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Chitimba: Mdokera’s Beach Campsite – Dance Festival

Posted by daveb on July 22nd, 2008

(Continued from Mdokera’s Beach Campsite – Introduction)

“When you said that you were getting some dancers to come tonight, you didn’t mention that it would cost us anything. I’ve asked you several times how much it will cost to stay here, and you haven’t told us this either. We want to talk about this now.” I said firmly.
“Tonight you will sleep in the tree. Is 1,500 Kwacha”, Mdokera offered. This worked out to about £5/US$10, double the price in our recent guidebook — but hey, Lonely Planet almost always has incorrect prices and it was within our budget so we agreed.
“This includes meals?” I questioned
“No, meals are not included.”
“How much are the meals?”
“600 Kwacha, for both of you.”
“And, now, what about the dancers?” I pressed.

Mdokera severed all eye-contact. He drew the number ten thousand into the sand with a stick; about £40/US$80.

“You organised these dancers without telling us the cost. We don’t have 10,000 Kwacha” I faux-panicked.

A line was struck through the sand-writing.

“I have bought my own drums for them to use, so they cannot charge for this. I did this for you, my guests. And drums are VERY expensive. You should not pay more than half of this amount. These people have come from many different tribes from VERY far away. The money for the camping comes to me and my wife. But for the dancing, they get all the money”, Mdokera continued staring at the floor.

“We’ll pay 5,000 for the dancing. We don’t have any more. But we’re not happy with the way that this has worked out. We would’ve liked to stay more than one night with you, but we’ve now spent all our money on these dancers and so now you and your wife get less money — and we wanted to help you.” (Bam! There it goes, will he come back on that?)

“For me, money is not important. It is important that you see our culture and the dancing.”

The drums started. About fifty people had shown up and were now botty-shaking to the rhythm. I’ll be honest. The dancing was great. It appeared that everyone, young and old, was having a great time and really wanted to be there. In fact, it was almost a little frenzied. About twenty minutes in, things started to get a little weird though. Claire and I were pulled out of our wicker-chair thrones and invited to dance (we were uncomfortable sitting in chairs anyway; everyone else was sat on the floor, tribal chiefs notwithstanding). I was taken to the outer edge of the circle and bounced between various ladies who laughed at my inability to wiggle my bottom like an African tribeswoman can. I glanced around to check how Claire was getting along and was slightly surprised to discover that she was the centre of attention, closely dancing with one of the more frenzied women and Mdokera was stroking her hair. Claire seemed to be smiling, so I didn’t think too much of it. It was only once the song had ended that we both realised how weird the last five minutes had been, particularly for Claire.

As I write this, I still can’t tell you whether this is a cultural oversight on my part, or whether the hair-stroking was plain creepy. In fact, at the time Claire whispered to me that she felt as if she was being groomed for something quite sinister and, having been there too, I can completely understand what she meant. Our minds casted back to the ‘advice’ from the reckless STA travel consultant about the dangers of travelling Africa as a non-indigenous couple, and my Chief of Security internal alert system went to Defcon One. Needless to say that Claire and I spent the rest of time dancing with an invisible elastic band between us. It didn’t help when one of the tribal chiefs came over to me, completely blotto from booze, and said that if anyone in Malawi gives me any hassle, then I must send them to him. Presumably, so that the he can breathe on them. Happily, some American travellers (Andrea and Nate) arrived at the campsite and came over to observe the free festival. Mdokera was keen, no insistent, that we all took as many photos and videos as our memory cards would allow. At one point, disgruntled with my lack of photographic quantity, he even took the camera out of my hands and waltzed around the dancing, tapping his itchy trigger-finger on the shutter-release for about fifteen minutes of his own accord.

The dancing wound down and, inevitably, money changed hands. From mine to his. I paid Mdokera the 5,000 Kwacha that we agreed and he went off to pass the money onto the dancing tribes. Unbeknown to me at this time, Mdokera also approached Andrea and Nate to top-up the contribution; after earlier telling them that we were paying-in-full for the event. Rather than simply thank the exhausted tribeswomen and hand over the dosh, Mdokera seemed to be delivering a sermon whilst waving a fistful of notes at them. Claire and I went over to find out what was going on, under the ruse of wanting to thank the dancers, personally. A little surprised, Mdokera invited us to address his audience. We tried to make eye contact with as many of the villagers as possible–there were a lot of them–and thanked them, with open-hands touching hearts. Not even a muted response. Silence. And stares. This wasn’t quite what we had pictured. Perhaps they were upset at the amount that we had agreed with Mdokera to pay: 5,000 Kwacha. I looked down to his hand and noticed that he only had four notes in it. Just a minute ago, I had given him ten. I asked him, what happened to the other 3,000 Kwacha and he told me that he had given the money to the other tribe, who had already left. He was looking me in the eye, but I didn’t believe him. With nothing we could do, we retreated to the refuge of the restaurant straw-hut.

We had a great time chatting with Andrea and Nate about our various travel experiences. It appears that our less than stellar experience in Mbeya, was not unique: Their hotel room was busted-into by a gaggle of unpredictable armed-police who shouted at their touts and escorted our unsuspecting travellers to a ‘safer’ hotel elsewhere! Crikey.

Mdokera was keen to tell us his stories, but wouldn’t do so during dinner (too many distractions) and without his wife at the table. It was getting late. After dinner, his wife Estine joined us at the table and promptly fell sound asleep in her wicker chair. Rather than begin his stories, Mdokera sensed that we guests were now probably a little tired to take it all in and so would tell us tomorrow.

Gratefully, Claire and I retreated to our accommodation. When we read “a bed in a tree” in our travel guide, our presumptious Western minds imagined a tree house. Brilliantly, we had assumed way to much. The bed in a tree was just that. A bed. In a tree.

(Continues tomorrow)


Comment from Chloe
Time: July 22, 2008, 9:43 pm

My first full day traveling with Chris… in Delhi… a ‘very nice well dressed and well-spoken’ Indian chap insisted on chatting to us, telling us about all kinds of local things, listened to our plans, was delighted that we were going to travel far south… took us to a cafe and insisted on paying for tea for us both… “In fact, my daughter is playing this evening in a concert, you must come and see her, I can get tickets for you, I would be proud if you could come” …
(can you see where this is leading…?)
He could also arrange for us to go with his family in a few days time where they happened to have a place near Chennai (Madras)…
So… about £5 each we parted with…

And he never came to pick us up later that day for the concert… we felt really blue about the whole thing.

Then went south by ourselves and had a really good time anyway!
Glad you had a good dance… even though it does sound as though it was a bit of a weird experience… Am looking fw to seeing a picture of the bed…!

Comment from daveb
Time: August 4, 2008, 12:20 pm


Other than the dancing villagers (which we would have paid for anyways), I don’t *think* that we’ve been conned… Having said that, if were have been victims of a really good con, we probably won’t know anyway!

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