24 January 1998 – Mitch Strumph’s house, Zomba
Darkness is a tempting metaphor in this place. One could live by it, in it, through it. Or get lost in its folds. Conrad did not begin this course, like many others he traced and tapped its heartwood flow. Darkness . . .
grows from the mists writhing off tarmac streets at night, their motion like the dance of the furies, from prostration on ground to erection of spine, toes straining to leave terra firma, arms waving to grasp something higher. So the night mists move. And their prey is not young Orestes but the sound and sight of evening. They eat up light from streetlamps, quenching it in the minuteness of their own refractions; mute any utterance, as they sip the voice from your mouth, leaving damp trails in return for each stealing kiss. Footfalls too disappear, muffled in misty wraps. These eves darken senses, bring fear and comfort to fever—moist and warm and suffocating. A worn thread of thought will not resist this dark call: this land, Africa, this part of the land, Malawi, is the womb of humanity. Some of the oldest hominid fossils, Homo rudolfensis, have been found here, in a cave along the edges of the Great Rift Valley. Not quite human, these upright-walking creatures were the predecessors of Homo erectus, which eventually became Homo sapiens. The mountain streams and bedland springs of the Shire River are also the birthplace of our ancestry. The collective unconscious—sprung from this most ancient well, flowing through each one of us—began here; differentiated, grew, dispersed.
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As we headed out to this clearly real mountain for the first time, mists and myth still shrouded its reputation in my mind. Everyone seemed to have a story about it. Montfort Mwanyambo, my initial contact in Malawi, had suggested Mulanje as a research site because it was the epicenter of healing for the country. Numerous Malawian friends agreed, and said this was because the mountain itself was a locus of spiritual power, which made the healers there stronger. John Wilson, the biologist who cleared me to work through the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, had told me that it was one of the few places left in the highly populated southern region where healers could still find an abundance of plants. This owing to the forest reserves which covered the Mulanje range and its foothills. American friends from Habitat for Humanity had climbed the mountain many times, and told me stories of the amazing views, frightening weather, and their work constructing a hut on one of the plateaus. The mountain had been the backdrop for H. Rider Haggard’s 19th century adventure People of the Mist and setting for Laurens van der Post’s Venture to the Interior, an account of one of the first organized expeditions across the range. I had been told by one expatriate that Mulanje was J.R.R. Tolkein’s model for Mt. Doom, though I was never able to substantiate this. I was also told by an old Malawian cook that it was the highest mountain in Africa, and took the claim more as evidence of the mountain’s great importance for the region than testament to geographical nescience. Mulanje was Malawi’s highest mountain, and the highest in the area for more than a thousand miles.
Everyone had stories about Mulanje, but not everyone was willing to tell them. I realized this as I asked John about the mountain that afternoon. We’d been driving for four hours; had taken the long route through Blantyre, south, then east, like the path of a chessman’s knight, because we were unsure of the more direct route across the Phalombe plains. The rains were still falling, and they were well known for turning dirt roads to impassable bogs, washing out bridges, and creating rivers where none had been a week before. They hadn’t yet started that day, but the sky was full of clouds and we could not see the mountain as we approached. Two hours after Blantyre, as we weaved amongst construction materials for the new Thyolo road, the tea fields began on either side of us and I knew we must be approaching the mountain.
“Why is this mountain so popular with the healers?” I asked, hoping the spur conversation after the last hour of silence.
“They say it has powers,” he looked up from his lap briefly to answer, “so people come here to be healed.” He was absorbed reading Heart of Darkness, which I’d left on the dashboard. It was a move I now regretted because I wanted no association with the confusing racial picture presented there.
“Do you know why, though?” I asked. All around us aisles of tea trees grooved the rolling hills in even lines. The rows ran straight up to the road on either side of the car and I could not see an end to them in either direction. Workers loaded like snails under baskets twice their size were picking tea.
His eyes suggested the question did not warrant an answer.
