Sunday, December 15, 2013

Myths and Tales: Amwandionerapati, the feared "dwarfs" of Sapitwa

Took this photo years ago while in a vehicle, I think a minibus

Trekking through the rocks, dark alleys and caves of the mythical realm of Mulanje Mountain on her journey to the so-called fantasy world of Sapitwa, a trainee young healer suddenly meets a mythical "dwarf" armed with an axe, his protruding belly sticking out with pride as he asks the dreaded question, 
“Mwandionera pati.” (“From where did you see me?”).

She knows if she answers the question wrongly, the Abathwa (short people spirits) will slap her hard on the right cheek and that could either cause her death or seriously injure her according to primitive beliefs.

The said spirits never liked being referred to as being short and were believed to be very strong and warriors. Their legend is told by many traditional healers in Malawi who source their herbs and concoctions from the mountain. 

The woman also remembers how such mystical beings are seen as ruthless and if they appear in one’s dreams they are said to indicate something evil about to happen. Healers tell their ‘patients’ never to allow such beings to slap them on their cheeks when dreaming.

Taking a breath and maintaining her calm, she confidently tells the man that she has seen him from so far away and this boosts his ego as he stands “tall” his face glowing with a smile and giving way for her to pass and proceed with her journey.

Her next and final encounter before she enters the so-called astral realm of Sapitwa is the talking spirit serpent said to be as huge as a room and guarding the entrance to the hidden land of ancient African ‘fairy-tales’ or nthano stories.

Some other traditional healers in Malawi wrongly refer to the mystical dwarves of the mountain as “ntokoloshi” which is believed to originate from those who plied their herbal trade in South Africa many years ago.

According to the unofficial Wikipedia online encyclopaedia, tikoloshe or tokoloshe is “dwarf like….considered a mischievous and evil spirit that can become invisible by drinking water.

“Tokoloshes are called upon by malevolent people to cause trouble for others. At its least harmful a tokoloshe can be used to scare children, but its power extends to causing illness and even death upon the victim. The way to get rid of him is to call in the n’anga (witch doctor), who has the power to banish him from the area.”

However in Malawi, Mulanje Mountain and its forest reserve is believed to have been home to the first Malawian settlers historically, known as Amwandionerapati or Abathwa according to

A document posted online as “Malawi’s Cultural Policy - Unesco” states that “the Late Stone Age Period is the period that hosted the earliest inhabitants of Malawi locally called Akafula/Abatwa or Amwandionerapati, referring to their body structures.

“Toward the end of this period, Early Iron Age people migrated into Malawi from areas located to the northwest. The Iron Age people made and used iron tools. For several centuries, they coexisted with the Late Stone Age people but eventually they either forced the Late Stone Age people to move into remote areas or be assimilated by them...”

These mythical dwarves are also believed to occupy Michesi Mountain in Phalombe and anthropologist Brian Morris in his book ‘Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography’ writes that the mountain is not only associated with the spirits of the dead (mizimu), but also with the Batwa people….who still have a living presence.”

He writes that there are oral traditions relating to these people also known as Akafula, the diggers.

Various websites from different African countries also have stories and myths about people or dwarfs but in Malawi, most of the oral stories are closely guarded by Sapitwa healers who have now started revealing their secrets but with caution.

These healers claim to be descendants of ancient African priests and priestesses and they also claim to have visited many mountains and sacred places in Africa.

This blog will start sharing some of their stories as they do not have another outlet to document myths and tales of this ancient land called Malawi.

With time, this blog will be like those of many other African countries which proudly and without shame document their ancient history and beautiful and at times fairy-tale like stories without fear or favour.

The role of their traditional healers and cultural experts is never edited or erased but just told like it is for history purposes.  The past is gone but it must never be forgotten and told in the same manner those in the West and East accurately document theirs and have rich sources and websites for one to read online.

The same is also done in this part of the Sadc region with information posted on a blog in 2005 and titled “Abathwa” telling fascinating stories on  talks about Africa’s first people talks of the San people.

The text is described as being “especially prepared for all people to know more about the /XAM KA !KE, who gave their consent to let others know about their history, culture and life.

“In this context we use the word ABATHWA for the people of the /XAM Ka !Ke instead of the term ‘San’ and ‘Bushman’. Our ancestors used to call themselves ABATHWA. Both two terms ‘Bushman’ and ‘San’ were taken on and used by the Anthropologists in connotation, while the term Bushman was given to us by the European settlers and the term San was given to us by the Khoi-Khoi.

“In the 17th and 18th century the European settlers, historians and travellers were active in building their community of the tall Europeans in southern Africa, who still today mainly know us only from some films or publications, produced by people who are not from the /XAM themselves.

This is a first trial to speak out ourselves. “We want to motivate them to learn about the true origin, culture and lifestyle as well as the real historic facts concerning the /XAM KA! KE.” The European settlers were not so close to our people’s live.”

Another blog about "The Devils and Giants of Table Mountain" talks of women who lost a "magic ring."

Inspired by the many blogs and websites teaching readers the oral history or traditions of their lands, the story of the Sapitwa healers will also be told through this blog and one day be written into a book and movie as tales, myths and legends.

Although the few writers who attempt to interview or tell the story of the female Sapitwa traditional healers are eyed with suspicion, what motivates them is that valuable religious men are among those who have written some of the best and most informative books about Malawi’s ancient history which includes myths and legends.

These include ‘River of Blood: The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi’ about Mbona by J. Matthew Schoffeleers.  

In the same book is an excellent Malawian synthesis text IV J. E. Chakanza (1967)…"the present text was composed in Chimang'anja in 1967 by a young man, Joseph Chakanza."

He also wrote Land of Fire: 'Oral Literature fro Malawi'. A book about the healers of Sapitwa will be written and hopefully arouse the same interest as those written by others.

Malawi is a country with many good authors both male and female of which some books are listed in the Kachere series online:

Others online and which look like good reads include Women, Presbyterianism and Patriarchy: Religious Experience of Chewa women by Isabel Apawo Phiri. 

However the other unpublished tales and myths could form part of what is known as Fairy-tales in western nations making them fiction for most of us although a reality for the healers of Sapitwa in their own words.

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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.