When Cyclone Freddy created a rampage in Malawi and created flash floods in the southern region, everyone would say is “kwadutsa napolo”. Meaning, Napolo has passed by the area. It is the only way a lot of Malawians are able to describe the amounts of water, huge stones, and mud slides that wreck havoc and take lives of many.
However, in these days of acquired knowledge, this is a myth that a lot of people in my generation likely do not know of. Staying in an area that is mountainous and experienced more than 5 napolos during the Cyclone Freddy fiasco, it meant being privy to information that I had little to no knowledge of. The mythology that our forefathers believed in.
Just what exactly is the Malawian Mythology when it comes to Napolo?
One thing that a lot of Malawian tribes agree on is that Napolo is a spirit. It is the formation of the spirit that differs from person to person.
My own grandmother was taught that Napolo was a spirit in form of an 8 headed serpent that lives in the mountain. It is said that it lived in the deep waters of the mountains not seen to an ordinary eye. According to the myth, it observed the doings of the people living close to the area.
When the people angered it, it struck them by releasing the waters from the deep mountains to wash out the village.
However, some believe this serpent is actually known as Nyuvwira, known to be found in Chitipa. They popular belief is that it moves every 200 years, but one thing it has in common with Napolo is that it causes disasters once it does. The nyuvwira is known to feed on gemstones, and that it generates electricity which makes it light up at night.
It is said to be so strong, that the only way to kill it is through spiritual summoning, with razors lined up on the floor.
A signal of fighting spirits
Other popular beliefs also place Napolo as not just one spirit, but many of them. According to these tales, these spirits are those of our ancestors. They say that their spirits transcend to the mountains once they die to live with their fellows.
Like humans, it is known that the spirits sometimes engaged in fights. Regarding how huge the fight was, the loser was banished from the mountain and their spirit sent to wash with the rivers. Thus the water that would break from the mountains.
It does not end there. In order for the spirits to warn the villagers that a spirit has been banished from the mountains, sounds of whistles and the beating of drums would be heard so that people were able to run before the water washed away their houses.
According to these beliefs, it was uncommon for Napolo to burst in one mountain twice. If so, decades would pass before the event took place again.
How these beliefs apply now
We might not think the landslides and the flash floods are causes of eight-headed serpents or spirits anymore, but if you spoke to an average Malawian, you’d realize that there are some things from the myths that are still believed till this very day.
When water burst in the mountain close to my house, many people said they heard whistles and drums being sounded like an alarm. In truest sense, this was the clapping of rocks as they rolled from the top of the mountain as well as the flowing of water in a new path.
Then there was the shock of hearing that the Ndirande Mountain alone had more than 5 landslides, some more disastrous than others. My own mother spoke with so much shock, because according to the myth, Napolo can only burst once in one mountain.
But obviously, mountains like Soche, Phalombe, and Zomba can be great examples of how that belief does not truly hold true.
These are interesting beliefs that our forefather believed in, and while they are awash, they are tales worth learning and sharing with the future generations.