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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

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.

Review – Livingstone, Last Explorers

The BBC documentary on David Livingstone has just finished.

The only part of the only interview with someone I know was when Jack Thomson (rightly) described some of Livingstone’s flaws.

The description of Livingstone’s journeys was useful. Where the documentary was misleading was in the ‘what happened next’ section. There was one sentence stating that the UK government asked the top guy in Zanzibar to order a stop to the slave trade. The implication left was that it was a political / diplomatic agreement.

In reality the story of how slavery came to an end in what is now Malawi was complicated and fascinating. The people who went to Malawi, inspired by David Livingstone, were absolutely central to what happened. The proclamation by the Mufti of Zanzibar (against slavery) was treated as a kind of amusing joke by slave leaders on the shores of Lake Malawi.

When I met the BBC team I did ask what they had read of Robert Laws and the others who followed Livingstone. I thought they looked a bit blank. In fact, the conclusion of the programme was that Livingstone’s legacy was colonial injustice described as being just as bad as the slavery. Hmmmm. East Coast African slavery was the worst and beyond horrific.

Colonialism was hardly perfect, even in Nyasaland. It did play a part in ending slavery. In (what is now) Malawi there was a growing momentum brought about by a small number of missionaries following Livingstone and Scottish traders (in the tradition of David Livingstone’s ‘commerce’) and others including a heroic off duty British officer and finally British officialdom. Internal British politics, a private (trader v slaver) war that developed to an ‘official’ war, British-Portuguese diplomacy, divisions within and between Scots, missionaries, Portuguese, English & Scottish and tribes all played their part.

The ending of the genocidal wars between tribes around the same time was also a direct result of the work that Livingstone began.

The programme gave no hint of the reality of what happened next. Certainly, it is true that Livingstone himself was personally deeply flawed. Many who followed had their own share of contributions to mistakes and errors. At the same time extraordinary people helped to shape and change in deep and profound ways.

It is true that much of the good achieved in the early decades after Livingstone were lost – but not all, and not those which were most fundamental.

Likoma Island Days

A view on Likoma Island

Although I dislike the word, I am going to describe Likoma Island as one of Malawi’s ‘iconic’ destinations. I went as far as having a look at an online thesaurus for an alternative to the word iconic but have decided to stick with it.

If you tell a Malawian or an expat ‘Malawi person’ that you are going to Likoma Island then they are likely to react in a similar to way to that of a Russian when Odessa is mentioned. [I once read that if you wanted to make a Russian smile you should mention Odessa – I tried it a couple of times and sure enough…].

A sunset from Likoma Island

One reason for Likoma Island’s status is its place in the history of Malawi. It has a huge Anglican Cathedral. Unbeknown to many, the very first missionaries to come to Malawi with David Livingstone (after his first explorations) were not fellow Scots and Presbyterians but English Anglicans! It just so happens that the extraordinary Free Church of Scotland mission in Livingstonia (in the north) and to a lesser extent the established Church of Scotland mission (in the south) learned from some of the mistakes made by the early Anglican missionaries. Getting drawn too directly into politics – even if that ‘politics’ is the direct opposition to the slave trade – does not mix well with missionary activity. The Scots learned, from the Anglicans, that it was necessary to play the long game against slavery no matter how offended they were by the evils they were confronted with. This is a huge and complicated subject and I should avoid being drawn into it now. The main point I have taken from the Anglican experience was as mentioned above in the context of how the Scots built their longer term relationships with the various tribes who were in conflict with each other and implicated in slaving.

Inside the Anglican Cathedral on Likoma Island on a Sunday morning. I thought that it was quite 'High Church' but I am not expert on these things.

I would write more about the Anglican history of Malawi and about Likoma Island’s history – but unfortunately I am a bit vague on it. I need to read more and then write. It is 150 years now since David Livingstone brought the Anglicans with him as the Archbishop of Canterbury was here on a visit last week or the week before.

Although one of Malawi’s most famous, and one of Malawi’s most exotic, destinations, Likoma Island is probably visited less than any other place in the same category within the country. That is hardly surprising given the extra effort (and time) or money required to get there.

Saying goodbye to Dan and Gabriela on as they negotiate their passage to Mozambique. You can read about their interesting and revealing crossing in a comment they left elsewhere on this blog. The comment is actually on the blog post to do with the Malawi National Anthem. See the comments on that for the story of Dan and Gabriela's voyage to Mozambique!

See the comments on the Malawi National Anthem post.

