Kenneth Gray Mdala was born around 1880 in what was later to become Nyasaland and is now Malawi. It is that part of Africa through which Livingstone trod or was carried, defined for strangers by its long, thin lake lying in the Rift Valley and by the ravages of the slave trade. Mdala came from a chiefly family and belonged to an ethnic group known as the Yao, who were one of the agents of that trade. Like many African ‘tribes’, the Yao have relatively recent origins, having been ‘created’ by their trading activities, their partial Islamicisation, their adoption of the ways of the Swahili coast and their absorption and conquest of other groups in the region.

Kenneth Mdala was educated by the missionaries of the Church of Scotland in the kinds of thing which Scottish missionaries thought it appropriate for ‘natives’ to learn. He learned printing and in 1913 he passed the ‘Anglo-Vernacular’ version of the Upper School Certificate with flying colours (First Class), having attended courses in religious knowledge, ‘Vernacular’, English, arithmetic and historical geography. For Mdala, a chi-Yao speaker, Vernacular was the language of a conquered ethnic group, the Nyanja.

Mdala left the mission in 1913 to work as a typist and clerk in the colonial Public Works Department in the capital, Zomba, very close to his birthplace. His employers there referred to him as a ‘very willing boy’. In 1916, after the British occupied the German colony of Tanganyika, he was transferred to New Langenburg to work in the Finance Department. With the handover of Tanganyika to the British after the war, he stayed on as a ‘native accounts clerk’ – a post he held for the rest of his working life. He retired to Nyasaland in 1943 and died in 1945.

I know all this because Mdala, writing mostly from the town of Tukuyu in the Rungwe district of Tanganyika, kept up a voluminous correspondence (all type-written) from the late 1920s to the early 1940s with British colonial administrators in Nyasaland. It was a somewhat one-sided correspondence, for though generally polite in their replies to Mdala (there is only one reference to him as ‘that lunatic’), the British were brief. A fifty-page exposition would produce a one-line reply, thanking him for his observations, which had been ‘noted’. In their memos to each other they referred to Mdala’s letters and their enclosures as ‘effusions’, and passed them from one to the other – apparently taking it in turns to reply. Mdala had advice to offer the British on just about everything, from statues of Queen Victoria to chiefly insignia, from sanitary matters to witchcraft accusations. But mostly he was a kind of ethno-historian. He took the British at their word when, in the 1930s, they set about introducing a system of indirect rule in the territory. This basically meant reviving and putting the official stamp on a rather unrealistic and romanticised hierarchy of chiefs, some, but not all of whom had not been chiefs before. Mdala was very keen not only that the Yao should continue to benefit from British political recognition, but that their chiefly powers should be enhanced. He stressed the importance of one clan in particular, the Milasi, and one chiefly line, that of Chief Mlumbe. Mdala, of course, was a Milasi from the Mlumbe chiefly line. The British had created a system which not merely encouraged, but required ethnic chauvinism on the part of their subjects, but faced with its consequences, they felt distinctly uneasy. In Mdala’s plan all Africans in Nyasaland would ultimately be happily and united under the enlightened leadership of the Milasi Yao chiefs, in what he called the ‘Amilasi Commonwealth’. These chiefs would be proper chiefs, not the impoverished and degraded specimens of his day. They would be surrounded by suitably deferential courtiers wearing gold pins in the shape of bamboo – ‘Milasi’ means ‘bamboo’.

Mdala believed that the British would not buy his plan unless it was backed up by stacks of historical evidence proving the legitimacy of the Milasi and their age-old right to rule. In fact the British were as opportunistic as the Yao and quite capable of installing a ‘chief’ whom they knew full well not to be one. For nearly two decades Mdala collected the evidence he thought would be required in the form of oral histories, chiefly dynastic lists and family trees, filling hundreds of pages of typescript. He conducted his researches during periods of home leave in Nyasaland, popping in now and again to the office of the Provincial Commissioner or the chief secretary to the Governor to inform them of his progress. It was hard work. In 1934, for example, he produced an ‘interim report’ of his findings to the provincial administrator. Research had been interrupted, he said, by the death of his mother-in-law, and then he had contracted chicken-pox. Somewhat weakened by this he had ‘tottered’ from one chieftaincy to another collecting further material, often correcting his own previous accounts (chiefly history is a notoriously slippery subject), developing footsores and finding his time ‘quickly sliding away like water in the rocks’.

