Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

Safunsa adadya phula. ~If you don’t ask for honey, you will only eat wax.

~Chewa proverb

March 31, 2024

Hi Everyone,

It’s early Easter morning and I’m sitting on the veranda of my little chalet watching the fishermen paddle out in their dugout canoes. The scene is framed by two huge baobabs. I face west so am not watching the Easter sunrise, but the pinks and blues over the lake are beautiful. I slept soundly last night and woke full of gratitude for the gifts life has given me. The only thing missing is a pot of tea, otherwise, complete bliss.

I mentioned last week how I’d always wanted to go out to Likoma Island and explore. I’ve read and heard about the big cathedral commissioned by Anglican missionaries and built from 1903 to 1911 and I wanted to see it. It’s the largest church in Malawi, the third largest in central Africa, and the size of Winchester Cathedral in UK. The sheer remoteness makes this place alluring, but to build this kind of church here is fascinatingly bizarre to me. I know a few people who have ventured out and their stories made the desire to get here even stronger. But most people say they’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t taken on the challenge. And getting here is a challenge. When my colleague Ursula asked me what I was doing over the Easter holiday I told her I was planning to go to Likoma Island and see the cathedral, she responded with what I hear from most people––– I’ve always wanted to go there. “You should come!” I said. Her response was, “No, I will never get on that boat.” I laughed, haha!, and told her I don’t like boats that much either but I really want to go. Little did I know. 

When we left Karonga on the very northern shore of this lake in 1981, we had a ten month old baby and a choice of small plane or the Ilala, the lake steamer, for transport. There was no road that went all the way south at the time and the Ilala made a journey up and down the lake once a week. We chose the boat, knowing it stopped at Likoma Island but we decided it would be too much to get off and stay there for the week with a baby and all our luggage. We saw the island from the deck of the Ilala and thought that was the closest we would ever get. But since I returned to Malawi in 2016, it’s been nagging at me. To spend three nights here it requires four days of travel. When I saw the four day Easter break this month it looked like I could tack a few days on each end and make it work. Which I did. Though I’m not home yet, so guess I should qualify “work”. 

The Ilala begins it’s journey at the southernmost tip of the lake at Monkey Bay. From Blantyre that’s a four and a half hour drive. It’s also possible to get the boat when it stops at Senga Bay heading north, also a four and a half hour drive from Blantyre. Since I’ll be going to Monkey Bay in May, I decided to go to Senga Bay. I booked a lodge for Thursday night planning to get the boat mid-day Friday, arriving on Likoma Island Saturday morning. The Ilala has a few cabins but they book quickly and friends have slept out on the deck and said it was lovely. That was my plan. Ady, a young American woman I’ve met, heard of my plans and asked if she could come along. I was happy to go alone but having company is nice too, so sure. She made her own reservations at the same lodges and Thursday afternoon we set off for Senga Bay. We arrived at a sweet little lodge called Cool Running, situated right on the lake (soon to be in the lake), a short walk down the beach to the boatyard where we’d catch the Ilala. 

The Ilala had been out for service for the prior month but was scheduled to make its first journey north on Friday. I woke feeling lucky. I’d slept well, had a gorgeous breakfast, and joined Ady to enjoy the onshore breeze and wait for our adventure to begin. We were so excited. 

The man who runs the lodge on Likoma sent us a message saying there were three others coming to Likoma on the Ilala and they were boarding in Monkey Bay. He’d heard from them that they were still doing the final inspection following the repairs and departure was delayed. He connected us so we’d hear from them when it left so we could gauge when it would be arriving at Senga Bay. There is no dock at Senga Bay. It was our understanding that they send a small boat to shore with debarking passengers, load up with goods and people and then return to the boat for departure north. So our 1 p.m. departure would be three or so. No problem, I thought. Beautiful day and gorgeous setting, and the boat trip was part of the adventure. So we waited…and waited,…and waited. As it got later and later we started doing the math and got a little anxious. Will we still board by nightfall? How much is this going to cut into our time on Likoma? We got occasional updates from the people waiting in Monkey Bay saying only they were still waiting. A little after three, when we should have already been on the boat for two hours, we heard the Ilala did not pass inspection and they were getting the Chilembwe, a smaller boat, ready to sail. They were planning to be off by five. The staff at Cool Running assured us the Chilembwe was fast! Very fast! It would be here by seven, or even six. We should be ready to board by six because it does not wait, just a quick drop of goods and people then off again. 

