Geography, said Napoleon, "is destiny." He was wrong.
Our destiny is a lot more than where we live. Our destiny is shaped by our choices. It is especially shaped by the decisions of our elected leaders.
Napoleon was wrong because our geography, the part of the earth where we live, is mute. The earth does not speak. The earth does not go to Parliament. Our planet does not protest at a rally.
The earth or geography does not have a voice. It responds to man’s activities.
What we decide to do with our geography makes our destiny. The people of Mangochi are proving Napoleon wrong. They have realised that geography can give a people gold, but if they don’t dig it up, what destiny has that geography on their life?
The gold in Mangochi, and of course the gold for Malawi, is in the lake, the animals, the forests and, most importantly, the people—their way of life, their culture.
It is the world’s third deepest lake and has more fish species than any other body of water on earth: close to 900 species. Twenty eight years ago, the rocky shorelines and islands of Nankumba Peninsula were declared Lake Malawi National Park and elevated to world heritage site in 1983.
"Lake Malawi is a natural treasure of world-magnitude and it should be treated as such," say six authors of Lake Malawi National Park: World Heritage Site yet to be published.
Treasure of world-magnitude? Yes. The lake is the tenth largest in the world, 600 kilometres long and 80 kilometres at its longest width.
While there are admirable beaches and rocks all along the lake from Karonga to Mangochi, it is the southern tip in Mangochi that is probably the most attractive. The waters of Lake Malawi in Cape Maclear provide Nankoma, Maleri, Nakantenga, Mumbo, Domwe, Otter and Thumbi West islands.
Other sites range from the Zimbabwe to Tsano rocks. Together with everything else, Lake Malawi provides some unforgettable scenery.
I recently took a sunset boat cruise, gazing at the sun as it sunk into its home in the western side of the lake, leaving bright rays on the water—some bright cover over the earth, a real assurance of another day, a tomorrow.
The next day, John, a young man in his 20s put me on an hour-long swimming lesson. It was frightening yet I had all the underwater gear befitting an amateur swimmer. By the end of the hour I was catching up.
"Excellent," said John after several attempts. "That is all about swimming, nothing more. But the fear must disappear."
The last assignment was to swim underwater at Thumbi West Island. It was terrific. The fish, especially Mbuna, seen underwater, in their natural habitat; the rocks and the vegetation; the water and water plants, all wonderful.
Now, I realised the reason people in the West save for years just for a holiday on Lake Malawi. This is a realisation we need to value.
Mangochi district, especially the Nankumba Peninsula, provides, perhaps, the best complete package of tourism in Malawi. The peninsula has Lake Malawi National Park—a unique place declared special by the United Nations—and Phirilongwe Forest Reserve, meaning the peninsula provides a whole package for the growth of tourism industry.
Cape Maclear, the heart of Nankumba peninsula, is most likely the most beautiful part of Lake Malawi.
The lake at Cape Maclear is punctuated by hills that have attractive rocks. They are rocks that tell a story. The water is usually calm. The hills slow down heavy winds. But it is never completely calm on the lake. Mwera and Dzambwe winds, sometimes, bring small tides, a reminder that life has its own challenges that must be overcome.
Animals and forests
In his untitled manuscript, Steve Aipira, a lecturer at the Polytechnic recalls that Mponda Village in Mangochi had signs that read, ‘Beware of elephants on this road’. This was at Milambe near the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) transmitting station.
Elephants crossed the road as they walked from Nkhudzi Hill, down to the lake to drink and play.
"The giant mammals could be seen even during the day, walking majestically in groups, taking no cognizance of people," says Aipira in his book.
During those two decades, in the 50s and 60s, the elephants multiplied and, because of this, government declared Phirilongwe Forest Reserve covering the areas of T/As Chimwala Mponda and Nankumba.
Sadly, as years passed, greed took root in individuals. Man discovered that tusks were money.
Government failed to prevent encroachment into the forest reserve. People cut trees and opened gardens in what was supposed to be a protected area. Now the elephants have turned into enemies. They no longer look at people as friends. The reason is simple, says group village headman Chamba.
"We have," he says, "angered the elephants. We are injuring and killing them and they are revenging."
His voice, faint though, contains wisdom. He was born in 1932 and says elephants in the past passed by people’s homes, stared at human beings with people wondering at the huge mammals. "We lived peacefully with the animals," says Chamba.
This peace with the animals is what he and others with development eyes want back. Government has highlighted six broad priority areas that can help boost the country’s economy. Tourism is one of them and Nankumba Peninsula has been recognised as a potential for economic success in tourism and cultural industries.
The exact population of elephants in Phirilongwe is not known but some estimate that there are 70 animals.
