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Distracted by news from Scotland

It is not often I am spurred into political action. However, over the last few days I have discovered what it feels like to come close to finding that some people’s attempts to tear your country apart are coming close to success.

In fear over the end of the Union between Scotland and England I felt that everyone had to do their bit, including me, even if there was no guarantee that my efforts would make a difference to anyone. That is why I cleared out my task list and wrote yesterday’s blog post. Of course, a vote to tear up the United Kingdom would not only divide Britain, it would also divide Scotland in two.

Last night however I began to feel a sense of relief as it seems that the opinion polls that had shocked, disturbed and distracted me had also had an impact on some serious organisations that would under other circumstances prefer to avoid wading too deep into politics.

Now at last I can relax and smile again. I’ve even thought up some jokes to relieve the situation – and make a point.

What happened is that BP, Shell, Standard Life, the Bank of England and the Royal Bank of Scotland made statements that will force all sensible people in Scotland to take note. The independence case as set out now would lead to a major loss of business and capital for Scotland and the tax base of the country would be depleted. With that news the ideas of a high spending Scottish government go out of the window. The news of major companies fleeing Scotland has spawned some jokes. Here are mine:

After yesterday’s financial and oil related announcements there is at last today some welcome relief for the SNP. The Scottish fishing industry have just announced that they will not, after all, be relocating to Birmingham.


More good news for the SNP. A major Scottish company have announced that they WILL STAY in Scotland in the event of a yes vote. Rangers International Football Club Plc finance director David Whyte Green Wallace Easdale said in a statement that they have discovered that under certain circumstances (including but not restricted to ‘havin’ nae money in ra bank (if there is one)’) that one does not have to pay tax any road.

Apologies to everyone who does not follow the ins and outs of Scottish football.

So now that all of that is dealt with, apologies that this blog post is ‘off-topic’ unless you relate it to yesterday’s post. Perhaps I can now get my attention back to matters here in Malawi.

Scottish Referendum – Perspectives From Malawi

Even since the opinion polls moved to show a statistical dead heat between Nationalists and Unionists in Scotland I have been preoccupied with and distracted by the prospect of an end the 300 year old union between Scotland and England, The Union of the Parliaments.

So I have cleared out my task list and taken to writing a blog post about the vote in Scotland, from a Malawi based perspective. What I have written is not perfect but I hope it allows us to draw out some thoughts from Malawi, from Malawi’s history and from Malawi’s relationship with Scotland and Britain. For those involved in the fevered debate back in Scotland, perhaps this will provide some perspectives from a different angle.

A very senior Malawian, someone who is a national figure given his position, asked me something recently about the relationship between Britain and Malawi. He referred to Britain as something along the lines of ‘our mother nation’ or something very similar. I cannot remember the precise words, but he asked a very searching ‘why’ question. Of course that is not the only way that Malawians think about Britain or Scotland (as the ‘mother nation’ I mean). History is complicated. Relationships have ups and downs. People sometimes express things in a polite way. Anyway, I am not wanting to get into that now, there are many subjects and topics under that headline. However, let me say that when Malawians ask me about Britain or Scotland they often use the word ‘why’, and with a very meaningful tone. It usually pushes me back one step, in a manner of speaking, as it is often clearly a question looking for a deeper and more fundamental answer.

The stained glass windows at Livingstonia. Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, arrives at Lake Malawi from Britain, and the rest (of the slave trade), as they say, is now history.

The stained glass windows at Livingstonia. Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, arrives at Lake Malawi from Britain, and the rest (of the slave trade), as they say, is now history.

Anyway, thinking about the forthcoming vote on Scotland’s (and Britain’s) future I remembered this morning a 100 year old interaction between a senior British official, a senior Scottish missionary and an Ngoni chief. The Ngoni chief spoke last and delivered a question that makes you wonder how the British (in this case the Scottish missionary), could respond. Lets come back to the this interaction at the end. Suffice to say that history, beliefs, tribal identity, relationships and national struggles are connected to the subject matter.

What wisdom would an Ngoni chief give us now?

Malawi’s most recognised and distinguished historian is DD Phiri. He is a very interesting and gentle old man and quite distinctive and traditional in his ways. I sometimes see him walking down the road as I drive past. You have the feeling that he is thinking about his old school correspondence school (with old typewriters), or history, or a historical perspective on current events. Meanwhile, everyone else is rushing past, preoccupied with more immediate concerns. You can easily have the feeling that people should pay more attention to him. He wrote a book on the history of the Ngoni (remember the chief above), which I struggled through. I found it a struggle because of the long names, unfamiliar and old place names (a lot of migration was involved) and complicated connections. He also wrote Malawi history books and of course those of us who are Scottish (and / or British), get a few mentions.

It reminds me of when I sometimes drive past and see Malawi’s old and most distinguished jazz legend walking slowly along the road. He is an old friend of my parents, and a new friend of ours. In another country these guys would be getting driven past in a limo heading from one recording studio to another society function and I would be left standing looking on from the highways and byways.

(By the way, I do stop and give lifts to friends – that sort of thing happens a lot here).

As I drove here (this La Caverna cafe) to write this post I drove on the left (ever wonder why we drive on the left here?) and switched on the car radio to some random channel. On the radio was a detailed sermon or bible study in Chichewa. Something was being carefully propounded from a detailed study of the text. That’s quite common in Malawi, you can listen to sermons when you travel on public transport here. You don’t have to look too far to find some connections with Scottish missionaries or British ways of doing things. The religious beliefs that somehow inform assumptions on values here have a connection with assumptions about beliefs and values that were there in Britain’s more Christian days. Whether we British (then) or Malawians (now) always obeyed everything we listened to from the bible is another question. Let us just say that we British were not perfect.