The memory of slavery was alive and well, and many people were eager to disguise their slave origins, creating chaos for Mdala’s researches and casting doubt on many a chief or headman’s legitimacy. Exhausted but undeterred, he continued his painstaking revision, submitting the corrections in the form of ‘Annexures’ (more than twenty in one case) to his reports.

He died just as a nationalist movement was beginning to get going in his homeland. Nyasaland achieved Independence some twenty years later, in 1964, and for the next thirty years fell under the idiosyncratic dictatorship of Dr Hastings (Kamuzu) Banda. Today Malawi has a democratically elected government. The secret police, the spies, the bumped up officials of the Malawi Congress Party, the organised thuggery of the Young Pioneers, the dress regulations, the linguistic and cultural censorship, the silence, the fear of arrest and worse – all these have disappeared, along with Banda. Malawi was left poor by the British, and the majority of its largely rural population grew even poorer under Banda – despite some apparently impressive growth-rates and misguided praise from the World Bank. During the Cold War, Banda was seen by Britain and the US as a valuable bulwark against the advance of socialism in southern Africa. His regime was financed, propped up and praised, and no amount of evidence of human rights abuse made a jot of difference. He was the kind of ‘African chief’ the British had always dreamed of: a stern authoritarian, a traditionalist who wore a suit and was a church elder, a no-nonsense man who would guarantee ‘peace and calm, law and order’ by means of the ‘Four Cornerstones’ – ‘Unity, Loyalty, Obedience and Discipline’. The regime rested less on overt violence (though there was this, too) than on fear. Many Malawian intellectuals fled into exile; others, like the poet Jack Mapanje, were imprisoned.

With the end of the Cold War, there was space for real opposition, and in 1994 Banda was voted out of office in the country’s first multiparty elections. In place of dictatorship has come political and economic liberalisation, and yet more poverty. Malawi’s economy is dangerously dependent on tobacco and desperate for inward investment. Its people are some of the poorest in Africa – at least among those who aren’t living through civil wars. The recently published United Nations Human Development Index placed Malawi eleventh from the bottom of a list of 174 countries (two places down from last year) and well below some of its neighbours. The HIV/Aids epidemic is in full swing here, as it is in the whole region. There has been Aids in Malawi since the mid-1980s, but it is a creeping epidemic and a decade of valuable time was lost to prevention under the Banda regime, when mention of sex was impossible and family planning banned. The human and financial cost is enormous. ‘Orphans’ – an almost entirely new conceptual category – are now everywhere, as poor families, deprived of their breadwinners, find it impossible to accommodate additional children. Some charitable people in Scotland have arranged for crates of counterfeit and confiscated ‘Armani’ clothing to be sent out to Malawian orphans.

Death is everywhere, funerals are everywhere, not only because of Aids (or edzi, as it is called here) but because of malnutrition, malaria, water-borne disease and the almost total absence of drugs in most hospitals and dispensaries. An elderly friend of a Malawian colleague turns up in Zomba. She has been told at her local dispensary that her blood pressure is dangerously high, but they have no drugs for this. She walks and buses thirty miles to her district hospital (no drugs) and then on (another seventy miles or so – this all costs money) to the district hospital of Zomba, where there are also no drugs. We arrange to take her the following day to a private clinic in Blantyre, where we will buy her medicines, but she dies before we can get there. The same story, involving the most common ailments and the most basic drugs, could be told over and over again.

