Tag Archives: history

Out of Africa

We can’t really believe that we’re back in the US and have left Malawi for good (or at least for now!).  We had a whirlwind last few weeks, packing, saying goodbyes, and cleaning out the apartment.  The most stressful moment was realizing that the bags that we’d packed and weighed so carefully had to be 23 kg each, not 30kg.  Luckily Sandy stayed calm and got everything under control.

The goodbyes were the most difficult.  It was so hard to hug goodbye Cathy and Bertha and thank them for all of their hard work and care over the past two years.   There was a nice goodbye event for Sandy at work, where they gave him parting gifts and spoke about what a difference he had made.  Sandy even got a little teary.  Our cat was adopted by a sweet neighbor, so we were confident that we left her in a good home.  We had goodbye drinks at Doogles with friends, but are sure that we’ll see them all again.  And we’re sure we’ll come back to Malawi.

Our drive from Blantyre to Lilongwe was uneventful, except for the police speed traps.  The driver got a ticket in the first trap (with one of the six speed cameras in the country).  The second time he got pulled over, outside Dedza, the policeman swaggered up to the car and told the driver that he’d been speeding – he’d been going 94 km per hour.  The driver got out of the car and went to negotiate with the policeman.  Fifteen minutes later, he got back and we asked what had happened.  Turns out, the police didn’t have a camera!  How hilarious is that?  They just picked a random number that he was ‘speeding’ and then tried to get him to pay!

Anyway, got to the airport, got on the plane (with all our bags!), made it to the DRC (with a team of soccer champions who got off the plane with great fanfare), made it to Addis, then got lucky with an extra seat between us on the long flight from Addis to DC.  There was a terrible movie selection, though, except for The Sound of Music, which I’ve discovered is not a good plane movie because one can’t (or shouldn’t) sing along.

As usual, we have struggled a bit to get back into the swing of life in America – they drive on the wrong side of the road here!  We can go to the grocery store and buy any kind of cheese we want!  How do I work my new Smartphone?  What do you mean there’s an app for that?

Our Southern accents are coming back, but we’re still using British/Malawisms.  Sprinkles will now always be 100’s and 1000’s, overalls are now dungarees, soccer is football, and for a while, french fries will be chips.

As I reflect on our time in Malawi, we feel so fortunate to have had this experience.  I’ve grown as a person, matured, and become more confident.  We’ve made lifelong friends, learned to keep life’s real priorities in perspective, and had two and a half amazing years.

It feels like forever since I was that recently-arrived girl thinking that the minibuses were honking just to be friendly.  I won’t really miss minibus drivers.  Nor will I miss the snakes in our apartment (three in 2.5 years!  and we lived on the second floor!).  Or the cheap light bulbs that fall to the floor and shatter every time there’s a power surge, or the water cuts, or the fuel queues.  I won’t miss the s…l…o…w internet and the lack of communication with friends and family, or the potholes, or the high pitched hum of mosquitoes that have snuck into your net and hover around your ears in the middle of the night.

But more importantly, there are certain things we will really miss:

The people

The babies and team at Open Arms

The calm and relaxation at the tea estates

The magnificent Lake Malawi

Real produce in vibrant markets

Our cars

The mountains and plateaus


Travel to Mozambique, Zanzibar, Zambia, and Zimbabwe

Our adopted hometown

The Rains

The Dry Season

Dinner parties (Including Malawi Thanksgivings!)

Switching our L’s and R’s (exactry!)

Market shopping

The Coffee

The adventure of everyday life

I just wanted to thank all of you for your support, readership, and especially your comments.  This blog started as a way to keep in touch with family, but I am so glad we stuck with it – it’s so fun to go back and read posts from the past.

This is my last post, except for an upcoming Insider’s Guide to Blantyre – it might be helpful for people moving to Malawi.

We’re beginning a new chapter in Columbia, SC, as Sandy starts his International MBA program and we have a baby boy on the way.  We’re convinced we’ll end up calling him Iwe!



