Dust swirls and settles on heads and laps of mourners sitting around a white coffin in a village several kilometres south of Dedza Town.
Some murmur to each other, apparently disapproving of the preacher’s drawn-out sermon in the sweltering heat of an October afternoon.
A gust almost blows fresh green flowers off the coffin bearing the remains of an old lady who has succumbed to natural causes.
“We are having the funeral ceremony in this open space because we chopped down all the trees to create farmland,” Group Village Head Chinyamula says.
For close to two hours, the people attending the ceremony endure the hot sunlight and blustering winds as they pay their last respects to one of the oldest members of their area.
They sing dirges erratically and with little vitality.
It is only the preacher who firmly thrusts his hands around as he delivers his sermon that largely extols the purported good virtues of the deceased.
Vast expanses of land around this house of grief are dry and bare.
Small patches which had brown dry grass have also felt the decimating effects of unrestrained fires sparked by mice hunters.
“We will feel the coolness of the shade in the graveyard,” a middle-aged pallbearer says.
He concedes that the boiling heat that has become prevalent in GVH Chinyamula’s area and several others in Dedza is further toughening the ground where graves are dug out.
Gravediggers now have to sink their teeth into preparing final resting places of the dead.
“No long ago, trees were there in abundance in our villages. The ground was soft; cool breezes under huge shades were pleasant,” the pallbearer reminisces.
That immense territories of forestland have been cleared drives GVH Chinyamula into spells of despair.
As a traditional leader, he must lead his people in conserving the environment. Today, he concedes he should have done better.
“Even the soils are no longer fertile. Our crop yields are falling every year,” he says in an interview a few yards from the house of mourning.
He recalls with a pang of guilt the destruction that was exacted on dense growths of trees and shrubs stretching through large ranges in his area.
The United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs says protection and enhancing forests is one of the most cost-effective forms of climate action.
“Forests act as carbons sinks, absorbing roughly two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Sustainable forest management can build resilience and help mitigate and adapt to climate change,” the department says.
As is the case in GVH Chinyamula’s area, UN stresses that the biggest threat to forests is agriculture even though there are other devastating effects that illegal and unsustainable logging has on the wooded areas.
Chinyamula wishes there was a rapid way of slowing the extent to which forests are converted to farmland.
“We need to intensify reforestation in bare areas. We are all seeing the disturbing effects of reckless cutting down of trees,” he says.
But the sharp increase in the population of people in his area is somehow frustrating his desire to have vast expanses of land cleared for farming dressed in green again.
Still, he charges his subjects with the responsibility of planting trees every year in their homes’ backyards to steadily offset the destruction.
“One thing remains that we will never see antelopes, hares and deer nearby again. They are gone because their habitats were destroyed,” Chinyamula laments.
He would want future generations to see these wild animals but knows it is impossible with the destruction that has swept through areas that used to keep them.
As a Ngoni chief— who must sometimes exhibit his cultural ideals through tenets such as wearing of wild animal skins—Chinyamula must look for alternatives.
The ethnic group, living in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia, has generally retained a distinct identity, during special occasions, of donning animal skins and thump-dancing to rhythmic drum beats.
There have been concerns that sustaining the putting on of animal skins is injurious to efforts to protect wildlife.
Chinyamula has a proposal which he believes would ensure the Ngonis do not lose their cultural values while also contributing to wildlife protection.
“Well, the lions and leopards are no longer where we would easily get them. We need to go for alternatives such as skins of domestic animals such as cattle, goats and sheep.
“These may be processed a little but retain their larger appearance as animal skins. That way, we will not be hunting for wild animals,” he submits.
The traditional leader maintains a strong view that a lion’s mane and tail might carry great prestige for those who share his ethnicity but that no other should fall at the strike of a hunter merely seeking to have the trophies.
“Those of us with the skins can still wear them during special occasions. However, no new skin should be peeled off any wild animal,” he says.
After all, he admits, the last spearing of a lion or leopard in his area happened decades back before the cats were driven into fenced reserves.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje