Likoma Island: Finding Bliss on Lake Malawi

Thursday, August 3, 2006 | Likoma Island, Malawi (map)

Guests play bao by candlelight each evening at Mango Drift.
The eastern sky blushed a peachy glow as the Ilala chugged into Likoma Island's harbor at dawn. Along with the other mzungus aboard, I clambered into a small motorboat which drove us around the island's southern shores, past the idyllic Kaya Mawa lodge. We continued to the secluded western side of the island and disembarked at Mango Drift, a hostel made up of several squat bandas right on the beach. Atop each building's reed sides a grass roof perched slightly askew, cocked "just so," like the swank straw hats of Art Deco sunbathers. Nearby, the hostel's shower had been carved out of the hulking trunk of a baobab tree, and was overgrown with bougainvilleas sprouting electric pink blooms.

At breakfast in the open-air beachside bar, I made the acquaintance of a few British and Dutch guests before they set out to visit to the island's witch doctor.

I spent the morning washing my clothes in the clear waters of the lake, relaxing in a hammock on the beach, and snorkeling. Lake Malawi is the source of many of the world's tropical aquarium fishes and, spared the large-scale fishing operations present elsewhere in the lake, Likoma Island's shallows were full of many exotic specimens. Bright violet-striped darts resembling zebras, mottled blue and red crabs, large yellow and orange speckled fish, and shimmering indigo minnows all inhabited the bay just beside the hostel.

In the afternoon, I napped in the hammock before sitting down to watch several of the other guests play bao, a deceptively intricate local game played on a hand-carved wooden board.

I set off for St. Peter's cathedral in late afternoon, interested to see the large church, built in the island's main town of Likoma by missionaries in the early 20th century. After crossing over the island's central mountain ridge, I walked along a wide dirt path through meadows dotted with grazing cattle and goats. Baobab trees dotted the landscape, squatting on the grassy hillsides like bloated octopi, their stumpy tentacles extended, as if relics of an ancient sea long ago dried up. Ancient Arabic folklore describes the origins of the tree's odd appearance, "The devil plucked up the baobab, thrust its branches into the earth, and left its roots in the air." The awkward trees' mushy pulp does not burn, so Likoma's residents must import firewood for cooking from the Mozambican mainland.

Malawi has the friendliest people of any country I have yet visited in Africa, yet the locals of Likoma Island managed to distinguish themselves even from their fellow countrymen. Though most spoke only Chichewa, everyone I passed along the path to town on this afternoon was happy to try and offer directions by hand gestures when I asked, and some even enthusiastically asked to have their picture taken.

The massive brown stone cathedral was about as large as all the island's other buildings stacked together. Its doors were locked on this evening, but I wandered around the inner courtyard, gardens and arched arcades. The choir practiced exuberantly in a nearby atrium. As they finished belting out their last hymn, I left to return to Mango Drift, on the same island but clearly a world away from the humble lives the locals lead in the shadow of their cathedral.


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