100 years on, still bearing the white man's burden

 

Livingstonia was a proud colonial missionary experiment on a plateau in Malawi. Today, as Declan Walsh found, it is shabby and falling apart

The dawn bus chugged out of Mzuzu, a sleepy town in central Malawi, and north towards the stringy shoreline of Lake Malawi. As usual, it was jam-packed. I was wedged into a row with a man, two mothers, a sleeping child and a small banana tree.

As the circulation slowed in my right leg, I pulled out a book. This aroused intense interest in the man on my right. Without a word of explanation, he leaned over and started to run his finger along the text, murmuring certain words as we went along. After about three pages he looked up, and with a bright smile declared "Good novel!"

Not quite. Politics and Christianity in Malawi 1875 ­ 1940 is interesting, all right, but no airport thriller.

We swopped our own stories. My new friend was a trader, travelling up Lake Malawi to buy fish for sale back in Mzuzu. I was headed for Livingstonia, the Christian village founded by stern Scottish missionaries over a century ago, as a model for the promulgation of the "three Cs" - Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation - in Africa. The trader approved, with qualification. "Very far, very far," he warned. "Twenty-one bends."

In this, at least, he wasn't wrong. Livingstonia is perched on the edge of the Nyika Plateau, over 2,000 feet above the lake shore. My bus dropped me at the bottom. The rough trail that twists up the slope is accessible only by jeep so, 21 hairpin bends and three sweaty hours later, I came to the top.

After the Victorian explorer David Livingstone died in 1873, a group of committed followers undertook to continue his dream of combating the slave trade and "civilising" Africa. The man charged with this onerous duty was Dr Robert Laws, a tall, austere and fiercely dedicated Glasgow Presbyterian.

After buying 300 acres of Nyika highland from Cecil Rhodes in 1895, Dr Laws set about the task with a nonconformist's vigour. Soon his followers had cleared the bush to build the largest hospital in central Africa, a pioneering school, a towering church, and even a small hydro-electric plant. Rows of small, redbrick Victorian houses, inhabited by lay white missionaries, sprouted incongruously in the remote African hills.

These days, however, the good Dr Laws would be horrified with the state of his dream. The houses, now inhabited by local nurses and teachers, are falling apart. The tin roofs are leaking, the gardens are unkempt. His own house has become split into a grotty guesthouse and a mouldy museum.

When I arrived, a mud-splattered motorbike was parked on the rotting porch. In the livingroom, plastic flowers poked from a pair of empty beer cans on an antique table. The bookshelf held a few dozen tattered, often coverless volumes, such as The Friendship Book of Francis Gay: A Thought a Day for 1943.

The museum was like a Victorian garage sale - walls plastered with tattered newspapers and faded photos, drawers stuffed with slides from the "magic lantern" - a projector used by Dr Laws to educate villagers about prehistoric cavemen or Norwegian fjords.

The guard booked me into a draughty bedroom for a couple of euros a night. His name was Genesis, but he seemed to be the guardian of the end of an era, not the beginning. But although the dust is deep, Livingstonia is not extinct. The school remains one of Malawi's finest, and the hospital is hobbling along thanks to the last whites in town - Irish couple Dr Donald Brownlie and his wife, Una.

On the missions since 1969, the Brownlies fund their work through Irish government aid and from the pockets of northern Irish chuchgoers. A lively man with long grey locks and a ready smile, Dr Brownlie sometimes takes to the pulpit to preach at the local church. But the local Christian faith is faltering, he says, due to a particularly African evil: witchcraft.

One local school almost closed after a teacher was accused of being a sorcerer, he says. On another occasion a patient who had cheated on his wife died in the hospital.

"We opened him up and there was nothing wrong. But he believed he was cursed so there was nothing we could do," he sighs.

The Brownlies live in a large, proud house with a magnificent view over the blue sweep of Lake Malawi. On a clear day, you can even see Tanzania.

African Pentecostal churches, with their singing and dancing, are sponging up new converts fast, they lament over lunch.

But their work is not done yet.

"There has to be an ongoing white presence here; otherwise there won't be the discipline, or the money," he says, pulling on his white coat as he prepares to return to work. "We've been playing the technological game for centuries. It's going to take a long time for them to catch up."