We ordered sandwiches because the Chilembwe has no restaurant, packed up our stuff and headed down the beach at 5:30. I thought it would be fun to sit there and watch it arrive and be ready to hop aboard. Ady was planning to camp at the lodge so she had quite a bit of luggage. She hired Tiger, a guy selling curios on the beach, to carry her stuff. His brother accompanied him and insisted on carrying mine. We followed them along the shore, through the village where fishermen were preparing their nets. The village was buzzing against a panorama of apricot sky. The sunset was showing off spectacularly. We arrived at the “boatyard” which was nothing more than part of the fishing village, where scores of people with baggage were sitting and waiting. It looked like there was going to be quite a competition to get on the smaller boat. Knowing this was “first come first serve” I wondered if they had a limit to the number of passengers allowed on? (This was before learning there are exactly zero safety regulations) It was almost six and we still hadn’t heard that the boat had left Monkey Bay. Ok, I thought, it might be between seven and eight we board so we’ll just eat our sandwich on the beach here. No problem. But Ady was getting nervous. She asked, “What will it be like to board this boat in the dark?” Yeah, I was a little worried about that myself. We saw a wooden fishing boat completely laden with bags of goods, baskets and luggage. We wondered where that was going? A man sat down next to us and asked if we wanted him to take our luggage, but we didn’t understand what he meant. To the Chilembwe? “Yes”, he said, “we take it to the boat for you.” But we thought why pay him when we will just get on the boat they send to shore? So we told him no thanks. But more and more people were putting stuff in that wooden boat. It definitely looked like they knew something we didn’t. It got dark. We finally got a message that the boat left Monkey Bay along with “No seats. The boat is full.” and I figured, ok, two hours at the most, but would they let us on? Eight o’clock came and went. Ady asked me when I thought we should call the whole thing off? It’s not like that hadn’t crossed my mind, but the boat was on its way! We at least knew that. But from the looks of all the stuff on the fishing boat, I couldn’t imagine everything fitting. But we had nothing to lose by waiting as the alternative was going back to sleep in the car. And Tiger was long gone. I texted the owner of the lodge on Likoma and asked him if there was a limit to the number of passengers allowed on the Chilembwe? I never got a response. 

