Is Chongoni the “Notre Dame” of Africa?

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By Trust Ofesi

It’s not prized like the Great Wall of China, not popular like the pyramids of Egypt nor famous like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but they can be spoken in the same breath and valued as equals. They are peers.

Unlike the Gargoyles and Chimeres which stand atop the Notre Dam Cathedral, Chongoni is veiled in simplicity; emblazoned and painted on the rocks; for posterity.

It’s October, Malawi’s hottest month of the year, but the Dedza weather is still warm and friendly; altocumulus clouds graces the blue skies as fresh air radiates down the hills to calm our breathtaking expectation, a precious moment to view the monumental paintings and markings which have existed for more than two thousand years; and declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2006.

You can’t talk about the Chongoni experience without the swift and turns on that earthy road that wind up the hills to Mphunzi. We unfortunately had a tyre burst and had to walk the remaining half a kilometer up the hills when one of the officials at the ministry of culture began to fill our minds with the history of that place.

“This was one of the oldest churches pioneered and built by David Livingstone; these churches were strategically built to end slave trade. As you may know, this path was a slave route from Mangochi crossing over to Mozambique” chipped in Medson Makuru, pointing to an old church which is retiring due to old age.

Makuru continued to tell us about the residents whose ancestors had been freed from slave trade and had become natives of the land.

But my mind was still in the mountains, the hills and caves which were homes and villages of the aboriginals proudly identified by their height as batwa and left the heritage which has now been inscribed as the Chongoni World Heritage site.

“So what do the paintings and markings really mean, is it a specific language which we can’t understand, or they are mere paintings?” I asked.

“They could be a language which we can’t understand in our days, you know the batwa people were excellent meteorologists, that was their skill, they could predict the rains and the rainfall pattern quite easily, so these messages could be embedded in those markings” He said.

The Markings and paintings are categorised in two; the red paintings which were initially inscribed by the aboriginals; the batwa 2,000 years ago, and then the white markings which were emblazoned by the Chewa over two hundred years ago. Apart from being homes of the aboriginals in the Stone Age, the Chewa adopted the caves as campsites for initiation ceremonies in later generations.

So the two generations stand together on the walls, imposing their artistic and scientific prowess. This is the mystery that remains to this day. The batwa used red pigments to do their workings on the rocks, the Chewa used clay.

But to this day, since those years, no scientist has come in the open to describe in detail what was used to make those paintings and markings which have lasted for thousands and hundreds of years.

“We have had scientists from across the globe coming to study these mystic paintings, but no one has brought a concrete response, they just say its red pigments and clay, but nobody knows what type of clay and how the clay was mixed. No one knows the pigments and what type of pigments could last over two thousand years and even much more than that” explained the Director in the ministry of Youth Sports and Culture, Elizabeth Gomani Chindebvu.

This is why Chongoni matters more; this is why Chongoni stand at par with the Notre dame cathedral, the Great Wall of China and the pyramids in Egypt. But unlike the others sites, Chongoni doesn’t attract as much visitors befitting its status.

When you visit Chongoni, you rarely bump into other groups of visitors touring the place; it’s either your team or just two teams at the site to admire the works of the aboriginal scientists, the legends of Nyasaland.

We walked about ten minutes when we were later on greeted by Lemiton Mitsinde, Mitsinde acts as a tour guide for Mphunzi hill, a part of the Chongoni World Heritage site which has the highest concentration of rock paintings in central Africa. The sites of paintings and markings which have now been discovered are about one hundred and twenty seven. Out of those sites, only three have been open to the public for viewing.

But still they are at risk. Opening them to the public has meant a lot of human interaction and exposure to new environments which were not common initially. The government tried to protect the sites by constructing a wire fence around the sites but the fence was vandalized. Some of the paintings too are being exposed to lots of direct sunlight, and rainfall, which in a way is fighting against their posterity.

But just as renowned rich people of the world donated generously for the reconstruction of the fire burnt Notre Dame Cathedral, will the rich people of this world arise for the protection of Chongoni?




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