Ben Winston

Not your average travel blog

Where Elephants Once Ruled

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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.
The landscape still holds a beauty unlike anywhere in the world, but look more closely and the land that slides around the precarious paths saturate the hillscape and developing farming methods to withstand the Earth’s pressures is still an ongoing educational process. It’s a tricky layered web of poor agricultural techniques, impossible-to-maintain terroir without access to modern equipment or people, and with a dangerously low obligation to change methods it is difficult to see an improved, sustainable solution being embraced. Continual deliveries on boats are how most people survive; along with busy fishing communities. It’s hard to see anything but unfortunate “modernisation” of a community which is possibly too reliant on foreign trade and resource – albeit relatively local. Scale this rural community upwards – with trade on boats from places further away – and you can’t help but see similarities with western Europe when it expanded west. Killing off culture at overwhelming rates, trading long distances to boost economy, and importing their wealth to substantiate their position in the world, rather than focussing on growing sustainably at home.
Ruarwe is a large village for the north country and like many others, one which has the potential to develop differently to how every other village appears to be tracking itself – on a path influenced by a western, “quick-buck” mentality and without a hind-sighted effort to ask the question; are we doing things in the right way? But who I am I to judge? People want certain things in life and in this instance those things come in the form of imported luxuries, expensive, modern building equipment, electricity, not being intimidated by or having to live alongside huge problematic beasts from Mother Nature, and reliable, more frequent boat transport to and from their trading hubs. With a focussed effort towards a sustained population rather than a growing one, some less expansive agricultural methods with a crop-varied approach to farming (albeit enhanced by workable and sustainable techniques), an enoucraged wilderness which would inevitably bring in an economy from tourism (which would need to be minimised so it doesn’t kill off said wilderness – see Congo gorillas as an example) I see positive effects on lifestyles which could improve the health and wealth of all involved.

We might look upon them as quaint, rustic, and even romantic, but you can’t blame anyone for trying to move into the 21st century…even in a village so remote and beautiful that it used to be the busiest haven for possibly our most revered landed giant since the dinosaurs. It frustrates me that even with the knowledge of so many problems in the west, developing nations are so eager to follow suit. It is sometimes hard to see and be positive about how the future will look. Even though there are still pockets of bountiful wildlife here to enjoy (see my off-grid river trek), the elephants will likely never step foot on the beaches of northern Malawi again. If I had to send them a message, maybe stay away until further notice.

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Where am I now?

After extensive work and tours through Southern Africa, most of my time is spent between Malawi and Europe.
Go Untamed Safaris was striding into top gear, but volatile poitics in 2019, Covid in 2020, the impacts of Russia vs the World as well as insesent corruption forced my hand.
The dust is now settling. Everything has changed. New chapters are about to be written.

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