Think of Malawi and you probably think about the Malawi Lake. Covering one-third of this southeastern African country, chances are huge that if you visit the area you will also visit this enormous lake. Lake Chilwa – the second biggest lake of Malawi – is one of the most remote and least visited areas of the country. Away from the luxury lodges of the main lake, here is the alternative version: going back to basics.
The long bumpy ride to Chisi Island
It’s time to go on day trip to Lake Chilwa from Zomba, the former capital of Malawi. Even though it’s only around 30 kilometers to the shore of the lake, Isaac – our guide – guarantees us that it will take a while to get there. After a short while we already reach the dirt road, the beginning of a very bumpy ride of at least 1.5 hour.
Finally reaching Mchenga, there is lots of activity from fishermen around us. The fishermen all use their puntering technique, moving the boats with a stick in the ground. Just to get to the right spot where they throw out their enormous nets to catch some tiny fish. So that is also our way of transport, taking another hour to get to Chisi Island. After getting a numb butt it’s time to stretch on the shore of the island full of baobab trees.
The people of Chisi Island
Walking along the baobab trees, through the villages along the shore, you instantly realize you’re in a very poor area of one of the poorest countries in the world. The people wear dirty clothes, the island is dry and many of the kids are covered in yellow maize flour, which they eat dry. But you can also see this happiness, which I have seen many times with islanders around the world. Children are running in big groups after you, from village to village. Making jokes, laughing a lot and eager to be photographed.
Isaac shows us his project where he is working on to improve the living conditions on Chisi. Most of the Kwachas – Malawian currency – we paid to him are directly invested in clothes, seeds and schools on the island. And you can clearly see how this improves the lives of the people. Instead of giving them the responsibility to spend their Kwachas wisely, he motivates them to cultivate a bigger variety of vegetables and to go to school. In exchange they get clothes and other important products from Isaac.
Before, their daily diet was ‘nzima’ – which is cooked maize flour – and if they were lucky some fish from the lake. Besides that this diet is not that nutritious, they also notice that it’s getting more and more difficult to catch fish. Many years of overfishing has led to a scarcity, especially of the bigger fish such as the catfish.
The Warm heart of Africa
What I’m always afraid of when I visit places mainly because of the people, is that it turns out to feel like you’re ‘people watching’. Taking inappropriate pictures without asking, behaving superior or looking at how the poor live. But being on Chisi Island honestly felt genuine. People seemed to enjoy playing football and other ball games with us, cooking, finding wood and trying to communicate with us. And more importantly, they were laughing the whole time. Everyone jumped in front of the camera, just to see themselves on the tiny screen of the camera. That is you, the camera and twenty little kids fighting for the best view. I now understand why they call Malawi the ‘Warm heart of Africa’.
The former British protectorate Malawi was actually named Nyasaland. A funny fact is that ‘nyasa’ in local language means ‘lake’ and the Britains named the lake ‘Lake Nyasa’. In other words: ‘Lake Lake’.