My first few months in Africa presented unexpected challenges, not least derived from the mystery of why my predecessor had been in prison for the last two years. My work as Readers’ Services Librarian at Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi, was hotting up in line with the weather (as explained in “Malawi chronicles continue” in the April 5 Beacon).

My social life was partly centred on St. George’s Anglican Church. It was built for the British colonial administration, which had chosen Zomba in the Northern Region for its capital largely because its elevated location provided a comparatively mild climate. St. George’s lost much of its congregation and financial support when President Banda moved the capital to Lilongwe in the Central Region after independence.

 

Islam

Islam, Zomba’s dominant religion, drew its followers from two very different social strata: prosperous shopkeepers and other businessmen of Indian extraction; and indigenous Yao tribesmen, a servant class.

Indian traders arrived after the colonial government had recruited indentured labourers and civil servants from their homelands. Their status was widely considered to lie below the white colonists, but above the African majority. After independence in the 1960s, “Africanisation” aimed at giving Africans greater economic power, with non-citizens restricted for their homes and work to the main towns.

The Yao tribe had been allied to Arab slavers until the British suppressed the slave trade in the late 1800s. They prayed at different mosques from the Indians, but the businessmen felt duty-bound to support their coreligionists’ religious schools and other institutions.

The Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian (CCAP) was the main Christian denomination, but Roman Catholics numbered up to 30 percent and their cathedral was vigorously supported by Irish missions.

 

St. George’s

St. George’s was largely self-supporting, with Father Jim, its elderly English vicar, on a very moderate stipend. However, its parish covered a geographically wide area, including the nearby army base and surrounding villages and farms.

Father Jim was assisted by the Rev James Amanze (aka “Father James”) a young priest writing his doctoral thesis at Chancellor and uncle to one of my two senior library assistants. He took over the vicar’s parochial duties after Father Jim fell down a car pit at Zomba Service Station and was rushed to hospital.

Father Jim had been restricted to roads that his car could reach, but his young substitute was able to ride his motorcycle to far more remote villages, taking communion to the sick and evangelising neighbours who still adhered to traditional animist beliefs in the spirits that they believed to inhabit every tree, rock and cranny. A box for his” Petrol money” was placed near St. George’s entrance.

 

St. Luke’s Hospital

Services at St. George’s were also taken by Brother Peter G., the English administrator at St. Luke’s Hospital, wearing a voluminous brown friar’s cloak. St. Luke’s was part of the Anglican mission in the neighbouring small town of Malosa and widely recognised for its excellent health care.

Brother Peter’s hospitality had to be tempered by a stringent budget. He gave backpackers bed and breakfast for up to two nights, but if they wanted to stay longer he gave them work to do! While socialising at the vicarage after one service, he surprised me by asking if I would like to keep a cat.

 

Cats

He said that the hospital’s leprosy patients had often been ostracised by their neighbours and turned out of their homes by their families in the mistaken belief that their disease was highly contagious and incurable, while modern drugs were particularly effective if given at an early stage.

The major long-lasting physical damage can come from leprosy numbing a sufferer’s feet and toes. So St. Luke’s provides each new patient with a young cat to look after, to keep away any intrusive rat. Such a strong bond usually develops between the two that patients being discharged take their pets to share their new lives.

Meanwhile, any surplus female kittens born at the hospital are found homes outside after they have been weaned, on the understanding that their owners will offer St. Luke’s their kittens in due course. My cook George and gardener were delighted at the imminent arrival of a pet with a reputation for killing snakes, which flourish in the wet season.

 

Tobacco farm

Further assistance in taking some of the load off Father Jim was provided by a Rhodesian candidate for the voluntary priesthood who farmed tobacco outside Zomba. He was vehemently opposed to his country’s racial policies, as was his South African wife.

Their sons were born and raised in Malawi. While enjoying a meal at their farm I was fascinated to hear them chatting to their Achewa friends in an easy mix of English and Chichewa, interspersed with occasional Portuguese loan words from neighbouring Mozambique.

 


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