Getting Your Chambo Right

Lake Malawi’s best-known fish, the chambo, is a cichlid (now there’s a good word for a spelling test) and its numbers are dwindling horribly through over-fishing. It is unlucky enough to be both edible and colourful and is thus popular both for plate and tank. A tough call as to which is the crueller fate.

So, whilst camping on the beach of what I still consider to be the most beautiful of all the Rift Valley lakes, we tended to spare the chambo and to enjoy, instead, the kampango, whose populations are holding up better. A worthy policy, I am sure you will agree.
We spent several colourful days on the lake at Senga Bay. On the Sunday afternoon the place was heaving with people. You couldn’t see the sand. The Lilongwe Indian population seemed to have emptied itself out on the beach en masse and it was an exciting, lively crowd, braaiing fish and chattering loudly to be heard over music of the sort most of us only hear by accident on Radio Lotus or during one of DStv’s Bollywood Seasons.

Occasional church groups of local Christians, dotted amongst the burkas, belted out hymns in a vain attempt to counter the overwhelming Muslimness of the scene. It was all very good-natured and a good few chambo met their end on the coals that day.
By dusk there was nobody left on the beach but us and a German-registered Unimog, impressively kitted out for an Overland trip by its two octogenarian residents from Hamburg. As the sun set, we sipped our Malawi gins and watched as the fishing boats fizzed across the water to take up position, a light hanging down to attract the fish, as yet more nets full of cichlids were hauled out and beetled back to the beach to feed the masses.

The following day at lunchtime, on the deserted beach, there pulled up two Cape Town-registered vehicles, heavily sponsored by all their Indian occupants’ chums and covered with stickers advertising this fact. They got roundly stuck in the sand. They dug themselves out of it. They left.

That evening they returned, fish in hand, set up camp and then sidled over to us and asked us where we had travelled. Swelling our chests slightly, but with the right nonchalant air, we told them that we had driven from Hazyview to Northern Uganda in three months and we were now on our way home. They were polite but it was obvious that they weren’t terribly impressed.

In view of the hour spent digging themselves out of their midday predicament, we had rather assumed them to be amateurs at this overlanding game so, puzzled, we asked where they were hoping to go. They had every reason not to fall over backwards at our paltry achievements.
They passed the ‘totally non-narcotic’ hubbly-bubbly around again and explained that they were driving to India – Mumbai, to be precise – in 6 weeks, up the eastern side of Africa, across to Morocco, over to Spain and through Europe to the Middle East, and on to India. Did they watch the news? Were they worried? Not a bit. They’d already done it, four years ago, and they were Muslims so what did they have to worry about? Everybody had loved them last time.

I sneaked off to my tent, somewhat abashed, listening in as they told stories around their campfire and braaied an innocent chambo. Given their past and future achievements and obvious bravery and derring-do, I wasn’t going to stand up for that fish. Its cichlid existence, like so many before it, had ended on a plate, but it could be proud of the South African stomachs it was feeding.

I could possibly have clawed back some self-esteem by telling them that I caught chambo with my bare hands and smoked it, giving them the recipe, had I known it then, of my friend John Clark, an Englishman born in Malawi, but he only gave it to me a few weeks later. Next time you are humiliated by superior endeavour on the banks of Lake Malawi and if you can bear the shame of further reducing the chambo population try it.

Bwanajoni’s Smoked Chambo

Bring along a smoker. Buy the fish from the fishing boats as they come in. Fillet the fish. Cover them with salt for 1/2 an hour. Wash the salt off. Place the fish fillets in the smoker. Serve the smoked chambo with crispy salad and a fresh crusty loaf. (Author’s note: be sure to ask for chambo, not chamba, which is the Chichewa word for dagga, the smoking of which is not permitted).