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Mount Mulanje... A World Heritage Site in waiting?

World Heritage Sites are the jewels of planet earth, places that awe one with their extraordinary natural beauty or cultural splendour. Malawi is now seeking to add a third jewel to its crown, Mt Mulanje - our Island in the Sky, to its two existing World Heritage Sites. We have a natural world heritage site at Lake Malawi National Park where most fish living within those waters are globally unique. We also have the cultural world heritage site at Chongoni that celebrates Chewa culture.

Why do we want to seek world heritage status for Mt Mulanje? The status means global recognition. It also allows local inhabitants to fully appreciate the value of their neighbourhood, of what is on their doorstep, as it seems we all have the ability to be numb to our

surroundings even when we live in paradise. This status will challenge us to care more for these places, to be proud and to take more responsibility to preserve them for others to enjoy. Internationally, the status advertises one of the planet’s main attractions and this in turn motivates the development of real tourism initiatives that will improve the local economy. Good enough reasons?

To successfully achieve world heritage site status, a place must clearly have ‘universal significance’, or that something special that distinguishes it from other similar sites and also somehow attributes it singular distinction. The accreditation and management of world heritage sites is governed internationally by a global contract, the World Heritage Convention, which is overseen by the designated offices of UNESCO. Nomination of new sites is a very formal process, involving the drafting of a formatted comprehensive dossier and the scrutiny of this documentation through expert peer review. This certainly will be a challenge to achieve!

Mountains are usually celebrated for their height or expanse. Mulanje is the highest mountain in south-east Africa but it certainly does not even feature in Africa’s top ten list where we have mountains like Kilimanjaro standing almost twice as high. Mulanje is a very small mountain in comparison to the Drakensberg or the Ethiopian ranges as it only covers an area of 650km2. So this raises the quintessential question… can small be considered great?!

Mt Mulanje is not a true volcanic geological feature that many think it is, rather a granitic intrusion that has been revealed over millennia through erosion of the surrounding landscape to stand as a solitary massif. A phenomenal erosion feature?! This resulting structure has created the striking precipitous tower of a mountain that gives it the highest vertical rock-faces in Africa often rising high up above the clouds to give it the nickname “Island in the Sky’. This does make it relatively unusual, but we do know that there are larger intrusions and there are grander massifs.

Biodiversity is a significant consideration for world heritage consideration and a high diversity of unique plant and animal species habiting a single site obviously calls for special attention. Mulanje is home to over 100 unique plant and animal species and it is likely that many more will be discovered in future by further research. However, the cape floral kingdom has over 4,000 unique species so we pale is comparison. The one consideration here again could be that the small-sized Mt Mulanje could have a higher rate of unique biodiversity per hectare than other places.

So what is so special about Mulanje??!! Not good enough to be a natural site? Mulanje is not a suitable cultural site either but there is a third category, those that are considered ‘mixed’ world heritage sites, places that have a blend of both significant natural and cultural criteria. This would most likely fit the bill. What we do have at Mulanje is a local cultural perception of a mountain space beyond it simply being a physical entity; we have a common social construct that exists of a place of spirituality and mystery. This veneration has existed for some time and is expressed clearly in the beliefs and stories told by the elders around the mountain today. And this mixture of awe and fear surprisingly exists across tribal and cultural boundaries. This understanding exists within the Man’ganja, Ahlomwe and Yao cultures of the people that live around the mountain. Rarely is such a phenomena pervasive across so many people to such an extent that it underlies much of the local folklore and traditions.

The mountain has for many centuries been a place of secure sanctuary from the many raging conflicts common over the centuries on the plains below. Yet it seems that these heights have never been settled on a permanent basis. Many of the hills surrounding Mt Mulanje have rock art within their rocky recesses but none has yet been officially listed from the mountain itself. The Bantu migrations over the years displaced the san-like abatwa people and the mountain, particularly Michese peak, was reputed even until recently to provide sanctuary for them.

Why did the intrepid explorer David Livingstone not visit or climb it? Was he warned off by threats from his companions that they would desert him? Disappearances of people are central to the notions of fear of the mountain. Stories and records abound of total and temporary disappearances of both local villagers and international visitors. The main peak’s name Sapitwa (meaning ‘don’t go there’) could be interpreted as a clear warning by those living locally to avoid this area, otherwise the unexplained may happen to you. More recently, on two separate occasions an Austrian climber and a Dutch hiker disappeared and no trace of them was found despite long comprehensive searches. It is not only individuals that disappear. Three members of a survey team in the early independence years vanished without any trace of them or their equipment en route to the highest point. In 2009, a lone Brazilian man was lost on the mountain, but was found after three weeks by grass-cutters. Strangely his body had not been touched or disturbed in any form by the local wildlife!

The awe stems from the power of the mountain to ensure the normal cycles of life, from climatic conditions, (such as reliable rains) to ensuring peace in the village, and a person’s good health. These powers are enabled by the local spirit mediums and the traditional medicine practitioners that reside in the villages around the mountain. Offerings are made at shrines around the mountain to influence or placate the mountain’s spirits and the singangas (traditional medicine practitioners) harvest many unique plant and animal parts here for the health of many, even those that are very distant from Mulanje. More unusual and unexplained mysteries occur higher up the mountain. For example, a reputed common appearance is to find food in very unexpected circumstances that fulfil one’s appetite.

The legends and stories of the mountain will all need to be gathered and understood for their meaning. The spirits that guard the mountain through a range of actions will need to be better appreciated and the powers that the mountain has, need to be described. This will all to show that we have an intricate interwoven relationship between people and these mountain heights. The work, carried out with the assistance of students at the nearby Catholic University, will ascertain the relationships and understanding within the local population and also explore those that exist by people particularly connected to the mountain, such as the spirit mediums and sing'ang'as.

The process for preparing and finalising the documentation for world heritage status consideration will take time. We are looking to finalise a draft relatively soon and have this circulated for comments by all those who consider themselves concerned stakeholders. With all the information collected by the special assignments, we would then submit the draft document to UNESCO for review in September. That review would give us important comments that we would then use to modify the document and resubmit for final consideration in February 2012. Patience for that process of assessment would hopefully give us their approval or otherwise within a year.

One last point that we would like to appeal for assistance with is simple but very important! We have an identity crisis! We do not currently have a clear understanding of what our name means! If anyone knows what the words mulanje, mlanje or milange mean or have any ideas to assist, can you let us at Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust know?



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