Kunyanja Shore- Thuku Muthui

Before this boat docked here, it was probably the biggest and fastest of all marine vessels out there then. The captain was probably a one-eyed pirate from Zanzibar, who besides transporting slaves, ivory, salt and spices between what is present day Malawi and the Coast of Africa was also the meanest man on board. A man with a black heart. He was known to kill anybody who crossed him regardless who they were to him. He had killed his wives, friends and enemies alike. He believed in a messy death, like gouging out the eyes or slitting the throat open. When this Glasgow-built boat arrived on this particular shore the folks, tired of their young men and women being traded by vile chiefs, joined hands and put up a fight they themselves could not fathom. They fought with blunt tools against the swords and spears wielded by the ugly seamen. The natives of Nkhotakota fought gallantry, most of them fell but those who remained fought with renewed energy.


Finally they overcame the seamen and the chiefs, they had tasted war and victory together for the first time in years. But that was just the beginning. The locals set the boat on fire, not willing to keep anything of whatever value that would remind them of the years the traders had tormented them. In this boat their women had been raped as men watched helplessly, shackled and maimed. In the same boat, wars had erupted but the captives had always lost. Those who led the rebellion were put to death mercilessly. The captives watched their compatriots die after writhing in excruciating pain, a warning for anybody else who was planning to stage a war. The remaining captives were ordered to throw the bodies into the water by the boat crew who were celebrating a good harvest with ale and local brew.


After the boat caught wind, the pirates would share out the women and take turns raping them. The people cheered as the raging inferno consumed the merchandise on board first, before moving on to the wooden parts. The softer metal melted but the iron chassis would not give. The fire died out and left the metal half sunk into the sand by the shore. The boat was evil and a reminiscence to the people of Nkhotakota of the sacrifice and courage by their forefathers. Children were warned against playing in or even near the boat. It was believed that anybody who got into contact with the boat became possessed with the spirit of the seamen and required spiritual cleansing by members of the secret brotherhood.


You won’t find this narrative anywhere but it played out in my mind when I sat under the shade at Arnold’s- a lake side resort. At Arnold’s, you get to eat Chambo as you watch the endless skies of Africa kiss the magical Lake Malawi at the edges of her lips. The lake blushes blue like the sky above and hypnotically your blues melt away. Anytime you are in Nkhotakota, make sure you drop by Arnold’s for a meal or even bed in the luxurious cottages.


As we sat there, thinking of the upcoming Nkhotakota Music Festival, a mother walked past us followed closely by two children. The bigger one and perhaps the older one was about five while the smaller was about three. They were just children, because children in Africa do not take gender. They are children clothes, toys or room. Here, both boys and girls get a haircut and ride bicycles. The women, men and children bathe in the lake-in complete oblivion of bilharzia or the spirits of the seamen who could not stand the sight of a breast and thigh. Bathing in the lake was inviting as the temperatures rose towards thirty degrees Celsius but the thought of a crocodile chasing after me and biting a piece of my buttock kept me on my seat. What is life without one buttock? How does one sit upright without falling over?

“Hey there, keep up. We don’t have the whole afternoon to waste,” the mother shouted in Chichewa. I didn’t understand but the children ran up to her, half walking half running to keep up with her longer strides, so she must have said that.


You stay at the shallow part and help each other bath. Scrub the necks well and the skin behind your ankles. When you are done go and stand on that rock over there to dry before wearing these clean clothes.” I think this is an oral universal bathing tutorial given by all mothers.


The children jumped out of their clothes and ran up to the Kunyanja playfully. They loved it. It was theirs. Their father brings them relish from it every morning, and every morning they wake up to see the sun shining over it. The sun was hot and they loved the cooling effect the water had on their tiny backs. If water got to their mouths, they would swallow it anyway. They swam, played and bathed as their mother did laundry. They jumped out of the water, smiling and giggling at the experience before walking up to their mother for inspection. Satisfied, she pointed at the huge rock and they walked towards it to dry. They shone like two giant lizards basking in the sun as they dried.


The mother hid by the reeds and enjoyed an afternoon bath. The water of the lake was therapy to her skin and soul and as she sat in it, she felt fatigue seep away from her body and drift away with the waves. She scrubbed herself with a sponge from the sponge plant and imagined the first time her husband saw her bathe naked in the water-on this very shore, six years earlier.


She was young, barely 17 and her husband was only 23. He was in his canoe from a fishing trip with his aide, a twelve-year-old apprentice. When he saw her he stopped rowing and stared, held in awe by how beautiful she was. She knew him well and admired him for his hard work so when she saw him staring, she stood upright and let him savor the full view of her untouched breasts and skin. A year later she was heavy with his child. Now two. Soon they will be three as she felt a bump in her belly as she washed. He now works harder than before, she also tries to help him but before things work out well she becomes pregnant. She loves children but commodities from the shop have become more expensive and the fish from the lake have become smarter. She also plants rice in the farm by the lake to add to the family’s food basket. She had heard younger girls and women talk of the pill and how it closed up their uteruses for a while and decided to talk to her husband about it later. The girls and women who spoke of the pill were women of the night and she was tasked with finding the approach to use on her husband without raising unnecessary alarm about who she talks to.


“Iwe dress up quickly, it’s time to go.” She shouted at her children.


As she walked home with her children playing by her side, she knew they deserved better. She wanted them to come home with tales from the university, she wanted them to dream bigger than she did. She had attended sessions at Nkhotakota Youth Organisation in vocational training and there she met youths of her age from other countries who were on exchange with FK Norway. She interacted with them and they talked of careers, life in college and of the experiences they had gone through. She knew she missed out on a lot and would like her children to enjoy that. She wanted them to see the world beyond the beauty of the lake in Nkhotakota. She hated the way the foreigners did not consider starting their own families as an achievement. She wanted her children to finish college, get jobs and get married. She believed that family was as big as the dreams they talked about; that it was also a dream worth pursuing.


As the sun went down, music notes and cheer rose from the festival. She gathered pieces of wood and made a fire outside her red-brick house, she brought out maize flour for nsima and groundnut flower for Chisaso. From her compound, she could hear the guitar as Erik Paliani enchanted the crowd with his jazz compositions. She loved Erik’s band and had listened to him since the days he played alongside Hugh Masekela. When her children would come of age, she would allow them to wander off to the festival and remember to scold them when they came back because that was what motherhood is about.


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