Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sapitwa of Mulanje Mountain (mythology)

This article is an amateur attempt to document the ancient beliefs of the mythological Mulanje Mountain and the mythical kingdom of Sapitwa. 

For the official real mountain range in Malawi, see Mount Mulanje on the local tourism site at

Mulanje Mountain known for its majestic Sapitwa peak is an important and mythological mountain in ancient Malawi myths and tales. 

However the mythological side of Mulanje Mountain should not be confused with the real geographic Mulanje Massif said to measure approximately 22x26 kilometres with a maximum elevation of 3,002 m at its highest point, Sapitwa Peak.

One view of the majestic  Mount Mulanje I took while in a minibus
The mythical Sapitwa is described as a dwelling place for various spirits including gods and goddesses, and marvelous plants and trees like the cedar. 

Mulanje Mountain is also known as the “Island in the Sky” and the place of mizimu (spirits) in various tales.

Amwandionerapati or Abathwa (short people) also known as Akafula and strong fighters were believed to be found on Mulanje Mountain.

The mythical spirits of the short people with protruding bellies and armed with axes in myths are believed to still guard a sacred entrance to the mythical kingdom and ask the dreaded question, “Mwandionera pati.” (“From where did you see me?”)

If one answers the question wrongly, the Abathwa (short people) slap the person hard on the right cheek and that could either cause death or serious injures according to myths.

The said people 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. 

If the person answers “From very far away”, they are believed to have access to the first entrance of the mythical realm of the mountain before having to pass a serpent spirit.  

Sapitwa is mythically known as a “forbidden place” because it is home to a royal spirit family who get offended when certain rituals are not followed when one goes there according to some healers in Mulanje.

Sapitwa healer showing hand symbols for making offerings
The non-mythical 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...”

Middle Stone Age blade..path to Dziwe la Nkhalamba -
Photo by Menno Welling
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.

A lot of tales are connected to Sapitwa and well-documented in various books, documentaries and research ranging from mysterious food appearing which one must eat alone to spirits “kidnapping” people who seem to disappear forever.

Historical development

The Mountain is mentioned in various legends and myths including the Napolo legend.  Napolo, the mythical serpent that lives under mountains and is associated with landslides, earthquakes, and floods in Malawi, inspired the poems in Napolo and the Python (African Writers Series).

“Napolo lives on and still has an impact on Malawians today, as evidenced by a recent reggae hit about the great Python. Napolo also lives on in the poems of Steve Chimombo” (Napolo Python African Writers Series).

Taken from
Some villagers in Mulanje say the mountain is full of treasures including precious stones and “it must not be touched to avoid a natural disaster like Napolo.”

Villagers believe landslides that happen there are somehow caused by a serpent spirit when it relocates from the mountain to water by travelling in a straight path and like a tractor removing and throwing anything in its path.

When bubbling water in the past was noticed on the mountain, elders would rush with sacrifice offerings (nsembe) and sprinkle maize flour on the spot to prevent it erupting so go the tales.

Sapitwa is also the name the ancestors of the land gave Mulanje Mountain according to Mayi Emma Jarden, a traditional healer locally known as asing’anga amizimu (spirits) and based in Chisitu, Mulanje. She can only read unknown writings which resemble hieroglyphics.

Sapitwa in the vernacular is something like “don't go there”.  But with time and many centuries later this name might have changed and the only known place for the “where no man goes” legend is Sapitwa Peak.  

Mythical location of Sapitwa

The mythical part of Mulanje Mountain is said to be controlled by a spirit or the god of Sapitwa which does not allow people to approach ‘sacred places’ before following several rules including fasting, not going there while drunk, not eating certain foods like pork and mice and not going there while “hot” which basically is after sexual relations.

Those who disobey are said to “disappear” into the spiritual realm while others who tread near places said to have certain herbs are said to suddenly find themselves naked and having to be intimate with the nearest person.  Other rituals include walking backwards in certain areas to avoid facing the wrath of the spirits.

