If colonialism has a bad name--and it surely does, across the breadth and depth of liberated Africa--what to make of Livingstonia?
Livingstonia is not only an assemblage of tidy brick houses overlooking the great blue lake that David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, dubbed Nyasa when he came upon this corner of Africa in October 1859. Livingstonia is also something quite possibly unique in Africa: the spiritual home of a national cult of admiration, black-on-white.
Malawi, the nation that grew out of Livingstone's "discovery," is united in its veneration of a white colonialist.
"We think warmly of Dr. Livingstone," said Sam Chipeta, a retail clerk in Lilongwe, the capital. He attended a primary school founded by Livingstone's church.
"We really respect him here. He is basically known as a man who really helped with the abolition of the slave trade," said Mickson Musukwa, headmaster of Livingstonia Full Primary School, which teaches the approved curriculum of the Malawi Institute of Education, including "Unit 15: Dr. David Livingstone."
The European nations that carved up Africa in their explorers' wake left a legacy most charitably described as mixed. But Malawians say that the situation was already pretty dire when Livingstone steamed onto what is now Lake Malawi, a caterpillar-shaped body whose shores roughly define the nation.
Along the southern coast, Arab slavers were rounding up black Africans by the thousands, knowing that at least hundreds would survive the forced march to the Indian Ocean. In the north, a warrior tribe called the Ngoni were raiding more docile neighbors.
Livingstone could do little but watch, appalled, and communicate his outrage when he returned to England, where his pioneering journeys into what was then referred to as the Dark Continent were one of the sensations of the 19th century. The missionary preached that Africa could only be saved by the Three C's: Christianity, commerce and colonialism.
The challenge was not taken up until after his London funeral, by all accounts a deeply moving ceremony. What was laid to rest beneath Westminster Abbey was the mummified corpse the missionary's African followers had carried 1,500 miles to the coast from the spot where he died, near the present-day border of Congo and Zambia. His heart they buried under a nearby mvula tree.
Livingstonia was founded by Scottish missionaries a few months later. Moved to a sun-splashed plateau to escape the malarial mosquitoes at lakeside, by 1890 the mission had claimed its first Ngoni converts: The brothers Mawlera and Makara Tembo exchanged their shields, spears and wild-haired masks for shorts, knee socks and sport coats. The rest of the tribe quickly followed, and the Presbyterian mission became the centerpiece of a British colony.
"This was the largest town in east central Africa," said the Rev. Anthony Luhanga, the current head of the mission, clad in a sweater in a working office that smells like a museum. Livingstonia boasted the largest hospital in Malawi, a seminary, a teachers' academy and a secondary school that educated thousands of Africans who staffed the colonial administration.
In time, less benevolent aspects of colonialism showed themselves. When the mission-educated activist John Chilembwe led an uprising in 1915, the racist plantation manager William Livingstone, kin to the great man, was among the casualties.
"Yes, he was beheaded. That's quite true," said Musukwa, the headmaster. "He was mistreating Africans."
But the legacy of Dr. David Livingstone--rarely does a Malawian shorten the name--survived. The ferry that plies the lake, the Ilala, is named for the steamer the missionaries' porters carried over the rapids. Livingstone's birthday--March 19--is a school holiday.
And while the British in general gave Malawi much of its modern character--Blantyre, the largest city, has a Spot-On Dry Cleaners--the society's notable primness has its roots in Scottish Presbyterianism. Both qualities were reinforced by the peculiar Anglophile who ruled Malawi for its first three decades of independence, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who actually outlawed miniskirts.
"Banda liked this place," said Luhanga, the mission chief.
Today Livingstonia is a Malawi enterprise. Tourists who brave the dreadful road up the escarpment expect to see white missionaries, Luhanga said, but settle for what they left behind. They find the church and a museum filled with photos of men in pith helmets (though Livingstone preferred a soft, billed cap).
And in the tall grass behind the museum, visitors can just make out a mysterious arrangement of white stones that, from overhead, spell out a message.
In 1959, when the fight for independence was turning violent in some places, British administrators dispatched a plane to drop an empty tear gas canister to the white residents of Livingstonia. If you are safe, said the message inside, arrange stones in the shape of an "I." But if you feel threatened by the Africans around you, arrange the stones in a "V." The returning pilot will see it and arrange evacuation.
The next day, when the plane returned, the people of Livingstonia had arranged stones to read "Ephesians 2:14."
Which reads: "For He is our peace who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us."