Other kinds of European influence are here also, I drove past Carlsberg Malawi.

So what of this 300 year old Union? In the early days of our relationship with what is Malawi it (the Union) was between 150 and 200 years old. Here in Malawi you can see how history can move quickly. You can see here in Malawi how the British, how the Scottish and how Malawi can change quite quickly in what is really a short period of time.

I told my Chichewa teacher recently that we Europeans are very tribal. It is part of the human condition. I explained that it manifests itself in different ways and that we British are very good at dressing up base instincts with refinery, so that it all looks very respectable. We British are second to none, in fact, when it comes to overlaying misdeeds with ‘correct procedure’ and interesting justifications. (I am not just talking about tribalism and nationalism).

So what about our nationalism and tribalism? What about Scottish nationalism? Someone who takes a moderate interest will notice how progressive and broad minded Scottish nationalism is. Hmmm. We are not like other European nations who hate their neighbours are we? In fact, recently we have observed Scottish nationalists supporting England in sporting contests. Very convincing.

In Malawi we have moved a long way in a very short period of time. Malawi has been rated as one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. However, please read DD Phiri’s books and then rearrange the following words, add a few other words and use your imagination: Ngoni, Bandawe, Tonga, genocide narrowly averted, war. Or alternatively read DD Phiri’s books and then rearrange: slave trade, tribal chiefs, Arab traders, Mulozi.

It could never happen here. This is Malawi. Malawians are very peaceful people. Malawians are very nice people. Ethnic killings here are extremely rare compared with other places I could think of. The nastier side of nationalism is something we could not see here, could we? It’s the same with Britain and Scotland of course. We can’t imagine the nastiest manifestations of nationalism in Scotland, could we?

The cryptic response that the Scottish missionaries sent to the British authorities during a time of racial tension during the struggle for independence. The following photo explains all.

The cryptic response that the Scottish missionaries sent to the British authorities during a time of racial tension during the struggle for independence. The following photo explains all.

Here in Malawi you meet a lot of foreign travelers who talk about a very noticeable change when they cross the border into Malawi. It is true, but it is also very strange. How is it that people can be a lot nicer and gentler towards alien white people when they walk a few yards across some artificial border in Africa drawn up by some remote European cartographer? The answer of course is to do with a people’s experience of history, it is not do do with crossing a ‘tribal boundary’. Anyone who knows about the ethnic diversity of Malawi can tell you that.

People have different views on what has shaped Malawi and Malawians. Some were strongly arguing to me the other week about the influence of Kamuzu and the British. Some will mention Christianity. Others will note the similarities between what the earliest European visitors wrote of their impressions and what people now say. Still others will mention the effects of modern NGOs and express a view about dependency being created. Who is right, who is partly right and who is wrong in these arguments is not the point at the moment. The point is that being on one side of a border can have a big influence – for whatever reason. But even that is not my main point. A bigger point is that things can change very quickly. If that was not true you would not see such profound differences on one side of a border versus another. Peace or antagonism between peoples is not an African or a European thing, it is a human thing. We British or we Malawians can quite easily slip into a little bit of complacency over these things. I do it myself.

Regarding personal safety and crime, people sometimes say to me “Be careful! Malawi is not the way it used to be.”

My response is “Yeah yeah, I hear what you say. Yup, I’ve heard the stories. Noted.” But deep down a ‘Malawi person’ like me finds it difficult to conceive of the idea of anything other than “Calm down, this is Malawi, these are Malawians. What are you worried about. Nothing really bad can happen here.”

So what can Malawi teach us about The Union? Well, Malawi is a kind of ‘Union’ of different peoples. We have Ngoni, Tonga, Chewa, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Tumbuka, etc. It is not perfect, nowhere is. Some people are a bit more habitually in charge than others. It’s like Britain with the political leadership oscillating between the two main ruling classes – middle-class Scots and posh English kids (get over the humour). Some Malawians come from a patrilineal tradition, others from a matrilineal tradition. Compare and contrast our cultural differences in Britain with that, then put it in your pipe and smoke it. There are different languages here – and they are more different than Estuary English and Glaswegian (by the way). (Interestingly, the similarities between the languages in the Bantu language group are fascinating).

So, how did Malawi become such a diverse ‘Union’. What do they have in common? Well, you know of course. The thing that we all in Malawi have in common is…Scottish missionaries. Malawi is also of course shaped by geographical features (Lake Malawi and the Shire River – which influenced Livingstone’s journeys and the locations of the Scottish Missionaries). We must also not forget the Portuguese and the Arab slave traders and various migrations etc.

From the museum in Livingstonia. This should help explain the photo taken from the air, further up.

From the museum in Livingstonia. This should help explain the photo taken from the air, further up.

Malawi has been a land of peace. People understand the phrase ‘The Warm Heart of Africa.’ It is not some concoction without any connection to reality. Malawians (like all of us), cannot escape from their history. But, whatever points you wish to make, there is good (as well as everything else), in Malawi’s history. Relationships and connections are built up over time and run deep and wide in all sorts of unexpected days.

Let us start to go back to those interactions between the senior British official, the well connected Scottish missionary and the Ngoni chief around about the year 1914. Let us start with a little bit of history. Did the Scottish missionaries say to the Ngoni – “Abandon your tribal identity and your traditions and become a citizen of the earth. Become a modern Briton.”

Well, funnily enough, no.

