Armed with knowledge, but unsure what I would come across on the lakes, I set off from a beach on southern Lake Malawi in January 2018. Some people describe the African Great Lakes as inland seas, and it’s easy to see why. The opposite shoreline is often out of sight or is just marked by distant mountains rising above the water. Powerful storms seem to form and dissipate with puzzling and unnerving speed. These storms kick up waves of several metres, which crash indiscriminately onto beaches and rocky shorelines, often depriving a paddler of a safe place to return to land. On this expedition, I used a tandem, folding kayak, which could be packed up in bags for transport between lakes.
I’d store all my necessary supplies, from food and medicine to camping gear and camera equipment, inside the kayak. Each morning, I’d paddle out a kilometre or two, and then turn and paddle up the shoreline. Most of the time, I would be close enough to shore to see villages and fishing boats, though occasionally I would cross bays large enough for me to find myself seven or eight kilometres offshore. I paddled long days and made steady progress moving north. Early one morning, a large Nile crocodile surfaced about five metres from my boat, looked at me coldly, and then vanished below the water. I found myself paddling much farther offshore and looking over my shoulder, hoping to not see one of those nightmarish creatures lurking nearby.
The lakeshore was lined with small fishing villages built out of locally available materials. Each afternoon, I would pick a promising village where I could spend the night. As my arrival would usually create a flurry of excitement, most of the village would come down to take a look. So, picking a relatively small village would help to keep the crowd size down. Picking open beaches, devoid of vegetation and river mouths, was to avoid crocodiles. On one of my first nights on the lake, I was greeted by dozens of smiling kids who helped me drag my boat onto the beach. They took me to meet with the village headman, who immediately grasped my hand and told me that he would stay on the beach with me so that I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I went back to the beach and set up my tent, and soon the headman came down with his sons and some material. They quickly erected a sort of lean-to, using my tent for structure, and he spent the night out there on the beach with me. In the morning, he smiled and shook my hand, wished me a safe journey, and helped to push my kayak off.
Despite choosing villages that seemed rather small, I would always draw a crowd ranging from dozens to several hundred people. The population of Malawi has grown from approximately 3.5 million people in 1960 to over 18-million today, and many of those people live along the lake, where they can make a living by fishing. The impacts of this population growth on the environment were obvious as my trip progressed. Where rivers entered the lake, a miles-long plume of sediment-laden water would turn the crystal-clear lake into a murky brown. This was the result of clearing of land along the watershed for unsustainable agriculture and bush charcoal production. I saw ecologically destructive fishing practices: young men dragging fine gauge nets along inshore “nursery areas”, exhaustive use of gill nets which indiscriminately ensnare fish, and the offshore use of mosquito nets to catch Lake Malawi sardines, known as usipa. Fishing regulations supposedly exist, but I didn’t see any enforcement whatsoever.
At night, I’d sit on the beach and observe the fishermen out on the water. They would paddle offshore during the sunset hours and fish overnight, using powerful lights to draw shoals of usipa up to the surface. The vast, dark canvass of the night-time lake, coupled with the sometimes dozens of lights dotting the horizon, create a unique effect. Because of this phenomenon, David Livingston dubbed Lake Malawi the “Lake of Stars”. I found my experience each evening in the village really coloured what I was seeing out on the water. Malawi’s nickname, The Warm Heart of Africa, is a source of national pride in a country that is often devoid of things to be upbeat about. When you talk to people in Malawi, they will lament how poor the country is, but quickly point out that it’s a peaceful place. Each afternoon, I’d arrive unannounced and depend on their kindness for safety. Without exception, I’d be welcomed with open arms. People wanted to come down to my camp and talk to me about my impressions of Malawi, show them how my equipment worked or just to kick a football about. Despite how strange a visitor I was, their warm and disarming behaviour made me feel at home.
Regardless of their kindness, the people along Lake Malawi were really struggling. In 2017, the IMF and World Bank both ranked Malawi as the sixth poorest country in the world. There’s simply a dearth of ways to make money and put food on the table, besides utilizing the resources available to them: the lake for fishing, and land for farming and producing charcoal. It’s hard to tell people their practices are destructive when they’re just trying to survive. After a little over three weeks on the lake I reached the northern terminus of the Lake Malawi leg. I assembled my folding bicycle and trailer, loaded them with my equipment and started my first biking leg. On the road, unlike on the lake, I was constantly around people. Some would jog along with me or just wave and smile. I peddled out of Malawi and into Tanzania feeling such a strong kinship with the people that I had encountered, but also a great concern for the future of the lake and the people who depend upon it. ‘Reflections from the Great Lakes’?