On the Tuesday after saying goodbye to the Mozambique bound passengers we went to the next bay to say goodbye to those leaving on the Ilala.

David's family on a small boat bound for the Ilala. David emailed me later to tell me of their adventures on the return leg.

off to the Ilala they go. One of the main bits of advice that David offered in his email was not to rush to board the Ilala. Sometimes it waits a very long time in the bay while loading and offloading.

Back on the Mango Drift side of the island it is much quieter.

Likoma Island is an island in three different ways. Firstly, it is an island of Malawian territory within Mozambican waters. Secondly, it is an island of Anglicanism within the wider Presbyterian sea that is Malawi (we shall ignore the approximately five million and one other denominations that have set up an outpost in Malawi). Thirdly, it is an island in the conventional sense of the word.

Going to Likoma Island by boat does or should require some thought and planning, including contingency considerations. If you don’t think of this as all part of the adventure then you may find yourself at a psychological disadvantage – go on a railway holiday in Switzerland instead. The Ilala goes up and down the Lake once a week. Getting on and off Likoma Island on the Ilala is not quite like getting on and off the tube in the London Underground. Whether you arrive on Likoma Island when the Ilala is on it’s northerly or southerly route will influence how long you can stay or are forced to stay. The slight unreliability of the timetable is another factor. The Ilala was about 24 hours away from it’s schedule on our trip but I am told that that is very unusual and it is normally only several hours away from the timetable.

Going to and from Likoma Island by boat can be complicated. But once you are there....

Coming from the south (and Monkey Bay) we had the option of about two days on Likoma Island, or about seven days if we headed north to get off at Nkhata Bay, or about nine days so we can head back to where our car would be parked. We decided on going for the ‘about nine days’ option. We thought that that would give us time to stop and relax on the beach and perhaps get some reading and writing done – exactly the kind of holiday we are not used to but which we suspected might be good for us. I also had half a mind on the possibility of learning to scuba dive at the PADI centre on the island.

If you do not have very small children with you further interesting options to consider are trips to Chizumulu Island, Mozambique or even Nkhata Bay. We thought about Nkhata Bay and Chizumulu Island but when I considered the night-time boarding and disembarking I thought it was too much to do with small children.

Coming to Likoma Island from the north gives you different options.

The view from the bar

As it turned out there was less time for reading and writing than I had thought. This must have something to do with having a baby boy on the trip. David is a lot more demanding of attention than was Ruth at the same stage. We spent the first two and last one night in a cool and nice chalet on the beach. We spent the middle six nights in our large tent under some Mango trees on the beach. When moving from the chalet to the tent I did wonder if I was mad. Instead the tent turned out to be fine. I pitched it for where I considered that there would be maximum shade in the afternoon – when we expected the little ones to have their naps.

I decided to try scuba diving lessons.

About half way through our time there I decided to go for the scuba diving. There were two fully qualified dive instructors, one from England and the other from South Africa. They mainly serviced the whims of the guests at the neighbouring Kaya Mawa exclusive resort in the next bay. As we did not fancy paying $500 each, or whatever it is, per night, we thought we would try our luck with our tent on the beach at Mango Drift.

I took to scuba diving like a duck to water – or that is what it felt like to me. Perhaps it was the very high quality one on one tuition or perhaps it was the relaxed atmosphere but at every stage I thought “that is going to be a very hard skill to learn” but then I seemed to get it first time almost every time…

One of my ‘problems’ was that I did not bother shaving at the beginning of the trip so my face was not smooth enough to keep the water out of the mask. Fortunately, it turned out that I was not that bothered by water in my mask and eyes and I soon mastered how to get it out of my mask underwater.

Ruth enjoyed the hammock while waiting for daddy to return from the scuba dive.

Daddy will be back from under the water before the sun goes down

The next day also we waited for daddy to return from his scuba diving.

The beginning of the course is all about learning what horrible things can go wrong when deep underwater. I think it is best if your reaction to all these terrible thoughts is somewhere between sobering and somewhere short of panic. I think I always considered when practising the necessary skills in shallow water that I was there, in shallow water, in no danger. However, I found it quite amazing how my mind would just go blank when underwater. Something would be explained to me above water “fine” and then I would go underwater and he would signal to me to practice the skill and I would spend what seemed like ages just staring at him while trying to remember what he had just said. I think if I had felt rushed or concerned during those endless seconds of blankness then the course would have been a lot harder for me. Fortunately my instructor did tell me that it was perfectly normal for people to just go blank when underwater.

