cobue this morning but have unexpectedly returned early on the boat, because the Choir Festival Committee (half a dozen representatives from the villages surrounding Cobue) already cleaned the stage and cleared the surrounding area. Tomorrow I’ll leave here at 6:30 (again) to watch over the cooking and other last-minute preparations, then stay overnight for a rehearsal with the Manda Wilderness Choir on Sunday.
I’ve been immensely excited to meet Wired for Sound, a team carrying out recording projects all over Africa of which the core is formed from members of the South African band Freshlyground (http://freshlyground.com/), and who are at Nkwichi to capture as much as they can of the sonic landscape of the Manda Wilderness and of the Choir Festival. They’ve already traveled Mozambique and will shortly be moving on to Malawi – do read more about what they’re up to on their website at http://wiredforsound.co.za/. In such an isolated region as this it really is thrilling when multiple organisations come together with a shared vision, and although they’re only here for a short time it makes the potential held by musicians here all the more palpable.
Before my next post on the 7th, I shall leave you with two essential items of Niassa Province culture. Firstly, the photograph below is of the region’s favourite fish, Chambo, after which one of the ferries which traverses this part of the lake is named. Secondly here is a Nyanja tongue twister which blows ‘red lorry yellow lorry’ out of the water: Baba a pha bakha. (‘Ph’ is pronounced as an emphasised ‘P’.) Try saying that twenty times. It means ‘Father killed a snake’ – incidentally ‘baba’ is ‘father’ and is often used as a term of respectful endearment, like calling someone ‘bwana’ (‘boss’) but more familiar. Even in English strangers here call me ‘my brother’; if someone were to point a woman out to me on the street and say ‘that is my sister’ I would be unsure whether they meant biological sister, sister-in-law, friend, colleague or just passing acquaintance. I rather like it that way.
In the calm before the storm of Saturday’s Choir Festival, I took yesterday afternoon out to explore the landscape surrounding Nkwichi. I’ve not yet mentioned here the rocky outcrop which affords an incredible view over Lake Malawi, and I’ll come to that later, but I have talked about the baobab tree.
When I first arrived this tree was spoken of with such reverence (“the baobab tree”) that I thought it must be the only baobab in the region. It turns out that these trees grow in astounding abundance throughout southern Africa, which is particularly amazing since (a) they’re giant and (b) some African soils, including the kind found here, are sandy and/or nutritionally very poor. But grow they do and this one has been growing for around 2900 years. Yes, two thousand nine hundred years. 1209 A.D. used to be the early limit of my Cantabridgian historical imagination but this tree was planted in the 8th century B.C. and also happens to be the largest living organism I have ever seen. What I love about it more than anything else is that despite its immense age, this tree is still unequivocally alive; the tiny fingernail marks I made in the bark while measuring its circumference all revealed green sap underneath. Walking around it took a full 30 seconds and I measured its circumference at approximately 23 metres, which gives its diameter as around 7.3 metres (yes, the base is almost circular). Of its height I don’t have an accurate idea, but from 10m away I could not fit the whole tree in the 16:9 aspect ratio on my phone camera, so with some Post-It Note calculations it’s at least 12m tall. I would add another 5 to 10 metres to take in the uppermost branches. In other words, it’s extremely large – and it’s not even unusual for baobab trees to get this big; apparently there is one in Tanzania inside whose hollowed trunk you can now sit down to a beer.
Walking to the top of the nearest hill east of (inland from) the baobab tree takes you up a couple of hundred metres, from which point you can still see the gigantic baobab as well as a large stretch of lake coastline. I managed to arrive just as the sun was setting, which gave a spectacular sunset but made the walk home rather dark! Inspiring views and secluded resting points abound around here – if I had brought more paper and if I weren’t working on the Choir Festival, I think the past couple of months would have been the most productive of my life as a composer… Instead I will be walking to Cobue and back tomorrow to help everyone set up for the Festival. At least I’m used to walking now!
Many apologies for the recent silence – our office internet ran out on the morning of the 28th, and the Lodge manager and I then departed for Likoma for two nights and came back yesterday afternoon. A lot has happened! The Lodge staff have been hard at work on what they call a fire break, which is a strip of empty land all the way around the Lodge (the land is ’emptied’ by burning everything there in a controlled way) separating the Lodge grounds from the rest of the bush. The idea is that if a bush fire starts somewhere (this is increasingly likely as we approach the very hot wet season but before the rains come in November) it won’t be able to jump across the fire break, because everything that would have caught fire in that strip has already been burnt to the ground by us. They do it every year and it’s a little like building a road, except that you burn everything instead of laying tarmac there. Water is poured along the edges of the ‘road’, and grass raked from the edges to the middle, to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the boundaries. It’s extremely tough work – the heat is simply unbelievable and every insect, snake or other animal that used to live inside the fire break will come out and attack you – and takes 25 people two weeks to complete. Despite the appearance of barbarism, fires are extremely good for the soil: by the end of the year the old fire break is naturally almost completely reforested with acacia, which itself is excellent firewood.