What many of the very earliest Scottish missionaries said was that they should not interrupt or denigrate or prescribe what heritage and traditions the local people should have, except in one way (and even that was entirely voluntary). There was a strongly held view that other than introducing the bible, translated, they (the Scottish) should not insist on how the bible should be understood in the context of local traditions, except where the bible explicitly and unambiguously condemned a particular element of local traditions. Even then, there were no means of coercion either to accept Christianity, or to interpret it if it was accepted. Education and medicine on the missions were for all, not for ‘converts’. The Ngoni were known as a warrior people.

So here in Malawi you see, there is a rich ‘tapestry’ of traditions, languages, cultures, beliefs, interactions and experiences. Malawi is not some tribal war zone, in fact, it is a nation. However, it is diverse and most people here, I think, would agree that patriotism is preferable to tribalism. Some things have gone wrong here of course. My view, and many others share this, is that in taking on ‘European ways’, a lot of old inherited wisdom has been lost. I am talking about agriculture and related matters. Not everything western is better…Malawi – don’t forget your roots! Build on your traditions with some things you might wish to choose from the west by all means – but do not throw away your heritage.

The Union between Scotland and England (and the rest) runs through all sorts of areas of life. It is blood, family, history, war, money, language and so much more. As someone who believes that we should conserve the good that we inherit I say that we should be very careful about knocking things down to rebuild from scratch. Reform and grow by all means – but tear up? Malawi is a union between different peoples. It is a place that has lost some of the inherited wisdom from the elders in the dash for western and artificial ways.

Let’s get back to the Ngoni chief.

If the Ngoni were to accept Christianity then one thing that would have to be grappled with was the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Let’s get back to that conversation around about 1914… By then the Ngoni had accepted Christianity. Their neighbours the Tonga were feeling a lot more relaxed. But then came 1914.

The British official wanted the Ngoni to assist with the war effort against the Germans in World War 1. Understanding that the Scottish missionary had a much better relationship with the Ngoni than he did himself he asked the Scottish missionary to assist in selling the idea. You don’t have to be Brains of Britain (or Northern Ireland or Wales), to guess the question the Ngoni asked.

“You have just taught us the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. We have accepted it. Now you are asking us to join your war?”

Why now a Malawian might wonder, when we brought about a peaceful unity with diversity are we going down the road of disunity ourselves?

There is not a long way (in time) between peaceful coexistence and antagonism. Malawi should teach us British (including Scots), to not tear up our history, as if it did not happen. Organic growth and building on what you have is something else.

Just as I am Scottish and others are Scottish is not in any way lessened by the fact that we are British. We’ve lasted over 300 years like that – or longer if you include the Union of the Crown. Why should the Ngoni have their identity removed? They don’t. I do not want my Britishness taken away either.

If Scotland votes to begin negotiations on the breaking up of the Union then all sorts of things will be on the table including pension funds, government money and natural resources. Family relationships will be involved. Let us not be complacent about nationalism. Scottish nationalists tell us that their’s is a ‘progressive’ form of nationalism.

Natural resources are on the agenda in Malawi too. It is to do with oil. There is oil under Lake Malawi in an area that Malawi says is Malawi and that Tanzania says is Tanzania. An agreement was made a long time ago between Britain and Germany about a certain part of the border. Now Malawi and Tanzania have different views.

While nothing has happened here in Malawi we should not be complacent about different perceptions between England and Scotland over what is going to happen or what has gone before. In Britain we are not immune to the fact that nationalism can unleash evil. This is especially so when the nationalism is backed up by a sense of righteousness (the Scottish nationalists tell us how ‘progressive’ their version of nationalism is).

But let us look at the positive side. The Union between Scotland and England on our islands has been characterised by peace, prosperity and the invention of the modern world. We have a currency that has underpinned our prosperity. In many parts of the world (not all), people think of us as civilised and of great historical significance. The depth and breadth of what Britain is, and is seen to be, is greater than many perceive. Tearing down Britain and unleashing local tribal and nationalistic sentiments over real and major contentious issues (money, currency and oil) is potentially very dangerous. Nationalism is a dangerous tiger to ride.

I just had a look in The Nation newspaper here in Malawi to see if there was anything on the Scottish referendum. Actually, there was a large opinion piece. While we British were, quite rightly, given a very small journalistic smack on the hand over previous mistakes, the article was otherwise overwhelmingly arguing that the British are courteous, civilised, thoughtful and respectful and a great force for good in the world. How much do you have to pay for that kind of marketing? Of course it is not marketing, it is what many believe. In Britain we have forgotten about those round the world who ‘think the world of us’. Scotland will forget this British reputation at our peril. Patriotic as I am, I thought that the columnist was being too generous to us. (You see, it’s hard to shake our historical ‘baggage’ even when we ourselves know how far we have fallen). While not taking sides the article concluded that we should hope for the best for Britain and concluded with a rousing ‘God Save the Queen.’ British people who have not toured the Commonwealth recently might think I am joking; of course, I am not.

Britain has given Scotland a place in the world. Scotland has led Britain round the world. This is not ‘retired colonel from Sevenoaks writes’ stuff, this is the reality – difficult as it is for naturally modest Scots like myself to spell out.

But, how do we argue that Scottish nationalism is not quite as progressive and benign as other forms of nationalism? ‘Other’ forms of nationalism are often informed by the belief that they are on the side of what is ‘right’ or that they have a moral or historical or cultural superiority versus their less just or moral neighbours / enemies. They are sometimes buttressed by tribal loyalties masquerading as religious or ideological positions. Clever abusers of power can use ideology, religion, atheism or mysticism and perceived historical injustices to sway and mislead the masses. Scottish nationalism paints itself as progressive. Furthermore it is quick to define British nationalism or sometimes English nationalism in a negative light. So you see, English concerns about EU immigration are ‘ugly’ while the righteous Scottish people have superior ‘social consciences’.