I was trying to enjoy the deep orange moonrise. I was marveling at the scene and being part of it, as well as wishing we knew what was going on. Groups of people surrounded us eating, talking, smoking. Small kids were playing, some were crying. Nine o’clock came and went. The wind picked up and whitecaps were starting to form. Then, all at once, everyone got up and ran to board that fishing boat. They literally charged for it; kids were being tossed up, people were climbing the sides, older people were being carried on others’ shoulders, and this already overloaded boat now had about a hundred more people on it! There was no way I was getting on that boat!  We couldn’t see the Chilembwe coming but someone obviously got a message we didn’t. Then a guy named George came down to the beach and saw us, two mzungus (white people) standing there looking lost, and asked what we were doing? We told him we were waiting for the Chilembwe and he told us to get our stuff on that fishing boat, which, by now was completely overloaded. I told him we were planning to take the small boat sent by the Chilembwe. He said, “No no no, they won’t send that boat here with these waves. You need to pay him to go in that boat.” I really didn’t want to believe this. In my ear Ady said, “I don’t know about this. It looks so sketchy.” Couldn’t argue with that, but I hated to give up. I also didn’t want to be stupid and get us both drowned. I never heard any drowning stories associated with getting to Likoma aside from the Bishop who built the cathedral and was so anxious to get there he set out in a storm and drowned. That story went though my mind. I finally called the owner of Cool Running and asked if this was what we were supposed to do? You’d have thought someone would have told us! She said, “Yes, the wind is picking up and fisherman are coming in. You’ll need to get on that local boat.” Oh my God. My heart sank. A guy came up and asked for money to carry our bags out there. I said, okay, looked at Ady, and said, “She said we go with them”. In less than a minute he had our bags on the back of the boat just in front of the two outboard motors. I started to wade through the water, not sure how I’d climb aboard when he said, “No! I carry you!” I started to say that wouldn’t be necessary when he bent down behind me, stuck his head between my legs and stood up. I was on his shoulders trying not to scream when he just dumped me onto the boat. I thought, oh my God, those poor refugees trying to escape this way. Holy hell. Then turned around to see Ady being carried out. I thought, “If I don’t die by drowning she is going to kill me.” So with the last holdouts aboard, they untied the rope attaching us to the boat on shore and we were adrift, maybe a hundred people on a boat the size of a Boston Whaler. Then a guy whose legs were at my face level, tried to start one of the motors. He pulled the cord, oh I don’t know fifty, sixty times? Black smoke pouring out and nothing purring. We were just floating away! I looked around for oars, never mind life jackets. None. Not that I could see under all the stuff in the pitch dark with bodies everywhere. They uncovered the second motor and took off the cap. The cord on this one apparently was missing, so one of the guys took a piece of plastic twine (the kind that wraps a bale of hay) and wrapped it around the thing looking like a tire wheel. No idea what that part of the motor is called but it was metal with a big groove. He then pulled the twine to spin it and miraculously after three tries it worked! That motor sputtered to life and they then tried to steer us while they tried to get the other motor going. I kept looking at shore wondering if I could swim that far. Wouldn’t you think they’d check the motors before untying us?! The whole time people are yelling back and forth to each other, but no one seemed panicked. Which I was taking as a good sign. After another twenty or thirty tries on the first motor it actually started, which I took full responsibility for since I was praying to God to make that motor start. That motor, despite the billowing black smoke emanating from it seemed stronger than the other one and the boat actually started moving in the desired direction. The captain said in Chichewa that the reason the motors wouldn’t start was because of the mzungus on board and they should buy them a new motor. People laughed. I worried about being thrown overboard. 

Then howls went up as another overloaded boat, smaller than ours, passed us heading for the Chilembwe which was now approaching. Where did that boat even come from?! We headed straight for them as if we would bisect them but then turned somehow, I couldn’t see what was happening. My head was bowed and I was praying. It was a race to be first to board. I considered just staying on the boat and going back to shore, it all seemed too dangerous, but wasn’t going to leave Ady. But I was sure she was as freaked out as me. Maybe more.