Saturday heralded three separate festivals in three different and widely spaced villages, in one of the most striking coups d’etat of African disorganisation I have yet witnessed: mganda (traditional men’s dance) in Mbueca and local choir festivals in Mataka and Chicaia all started on the 29th. Along with two guests and a Lodge guide, I chose the mganda; I regret not having been able to see a local choir festival but the mganda was quite stunning. The photograph below should give you some impressions, but the best part for me was the instruments: a series of different-shaped hollow gourds with holes in the top which were played in the same way as a kazoo but sounded infinitely better, and a drum the size of a Western orchestral bass drum suspended beneath a log which was propped on the shoulders of the two players. One used a hand and the other used a mallet. We didn’t have much time there because kayaking took over an hour each way (without rests, of course), but it remains one of the most striking cultural events I have ever witnessed.
The next three days were spent paddle-boarding, swimming, kayaking and lying on the beach at Mango Drift, the excuse for which was that I needed another Malawian passport stamp. Now that I’m back from that holiday, I will be returning to my Nkwichi holiday, where excitement is building as we count the three remaining days down to the Choir Festival; thence to a short holiday in Nairobi and then the rest of my holiday in England before the holiday that is Freshers’ Week, then the start of the Cambridge term in early October. For that I think I will have needed the holiday!
Today I witnessed a 5-foot-tall woman carrying a 20 kg sack of maize flour on her head (I know how much they weigh because I have tried to carry one, the operative word there being tried) and a bee-eater (amazingly colourful small bird native to Africa and Asia. Google them) so I’m starting to really feel at home! I’ve also been working on a project to record and transcribe some songs written by Andrew Kaiwala, the Chief of Staff at Nkwichi (who also happens to be the choirmaster at the nearest village, Mala) which is really exciting for both of us 🙂 Tomorrow I shall either me in Mbueca watching men’s traditional dance or in Chicaia at a local choir festival, but neither my colleagues at the Trust nor Andrew nor his choir (nor myself) have decided yet where we’re going. #whyhurry
We had a fantastic couple of days in Cobue with six village chiefs and the chairmen of the village Agricultural Committees (yes, they were all men…). I was highly impressed by their hard work and astounding ability to eat boiling hot nsima and beans with their hands. Sleeping at the Girls’ Boarding House, which was built by the MWCT so that those living in faraway villages would have the chance to attend the only secondary school in the Manda Wilderness, I managed to choose the only top bunk which was missing a slat and awoke at 6 yesterday morning to find the chief on the lower bunk prodding my buttocks and calling ‘Eh, Mista Jay!’ Our meeting was scheduled to start at 7. I have never seen a local person ever run out of energy.
For the next two days I’ll be in Cobue helping out with meetings of the local village chiefs, evaluating Phase I of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) project which is being implemented by the MWCT and presenting Phase II. I’ll be back at Nkwichi on Wednesday.
This morning was a long-awaited pilgrimage to the kitchen to learn the art of making nsima, a staple of many southern African diets which here is regarded as a superfood. (‘When you eat nsima you can grow big, you can not eat all day!’) So with some excitement I followed an Nkwichi chef to the wood-burning clay hob with a tub of maize flour, watched her boil a pot of water and slowly add a handful of flour (just enough to make the water opaque) and was instructed to stir. After about a minute of this she came back to add the rest of the flour while I continued to stir and after another couple of minutes the mixture turned to a thick paste.
Turns out that is all there is to making nsima. As long as you eat it within 5-10 minutes (obviously it’s very difficult to import produce here, so you eat whatever you can grow or catch and freshness of food is never a problem) the texture is really quite nice. Maize is a relatively easy flour to work with because the nsima is quite soft, and cassava (the other and more common flour around here since cassava plants grow copiously in the villages) is apparently much tougher, but essentially you add flour to water and stir. No wonder it’s so popular.
When I’d finished, though, I was informed there was a problem. You can’t eat nsima on its own; flour paste is not exactly a taste sensation so it’s always eaten either with small fish or with another dish called nchicha. The cooks now decided to teach me how to make nchicha, so we chopped some onions, tomatoes and spinach, heated sunflower oil and added the three vegetables in that order with some salt (actually quite a lot of salt) and pepper. So that’s nchicha. Break off handfuls of nsima, knead them in your hand a little, dip them in the nchicha and eat it; you’ll be full for the rest of the day. 🙂
It is easy to be beguiled by the thriving redevelopment happening in Cobue – a new harbour is under construction to support the fish trade with Likoma Island – but rural Mozambique is where the Civil War was fought and the Manda Wilderness is no exception. The cathedral at Cobue still bears bullet holes, over 20 years after peace was declared; walking through the main street recently I came across a man with a missing arm, most probably the victim of an unexploded landmine. It has struck me again and again that in a region as large and remote as Niassa Province, there must be hundreds of thousands of people and countless acres of land which go unsupported and unprotected by such organisations as Nkwichi Lodge and the Manda Wilderness Community Trust. Niassa has an estimated population of just over a million and an area of nearly 130 000 km^2; the first time it was ever visited by the Mozambican president was in June 2006, when President Guebuza came to Cobue.