Actually, things are quite restrained just now. The nationalistic temperature is quite low (says he, 6,000 miles away). If anyone in Scotland thinks that the temperature is high now, just you wait. However, if things go wrong or if injustices are perceived then things can, I think, quickly turn nasty. A British divorce is going to be a very big deal when it comes to money, natural resources and currency. Ugly nationalism is backed up by ‘we are right and they are wrong’ and can be a battle over divergent views on history and natural resources. We have all the ingredients.

But what if Scottish nationalists are unconvinced and insist that they really do have a benign and a really new form of nationalism? Will this new nationalism take us to a bright new future? If I cannot convince the nationalists and the waverers that this is really quite unlikely then in that case I must give way to my superior. Let us turn to the philosopher, to King Solomon. Is a new nationalism and a new separate Scotland going to be different and better to what went before?

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Ecclesiastes 1 v 10.

So there we have it. Let us not engage in a ‘chasing after the wind’ for a new silver bullet to solve our problems. That ‘new nationalism’ is not new, it is old. Our old pre-Union nationalism was not so pretty. Make sure you vote No on the 18th of September to preserve what is good in our heritage and our shared history. If that middle wall of partition that once divided us has been broken down, do not rebuild it.

Another thought on language

Recently I was reading something about how language affects the way that people think. I had the impression that what I was reading and my initial thoughts on it were nothing but the scratching of the surface of something quite deep and profound.

My Chichewa teacher often mentions that Chichewa is a relational language. In my one-to-one Chichewa lessons the single most interesting point for me was the relationship between language and culture. Another thing I was learning about in my Chichewa courses was grammar. I don’t mean Chichewa grammar – I mean grammar in general. Readers of this blog will be shocked and saddened (but not surprised I am guessing) to learn that I was never formally taught grammar at school. In no English lesson at school was I properly taught grammar. I think it is called modern education.

Anyway – I am being side-tracked.

This post is supposed to be about language and how people think about things. One obvious thing about Chichewa and the Bantu language group in general is the importance of greetings and the way the relationship between two people is indicated in the options that they choose from the language when they talk to each other. There is respect at one end of the spectrum and either an absence of respect (or familiarity) at the other end. There is quite a lot you can do in various ways to position what you say towards one or other end of that spectrum. Malawians I have discussed this with do suggest to me that English ‘feels like’ a language ‘without respect’. Anyway – that is not the main point that I want to make.

I want to talk about nouns and how the noun in the sentence …changes everything. Well, perhaps it does not quite change everything (literally), but the noun affects a lot of other things in the sentence. This is because nouns belong to one of several different noun classes. Depending on the noun class that you are using this affects so much of how you should use grammar in the rest of the sentence.

One thing that the noun class affects are numbers. Numbers do not really exist entirely in the abstract – in other words the word for ‘two’ changes slightly depending on whether you are talking about ‘two people’ or ‘two rhinos’. Two people is anthu awiri. Two rhinos is zipembere ziwiri. In these example the prefix zi- or a- is used in front of -wiri for the number (if it is greater than one) – but there are many noun classes. Of course the Chichewa for rhinos (zipembere) or rhino (chipembere) are not the most commonly used nouns and sadly there is far less need to use these words than once in the past. More imporantantly the word for ‘thing’ or ‘things’ (chinthu or zinthu) belong to that noun class (the chi-zi noun class that the words for rhino(s) belongs to). What this practically means is that you in the language you can imply the kind of noun you are referring to without actually mentioning the noun itself. So for example you can say that ‘things are going ok’ or ‘the people are fine’ without mentioning the actual nouns ‘things’ and ‘people’.

So someone might say to you ‘zikuyenda?’ by which they mean ‘how are things going?’ but all that has literally been said is the word for ‘going’ (present continuing tense) with a prefix zi- which implies that ‘things’ are being referred to. Of course in a different and quite unusual context it could mean something quite different. Normally, everyone understands it to mean ‘things’ however in the context of a situation where everyone is clearly thinking about a different noun it could refer to something much more specific than ‘things’ in general. So for example if you and others were silently watching rhinos walking past and then after a while someone said ‘Zikuyenda?’ the meaning (based on the context) would be – ‘the rhinos are going well’ or something a bit like that.

If you wanted to say ‘How is everything going?’ more fully you would say ‘kodi zinthu zonse zikuyenda?’ although ‘Zinthu zonse zilibwanje?’ (how is everything?) is more common I think. ‘How is everyone’ is different – you would say ‘anthu onse alibwanje?’

This is not intended as a language lesson – it is intended to be an example that shows how things in the sentence change depending on the relationship to the noun in the sentence. Can you see that there is less of the letter ‘z’ when talking about people rather than things?

Is this part of what is meant by Chichewa being a relational language? Does the fact that the word for a number exists in relation to the noun and not so much in the abstract make a difference? Does this affect how people think about the abstract and apply it to particular or different things? e.g. is the abstract idea altered quite fundamentally depending on what (noun) is being thought about? Does the context and its relationship to surrounding factors trump the abstract or fundamentally alter the way the abstract idea is implemented? The answer from me is ‘I don’t know.’ However, I can think of examples of where ‘common sense’ is applied based on the situation where in my own country there would be a much more kafkaesque adherence to a remote rule that makes no sense to the situation. I am sure however that indicating respect (or not) and the importance of greetings and relationships does affect how the language influences the way people think about things and get on with each other.

