A country that is ranking tourism among its top-most priorities in economic crusade is ignoring cultural heritage sites that could turn things around, ALICK PONJE writes.
It takes a good one-and-a-half hours to reach the stunning cluster of Mangochi Hills from the stony base that is accessed through a bumpy road stretching from Majoni Trading Centre along the Mangochi-Chiponde Road.
Once on the summit, the trouble of ascending through rocky footpaths, parrying away irritating fruit flies and fungus gnats and dodging overhanging tree branches, becomes worthwhile.
The view is breath-taking. Rocks of various shapes and sizes, with mosses and white and yellow lichens growing on them, are all over, their striking appearance propped up by the green flora on the hills and shadows of rows of thin clouds lining the sky above.
“This place has been like this since time immemorial. Its beauty has survived through generations,” a brawny tour guide, who takes us to the stunning features, says.
He has accompanied to the site only a few local and foreign holidaymakers in his career spanning over 20 years despite that the place surpasses several others in uniqueness.
Around, butterflies of different shapes and colours, birds of different sizes and plumage and all manner of rodents, abound.
And there is more.
“Mangochi Hills has a unique and rich history. It is unfortunate that many people have never been here. Most don’t even know it exists,” the tour guide states, pointing at a stone barricade that has stood for over a century.
It is tall and wide, with holes through which bullets were reportedly being fired during the colonial era. The site was also turned into a military base for colonial soldiers, according to history accounts.
At that time, the main administration centre for the lakeshore district was high up there after the British had defeated Chief Jalasi who was notoriously known for slave trade.
It is a significant spot in Malawi’s history.
“But it is not sufficiently treasured. It would bring a lot of tourism revenue if it was properly taken care of and could be easily accessed,” Rodrick James, of Majoni Trading Centre, says.
He reckons that there was a time many locals from his village could go up the hills to marvel at the ruins whose story, he says, is not appropriately told.
“We have heard about the Zimbabwe Ruins because that country makes sure we know it. I doubt if they know that we have equally amazing features here,” he says.
The spectacular derelict fortress at Mangochi Hills and the still-standing structures which were offices and colonial government workers’ houses also tell a story of antique architectural prowess.
Perhaps, there is something to learn from them.
Lake Malawi Museum assistant curator, Mayamiko Chasuluka, whose institution selects, organises and looks after works of art and other historical features, also waxes lyrical about the ruins on Mangochi Hills which he says should be visited by anyone willing to appreciate the history of slave trade.
“They have a lot to say about slave trade. It is one place in Malawi where evidence of the trade is so clear. It was happening, of course, elsewhere such as Karonga and Nkhotakota,” Chasuluka says.
The soft-spoken curator concedes that the site has not been optimally publicised for more people to visit it despite that it is famous in history books.
Chasuluka, however, recalls that some foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, do visit the place which is also surrounded by dense, but untended, groves.
“It needs to be popularised so that more people should be visiting it,” he says expectantly.
But the popularising of the ruins might not be enough as accessing them is another big challenge which cannot be overcome by the faint-hearted.
The situation is not even better with Chikala Hills in Machinga which are not easy to access. They have unique natural earth walls and compartments which locals in a nearby village, Chindenga, claim once had some mystifying elements attached to them.
Around the outcrops, a cool breeze gently rocks thin trees and grass—a seemingly perfect place to quiet the dragons of worry and fear.
“This place has a unique history,” Charles Austin, a resident of Chindenga Village, a cropped expanse at the foot of the range of hills, explains. “A lot of strange things, we are told, used to happen here.”
Apparently, many decades ago, bells could toll from the touristy bluffs, their sharp sounds echoing through the villages below, inviting locals and visitors to worship.
Accounts from older residents of Chindenga Village further say doves could also be seen flying around the outliers, perching on the columns and sometimes on trees around the place.
“There were a lot of trees at this place not long ago. Maybe, because of changes in climatic conditions, most of them have died,” Austin claims.
He corroborates sentiments of those who advance that, long ago, people could not come closer to the protrusions but could only stop a good distance away and kneel in worship and supplication at the toll of the bells which no one has apparently ever seen.
“That no longer happens. Something should have been erected here to explain its history so that tourists can understand it. A few of them visit it. The poor state of the path to this site scares tourists away,” he explains.
Our excursion to the place confirms such sentiments. Even our pathfinder does not have it easy.
We abandon a few earth roads after discovering dead ends before exploring bushy footpaths snaking through stony stretches to the hilltops.
Perhaps, the place would not necessarily need big tourist courts, but just properly managed spots in the jungle teeming with the naturalness of life.
With a proper road, something that is starkly lacking in many tourist attraction sites, holidaymakers would be going to Chikala Hills in busloads of affinity groups that have found the lake a little too monotonous and would like to marvel at something new.
Now it lies almost abandoned with the stunning features still refusing to disappear with time.
Yet, the government is apparently taking tourism as something that can revamp Malawi’s struggling economy as also reflected in Malawi Growth Development Strategy III.
Cultural tourism, which would be best explored and bolstered through the sustenance of sites such as the Chikala outcrops and Mangochi Hills ruins, is said to be an important component to give the larger sector a facelift.
“But it seems authorities do not care at call. How do you neglect a beautiful site like the Chikala outcrops when it is clear that they are unique? A few local and foreign tourists that have been there have massively praised the place,” another resident of Chindenga Village, Alfred Sinoya, says.
He bemoans the challenges that locals from his village also face in accessing the rocky outcrops that stretch over a radius of about a kilometre with different groves and compartments.
It is a few kilometres away, but the craggy footpaths also block many from nearby villages to visit it and, perhaps, lead the way.
“There are people living at the base of the hills who have never been to the outcrops because it is not easy to reach them. If locals here cannot visit it, it becomes difficult to convince others to do it,” Sinoya says.
With reputable global entities like CNN Travel ranking Malawi as one of the best tourist destinations in the world, private players in the sector want the government to do more to capitalise on such positive rankings.
But the talk on revamping the sector is not new.
During a Tourism Street Carnival in Blantyre last month, Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism, Henry Mussa, restated what his predecessors have said several times before—that the government is prioritising the sector as a driver of economic development.
He also appealed to service providers in the industry to make their rates affordable to attract domestic tourists.
Perhaps, the Domestic Marketing Strategy that the government has finalised drafting will have candid elements to boost a sector that has, otherwise, remained one of the most neglected despite its massive potential.
“Time has come that we, Malawians, and other people living in the country should develop interest in visiting our tourism destinations. We have big animals like elephants, lions, leopards and others in almost all game reserves,” Mussa said.
But unless monumental sites like the Mangochi Hills ruins and the Chikala outcrops are sufficiently popularised and are easily accessed, locals and private operators fear the tourism crusade will once again drift into oblivion.
This article firstly appeared in Malawi News of Times Group.