On a lighter note, I’ve done some rough calculations of our walking distances over the past five weeks and found that we have covered about 280 km. There will doubtless be some more trips to Cobue in the two weeks I have left here, so hopefully we can make it 300 km before I leave!
I’m back at Nkwichi to take a couple of days off, until our very last training session on Wednesday the 19th. After that I’ll be helping with final preparations for the Choir Festival, and with the Agricultural Project… But more on that later!
Rising at a leisurely 6:30 we walked 3 hours to Uchessi to spend another night at my guide’s house. There was a lot of very tall grass in the way though, so we arrived looking like we’d been dragged through a hedge forwards, which in all but the literal sense we had. I participated for the first time in Manda Wilderness style bathing, in which one may strip to one’s underwear, jump in the lake, rub oneself vigorously with a soap bar, jump further into the lake and dry in the setting sun. It feels extraordinary but can’t be good for the lake – there are approximately 8400 km^3 of water in there, so the soap and dirt are very diluted, but 20 million people wash themselves and their clothes in this way every day and they also drink lake water. The MWCT is desperately in need of funds to build lakeside washing stations so that this doesn’t carry on. Efforts to stop people fishing with mosquito nets, which catch absolutely everything and are ecologically disastrous, have been moderately successful. I had my first taste of cassava-derived nsima and am now mildly addicted to it – the texture is like bread dough, as is the taste, but without the bitterness. It takes ages to digest and apparently breakfasting on cassava nsima means you don’t need lunch!
Leaving camp at 5:15 a.m. to avoid the midday sun, we walked four hours north to Magachi and had a superb four-hour training session there. I’ve been slowly realising that just as the starting time for rehearsals is variable, the finishing time is not particularly important to anybody so long as we can all get home before dark, which gives me the tremendous luxury as a conductor of being able to work in as much or as little detail as I like. The training was a tremendous community event, with around 30 choir members and an additional 23 children coming to watch, and before leaving the church I shook hands with almost every choir member and even got a hug from one of the altos. 🙂
The walk took us close by a bush fire, which made the most incredible roaring-cracking sound that I was extremely alarmed for a moment at what might be coming towards us. On our camping site at the mfumu’s house I was introduced to a lemon tree. While the lemons are still green people make lemongrass tea and squeeze the lemon juice in on top of that, which beats caffeine any day of the week.
Our third man for the trip was my guide’s nephew, a 24-year-old from Malawi of the gentle giant disposition. For this reason I thought it unlikely that we would all be able to fit on the Chappa, the Manda Wilderness’ nearest equivalent to a bus: a pick-up truck containing twenty-nine people (at my somewhat haphazard estimate) and a large pile of luggage on the back. But fit on it we did, with much elbowing and shouting and clambering over strangers’ limbs, and just about managed not to fall off during the 45-minute journey into the middle of nowhere. (I found out later that the Chappa has overturned several times before, with passengers.) Despite over 40 km of dirt road having been built by the MWCT with funding from the Swedish Co-Operative Centre, there are still only 17 km of paved road in an area approximately the size of Devon.
Walking to Mcondece, we crossed paths with a woman who had fallen off the back of a motorcycle the previous day, scraped her leg on the exhaust and sustained a large second-degree burn. Her husband was cycling to the Chappa stop that we’d just left with her on the back, so that they could travel to Cobue on the Chappa and thence to Likoma Island, that being the location of the nearest hospital – Dr Peg Cumberland has run a network of community health clinics in the Manda Wilderness for more than a decade but needs more funds if she is to increase her level of support (http://www.mandawilderness.org/health.html). The injured woman had poured burnt engine oil on her leg immediately following the accident, which apparently prevents gangrene. Having dressed her wound from my first aid kit we tripped along to Mcondece, where we discovered that half the village was missing for various reasons and the upshot was that we only had 4 choir members. (This swelled to 7 after one of them went outside and banged a car axle against an old metal truck wheel that was hanging from a tree, which is the universal way to call the village to Church.) Nevertheless they kindly agreed to meet us at 2 o’clock. At 1:45 I suggested to my guide that we start walking to the church and he pointed out that one of the four had just walked past on his way to have a bath in the river. After training we camped at the two-room primary school. It gets very cold in the inland villages because they’re on the plateau which rises up east of the lake, and the local roosters set a new record by crowing at 3:30 a.m.
