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Notes on the Geography of Malawi: Blantyre

Odd that Blantyre, named for Dr. Livingstone's Scottish birthplace, should retain its name. After all, at independence the country changed from Nyasaland to Malawi, and neighboring countries changed the names not only of cities but streets. Not so here, perhaps because the man who dominated the country for decades after independence, Hastings Banda, was an Anglophile with zero sympathy for the Marxism so popular among his neighbors.

Not that visitors have given Blantyre rave reviews. Lauren van der Post, passing through in about 1950, called it "a small, ugly, commercial town" with "no reserves of wealth, tradition or local pride." The town, he continued, "looks rather ashamed of itself." (See Journey to the Interior, pp. 91-92.) Fifty years earlier, an anonymous official of the British South Africa Company wrote that "Blantyre is wretchedly laid out, at least it is not laid out at all; it is like 3 or 4 hamlets in a circle of 4 of 5 miles." (See the Journal of the African Society, 1903).

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Malawi: Blantyre picture 1

The hamlets he had in mind would have been: (1) the Scottish mission, established in 1876 and by the early 1890s with an extraordinary church; (2) the "boma" or government district; and (3) Mandala--represented here by its headquarters, Mandala Top. Built in 1882, this is the oldest surviving building in the country. The name has nothing to do with Buddhism but refers in Chichewa, the local language, to light reflected from water. Here it's used metaphorically to refer to the eyeglasses worn by John Moir, one of the brothers who ran the African Lakes Company, established in 1878 and originally called the Livingstonia Central Africa Trading Co. The brothers resided upstairs and used the lower floor as offices. Today the ground floor is a crafts shop; the upper floor is the home and library of the Society of Malawi.

Harry Johnston, who would build up the Nyasaland Protectorate, wrote, "At Mandala there are many houses and stores and workshops and stables-all very neatly made of brick, with iron roofs. There are handsome roads and gardens and a perfect forest of eucalyptus." In a less benign humor, he referred to the company as "that detestable old Vampire" run by "a miserly, fanatical, uncultured set of Glasgow merchants" (quoted in Baker, Johnston's Administration, 1970, p. 63).

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On the upstairs porch, a garetta. It's a ricksha of unusual design but an improvement on the machila, a kind of portable hammock used in the earliest days by the many Europeans who arrived on one from the head of navigation on the Shire (pronounced Shee-Ray) River.

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The African Lakes Company, which had always been known informally as Mandala, eventually became Mandala, Ltd. Finally it was sold to CFAO, a French company very active in Africa. Here's the rear of the old Top Mandala, now a CFAO property.

Although the building looks conventional, its construction was a saga. Fred Moir wrote in a memoir (After Livingstone, 1924, pp. 46-7) that "experiments were made with different clays to find that best adapted for the manufacture of bricks. To obviate cracking during the process of drying, chopped dry grass was at first added after the manner of the ancient Egyptians. We had no bricklayers, and to minimize the labour falling on the senior manager we made for this house specially large, heavy, sun-dried bricks, 19 by 8 /1/2 by 8 1/2 inches. The clay was thoroughly tramped by natives' feet and rammed into a mould made of boards, and dried slowly in the shade; the bricks became very hard and strong.... When the natives became expert with level and plummet, and able, under supervision, to build a well-bound wall, we adopted the usual 9-inch brick as more easily fired and quickly handled."

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Moving with the times.

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The ALC or Mandala also had a boarding house for staff. Travelers stayed, too. Later a museum, the building now houses offices for Malawi's museums.

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The boma or government quarter was less than a mile away. It was very modest, with everything one-story, red-brick, and with metal roofs painted red to suggest tile. The color scheme has changed, but little else. This building housed a court and vice-consul's office. The consul himself stayed 40 miles away in Zomba. This was a matter of no little irritation to the Blantyre community, which thought that putting the capital of the protectorate so far away from the commercial center was a ridiculous whim of officials who wanted a spot of scenery.