“I mean are there stories about the powers of the mountain? Why do people believe it’s so strong?”
He looked away at the fields, then down at the book in his lap. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t think they’re true.”
I recall these moments and think that John did not want to talk about himself or the stories he knew. I wonder now if it had something to do with what he saw in Conrad’s book that day. I imagine him reading a world of black and white where Africans are portrayed as collective, nameless darkness and wonder how he would look at my role in talking to healers after that. Going after the dark magic of the land and trying to find out about the African stories. The book disappeared after that trip, and in the nine months that we worked together, only once did he tell a story he’d heard growing up. Three months after our first trip to Mulanje I repeated the question I had asked on that drive.
“What kind of a story?” he asked, his eyes widening in alarm that I’d shifted the topic to his knowledge.
“Something you heard in your family growing up. Something about this place” I said, taking my hands off the wheel of the Land Rover just long enough to wave at the steep mountain slopes to our right and the fields of dried maize to our left. “What kind of stories did you hear?”
“You mean about my family?”
“More about your culture, or about the land here. Why are things the way they are? Do you have any stories like that?”
“No.” He shook his head and smiled, as if the answer should have been obvious.
“These healers; they’re all talking about spirits; did your parents tell you about spirits when you were younger?”
“No.” This time a curt nod; the smile disappeared.
“This mountain, Mulanje,” I slid forward the pane of the driver’s side window and felt the warm breeze on my hand as I painted the expanse of the mountain’s massive base with my fingers, “everyone says it’s the center of spiritual power; didn’t you hear any stories about it?”
“No,” more relaxed, “but it is the place of power.”
“It just is.”
“Why do people believe that? Aren’t there any stories about it?”
John looked straight ahead at the dirt track before us. Perhaps scanning for a damaged bridge, loose chicken, or overburdened pedestrian to derail the conversation. The Land Rover ground below us at the engine, whined behind us at the real axle, and rattled all around with loose nuts, but there was a grave silence in his profile.
“Ask the healers.”
John’s bridge arrived a few minutes later, in the form of a one-lane wooden track that no longer bore a left railing. Splintered vertical shafts sprouted up from its girders and, as we drew nearer, we could see that a large transport truck had fallen into the riverbed fifteen feet below. “Chibuku,” John told me, noting the caustic red and blue that announced Malawi’s popular ferment-in-the-carton beer. A group of about ten men were working around the truck, preparing a set of levers and wedges to right it. The driver was no longer inside.
I chose a track to the left of the bridge, clearing the relatively dry bed thanks to the scarcity of recent rains. John and I had been driving that way for the past week and had noticed the gaps in the wood floor of the bridge. Each day they grew a bit, but we’d been able to dodge them in the Land Rover.
“What river is that anyway?” I asked as we drove on. There were at least ten bridges to cross between Phalombe and Pwheremwe village, where we were heading, and I couldn’t remember the names of all the rivers.
“I don’t know; it’s an offshoot of the Ruo.”
“Doesn’t the Ruo come down the south side of the mountain?” We were driving along Mulanje’s western skirts.
“Yes, it’s the same river.”
My look, I’m sure, demanded further explanation. How could the same river come down two sides of the mountain?
“The people here say that a white rock was split open on top of the mountain, some say it was an egg. The two rivers came out of the same rock, so they are both called the Ruo. They join again later on.”
“Why did the rock split open?”
“It was god, or lightning. It was water and flood.” He said these as opposites, his voice dropping low for the second option of each pair. “Water,” and I imagined plants in the fields coming to life; “flood,” villages and livestock washed to nothing. Twin rivers, split to join again, powers of life and death, an egg the genesis of it all; my archetypal mind awoke and wanted more.
“That’s just the kind of story I mean, what else do you know about it?”
“Nothing.” And he would not say any more.