This will be my last post until 16 August, when I will return from a three-night trip to two of the most remote inland villages in the Manda Wilderness. We’ll be a group of three this time in order to spread the load and to help with cooking. I’ll no longer be wearing ironed socks and undergarments as I do at the Lodge (!), but I shall be attempting to perfect my rehearsal techniques during these 11th and 12th of the 13 visits we will be conducting. Bye for now! Oh, and Manchester City beat West Brom 3-0. But everybody expected that.
Here’s a paragraph from J. H. Kwabena Nketia on music in African community life which I feel to be very true here:
Music making is regarded as a part of the traditional way of life and not an embellishment of it. It is as necessary to the fullness of living as any other human need that has to be satisfied. A village that has no organised music or neglects community singing, drumming and dancing is said to be dead. Music making is, therefore, an index of a living community and a measure of the degree of social cohesion among its respective units.
J. H. Kwabena Nketia, Music in African Cultures: A Review of the Meaning and Significance of Traditional African Music (Legon, Ghana, 1966), p. 15.
I feel that last sentence to be accurate amongst all the communities I’ve seen, particularly here in Mozambique but indeed across the world.
Until Thursday I’ll be living the high life here at Nkwichi, where I have been surprised to see even the locals’ skin getting darker as European summer turns to African summer, and where an enlarging family of geckos increasingly occupy all empty power sockets, walls, bath towels and many other places in which one would not expect to find a gecko. I refuse to identify the June-July-early August climate here as ‘winter’, however many articles the Malawian newspapers run about how to protect yourself from the ‘cold’ (yes, I saw one on my way through Lilongwe last month when the temperature dropped below 20 ° C) – it strikes me that at 15 degrees a Glaswegian will walk around in shorts and a T-shirt while a southeast African will wear a coat and wooly hat…
On the way to Mala yesterday I was again greeted by the children of the village, who have learnt to recognize me and now run to greet me shouting ‘azungu!’ whenever I pass. They have also made me a chant, which apparently contains mostly nonsense syllables but also advises me to stick to the path and not venture off into the bush. (I am more than happy to do this.) I thought I was blending in with the locals pretty well when I remembered to wear long trousers, since for some reason men all over East Africa never wear shorts, but came unstuck when a few of my guide’s friends expressed their amazement to him at the fact that I tuck my shirt in. One does one’s best…
After possibly the largest amount of walking I’ve ever done in two days (about 40 km) and a great rehearsal with Chirola choir, I can confirm that the concept of a short break – or indeed of any activity that takes less than an hour and a half – is entirely absent from local culture. Excepting the half-hour 10 a.m. staff tea break at Nkwichi, lunch always takes at least 90 minutes if not two hours, and rehearsals regularly run for 5 hours at a time with no breaks. In fact my guide and I now regularly walk non-stop from here to Cobue in 3 hours. We kept the rehearsal going until 5 o’clock instead of 4, partly because everyone was enjoying it and partly because some choir members turned up around 4:20 (the rehearsal was scheduled to start at 1:00). Timekeeping is a big problem but so is illiteracy, so until I to teach 25000 people how to read a watch and/or clock I cannot criticize them for being late.
Along the way, I asked him a little more about the selection and function of the village chiefs. Every village has a chief (‘mfumu’), and in Mandambuzi and Chigoma it was the chief outside whose house we camped; he (I’ve never come across or heard of a female mfumu) acts as a focal point for the village, and is thus a very useful point of contact between the villagers and the Manda Wilderness Community Trust that works with them. The constantly open-air, active and fresh-food-eating lifestyle of these people means that if they survive malaria, HIV, cholera, ulcers and many of the other diseases that take local people at a young age, they can often live well past the age of 90; once the mfumu dies a member of his extended family is chosen as his successor. This can be his firstborn son but the family may also choose his brother, younger sons or even his nephew depending on the suitability of their character. One other point to note about families is that people take their father’s first name as their last name; for example, my guide’s name is Richard Stephano because his father’s first name is Stephano, and his children’s surnames will be Richard. (They will also have a family name which is common to everyone, but that’s not used day-to-day.) The chief’s house is a social hotspot in the evenings and people will gather around a fire and/or radio to pick up the Malawian signal from Likoma Island. (I was somewhat surprised yesterday to be sitting on the ground around a cooking fire in the dark, surrounded by villagers speaking in rapid and animated Nyanja and with goats, dogs and chickens scavenging and monkeys calling to each other from the treetops, to hear that Manchester City will be playing West Brom tomorrow evening at 2100 hours local time.)