Of course I am sure that these sorts of things apply to all languages and language groups. I am sure that language does affect how people think about things and each other and how they interact. As I said earlier – I think I just have an inkling of this and the subject is probably a lot deeper than people typically realise.

However, I am sure also that a visitor can learn to understand the cultural conventions even without learning the language fully. The language is an indicator of how people interact and do things and think about things. One can observe customs and social norms and ways of doing things even without knowing the language.

Because I think it is a good example I keep on going back to David Livingstone and how well liked and respected he was. Interestingly, he had a lot of fallings out with his fellow Europeans… How he would approach a village and the interactions with the local chiefs and headmen showed that this very perceptive and observant man understood and interacted according to the accepted way of doing things. Some later (but also early) Scottish missionaries were following in his footsteps – and really taking time waiting outside a village where there were potentially difficult relationships to be smoothed over. At that time the new British colonial authorities thought that these Scots were wasting time and got impatient with them. I heard recently about how a new western expat boss was puzzled when he realised that visitors had arrived outside of his office and were seated and waiting. ‘This guy obviously did not read David Livingstone’s journals’ I thought.

Malawians are polite, patient and gentle in their initial meetings with each other. Of course people who know each other well (think young workmen who interact and joke with each other every day) will of course yell ‘Iwe!’ (‘you’ – impolite) at each other from a distance. In other instances loudly and expressively greeting each other from a distance (perhaps in a latin style) – especially if communicating with someone senior to yourself – feels quite..atypical.

I was very impressed at how quickly my (latin) sister-in-law picked up a bit of Chichewa. I was fascinated, and vaguely disturbed, by the way she combined Chichewa with the typical expressive latin style. Her native language (closely related to Italian) and country use a lot of gestures and she herself is a particularly expressive person. I remember her loudly and abruptly greeting people from a distance in Chichewa (including Malawi’s most senior, respected and legendary musician – who is a old family friend). I don’t think it matters, and I think people were very happy to hear her use Chichewa – but it was a bit of a shock to the system to experience the Latin style combined with the Chichewa language for the first time in my experience.

(I think any Malawian who reads this and knows and remembers my sister-in-law will politely but firmly inform me that my sister-in-law was well liked and that Malawians are very tolerant and receptive towards unusual foreign ways of doing things).

So what is point of this whole post? Well, my point is generally that in relations between outsiders and Malawians it does pay to at least get to know and understand a bit of the culture.

What is at the back of my mind about this is that societies work in different ways to each other. Looking at one thing that happens in isolation to the whole can be confusing. Also, I think, if you transplant something in isolation from one society to another then it might not work so well in that different context. That does not mean that societies should not learn from each other…

The way DC Scott thought about it was that his job as an early missionary was to bring the bible and translate it (and modern medicine and education) and then let the people work out their own ‘African Christian Civilisation’ themselves and not try to transplant ‘European Christian Civilisation’ where it would not work. That was the general thinking of the very early Scottish missionaries and it kept on bringing them into conflict with other whites (like the colonial authorities).

What I am not saying, and what he also was not saying was that we should not learn from each other. However, the view that ‘western is better’ so lets just transplant specific western ways of doing things and expect them to function in the same way – is not going to work.

Let me try to conclude this somehow. Someone who is a Christian should, you would think, take the view that how language shapes the way that people think about things, do things and relate to each other should be accepted. Why is that? Well, the reason of course is that Christians believe that language itself has divine origins (see below). I was reading recently an apologist for Christian belief arguing that the language groups (or families) in the world are evidence for the existence of God. I did not get his meaning at first. Eventually I worked out that what he was saying is that if languages had just evolved from grunts and so on then what we would have now would be something very different from the specific and limited number of language groups that we have.

In other words he was saying that God did actually give different peoples different languages (see the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis Chapter 11 vs 1-9).

So, if Christians believe that the language groups have divine origins then they should ‘respect’ someone else’s language and the way it influences the way that particular society works. (By and large I think that from my observations most western Christians here do – it was certainly the general attitude of most of the early Scottish missionaries).

Chichewa (and what as I understand it has in common with other Bantu languages) has a very interesting structure. I cannot express it elegantly as it was so expressed in the introduction to an early book on the language. However, I think the meaning he was conveying was that it has a subtle, sophisticated, elegant manner by which it holds together. It certainly seems to contradict some racist assertions I have occasionally heard.

I am not a language person at all but it does seem to me to be very interesting as a kind of puzzle when as you get to know the rules and how to put the component parts together you can express more. I also mean you can express things that don’t tend to be expressed in the same way in English. Of course what I say is probably true of all or most languages. But the subtlety and the way it fits together should in itself I think be a reason to think highly of the language.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. Genesis Ch 11 v 7

Learning – or not learning, Chichewa

Sometimes a little bit of reading is a great idea when trying to lift one’s mind from the usual subjects that are occupying one’s thoughts or work. One danger I find from reading from the internet is I will search for the usual news sources or worse, be passive enough to scroll through the dross on facebook hoping to find a gem. An actual book is better I think as you are forced to pay attention to someone else’s thoughts or work and the temptation to ‘surf’ away to one’s usual hobby horses is not available.

Today I was reading a little bit from Persuasion by James Borg.

Chapter 2 on ‘Being a good listener’ got me thinking about the relationship between ‘being a good listener’ and speaking / understanding or understanding the local language. I, like most other western expats in Malawi am poor with the local language Chichewa. In mitigation I should say 1/ I am trying, 2/ I have been taking lessons and 3/ I am better than most expats here. However, point 3 is little to boast about. People who do not know Malawi would likely be astonished at how low the expectations are with regard to how much Chichewa a westerner can speak.

