Formerly Nyasaland under British colonial rule, Malawi gained independence in 1964. The tall and slender country hugs the shores of Lake Nyasa, the sixth deepest lake in the world (at 802m deep). Despite ample resources the economy has suffered numerous setbacks from war, famine, and later flooding and still struggles to grow as it battles HIV/AIDS and a population explosion.
Our time in Malawi was mainly spent relaxing on beaches and swimming which is presumably of little interest to others so I thought I’d take the opportunity to describe some of the interesting phenomena we encountered instead.
After our grueling journey crossing the border and dealing with officialdom we took a few days on the beach to recuperate. We found a lodge where we could camp on the beach, swim in the crystal waters, and go to sleep to the sound of waves lapping the shore. After four days our food supplies were nearly exhausted and we wanted to head to a large city before Christmas to buy presents and luxuries for each other. We entered at the very North of the country and the capital was in the south so we planned a route that would enable us to visit the entire length of the country along the lake shore.
The lake provides edible fish for the burgeoning and struggling population of nearly 20 million people. In practice this means that every few km there is a fish drying station where local fishermen lay out thousands of silver fish on racks to be sun dried. While beautiful from a distance, these oily fish have a strong odour that really develops after a few days in the sun. The scent is so strong that these fish drying stations are often detected before they become visible but it’s actually a cultural phenomenon that makes it impossible to escape the scent.
For a reason I haven’t been able to determine, these fish are placed directly on top of the bank notes used to purchase them. The highest denomination note is 2000 Kwacha (£2.11) so I found myself handling money rather frequently (imagine paying for a tank of diesel in £2 coins). Sufficed to say that, using banknotes as a vector, my hands, wallet, and pockets all smelt rather fishy.
True to my formative training as an engineer, I developed a system where I graded the notes as I acquired them. Crisp notes fresh out of an ATM got a Grade A rating and were allowed to be stowed in my wallet without further thought. Worn notes received a Grade B rating and were also allowed into my wallet, provided they were sandwiched between Grade A notes. Market stall notes received a Grade F rating and were to be handled with the minimum number of fingers as they were transferred into a plastic tub in the cab before being exchanged for material goods as soon as possible, preferably bottles of hand-sanitiser. It was easy to visually grade the notes as Grade F notes were usually black.
One day, as we sat on the beach shore enjoying an evening beer a spire of smoke appeared over the lake. Was there a fire down the lake? Had a boat set ablaze? Unfortunately neither. Our experience of 10 million bats migrating in Zambia was soon to be trumped by the largest animal gathering known to man.
Lake flies are insects that reproduce by laying their eggs on the surface of the lake. The eggs are denser than water and slowly sink to the bottom of the lake where they safely develop far out of reach from most predators (remember the lake is 800m deep). When developed they rise to the surface, hatch as a fly, and go about seeking a mate. The flies manage to coordinate this feat and all energy to mate at the same time. Millions of them form great, towering spires hundreds of metres tall during this ritual. From a distance it can be fascinating. They mate quickly, lay their eggs, then get listlessly carried wherever the prevailing wind takes them.
Lake flies are harmless but have three notable qualities:
While we were trying to avoid them, the locals were busy catching them in nets, forming them into patties, and cooking them like burgers (called Kungu). As always we remained steadfast in our commitment to veganism, though I’ll admit it wasn’t that hard. If you wish to Google this you can search for Glassworms or Kungu burgers.