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The Baobab Tree

The baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is a common sight in Malawi’s varied and lush landscape.  Standing sentinel, the trees seem ancient, immovable landmarks that connect the present with the past.  Not necessarily beautiful, the trees look odd, even upside down, as their often bare limbs stretch out like a complicated root system.  The bark is tough, steel gray with wrinkles like elephant hide.  The trees grow to massive size and girth and virtually every tree has a unique silhouette and numerous scars that remain permanently ingrained in the bark.  Baobab trees are the subjects of legends and spiritual stories, while scientists continue to try and better understand what makes them grow and thrive.

Humans have benefitted from baobabs for generations.  Each part of the tree can be used for a wide range of products, such as fishing nets, cords and rope, mats, containers, cloth, hats, and shoes, and the bark has even been used for elephant saddles.  The bark, wood, seeds, piths, and leaves offer great medicinal value and have been used in traditional medicine to cure asthma, dysentery, diarrhea, colic, eye infections, malaria, fatigue, fever, inflammation, ear aches, tumors, kidney and digestive problems, as well as open wounds.  Because baobab trees are mostly hollow, people have also used the inside of the trees for all sorts of purposes, making them into shops, bars, stables, a dairy, a bus shelter, prisons, postboxes, burial sites, wells, and even a flush lavatory.

The baobab tree is synonymous with the African landscape.  One can find the resilient baobabs surviving in even the most unforgiving landscapes: on rocky outcrops, high on mountains, and deep in deserts.  Usually solitary, the trees survive droughts, aggressive elephants, and human contact.  Despite their massive size and unusual shape, they rely on a system of hydraulic pressure to stay upright, as the porous wood retains water.  The trees have extensive root systems that remain close to the surface.  Remarkably immune to destruction, those trying to clear a tract of bushland in Tanzania after World War II used bulldozers, military tanks, and even tried dynamite, but failed to move the largest of the baobab trees.

The first recorded description of a baobab tree was written by Ibn Battuta.  Born in 1304 in Tangiers, Battuta traveled throughout Africa and was fascinated by the unique specimen.  From then on, travelers have remarked on the extraordinary size and strange form  of the trees.  David Livingstone’s companion, Thomas Baines, wrote that one tree in particular was “10 times the span of my extended arms, or perhaps, nearly 50 feet.”  David Livingstone also recorded the circumference of several baobabs during his expeditions and even carved his initials into the trees along his routes.  One can find traces of others doing the same, including the Green brothers, a pair of Canadian hunters who carved “Green’s Expedition 1858, 9” into a baobab that is still standing in South Africa.

Scientists have not agreed upon an equation to determine a baobab’s age by its size.  E.R. Swart published his study in 1963 that used carbon dating to determine that a baobab specimen with a radius of 2.28 meters was 1,010 years old.  In Malawi, many say that for every meter of circumference, the tree is a hundred years old.  The largest tree on record since scientists began a registry in the 1980’s, has a 25 meter circumference and is 33 meters tall.  In South Africa, owners of a baobab tree claim that it is the largest in the world, with a circumference of 46.8 meters.  While it is difficult to determine exact age without carbon dating, it is clear that these monolithic trees look and feel permanent.  The Prussian explorer Friedrich von Humboldt described baobabs as the “oldest organic monuments of our planet.”

Baobabs are so much a fixture of the landscape that they were even used in the formal treaty that demarcated the border between Kenya and Tanganyika in 1900.  The agreement reads that “on the high bank the boundary goes from the baobab at No 5 past a second baobab to a third baobab.”

With such a rich and varied landscape, it is easy to take these behemoth trees for granted.  In Malawi, these trees are part of the history of the land, the culture of the people, and add to the beauty and mystery of the African panorama.


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A Spot of Tea, Now and Then

As mentioned before, we’ve had some amazing weekends away at tea plantations.  Several estates have renovated the old colonial homes into guest houses, including Lujeri and Huntington House.  Both sites are stunning, as I’ve written about before.  There is something about the houses and the pace of life on the estate that makes you feel like you have truly gone back in time.  The weekends spent at tea estates are always full of time outside, playing lawn sports (including the newly discovered paddle tennis) and drinking tea or gin and tonics.  It is easy to take the sprawling, emerald tea fields for granted, believing them to have been planted there just to make the estates more picturesque, more breath-takingly beautiful.  Yet tea, as a cash crop, plays a crucial role in the history of Malawi and its current economy.

The Porch at Huntington House

Lujeri House and Gardens

So nice of them to plant all of this tea in which we can frolic

While researching tea for an article for Ulendo, I discovered that Malawi is the oldest consistent producer of tea on the entire African continent.

A Brief History of Tea Cultivation in Malawi

Deep within the Blantyre CCAP Mission’s botanical gardens are the two oldest growing tea plants in Africa.  These two plants are responsible for one of Malawi’s largest exports and some of the finest tea produced in the world.  Tea cultivation in Africa began as early as 1850 in Natal,  South Africa, where it was later abandoned to grow sugar.  After Natal, Malawi (or then Nyasaland) developed tea as a cash crop and is the oldest ongoing tea producer on the continent.

Tea at Setemwa tea tasting

The early European settlers in Nyasaland concentrated on coffee and tobacco but continued to experiment with tea, wheat, ginger, and fruit trees in their gardens.  The first shipment of tea and coffee plants arrived in Nyasaland in 1878 from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, yet only one coffee plant seedling survived the long voyage.  Mr. Elmslie, a missionary, brought another shipment of seedlings from Edinburgh in 1886.  According to most sources, the Blantyre Mission gardener, Mr. Duncan, was able to keep two of the tea plants alive where they continue to grow today.  Other sources, however, dispute the provenance of these two tea plants.  In 1895, the Nyasaland Foreign Office demanded to know why plants had not been sent by Kew Gardens. The manager of Kew Gardens at the time, Sir W. Thistleton Dyer, responded defensively that he had indeed sent several consignments of tea plants in June 1886, September 1886, and August 1894.  Sir Dyer complained that no acknowledgement of receipt had been sent.  We know the three shipments passed through the African Lakes Company and on to Dr. Laws at the Livingstonia Mission.  There is no record, however, of the tea surviving or being planted, but there is some speculation that the two plants at the Blantyre Mission could be from the Kew Gardens.

While the Missionaries were responsible for nurturing the first Nyasaland tea plants, Henry Brown is often thought of as the father of the Nyasaland tea industry.  He moved to Nyasaland in 1891 after his coffee plantations in Ceylon were decimated by disease.  Mr. Brown had seen the tea plants at the Mission and asked for twenty seeds, which he planted in Mulanje at his Thornwood Estate and at Lauderdale Estate.  Mr. Brown was passionate about the tea’s potential and replaced every dead coffee plant with tea on his estate until it became the predominant crop.  A contemporary of Mr. Brown, Rev. A. J. Smith wrote that “the real pioneer of tea in Nyasaland is undoubtedly Mr. Henry Brown who … for many years persevered through sunshine and storm to make the industry a success.”

Satemwa Tea Factory

Despite Brown’s enthusiasm, it took Nyasaland tea several years to develop quality and taste.  The Rev. Smith tasted local tea as early as 1887 and described his disgust, “oh the horror of it.”  Mr. Brown shared his home-brewed tea at Blantyre’s Sports Week.  Mr. Maw “tasted it and found it was awful, in fact so awful that it merited the well known word [bloody] which prefixed the ‘awful’.”  However, tea cultivation continued to improve and progress; the persistent Mr. Brown submitted his samples at the Agriculture and Sports Show in 1898 where his won first prize.  The report from the show indicates “tea perhaps is not generally suited to the Shire Highlands but Mlanje with its greater rainfall has produced tea which should become one of the by-products of the Protectorate.”

At the turn of the century, tea samples were sent to Kew Gardens, the Imperial Institute, and commercial brokers for evaluation.  Unfortunately, the samples were packed with tobacco, which overpowered the smell and taste so it could only be judged based on appearance.  In 1909 Mr. McClounie from Nyasaland’s Scientific Department toured several estates in Mulanje and declared that the tea bushes were growing well and found the tea to be “very palatable.”

Tea was also experimentally planted in Limbe, Zomba, Mwanza, Mangochi, Karonga, and Michiru but failed to flourish.  In Thyolo, however, tea grew well and the region slowly began to develop in the 1920’s and 1930’s as planters there abandoned rubber and tobacco.

1911 was a seminal year for tea production in Nyasaland.  Lauderdale Estate introduced a hydroelectric factory complete with rollers and dryers.  The Agricultural Department reported that “the local tea has greatly improved since the introduction of proper firing machinery, and The Blantyre and East Africa Limited are now erecting a large factory where they will carry out the making and packing of tea from their own adjoining estates: This is most fortunate as small estates cannot bear the cost of expensive machinery.”

Exporting the tea was a laborious and costly business. In the early days of production, J. A. Hutson writes that the “original route was by head load down the Shire River and thence by river steamer to the sea, and by 1903 it was estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 Africans were engaged in this work.”  The process improved in 1909 when the Shire Highlands railroad opened and was later extended to the Zambezi in 1915.

Despite the logistical challenges, exports continued to steadily rise; by 1905 there were 260 acres producing 1200 pounds of black tea.  In 1908 Nyasaland exported 23,000 pounds of black tea, which was valued at 598 pounds sterling.  By 1918 there were 4,523 acres of tea.  In 1924, Nyasaland was exporting tea worth one million pounds sterling.  The collapse of the tobacco market drove many planters to transition to tea and by 1940 there were 18,528 acres of tea, roughly divided between Mulanje and Thyolo.  While tobacco surpassed tea as the largest foreign exchange earner in the 1960’s, tea production continued to increase and in 2006, Malawi was exporting over 45,000 metric tons of black tea.

Today Malawi is making concerted efforts to promote small holder tea farming and fair trade tea; at least sixteen percent of tea acres are managed by small holder farmers.  Malawian tea is in high demand and is exported to over thirty countries around the world.  And this whole robust industry stems from the two 123-year old tea plants still growing on the grounds of the Blantyre Mission.


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A Brief History of the Malawian Postal System – Not as Boring as it Sounds!

I know what you’re thinking – you want more Malawi history!  I hear ya!  As it’s been a slow blog-worthy topic week, I thought I’d recycle this article I wrote for The Eye (an indispensable local magazine).  You’re probably thinking that the history of the Malawian Postal system is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but give it a chance!

A Very Pretty Stamp

In Malawi’s early colonial days, writing a letter and sending it to a loved one set a complicated logistical postal system into motion.  While the Home Office might design a “big-picture” strategy for mail delivery, the postal system was at the local level required ingenuity and innovation.

The 'Big Picture' Approach

A letter would pass through many hands, like a baton in a relay race.  The letter would travel by land and water, and if fortunate, bypass curious hippos and hungry lions.  Considering the thousands of miles a letter would travel from Zomba to England, it was a testament to the innovative postal system in Malawi (then Nyasaland) that it ever arrived at all.  But letters did arrive and the postal system eventually became a successful and powerful service in Nyasaland.

You had to really want to communicate with someone

Creating an efficient postal service in Nyasaland was a vital priority for Commissioner and Consul-General, Henry (Harry) Johnston who  appointed Hugh Charlie Marshall as Postmaster General on his fourth day in Nyasaland in 1891.  Before this time, mail was sent down the river to Quelimane in Mozambique and folded into the regular Portuguese postal system, bearing Portuguese stamps.  During this period, many letters went missing.  While suspicious colonists were ready to blame the Portuguese, it was discovered that the Portuguese were not responsible for the loss of mail.  Instead, it was the work of “pugnacious hippos” who overturned canoes.

Hippos really don't mess around

Especially when feeling pugnacious

To create a self-sufficient Nyasaland postal service, the Postmaster General created a complex and innovative logistical system involving mail runners, canoes, and steamer ships .  With a Postmaster General, Nyasaland could finally issue its own stamps, which were sent in bulk from England.  Stamp shortages were common and in one instance an entire shipment of stamps went missing.  Assuming that they were stolen, the Postmaster General was instructed to personally initial the back of each legitimate stamp.  Hoping to avoid initialing at least 30,000 stamps by hand, he recommended switching to a system of secret markings, a method that remained in place long after his tenure.  A year after disappearing, the missing stamp shipment was found in a warehouse on the banks of the Zambezi where it had been mistakenly offloaded.