The tradition of village chiefs dates back to the oldest records we have of this area – as ancient perhaps as the 2000-year-old baobab tree which stands by the lake by Nkwichi Lodge. Nevertheless the area is slowly modernizing, with electricity rumored to be coming to Cobue on Wednesday and a gold mine having recently opened further to the North. The geology, chemistry and marine ecology of the lake are still largely unknown, although we do know that there’s a diverging plate boundary underneath it so that it gets about 1 cm wider every year, and that it’s over 750 metres deep at its centre. The villagers remain outstandingly resourceful, though, and make everything from plant pots to goatskin drums out of a paint tin, and thanks to the Manda Wilderness Agricultural Project (run by the Community Trust) they are still learning new techniques. My favorite is to feed fruit from the sausage tree to animals as a source of iron. 🙂
I had a great stay yesterday night at Mango Drift, a resort on Likoma Island (Likoma apparently means ‘delicious’ because of the fruit that the first arrivals discovered), taking the Nkwichi speedboat to Cobue and then a local fishing boat to Likoma. (We transferred to another fishing boat in the middle of the lake for no apparent reason other than for the driver to demonstrate to me that he owned both.) After that I had some practice in the art of convincing the immigration official to do his job without a bribe, then the slowest and bumpiest ride in a pick-up truck that I have ever experienced to get me to Mango Drift. Kayaking early this morning on Lake Malawi was stunning (a report from WaterAid several years ago declared it drinking quality – on the more sparsely populated Mozambique side, many of the locals do indeed drink it) and I’m now back in the office preparing to visit Chirola tomorrow, about 20 km away. I’ll walk there in the morning, camp overnight and walk back on Sunday.
Apologies for the recent silence – our office internet ran out on Saturday (the last day of the month) and I left on a three-night village trip early the following morning. Here are the missing posts!
Today was spent getting back to the Lodge, which is no mean feat from 40 km away in the absence of tarmac. We took motorcycles again from Uchessi to the centre of Cobue (this time my driver was practicing the one-handed, saying-hello-to-passers-by, field-watching style), from whence we walked the three hours home and took some long showers! The children in the villages through which we pass have started to jump up and down, laugh, gather all their friends, run after us shouting ‘Azungu!’ (‘White person!’) and try to touch me to the great extent possible. When I finally arrived back at my desk I discovered that the office kitten had taken up residence there. Tomorrow morning I’ll leave for Likoma Island, stay there one night and come back; Likoma belongs to Malawi, and every 30 days (for a reason completely unknown to me) I need to exit Mozambique overnight and get another 30-day lease. My next post will be on Friday… Over and out!
Training with Uchessi choir was followed by my first experience of African cycling to get us to Ngofi, the northernmost village in the Manda Wilderness. By African cycling I mean that once my guide had fixed a pedal back onto his bike with assorted blows from a large mallet (the thread was gone) we set off along the dirt-sand roads, myself on a sit-up-and-beg borrowed from a friend – this being, to my delight, the most common type of bicycle in the region by far. When the aforementioned pedal fell off again, my guide left the broken bike with another friend and jumped on my bike, with me on the rack. (He assures me that he can take two people on the back without a problem, and in fact when I was taking the ferry across the lake to get here I met a couple who were having a competition amongst themselves for the most interesting thing seen on the back of a bicycle. The frontrunners were 1. another bicycle, 2. a goat and 3. (this was my addition) a mother and two children.) On the way back from a terrific rehearsal in Ngofi we had a back puncture which made riding on the rack rather more uncomfortable, so my guide and I took it in turns to run beside the other cycling until we reached the friend’s house, whereupon he cycled the mile or so back to his own house with one pedal.
Morning training in Chigoma went well, after which we hiked to my guide’s house in Uchessi, where we were extremely well looked after for two nights by his sister – who cooked for us every day and prepared a hot bucket shower for me twice a day – and his father. (The people I’ve met here have in general been extremely polite and generous, constantly asking me to eat more (which is never a problem) and always offering to carry my bags.) The letter which was sent to Uchessi choir in April had not yet been passed from a choir member to the choirmaster, so they didn’t show up at the time appointed and we organised a rehearsal for the following morning. I spent the afternoon in a deck chair, made by my guide’s father out of teak and rice sacks, watching the sunset with him. I would go so far as to name this wonderful village elder a professional watcher. He would speak to me in Nyanja, I would talk back in English and neither understood a word the other said, but it was tremendous fun; we then sat in silence for three hours and watched the world go by. Thusly I began to realise how full of wisdom the elders must be, and why they command so much respect in so many African cultures.
On a side note, people very much like to suck sugar cane here – it’s grown locally. We also eat a lot of rice, which is again grown locally, but there is a problem with hippopotami eating it, like there is with monkeys eating the cassava, and with leopards eating farm animals.
