Posted by: Editor | July 16, 2010

Immigrant Stories: From Africa to Esquimalt

Immigrant Stories: From Africa to Esquimalt

Are you an Esquimalt resident who arrived upon our welcoming shores from a foreign land? now features stories from immigrants that chose Esquimalt as their new home and place of settlement. Today, we feature a story by African immigrant Mitch Stirling, an Esquimalt resident in the Craigflower Road area, who writes of his previous home living in the little-known nation of Malawi. Share your stories as an Esquimalt immigrant by emailing Tim Morrison at

The Warm Heart of Africa -by Mitch Stirling

Anyone who has lived in Malawi (the old British Protectorate of Nyasaland) knows that there is something very special about the place that grows on you and eventually enfolds you in its warm grasp. You can’t put your finger on it; it’s just there, ethereal. But whatever it is, it certainly grasped my little family for 16 years. Without doubt, they are some of the happiest years of our lives.

It is a beautiful country. From the low lake, which covers 1/3 of the country, the ground climbs to the lovely grassy hills of the Nyika plateau and up to the steep mountains of Zomba and Mulanje. Swimming in the fresh-water lake is like plunging into a warm, tropical fish tank with myriad, flickering, multi-coloured cichlids. But in some areas, a watchful eye must be kept wide open for crocodiles (flat dogs) and hippos (‘mvu’ in Chichewa, the local language) It’s the calendar lake, 365 miles long and 52 miles wide and is the deepest in the Rift Valley.

What attracted me to the country, amongst many other things, was its history. I was fascinated by all those old Victorian Christian missionaries who came to spread the Word, over 150 years ago. David Livingstone was the first of this courageous group of individuals. His ‘Missionary Travels’ opened up vast areas of Africa, including what is now Malawi, and he dominates the land even to this day.

Five crosses mark the graves of later missionaries at the old Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear, on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, and bear testimony to the evangelical zeal of the owners of the old bones now lying interred. They faced hardships unimaginable. Anopheles mosquitoes claimed them; mass murderers, serial killers. Dr Livingstone’s wife Mary succumbed to them and she is buried under a baobab tree in an untended grave on the banks of the Zambesi river. Bishop Mackenzie, that tall, handsome, athletic man of God, died on an island near the confluence of the Shire and Ruo rivers, ravaged by the parasites.

Other missionaries who survived malaria were Chauncy Maples and Will Johnson. They were two remarkable spreaders of the Gospel who had been at Oxford University together and their combined efforts lead to the building of the wonderful cathedral on Likoma Island in the lake. Johnson was the ‘apostle’ of the lake shore, which was his parish for over 40 years, striding about, thin in his long white robes. But if Johnson owned the shores, Maples certainly owned the waters. He was drowned in them when his boat sank during one of those sudden, vicious storms that characterize the lake. His cassock dragged him under. The ‘Lake of Stars’, as Livingstone described it, is a very moody, often dangerous stretch of inland waters…particularly when the south east ‘mweru’ wind blows.

The spirit of the Scottish missionary Dr Laws still ‘walks’ in the cool shadows at the old stone house where a new Livingstonia Mission was relocated on the plateau which overlooks the lake, high above the mosquito line. But Dr Laws believed that he was escaping the pestilential vapours on the lake shore which he thought were responsible for spreading the fevers. Malaria permeates the early history of Malawi and, just like the old slave trade, it decimated the population.

At Nkhotakota, a sense of evil pervades this old Arab slave emporium from whence thousands and thousands of captives were sent by dhow across the lake and then yoked together and herded down to the coast to the Indian Ocean at Kilwa, driven by the bestial cruelty of the ruga ruga (wild, painted, semi-human beings, carrying lashes).  Only about a quarter of the slaves survived this journey to hell.

Towards the end of the 19th century, fierce battles ensued against slavers at Karonga, spearheaded by British colonials: Sir Harry Johnston, the Moir brothers, Frederick Lugard and Monteith Fotherington. These wars raged for years, largely unnoticed by the outside world, until finally the infamous Arab trader Mlosi was defeated and hanged.

It was Livingstone who had exposed the horrors of slavery to the world and he is probably best-remembered for this and his journeys of exploration, rather than any great success as a converter of souls. He died a lonely death in what is modern day Zambia, on his knees by his rough bedside, plagued by dysentery and bleeding hemorrhoids. Faithful African followers carried his embalmed body many hundreds of miles down to the coast from where it reached its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. His heart, however, remains in the soil of Africa which he loved. Perhaps now you can begin to understand a little of my fascination for the history of the land?

I hope so.

