Sunday, October 21, 2012

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear, Malawi

In 1859, David Livingstone reached Lake Malawi by walking across Africa and then travelling north by boat up the River Shire, which flows south from the lake and is its only outlet. In 1861, he sailed even further north along the lake, an area which was being terrorised by the marauding Ngoni and laid waste by the slave trade. The slave market was at Nkhotakota, half way down the lake, and the slaves were shipped across the lake and then forced to walk all the way to the coast of Tanzania and the market in Zanzibar. Dr John Kirk, one of Livingstone's party, described the lakeshore as 'strewed with human skeletons and putrid bodies'. Exhausted and frightened, Livingstone turned back, hence underestimating the length of Lake Malawi by 100km.

In 2012, the Ritchies reached Lake Malawi by driving south across the plain to Dedza and then zigzagging their way down through the mountains to the floor of the Rift Valley. Our driver was so nervous he brought the car to a standstill on almost every hairpin bend. However, the road was so good that I kept my eyes open the whole way down; not bad for someone who finds driving over the Forth Road Bridge a challenge.

The landscape looked appropriately Scottish, at least from a distance. Far away, right at the other side of the valley, we could make out the shadowy outline of the mountains which form the eastern escarpment.

Every so often, we would come across stalls selling beautiful handmade wooden models of motorcycles, landcruisers and earthmovers, all with moving parts.

These models are a speciality of the craftsmen round here, who make them with ordinary hand tools.

Soon the hills opened up and we could see right across the southern stretch of the Rift Valley.

The lower we descended, the hotter it got. I don't know what the valley looked like when the Scottish explorers first saw it, but the tree cover was sadly depleted by the time we got there. Ground had been cleared for farming...

...and the trees sold for firewood.

The villages appeared to be standing in the middle of semi-desert. One could only imagine the impact on the climate.

Bundles of grass were used for thatching, but also as fences around the compounds.

Every village had at least one government borehole.

The nearer we got to the lake, the more baobab trees we saw, standing isolated on the plain.

We turned left and bounced along a bone-shattering road which took us into the peninsular, Lake Malawi National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Rocky mountains with huge boulders lined our route.

Then the road flattened out and we arrived at the lake, at Cape Maclear to be specific (local name, Chembe), and wonderful Cape Mac Lodge.

Why wonderful? Friendly, welcoming, comfortable, completely laid back and what is almost certainly the best food in Malawi. Is that convincing enough? Oh, and amazing views in all directions.

We spent a few magical days watching life go on around us, on the beach and on the lake.

Women washed their children, washed their clothes and did the washing up.

Boys - never girls - mucked about on boats.

They taught themselves to use dugout canoes, falling in and out of them with dramatic frequency.

Meanwhile, their fathers set out for serious fishing, a board across the back of the canoe providing some stability.

Nets dried on the beach and small silver fish dried on tables, to be taken to market the next day.

When Livingstone got here in 1861, there was no village as such: the people arrived with the visitors many years later. He was looking for a natural harbour where he could base a mission. He said, 'We rounded the grand mountainous promontory  which we named Cape Maclear, after our excellent friend Thomas Maclear the Astronomer Royal'.

In 1874, the Scots, members of the Free Church of Scotland, set up their mission, which included some of the slaves freed by Livingstone. It was led by Robert Laws and named Livingstonia. The mission stayed at Cape Maclear until 1881 when it moved to Bandawe and, in 1894, to the north of Malawi on the Rift Valley Escarpment, to escape the high incidence of malaria by the lake. One great achievement was when Dr Laws, managed to stop the warlike Ngoni preying on the more peaceable Tonga.

You can see the location of the original Livingstonia mission on the left of this map, which was drawn in 1891 and reproduced in 'Cape Maclear' by PA Cole-King.

The second Scottish mission, Church of Scotland this time, was built to the south of Lake Malawi, in a place named Blantyre after the birthplace of David Livingstone.

I walked through Chembe village to visit the graves of the Livingstonia missionaries.