Some people think I am slow on the uptake at even the best of times – underwater I take silent pauses to a new dimension. Strangely, when what he had said to me did come back to me I tended to get it right first time.

I did write a blog post on why Lake Malawi is the best place (in the world) to learn to scuba dive. If you want to read more then please have a look at that. In the end I did qualify as an Open Water PADI diver which qualifies me to dive, with another diver, to a depth of 18m.

Volleyball is one of the main sports at Mango Drift. The island you see in the distance is Chizumulu Island. For most of the time that we were on Likoma Eerik was on Chizumulu. You can read more about him on the Mulanje Mountain posts. Strangely I met him on the beach at Mango Drift and we discussed Baltic Sea ferries. I heard from him later that their return journey (or should I say windless drift in the sun) back to Chizumulu island took six hours...

There is not much more that I want to write about Likoma Island now. Interesting things could be said about 1/ the history, 2/ the extraordinary variety of birdlife (although most of the 400 species seen there are migratory), 3/ society there and how and why it may be a microcosm of some of the best of Malawi, 4/ Christianity on the island, 5/ the relationship with the nearby Mozambique shore and the travelers who pass this way and 6/ the island’s dependance on the Ilala, now running for sixty years. For these topics I will either need to read up a bit more or be in more of a writing frame of mind. For now I will try to leave it to the pictures.

Amelia and David on the beach at Mango Drift

I think this dugout canoe is owned by Mango Drift. It is there for the amusement of the management. They like to watch their customers struggle and discover that these are a lot more difficult to keep upright than many people might suppose.

If you don't have little children then you can do a lot of good walking on Likoma Island. If you do have small children then you may well end up using the solitary island taxi as we did here.

The Hungry Man's Clinic is an institution over in the metropolis on the far side of the island.

This is one of two completely harmless snakes that I saw on Likoma Island. The other was a very long thin one that sped rapidly away from me.

A final sunset from Likoma Island for you.

Life of a Prison Chaplain

A tour of a Young Offenders or Reformative Centre for children who have committed serious offences. Rev Chimesya on the left, Amelia centre and guide on the right. I was allowed to take photos but not allowed to take pictures of the children.

It is quite a while since I wrote about the work of the full-time Prison Chaplain Rev Stanley Chimesya. This does not mean that I have lost touch with him or with seeing the work that he does in prisons. In fact I have continued to visit the main prison with him on a semi-regular basis.

A lot of westerners who like Malawi mention ‘the people’ as a prime reason for their love of Malawi. It is of course a very important factor, if not the most important factor in whether one enjoys a country or not. Actually, although I agree that Malawi is probably rightly thought of as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, I don’t tend to think of that as the primary reason for liking Malawi. However, it is probably the most important indirect reason for appreciating Malawi. I love the great outdoors, the ‘nature’ (as they say), the lake, the mountains and the wildlife in Malawi. Of course all of these things would be much harder to enjoy if the people surrounding you were a hassle to deal with. Malawians are usually the nicest people.

This is the dining room at a Reformative Centre for children

Still, despite that, the primary area of life in Malawi where ‘the people’ make a positive impact on the way I think about Malawi, is in prison. It is probably a blog post or three in itself to explain why. Malawian prisoners are not on the whole a self-pitying group of people. They don’t wear a badge of suffering on their shirts with appeals to help them in their plight. All I am trying to say in this paragraph is that the reasons why visiting prison in Malawi may have an impact on a western visitor are probably not the reasons that one would expect or guess. Although a very distinct and particular environment compared with any other, I do think that the good that you see inside Malawian prisons says a lot of good about Malawi. I don’t wish to either deny or address the negatives commonly associated with Malawian prisons. The one thing I would say is that the Malawian prisoners’ lives, given their circumstances, is a powerful testimony to the good that there is in the Malawian character. Every other westerner I have seen visiting a Malawian prison has been moved by the experience.

Great to see that the boys here have a football pitch. They were playing when we arrived. The people in the distance are locals or staff. It is an 'open' reformative centre. Similarly for adults there are 'Open Prisons' in Malawi - for people towards the ends of their sentences.

I wrote before in a previous blog entry that Rev Chimesya is the only full time prison chaplain in Malawi. That has been his choice. He seems very committed to his work and the welfare of those he helps. He could have taken the option of a regular minister and accepted a congregation (like most ministers) and continued as a part-time prison chaplain. The significance of him not having a congregation is that congregations will support their minister in ways that are critical for them and their families. Members of the congregation will visit their minister with gifts such as fruit and vegetables. This is part of how the African tradition of sharing works as far as the impact on a minister’s work is concerned. This and more has a big impact on the life, family and livelihood of a typical minister in the church. Traditions to do with sharing are often where misunderstandings between Malawians and westerners arise… The misunderstandings are on both sides and neither side is perfect. We come from very different worlds and we have very different virtues, problems and traditions.