It was the only thing resembling a story that John ever told me that didn’t come directly from his life experience. The only story I ever heard through him about powers on Mulanje. Years later, as I try to look the details up on maps, they recede like tracks of water in the dry season. The largest river coming off the western slope of Mulanje is the Muloza, also called Malosa, depending on the map consulted. This river marks the western border of Malawi once it starts to flow south. It curves a clockwise east around Mulanje to merge with the Ruo, which continues southeasterly until joined by the Thuchila. This tributary heads south for another forty miles, continuing to mark the eastern border with Mozambique, until it flows into the Shire, which eventually courses into the great Zambezi. One map bears a second river called Muloza; this one falling from the eastern slopes of the mountain rather than the west. Perhaps this is the Gemini split of rivers to which John referred: two Mulozas rather than two Ruos. One map puts a second Ruo on the eastern face, in keeping with John’s story, though this river does not originate near the top of the mountain. All maps agree that the Ruo and Muloza, the eastern Ruo and the western Muloza, are born within half a mile of each other 8,500 feet up the spine of Chinzama Peak.
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Livingstone’s early map of Mulanje—Milanje rather—depicts a dotted Ruo falling like a tail from the back of the mountains. He had only seen the range from the west, and only from afar, so drew a shaggy lowercase “i” with hairs to designate slope. Had the mountain been his objective, had he set out to discover Mulanje rather than the lake, he might have found that it was shaped more like a turtle. Manene and Manga Peaks forming the legs, Litakala, Chagaru and Nandalanda tracing the vast curve of a shell, and the sharp face of Chambe, a head craning up to look towards the Shire Highlands, towards the place where Livingstone’s party first spotted the mountains. A turtle carrying a package, for the one feature Livingstone did note was the space between the bulk of the range and its northern extremity. The package, or Livingstone’s dot above the “i,” is called Michesi, and the breach between it and the rest of the massif is now called the Fort Lister Gap. Livingstone annotates his map, “Pass through which people of Anguru come to attack the Shirwa tribes with guns.”
The Anguru were slave traders, working through Arab, Portuguese, and Indian agents. They inhabited the lands northeast of Mulanje, and would probably have come west through the pass to attack and capture the Shirwa. Livingstone’s “people of Anguru” came from Bocarro’s “territory called Manguro” but, though the territory and the people remained the same to the western world through these visits spanning two and a half centuries, the East African slave trade, nascent in Bocarro’s time, had reached its zenith by Livingstone’s.
It was this trade, in fact, which made Livingstone’s dual mission of commerce and Christianity, “the two Cs,” so popular, both in England and in Africa. He won financial and political backing at home by setting his “civilizing” mission against the backdrop of slave raids and the horror of the trans-Atlantic slave passage. Though the political power and commercial wealth of the African colonies were clearly a motive for the British, their payoff was uncertain at the time of Livingstone’s exploration; the winning of souls and the rescue of slaves was a sure bet. This, then, was what he wrote about, and his books were tremendously successful on this count. Livingstone became a hero in England, and donations for missions to Africa rolled in from government and private sources alike.
Africans, for their part, might well have been swayed by the logic of salvation from the slave driver’s yoke, and Livingstone’s message of freedom from slavery was indeed more popular than either his Bible or his schemes for agriculture and trade. But not everyone wanted to be freed into the debt of a white man, and the noble goal of eradicating slavery was relegated to second position at best among Livingstone’s aims: he was first and foremost an explorer.
So it was that while forging up the Shire to discover Lake Nyasa he made little of breaking a blockade put up by one Chief Tingane. Tingane was a powerful ruler, and his hold on the river was the lone impediment to slave trade in the area. Livingstone, more anxious to put his name on the lake than to meet the locals, armed his men and had them show their guns rather than stopping on the river. He did not meet Tingane, though one would not know this from the account printed for white readers:
At the village of a chief named Tingane, at least five hundred natives collected and ordered us to stop. Dr. Livingstone went ashore; and on his explaining that we were English and had come neither to take slaves nor to fight, but only to open a path by which our countrymen might follow to purchase cotton, or whatever else they might have to sell, except slaves, Tingane became at once quite friendly.
