On the beach at Ruarwe, along with hundreds of other folk, we loaded our belongings into the rickety boats that realistically in the west would have carried a quota of about 15 folk. We’ve managed to stuff about 40 people on each craft including all manner of bags and suitcases, potato sacks, fish, goats, chickens, and a solar panel or two. It’s a bouncy ride today with the wind up and already two people have been tossed overboard before reaching the ferry which is moored just a few hundred meters off shore. Amazingly, no one seems to have lost any of their kit or belongings to the depths and eventually, after a few entertaining moments of boat-loading soap opera, we’re on our way. More on the Ilala soon though…
Prior to British arrival, I’m told Ruarwe had one of the strongest elephant-populated lakeshores in Malawi. Of course we are the main reason why elephants no longer frequent the lakeshore area, as well as much of the interior. We (the rest of the developed world) extorted the ivory trade. In turn (that’s a rather vague term as it covers time through world wars, industrialisation of the west, slavery, medical development, and a multitude of political and social extremes in southern Africa and around the world), Europeans have arguably altered the way the African population has grown – and boy has it grown. There isn’t a short-handed way of narrating the developments of modern African history, but through swarms of inexplicable struggles as well as western influence, it isn’t hard to understand how and why the population has fizzed-over like some over-zealous glass of quickly-poured champagne. As has the world over. However, its arguable that the biggest influence over developing nations (not just) in Africa is western medicine. Briefly and not solely, the west has worked “charitably”, “humanely” and tirelessly to cure lethal diseases and maintain longevity of life – and this has caused huge economic and environmental pressures throughout the world, especially on the African continent. It’s difficult not to be aware that the majority of the content is home to some of the poorest inhabited places on Earth and the problems of weak economies, poorly developed infrastructure, a huge rich/poor divide, ill or deficient education, and importantly a lack of access to modern and successful medicine are just some of the issues that continue to plague the continent like a sporadic but debilitative skin rash. Although developed nations have attempted to “cure” Africa, ultimately and sadly, it’s in the West’s interest to keep the resource-rich land on a string, much like a useful, but unloved dog on a lead. I wouldn’t want to paint the entire 54 African countries with the same brush, but to summarise the problems of a land so vast; considering how much the West has attempted to “help” them, improvement in our eyes is terribly limited. Even though a long way behind, many countries do want a western lifestyle, but we seem to be keen on making sure they stay living in the past. Economies and governments, much like the West, would be weakened by listening to the masses, and western powers would appear supportive of this ignorance. Many in Africa however, appear intent on avoiding a shift to a western lifestyle, and who are we to either force our way upon them, or judge?! Since the West first returned to extort, manipulate, eradicate, infiltrate, persecute and pity this continent, our human instinct the world over is to seek longevity of life rather than improve its quality for the masses. It continues to send to poorest places on Earth into a cycle of horrendous turmoil and frustration and in my eyes, simply living longer doesn’t make life any better. In hindsight, striving to keep people alive is now arguably the biggest problem we as humans have created for ourselves. The blatant consequences of this continuing action is that other Earthly organisms have to give way to us as a virus. It’s hard to see where our species will either stop, or be stopped – and as for everything we hold dear on our planet, nothing is safe.
I’m rambling on a very negative note, but it’s hard to be immune to these issues when they stare you in the face.
Where there would have been plentiful elephant, absent land is now simply cultivated – and needs to be. Sadly, the efficiency and sustainability of it is kept at a minimum. Access to the lake was made easy with the extinction of lakeshore elephants and other creatures have also followed suit (hippo, crocodile, various reptiles and no doubt small, tasty mammals). They have had to move elsewhere – and those places are constantly being encroached upon also. With more land being cultivated rather rudimentarily into cassava fields, we have exposed a very “altered” modern beauty from when the elephants once frequented this area, but have also exposed, to a bloated degree, all the problems we have today. You can see them from the top deck of the boat as you sail down the lake shore. Trees are missing, land slides are abundant, deliberate bush fires burn, fish stocks are low, attempts at western lifestyle or donations to facilitate them have fallen by the wayside, and erosion of the wild is all around us. Beautiful it is, but overly-drastic change in just a few decades is also obvious. This isn’t localised, I see it EVERYWHERE I go.
The Ruarwe beach was a popular spot for the four legged behemoths and with the lush valley, carpeted with tasty trees and fruit backing up into the hills and the plateau above, it was an elephants’ favourite sweet shop. Like bulls around the aristocracy’s best china, the Persians and the Europeans rolled around and eradicated the majority of the Malawi elephants, something ALL of subsaharan, economically-dependent-through-tourism Africa is still having to deal with today. Slavery isn’t the only hateful tragedy which Africa still licks it’s wounds from while the rest of the world ignorantly apologises – its culture and environment was dented irrevocably from those times as well. Elephants were slaughtered, their ivory was shipped unashamedly down the lake-motorway and unsurprisingly the “elephant’s gorge” disappeared to make way for the growing human population. A couple of years ago, a lone hippo showed up here – hundreds of miles from it’s regular watering hole. It was a huge surprise to everyone and I guess the hippo wasn’t all that impressed with the area either. Without any ability to return it safely to anywhere hippo-enough for the adventurous hipster, and staring at a titanic amount of protein shuffling around the village, there was only ever one sad outcome for the beast.
We may not have learnt our lessons when it comes to animal or environment annihilation and we certainly haven’t managed to pass on our hindsight following a period of capitalist “ growth” to developing countries. With our “give with one hand but steal with the other” style of help, they are encouraged to and continue to replicate our mistakes (of which have made us economically rich but extremely flawed). Villagers maybe safer and happier without the constant interaction with elephants but because of unsustainable techniques on over-farmed land the earth itself is extremely volatile and unsafe during heavy rains and annual storms. The total replacement of wilderness with rudimentary crop fields and wastelands has only perpetuated a cycle of hardship and ongoing battles with the elements. Here, in one local area, we have eradicated a legacy of lakeshore elephants and changed the shape of the Malawian (and African) landscape forever, and a sustainable culture is now difficult to maintain.