The ‘Malawi Lake of Stars’ by Michael Mutisunge Phoya and with photography by Frank Johnston which I took a photo of above, describes how it’s ‘discoverer’ explorer David Livingstone, described Lake Nyassa as The Lake of Stars when he first marveled at the sunlight dancing on its ripples.
Here are some major points in the book this blog would like to share:
The Eastern African Rift
“Africa is the cradle of mankind and nowhere have geological transitions been as cataclysmic as which created Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Some 400 million years ago, the African tectonic plate began to split into two and the result was the East African Rift, an active continental rift zone which is, in turn, part of the larger Great Rift Valley.
So named by British geologist and explorer John Walter Gregory, it originates in northern Syria and runs for approximately 6000 km to central Mozambique. Starting around the Horn of Africa, the Eastern African Rift runs through eastern Africa to the coast of Mozambique.
It contains the oldest, largest, and deepest Lakes and freshwater eco-regions of great biodiversity such as Lakes Tangayika and Malawi. Lake Malawi, for her part, has continued to evolve due to a number of reasons including further geological shifts in the Great Rift Valley.
Lake Malawi is believed to have come into existence over a hundred million years ago when dinosaurs still roamed. Heavy rains covered the valley caused by the cataclysmic movements.
The collected water formed a large swamp which later, as the years went by, grew into the Lake we know today. A small gap developed in the confining walls of the Lake and a stream escaped to snake its way to the great sea.
Later it grew into the river we know today as the Shire. Fortunately for the Lake, the formation of this river ensured that it avoided the fate that befell its sister Lakes to the immediate north; that of becoming alkaline with only a few species surviving.
The fresh waters of Lake Malawi brought about the development of a myriad of species, so numerous that it can boast of having the most freshwater fish species in the world.
The human drama believed to have taken place along the Great Rift Valley is well documented. Rapidly eroding highlands filled the valley below with sediment, turning it into a favourable environment for preservation. Several hominid ancestors of modern humans have been found there, some dating back as much as three million years.”
“Around 1000 BCE, man started migrating from the area between present day Cameroon and the Sahara. There were several reasons for this, but the main one was the expansion of the desert which left little land to cultivate and to make use of the hoes and other products of the Iron Age. They migrated eastwards and settled in Central Africa before again proceeding eastwards where they continued to grow and search for greener lands to till.
Meeting the Hamites from East Africa, they united and produced a mixed people called Bantu. Characterised by the dark skin of the Hamite and the tilling skills of the Negroes, the Bantu soon, and not surprisingly, overran their land.
Soon it was time to migrate and search for greener pastures. Reaching the area around present day Lake Tanganyika, the Bantu intermarried with the pygmies of Equatorial Africa and produced a tiny hybrid soon to be etched into African folklore in general and Malawi’s folklore in particular as the Mwandionera pati, ‘whence did you see me?’ The wrong answer, “from a short way off,” could have devastating consequences for the unwitting traveler.”
“The Mwandionera pati or Akafula lived amicably with their Bantu ancestors before demand for land led their larger neighbours to displace them. Migrating southwards, they chanced upon the water of Nyasa.
Although a wandering tribe, they soon settled by the Lake and for almost 2000 years made its beaches, and the highlands above, their homes.
When the second century Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy compiled his ‘map’ of the interior of Africa according to stories recorded by Marinus of Tyre, the Akafula were already settled on the Lake. Marinus recorded that around 50 CE the Greek trader Diogenes ventured inland from a coastal city in what is today Tanzania and travelled for almost a month before encountering two great Lakes.
It is widely believed that he happened upon what we no know as Lakes Malawi and Victoria. In any case, the travels of Dogenes found their way into Ptolem’ys canonical Geographical eographica and we see the first appearance of the Lke, albeit in a very distorted way, on a world map.
The Akafula continued to live in peace until the ever changing winds of time stirred more migrations from east and central Africa. First to come were the Makaranga people who fought and slaughtered large numbers of the Akafula before continuing southwards to form the Monomutapa Kingdom.
Next were the Maravi who, unlike the Makaranga before them, had no intention of leaving the Lake. Fierce battles ensued but the Akafula, outclassed in almost every way, vanished from the face of the earth though not before their resilience left a lasting impression on their Bantu conquerors, soon to be formally called Maravi.
It was left to the Bantu to commemorate these little people, reputed to be very good hunters, in the folklore.’
The Maravi and others
“The descendants of the population of the former Maravi empire constitute today a cluster of culturally and linguistically related communities, the so-called Maravi cluster.
They migrated eastwards from Luba in the Congo basin at a place called Kapirintiya which they believed to be a place of creation. Economic reasons made them settle near the Lake, displacing the Akafula in the process. Family squabbles and political factors brought smaller migrations where some settled in the high plateau bordering the Lake while others settled in the swamp areas of what is now the lower Shire Valley.
Like the Akafula before them, the Maravi learned to harness the Lake and this led to their prosperity. With the cultivating skills acquired from their ancestors, they farmed the fertile Lakeshore areas and produced millet, their staple food.
Later the Portuguese introduced maize which replaced millet. Using more skills from their ancestors they became experts at smelting iron. Kilns put up during this time are still evident in many parts of the country.
The women became experts in pottery and basketware. Dugout canoes were perfected until the men could, with skilful handling, ply the frequently dangerous waters of the Lake. Soon they were fishing the Lake, leaving the women to till the land and prepare food at home.
In the fifteenth century trade with the Portuguese and the increasing demand for ivory on the east coast led to prosperity for the Maravi, which in turn, led to the bundling together of their several tribes to form the Maravi Kingdom, soon to cover southern Malawi, northern Mozambique and eastern Zambia.
With its ruler, known as the Kalonga, the Maravi Kingdom reached its peak in the seventeenth century before slowly breaking down into smaller and less powerful groupings.
Around this time, more Bantu tribes descended on the Lake. In the seventeenth century, the Tumbuka arrived from Tanzania and settled in the north. Another tribe called the Bawoloka came to the Lake from eastern Tanzania and settled on its shores, to trade with the Tumbuka.
But it is the arrival of the Yao which brought a lasting impact on both Lake and countryside. They migrated from present day Mozambique at the turn of the nineteenth century and slowly displaced the Nyanja (Amaravi) on the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa.
Traders by heritage, they created a chain of trading centres, all the way back to the coast. This coincided with the capturing of Mombasa by the Sultan of Muscat and, inevitably, the end of Portuguese dominance along the east coast of Africa.
But unlike the Portuguese, who were mainly interested in gold from the interior, the Omani Arabs, soon to move from Mombasa to Zanzibar, were more interested in the lucrative slave trade.
Another tribe to have a lasting influence on the Lake region were the Ngoni people from South Africa. Fleeing from Shaka the Zulu king and the mfecane (the word actually means pillaging!) he brought about, the Ngoni robbed and looted their way up the continent.
Destroying and conquering, they finally settled in the Shire Highlands and the Viphya and Nyika Highlands towering immediately above the Lake. A warring people, they continued, here as elsewhere, to give trouble to all their neighbours and especially to the Tumbuka and the Tonga.
When David Livingstone stepped on the Central African stage, all these tensions were growing and the whole area had the makings of a real tragedy.
David Livingstone, explore extraordinaire and the man forever credited with letting the world know that the interior of Africa was actually a very fertile land and not a barren desert, first set foot on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1859.
This seemingly small act of exploration was to entirely define the future of the soon-to-be-born country. Prior to this, Livingstone had discovered, much to his horror and that of the world he was to alert, that the Arabs and Portuguese were practicing a new kind of slavery.”