by John Gillen (Undergraduate, University of Queensland)
I’m a second year student at the University of Queensland studying Archaeology and Anthropology, so when the opportunity arose to come to Malawi, I jumped on board as soon as possible. When asked to do a blog for MEMSAP my first reaction was how am I going to sum up my experience so far in 500 words. Firstly I think I’ll tackle some of the preconceptions I had about Africa. Most Australian (and Westerners in general, I suspect) have an idea of Africa that stems from persistently negative news stories about Somalia or the DRC; those places are not comparable to Malawi . The people here could not be more friendly, polite or courteous. Driving through the surprisingly well-kept roads of Malawi, I did notice that the passers by did stare as I went past. I pinned it down to the fact that most people here rarely see white people, as northern Malawi is not one of the top 10 tourist destinations, which it should be. However, a friendly wave or hello from me remedied the initial surprise and was returned enthusiastically by Karonga residents.
The MEMSAP excavations in Karonga are, for a budding archaeologist, a fantastic experience both academically and culturally. There are a few students from the Catholic University of Malawi (CUNIMA) attending the field school along with my fellow Australian students, which makes the experience of studying Malawian prehistory so much more valuable. You’ll learn heaps during the MEMSAP expedition. During the first week here I’ve learnt how to survey, map sites, use a GPS and a total station, and conduct transects across the landscape.
During the field school we have learned a great deal of background about the history of research in the Karonga area; especially about J. Desmond Clark who conducted the first Middle Stone Age excavations in 1965/66 (alas, there was no GPS then so the precise location of some of his digs remain in question). The Karonga area itself is breath taking, as we see daily while trekking across the landscape. There are mountains everywhere, seeing as Malawi is in the southern part of the African Rift that just makes work here so much nicer (I deliberately avoided the word easier as transecting over rolling terrain can prove exhausting).
Along with the invaluable experience I get from working here, I’ve met some of the nicest people. Jess, Jacob, Menno, Alex, Sheila, Victor, and Andrew have all been amazingly patient with the students here and I couldn’t ask for nicer teachers. Plus the students I’ve traveled and worked with will most likely be lifelong friends because you spend so much time together that you feel as if you’ve known them for years and forget that you’ve only known them for a few days. One of my expectations was that the likelihood of actually seeing artefacts whilst here would be slim at best. I was pleasantly surprised that when visiting Chaminade hill, every 10 steps I took, I found an artefact. It is literally that easy to see the traces of prehistory in Malawi. To wrap it up, I couldn’t recommend coming on the MEMSAP expedition more. The environment, people, culture, experience and overall enjoyment you’ll get from Malawi will stay with you forever.