The graves lie in a fenced enclosure, at the foot of a wooded hillside and surrounded by boulders.

The plaque above tells us that Dr William Black, medical missionary, was born in Dunbog, Fifeshire, in 1846 and died at Livingstonia in 1877 - 'Faithful unto death'.

Missionaries haven't always had a good 'press' in Africa. They frequently - as in Uganda - collaborated with the colonisers and triggered religious warfare which was little better than the tribal conflict of which they so disapproved. They often behaved arrogantly, and with little respect for the culture and history of those they came to serve.

In Malawi, by all accounts, it was different. I quote from the Bradt guide. The Scottish Missions in Malawi were a happy exception. Inspired by Livingstone's humanitarian values and his respectful attitude towards Africans, they made great efforts to end local wars and to curb slavery, often risking their lives in the process.

The missionaries provided education. At one time, the northern province of Malawi had the highest educational standards anywhere in central Africa, and a literacy rate of near to 100%. Missionaries trained local people in practical skills such as carpentry and tailoring and introduced new crops and farming methods.

More significantly, the Scottish missions nurtured Malawi's independence movement. The Reverend Scott who ran the Blantyre mission for 30 years from its inception said, 'Africa for the Africans has been our policy from the first.' Many of the students who went to the mission schools at Blantyre and Livingstonia played active roles in the rise of Malawian nationalism, and also in struggles for equality in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Indeed, the activities of the Scottish missionaries were a significant irritant to the Foreign Office and then to the colonial authorities.

These days people may smile at Livingstone's three Cs (Christianity, colonisation and commerce) as the way to combat slavery. However, there is little doubt that he and his Scottish colleagues made an enormous impact on an area of Africa which was being devastated by a trade driven by the rapacity and inhumanity of African chiefs, Arab and Portuguese traders and the Omani rulers of Zanzibar. In fact, the Great Lakes Corporation, a trading business founded in 1878 by two Scottish brothers, John and Frederick Muir, not only worked closely with the missions but also controlled and then killed the sultan of a huge and powerful slaving empire in the region. The Muirs had been supported by Livingstone. Furthermore, it was John Kirk, who sailed with Livingstone on those original expeditions, who, as British Consul General of Zanzibar, persuaded the sultan to close the slave market there and ban the lucrative slave trade.

Today, there may no longer be a mission on the Cape Maclear peninsula. Instead, service to the community often comes, as it should, from within the community itself. In Cape Maclear, there were several examples of 'self-help' services, such as the Chembe project which provides clean water by means of boreholes sunk every fifty yards or so along the main street in the village.

An environmental group called HEEED supports the planting of vegetable gardens and trees; the production of fuel briquettes made from grass and leaves to reduce deforestation; the building of mud-brick fuel-efficient stoves and the creation of paper products from sisal, banana fibre and recycled materials. A community woman's group makes jewellery and bags, and sews garments from local chitenje fabric, all sold in a local shop.

Nevertheless, the contribution Scots made to Malawi in the past has not been forgotten. In fact, the support continues through the work of the Scottish government in a number of different fields. While we were staying at Cape Maclear we met other people who, like us, were being supported by Scotland to work on the development of professional and business skills in Malawi.

As for us, we will not forget a magical few days spent in the warmth and beauty of Lake Malawi, in a place with many resonances for the Scottish visitor.

The Livingstonia and Blantyre Missions were not the only ones started by Livingstone. He was also responsible for requesting the involvement of the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) which set up its base somewhere between what are now the towns of Blantyre and Zomba in the south of the country. Its missionaries did sterling work combating the slave trade, before moving to Zanzibar to continue their activities there. You may be interested in our earlier post which is partly about the slave trade in Zanzibar and the work of the UMCA:

Making connections, changing lives: Stone Town Zanzibar

The Last Slave Market by Alastair Hazell is a fascinating account of the work of Dr John Kirk a son of Barry Manse in Angus, north east Scotland. It starts with the frustrations of his partnership with David Livingstone and moves on to his anti-slavery activities in Zanzibar.

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