In more modern times, there is the famous story of Commander Rhoades who opened the first naval shots of the First World War with a salvo from a 3 pound Hotchkiss on his gunship Gwendolyn that pummelled the gunship Hermon von Wissmann while it was in dry dock at Sphinxhaven in German East Africa, on the eastern shores of the lake.  Rhoades had been  wining and dining with his old friend the German commander a short time before, so the purple rage of Herr Brent echoed through the smoke and fire across the waters….”gott’ for damn Rhoades ‘ist you dronk”!

It was my great pleasure to visit many of these places I’ve mentioned and to muse on the lives of the great characters. And, as a company pilot, I got to know the surrounding territories fairly well in the years between 1991 and 2008.

My fascination with Livingstone spilled over into Tanzania where I explored the old house in Unyanyembi (modern Tabora) where Livingstone and Stanley had parted company. Stanley headed home to England to bask in fame with his famous newspaper report. Livingstone wandered off in search of the illusive source of the Nile. He was never again seen alive by another white man.

Many old relics of the man can be viewed in the fascinating museum in Blantyre, Malawi and the Livingstone museum in Zambia. So too in the Bagamoyo museum on the Indian Ocean where you could buy old German coins, with the eagle emblazoned, from young ‘picannins’ on the beach. I walked the site of the Zanzibar slave market, and hunted for KAR medals (Kings African Rifles) and old brass trinkets in the crowded bazaars. The Selous game reserve is vast, named after the famous hunter who was killed by a German sniper in WW1.  I traced Commander Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s travels with his askaris down across the Lugenda River into Mozambique and wondered at the man’s audacity and skills in conducting running, guerilla warfare against the British forces in East Africa for years during the First World War. He was never caught and eventually surrendered at Abercorn in Northern Rhodesia( Zambia) at Armistice. 

Kilimanjaro, chimpanzees in Uganda, tiger fishing on Caborabasa dam and the Chobe and Zambesi rivers, circling the caldera on the Comores Islands, catching sail fish and dorado off Malindi.  Thornicroft giraffes in the South Luangwa, tracking wild dogs, formation-flying in a glider over Wankie game reserve with vultures on the wing tips, collecting old books and spices in Dar-es-Salaam, Zimbabwe ruins, Victoria Falls, chasing the ghost of Beryl Markham at the Muthaiga Club and the Wings Club of East Africa in Nairobi, ‘White Mischief ‘ and the Ngong hills, the mysterious, unsolved murder of the Earl of Erroll. Nyika plateau and ‘Ventures to the Interior’ (that old embellisher Laurens van der Poste!) The derelict base for Solent flying boats at Cape Maclear that landed there from England,  ‘Guru wan kulus’ dancing around the fire to the beat of throbbing drums in the middle of the night. The ‘guru’ are secret-society male initiates who dress in weird, fiercesme guise. They are frequently seen running along country roads; quite scary.

It’s a fascinating continent. So when people ask me if I was ever bored working in Malawi, I just shake my head a little, for there are no quick words to explain.

I realize that I have painted a rather romanticized picture of the past in Africa, and the past is another country. What of the present and the future country? I used to contemplate this prickly question in the company of good friends, black and white, in Malawi.  Sipping locally brewed Carlsberg beers with them with plates full of chambo and nsima and relish (lake tilapia, maize meal and smashed spinach, tomatoes, onions and garlic) was very conducive to contemplation as the sun went down at Monkey Bay. 

The Malawians are lovely folk, known throughout the region for their hard work and gentle manner. But millions still live the same way they have lived since time immemorial. Plant, Reap, Eat, Plant, Reap, Eat. They have to change, you may say, it’s the 21st century. But what do you want them to change into, and how? There are many very bright, highly-educated people in Malawi who will hopefully steer the ship through the troubled waters ahead. Change must come, but it has to enhance the lives of all, and not diminish it in any way. I puzzle over the value of donor aid? Particularly if it is used as a vehicle to assuage perceived social guilt, or to gain political leverage, or if it clumsily patronizes the so-called beneficiaries. Genuine help has nothing to do with any of the above.

At Monkey Bay, I would occasionally catch the familiar, sweet smell of  mbanje (marijuana) from a  tourist reefer as the famous lake cruiser, the Ilala, docked and I would be reminded of a speech made years ago by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s departed President for Life, shortly before he deported the US Peace Corps.

“You people come here and teach my people how to smoke mbanje and fornicate and drink beer. My people know how to smoke mbanje, and fornicate and drink beer!”

He was a wise old man, Banda, albeit a bit ruthless!

A big regret I have since leaving Malawi for Canada is that I did not climb to the top of Mulanje Mountain.

So I have to go back one day to that Warm Heart of Africa.

Email Mitch Stirling at


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