Into The Less Known Malape

Martin Nyondo

© Copyright 2022 by Martin Nyondo

Photo of Milape Pillars  courtesy of the author.
Photo of Malape Pillars courtesy of the author.

Even though the sun was way past its overhead mark and was diving into its expansive, western horizon, the sweltering blanket of the heat swathed Liwonde township, melting both my mental and physical strength. I had trekked all the way from Zomba city, some fifty kilometers away, to visit a place that I had heard and read and seen many a time in the media. A place wrapped in secrecy and mystery. While in the minibus, I was completely absorbed in thoughts about the place, and I would be brought to reality by the frequent stoppages that the driver made to allow passengers in and out of the vehicle, according to their respective destinations.

It took about two and half hours before finally reaching Liwonde bus depot. Alighting from the minibus at the bus stage, the vast stretch of the township radiated out almost infinitely and it seemed to push its bound each time I walked away, towards the four-way junction perched in the middle of the township.

The township is at the central point of an alluring set of natural attractions. In the west, clothed in splendor and naturalness, there is the effervescent Mawira hot springs; up north, the roaring Shire river meanders along the border with the neighbouring district; in the east, Liwonde national park lies noisily with its multiplicity of wildlife; and down south, obscured from the picky eyes of tourists, it’s where I was going.

The buzzing sounds plastered the township with the towering presence of humanity, and it filtered out from everywhere; of vendors running amok with an assemblage of various merchandise, trying to catch the attention of prospective customers along its many streets; of minibus drivers who snapped out of the fence of the bus depot, hoping to find customers outside. These ones were spectacularly marveling to see as they drove their cars with an interesting finesse, much more like the way snakes move when trapped in an enclosed setting.

From my line of walking, I could see fleshly built buildings that jutted out along the tarmac road on both sides, marking the place with some appeasing newness while at the very same time erasing some bits of memory that I had of it; it was casting a new layer of memory within me. Previously, the whole line of buildings was laced with patches of an overgrown bush.

I was not new to the township, having lived there for about four years, but the place that I was going to was new to me since I had never traveled there, save of course in my wild imagination which had been brought to the fore as a result of reading many stories about it. Even when I was living there in the past, I didn’t know that there was such a place. And as I sauntered along the old road which was being renovated, I dived deep in my mind, racing through the fine and intricate details I had seen and memorised. With flashes of some vivid visuals in my mind, my body was now tingling with excitement that seeped out and morphed into a smile on my face. I now realised that I was at the junction, coming back from the forest of thoughts. Earlier on, I had made a good decision by boarding a cheap minibus according to my budget, but I overlooked the cost of making that decision. Time. Had I booked an expensive vehicle, I would have arrived an hour before. Maybe more than that.

Still at the junction, I was now trying to figure out how long it would take to reach my destination with the help of the google map app. Another terrible setback cropped up. Within the vicinity, there were no cheap cars that were going directly to my destination. After failing to find the remaining time for the journey on the app, and after realising that there were no cars to take me there, the first thought that crossed my mind was the cancellation of the journey altogether. And from the map, the place was quite far from where I was.

It was getting late. I had to make a final decision. A thump blasted in my heart, and a lump floated in my throat. I was dripping wet from the heat inside and outside me.

Seeing how far I had travelled, how much I had spent to finally reach in the town of my destination, and the special longing I felt for the place, I brushed aside this thought and quickly jumped onto other viable alternatives to beat the odds of returning home late. I twisted my neck around, and from the corner of my eye, I saw some saloon cars swelling up on a certain spot, and I realised that this was a taxi rank. Immediately, I rushed to the spot.

The moment I came in proximity with the cars, the drivers came forth and swirled around me, outdoing each other in fare bids even before I had not told them where I was going. I smiled silently. The moment I conferred to them them about where I was going, they all cowered in silence. Their faces turned into shades of doubt. And then they all exuded ignorance, backtracking slowly from where I was. A thought then popped up in my mind. Breathing heavily, I flipped my phone for the umpteenth time, to find some hidden clues on the map. I smoothly spread out my two fingers on the screen. I looked out for more prominent features. Satisfied, almost feeling exhausted, I finally told them about the name of the ring of the hills that was close to the place. Their faces relaxed and brightened. Then one of them came closer to me, again.

You mean the place where white people frequently go ? a short guy with a big belly said.