Rev Chimesya does not have that support network because he does not have a congregation. He did not tell me that. I came to realise the implications of not having a congregation by observation of others and then by talking to him and asking him questions. It is thoughtless of me to have not thought seriously about this sooner. I think that like many people I spend more time thinking about my own problems and my own family than about obvious challenges that those round about face. I certainly feel very let down by people who have been my friends in the past and who should have realised how they could and should have helped in critical situations (not financial by the way – far more important than that).

Heading to the office after our tour.

I was thinking about his circumstances today and yesterday because Rev Chimesya is off to Lilongwe to do the final ten weeks of a diploma on Clinical Pastoral Education. This involves psycho-social and psycho-religious studies. It is to do with counseling for the most troubled people. Traveling back to see the family on a weekend or two within that ten weeks is not as simple a thing for someone in his situation as it might be for any rich westerner. His situation only dawned on me when I realised that I might not see him again before we are in Lilongwe ourselves catching an international flight. He stays in the Prison Chaplain’s Residence on Blantyre Mission between St Michael and All Angels Church and Phoenix School. He and his wife have three children aged about twenty, fifteen and ten. Rev Chimesya looks far too young to have a twenty year old child and I noticed in a very old poster of the Blantyre Synod clergy that as a young man he looked older than he does now…

Simple things like having enough petrol to visit a remote prison somewhere else in the Southern Region of Malawi are not necessarily simple issues here.

Yesterday when I realised that we would not see much more of Rev Chimesya before leaving we decided to accompany him on a visit to a young offenders institution about twelve miles outside of Blantyre. As it was on the way to Fisherman’s Rest we thought that we would stop there on the way back. Also on the way is a very old tree where David Livingstone stopped and rested on his way up to the Shire Highlands from the Shire Valley. The early Scottish missionaries had to take this route as they would meet waterfalls on the lower Shire and then have to dismantle their steamers (especially constructed for this purpose in places like Millwall) before reassembling them on the Upper Shire and then steaming on to the Lake.

Macleod, the HR director at the Reformative Centre, holds David as I take a picture with Rev Chimesya in the background.

I liked the colours of these trees at the Young Offenders or Reformative Centre. Staff accommodation in the background.

The Young Offenders institution is called something like a Reformative Centre and is for boys aged between 7 (or 9) and 14. It does not come under the Malawi Prison’s Service but falls under the Ministry of Gender. It is for children from all over Malawi, not just the Southern Region, and they are treated as children, not simply as inmates. The offences of the children here are serious. There are only just over 50 children here and they are taught various skills including agriculture and some others which I cannot quite remember.

One aspect of life here that I noticed was that the children seemed typically Malawian, nice and friendly. I asked the member of staff who was giving us a tour about the behaviour of the children here. He said that they sometimes behaved well, and sometimes not. In general he said that 75% of them did not give real problems. I wondered how that would compare with well educated middle-class British school children…

We had a meeting with the children where Rev Chimesya handed out sweets as the children asked questions. It was fun and lively but none of them were remotely badly behaved or riotous. As we left at the end one of the boys tried to start singing a typical Malawian ‘goodbye’ song but others didn’t join in so there was a bit of an embarrassed reaction from the boys. It was not embarrassment that someone had tried to sing, but that they had not managed to get the Malawian equivalent of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ going. A moment or two later they tried to get it going again with more success this time.

After this we went for a meeting with Macleod, the director of human resources. I told him that for a few months I once lived on the Scottish island with the highest concentration of Macleods anywhere (Lewis and Harris). I told him however that in Scotland, Macleod is a more typical surname. Still, I am happy that many Malawians choose Scottish names for their first names.

After our visit to the Young Offenders Reformative Centre we stopped at a nearby Historic Tree. I hope you can read what it says.

