Lepers and Madmen on the Zomba Plateau

After a moderately harrowing week of planning meetings and dissertation discussions, I am looking forward to getting out and away from this academic nonsense. I plan to spend a day at the Zomba Plateau, a rocky formation that overlooks the old Colonial capital of Zomba. I plan to take the minibus up to Zomba, which will take 2 hours to drive the short 70km distance. The minibus will be an experience in itself, but good fortune would have it that Nelson the driver shows up and I am able to borrow the Blantyre Malaria Project truck for the weekend.

Nelson is a 25 year old driver for the BMP, who appears far too educated to be a mere driver; his knowledge of tropical diseases dwarfs that of many PhD’s in the subject. On the way to drop him off at his home, he explains to me how faith healers can cure AIDS and cancer, assuming that one believes in God enough to make Him pleased. He has yet to learn to speak in tongues, and I assume that he’s just not faithful enough yet.

Driving in Malawi: Driving in Africa is like running a gauntlet. Most true accidents involve minibuses. Drivers are often fatigued, working constantly with little breaks to make sure that no fare is missed. To maximize earnings, drivers will pack as many people into the bus as possible. One accident can horrifically kill up to 30 people at once. Fortunately, though, accidents are rare in Malawi. Driving on the left side of the road is strange, but even stranger is the incredible amount of cooperation which occurs on the road despite the obstacles.

“Highways” are fit for only one lane in the US, but accommodate two way traffic here. Encountering an oncoming vehicle requires quick assessment of the width of the vehicle one is driving, the condition and width of the section of road available and the size of the oncoming vehicle. It is assumed (hoped?) that the oncoming driver is doing the exact same thing. Drivers engage the right turn signal to warn the other that space is limited and somehow, like everything in Malawi, things just kind of work out.

The worst hazards are children and goats. Hitting a goat will cost one about $20 and a litany of sincere apologies recognizing the incredible burden a goat’s death will have on the family. Hitting a child will summon the wrath of the entire community and certain death from a rain of clubs and panga knives. Hitting children is to be avoided at all costs.

The Zomba Plateau: It is 9km from the bottom of the plateau to the Ku Chawe trout farm, where I plan to stay. I forego the irrationally expensive SunBird hotel, just a quarter of a mile away from the farm. The Brits were obsessed with fishing, and made sure that the rivers here were stocked with their favorite fish. A livery for the introduced trout still operates to this day, stocking trout into the rivers which drain into the great Lake Malawi. I am unsure as to why the practice is continued, but it provides generous fuel for the tourist economy here in Malawi. On the side, the trout farm offers rustic accommodations and camping areas for cash strapped travellers.

I am unlucky today. I get there 15 minutes too late. Four angry Chichewa speaking whiteys have taken the last room, apparently by force. I am relegated to sleeping in the car in the campground for $3.00, which isn’t ideal, but it will just have to do. I make some calls to local lodges, but they are all just way too expensive to make it worth it. For $10.00, I hire a guide who will take me on a three hour tour of the plateau. I wonder if I will end up in some sort of lost Gilligan’s Island fate, stranded on the mountain never to be seen again.

After being introduced to my guide, Andrew, I quickly ask him about the mosquito situation on the mountain. He claims there are none. I press him and ask him if he’s ever had malaria or if his children have ever had it. He says emphatically no to both, that there is no malaria on the mountain. Given how cold it is and the lack of mammalian fauna, I tend to believe him. The last thing I want is to stupidly contract malaria while sleeping in a $3.00 campsite.

The trek up the plateau is breathtaking. In contrast to the bottom, the plateau is covered with dense pine forests and lush vegetation. Poaching has decimated much of the old growth, but proactive efforts of the Malawian government have replenished vast sections of greenery. We pass by groups of women carrying wood on their heads to legally sell in the city below. In return, they plant pine seedlings for the forest service.

Poaching is still rampant, however, and signs of the illegal harvesting of trees are everywhere. Guys come out at night and whack at 12 inch thick pines with pangas until they fall. They then section them off and sell them to dealers in the cities. If caught, they are sometimes shot, and other times imprisoned, where, I am informed, they east Nsima (a corn meal gruel) mixed with human feces. Most often though, I think that the local forestry service are in on the practice, as everyone, poachers and police alike, are locals whose connections span generations.

It’s actually fortunate for the forests that chainsaws haven’t penetrated the Malawian wood market. Deforestation is already an incredible problem here, and mechanization would only hasten its negative effects, which include landslides and the introduction of habitat for malaria carrying mosquitos. With proper management however, a booming lumber industry could be grown here, but without centralized investment and transportation infrastructure, it is unlikely that Malawi will become a lumber exporter.