Mangochi Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Project (MISRDP) is a non profit making community based organisation whose strategic plan is to work towards a complete tourism package in Mangochi.
Six people that make MISRDP want Lake Malawi National Park expanded to include Phirilongwe Forest Reserve.
The organisation recently visited three chiefs—Nankumba, Chimwala and Mponda—who want the elephants to remain in the forest reserve. (Some government officials were insisting that the elephants be taken to other game reserves.)
"These are our animals, handed over to us by our parents and we cannot have them moved," said T/A Nankumba three weeks ago.
Executive coordinator of MISRDP Henry Sinyangwe said in a recent interview that his organisation will work hard to have a fence at Phirilongwe because people have suffered long enough and that "it is time to benefit from nature".
"What remains is to meet the district commissioner who will help us to meet government officials at Capital Hill," he said.
The organisation believes that once the tourism industry in Mangochi is complete with the erection of a fence at Phirilongwe, development will flow to Mangochi. The forest reserve will come with a self contained town—health programmes, markets, schools and clean water.
The complete package means tourists will have water and beaches, water animals and rocks in Lake Malawi National Park; elephants in Phirilongwe Forest Reserve and lodges on both arms of the southern end of the lake in Mangochi.
Further, people’s crops will be saved from elephants. Not only that, people’s lives will be spared. Elephants from Phirilongwe have killed people in the past decade, mainly because the forest reserve is not protected.
It is not the water and the hills and the animals and the fish that make Cape Maclear the best part of Lake Malawi. The people and the beaches complete the cycle. The clear sands are good for beach soccer and all sporting activities that need sand.
The Chewa people in Nankumba Peninsula have a rich culture with gule wankulu topping the list. This is a culture we have not yet understood. This is a culture that might attract scholars to study the history and life of the people of Nankumba Peninsula because tourism is not about the earth and geography only, it is about people and their ways of life.
The people would benefit by this economic development because it means better programmes of education, health and agriculture. The roads are already under construction.
Secretary for HIV, Aids and Nutrition in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) Mary Shawa is leading a Capital Hill development initiative for Mangochi and she sees things in whole. She wants fish preserved, HIV prevalence rates reduced, Phirilongwe fenced, people resettled and agriculture improved.
The HIV prevalence rates in Nankumba Peninsula range between 24 and 50 percent. Shawa has a couple of faces: she is an agriculturalist, a rural development and health expert and looks at things from different perspectives. (Her life deserves a well-written profile of at least two pages.)
"This is not about tourism in Mangochi," she said. "It is about development in Mangochi and Malawi."
Mangochi is not the only story of tourism in Malawi. There is Mulanje Mountain and its peaks, Sapitwa being the most famous. There is Nyika Plateau and Livingstonia in the North. And there are game reserves, national parks and historical sites all over the country.
While Cape Maclear provides a wonderful sight of the setting sun, Mulanje Mountain gives a magnificent portrait of the rising sun, seen as if being lifted from Indian Ocean by invisible hands.
On the three occasions I went on Lake Malawi for sunset cruise, I saw the sun, bright and reddish, drop into the space behind the hills that make Dedza Mountain.
Now, I understood the reason our High Commissioner to Britain Francis Moto titled his collection of poetry Gazing At the Setting Sun. He grew up on the banks of Livulezi River in Dedza watching—no, gazing—at the setting sun, everyday of summer.
It is possible for a person to spend all their holiday in Malawi starting from Mulanje through Liwonde National Park, onto a boat ride on Shire to Mangochi and on the road to Cape Maclear and Phirilongwe and then via Kasungu National Park to Nyika and Livingstonia and Karonga, to move on to Tanzania.
I have been through the fjords and mountains of Norway, the highways and forests of Washington, the beaches of Mombasa and Accra, the mountains of Arusha. Where else? I have been in London, Amsterdam, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and other places. I have flown over almost all countries in Africa, so many countries in Europe and over several states of the United States of America.
Some of these are beautiful places. But none of them has a combination like we have in Mangochi: lake, animals and people.
This combination is our gold. It’s not where we live but what we do with our geography. My nephew, a form three student, surprised me three weeks ago. If Americans, he said, were to be brought to Malawi and Malawians taken to the US, by the end of three years Americans in Malawi would be rich while Malawians in America would turn out poor.
He was, unknown to himself, proving Napoleon wrong. My nephew, young though, is brilliant enough to know that geography does not matter, our choices do.
This, it is for sure, is the wisdom the people of Mangochi have realised. Government needs to do its honest part and there is no better time than now to listen to the wishes of the people of Mangochi expressed through the three T/As. The rest of us need to lock hands with the people of Mangochi.
Malawi is our only home. We have no other land to develop and no other people—except Malawians—can develop Malawi.