I know the place. I have never been there, but I know the route. Hop in. That will be MK1,500 (USD1.5).’ Slumping in the front seat, I felt anxious about the waiting time. I didn’t wait for a long time, however.

The soonest passengers were packed to the brim, the driver horned and drove the car out of the parking spot. As the car cruised through the straightened road and slowed down around sharp bends, my eyes were glued to the icon of our movement on the map, and fifteen minutes into the journey, the car hunched back and finally let out a squeaky noise through the tires. The driver crept out and motioned me to follow him. He handed me the balance of the money I had given him earlier on. Pointing at the dusty route that sliced through the few houses near the tarmac road, he shouted to me that I should take the route to continue my journey. The car sped off immediately.

But the icon on the map that showed my location pointed in the opposite direction of my destination. I started walking back.

I found solace in a young boy who was passed me while on a bike. I stopped him. I asked him. And then he confirmed my doubts. He offered to take me to the right route that connects directly to my destination. The boy refused to take me directly to where I was going, and instead he offered to take me directly to one of the men in the area who is into the business of ferrying people to the place on a bike. Luckily we found the man at his house.

After a series of negotiations with the man, we started off.

The calming breeze wafting from the trees that lined up on both sides of the earth road drowned my tension in the same measure as the cool air that blew on me from the speeding bike. We passed through a bridge where a group of children scooped sands and threw at each other, in a playful mood. We passed a group of women balancing some pails of water on their head with tied babies on their back, going in the opposite direction. We passed a group of men who sat down on the earth ground, playing some traditional games. All along, I noticed that people beckoned our attention with their curiosity and I thought deeply about what they were thinking. There were many bicycles that were going in both directions of the road, but their curiosity was fixated on us. Perhaps they were wondering why I was visiting a place that made no sense in visiting with less pomp and grandeur. To them, maybe those that were better qualified to visit the place were those that were on a vehicle. To them, maybe travelling to touristy areas was reserved for the insanely rich. The elites. Maybe, just maybe. About this, I remembered what the driver said earlier on about the place; it was a place that white people love visiting with their cars.

On reaching the rear side of the village of my destination, the biker rider, who doubled as my tour guide, took me to the chief’s house of the area to do some paperwork. I was also required to make a small payment. The chief, clad in an oversized jacket, studied my face carefully and asked me a plethora of questions before handing me a visitor’s book. Before signing, I took some time in perusing through the names of the visitors of that day, and I then made a confirmation of my surmise as regards why all the people seemed astounded by my scintilla of interest in visiting their place. After handing me a receipt of the payment of which I had already made, I was permitted to go. My heart shook with joy. I felt triumphant over the double thoughts that I had. I felt triumphant over the heat that was intent in melting my determination. Instead I had melted all the worries and frustrations that I had undergone into the nothingness of forgotten memories. As we neared the place, I bubbled out a few incoherent words to my tour guide, and my guide just gave me a cheeky smile which he sustained for a long period. We were all inundated with emotions.

The place.

Tucked at the vast expanse of the bristled trees, the place peeked out with its brownish outlining, jostling for our recognition. Its base seemed to be buried in the hollow of what appeared to be an overstretch of an eroded terrain. The upper part of the place almost brushed with the leaves of the trees that sprung from the ground that sunk deep into the rugged surface of the place. On a closer inspection, the place looked more like anthills but with a more striking, gigantic stature. More or less, it carved out the semblance of the famous Grand canyons.

This is Malape pillars,’ my tour guide fished me out of my thoughts. He then motioned me to descend into the the cave where the strange-looking structures sprung from. Heaving one foot after another downwards, I delicately dodged the steep and slippery wall that rounded the area, and to give myself total balance, I firmly held onto the roots of trees that protruded from the wall while descending slowly. On reaching the lower level of the ground, where the bases of the pillars were, I looked back to see the zig-zag trail I had left. With my tour guide in front pointing at the structures, I then trotted to massage the surface of the pillars.

This is where our forefathers used to pray,’ he said in a bid to catch my attention that had drifted away from him.

They used this place to pour out libations,’ he finally said.

 The curious me then took out a camera and snapped every minute detail of the place for future reference and deference.

I am Martin Nyondo from Zomba city in Malawi. Currently, I am studying computer science at the University of Malawi, and I am also taking an online creative writing course on coursera from Wesleyan University(USA).

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