When the Queen’s baton was going round the Commonwealth, it was brought to Malawi and among the places where it was received was the Blantyre Mission of the CCAP. At a special function held on Blantyre Mission grounds (the place many call HHI), the Synod Moderator received the baton on behalf of the Synod.
I was present at this function and so were a number of dance troupes that had been brought from various places around Blantyre.
Sadly, the dance troupes were never given the chance to display their antics. One truck carrying sopa dancers also had gule wamkulu characters, including the abundantly tall makanja, on board. At one point the makanja disembarked and took a few steps around the truck, to the obvious amusement of the onlookers.
I met somebody that I had last met 15 years previously at this function. As Blantyre Joint Choir, we had introduced the concept of ‘Sing Malawian Gospel Concert’, in which we featured songs composed by Malawians and choreographed to Malawian traditional dances. It became necessary for us to engage a dance troupe to help us with the dances. I came across one at the Musuem and they were taken on board. The young man I met at Blantyre Mission was an expert at beating traditional drums that accompanied beni, sikili, manganje and other traditional dances.
The traditional dances mentioned above plus many others that have not been mentioned are cultural assets that Malawi can reap handsomely from. Gule wamkulu and vimbuza were declared intangible cultural heritage of humanity by Unesco. Sadly not much has been done to showcase these traditional dances to cultural tourists.
Another cultural asset is the Chongoni paintings. Countless people travel the M1 road between Lilongwe and Blantyre every day, but very few realise that off the M1 is an area, between the Chongoni and Dedza Mountains, which hosts the highest concentration of rock paintings in Central Africa. In all there are 127 sites within the area, which extends to as far as Mphunzi near the border with Mozambique.
These rock paintings happened within two historical eras. The earliest paintings, red in colour, were crafted by the Batwa (akafula) hunter-gatherers, from the late Stone Age to the early Iron Age. The later, more elaborate paintings, depicted in white, were the work of later arrivals: the Chewa agriculturists. Where the two types of paintings co-exist, the red ones underlie the white ones, indicating that the red are older.
The Chewa painters got the white pigment used to generate their paintings from white clay. Whereas the red paintings depict basic designs, the white ones generated by the Chewa show designs of animal forms (referred to as zoomorphic designs by the experts) as well as designs of human forms (referred to as anthropomorphic designs). Not surprisingly, many of these designs depict gulewamkulu characters (the great mystical dance of the Chewa people). Chinamwali (girls’initiation ceremony) is also a favourite theme.
Many scholars have studies various aspects of these rock paintings. Among them are Lindgren & Schoffeleers (1978), Anati (1986), Juwayeyi & Phiri (1992), Smith (1995), Zubieta (2004) and Chiumia (2012). However, most of their findings remain locked in academic publications, and the average Malawian still has no idea that our ancestors were such great artists.
According to the award winning Masters thesis by Zubieta (2004), published by the African Studies Centre in 2006 with permission from the University of Witwatersrand, the rock paintings from one of the sites called Mwana wa Chentcherere were actually depicted on a 3-tambala Malawian postage stamp in 1972. Mwana wa Chentcherere had already been declared a national monument by that time.
However the appreciation of this important heritage has not entered the public domain. As Malawians, we need to walk tall and be massively proud of our artistic past. Efforts need to be made to turn the area into a full blown tourist resort. Thankfully, Unesco adopted the area hosting the art paintings as a World Heritage Site.
Agreed, many challenges still exist in opening up the area to tourists (international or local). The area in question lies in a forest reserve, which makes it difficult to construct roads or resorts there. But probably the biggest challenge is the lack of awareness by the public. There has not been any sustained deliberate effort to promote the area locally or internationally. Most of what is known by the few people that have had the privilege to stumble on this information is from academic records and not from the popular media.
The culprit is the education system which teaches splendidly about foreign histories and very little of our own