The Mt. Machemba expedition, Pt. – Dr. Ken Lipenga

Once upon a time a man escaping civil war in Mozambique crossed into Malawi and found himself at Mahele Village at the western foot of Mt. Machemba, directly behind the mountain if you are at Migowi trading centre.

It didn’t take long before people realized that the just arrived stranger was mentally unwell; but they still welcomed him in their midst, for he minded his own business and did no one no harm.

But the man’s condition made it difficult for him to cope with life in the village. And so one day he set off and trekked up the steep slopes of Mt. Machemba, with the apparent objective of breaking away from civilization.

On.the higher reaches of the mountain, at exactly 1110 metres altitude, he came upon a huge cave, offloaded his few belongings, and decided to make the cave his home.

Next to the cave was a spring which supplied water of such purity as can only be found on mountains. It is said in the village that the cave and the spring were placed together by the spirits of the ancestors for the well-being of troubled souls such as might be the case for a man fleeing war in his country.

Not far from the cave grew groves of wild bamboo, which the man harvested and used to make baskets of various shapes and sizes. Upon making a few baskets the man would trek down to the village where he exchanged his baskets for food before immediately returning to his mountain abode.

“He was mentally ill, but still capable of rational thought when it came to survival,” said village headman Chamasowa, for it was he who told me the story two days ago upon my return from my first expedition to Mt Machemba.

Murombwe lived in his cave home for five years. But then he fell ill and made the decision to return to the village below. This he did with much difficulty and when he arrived in the village, crawling on all fours, the people could see that he was in quite a poor state.

But once again they embraced him, fed him and tried all they could to nurse him back to wellness. But alas! their efforts were in vain and after a few weeks death finally caught up with Murombwe.

Now, although the Mozambican stranger died a very long time ago, the people who live around Mt. Machemba still have him in their collective memory. To this day the cave which he turned into his home is still called Murombwe’s Cave and the nearby spring, which never dries up, is called Murombwe’s Well.

The Cave is one of the largest I’ve ever seen and the outside appearance has the look of an archectural design, although I must confess that my eyes tend to sometimes see things that do not really exist.

We will never know what caused Murombwe’s mental illness, and i know from personal experience that when it comes to looking after people with mental disorders we human beings are at our most helpless.

Murombwe was running away from war, so I speculate that perhaps he witnessed terrible deeds that jolted his very being. Perhaps someone very close to him was brutally killed in some massacre, maybe a mother, father, wife, child, relative. We will never know.

But for me it strangely feels good that the cave on Mt Machemba still carries Murombwe’s name. As I sat in the cave with my guides I tried to imagine what he might have looked like and what stories of horror tortured his soul.

And so the story of Murombwe finds its way into these Mt. Michesi Chronicles because it somehow touches the heart with its poignant echoes of suffering, mystery, survival, and human compassion.

(To visit Murombwe’s Cave, take the Limbe-Chiradzulu-Chiringa road and just before Nyezerera trading centre turning right at the graveyard. Best hiking approach is from Chamasowa Village and you can call Margaret on 0994260984 for more information and to arrange for guides. Mt. Michesi Chronicles, a non-profit, has two certified guides there who will take you up for a small fee which is all theirs to keep.)