Flagging Spirits

The residents of Mulanje fear their ancestors’ wrath

Malawian workers toil in a field below Mount Mulanje. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, locals have been offering food in the forests surrounding the mountain, seeking forgiveness and divine intervention from their ancestors for a swift end to the pandemic. Ashley Cooper / Alamy Photo
31 January, 2023

Slightly taller than Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek pantheon, the 3,002-metre Sapitwa Peak, Malawi’s highest point, is regarded by locals as a sacred place where the spirits of their ancestors reside. For centuries, it was believed to be unreachable—its name translates to “a place where people do not go.” Although it was first climbed in 1894, many tourists attempting to scale the peak have died over the years, leading to the dominant narrative among locals that the spirits of the ancestors claim some lives when they are angry. Nevertheless, the peak remains a popular destination for mountaineers, while the Mulanje Massif, an inselberg of which Sapitwa is part, attracts thousands of tourists every year.

“I hear a lot about Mulanje mountain,” a German tourist I met while visiting Mulanje, in August 2022, told me. He was in a white t-shirt, with the words “Welcome to the warm heart of Africa” in big letters at the back, denim shorts and hiking boots. “Some make sense, while other narratives are short of reasoning. I have chosen to disregard them in order to have a breathtaking experience. I strongly believe the benefits are more than the costs and I trust my cost-benefit analysis.” He added that the spiritual beliefs about the mountain motivated him. “I am curious to see what really happens and capture all the memories and take them home. This is one of the sensitive ecosystems and valuable tourist attraction areas here in Malawi. If I’m risk averse, nothing will work. After all, life is about taking risks.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, locals have been offering food—such as nsima, a starchy porridge that is a staple in Malawi, as well as fruits, drinks, rice and meat—in the forests surrounding the mountain, seeking forgiveness and divine intervention from their ancestors for a swift end to the pandemic. “We’re in crisis-ridden times, frankly speaking,” Gogo Nasoko, a resident of Bondo, a village in Mulanje district, told me. “The harvests have been meagre over the years. As if this isn’t enough, the novel coronavirus was also imposed on us. Now polio has landed on our communities.” In February 2022, the Malawi government declared that a strain of the wild poliovirus, endemic to Pakistan, had been detected in the capital, Lilongwe. It was the first African case of wild polio since 2016 and the first to be detected in Malawi in over thirty years, prompting a nationwide immunisation programme. In May, another case was reported in neighbouring Mozambique. The health ministry promptly introduced a door-to-door vaccination campaign targeting children less than five years old, especially in areas that are hard to reach. However, as with the COVID-19 vaccines, there was low uptake due to the same misconceptions and conspiracy theories about vaccines that were contributing to global vaccine hesitancy at the time. The communities surrounding the mountain continued to trust the more tried-and-tested divine powers of their ancestors.

Nasoko attributed these disasters to an unhealthy relationship between the locals and the spirits. “Ancestral spirits are there up the mountain to save us from all these nightmares, but we’ve fallen short of their glory as communities and individuals,” she said. “People are just missing and drowning anyhow.” In December 2019, two revenue officials died while swimming near a waterfall during a hiking holiday at Mulanje.

Ernest Pondani is the founder and executive director of the Youth Alliance for Democratic Culture, a Malawian local NGO. He previously worked with UNICEF Malawi Country Office and is now with the Office of the Ombudsman (Malawi) as an investigations and research officer.