I looked up to see us heading straight for the side of the Chilembwe towering over us, and a guy threw a rope up to someone on the deck who caught it as we slammed into the side. Before we even had even stopped people were scrambling up the side of the ship! I thought, please God don’t tell me we have to do that, when I heard Ady yell, “Linda, there is no ladder!” I yelled back, “I know!” at this point thinking I really can’t do this, when a guy appeared in front of me and said, “You pay me to help you.” I thought this was the same guy who carried us out to the boat and I said, “I already paid you!” But he had my bag and said, “Follow me. Get to the front.” Hah! There was a sea of humanity climbing up the side trying to get on an already full deck. I was shoved to an opening in the rail where it was easier to grab onto something and when I saw my bag go flying up I thought, Ok, I’m going. It was one of those situations when you think, failure is not an option. I don’t even know what I took hold of but grabbed on and got my legs up while others were fighting to do the same. I yelled, “I can’t leave my friend!” and he yelled back, “I’m getting her. Just go!” So I went. I got onto the deck, reached for my bag being trampled, when a guy with a recipt book yelled, “Where are you going?” I yelled, “Likoma” and he told me to pay eight thousand kwacha, which was way less than I expected to pay but couldn’t get into my backpack for my wallet in this crowd pushing me forward into the cabin. I was already stepping on people. I just moved forward with the wave and once inside I almost fainted. It was really hot and the rows of seats, like airport seats, were overflowing. A body was on every surface. I stepped between legs and around baggage carrying my bag to the front where I saw three empty seats. I looked behind and saw Ady had made it on, so I kept going. I saw the empty seats were wet. Something above them, maybe an air-conditioning unit, was leaking water onto the middle seat and splashing onto the others. The woman behind said that’s why no one was sitting there. I was like, fuck this, I’m sitting here. It was a hundred degrees in there so this was not a functioning air conditioner. I had an umbrella in my bag so got that out and wedged it into the middle seat so the water ran down the sides of it and stopped splashing on the outer seats. then I made a little tent with a chithenje that made sitting there not dry but tolerable. I was just so relieved to be on board and not in the dark waters of the lake, I didn’t care if I got wet; it was only going to be fifteen hours on this thing. At that point I just didn’t want to ruin my son’s wedding by dying before August. I sat close to the window and Ady got in the aisle seat. We just looked at each other with a “can you believe that?” look. Holy shit. God only knows what was going on behind us on deck but a while later it felt like we were moving. It was after midnight. The guy with the receipt book found me and asked for his 8,000 kwacha, which, I happily handed him then turned to Ady and said, “Bargain!” She sorta smiled.  

Despite the blaring music, the crying babies, the stifling heat, and the drunk soldiers, I actually fell asleep. Maybe from sheer relief, but all the noise was less bothersome than a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I opened my eyes to see a hint of dawn out the window and gave thanks for making it through the night. I could only see water so had no idea where we were. I took a drink of some ginger beer from my bag and realized I had to pee. Knowing there were many more hours to go I had to find a toilet, expecting it to be indescribably filthy. But it wasn’t too far away so I only had to step on or around about fifty people lying in the aisle, over an outboard motor lying among them, and into a free loo that even had toilet paper!! I couldn’t believe it! I gave another in the series of prayers of thanks, and made my way back to my wet seat. My shirt was soaked but it kinda kept me cool. Not too bad. Ady woke up and seemed to be not speaking to me. I thought she either hates me for this or is not a morning person. I reminded myself she did ask to come. It wasn’t like I talked her into this. 

I could see Likoma Island way before I thought we should be there. I expected to arrive around 2 p.m. and it was only 8 in the morning! I was sure I was hallucinating. But there we were, and you’d think I’d been adrift at sea for months instead of on a lake for eight hours, I was so happy to see land. I checked my phone to see a message from the owner of the lodge saying he sent someone to help us get off the boat (thank you Jesus) and drive us to the lodge. His name, no lie, was K1. I won’t go into details of getting off that boat, but it made your worst airplane departure look like you were carried off on a palanquin. It was absolute bedlam, but K1 shouted to us from an opening to pass our bags to him. They went overhead person to person until they reached him and then disappeared. I didn’t even care if he was stealing them. A long time later we were outside being crushed in the crowd, but (thank you Jesus) we were on a cement dock and only had to walk a short plank. Words cannot express my relief at this tidbit. We looked back at the Chilembwe swarming with people getting on and Ady said, “Did you see the one lifeboat says maximum ten people!!!!” Yes, I had seen that. I’m also willing to bet there weren’t enough life jackets for 500 people. Oh well, we were here. They loaded us onto a Mitsubishi minicab and K1 drove us through the town to Ulisa Lodge on the opposite side of the island. Ady said she’s already dreading the ride back but I’m thinking I may never leave.

It really is paradise. And the cathedral is astonishing. We are going there for Easter service.

This has gotten very long so maybe I’ll save the story of Tuesday’s meeting until next week. It’s a good one and I am happy. I do love my life. I’m grateful.  

Happy Easter everyone.

Love to all,


One thought on “Sunday Morning ~ Likoma Island for Easter

  1. kris halleburg Reply

    Great description. It reminded me of why I stopped travelling to those places now in my old age. Hilarious, but I’m sure not for you.

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