Tag Archives: Nyasaland

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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Catching Up

Apologies for having completely disappeared for a month!  I think a big part of it is that after 2 + years here, the things that used to stand out and warrant a post now seem so common place – we’re so Malawian that we can kill mosquitoes with one hand, expertly navigate fuel queues, and handle water cuts and power outages as part of our routine.   I’m just not as surprised anymore when I see a monkey riding on top of a truck in the middle of town, or witness thunderstorms so violent they shake the house, or when it takes three months to get help replacing the rotten, molding ceiling tiles that we’ve been complaining about.

Life has moved along at a quick pace – discussions of the current political situation are common place, but it is just as common for Malawians to be well versed enough in American politics to ask specific questions about the election and Newt “Gingalich”.  We continue the process of making new friends and saying goodbye to old ones, a constant and emotional cycle.  I often feel like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, tearily saying, “why does everyone want to leave me?”

We were excited when the local fast food place decided to start delivering pizza.  I’m still not sure how they do it, as no one really has an address here – it’s just “go past the Wanella BP and take the first dirt road on your left and go past the green gate until you see four dogs and then take your 6th right and we’re the red gate (it’s actually more rust-colored) on your left just past the fence made of reeds – you can’t miss it.  Then honk three times so we know you’re there.”

The other big news is that there is a sugar shortage.  This is big news for two reasons.  One, sugar is a major cash crop in Malawi – Malawi produces so much sugar, there should never be a shortage!  And two, in Malawi, sugar is the bottom level of the food group pyramid.  (Sugar and salt, really, major parts of the Malawi diet – and despite this they all have beautiful teeth.)  Most of my colleagues drink their tea with an average of six heaping spoonfuls of sugar.  I always watch this process with fascination, expecting the sugar to spill over the edge of the cup after soaking up all the tea.  (Although I can’t talk – the Folgers Instant Mocha Chocolate Cappuccino drink mix I have every morning definitely has more sugar than that.)  People are queuing for sugar and there are limits on how much you can buy when it is in stores.  I was very excited when the nice check-out lady at Shoprite let me buy six bags instead of the allotted five.  There are rumors that the sugar is being sold abroad for much needed Forex.  But if Malawians didn’t protest at the lack of fuel, or lack of soft drinks, you have to think a sugar shortage will drive people over the edge!

I’ve also been busy writing articles for local publications and was recently published in The Eye, Be My Guest, and the Air Malawi in-flight magazine, Ulendo.  The previous post on Gertrude Benham was in the latest edition of The Eye.  I think she was amazing – and I love that Nyasaland (Malawi) was a major stop on her journey.  She was so calm and casual about the threat of lions and leopards – I guess she hadn’t seen The Ghost and the Darkness.

We have been trying to make the most of our last few months in Malawi, enjoying time with friends, starting to wrap up work, and figuring out what’s next.  We have also had some amazing weekends away at tea estates, Zomba, and the lake.  While it’s hard to think about leaving Malawi – time is going so quickly – we are definitely relishing the time we have left!


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Around the World and Up Mt. Mulanje


In the 1913 photograph taken of Gertrude Benham in Nyasaland (present day Malawi), she stands next to a safari tent wearing a pith helmet, starched collar and long khaki skirt.  She gazes off to her left, perhaps looking forward to the next stage of her walk across Africa.

Benham, perhaps most often cited as the first woman to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, was an avid traveler, explorer and mountaineer.  She circled the world six times, visiting virtually every corner of the expansive British Empire, walked over 10,000 miles and climbed over 300 peaks with an elevation of 10,000 feet or more.  One of the most remarkable aspects of her life is that she often traveled alone. At a time when women were expected to stay home and raise families, she spent her life traveling to some of the most remote, wild and exotic places in the world.

Born in 1867 in London, the youngest of six children, Benham often traveled to the Alps with her father and developed an early passion for climbing.  By her early 20’s she had already made over 130 ascents. After her parents passed away, she received an inheritance that allowed her to travel modestly, on about £250 per year, for the rest of her life.  She began her adventure in Canada, hoping to climb as many of the Rocky Mountain peaks as possible.  It was there that she beat Professor Charles Fay to the summit of Mt. Fay.  Professor Fay was less than pleased not to be the first to reach the peak named after him.  Her mountaineering then led her to the Himalayas, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and to various peaks in South America, and Africa, including Mt. Mulanje. 

Perhaps even more impressive than her mountain climbing was her ability to walk thousands of miles. In 1909, at the age of 42, she walked 900 kilometers from Broken Hill (in present day Zambia) to the edge of Lake Tanganyika, before exploring Uganda, Kenya, and then climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  In 1913, Benham returned to Africa, arriving at the Niger Delta and began an epic trek across the African continent to Mozambique, over 5000 kilometers away.  Deep within the Nigerian wilderness, she came upon a British military station where a young officer who, in the middle of writing a letter to his mother, was startled by an English lady arriving alone. He wrote in his letter that the journey she had outlined through German territory, the Congo and then eventually to Nyasaland “sounds perfectly mad.”

She made her way through Cameroon, the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, sailed down Lake Tanganyika,  traveled south and finally reached Karonga, in present day Malawi.  From there she took a steamer to the southern end of Lake Malawi and traveled to Zomba and Blantyre.  After an excursion to Mt. Mulanje, she took a train to Nsanje and then a ship down the Shire and the Zambezi where she eventually reached the coast of Mozambique.

She traveled lightly with only a few carriers and brought calico and needles to barter for food.  For entertainment, she carried the Bible, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Kipling’s Kim, and her knitting.  She stated in an interview, “I have been quite close to lions and leopards in the bush but they have never harmed me or my carriers.  I always go unharmed and I think wild animals in the forest know by instinct that I have no desire to kill.  I just wear an ordinary khaki skirt, puttees, strong shoes, and a pith helmet.  In addition I have a sunshade and an umbrella – not very war-like weapons.”  Later in life she was interviewed by the Daily Mail, remarking that “women have often said they would like to travel but were afraid of the risk.  Well, years of experience have brought me to one conclusion.  I am convinced there is little risk if plenty of exercise is taken, no alcohol drunk, and the native food of the country is exclusively eaten.”

On her last journey in 1938, she set off from present day Sri Lanka for South Africa.  She passed away at the age of 71 off the coast of East Africa and was buried at sea.  While the Plymouth City Museum has archived much of Benham’s collection of jewelry, drawings, costumes, and artwork, many of her photographs and sketches are missing.  Her journeys have been compiled by going through ship manifests and letters. While Gertrude Benham is relatively unknown considering her great feats, historians and fans continue to try and piece together her life’s travel and accomplishments. The photo of Gertrude in Nyasaland is one of the few that exist and gives us valuable insight into such an adventurous woman.


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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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