Livingstone’s story was a great success on the printed page, and his break of Tingane’s blockade was a victory for the slave traders in the area. Whether the Anguru slavers to which the doctor referred on his early map ever made it as far south as Tingane’s village, which lay straight west of Mt. Chiperone, is uncertain. What is certain is that a slaver named Mariano, who had once feared Tingane, soon followed Livingstone’s path through the blockade, destroyed the village, and took many slaves in his wake. The Shire Valley had been opened to the slave trade.
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Clouds had spread out from Mulanje on that day of our first visit, and still obscured the mountain as John and I drove past the town of Mulanje, situated on the southwest corner of the mountain, to Likabula, which lay at the western shins of the range. Likabula was the name of a large river pouring down the gap between Chambe and Chilemba peaks, and the small town that had sprung up where this river met the plains was also called Likabula. It housed one of the two forestry offices for the mountain and served as the primary checkpoint for lumber that came down from the forests.
We pulled off the main road at about four in the afternoon and drove half a mile up a steep trail to reach the forestry center, where we planned to rent a cottage for the night. After checking in and putting our bags away, we decided to explore. Hiking up the main trail past rows of houses that may have belonged to forestry workers or workers from the nearby tea estate, we were trailed by a group of children asking for money and trying to sell cedar boxes. They had learned the phrase “give me money,” but did not understand my replies in English, so I had lapsed into the repetition of “pepani,” Chichewa for “sorry,” as we continued to hike. I was asking John to tell them that we didn’t want cedar boxes because the tree was endangered when I saw a row of strange shadows emerge from the trees. It was a group of men walking with their hands above their heads. As they moved closer, I saw in the fading light that they were using their hands to balance something and, as the first turned left onto a side trail, fifty feet in front of us, a sawn log swung into profile, clearing an arc three strides in advance of the man’s path. Each of them carried such a plank, ranging from ten to eighteen feet long, half a foot to a foot wide and two to three inches thick. They followed one another around the turn in even time, until the fifth in line swung too far as he brought his plank around. The plank spun dangerously low to the ground and he twisted further left, trying to avoid a crash. A low sapling intercepted his load from behind and sent it tumbling to the ground in a dense thud. The others walked on without turning their burdened necks, and he struggled with the load for a precious half minute before returning it to his crown of wadded cloth and chasing after the others.
Months later, hiking the plateau, I would become accustomed to the sight of these porters. They earned their living making daily treks up the steep Skyline Path between Likubula and the Chambe basin. The route was marked at three hours on a map, but they would go up much faster than that, carrying nothing, or at most a snack and a sweater. At the top they would report to the forestry officers for a piece of lumber and begin the precipitous hike down. The trail was dangerous, often making its way along the sides of steep cliffs over loose rocks. When I traveled it with friends in July, I had a hard time scrambling through portions of it with a well-fit backpack, and our party was constantly passed by the carriers with their far less balanced loads. For this labor, I believe they received the sum of 25 Kwacha per plank. Nearly a dollar fifty when I arrived in Malawi, closer to forty cents when I left a year later. Some would make two runs a day; some would try to carry two planks. I don’t know if they ever went for three. There were rumors of the occasional fall to death along the steeper parts of the trail.
John and I turned back down the trail and headed to our cabin for the night. We had a shower, kitchen sink, and cushioned easy chairs in our room, amenities I didn’t question at the time, but would never see again in my many visits to rest houses in Malawi. Our beds were bunked, and I set up on the lower one, hanging my mosquito net from the slats of the bunk above. John slept without a net, having had malaria enough times to claim a stout resistance by then. We had exhausted, for the time being, our supply of questions for each other and retreated to reading; John retaining my copy of Heart of Darkness from the drive, me reading the only book I’d been able to find on Mulanje: Laurens van der Post’s Venture to the Interior. I had balanced the green spiral of a mosquito coil on the edge of the counter by the sink and its toxic smoke occasionally crept towards my nostrils as I read about a 1949 expedition to fully map the Mulanje range. Van der Post, a British soldier, writer, and friend to C. G. Jung described his prescience in the death of his friend Vance while exploring on the mountain. Something in him knew at the moment Vance left his wife and children on the other side of the mountain, that it would be the last time they saw each other, and Van der Post ascribed this to a kind of instinct he called darkness:
Without looking for it, against all my training and upbringing, I myself have become increasingly aware of how little our conscious knowing pushes back the frontiers of our unknowing. In the forefront of our century all this parade of our knowledge, this great and glittering collection of demonstrable and ascertainable fact, throws no more light on our aboriginal darkness than one of Vance’s bright cedar fires throws on the night round the peaks of Mlanje.