On the way out I quizzed Rev Chimesya on how Malawians get their children to be so well behaved – even the worst of them. You rarely see Malawians speaking harshly to their children or giving them a smack. Still, Rev Chimesya did say, when I asked (as if I did not know), that smacks and corporal punishment are an approved part of the discipline process in Malawi. [Hardly surprising that Malawians go along with what the bible says on the discipline of children when you consider that about 80% of Malawians call themselves Christian]. Malawian children are very polite and respectful to visitors in their houses and they don’t make a noise over the adults talking. Similarly, they sit quietly through long meetings. I do not agree with the view of some westerners that Malawian children are docile because as babies they were carried around on their mothers backs. I think Malawian children are just as playful, fun and lively as you would expect of any normal child. Malawian children certainly spend a lot more time playing outdoors than many of their counterparts in colder western countries.

It was interesting to see that Malawian children in a young offenders institution seem as nice as any other Malawian youngster. Sometimes when in a different ‘culture’ there are differences that I notice that I find hard to understand or explain. Other westerners are much better at assessing Malawian society. I have noticed that many westerners who come to Malawi on a two week trip are able to summarise Malawian society with great confidence, clarity and authority. Typically, these are people who have lived in their own country, or the west, all their lives. They do not speak Chechewa. I on the other hand was brought up in Malawi and have lived here again as an adult for several months. I read and have read a lot about Malawi. My father was steeped in Malawian life as he is a fluent and expert Chechewa speaker. He worked in the villages as a minister and was involved in all aspects of the lives of ordinary people. Older people come up to me to tell me that my father took part in the life of the church just like a Malawian minister. Much of what I understand about Malawi comes from discussions with my dad. Truly, these five minute visitors to Malawi who can asses Malawian society with such authority and expertise are indeed the most insightful of experts. I am full of admiration for them. They understand so much more than I do.

After our conversation about 'society' and other aspects of Rev Chimesya's work Amelia, Ruth and Rev Chimesya appreciated some history at this David Livingstone tree.

Anyway, getting back to my conversations with Rev Chimesya. We discussed a lot more and I discovered aspects of his work that I had not realised. Still, we were unable to solve all the mysteries of life.

After visiting the young offenders reformative centre we stopped at the historic tree. We saw that one of the names of the tree is Chipembere (Chechewa for rhinoceros). Amelia thought that that was appropriate as it did look very wrinkly and old. It certainly looked old enough to have provided shelter to explorer and missionary, Dr. David Livingstone.

There is a CCAP church next to the historic tree. We discovered from Rev Chimesya that the minister here is none other than the General Secretary of Blantyre Synod. Therefore the minister here, as administrative head of the Blantyre Synod, is in fact in a real sense a direct heir to David Livingstone. This is because the Scottish missionaries handed over the leadership of the mission to the local church and the torch passed from the head of the mission to the first local General Secretary.

The historic tree has wrinkles. Certainly looks older than David Livingstone.

Another close up of David Livingstone's historic tree

Douglas Taylor, Rev Chimesya and Ruth Taylor at David Livingstone's historic tree. I told Ruth that the first visitor to Malawi from Scotland was called David.

After this we headed on to Fisherman’s Rest. Ruth was very keen to show Rev Chimesya the swing and to get him to push her on it. Part of the reason for visiting Fisherman’s Rest is that they also visit prisons and we have made a contact between what they do and what Rev Chimesya does. I hope that mutual benefit comes from this contact. It is certainly a very restful and peaceful place.

At Fisherman's Rest Rev Chimesya rescued David from a friendly dog. He said that they don't have dogs like this in Malawi so I suspect the dog was brought here by the English owners.

We then headed back to Blantyre. I may see Rev Chimesya one more time before he leaves for Lilongwe tomorrow afternoon. I have agreed to go to ‘church’ with him tomorrow inside Chichiri Prison.

You can find a link to prisoners singing here.

For the avoidance of doubt I wish to make the following point. When Rev STANLEY Chimesya arrived at the DR DAVID LIVINGSTONE tree he did NOT say “Dr Livingstone’s Tree I Presume.”

Sad News – a tragic death

I was very sorry to hear of the death of an American man killed in Majete Game Reserve by an elephant. The incident occurred on the 7th September. He was a missionary in the far south of the country. His name was Daryl Martin, he was 44, and he is survived by his wife Rebekah, who was with him visiting Majete, and four children.

Daryl worked for Iris Malawi which is an American / Canadian organisation. They were helping people by hosting medical teams among other activities. I heard that the family were about to leave for Cambodia to work with girls trafficked for sex or with the families.