Leaving at 7 a.m., my guide and I walked to the centre of Cobue and thence took motorcycle taxis to Chigoma, a few hours’ walk further to the North. (My motorcycle driver seems to have been practicing his 60 km/h driving without tarmac or a helmet.) In Cobue we usually lunch at a dressmaker’s lunch-cum-restaurant, where the food can take between 15 minutes and two hours to prepare depending on what he has with him – on this occasion there was no fish so he started cooking beans, which I eventually found out would take another hour and a half so I asked if we could have vegetables, which he then decided to walk to the market to buy. There really is nothing you can do to speed up African time! We camped under another mango tree, this one containing a large family of doves, a nearby pig and a rooster who saw fit to crow at 4 a.m., two hours before sunrise…
A hardy team of four – our resident sociologist, agronomist, Community Project Manager and I – hiked to the far end of Chicaia (about 18 kilometres away) and back to watch the Chiwoda, a women’s traditional dance which is held once a year. In a clearing of gigantic baobab trees, perhaps five or six different village teams (they were impossible to count) competed in dances of around 15 minutes each and involving between 10 and 20 people. The event had a wonderfully communal atmosphere, and as we were leaving around 3 o’clock p.m. there were many more people coming in to add to the 100 or so spectators already there, clearly staying until early the next morning! Each village holds one traditional dance a year (Chiwoda is just one type) and with around 12 villages participating every year, a dance occurs somewhere in the Manda Wilderness about once a month. Traditional dance is a much older art than the song of the choirs I’m working with, which only came into being in the wake of the Christian missionaries who arrived here in the sixteenth century – evidence of this is provided by the words ‘kwaya’ and ‘kwayamasta’ in Nyanja for ‘choir’ and ‘choirmaster’. According to my guide the costumes of dance used to be more elaborate and gifts were given between the villages, but for me it’s great to see that the dances still happen. There were people constantly walking everywhere, many of them draping capulanas about the dancers as a gesture of encouragement (a little like ululating for a choir, which they do all the time except when I arrive!). Capulanas are ubiquitous here and are used for literally everything; examples include carrying babies, cushioning the lunch tray on the head, carrying bulky items and wearing as a skirt.
Yesterday’s trip was to Kango, in the centre of Cobue (‘Cobue’ refers to the whole Manda Wilderness area). Our one-hour lunch break plan didn’t go down too well and after a two-hour lunch we still only had a quarter of the choir back, but I did have the novel experience of clinging to the back of a pick-up truck loaded with supplies from Lichinga in order to help load them onto a boat to Nkwichi, thereby catching a lift home.
On the way there my guide explained to me the Mozambican education system, which I thought I should share. Their academic year is composed of three 3-month terms and starts in February, with an Easter break in April, a winter break in July (Southern Hemisphere) and a long summer break through December and January. Classes are split between mornings and afternoons due to lack of school buildings and teachers, so even students my age (18) only go to school for half of every weekday. Schools in remote areas such as Cobue are difficult to manage and to inspect, so government funding and teaching standards are both low. The drop-out rate is high and the large majority of people don’t finish school. English (official language of the neighboring Malawi) is better spoken here than Portuguese (official language of Mozambique) because many people fled to Malawi during the Civil War (which lasted roughly from 1977 until 1992 and killed about 1 million, displaced 5 million and had a massive impact on almost every region of Mozambique). The presence of Nkwichi Lodge, which employs several dozen locals, has visibly improved living standards.
Mala choir astonishingly bucked the trend by being 20 minutes early to their rehearsal yesterday! Not so surprisingly, they like to sing with their chins raised a little – this is common to many choirs in this area and is perhaps the reason why younger singers tend to have much louder and healthier voices than their elder counterparts. I decided to ask them to sing with their chins to the sky, then with the chin tucked into the chest, then in a proper head position (which is achieved by pulling up from the crown of the head – this is quite difficult for the men who generally shave their heads but they can imagine it). I asked them which head position felt and sounded the best, and of course they replied with the chin raised. It gives new potency to the truism ‘I like what I know’… Incidentally the presence of many very young sopranos (5-8 years old), mixed with older members in the other parts, gives these choirs a captivating and completely unique sound.
On the way back I was once again joined by my little friends, who discovered the ‘beep’ sounds that are made by my watch and proceeded to a state of constant and animated beeping.
Going slightly retrospective now because the pace of rehearsals is increasing, we spent a fantastic three hours yesterday with Chicaia choir, who were admirably focused rehearsing under a mango tree despite the wedding happening in their church nearby. Walking there and back took three hours each way, making about 20 miles in total, but I was joined for a stretch by several bundles of sunshine who each can’t have been more than six years old and who elected to teach me a little Nyanja for entertainment. From their reaction to my efforts I think we may have been learning such phrases as ‘My bottom is on fire’ and the like, but we had tremendous fun anyway; we walked together until my guide instructed them to stay in Mala in case they walked all the way to Nkwichi with us, which I believe they would have done. Our rehearsal this afternoon is in Mala so I hope we’ll meet them again!
