Thrusting, jabbing, swatting and swearing had done little thus far to dislodge the large tree branch stuck at the top of the tree. The bamboo pole we were using to poke with was perhaps 10 feet tall but in this scenario was probably two feet too short. What’s more, the base of the tree was covered in thorns making a climb up a difficult and sufficiently risky proposition.
The old lady we were assisting smiled in appreciation at our efforts. She groaned with every failed jostle and pointed with suggestions on where we might try and poke next. I wasn’t sure how long she had been poking herself at the branch but I suspect Thomas, a fellow traveller and now fellow amateur bamboo jabbing worker, was right when he said “I bet she’s been working at this all morning.” When we had decided to climb the 16km long path to visit the Livingstonia village, I did not have this in mind. Waterfalls and old churches were what we were here to see. But now, having spent the better part of the past half hour on the task, I was, in gambling terms, “pot committed”.
The sun had barely risen over lake Malawi when Michael, Thomas and myself set out along the gravel road that winds its way up to the Livingstonia mission. The road zigzagged back and forth as it climbed. To accelerate the climb, a number of short-cuts carved a steeper but much shorter path to the top, bisecting the road at each segment. We had opted to take the short-cuts which saved us perhaps an hour or more of walking time. Given that a traditional climb takes 4 hours with a descent taking perhaps the same, we were eager to save some time in order to enjoy the scenery a bit more. After some 3 hours of climbing, we were at the top of the mountain and had reached the outskirts of Livingstonia.
Walking the lone dirt road that connects all of Livingstonia’s main buildings, we passed by a collection of a few dozen women selling fruits and fish on the side of the road. GIven that we were the only ones walking the path, I couldn’t help but think how fruitless their efforts were. Indeed, as we sat and ate our lunch, I waited to see if anyone would be buying from the market. As I took my last bite, I noted that no one had sold a thing in the half an hour we had been sitting.
We continued down the path, passing a monument dedicated to marking the spot where Dr Robert Laws had first pitched his tent and decided that he had found the new location for his mission. A little further and we had passed an elementary school. And just a few hundred meters past that, we came across an older woman, bamboo stick in hand, jabbing at something in a tree.
When I first looked at her task, I thought she might be trying to cut down a bee hive or some fruit perhaps. I stopped out of curiosity and took a second look at what she was doing. When I saw the large tree branch lodged firmly at the top of the tree, it was obvious what she was up to. I stopped Thomas and Michael and pointed at the old woman with the bamboo rod. It might have been boredom, pity or kindness that led me to reach out to the old woman. I’m honestly not sure. But as we started to make our own efforts in the task, it was obvious this wasn’t going to be a two minute job.
Finally, after 30 minutes or more of jabbing and thrusting, the tree branch flew clear of the tree and down to the ground. A small sense of satisfaction and a great deal of relief swept over me as it fell. The old woman thanked us with her smiles as she collected the tree branch and added it to her meagre collection. With a wave goodbye, we continued on our way.
The rest of our time at Livingstonia was spent walking around a closed church as well as a closed museum. Lucky for us, they couldn’t close the waterfall and we spent a half an hour or so enjoying the scenery. Climbing down, we enjoyed the view of lake Malawi more than we had on the way up and arrived back at camp, sore and blistered, but with a good amount of satisfaction at having done the climb. And for me, small as it was, I enjoyed the simple amount of time that we spent helping a little old woman knock a tree branch out of a tree.