Over the last few days and since hearing about this, the tragedy has been uppermost in my mind. The reason for that is that Malawi is small and the number of people who visit each of Malawi’s ‘main’ visitor destinations is tiny. We were in Majete recently and met the people who will have had to deal with the aftermath of this situation. Among the Azungu (westerners) in southern Malawi the number of degrees of separation is normally two. When visting Mvabvi Game Reserve we stayed with near neighbours to this mission station. While in Majete for three days I was of course on alert the whole time because of the known dangers.

Being Christian people they will not view his death as the end or as a final goodbye. That is the ultimate comfort for the family and the colleagues. Still, the pain will be close to unbearable.

Before going any further let me quote from the Iris Malawi website:

‘Daryl put his faith into action. He was involved in restoring boreholes in the villages so that people would have clean water. He hosted medical teams, particularly eye medical teams, so that the people of southern Malawi would have healthier eyes. He himself became an experienced “lay” physician with the ability to diagnose patients with trachoma, so that by appropriate treatment, blindness would be prevented. Also very importantly, Daryl trained Malawians in trades such as chicken and crop farming so that families would have greater sustainability.’

Given the example of the kind of work he did, his death will not be in vain. He is not the first missionary, or medical missionary, to die in Malawi. He is only the most recent. Easy comments about ‘not in vain’ may not help the family now, but reading the history of his predecessors, including of those who did die, will help over time. I mean that seriously.

Looking at the Iris Malawi website and following links I read about children trafficked for sex, and their families, in Cambodia. This must be linked to what I heard verbally about plans to go to Cambodia. He also seems to have been an accomplished photographer. Looking at his photographs on his website I see that he was a very good photographer.

He died while attempting to photograph hippos (I had earlier said that he was photographing elephants but I have been corrected – see comments below), and he was away from his car. I spoke to someone working in Majete over the phone to confirm the accuracy of what I had heard verbally in Blantyre. Many elephants in Majete and Liwonde National Park are veterans of animal-human conflict. They are very dangerous.

[2 October update. Please see in the comments section below for for important points and links, submitted by Daryl’s family.]

My favourite Malawi guide book is the Bradt Guide. It has a lot of interesting and useful information. Unfortunately I think that the the book gets it wrong in the section on the dangers of wild animals. Reading that section you will get the impression that the danger from wild animals is often exaggerated. It is not. I plan to write about that and explain the subject a bit more in a separate blog post.

You can google the Iris Malawi website for more information on Daryl and his life and work. You can send a donation through them to help his widow. Please see the relevant links submitted by Daryl’s relatives in the comments section below.

Sunday at St Michael and All Angels

On Sunday we attended St Michael and All Angels Church on Blantyre Mission. This is the extraordinary building that was once described as the only permanent church between the Nile and the Zambezi. It was extraordinary because it was designed and built by a man, DC Scott, who had no architectural knowledge or experience and had never laid a brick in his life before starting working something over 120 years ago.

Ruth in the garden of the manse of St Michael and All Angels

We attended the 8.30 am English language service (that follows the 6.30am Chechewa service and precedes the 10.30am Chechewa service). One good thing about a service like this is that because it is followed by another service in the same building the service is therefore limited to only two hours. In Malawi when you go to church you throw away your watch.

As usual the service was packed full with Malawians and the only other white people I could see were called Amelia, Ruth and David. Also as usual in this kind of environment one does not feel at all self conscious or out of place due to ones colour. Actually, I have noticed that in the cities the only people who give you a second and curious look are other whites.

Perhaps one reason why it seems so familiar is that the service seemed very traditional Scottish presbyterian to me. Men, in general but not as a rule, wore suits. The hymns, order of service, intimations and style reminded me very much of an old fashioned, traditional and conservative Church of Scotland. There were no guitars. It was not happy clappy. You could feel that you were surrounded by pillars of the local (Scottish) establishment. In fact it is quite a well off and middle class church with a lot of senior people in business, finance, law and administration. Many of the hymns and responses to the sermon for example reminded me of a church in Aberdeen called Gilcomston South.

Even the humour was Scottish….

The man leading the service had, to put it politely, a dry sense of humour. The closest we got to ‘happy clappy’ was a youth choir, the leader of the choir spoke for a couple of minutes. He was eloquent and confident and wearing a stylish suit. He started off by telling us that “I am your son and you are my parents”. I didn’t listen to anything else he said. The funny bit was when he sat down and the man leading the service said “You should have been more precise in your introduction. You are our prodigal son.”

I thought it was very funny as did the congregation. His other dry contributions about other contributors I will avoid repeating (in order to protect the innocent). Whatever you do don’t believe anyone who says that Malawians don’t appreciate a dry and sarcastic sense of humour.

