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by Menno Welling (Published in The Lamp, October 2014)


On August 30thof this year, Chewa people of Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique celebrated their Kulamba ceremony in Katete, Zambia. It is an annual payment of respect to their King Gawa Undi. It is equally meant as an annual lesson in Chewa values and culture. The Chewa Heritage Foundation, a Malawian organization that aims to promote Chewa culture, received a donation of one million kwacha from the State President towards the travel expenses of Malawian traditional leaders. This was a kind gesture, no doubt. Particularly, as he holds a different ethnic affiliation. In fact, he has been instrumental in the growth of his Lhomwe cultural organization Mulhako wa Alhomwe. Still, one could, of course, wonder why the president of one country would support a show of allegiance of his traditional authorities, who are arguably civil servants, to a king of another country. Could this presidential gesture then be aimed to build support among an otherwise still distrustful electorate? Or does APM take sincere interest in culture and heritage? Given the fragile nature of Malawi’s cultural sector, as well as its huge potential, are we right to be optimistic for the next four years?
On the same day as Kulamba, at a Ngoni ceremony in Ntcheu his vice president Chilima urged all Malawians to preserve their cultural values and practices. Was this the Vice President preaching what the President practiced? Calls in support of cultural preservation are always helpful, but they should be made for the right reasons. Cultural events and organizations have often been hijacked by politicians for (party) political purposes. Ties between Mulhako and DPP are obviously close and gule wamkulu has in the past been mobilized to obtain votes for the MCP. In that sense King Gawa Undi deserves respect for this year’s banning of party uniforms within a 4km radius of the Kulamba venue.

When making his call VP Chilima seems to have been motivated by a perceived decline in moral standards as a result of the copying of foreign practices. The case to point was the showing of underwear. This statement on its own was interesting as it should force us to question what are Malawian cultural values and practices. Many so-called Malawian values have in the course of the last century and a half been appropriated from conservative Christianity. They are of relative short antiquity. Moreover, the VPs remarks seem to imply there are no ‘immoral’ indigenous practices, all immorality comes from outside. This seems to reflect a rather limited understanding of culture. However, the VP continued with a call to teaching children their mother tongue as a means to preserve their identity. Language is indeed the most critical element in the transmission of culture. In addition, there is ample research to demonstrate that the mother language is equally critical in improving primary education achievements. This call thus seems at odds with the government discussions to have the Malawi primary school system entirely taught in English.

Another reason to promote culture and heritage is an economic one. At the same Ntcheu ceremony, the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Kondwani Nankhumwa was quick to highlight the revenue that could be generated through expressions of culture. Indeed, Zambian local government reports ever greater revenue from Kulamba  as  the thousands of visitors need accommodation, food and entertainment. The previous governments recognized this potential and (cultural) tourism was highlighted in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy Paper II and the Economic Recovery Plan. Tourism growth has been meant to counteract the dwindling tobacco market. In light of this, it came as a big surprise that the newly elected president aimed to relocate the Department of Culture back to the Ministry of Youth and Sports, where for many years it had a meager existence before a merger with Tourism and Wildlife seven years ago. Luckily, an internal lobby was successful in putting a stop to the unfortunate relocation. On departmental level the Department of Culture will however be forced to reorganize. The results of that we will have to await.


These ministerial and departmental wranglings  seem to indicate there is no clear vision yet for the cultural sector. This may not be promising for the National Cultural Policy which has been in the making since President’s Muluzi’s term in office. In the last two years it was polished up, stakeholder meetings were held and it was ready for adoption by Cabinet. Then cashgate broke followed by elections campaigns. How long will it take for the dust to settle, so a guiding document for cultural projects and programmes can finally be put in place?

A key example for the need to get serious on culture is Mt. Mulanje. Many people know it for its endemic cedar trees and its stunning views, from below as well as from on top. This mountain is however no pristine indigenous landscape. It is a cultural landscape. It is a cultural landscape in two ways. For one, humans have been part of the mountain ecology since the Middle Stone Age and people have had significant impact on the mountain environment since the settlement of Bantu speaking people in the beginning of the Christian era. They introduced farming and iron smelting. The former requires farm land. The latter requires huge quantities of firewood. Both lead to deforestation. Mt. Mulanje, not being ideal farm land, became a refuge for the indigenous hunter-gatherers we refer to as Batwa or Akafula. They are also part of the second type of cultural landscape, which refers to the way we perceive the environment given our cultural background. Where an ecologist can hike up Mt. Mulanje and see endemic species of flora and fauna, people living around Mulanje see spiritual dwellings and evidence of spirit intervention.

Most of us have heard about the people disappearing on the mountain, some allegedly after violating a taboo. The Batwa spirits may tempt those who climb the mountain with plates of food, which should only be consumed alone, and on the spot. This is a reversal of the normal social rules, and thus highlights the sanctity of the mountain forest. At the same time, it reinforces the rules in normal village life.  If people break the rules of the Mountain, they may be seized by the spirits. The family that is left behind usually tries to placate the spirits and request release through offerings of beer and other rituals. Occasionally people return after having gone missing for days, months or sometimes even years. They tend not to remember much from the time away. The Mountain is full of ancient and more recent shrines which are evidence of a belief system which goes back centuries.

Another spiritual manifestation, part of the same belief system, is Napolo, the mythical snake that goes underground causing mud slides and floods during the rainy season. We may remember the events of 1991 which saw hundreds of people suffer at Phalombe Boma as a result of a landslide attributed to Napolo. Opposite Phalombe District Council is a small memorial dedicated to the people who lost their lives that day.
This Mulanje Mountain cultural landscape is so unique and fascinating that it was proposed as a World Heritage site in 2013. Sadly, the nomination was not accepted at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting last June because as a country we do not have our systems in place. This means the nomination needs to be resubmitted. For instance there is currently no management plan for Mulanje’s cultural heritage; there is need for more research and documentation; and the infrastructure must be improved and information panels should be placed on the ground. Most importantly, however, we need someone to attend these meetings and lobby on our behalf. If we do that, we are sure to get World Heritage Status, which will lead to more tourism revenue and provide us with more funding for forest conservation, all through our cultural heritage.


It is on the handling of this case we will truly be able to judge the President’s sincerity in culture and heritage. Particularly as this is within his home area and there are other commercial interests at stake. The Mulli Brothers have taken a claim over part of the mountain and there are mining interests in rare earth elements and bauxite. These clearly go against the customary sanctity of the Mountain, and rule out World Heritage Status and the concomitant revenue. But even if the World Heritage nomination fails, the most fundamental aspect of culture is identity. We need our youth to have a homegrown identity. In that, the vice president is absolutely right. It should be an identity rooted in the appreciation of past culture and achievement. It is the optimism and self-confidence that can flow here from, that can bring the development we all want.


© Mlambe Foundation