The book on Persuasion and the chapter on listening are not rocket science of course. However, it does have some value to consider how important listening is and how bad most people are at it. The damage that poor communication does to relationships must be related I thought to the damage done to ‘inter-cultural relationships’ by the misunderstandings that arise and the difficulty that expats have in understanding what people convey best in their own language.

This train of thought reminded me of something else that I read in the last few weeks and that iwas from a huge and interesting study pack on Chichewa. Something that caught my eye was the section for teachers on the ‘theoretical background’ subsection ‘Motivation’. The non rocket science (again) section that made an impression was, and I quote ‘Research has shown that students will learn a language more quickly and easily if they admire the people who speak it, have a desire to interact with those people, and for these reasons decide to study the language.’

Now, you do not have to be a rocket scientist (I’ve started so I’ll finish and be monotonous and repetitive), to work out where I am going with this argument.

Yes, I love Malawi and so do many other long-term expats and others who can be described as ‘Malawi people’ but one has to observe that in the grand scheme of things the interaction between Malawi and outsiders could be closer to functional and further from disfunctional. In fact, all countries need to trade and interact with each other for their own good and prosperity.

As expats – we need to think about our role in this.

I don’t know where to cut off the points I have in mind to make. What I have touched on here is a massive subject and maybe I can get further into it later. One preactical aspect influencing the length of this blog post is the Mountain Club of Malawi social this evening. So perhaps I should abruptly stop here.

One thing I should say however is that I might do some book reviews. Why do that, promote someone’s books, without signing up to Amazon’s thing where I can get a bit of commission if I put business there way?

So here is a link below. As I have not really reviewed this book and it is not on the specialised subject of this blog I am sure nothing will come of it. However, I thought I’d try this link to Amazon just to see if I can get it to work for future possibilities perhaps more especially regarding Malawi related books.

I hope this is a link to the book.

Some old money

Eric brought in some old bank notes yesterday. It was another short trip down memory lane as this is what money looked like when I was growing up.




I was was impressed at the quality of the paper after all these years, it is nice to see the depiction of The Lake and also the tea growing beneath Mulanje Mountain.. I think that you can see the years 1982 and 1983.

Alexander Hetherwick

On the day of the arrival in Malawi of some of his relatives I thought it would be worth looking at one of the ‘big four’ (or five) Scottish missionaries in the history of Malawi. Of course, naming the most important missionaries is quite a subjective task. I look forward to encountering some alternative, and perhaps better informed opinions, in due course.

The ‘big four’ that I am thinking of are David Livingstone (of course), Dr Robert Laws of Livingstonia and Scott and Hetherwick of Blantyre.

The division among white incomers that I want to suggest considering is something that goes right back to David Livingstone himself. Famously, David Livingstone got on very well with his African companions and hosts but had a somewhat more difficult relationship with his later European companions. In fact in the very early days he wanted to get as far away from ‘The Cape’ (South Africa) as possible so that he could meet African people untouched by the kind of relationship that was brewing between the Boers and the local people there. The worst story was where local people told him that Boers were shooting black children for fun. So incredible did he find this that is was not until culprits themselves told him the same thing that he believed that it must be true.

While noting that the above is an extreme example it is clear from the early days that the Scottish missionaries wished to avoid the ‘Cape model’. DC Scott was a great believer in ‘African Christianity’ being worked out by the local people rather than European Christianity and European civilisation being transplanted onto a different society. He had great confidence that an indigenous African Christian civilisation would emerge. Bring the bible, preach the gospel, introduce modern medicine, education and technical skills and then let Africa work out it’s own civilisation was the thinking. After building St Michael’s church in Blantyre DC Scott would not build other church buildings outside the mission station because the churches must come from within the hearts of the local people he argued. In fact, once the first converts were made Christianity spread throughout the land as a result of African evangelists.

It should be clear therefore that this view of the prominent Scottish missionaries would bring them into conflict with the more ‘paternal’ (at best) colonial authorities. The tradition continued for a long time as Scottish missionaries were also part of the struggle for independence as they had earlier been involved in the struggle for protection (from slavery and the Portuguese). Alexander Hetherwick, as DC Scott’s assistant and successor as head of Blantyre Mission was very much within this tradition.

The alternative to these men and others was a quite different attitude that came from some (though perhaps not all) of those in the colonial authorities. Harry Johnston was an interesting character whose writing clearly shows him to be irritated with the missionaries. However, it is quite amusing to read his begrudging praise for the missionaries and their achievements. The facts regarding the changes were inescapable. Malawi’s history (the facts) have a way of forcing people to nuance their pre-conceived prejudices. This is true whether we are talking about people who think the British Empire was ‘a jolly good thing’ or those who think that every missionary or colonial influence is oppression and a sub-version of local culture. What I find interesting about the views of serious people who look at Malawi’s history is the consensus of opinion among them rather than the division – and this is because that consensus is coming from observers with different backgrounds and beliefs (Christian / secular / right-wing / left / European / African). Of course, if you want a simplistic cartoon version of history that fits in with your preconceived ideas, unburdened by knowledge…then that is available from many opinionated and vocal sources.

Returning however to the very real differences in attitude between white people here it is informative to look at some examples of what happened when there was trouble between local people and the colonial authorities. At the time of the Chilembwe Uprising the authorities blamed the Scottish missionaries for educating the people. The Scottish missions believed in primary, secondary and further (tertiary) education (as well as practical training) while others thought that the education should be primary school only. Scott I think indicated his irritation with some of the new ‘aloof’ doctors by asking rhetorically why they come here if they don’t like (or respect) the local people.

