Thursday, January 5, 2012


Maskakahunju is small fishing village located directly on the shores of Lake Malawi located just a 10 minute walk down the beach from the Maru Research Center (lets shorten that down to the MRC). Yesterday I and Alex, our local government fisheries officer, went down there to have a talk with the village elders and so Alex could show me how he surveys fishery landing sites and better explain to me the practicalities and economics of the Masakahunju fishery. Masakahunju is a species of fish and means roughly “big-eyed fish” if my memory serves. According to the founder of Masakahunju, one Mike Nsalu, Masakahunju the village began some 6 or 7 years ago when after having a great few days of catching Masakahunju, he decided to stay. Word spread that the fishing was good and more people joined him. Today roughly 400 people live at Masakahunju. Nearly all of them are not from the surrounding area. The vast majority are from an inland district further north called Karonga. Some are from further south at Nkhotakota. But all now live in very makeshift huts made from reeds, mud, and sometimes a few timbers. Scattered along the lakeshore in a fairly haphazard manner they look rather desperate. But according to Alex, looks are deceiving. Most of the residents of Masakahunju have nicer homes back in their native villages and have come here in order to make, and save, money. They are willing to put up with mud huts for a few years (and often more) if it means they can save up enough money to build a better life for themselves and their families once they’ve finally had enough and decided to return to their “real” homes.

In Malawi there is a long history of, and much prestige associated with, Malawians leaving their native villages to search their fortune somewhere else, whether in South Africa, Zimbabwe, or maybe just in the next district over. There are both idealistic and practical reasons for why these sojourns have historically been, and continue to be, so popular. Idealistically the desire to travel to other exotic lands to seek one’s fortune really needs no translation. Most of us wherever we are from have daydreamed about doing this. The practical benefits of such sojourns for Malawians however are understandable only once one realizes the constraints to individual activity that Malawi’s communal culture imposes on its members. In Malawi, and in much of Africa, sharing the benefits (money, produce, whatever) of one’s labor with the greater community (family, friends, neighbors) is obligatory. So much so that if you live and work within the community that you grew up in, and hence have all sorts of close relationships, it is nearly impossible for you to save personally any of the fruits of your labor towards any greater individual goal. Instead all your money, or whatever, gets piddled away to one’s seemingly never ending list of relatives and friends. The sojourns are a coping mechanism for this problem. Leaving your native community to work amongst strangers in a new place allows you to escape, for awhile, your communal obligations so that you can work towards more individual goals.

Alex, however, was quick to say that Malawians do not see their sojourns as permanent opportunities to escape their communal duties but rather as necessary interim periods during which they can accumulate wealth and knowledge so that later they can go back home and better attend to them. Masakahunju is full of such people and many have very interesting stories to tell. I will be visiting and talking with them often and will try to share their stories here on this blog regularly.


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