Malawians look for meaning and consolation in all of this. Always a religious country, it has now become overwhelmingly, perhaps fanatically so, with born-again evangelical churches (some international, some locally-grown) everywhere. Leaders of the mainstream churches (and Islamic leaders) recently came out once more against the promotion of condoms in HIV/ Aids prevention, on the grounds that this would only encourage immorality and in any case would give people a false sense of security. Exasperated, the Minister of Health asked whether they wanted mosquito nets banned, too. It is a reminder that Banda did not invent Malawian social conservatism, but merely tapped into and exploited it. There are other edzi beliefs in circulation on the continuum between ‘religion’ and ‘witchcraft’. Victims of rape, according to some newspaper reports and the evidence of medical doctors, are getting younger and younger – sex with a virgin being an alternative prophylactic to condoms and, some argue, even a cure. The HIV rate is higher for young women than it is for young men.

I want to know more about Mdala, and so set about looking for his family. I go first to find Chief Mlumbe, since I know that Mdala was part of this extended family. Under Banda this would have been a nerve-racking exercise, entailing extensive, often absurd, lines of questioning and a Malawi Congress Party escort. These days, when I go to the District Commissioner’s office for directions, my visit attracts only the normal – that is, considerable, but largely non-political – degree of curiosity. On our arrival at the Chief’s house, however, it becomes clear quite quickly that the politics of chieftainship are no less significant than they were in Mdala’s day. In fact, in the course of the day I begin to feel very much like Mdala in my earnest and weary search for the ‘evidence’. Mdala had been in line for the chieftainship, but died before he could succeed. The present chief comes from a different ‘line’. He tells me where to find Mdala’s more direct family, but also makes immediately apparent the rivalry between the two parts of the family. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the present Government, under President Muluzi (also a Yao), is providing the chiefs with greater financial support and hence there is quite a lot at stake. Mdala would have been pleased with the new rewards and recognition, but desperately upset if they were going to the ‘wrong’ chief. Chief Mlumbe does not appear to have benefited greatly from the state’s munificence. His house is neither large nor impressive, but when it comes to more ‘traditional’ forms of wealth he is at pains to point out that an elderly barefoot man, who hovers around him, is a dependent – the descendant of a captured ‘slave’. A few days later I meet the Chief in town. He commandeers my car as a taxi and I spend the rest of the day ferrying him around. He’s not my chief, but I do what he tells me anyway.

On the way to Mdala’s village we pass a sign for a ‘traditional’ doctor advertising ‘international’ medicine, and one for a coffin maker (one of the few thriving industries). The latter reads: ‘Pack-up-and-Go Coffin Workshop – This Way’. Kenneth Mdala’s son Gordon is eighty years old and lives just outside Zomba, in a simple house which his daughter built for him a few years ago to entice him home from Tanzania, where he, like his father, had worked his whole life. When we arrive about sixty people are gathered for a ‘born-again’ prayer meeting, but he makes it clear that this is nothing to do with him. He speaks a 1950s version of BBC English – precise and perfectly idiomatic. He is surprised but evidently pleased that strangers have arrived out of the blue and expressed an interest in his ‘dear old dad’. When I show him photocopies of his father’s writings, tears come into his eyes. He was a stern father, he says, but a kind one, and he had been the favoured son, accompanying him on his endless researches during home leave. He had never understood what all that typing at the weekends and in the evenings had been about, but he knew that his father was a passionate Yao patriot, who had insisted that only chi-Yao be spoken in the family home. Home for most of the time had been Tukuyu; elsewhere the Mdala family would have been speaking at least three other languages.