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The court-room dock, seen through a dusty window.

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Old titles never die.

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You take your history where you can get it.

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Another building in the boma.

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And another, now the survey department's map sales office but originally perhaps the post office.

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This was as grand as the boma got: it's the Queen Victoria Hall, completed in 1903. In 1933 it became the Town Hall. The arches are of stone, so the building originally sported a contrast of red and white.

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The view from the boma up Victoria Avenue, Blantyre's main street. The town had only 4,500 residents in 1945; 20 years later it had grown to 110,000. The whole country at that time had only 186,000 residents classed as urban.

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The view back down Victoria Avenue, with the Town Hall in the distance. The street got its name in the Jubilee year, 1897. It stayed unpaved until the boom years after 1945. Van der Post, coming about 1950, called the street "drab and insignificant" and said that he was "dumped by a road full of dust." The Victorian Buildings that lined the street even then were soon cleared away and replaced by modern ones, as happened through much of Southern Africa.

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A few buildings strived for more than barren functionality.

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Amenities have always been in short supply, and not just in the matter of architectural style. It was not until 1927-8 that the city council agreed that Blantyre should have electricity and piped water. Power on Sunday didn't come until the late '30s. A few more such details can be gleaned from Vera Garland's Ryalls--A Woman and Her Hotel (Blantyre, 1996), which deals with the city's best-known hotel, now part of South Africa's Protea chain.

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Delamere House, an office building from about 1965, was the city's tallest building for 25 years or more.

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Of the same vintage, this Jet Age clock tower replaced a more traditional one. Why the numerals are Roman is anybody's guess.

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A block back from Victoria Avenue, the decline in property values is drastic.

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What did shoppers have to choose from in the early days? A frivolous part of the answer comes from Africa as I Have Known It, by Reginald Charles Fulke Maugham (1929). A career civil servant, Maugham wrote that he walked into a store here in 1894 and examined the Fancy Goods Department. He saw "quantities of cheap American cigarettes, some doubtful-looking bottles of perfumery, some hard, unpleasant-smelling toilet soap, a few cases of whisky and beer, and piles of packages of rather mildewed fly-blown stationery and patent medicines. It was all very discouraging. But Morton's, and Cross and Blackwell's many well-devised specialities were there in great and abundant variety: as I was subsequently to discover, without them, or without Huntley and Palmer's biscuits, life in new and resourceless countries would be but a poor and precarious thing" (p. 79).

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A newer property.

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Nyasaland's curse was always transport: it didn't get a rail link to the sea until the line to Beira opened in 1935. That line opened in stages, however, and when rails first reached Blantyre in 1908 they ran south only 113 miles before stopping at Port Herald (now Nsanje) at the southern tip of Nyasaland. From there, for a time and as they had done for decades before, goods and people went by boat down the Shire to Chindio and from its mouth there down the Zambesi to the sea.

This station is presumably the second on the site. The communications tower masquerading behind it as a palm tree is a popular device in southern Africa today.

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On October 7th, 1908, a dance was held to celebrate the completion of the railway to Port Herald. Today, the line goes not only south to Beira but north to Lilongwe.

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A repurposed warehouse.

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A defunct warehouse.

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In its early days, the railway was a very simple affair. The engine here is on the Malawi Museum grounds.

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Builder's plate.

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For its few Europeans--300 in 1945--Blantyre offered the customary residential retreat.

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Security arrangements have changed with the times.

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The wall and gates are topped by discreet electric fencing on the South African model.

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A variant.

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For the majority of residents, home was and is much simpler. The Lilongwe Master Plan reported in 1969 that a third of the houses in Blantyre were mud and wattle. Half had only one-room and a quarter had only two. Twelve percent had piped water; 90 percent of the residents cooked with wood; eight percent used kerosene. Since then, the city has spread out. Here a newer area of better housing.

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In the same neighborhood people are selling (and presumably buying) charcoal.

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Bags this size suggest that customers have only enough money to buy fuel a day at a time.


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