The key of all this is said to be at Dziwe la Nkhalamba at a certain hidden white rock said to be the foundation of all their beliefs claim Sapitwa healers.

The real Dziwe la Nkhalamba - Photo by Menno Wellilng

They also claim the place was once known as a swimming pool for the elderly and those who saw an elderly man with white hair and wrinkles were said to be lucky and “blessed.”  In ancient times clothes were also said to at times appear there on the rocks.

Some villagers also believe some parts of the mountain are always cloudy with black clouds. Black is the colour of a cloth used in rain rituals and the sign of black which absorbs heat more than any other colour and believed to signal rain.

The colour white was believed to be the colour of the dead like ghosts and spirits and if one covered a person with a white cloth it was also believed they would disappear into an astral realm. 

Where no Man goes but spirits?

The African cross drawn with maize flour was symbolic of a key to the so-called underworld of Sapitwa which some call an astral realm.

In ancient times, the Sapitwa healers believed that 4 positive male spirits charged the right side and that three negative female spirits charged the left side and together that made a total of 7 pulling each other to create light which to them was like the sun or lightning.

African cross of some healers drawn with maize flour
Cross in circle symbolizing elderly one
Another is a circle with an African cross
in the middle to symbolize the mythical elderly man with white hair and a beard who’s said to have been appearing at Dziwe la Nkhalamba (swimming pool for the elderly) centuries ago and somehow providing free clothes which were usually robes gathered from rocks there.

The entrance and foundation in the tales was said to be a white rock whom ancestors of the land believed was at Dziwe la Nkhalamba.  In such myths and tales, the ancient priestesses were the ones who were believed to guide souls to their destiny.

One path was to the right and the other to the left and in between was an upright serpent spirit whom they claimed was the spirit of a king.

In some other ancient African cultures, it was believed when some kings pass on they become the upright cobras, black mambas or the python which in their tales would also be drawn upright as to them these spirits spoke like human beings.

They thought when a soul gets to the two ways, the serpent spirit in the middle would chose which direction they should take.

On the left was a monster with horns and fire and scary eyes while on the right there was a tunnel and bright white light. It is this black tunnel which some believe could be a black hole into the so-called astral realm but no research has been done to verify this tale so it will always be a myth.

Now that serpent spirit had a name which is the other "Mbona" of the mountain, not to be confused with the Nsanje one and the so-called mythical veiled woman of Sapitwa remains hidden.


In the Sapitwa mythology, ancestral spirits of the dead live in the astral realm of Mulanje Mountain and spirits which have never been human so go the tales.

Of these are 7 spirits guided by their god of which four are believed to mythically control what is believed to be 4 winds used by healers to send requests with incense.

In the myths the royal spirit family consists of Tomasi Bona of the North wind of their god, Tagoneka Mbona of the West wind, Chandiona Gonekela of the South wind and Nthanda mwana wa mwezi [Nthandi] of the East which in English would be the Sirius star and child of the moon.

These four include the ancient Malawi god of rain and rain shrines are believed to be on the mountain. 

Tomasi Bona in their beliefs was summarised as meaning the whole world in his hands and feast while Tagoneka Mbona meant put to sleep/serpent spirit.

Chandiona Gonekela was summarised as it's seen me put to sleep and Nthanda mwana wa mwezi of the East which in English would be the Sirius star and child of the moon.

In Chichewa Nthanda yaku m'mawa means the African cross from the east and mwezi means the moon both seen in the sky and drawn by the ancestors of healers of this land so go the tales.

The other three spirits include a name which sounds like Dziwe Ntambamwana named after a pool/witchcraft but not to be confused with the Ntambanana River in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and Ife Zonse meaning something like us all. The last is Sungamwana meaning keep the child for good.