The sermon was conducted not by the minister but I think by one of the elders. This church has at least five or six Sunday services and each church has ‘daughter’ prayer houses. Given that there are more churches than ministers you can understand that the minister does not take every service.

The sermon was on ‘God’s love’ and was based on a biblical text. It was interesting and full of practical applications for the congregation. He brought in various other texts to support his argument. It was both intellectual, though easily understandable, and practical. He challenged the congregation over whether they visited the sick and the prisoners and specifically over whether we had bought a CD produced by the prison choir… (He made various argued theological points from his text that I don’t remember – I just remember some of the practical challenges that he issued.)

Afterwards I bumped into three American visitors – so we were not the only foreigners there (sometimes it’s hard to see everyone). They are medical students from Virginia (and Roman Catholics) and here in Malawi to explore possible links between their medical school and Malawian clinics or hospitals. I gave them a brief tour including an ascent onto the roof during the following Chechewa service. We agreed to meet later in the week to discuss their ideas.

Knowing, as I do, traditional, conservative, evangelical, Scottish presbyterians (who like to critique sermons) – I thought this service would, broadly speaking, meet with their approval.

I cannot say that this is a typical Malawian or even St Michael’s service. Strands of Scottishness do run through this country however and sometimes, just sometimes, you see a lot of them together.

I have decided that this blog post could be misleading without reading this: https://destinationmalawi.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/important-point-from-blantyre-malawi-history/

Cape Maclear History – Part 1

Robert Laws handwriting can be seen on this 1891 map of the mission grounds - Cape Maclear by PA Cole-King

Cape Maclear has played an interesting part in the history of Malawi. In September this year it will be 150 years from the time that David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.

The best book to read, that I am aware of, for a quick history, is ‘Cape Maclear’ by PA Cole-King. There may still be a copy for sale in Mandala House upstairs in the library. Otherwise you can turn to the much longer and weightier ‘Laws of Livingstonia’ and ‘Livingstone’s Lake’.

Robert Laws, possibly the greatest missionary to set foot in Malawi and the leader of the Livingstonia mission, set up base at Old Livingstonia (Cape Maclear) before moving on to Bandawe and Livingstonia.

These three books are my main sources for this blog post.

David Livingstone first set foot on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1859, 150 years to the day before I last stood on the shores of Lake Malawi before my last return to the UK. It was also 150 years to the day before Ian Tallach and his new bride Carrie began their honeymoon on Lake Malawi. [I was only on their honeymoon for just over 24 hours].

Like me, David Livingstone decided that he needed to spend more time exploring the Lake and returned two years later. So now, two years later is the time of my exploration and 150 years from the time when David Livingstone was looking for a natural harbour from where a mission on the Lake could be based. On his return to Britain Livingstone says “we rounded the grand mountainous promontory, which we named Cape Maclear, after our excellent friend Sir Thomas Maclear the Astronomer Royal..” and he further refers to “the great harbour to the west of Cape Maclear” which would “form a magnificent harbour.”

David Livingstone’s brother was there and he refers to burying grounds that in some way impressed him and the people of a neighbouring village who were friendly and brought food for sale. The interesting point about that is that the first Europeans to make a base there fourteen years later found no villagers but did find the burial grounds.

Southern Lake Malawi Map today - Cape Maclear in light green

David Livingstone never returned to Cape Maclear but did see it from higher ground in 1863 and in his last great journey in 1866 he passed the ‘base’ of Cape Maclear (I presume that that means the part of the Cape Maclear peninsula attached to the ‘mainland’ – to the west of Monkey Bay on the way to Salima?).

It was when passing Cape Maclear for the last time that Livingstone met an Arab slaver with slaves. It was this Arab who spread fear among Livingstone’s followers over the danger of the Ngoni. It was that day that some of Livingstone’s followers left him and returned to Zanzibar with the false and self serving story that Livingstone had been murdered.

In 1867 a search party sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society stopped at Cape Maclear just after they had established that the reports of David Livingstone’s murder nearby were false. Faulkner describes meeting a crocodile on the beach and says of the hills behind which he attempted and failed to climb saying “I never saw such huge masses of rock piled up in the way they are here.” He describes the “magnificent” lake and the smooth and blue waters within the natural harbour in contrast to the “fury” along the western shore. From as high as he could get on the hill he describes watching his ship ‘The Search’ attempting, and failing, to sail out of the calm waters in the narrow gap between the mainland and Domwe island. How did he know that they were not trying to leave without him? Also on the search party Young said “for a settlement nothing more could be desired” and Faulkner regretted that “…we were to leave this beautiful lake, perhaps for ever.”