As I promise to make copies of his father’s writings for Gordon Mdala, I feel a little nervous. It is true that some could be described as ‘effusions’; others appear frankly eccentric. More worryingly, they sometimes seem obsequious, and I wonder how the son will feel about this. He, after all, has spent a good many years in Nyerere’s Tanzania – a very different kind of place from British Nyasaland or Banda’s Malawi. I am thinking of Kenneth Mdala’s suggestions for the memorials to Queen Victoria and David Livingstone – suggestions which I somewhat desperately, and ultimately unsuccessfully, attempted to interpret as ironic. Victoria was for Kenneth Mdala, as for many Africans, an icon. She was the ‘great mother’, the guarantor of British fairness to whom one could appeal (even after her death) when things inexplicably went wrong. Mdala wrote: ‘A statue of Mother Queen will be applied for and erected at the junction of the Rhodesian and Trans-Zambezia Railways facing towards Nyasaland (with her right hand pointed forward) authoritatively directing Dr Livingstone to rescue the people of Nyasaland from eternal calamity.’ Another statue of the ‘Mother Queen’ would face the railway station at Limbe. ‘Enriched with all her full beauties, and love of a mother, there she will be day and night.’

It is true that excessive praise and excessive deference are powerful cultural weapons in this part of the world. Heaping praise on a chief is a way of indicating dissatisfaction – a method used to some effect during the Banda years, when open criticism was impossible. It may be that Mdala, with his endless, deferential ‘Your Honorable Honorable Excellency’ etc, was employing a tried and tested tactic. But Gordon Mdala says that his father was intensely loyal to the British, though he did get frustrated with them. ‘Over what?’ I ask. ‘Over shoes,’ he says. For years the British in Nyasaland held out against Africans wearing shoes, while in Tanganyika, he explains, there were no such rules. This troubled Mdala, who would say to his son: ‘What is this? I don’t understand it. They are the same people: they are British in Nyasaland and British in Tanganyika – so why are they so different?’ Gordon Mdala speaks of a photograph, now lost, of his parents’ wedding. Everyone is ‘done up in three-piece suits, but no shoes. I used to look at it and tease my dad – look no shoes!’ For his part, the younger Mr Mdala always took great pleasure in wearing leather-soled shoes (rather than the rubber soles thought more ‘appropriate’ for Africans) and would noisily walk the corridors of power in his places of employment, ‘click, click, click’.

When Kenneth Mdala returned to Nyasaland as a retired clerk in 1943, he offered his services to the British. By this stage he had become rather more critical on a number of issues, including land alienation and taxation. It was not these views that made the British wary of him, but rather his proposals for the revival and reformation of traditional practices, such as initiation – by now, ‘tradition’ had gone out of fashion with the British and they worried that he would be a disruptive force among ‘educated Christians’. Missionaries had long campaigned against initiation ceremonies, with their enactments of sexual practice and their secrecy. For some colonial administrators, too, initiation represented ‘darkest Africa’, a primeval, unbridled primitive thing which lurked beneath the veneer of colonial ‘civilisation’ and might, at any moment be unleashed with disastrous consequences. Mdala was a committed Christian, and very much a ‘modern’ man, but he argued that initiation practices among his people had been a powerful vehicle for moral teaching – including the enforcement of sexual and social taboos – and that the adoption of Christian morality was no compensation for their decline. Africans, he argued, were in a kind of moral ‘limbo’. The police conducted a number of security checks on Mdala and concluded that he was not a political threat; the Governor argued that it might be better to have him ‘on board’. But his complexity made people uneasy – he was an educated, highly literate and rational man, devoted to an older, different world; he was obsequious but forthright, loyal but angry. Two years before his death, he was offered a place on Chief Mlumbe’s council. It was a derisory offer to such a talented man, one which the colonial authorities knew he would decline.

As we prepared to leave Gordon Mdala’s village, the initiation drums could, in fact, be heard nearby. Initiation is once more the subject of controversy. Chief Mlumbe had told us that it was vitally important to his people, especially in these days of edzi when the teaching of sexual morality and the enforcement of taboos were needed more than ever. A delegation of chiefs had successfully negotiated a later start to the school term so that the ceremonies could be completed. But health educators worry that the practice (which includes male circumcision, and in some cases ‘ritual’ intercourse with young girls) is itself a powerful mode of transmission. ‘Your dad was very keen on initiation,’ I said to Mr Mdala. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘He was, but he never had us “done”.’

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