One of the indicators, that in fact goes back to David Livingstone himself, was how well white people got on with other whites and how well they got on with Africans. David Livingstone had a famously difficult relationship with other European companions but was well liked across vast areas of the continent. The relationships of those other early missionaries who followed him I think also parallels this kind of thing. We should remember that many of these early Scottish missionaries were rebels within the system or perhaps did not want to fit in with society back ‘home’. The most spectacular example of this was DC Scott secretly building St Michael’s church while keep the whole thing secret from his bosses on the Mission Board in Edinburgh.

Alexander Hetherwick says about this “Scott had no previous knowledge of architecture or building construction. He had never seen a brick made or laid. He began with no definite plan. The present writer remembers being shown, as he passed through Blantyre on his way home for first furlough, a few geometrical figures which he was told was the scheme or “theme” of the proposed church–three cubes forming the nave, a half-cube each forming the two transepts and chancel. …each difficult and delicate detail was… laid without mortar, and then noting the result from the ground before laying the courses with lime” Romance of Blantyre, 1931, p. 77).

St Michael and All Angels Church, Blantyre. Hetherwick knew what Scott was up to, the Mission Board in Scotland did not.

St Michael and All Angels Church, Blantyre. Hetherwick knew what Scott was up to, the Mission Board in Scotland did not.

In keeping this secret Scott was of course not neglecting his duties – he was after all translating the bible at the same time.

We like to think that those old Victorian and colonial times were so different to now. However, I find it interesting to look at those differences of opinions then observe what happens today.

Returning now to the title of this post – Alexander Hetherwick. Hetherwick was very much in that first (but increasingly minority among whites) tradition that was set by David Livingstone himself. This country is the responsibility of the local people. The role of the missionaries and those other Europeans who followed them was not to impose European civilisation onto a different society and rule over it. Instead, the missionaries have a temporary role which involves translating the bible and following the introduction of Christianity, modern education and medicine; to let Africa take responsibility and work out their own African Christian civilisation.

My reading and study is not so extensive and deep that I have the facts of Hetherwick’s life at my fingertips. Instead, what I write about these missionaries is the impression I have built up from reading from various books and sources and talking to local historians and of course what I learned from my father who was an expert Chichewa speaker and minister in local congregations. It is also infomed somewhat by my own experience of modern day divisions and misunderstanding as well as different approaches to ‘development’. It should be mentioned that DC Scott’s vision was, I think, ultimately defeated by other whites and the years between those early days and now were characterised by aloof whites and ‘development’ ideas that are not the same as Livingstone’s thinking on ‘legitimate commerce’ or DC Scott’s thinking about letting Africa work out it’s own civilasation. ‘What went wrong’ with African / European relations would be an interesting study after considering how things started. However, how things started has clearly set a tone which has by no means disappeared.

As I say, Hetherwick fell within that tradition initiated by Livingstone and carried on in Blantyre by Scott. Let me quote from another source.

Andrew C Ross
Alexander Hetherwick was a Church of Scotland missionary in Malawi. He graduated from Aberdeen University, the best mathematician of his class. He turned away from an academic career and trained for the Church of Scotland ministry. In 1885 he was ordained for missionary service with the Blantyre mission in Malawi, where D. C. Scott sent him to open up new work among hitherto hostile groups beneath the Zomba plateau. Although very different temperamentally from Scott, Hetherwick soon became Scott’s principal assistant and succeeded him as head of the mission in 1898. Hetherwick was an able linguist and chaired the committee that produced the complete Nyanja Bible, which was used until the late 1970s in Malawi, Zambia, and parts of Mozambique. Following in Scott’s footsteps, he never flinched from challenging the colonial authorities over African rights and served as representative of those interests in the legislative council of the Protectorate from 1908 to 1913 and again from 1922 to 1925. His speeches before the government commission of enquiry into the John Chilembwe rebellion of 1915 were, for the time, a startling insistence on the oneness of humanity transcending racial difference. Along with Robert Laws, he was one of the main architects of the autonomous Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, which was inaugurated in 1924.

There is a lot more that informed church historians can tell us and I recommend as a starter reading ‘Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi’ by Andrew C. Ross. However, today those African presbyterians who are aware of the arrival this afternoon of relatives of Alexander Hetherwick consider that fact a big deal. Sadly, many other people will just give a blank look if informed of the same information.

I have found that Alexander Hetherwick’s biography is available but on the US and not on the UK Amazon website. The author of the biography with a long title ‘A Prince of Missionaries : The Rev Alexander Hetherwick of Blantyre, Central Africa’ is W P Livingstone. W P Livingstone’s biography of Dr Robert Laws is one I have read and that book left me with a lasting impression of the extraordinary story that is the dawn of Christianity and the end of the long night of slavery in this land.

To get to Hetherwick’s biography on Amazon click on this sentence which is a link to the book.

An ‘old’ book

I was chatting to Eric about his background and he mentioned an ‘old’ book called ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ which contains a couple of pictures from his wedding. Noticing my interest he decided to bring it in the next day. In fact the book is not that old, it is from 1984, three years after I left Malawi and twenty seven before I returned.

The Warm Heart of Africa - Malawi. Hands Reich Verlag

The Warm Heart of Africa – Malawi. Hands Reich Verlag

Keeping in mind that this blog post is really, quite apart from being of some interest to some readers here also a/ a book review and b/ free advertising for the author / publisher – the photos here should really be covered by the equivalent of ‘fair use’ with regard to copyright law. I cannot help noticing that various people and organisations have copied my photos from this blog without giving any acknowledgement to me or this blog.. However, if the author or publisher don’t like this free advertising that I am providing them with, then they should just get in touch and I’ll take this post down.

