Thursday, December 26, 2013

Myths &Tales: Ancient Malawi’s “Turn Face” to the underworld?

White-breasted Cormorant from
There is an ancient belief that sometimes some people behave like birds or animals in their daily lives be it good or bad.

This saying is also used when describing suspected thieves so people are always warned to be alert so that they can see what happens around them including those done by forces of darkness.

One such story told recently in Mulanje is about a young man who stood out in a crowd, well-groomed with his pink shirt, clean black trousers and polished black shoes without a trace of dust as he boarded a minibus heading for Luchenza in Mulanje.

He looked like a good and decent person but he was not.

His journey was not light as he has carried with him various goods to enable him farm in his village so he said.  As soon as the minibus departed something seemed amiss as the man argued with a tout/carrier over K50 charges for carrying his goods (ganyu).

The man told the boy he has already paid K200 but the boy would hear nothing of that.  The young man had red eyes and a worn out face and was determined to get his money.

After a scuffle, tempers cooled down as passengers prevented a fist fight and the journey past the tea estates continued.

Driving past a tea Estate in Malawi

As the minibus travelled, some dozed off while some chat as they listened to gospel music full blast and screeching through the tiny speakers of the now speeding minibus.

As passengers start arriving at their destination, the man in pink shifted to the front of the minibus to sit next to a smartly dressed women who seemed well to do although dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

Without her knowledge the man suddenly becomes a savage and takes out a chitenje cloth with a suspected small pillow (chithumwa) and charms inside suspected to create so-called magical snakes to somehow rob the woman through magic.

He rubbed the cloth in several directions to attract the woman’s riches to him but alas she saw him and the cloth because her eyes could see using her heart, the so-called believed seat of the soul so go the villagers tales.

The now embarrassed and shocked man peeked at the woman and saw that she was still staring at his dirty looking cloth…..the power of prayer protected the God-fearing woman and good won over evil says one of those so-called matsenga (magic) village stories in Mulanje. 

Visiting rural areas in many parts of Malawi one is bound to hear all sorts of myths and tales about so-called magic which could compete with Harry Potter like fiction stories.

Rural Mulanje is also home to other tales about a mysterious Nthipe or Ntipe river, apparently a name of a bird and river or stream that flows from Sapitwa, the highest peak to Dziwe la Nkhalamba.

But it is not known if the so-called Great Black Cormorant of the Northern Hemisphere is also found in Malawi.
Great Black Cormorant photo from the internet
However, several tour guides did not know this stream or river when asked and instead spoke of Chisepu and Rua. But Sapitwa healers insist the ancient name of a stream on the mountain is Nthipe which is a bird known in English as Cormorant.

Bird experts say the word Nthipe or Ntipe refers to the White Breasted Cormorant, the Reed Cormorant and the African Darter.

Now in ancient Malawi myths tales, this river was the place where the soul was supposedly transported to the underworld which had two directions…one to the right which symbolized those from the east and those from the darkness which symbolized all those from the west.

In these “primitive” beliefs the soul would go through Sapitwa and a process involving a map through the rumoured underworld there.  However with the coming in of mainstream religions most Malawians don’t believe that and are known to be God-fearing so the myths and tales remain in ancient history.

However for a few villagers in Mulanje, they still believe such myths and talk of the souls going through a river or stream on the mountain before it gets to the east in the astral realm of Sapitwa or the west which is a mountain in another nearby country nicknamed Devil’s mountain.

In his book ‘The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History', author Richard J. King on writes:

“Behold the cormorant: silent, still, cruciform, and brooding; flashing, soaring, quick as a snake. Evolution has crafted the only creature on Earth that can migrate the length of a continent, dive and hunt deep underwater, perch comfortably on a branch or a wire, walk on land, climb up cliff faces, feed on thousands of different species, and live beside both fresh and salt water in a vast global range of temperatures and altitudes, often in close proximity to man.

“Long a symbol of gluttony, greed, bad luck, and evil, the cormorant has led a troubled existence in human history, myth, and literature. The birds have been prized as a source of mineral wealth in Peru, hunted to extinction in the Arctic, trained by the Japanese to catch fish, demonized by Milton in Paradise Lost, and reviled, despised, and exterminated by sport and commercial fishermen from Israel to Indianapolis, Toronto to Tierra del Fuego. 

In The Devil’s Cormorant, Richard King takes us back in time and around the world to show us the history, nature, ecology, and economy of the world’s most misunderstood waterfowl.

He's also on record as writing that when one slowly approaches a Cormorant it turns the side of its face to you.

It’s not yet known how ancient Malawians viewed the cormorant as most of this information has never been documented and for unknown reasons erased from the history of this ancient land although many other countries document theirs even online.

The past is gone and something for the future to learn about and with time Malawians have changed the way they do and see things just like in other countries.  

Maybe one day some Malawian and foreign writers writing about ancient Malawi will include these ancient myths and tales of women who claim to be descendants of some ancient healers.

To date myths and tales about Mbona are well documented and Unesco on Mbona Sacred Rain Shrines as a world heritage site.

River of Blood:  The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi, AD 1600 was also written by the late J. Matthew Schoffeleers who came as a missionary to Malawi in 1955 according to online sources.

There is evidence of some rain shrines on Mulanje Mountain so one can only wait and see if the myths and tales of female healers of Sapitwa will be researched and well-documented by experts. 

There will also be a need for some research in the area because it’s history which is long gone for the majority.

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Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of Sapitwa and the Sirius star. this space.