Lake Malawi’s chiefs turn down oil industry to save its fish – Susan Dalgety

The shores of Lake Malawi, which covers one third of the country, and boasts the world's first freshwater national park (Picture:Govati Nyirenda)
The shores of Lake Malawi, which covers one third of the country, and boasts the world's first freshwater national park (Picture:Govati Nyirenda)
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Malawi is a beautiful country with huge potential, but fishermen on the vast Lake Malawi struggle to catch enough fish to feed their children, let alone sell, writes Susan Dalgety.

Chief Makanjira adjusted his position in his hand-made bamboo chair, and grinned.

“We told the government we didn’t want oil. It would ruin our lake. The lake belongs to all of us, to Malawi.”

“How did they respond?” I asked. “If there is oil in the lake, the government would raise a lot of money from it.”

He didn’t hesitate. Laughing he said: “They came to see the traditional leaders three times, each time we said no. I don’t think they will come back. And they cannot search for oil without our permission.” He sat back, satisfied, the gold threads on his kufi cap glinting in the late morning sun.

Chief Makanjira is the traditional authority (TA) for 45,000 people, who live in scores of villages scattered across an area a 30-minute drive from the town of Salima. His territory stretches down the shores of Lake Malawi and includes the sacred island of Mbenji.

Malawi has enjoyed – or tolerated as some cynics suggest – multi-party democracy since 1994. Its parliament is modelled on Westminster, from the blunt first-past-the-post voting system to the Speaker’s wig.

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It has 35 councils, where councillors decide on issues such as new school buildings, local roads and refuse collection – just like in Scotland, only with considerably smaller budgets.

But the country has also retained its ancient system of chiefs. The council districts are further divided into traditional authorities each ruled by a chief who presides over a sophisticated network of local leaders, a successful system that has lasted hundreds of years. Each village has a headman, and group village headmen oversee several villages.

“We still have power,” explained Chief Makanjira. “We work with councillors and MPs to make sure our people’s views are heard. And we can introduce by-laws. We are currently working with Salima District Council on three. One is to end early marriage,” he said, with obvious pride.

Child marriage is still prevalent in Malawi’s rural villages, where 85 per cent of the population live. Girls marry as young as 14 and, according to Unicef, nearly half marry before they are 18, despite the Malawi government raising the age of marriage for both boys and girls to 18 in 2017.

In the country’s rural villages, where the rhythm of life has changed little in the last hundred years and more, a chief has more influence over his – or her – community than legislators sitting in a distant parliament, which is why organisations such as Unicef work closely with chiefs to try and end the culture of child marriages through local by-laws.

Child marriage is not the only ancient tradition that persists. As we spoke, Chief Makanjira held on to a large, well-thumbed book. “I went to Japan for a big conference,” he explained, pointing to a page titled, “The Mbenji Island Fishery: A Case of Participatory Community Fisheries”.

“I was there to explain about our traditional way of managing fish stocks. Each year, around December, we close fishing so that the chambo (Malawi’s national fish) can breed, and their young grow.

“We open again in April, but during those months, no-one is allowed to fish.”

His community’s approach to fishing has been described as a “successful and sustainable resource management programme” and hailed as an example for the rest of the country to follow.

Lake Malawi is the country’s biggest natural asset. It is, quite simply, a wonder to behold and boasts the world’s first freshwater national park. It covers nearly one third of the country and, at 700 metres, is one of the deepest lakes in the world. Its clear, clear waters are home to hundreds of types of cichlid – the tiny jewel-like fish that sparkle in every home aquarium.

Unesco estimates that Lake Malawi has the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world. The most famous locally is the chambo, a type of tilapia, much loved by Malawians for its creamy white flesh which, when grilled over charcoal, goes perfectly with Malawi’s other national dish, nsima, a maize porridge. And it is a very important source of protein in a country where around half of the children are under-nourished.

But over-fishing has diminished the lake’s stock of chambo dramatically, and it is now an endangered species. And climate change has affected Malawi’s rain patterns, causing the lake’s water levels to fall.

“We must protect the lake,” urged Chief Makanjira, “It belongs to all of us. It is Malawi.”

Today, we arrived on the northern shores of the lake where we will spend much of the next three months. Looking out at the bright blue water, fringed by glistening white sand, it is easy to be lulled into thinking Malawi is paradise on Earth.

It could be. Sitting at the southern tip of the Eastern Rift Valley, it has a dramatically beautiful landscape, from Mulanje Mountain, the country’s highest peak, in the south to the stunning shores of Lake Malawi. Its people are renowned for their easy acceptance of strangers, giving rise to the country’s slogan, the Warm Heart of Africa.

And there is so much potential here, from its 18 million people to its unique natural resources such as the lake, beautiful gemstones and rare minerals. There are even rumoured to be seams of gold waiting to be discovered beneath the rich red soil. And its tourism potential is significant.

But then reality strikes. The fishermen in the dug-out canoes that we watch from our lakeside cottage struggle to catch enough chambo to feed their family, let alone sell.

The children, who have one of the world’s most beautiful beaches as their playground, often go to bed hungry, and many will leave school functionally illiterate, with little or no prospect of formal employment.

The tourism industry is limited, catering either for rich, white kids back-packing or rich Europeans on safari. And the newspaper headlines scream daily of political unrest, cynical corruption and impending disaster. Ebola is the latest scare story to stalk a population already weary of disease.

Hundreds of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where there is currently an Ebola outbreak, flee to Malawi every month, giving rise to rumours on social media of incidents of the disease here.

The Ministry of Health has been quick to squash the speculation, but at the same time has reassured people that there are plans in place in the unlikely event of an outbreak, including six isolation centres.

Perhaps I should check my travel insurance, just in case.