Anyway, according to Eric this book was commissioned by Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda and he, the president, selected the photos. I found it interesting to read the Forward. Only a few weeks ago I had the letter that he wrote in 1964 to all of the British Civil Servants who were in place at the end of the colonial period and at the dawn of independence.

Forward to 'The Warm Heart of Africa'.

Forward to ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’.

As well as seeing Eric’s wedding photo the book was of interest to me as there are some pictures of sights that are very familiar to me from my childhood, but are of places that now look different. The main example of this is Mulunguzi Dam, but nearby Ku Chawe Inn also has changed.

Mulunguzi Dam, as it used to look, and horse-riding nearby.

Mulunguzi Dam, as it used to look, and horse-riding nearby.

There are other beautiful photos from Zomba Plateau in the book but it that is one page of two with Mulunguzi Dam in the book that is very different to what a picture taken now will show. I do have old family photos from Mulunguzi Dam and I’d like to put them up some time. In fact there are numerous old photos I would like to revive including one or two I was given yesterday by an old family friend who is briefly visiting Malawi. The picture is from the 1970’s and is taken outside of Thuchila Hut on Mulanje Mountain.

On the subject of family photos let’s return to Eric. I decided to take a close photo of the commentary on the photo as that is important for making sense of the man with the kudu horn.

Information on the kudu horn and Malawian weddings

Information on the kudu horn and Malawian weddings

Eric, his bride and a kudu horn.

Eric, his bride and a kudu horn.

EDIT: It occurred to me as I wrote the post yesterday that if I am writing a book review I’d be as well entering a link in case a reader wants to buy the book… As and when my blogging improves I will learn how to make the link (below) look more aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

<a href="Malawi: The Warm Heart of Africa” target=”_blank”>


Today has been cold, windy and overcast in Blantyre. The warm and sunny weather may well have continued if it were not for yesterdays post.

Weather improves

After a long hard winter I am today beginning to feel as though it is beginning to warm up. In town this morning, I mean well before mid-day, I had that feeling of a warm sunny pleasant morning. You could feel warm at anytime of course – but earlier on in the month it would require thick trousers, a jumper and even socks. Today, wearing short sleeves, sandals and shorts gives that warm (only just) but fresh and sunny feel.

Now we can look forward to slowly but unevenly rising temperatures as we approach October and November. My opinion is that truly oppressively hot days, even then, are rare (of course it is different at lower altitudes like in the Shire Valley). Then it is all the fun of the rainy reason with great tropical thunderstorm spectaculars. All in all, I think that the climate up here in the Shire Highlands is pretty good.

I received a nice comment on the blog today. Maybe I should write more. I see that the reading stats are quite steady despite the scarcity of posts these days. At the Mountain Club Social on Saturday night two people commented with surprise on my presence. They didn’t think I was in Malawi anymore and accused me of hiding.

New Blantyre Synod Radio Station

The last house I lived in during my childhood in Malawi is being converted into a radio station. Next to the Blantyre Synod offices this radio station will begin broadcasting, for Blantyre Synod, to the whole of the Southern Region of Malawi.

My old house

My old house

Malawi’s population density map, Blantyre Synod covers the more populous Southern Region.

Malawi’s population density, Blantyre Synod covers the populous Southern Region.

Blantyre Synod’s geographical area is basically the Southern Region of Malawi and is, as everyone who knows Malawi’s history will understand, the same as the geographical area covered by the old Church of Scotland Mission. The rationale for a radio station for the denomination can be understood with a few simple, and striking, facts. These facts are quite different from the normal situation for a church denomination in the west. The CCAP (of which Blantyre Synod is a component part) is one of the few denominations that fully trains it’s ministers in theological college before ordaining them. The cost in money and time for the training of a minister is quite high and this has an important effect in a poor country. So, relative to the number of members (and congregations), the number of ministers is very small. Blantyre Synod has well over a million members but only about 185 ministers actively serving in congregations together with the numerous ‘prayer houses’ attached to full church congregations. Prayer houses are like individual church congregations that meet on a Sunday and are like daughter church congregations that may become full congregations in time. Blantyre Synod has about 600 churches and 700 prayer houses. This means that each Sunday about 450 churches, not to mention prayer houses, have no minister with them at their service. Bear in mind also that many larger congregations have more than one service on a Sunday, including English language services in urban areas.

From this it should be clear that the burden on individual ministers is quite high. Elders of the church have to take up the responsibility of preaching and much else. While in Scotland and elsewhere the minister may be expected to do much of the work, in Malawi this is practically impossible and the burden of leadership and responsibility falls heavily on the elders. I do remember my father saying (he being a fluent and expert Chichewa speaker), that some of the best, deepest and most profound sermons he had heard came from almost completely uneducated Malawian elders. More recently I remember the Dutch minister, Rev Lieuwe Schaafsma (himself a fluent Chichewa speaker), saying something very similar. I mention the views of these expats because you sometimes hear the opposite from western visitors, so I am keen to counter with the views of outsiders who know the language. Never-the-less, despite the good things that can be said about elders with varying degrees of training, there is an understandable feeling that those who are theologically qualified should be enabled to reach the whole of the flock. This is where the need for a radio station comes in.

Most Malawians have access to radios. Even if each individual or household does not have one people can listen together. There are many influences arriving in Malawi. Understandably the CCAP as a whole, and Blantyre Synod as part of the CCAP, wish to keep the bible at the forefront of people’s understanding of how to view a rapidly changing world with a growing cacophony of new voices.

At the time of writing the Blantyre Synod website has an interview with the Deputy General Secretary, Rev Nyekanyeka, on the new radio station.


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