NKOLE NKOLE, Salima, Malawi
THE jacaranda tree is one of the first familiar sights to greet you while at Mwami border, which is shared between Zambia and Malawi.
Upon seeing it, you are reminded that a border is merely an artificial boundary and you are home while away from home.
The jacaranda’s ubiquity during Southern African summers calls to mind a favourite quote by novelist Alice Walker about how the colour purple is always a surprise but is everywhere in nature.
The tree offers some comfort during a four-hour border delay caused by a faulty generator which drags the documentation process required for my driver and me to cross into Malawi.
While at the border it becomes apparent to us that a lot of the incoming visitors seem to be destined for one location only- Salima- where the 15th edition of the acclaimed Lake of Stars Malawi Arts Festival is being hosted.
The three-day festival has grown over the years, attracting music and art lovers from as far as Europe, Asia and America to converge in one place.
The four-hour wait irritates us but fails to break our collective festive mood. Everyone at the border who is on their way to the festival seems determined to get there regardless of the minor setback.
When the four hours elapse, we cross the border to head to Lilongwe, leaving a group of others hustling to get their personal details captured manually.
Lilongwe seems a quiet capital with tolerable traffic and noticeably calm motorists.
We are driving some good half hour on the wrong road until redirected by a Malawian traffic officer who tells us we missed the turn to Salima. We should have instead turned at a junction called ‘Kanengo’ and upon hearing this we head back in that direction for Salima.
As we drive some 75 kilometres on the road to Salima, even the air seems festive. It is the hot dry season in Malawi and the hills in the distance decorate our drive but the closer we get to them, the farther they seem.
We see the ‘Nyau’ on our way to Salima and little children, dancing and cheering around them in excitement while waving branches.
They seem to be just as hyped about the arrival of the festival though it is unclear whether or not it is the festival they are celebrating. Regardless, they are a welcoming sight to festival goers.
After a little over an hour, we enter Salima town and are greeted by street traders selling mostly wooden furniture and coffin-makers relaxing beneath a shed, hoping to get their last clients for the day before closing shop.
Salima is also called the rice and honey district because both are produced here.
We feel we have been driving for too long on the same road and park by the side to ask for directions.
A group of men is seated outside a tiny grocer’s shop, next to which is an even tinier barbershop.
One man rushes to the car and tries to give us directions but his alcohol-induced gibberish does not help our cause until another man walks up and tells us we are on the right road after all.
We carry on down for another 20 minutes, taking a left when we see a sign post with the writing ‘Lake of Stars Malawi Arts Festival’.
We are much closer now and drive for another 20 minutes past Senga Hill, which we later learn is used as a military training ground.
The festival is taking place on the grounds of Kabumba Hotel, situated at the foot of Senga Hill.
My driver gets me to the venue just in time for me to hear the all-female jazz ensemble, Banou Azania, which has been put together for a music residency in Malawi organised by the British Council and supporting partners.
The ensemble is a collection of female musicians from different parts of southern Africa and the UK.
Despite being only a week old, they play impressively.
Spotted in the band is Zambia’s representative, Micah Miyanda, on guitar.
Many festival-goers are still arriving past 19:00 hours while others are helping themselves to food at different food stands.
Friday’s line-up and highlights include Berita Afro Soul, whose hometown is Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, while her music base is South Africa.
Her strumming of the acoustic guitar inspires a sense of African patriotism in the crowd gathered before the stage.
Her voice, warm and inviting, envelopes the crowd in a sisterly African embrace.
You can see the mix of cultures on the festival grounds, from near and far. It has brought different creeds and colours together, uniting them based on a collective love for music and sun and perhaps water.
While the acts continue one after the other on stage, some people linger by the rim of Lake Malawi, catching a cool evening draft blowing over the water and creating endless waves.
The following day, which is the second day of the festival, the Malawian sun draws everyone out. The days seem longer in Malawi because the sun wakes you up early, as though in a hurry to go somewhere and in need of company.
Those unfamiliar with Malawian music get a good sample of it on Saturday from the likes of Faith Mussa, Fredo Kiss and the phenomenal Lisubilo Band that produces amazing sound from a blend of brass, strings, wood and keys.
The main night’s headliners are the Kenyan afro pop band, Sauti Sol, which leaves men envious and women panting with its charming Swahili lyrics.
On the last day, the festival- goers are awaken by a strong, unrelenting wind that lasts throughout the day and turns into a sandstorm in the evening, blowing sand in their faces and hair.
Those strong enough to bear it, will not miss the rare opportunity to see the American electronic dance music trio, Major Lazer, live on the festival’s main stage.
Their set is delayed because of the wind but the support of their fans, who brave a sandstorm just to watch them, turns their performance into something epic and they fall in love with Malawi by the end of their show.
The wind is still blowing and the water still lapping heavily on the lake when the music begins to fade in the wee hours of Monday.
The festival-goers collapse their tents and begin leaving the grounds of Kabumba Hotel, crumpled bed sheets and deflated mattresses in hand.
It was a festival for the record books after all as strangers became friends and made plans to meet up again at the next one somewhere in Africa or in some other part of the world.
Washing the stubborn Salima sand off is on everyone’s mind on the way out but one thing is for sure: they all had the time of their lives while it lasted.