After this search mission the next foreign (foreign European that is) visitors arrived eight years later. Without doubt Arab visitors would have continued to pass that way ‘on business’.

The next group of Scottish visitors came to stay, at least for a while. They included former slaves freed by David Livingstone. This was the group, inspired after the real death of Livingstone, who contained the first members of the two great missions – Livingstonia (from the Free Church of Scotland) and Blantyre (from the Church of Scotland). These two groups began modern health, education and (non slave trade) industry in Malawi. They played the crucial roles in defeating the slave trade, halting Portuguese colonial ambitions, dragging the British in (largely against their will) to provide protection from slavers and Portugal, and in bringing peace between waring genocidal tribes. These elements, including much more comprehensive education than practiced by other missions brought about the beginning of a Malawian national consciousness. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. There were a lot of failures, setbacks, scandals and mistakes. On the whole, and learning the lessons of the Anglican mission failures, they refused to do the job of fighting the slavers directly or applying political control and administration. They were however a constant thorn in the side of the Foreign Office and later the colonial authorites.

Many early missionaries paid a high price without seeing the fruit of their labours

I almost forgot – the missionaries also translated the bible and brought Christianity to Malawi. That and the defeat of the slave trade were their primary motivations.

Now, I can’t be bothered to write anymore just now so will just have to stop here – for now. As I say, you really need to buy the books.

If I continue with further installments you will read about….

The curious price paid for the land by the mission
A mauling by a leopard
The Roman Catholic on the presbyterian mission
The English… on a Scottish outpost
Death and disease – the personal prices paid by the missionaries
The first convert – and his achievements
The first circumnavigation of the Lake
The Elephant on Elephant Island (Mumbo Island)
The first Roman Catholic to die a violent death in Malawi
How Robert Laws nearly walked all the way ‘downstream’ to the coast for the post (only to be passed by ‘the postman’ on the other side of the Zambezi).
Bad news from Blantyre
Rules of engagement with slave drivers
The moving away of the mission and the arrival of tourists
The price paid by the government for the purchase of the land – and why
The flying boat service from the UK to Cape Maclear
The new Irish clinic at Cape Maclear opening decades after the Scottish one closed
The origins of Chembe village
Hiccups Bar

and much much more – of course.

Elephant and Thumbi Islands Sunset - that's enough history for tonight


This morning we went to St Columba CCAP church. We have been meaning to go for a while as my father was one of the minister’s here 30 years ago.

We arrived just as the 6.30am Chechewa service was ending. Our English service began about 9. It is a large church, one of the largest in Blantyre and was full. The interesting thing about these English language services is that there are very few international people there. I think we were the only white faces.

St Columba is up at the ‘back’ or southern end of Blantyre near Soche Mountain. Most of the rest of Blantyre is really down the hill from here and it’s quite a good view over the city.

In common with other visitors we had to go up to the front to introduce ourselves. The minister told the congregation that my father had taught him at Kapeni. There was / is a college there. Chief Kapeni was the man who gave the Scottish missionaries some land which became the mission and the birthplace of Blantyre (and a large part of the making of modern Malawi). My family have been associated with Malawi for about 1/3 of the time since then.

Late in the afternoon we went to a Mountain Club of Malawi event at Michiru Forest Reserve (or conservation area). I regret not spending more time so far with the Mountain Club. Recently they have climbed a remote and beautiful mountain in Mozambique, had a ‘Sapitwa Sleepover’ (staying overnight on the top of the highest mountain in this part of Africa with one of the world’s greatest views at sunrise), and done a Majete crossover (a two day trek across one of the game reserves).

We are thinking of buying walking boots and back-packs for carrying toddlers / babies from someone in the Mountain Club of Malawi.

We also saw the Manners, an Australian family and together explored the rough back roads down the side of Michiru Mountain out to Chileka. I am not sure it is what they expected when they set out for an afternoon drive. Those groovy roads are interesting. 4WD high sided vehicles only…and it is still fun.

Tomorrow Ruth goes to Nursery School at Phoenix. She is very excited about that.

On Skype this evening and thinking of watching a violent (I expect) French film we downloaded on iTunes. Anything but Hollywood. I like European cinema, somehow it gets into life in a way that Hollywood ‘cartoons’ does not.

Update – just finished watching Mesrine. It was violent – but not a good film. I think it’s the worst continental film I’ve seen.


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