Our aboriginal darkness. I had written about something similar in a journal a month earlier, on the night of my uncelebrated birthday. How darkness brought us back to the origin of humanity, how in darkness we were all alike, how darkness was such a tempting metaphor for the unknown in a place like Africa. Darkness, it turns out, can be an easy field to get lost in. Conrad was surely not the first to conflate a darkness of skin, soul, and shadowy forest, but his work proclaimed this blending more loudly than any before or since. The heart of darkness: the land where white men went native and became more savage for their fall than the natural, noble primitives of the dark land. Conrad’s “us” and “them” was sensitive for its time but, as I thought about darkness and what John was reading on the bunk above me, I feared that he would not have the context to place Conrad’s message.
Of course I was wrong; of course he had the context all too clearly. Unlike Kurtz—and hadn’t I dubbed Mitch, my host in Zomba, the Kurtz of the land when I arrived: the white man with the wild eyebrows who dealt primarily with natives; hadn’t I even in that first week seen things in terms of Conrad’s stock types—unlike Kurtz, who went deep into the bush to become a godhead, to be worshipped, I was probing the forests to find a god—a healer, a keeper of knowledge, someone to teach me belief. The dichotomy was the same; I had merely switched the roles. Like van der Post, I had believed that something more powerful and profound underlay my western knowing—some aboriginal darkness—and I had hoped to find it in Malawi. Of course I hadn’t managed to switch Conrad’s schema entirely: I was still white; I was still the one with the money and the power. And, as it turns out, I was the one who would write the story as well.
John, I’m sure, knew this all too well. He had context enough to grasp the essentials of our relationship long before I did, and for this reason he was cautious. Cautious with the stories he would tell; cautious with his friendship. Our interaction was uneasy from the start and, as I try to write John’s character to paper, I’m stymied at every step, realizing more and more that I did not know him.
And that I know him too well to make things up.
If only he were a 17th century friar.
Bocarro set out with a Dominican Friar. Franciso d’Avelar was his name, though he rarely gets mentioned. One cannot blame Gaspar for this omission; he did not publish his travels, they were garnered from “official correspondence” to which his relative, or someone who shared his surname, Antonio, Keeper of the Archives and Chronicler of India at Lisbon, had access. And though Antonio wrote the travels, he did not publish them either. They remained vaulted in Lisbon until 1876.
Francisco d’Avelar, then, is a character about whom we know little. He is at best a footnote to the story of Bocarro which is a footnote to the annals of Portuguese East Africa: Mozambique. He is a blank slate.
It is Franciso d’Avelar that I need for my story. The sidekick who can’t speak back, whose eyes reading the page don’t haunt me as I type.
I don’t know what John thought of Conrad or of me; I can only guess. As to darkness, I maintain some hope for van der Post’s notions, for my own birthday incantation, but I think that neither Conrad, nor van der Post nor I could get this right when we’d tacitly bought into an “us” and “them.” Us and them is clearly the world in which we live, but darkness does not fall along those lines. Prospero, the puppet master of an island lost at sea, an island representing all that was strange and foreign to Europeans of Bocarro’s time, knew this over two centuries before Conrad wrote, when Shakespeare made him say of savage Caliban, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” The darkness is something we bring with us.