Deep in the foothills of Mulanje mountain lies a bunker which from the outside seems like an abandoned cave, but as you descend deeper underground, past different levels built in stone, it transforms at its core, 0.9 milies in, into a Nuclear research facility of the 70’s era.
The locals are afraid to go anywhere near the area because legend says the caves near the foothills house evil spirits, including the much revered and deadly rain serpent spirit, Napolo. But it is in this same area that the Lakeshore Times reports that Malawi’s first Atom bomb has been made.
We never go there, nobody goes there. Ndikusewera ndi moyo
said one local traditional jujuman, Jameson Chitosi, who recounted a story of a farmer, Boniface Gondolosi, driven mad shortly after veering into one of the abandoned caves nearby, when he sought shelter from a storm that caught him unawares.
Gondolosi began running around his house ten times at midnight while naked. He tied his manlybits to a stone and would drag it around as he ran. Everyone knew Gondolosi had gone mad. People were shocked. Since then nobody goes anywhere near that area, even if you pay dollar, timakana kupitako kumene kuli mizimu.
Such age-old myths provided Malawi’s first president, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda with the perfect excuse for some undisturbed experimentation.
Richard Magalasi, a Nuclear scientist closely associated with the clandestine project – which was known as Mizimu ya 64 (‘Spirits of 64’) or My64 , who is now 75 years old, but still runs five marathons a year recounts:
They had meetings with scientists from Pakistan, nobody thought much of it, as why would a small poor African country need an atom bomb? So when Kamuzu Banda sent representatives to Pakistan, and when Pakistani scientists began criss-crossing our eastern borders usually travelling at night by truck or atop donkeys via war-torn countries like Mozambique, and via South Africa, everybody thought maybe these Asians just want to start a cornershop somewhere in these villages or something like that. Nobody suspected that they were setting up a nuclear research facility with the aim of Uranium enrichment. Everybody thought it must be a tandoori restaurant or some curry bazaar
Pakistan is not a signatory to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, and Malawi has long been known to possess Uranium, so on some level, this cooperation made sense. But how did the whole thing come about?
The cold war was in full swing, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 had left Pakistan at a loss. They were under surveillance from the US and the UK as there were fears they could go communist, so the Pakistanis needed somewhere peaceful and quiet, an undistrubed location where they could experiment without interference, and regain their dignity back. Banda also was isolated in Southern Africa because of his cooperation with apartheid South Africa, so he needed more friends, and if possible something to fall back on should his country be challenged by Mozambique in the East or in the north by Tanzania.
By 1982, the project had enriched enough Uranium for one or two shoddy bombs, which although not hi-grade, would do some considerable damage.
So we made some tests, with tiny samples to ascertain combustibility and how the material reacted together with dynamite. This was mostly done underground, all very shoddy and elementary with strings, fuses, detonators and wires all over the place. Even our lighting was provided by hundreds of candles and we had an assistant whose job it was to keep 50 candles on at all times.
In one experiment gone badly wrong, we blew up the whole lab, and a few assistants had to be resuscitated by guards stationed outside the deepest bunker. It was hopeless
But how did the project manage to remain so secret?
We had four security clearance levels. Only myself and a couple of other Malawian scientists knew what was going on in the main lab, deep underground. All of them have since either died of old age or are out of the country. The Pakistanis knew we were making a bomb but they too were under an oath of silence, and they too needed the bomb. So we helped them smuggle equipment into the Mulanje area on the back of donkeys, and we had these noisy horns that sounded like vuvuzelas that scared villagers away, who thought it was the sound of evil spirits.
The explosions we did above ground also lit the night sky quite remarkably, and reinforced the local myths of mizimu. So villages were scared and those who worked here – some Malawi Young Pioneer (MYP) cadets, and some locals from villagers quite far off would be transported by MYP trucks at night and had to live under the mountain for weeks sometimes months at a time.
So they didn’t know what was going on?
All they knew was that they were working on a very important energy project to generate electricity for Malawi because Britain wanted tikhale mu chisamunda, so we had to act to be independent, therefore we needed this project to generate our own power. That was the propaganda and everyone believed it. So everything, the machinery, explosions, the vuvuzelas, the stacks of batteries, the solar panels, and the diesel generators were justified. At that time, education levels were so poor in Malawi that nobody would know what a centrifuge is. We had no social media and this society is a predominantly closed society so people didn’t talk much. Also, we employed jujumen to go around the villages spreading false rumours of the danger of the area.
But why didn’t the Americans or the British detect it?
Well, Dr Banda was in charge and Malawi was a dictatorship so we had discipline and people did what they were told. Malawians were afraid, but the system was efficient, and it worked. Also, we were doing experiments under a mountain, so no technology existed at the time that can take aerial photographs of a bunker situated a mile under a rocky mountain. It was genius!