Malawi’s premier tourist destination Likoma Island continues to attract both local and international attention.
Recently, United Kingdom’s Times Magazine ranked the island as one of the 30 best secret places in the world to “really get away from it all.”
In Africa, the island is rated fourth for its panoramic views and its traditional aspects such as fishing and farming rice and cassava.
And now, an engineer Wilson Manjano Chirwa has uncovered more secrets about the island in a book titled History of Likoma Island: 1800 to 2016 as it details the traditions and cultural aspects that define the uniqueness of Likoma to attract international recognition.
Chirwa observes that the history of Likoma Island has, for several decades, been associated with the history of the Anglican Church, with very little written about the indigenous people themselves.
For instance, who knows about the languages spoken on Likoma? How about the island’s other traditional dances apart from malipenga and chioda? Think about the rites of passages practiced on the island.
Chirwa states that Likoma has two dialects. A light accent dialect of Chinyanja in the east and south of the island and a heavy accent dialect of Tonga in the north and west.
“The distribution of the dialects was as a result of the ethnic origins of the initial settlers,” he writes.
On Chizumulu, Chirwa says only Tonga language is spoken. He says the version of Tonga on Likoma is in many instances very different from that of Chizumulu.
“The Tonga in Likoma has retained some words from the original Tonga language spoken on the west mainland but has also lost other words.
The Tonga words that have been lost have been substituted by Chinyanja words with some modifications. Such modified words were pronounced in a heavy Tonga accent. Because of such a transformation, the language was called Chilikoma,” he says.
Likoma, just like other lakeshore districts of Nkhata Bay and Karonga, is known for malipenga traditional dance for men.
According to literature on Malawi’s traditional dances, malipenga is a modern dance for men believed to have been started by ex-servicemen who developed it from the military parades of the old Kings African Riffles (KAR).
The dance which includes blowing gourds covered at the smaller end with spiders’ membrane to give a trumpet sound started in Nkhata Bay and spread across the Northern Region.
Chirwa says apart from such a famous dance, Likoma also has chioda, chimdidi and likwata for women; makhanya, which is performed under the moonlight, for both girls and boys.
Rites of passage
The book also gives a glimpse of the rites of passage practiced on the island for boys and girls when they come of age. Chirwa says rites of passage for boys, which involved counselling in terms of respect for elders and what was expected of them as adults, are no longer practiced.
However, rites for girls who go through three initiation ceremonies called nkhole are still practiced to this day, he says.
The 376-paged book also makes a good read on blood relationships, death and mourning, marriage procedures, utensils and tools used, clothing and diet, weaponry and homesteads.
Such cultural aspects are weaved within the historical context of the island in relation to the history of Malawi and partly of Africa. The book also delves into the Bantu migrations across Africa as well as wars of Shaka the Zulu in South Africa and how that affected settlement on that island.
University of Malawi professor of African Languages and Linguistics Pascal Kishindo describes the book as the first comprehensive history of Likoma which puts the indigenous people and their activities at the very centre of the narrative.
“Chirwa has done an excellent job in digging out and presenting the history of Likoma in vivid language, from the earliest times to the present. I recommend the book to students of history, the general reader, and anyone who loves a well told story,” he says.
Mzuzu University professor of history Kings Phiri says the book aptly and skillfully underlies the place of Likoma and Chizumulu Islands in the national history of Malawi.
“It does so by comprehensively capturing the history testimonies of various leading families and clans on the islands, and then meshing them into the tapestry of national history as determined from written records generated by early Anglican missionaries and British colonial administrators,” he says.
Chirwa says the book is important in preserving the island’s culture in the promotion of tourism. He, however, says government needs to intervene in improving the infrastructure on the island if the island is promoted further for tourism.
“We need to improve the infrastructure such as construction of a jetty as well as a dedicated dependable daily ferry service between the islands and the mainland,” he says.
However, the Department of Tourism principal tourism officer (marketing) Sarah Njanji says the recently upgraded airport at the island to international status has opened up the island to more international visitors.
“The island is now directly connected to the other big tourism attractions such as Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and South Luangwa National park in Zambia; some of the common attractions within the region which are commonly packaged jointly with Lake Malawi by international tour operators.
“Furthermore, in terms of other developments, government is considering looking at the possibility of zoning the whole island so as to ensure sustainable land use. It is important also that the island is not overdeveloped for tourism so that it does not lose its natural appeal,” says Njanji. n