Andrew takes me to the falls. Beautiful, but nothing that can’t be found on a grander scale elsewhere. It’s a selling point for tourists that can be written in the tour books as an attraction to see. It’s easy to write about water falls, no matter how big or small. It’s a lot more difficult to write about biodiversity and the incredible beauty of pine forests in a way that will attract middle class city dwellers. Crystal dealers are to found everywhere. The plateau has vast deposits of quartz of all colors. Locals dig it out of the ground and sell them to tourists. My father was a geologist. I have tons of this kind of thing at home and I’m weary of adding to my already unmanageable collection. In short, I’m the wrong guy to try to sell rocks to.

Andrew does his job and tells me the names of many of the local plants and trees. He knowledge is clearly practical rather than scientific. He can tell you which plants are edible and poisonous, but there’s the thousands of others that are neither and of little interest to sustaining human life. Baboons populate the forests, eating the pine fruits and generally staying clear of humans. They know what we are and flee at the first glimpse of us, form packs which follow us when our backs are turned and cheer when we leave.

Chingwe’s Hole: The supposed highlight is Chingwe’s hole. It is a hole in the ground which supposedly reaches a depth of 1500 feet and finally drains out into the side of a cliff. To reach the hole, we have to drive 30 minutes on some of the worst terrain I have ever attempted. Miles and miles of rocks, 180 degree turns, water puddles that double as ponds, mud and more rock create a obstacle course of danger and I think to myself that this place better be good. Reaching our destination, I praise the name of Toyota and vow to buy a Toyota Pajero should it ever become available in the US.

According to Andrew, people used to throw dead lepers down it, presumably as a rudimentary form of public health. People afflicted with madness were thrown off a neighboring cliff after death as well. Lepers in the hole, the insane off a cliff. As he’s telling me this story, I’m wondering if the “after dead” portion is merely after the fact wishful thinking and suspect that these unfortunate people were likely thrown to their deaths. I wonder if anyone has ever strung a camera down the hole to see if there is a collection of bones at the bottom.

After the tour, I had plenty of time to spare and considered going back to Blantyre. I even drove down the mountain, picked up a hitchhiker and was set to go home, when I had a change of heart. I let my aged hitchhiker exit, and drove back up. I parked the car at the trout farm and went and got some food at the SunBird. Ridiculously expensive, I ate a plate of Chambo that would have cost me a quarter the price anywhere else. The view off the deck however was fantastic and I got to see the sun over the vast Zomba plain. Soon, it became incredibly dark and I had to somehow make my way back to the trout farm in near pitch black.

At one point, a car came down the road. To avoid being hit, I scrambled off the road. Snap. Shit. I twisted my ankle like I do every time I travel. I curse the man-made drainage channels and pray that the pain doesn’t get worse tomorrow. I carefully walk through the darkness, using my cell phone as a flashlight and hoping that I don’t twist the other ankle. After a half an hour, I can feel myself going up, which means that I’m going to wrong way straight in to baboon-ville. I quickly have visions of being killed by poachers or worse, eaten by wild boars, or becoming the victim of baboon revenge. Fortunately, I had the sense to turn around and eventually found the trout farm, miraculously.

Weighing out the costs and benefits to sleeping in the car or driving back to Blantyre, I opt for the latter. Driving in Africa at night is equally harrowing as the day. At every turn there are people. Where these people go in the pitch black of unlighted night, I have no clue, but they are there, wandering like zombies along the side of the road, asking to get hit.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

5 responses to “Lepers and Madmen on the Zomba Plateau”

  1. Harold Williams says :

    Pete. I didn’t know you were as good a writer as a mathematician! Enjoyed every word. A few factual errors here and there but nothing of any real importance. Better than the usual crap that visitors write. So perspicacious – now there’s a word I haven’t used in fifty years! Look forward to more. Have put the prison article link on Facebook and will link from my own blog and the ASH blog. Hope to see you before you go. Also, don’t forget a post on your take on ASH.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    Thank you, Harold. I was hoping I might run into you at the Mountain Club meeting, but you were not there. An interesting group!

    I am back in the States, but will return to Malawi again. Let’s make sure to meet then.

    If there are factual errors, please point them out! I certainly don’t want to add to the incredible supply of misinformation on the internet!

    I’m working on a larger ASH piece, complete with video. I’ll let you know when it’s done and might ask for some input.

    Thank you, again!

  3. Mikolaj says :

    First of all its not a Toyota Pajero, but a Mitsubishi Pajero. And secondly, you were not supposed to drive there – its a hiking route.

  4. Losacco says :

    Just thought to correct you on the ‘Toyota pajero’…assuming you have not already discovered that it does not exist…
    Toyota prado…pajero is a mitsubishi..

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