Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 29, 2005 Mount Mulanje, Malawi.


I arrived in Blantyre on Sunday, after a 30-hour journey including a nasty eighteen-hour flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. I had no expectations whatsoever Ė certainly not the absolutely stunning sunset sending orange light onto a sharply defined mountain off to the right of the plane, or the huge piles of pink, white, blue, and orange clouds that created a veritable palate in the sky. Driving into the city the air felt warm and moist, the ground was reddish, the slopes and valleys filled with rich green

plants. The road was busy with pedestrians, bikes, and a few cars and trucks, groups of people chatting on the side of the road, and women selling fruits, vegetables, bags of peanuts, and roasted ears of corn.


I thought I would stay in Blantyre for a while, but Monday morning I found myself swept down to Mulanje, a small town at the base of a mountain at the south eastern edge of the country. I am here designing a study to evaluate the economic value of the forest on the top of that mountain, the Mount Mulanje Forest Reserve. It is home to an endemic species of cedar which exists only there Ė the Mulanje cedar, of course Ė which is the national tree of Malawi and the darling of local biodiversity aficionados. The reserve is under threat from illegal harvesting and agricultural encroachment by poor villagers with no other means of survival, and poor management by a forest department that is perennially underfunded and interested only in how to increase its own revenues through timber sales or bribery. So the USAID project for which Iím working, along with the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust, thought it might help to conduct a study of the economic value of the mountainís resources, in the hopes that they might find a way either to make Mulanje pay for its own conservation or to convince foreign donors to reach further into their pockets with financial support.

Itís a nice change from accounting!

So, with hardly a dent in my jet lag, I headed down to Mulanje with Carl, the head of the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust. We dropped off my bags at the lodge where Iím staying, the last building before the steep road up the mountain ends above the tea plantations and small buildings of the town of Mulanje. If this were Hong Kong, Iíd be at the top of the mid-levels Ė but it isnít Hong Kong, and I havenít seen a building with more than one story in Mulanje. After dropping off my bags we headed to Carlís house to see what his cook had prepared for lunch and load me up with useful books, and then to the office of the Trust.


Mulanje is a modest town at the bottom of the mountain. The one paved road is lined with shops selling groceries and stationery supplies, a few tea houses and restaurants, a Christian mission, a market with great bunches of bananas and piles of pineapples, used clothing hanging from racks and piled in heaps on tarps spread over the ground. The tea estates line the roads at the bottom of the mountain, waist-high bushes in a dense, vibrant green, with women walking among them tending and pruning. Carlís house was once the residence of a tea plantation owner, and it is a gracious shady structure surrounded by lawns and lush trees.

The Trust office, on the other hand, is a more modern and modest structure, a rectangular brick building with corrugated tin roof at the end of a hard packed dirt road. Carl is South African by

nationality, but he has lived most of his life in Malawi, working on an array of donor projects related to the environment. He has been with the Trust for three years, hired through a World Bank project. The Trust seems to have about a dozen Malawian staff, including professionals, office staff, and the usual array of drivers and ďboysĒ to wash the cars and keep the yard clean. In addition it has a lot of other folks around; besides me, thereís an Australian masterís student in conservation biology who lives in Vancouver and studies in England, two Dutch students of tourism on six-month placements, a Canadian student of international development on a one-year placement, a British girl here for a summer placement, another British girl here for her gap year (as they call time off between college and university), and no doubt an array of other foreigners whom I havenít met yet. The Australian is studying nocturnal mammals, so he seems to be in a somewhat confused state, hiking up to the mountain for extended periods, working at night and sleeping in the day, and getting rather muddled when comes back to diurnal life in town. Heís hoping heís found a new species, though, so it would all be worth it. The students all live together in a house up the hill. It sounds like theyíre having fun together, though they said it was

pretty crowded there for a while, and the overflow seems to land up at Carlís lavish place.

Iím a mile or so up the mountain in my room at the lodge. Itís an exceptional place to be. Once in a while a car climbs the hill to drop someone off or bring in a few fellows to drink a beer, chat, and watch television. But most of the time the only sounds are the wind in the trees and the incessant buzzing of insects. Looking out from the terrace at night, hardly any lights are visible through the trees in the town below; apparently the only people with electricity are the tea estates. This is a rain forest Ė this side of the mountain can get three or even four meters of rain per year Ė and the vegetation is dense. The rainy season is over, but up on the mountain it rains every day, so the slopes are well watered by the many streams that flow down them. It rained earlier this evening, but now thereís just a stiff wind blowing and the air is cool.


The walk down to the Trust office in the morning is delightful and busy. Up at this height, an occasional vehicle comes to the lodge, but most of the walkers are from the village, on their way up to the mountain to bring down firewood and grasses, or already coming down balancing their heavy loads gracefully on their heads. I mostly see women carrying firewood. They walk down very fast, with a dance-like gait almost like race-walking, their heads protected with a thick pad and one hand holding the wood as it bounces with their steps and the swing of their arms and their hips. Men collect wood with bicycles, which they push slowly up the steep slopes Ė and often push down as well, because they are too precarious to ride with the heavy loads on the back. Though when people do ride down, they simply fly, brakes off, clearly enjoying the thrill of the steep drop. People are friendly to me. Everyone says hello, how are you, and smiles brightly. The sun is bright too, gleaming above the top of the mountain to the east.

Walking back up in the evening is nice as well. Itís not so steep as to be really difficult, and it feels good to climb. To my surprise, I walk faster than the locals climbing up; one woman even called out to me that I was too fast. Along the lower stretch of the walk the road is lined with small houses, apparently the homes of the people who work in the many government and project offices at the bottom of the hill. Some of the walkers are barefoot women who gather wood, but many are dressed in office clothes and shoes with heels, and clearly do not have to carry fuelwood on their heads to make ends meet. Children are everywhere in the road, bouncing

balls, pushing cars fashioned out of wire, playing soccer with a squishy toy. Chickens run across the road at will, scratching in the ground for seeds. Everyone smiles, and the children ask where Iím going. Passing one group of women, I heard they saying ďKara OíMulaĒ Ė thatís the name of the lodge. Two thirds of the way up, thereís a turnoff, and by then most of the locals are already home. The last stretch of road is quiet, bumpier, and steeper. By the time Iím ďhomeĒ Iím warm and sweating. After two days of walking, my legs definitely feel it. If I stayed longer, Iíd be fit enough to climb to the top of the mountain too!

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.