The backbone of the postal structure was a system of runners who would carry mail bags great distances across the width and breadth of the country.  The job was a coveted one and mail runners were well paid, well respected, and trusted.  Runners were selected from all different tribes and regions and often displayed astounding endurance and bravery. Their red and white uniform consisted of long coats, knickers, and a fez, as well as standard issue Snider rifles and a lantern.  They preferred to be barefoot and often carried the mail bags on their heads or shoulders.

Runners were remarkably fast.  It took seven days for a letter to travel from Chiromo to Fort Johnston and only two days for a letter to reach Mulanje from Blantyre.  By 1899, they were covering 10,000 miles in a single month and continued to transport mail even as late as 1937, when the postal service introduced the use of bicycles.

While runners were extremely effective, the postal system faced many challenges from the local wildlife.  When the system was first introduced, “the old settlers were convinced [that] the mail carriers would be eaten by lions.”  To protect their employees, the post office issued rifles and lanterns.  Post Master General Ernest Harrhy wrote in 1894 that “two carriers carrying mail bags between Mpimbi and Zomba were confronted by several lions.  Deeming discretion to be the better part of valour, they sought safety in the high branches of a friendly tree, and waited until their leonine majesties condescended to move on to pastures new.”   Postmaster General Gosling wrote in 1903 that “cases have occurred where the mail men have been driven to take refuge in a tree, and leave the bags at the foot to be smelled and pawed and discarded as inedible by disappointed beasts of prey, and mails have sometimes been delayed on that account.”  He also noted that leopards were a more common annoyance than lions.  Other wildlife proved challenging as well.  When runners were finally replaced by a lorry, elephants would  routinely knock it over.

Imagine what they'd do if you were on foot

Overcoming the initial logistical challenges of life in remote Nyasaland the postal service became a large and powerful division within the government.   In 1963, when the Malawian Government officially took full control of the department, it was the fourth largest behind medical, police, and district administrative services departments.

Today, as we send emails in only a few seconds, it is easy to take the postal service for granted.  Yet considering the challenges and the uniqueness of Malawi’s postal system, it is important to remember it as a testament to willpower and imagination.

To learn more about the history of Malawi’s postal service, visit the Namaka Postal Museum which is housed in a traditional mail carrier’s hut.  The museum is located on the right side of the road as you travel from Blantyre to Zomba.

Another pretty stamp



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King’s African Rifles

KAR Monument in Zomba

Stamp celebrating the KAR

Driving through Zomba, the former capital of Malawi, it is impossible to miss the towering brick monument dedicated to those who served in the King’s African Rifles (K.A.R.).  Ornate and proud, it celebrates the victories and sacrifices of the many Malawians who served, not just in Africa, but around the world.

The Military branch, the King’s African Rifles, have a long history in what was first British Central Africa, then Nyasaland, and now Malawi.  When the region was still a rough frontier, missionaries and businessmen from the African Lakes Corporation banded together in 1888 to form a loose military force that could defend against slave raids.  The situation reached a crisis point when Mlozi, a slave trader in Karonga, massacred thousands of innocent people.  The military campaign against Mlozi, commanded by Captain F.D. Lugard, who happened to be passing through Nyasaland on a hunting safari, was a success. These events, along with Portuguese attacks in the Lower Shire, eventually led to Malawi being declared a British Protectorate in 1891.

With the new Protectorate came a formal military.  Captain Cecil Maguire recruited a small force of 150 Indian Sikh soldiers to form the corps of the British Central African Rifles.  The force engaged in several successful offences, so that by 1898, the Protectorate was experiencing a period of relative peace.  By this time, the Corps had expanded to two battalions and was sent to serve British interests abroad.  Soldiers from Nyasaland found themselves enforcing peace in Mauritius, engaging in battle against Mohammed Hassan (“The Mad Mullah”) in Somaliland, and fighting in Gambia, Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya.

In 1902, all British military forces in East and Central Africa were consolidated and renamed the King’s African Rifles.  Nyasaland’s battalions, the First and Second, which had already been in service for over fourteen years, became the senior regiments within the newly formed K.A.R.

