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.
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.
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.
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.