Chilema tree: The hidden national treasure
By Tiyese Monjeza:
Zomba City, located in the Southern Region of Malawi, is well known for its historical buildings which were mostly built during the colonial rule.
The old capital city of the country has dozens of adventurous sites for people who like travel and exploring tourism sites.
These include the Zomba botanical gardens, Malawi Defence Force Museum and the Zomba Plateau with its attractions such as the William waterfalls, Mulunguzi Dam and Emperor’s view.
While Zomba botanical gardens enjoy massive patronage of visitors with interest in nature’s beauty, another amazing and exciting site is deprived the attention it deserves despite its mysterious unique feature.
This is the Chilema tree; a precious treasure to the country since there is only one of its kind in the whole of Africa, according to Department of Museums and Monuments.
It is very unique since one can hardly notice the main trunk and the starting point of the tree, with branches interlocking and looking like a forest covering a distance of 200 metres.
Chilema visitors’ guide, Frazer Mateketa said the name ‘Chilema’ came after people noticed that the tree was disabled.
He said the Yao people who used to reside in the area, used to refer to the ‘disabled tree’ as ‘malosa’ meaning ‘malodza’ in Chichewa which translates to ‘something mysterious.’
“In Yao ‘za’ is pronounced as ‘sa’ therefore the people had difficulties to explain the nature of this tree hence ‘Malosa’ and the name of this area came to be known as Malosa,” Mateketa said.
He said the tree was discovered around 1915 by local communities and people used to travel long distances to admire the unique tree.
He further said Anglican Church missionaries who settled at Malosa had started building institutional churches and schools and in 1963, Anglican bishops and Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP) clergy agreed to build a school for training its church ministers.
“The two churches settled for Chilema due to its cold weather, conducive for learning and this led to the establishment of Chilema Ecumenical Training and Conference Centre (CETCC), popularly known for its Chilema tree located near a chapel,” Mateketa said.
He said currently, CETCC and the Chilema tree is managed by Anglican Diocese of Upper Shire and Blantyre Synod of CCAP.
Mateketa said they currently charge K500 for locals, K3,000 for people from other countries, to visit the Chilema tree.
“Currently, we receive an average of 50 visitors per month and the money we raise is used to hire ground labourers who manage the site. Some visitors do not appreciate effort we are putting in to manage the tree, and they tend to refuse to pay the gate fee, a conduct which we feel will continue to derail efforts to promote tourism industry in the country,” Mateketa said.
Mateketa further said, Covid-19 pandemic has affected the number of visitors who visit the area.
Just a few meters from the Chilema tree, are structures which includes two dining halls, a chapel, 120 accommodation rooms and a restaurant making the place a complete tourism site for those who want to seek fun away from home.
Bishop of Anglican Diocese of Upper Shire, Brighton Vita Malasa said CETCC was opened in 1967 by Gwanda Chakuamba, who at the time was the Minister of Internal Security.
Malasa said the Chilema has a rich history and people should be visiting the site to appreciate its natural beauty.
‘This is the place where Public Affairs Committee members used to meet at night to plot on strategies to force Kamuzu Banda to concede to hold a referendum on whether the country should maintain one-party rule or embrace democracy. This the birthplace of most institutions as such, it deserves to be included as one of the natural heritage sites in the country,’ Malasa said.
Malasa said, apart from appreciating the Chilema tree, visitors also have an opportunity to admire the historical buildings named after some well-known clergy’s like Jonathan Sangaya who was the first General Secretary of Blantyre Synod of CCAP and Anglican Bishop Donald Arden, who played crucial roles in development of the church in the country.
He said, the churches plan to construct advanced accommodation rooms to be housing tourists and those conducting meetings at the facility, so that the area is transformed into a recreational centre, which will in turn boost income generation.
‘We engaged the Ministry of Tourism so that this place is listed amongst the natural heritage sites and we are only waiting for their feedback. Once they approve the centre as heritage site, we believe more people across the world get to know this place and pay us a visit. These are steps we are stopped to take as a country if we are to promote tourism ventures,’ Malasa said.
Aubrey Nkhoma, a Blantyre resident who travelled to visit the centre with friends, when we visited the site, urged management of the place to embrace technology in marketing the area.
“I only knew this place after I saw photos posted by a colleague on WhatsApp. This is an amazing place which should be promoted. It is worrisome that there is not enough information about this place on the internet and it is clear that we are not doing much in marketing our tourism sites,” Nkhoma said.
Daniel Gunde said there was need to construct a fence around the centre and to introduce traditional dances to entertain visitors at the site.
Director of Museums and Monuments in the Ministry of Tourism, Lovemore Mazibuko said Chilema tree is yet to be gazetted as a national monument due to the non-existence of a Monuments Advisory Council, which gives recommendations to the minister for a place to be designated as national monument.
He however, said the ministry is in the process of appointing a Monuments Advisory Council which will be assigned to visit places of national interests including Chilema tree and coming up with a list of sites to be included as national monuments.
“During this financial year, we have set aside funds to produce documentaries of ten national interests’ historical sites and Chilema is among those sites we will focus on. These documentaries will be uploaded on internet sites so that people across the world are aware of Chilema tree. In the end people will have an interest to visit the place thereby, boosting the tourism sector,” Mazibuko said.
He said ministry is committed to enhance protection and preservation of national monument and historical sites, in line with aspirations outlined in the newly launched Malawi-Tourism Investment Master Plan which seeks to make tourism products marketable.
He therefore urged Malawians to develop an interest in visiting cultural and historical sites as part of promoting local tourism.