Hello again! I’m just back from a two-day trip to two inland villages, Litanda and Mandambuzi, to conduct trainings in both. But first we had to walk there…
African bush is an astonishingly biodiverse environment. Just during our 11-mile walk on Wednesday morning we saw dozens of species of tree, including banana, marula, mango, baobab, teak, acacia and masses of miombo tree and cassava bushes. Cassava is the main food source for the locals and grows copiously in every village – the roots are peeled, soaked in water, dried in the sun, crushed to a powder, mixed with water again and cooked into a paste called Nsima, which is the staple of the local diet. It took us just under four hours to Litanda, and about halfway through my guide mentioned that many of the people who work at Nkwichi Lodge live in Litanda or further afield and can do it in three hours. That means they leave home at 4 in the morning, walk 11 miles, work a ten-hour day and then walk 11 miles home. They do this six days a week and many of them do it in flip-flops. I will never again complain about any commute ever.
We had a short rehearsal at Litanda (the choirmaster hadn’t yet told his choir we were coming so we had to send a message via a small boy on a bicycle before about 5 of them turned up, two hours late). I also had the rather new experience of asking an ensemble that people sit out of the rehearsal if they wish to breastfeed. At 4 o’clock we hiked to Mandambuzi, which took us past the village Primary School, so the latter half of our journey was accompanied by a crowd of wide-eyed and open-mouthed children (I don’t think many of them had seen ginger hair before…) We set up camp underneath the chief’s mango tree and dined with his large, extremely hospitable and highly respectful family. I didn’t realise quite how large it was until a later conversation with my guide, which went something like this: “They were lovely!” quoth I. “Yes, nice family,” quoth he. “That was a family?” quoth I. “Yes,” quoth he, “the chief’s family.” “That wasn’t the whole village?” quoth I. “No,” quoth he. Turns out that the mfumu and his wife have four adult sons and (judging by my repeated attemps to count them) between eleven and fifteen grandchildren. Teenage pregnancy is commonplace and the birth rate in general is very high, but so is infant mortality, particularly from malaria…
I saw my first gecko this morning! And also a monitor lizard which also likes to hang around near the office. I’ll be taking this afternoon and tomorrow off, then covering two more villages before my next post on Friday. Bye for now!
More training with the Manda Wilderness Choir today – they’re looking and sounding great! We’ve learnt two new songs today and they memorise impressively quickly, as well as harmonising spontaneously despite the fact that very few of them have any formal musical training. In fact this afternoon we were doing a warm-up exercise that involves going up a scale and down again, and as soon as we got to the mediant they started harmonising wth the tonic! We had to start again twice before I got the message across that we were just singing a scale and not harmonising…
Here’s a video from a previous Choir Festival which I feel captures the essence of life in the Manda Wilderness:
We’ve also done some more work about voice control with quiet singing, and I have a new observation on the African vocal style: if you ask them to sing more quietly, they will sing at the same dynamic but look a little sad.
Our training with the Manda Wilderness Choir was scheduled to start at 9:30 this morning, but it’s now 13:30 and we have one choir member out of thirteen, so we may have to rewrite the rehearsal schedule!
So I’ve spent my time trying to learn some more Nyanja instead. Numbers in Nyanja are usually spoken in English for simplicity, but if you want to write a book or formal document then you have to use the Nyanja numbering system, so God help you. The syntax is (you guessed it) wonderfully simple and fantastically time-consuming. The only words they have are for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 and powers of 10. When I asked my guide how to say sixty-six he replied ‘makomi ya visanu ndi komi limodzi ndi visanu ndi chimodzi’. Turns out you have to multiply ten by five, add ten times one, add five and then add one. Big numbers take a long time to say. Simple.
I’ve also been admiring my environment again, including another monkey guilty of bread roll theft and the staff carrying the most astonishing of objects on their heads. I’m uploading a picture of one of them carrying a lunch tray up some steps because it is just too amazing. When I went ask her permission to upload the photo, and to show it to her, she was carrying a cooler box full of glass beer bottles on her head and the entire conversation was conducted in that way. I feel this to be deserving of the epithet ‘swag’.
There are three main reasons I can think of which cause time to go very slowly here. The first is that nobody has a watch. The second is that the weather very rarely changes. (From day to day, in the six days I’ve been here, I have seen two patches of cloud and the temperature has mostly fallen between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius; that’s because it’s winter right now, or the dry season, which lasts from late April to November. In the wet season, along with the torrential rainfall comes 75%-80% humidity and temperatures in the forties. The oscillation between these two seasons makes everything feel twice as slow as in temperate climates.) The third reason is that, perhaps because of the above, nobody is ever in a rush to do anything. The concept of building two houses at once so that you can work on one whilst waiting for supplies for the other is quite alien to local craftsmen. On Wednesday it took a whole afternoon of rehearsal to introduce the concept of not singing as loudly as you possibly can all the time, so that some other choir members can be heard. Why hurry?