In Nyasaland, the military influenced almost every aspect of social life.  Soldiers were often responsible for civil services; they would collect taxes, build roads and bridges, provide health care, and administer justice.  The sites of former forts are now some of Malawi’s largest towns, including Mangochi, Karonga, and Lilongwe.  The military influenced local culture as communities developed traditional dances that imitated the marching parades of army recruits.  The military even shaped the local language. Certain words, such as galimoto (car), basi (enough), and chai (tea), seem to have been adopted from the Indian soldiers who first made up the Rifle corps.

Over 300,000 Malawians served during World War I.  Soldiers fought against German forces in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and fought in Malawi, Uganda, and Kenya.  It was a difficult time for Malawian soldiers. There was a severe lack of sufficient rations and effective health care, which contributed to high death rates.

During the Second World War, soldiers were much better cared for and times were so much more civilized that veterans of both wars referred to World War II as the “war with tea.”  When World War II erupted, Malawian soldiers were sent to defend British East Africa (Kenya).  In one outstanding instance of bravery and valor, a company of 100 Malawian soldiers held their ground against 3,000 Italian forces at Moyale.  Their victory was a great boost for morale in British Africa and ensured the protection of a strategic region.  Malawians went on to serve in successful campaigns in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Madagascar.

Towards the end of the war, Malawian soldiers were deployed to Burma (Myanmar) to fight against Japanese forces.  An observer in Burma described the Nyasaland troops in an article that was republished in the July 12, 1945 edition of the Nyasaland Times.  He wrote,

as a people they [Nyasaland soldiers] grow on you. You become very fond of them and their many fine qualities. Their sense of humor is acute and even after a long and tiring march in great heat, there is always one of them with a ‘turn’ [improvisational humor]. The quality is valuable in a country like Burma where, when operations continue in the monsoon jungles, a sense of humor is worth its weight in grenades. When you are sodden with rain and your kit weighs an extra few pounds, without a fire at night and forced to sleep on the wet ground, the spirit of the Nyasa is not affected […] 

The troops of this battalion have seen plenty of the world, and will see plenty more before this war is finished. This will not change them very much. They can look after themselves in a dangerous world, and amuse themselves in the heaviest monsoon.

It is important to remember that Malawians were often drafted through forced conscription, yet they served with distinction and honor and were amongst the most respected soldiers in the Allied forces.

After independence in 1964, the King’s African Rifles became the First Battalion of Malawi Rifles of the Malawian Army.  Today, the army has developed and expanded and serves in peacekeeping missions throughout Africa, carrying on their long tradition of proud service.

KAR Parade, Zomba


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Cookies, coffee, and a wee bit of History…

Saturday morning we ran a few errands (including booking a night at Mvuu game lodge for when Meghan and Kate are here!) and decided to go to Mandala House for coffee.  Mandala House was built in 1882 and is the oldest European building in Malawi.  It was built for John and Frederick Moir, Scottish brothers who had been involved in Livingstone’s missionary trip in 1875.  The brothers founded the Livingstonia Central African Mission Company that later became the African Lakes Corporation.  This building, the headquarters for the company, became known as Mandala, after John Moir’s local name.  Mandala loosely means “pools of water”, a reference to Moir’s spectacles.

Mandala House

The building is classically British colonial and looks like it could have been built in the West Indies, East Indies, or outside of Charleston, South Carolina.  It has broad verandas, wide planked hardwood floors, and large airy windows.

Side of Mandala House

The top floor hosts the Society of Malawi archives, a conference room and a small library.  Downstairs is home to a gallery displaying carvings, paintings, and other works of art by some of Malawi’s leading artists.

And then there is La Caverna, the Italian-run cafe.  Here, you can sit on the brick patio, under the trees (or under the porch if it’s raining) and sip your French press coffee, latte, or cappuccino. 

French Press

You could also have lunch and enjoy one of the daily specials, like mushroom risotto.  And if you really want to spoil yourself you could order from the daily selection of cookies, cake, or gelato.

Daily Specials

 Personally, I can recommend the peanut butter and the chocolate chunk cookies. 

Freshly Baked Cookies

The staff here is warm and welcoming and doesn’t seem to mind that we camped out for multiple cups of coffee and multiple orders of cookies.

Really happy about the cookies


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