Mountain as a source of rain

According to some other traditional healers throughout Malawi who practice teachings said to originate from the mythical figure Mbona, Mulanje Mountain has also been a source of rain and one of its symbols was the African cross drawn with ufa woyera (maize flour) to represent the 4 winds as in north, south, west and east.

The northern wind in their rituals involved heavy rains and the south showers, while the west represented the darkness and tainted while the east is holy and represents Chauta, Namalenga and Mphambe (their God) among other names.

During droughts in ancient times, these winds were said to bring rain after being provoked by a two-edged sword in the hands of a "godlike" figure and the recital of certain words as most of their rituals involved sending words and requests to the 4 winds with lubani (incense) to their "heavenly" kingdom claim the traditional healers whose ancestors were ancient "priests" and "priestesses" whose major role was nsembe (offerings) rituals.

However officially and not in the Mulanje Mountain myths, the globally known Mbona is in Nsanje at Khulubvi. Unesco on under the title ‘Khulubvi and Associated Mbona Sacred Rain Shrines’ states:

Photo taken from Ulendo Series Mtunda 8 Chichewa for St 8
Mbona was a legendary figure with super human powers who lived in the area during the rise of the Lundu Kingdom. Mbona is said to have had magic powers of bringing rain, creating wells of water on sandy lands, creating forests where they did not exist and hiding from enemies by turning into other creatures such as guinea fowls.

Sirius connection

Some female Mang'anja healers based in Mulanje claim to offer sacrifice offerings (nsembe) of mapira (sorghum) and other grains at the mythical Sapitwa following the teachings of their own version of Mbona.  They say this is also when they count down to Sirius (nthanda yaku m’mawa) and the New Year.

For them, Saturday is always a special powerful day…the day of the hidden veiled spirit woman of Sapitwa and December 21 the most powerful day just before December 31 when their very bright star appears in the expected North.

These women say their ancestors prepared for a new season of planting fruit trees in the continued rainy season of January as the leaves of such trees like avocado and mango were believed to be used for healing some ailments.

Other fruit trees grown in Mulanje in December/January during the rainy season include papaya and banana.  

For the healers of Sapitwa, January which comes after their Sirius star symbolizes a new beginning and season.

Sirius star taken from Internet
The star they locally call nthanda yaku m’mawa because they claim it’s a cross from the east which to them symbolizes all that is holy and from their Creator.

The star is usually always expected to appear around the time which would be the stroke of midnight on December 31…like a firecracker ushering in the New Year.

According to the Wikipedia, scientifically the “mountain island” rises up more than 2500 meters above the plains around.

“This setting is responsible for the Massifs role as a rain barrier that forces the clouds to come down in the form of rain. This becomes very visible if we take a look at the annual normal rainfalls, on and around the massif.

“On plateau level, at around 2000 m.a.s.l., we annually experience more than 100 inches of rain, however, in the low plains around the foot of the Massif, the annual rainfalls, range around 40 inch. In the plains around the Mountain, it normally only rains in the rainy season, while it rains all year long, on plateau level. The rains are just more intense and frequent then in the dry season.
It adds that there are “still differences in the amounts of rain, around the Massif. The south-west face of the Mountain, is the weather side, around Likhabula, Lichenya and Mulanje Boma, which experiences the highest amounts of rain, due to the south-east trades of the southern hemisphere, that drive the moist air from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo into the Mulanje region. 

“Therefore the North-west face of the
 Massif experiences lesser rains, as it is situated in the shadows of the high Peaks of the Massif.”

This is a small attempt to start unofficially documenting the Sapitwa mythology but not for use elsewhere but only for this blog and websites connected to it. 

More information will be posted on this blog when made available. It's been 14 years of amateur research and bit by bit ancient secrets are being revealed as part of the myths and tales. Experts can do their own research and document the official mythology of Sapitwa, Mount Mulanje for records purposes.
Symbols when offering mapira nsembe (sorghum sacrifice)

M'manga Mudzi tree growing out of an anthill (chulu) in Mulanje whose English name remains unknown

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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.