It’s important to understand that disregard for timing doesn’t constitute laziness. Indeed, as I’ve already mentioned, people can be remarkably hardworking and tough when they need to be – in fact all the Lodge and Trust staff (including me!) work 10-hour days from 7 until 5. But when there are poisonous snakes outside and it’s 45 degrees in the shade, you avoid all unnecessary risk and take life at its natural pace. This is even reflected in the indigenous music: structures are very simple (mostly call and response) and 10-minute pieces can be made out of a single four-line stanza.
On a lighter note, my favorite aspect of African languages is their lack of the letter R. When people see R they will pronounce L, and they often write L in the place of R, as in ‘Music Liblely’. As you can imagine I often misinterpret my guide in amusing ways, recently confusing ‘player’ for ‘prayer’ and ‘bleeing’ for ‘breeding’. I was rather surprised in the kayak on Wednesday to hear that we were approaching Leeds until I saw the reed bed. 😉
Reporting Monkey Theft of Bread Roll Incident 1, Lunch Table, c.12:30, apparently with many more to follow.
So this was my first day conducting a rehearsal in one of the local villages… It was quite an experience! We kayaked there and back, which took about an hour and a half each way. The lake is very beautiful and has fantastic wildlife, including some amazing African fish eagles. The kayaking brings me to one of the most noticeable characteristics of the native people for me: their endurace. My guide happily paddled the whole way there, and the whole way back, with one or two breaks each time for water. While I was nursing my blisters he would be singing to himself contentedly, as if we were taking no more than an afternoon stroll through Trafalgar Square. Only about half of the people I saw in the village were wearing shoes; the rest walked, ran and danced over the rocky terrain barefoot without any apparent discomfort. In summary, these people are exceedingly tough.
Their singing is also quite extraordinary. All ages participate; I was tempted to write that all backgrounds participate, but of course part what makes them so remarkable as a group is that many have lived side by side for most of their lives. Their expression and intonation almost always match without any conscious effort, and their togetherness in musical timing is similarly flawless. Part of it is perhaps that they’re not accustomed to ever singing without dancing, so they are engaged with rhythm in a very physical way. The other part of it I think, and the most inspiring part for me, is that their singing visibly brings the community together in such a powerful way that their music, and dance, are unfailingly in time. Their style of singing is quite speech-like in that the sound is very bright and clear – twenty of them constitute the only vocal ensemble I’ve ever heard that could challenge the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel to a contest of volume! One of my largest concerns has been to preserve their unique way in which they sing while teaching them how to look after their voices in the way I’ve been taught to; yesterday was successful in that regard as far as I can gather. With 12 sopranos, 5 altos, 2 tenors and 2 basses, however, working on balance was definitely a good idea!
Incidentally, I love the fact that the temperature very rarely drops below 17 degrees Celsius here and so how windows are holes in the wall with some mosquito netting over the top. From my bed I can hear the lake and feel the breeze, but without ever getting cold. 🙂
I have been privileged today to begin working with Richard Stephano, back at Nkwichi following a short excursion. Richard will be my guide, mentor and translator throughout our rehearsals in the villages and preparations September 5th. He’s a respected and prolific composer within his community, and has generously given me his time to help transcribe and translate one of his songs, which will be sung together by every member of each choir (some 280 people in all) at the very end of the Choir Festival. I’m living the ethnomusicologist’s dream!
My first thought about Nkwichi Lodge is that life here is very close to nature. Buildings are constructed simply enough that you can look at them and understand how they were built, but the craftsmanship is impeccable. Of course it is mostly light construction, with very little higher than one storey and with a maximum of two. Swimming in the lake is wonderful: the bed is just white sand as far as the eye can see, which is several meters in such clear water. There are thousands of species of fish in the lake, and on land the monkeys and baboons are the most visible – I’m told there are also a variety of snakes, scorpions and spiders but I’ve only seen the latter so far. The monkeys like to hang out near the office, particularly at lunchtime, and the more aggressive ones will apparently fight with you for your lunch. They also like to lick plates clean and then play circus tricks with them, so if a plate is left out after dinner then it will be spotless but in small pieces by the following morning. Oh and the bush mice like to eat your soap bar.
My journey started on 9 July, which happens to have been the first day in about 13 years that the entire London Underground has been closed. After a few nail-biting coach, bus and DLR rides, though, I made it to London City and my journey was quite smooth thereafter – including an astounding boat ride across Lake Malawi after dark, when the whole sky lights up with stars since there’s no light pollution here. This is my second full day at Nkwichi Lodge, the amazing ecotourism resort which will be my home base/office throughout the project. There will be a lot of hiking to remote villages later on, but for now I’m acclimatising and enjoying the tremendous humanity and generosity of the other staff here, both native and international. It strikes me that in a region such as this where neither money nor natural resources are plentiful, we rely on each others’ kindness to survive; both the locals and the volunteers here are correspondingly open-minded and open-hearted. I clearly have much to learn from them, including the ability to carry an entire lunch tray on the head without using any hands!