Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Following the Scots To Zomba

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend in Zomba, once Malawi's capital. A charming old colonial town, at the foot of the forested Zomba Plateau and Mount Zomba, Zomba used to be the seat of the government of the British Central African Protectorate. It is hundreds of miles away from the country's northernmost reaches, as you can see from this map; which is why in 1975, ten years after independence, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the country's first President, sensibly moved the capital to the centrally located, but otherwise unremarkable, trading centre of Lilongwe.

To think of Zomba, however, as the result of an impractical and illogical Victorian planning decision is to look down the wrong end of the historical telescope. For Zomba actually came into existence because of, rather than despite its location. Oh, and because of the activities of a number of notable Scots: explorers, missionaries and empire-builders.

The most significant of these Scots, of course, has to be David Livingstone, who in 1859 with John Kirk from Carnoustie in Angus, explored the Zomba area during his ill-fated Zambezi expedition and climbed Zomba Mountain. John Kirk is one of my favourite characters, a little-known son of the manse who as Consul of Zanzibar almost single-handedly put an end to the East African slave trade. It was because of what Kirk saw during his experiences with Livingstone in their terrible journey up the Shire River and around the Zomba area that he embarked on his remarkable life's work.

The farmers of the Manganja tribe, whom Livingstone described as having lived a near-idyllic life, were being constantly raided by Yao slavers, who burned their villages and massacred those who resisted. The captives were dragged on a terrible journey across what is now Mozambique to the slave markets of the eastern coast. The Ngoni from southern Africa also raided villages and took captives. In 1861, Bishop Mackenzie, another interesting man and also a Scot, marched up the slopes of Zomba Mountain and, with a small group of British soldiers and 1,000 Manganja warriors, razed the Yao villages. They don't make bishops like that these days!

Charles Mackenzie was born in Portmore, Peeblesshire and educated at Edinburgh Academy and Cambridge University. He was head of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa, an impressive organisation at the forefront of the fight against the slave trade. Invited to Central Africa by David Livingstone, he started a mission station at Magomera, near Zomba and became the country's first Anglican bishop. He died of malaria a year later, as did so many missionaries. Lilongwe's best known international school is called after him: Bishop Mackenzie's.

Livingstone's original idea, in 1876, was to found the first Church of Scotland mission in the Shire Highlands at Zomba. However, slaving was still a problem and so were wild animals so the mission went to Blantyre instead. Ten years later, a Captain Haimes bought land at the bottom of the Mountain from which to fight the Yao. A building erected on the site in 1886 became home to the first British Consul. It still survives today  as the Hotel Masongola, rather more luxurious than that early government hostel. When I was there (not as a guest!), I watched as large yellow baboons loped across the lawns from the Botanic Gardens next door.

Local chiefs allowed European settlers to make use of vacant land, as protection from slavers. They did not, however, understand that the British had an entirely different system of land tenure which would permanently deprive them of their land . John Buchanan was one of those who benefited. He was also a Scot, born in Muthill Perthshire and originally an apprentice gardener at Drummond Castle. He went to Nyasaland in 1876 as a member of the Blantyre Mission and started a mission farm in Zomba.

Dismissed by the Mission for brutal whipping of suspected thieves, Buchanan built a sugar mill and became a coffee planter, importing seedlings from the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to plant on the fertile Zomba land.  He was then made Acting British Consul to Central Africa. The British declared a protectorate over the Shire Highlands in 1889 when it looked as if the Portuguese might claim them. Sir Harry Johnston, appointed first Commissioner of British Central Africa, though not born in Scotland, was, in 1901, the very first recipient of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Livingstone Medal.

Enough history, I think, for not everyone finds it as fascinating as me. Time for more photographs. Time for a walk. We start near the top of the town, where shabby government offices cluster below the slopes.

Zomba is indeed lovely, its streets lined with trees, though far fewer I am told, than in the past. Some survivors of the older forest tower above the rest. Where stumps remain, you can see how huge some of them used to be. 

As I walked down through the old colonial area, I looked back over my shoulder at Zomba Mountain, still wooded but with more and more gaps.

The tree-cutting goes on, for families need firewood. These days, women and children may walk 7 miles or so up the almost vertical side of the mountain to gather fuel. Tree-felling is against the law; so is charcoal-burning. As elsewhere in Malawi, deforestation will continue until fuel-efficient cooking stoves become cheap and commonplace. Men do the felling while women and children carry heavy bundles of wood away. Below you may be able to make out a whole row of people carrying the forest away on their heads and down into the town. 

Not all the wood is for personal use, of course. There's a good trade to be had from fuel and in time of food shortage, as at present, selling firewood may be one of the few ways for a subsistence farmer to make the hard cash needed to buy extra food or pay for school fees or medical care.

Most of European colonial Zomba was built on the lower slopes of the mountain. Many of the old buildings remain. The government offices like those below are easy enough to photograph, but I didn't manage many pictures of houses. These dilapidated buildings are now lived in by local families. I did not want to be intrusive.

The Archives are now in a modern building while the old one moulders away.

I was fortunate enough to stay in Annie's Lodge, close to the Hotel Masongola and quite far up the slope. It is a converted 1920s traditionally built colonial structure, with a verandah.

The vegetation is thick here. Little vervet monkeys gambol across the roof of your bedroom, swing from tree to tree, or practise tightrope walking along the electricity lines.

Here is Casa Rossa, a good Italian restaurant occupying another colonial house, with magnificent views across the other side of the Rift Valley.

Further down the hill is another old building, though it may not look it to our eyes, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), clearly built by Church of Scotland missionaries.

The structure on the right was built to celebrates the church's centenary, 1898-1998. Unfortunately, my photo of the interior - a great barn - was a bit fuzzy. It reminds me of a parish church in Edinburgh. It was packed on Sunday and obviously still plays an important role in the community.

On the road towards the commercial centre is the graveyard.

Here lie generations of colonial servants, many dying prematurely of tropical diseases, many of the names sounding distinctly Scottish, scores of them soldiers, dying in battles with the Germans over land which shouldn't have belonged to either country. What a waste of precious lives!

Soon we reach the golf course and Zomba Gymkhana Club, as it is still known, though now used as the Clubhouse. Through the thick woodland, you catch glimpses of the steep rise up to the plateau.

And this is where our walk will stop while we cool down with papaya juice. The back of the Gymkhana Club is now an African Heritage Centre with a very pleasant cafe and a nice little shop. I wonder what the old British club members of fifty years ago would have thought of that! Here in the old stables are traditional dugouts brought from Lake Chilwa, a few kilometres away.

We haven't finished our walk yet, but we have left the Scots behind. Ahead of us lies the rest of our walk. In our next post, we will leave the colonial capital behind and visit the commercial centre where the Indians and Africans lived, well away from their British employers and customers.

In the meantime, farewell from Mount Zomba.

Further reading

Much of the information for this post came from the excellent Bradt Guide to Malawi.
Here is the best-known history of the country.
A History of Malawi 1859-1966 by John McCracken, Boydell and Brewer 2012
You may also be interested in two other posts about the history of Malawi.
Following the Scots to Karonga
Following the Scots to Cape Maclear

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