The Scotland-Malawi Link
Maggie and I became acquainted through a mutual friend and have remained good friends for years since, finding common ground in our love of world literature and culture, despite our very different backgrounds. And recently we discovered an unexpected and fascinating link going back over one hundred years.
Maggie’s from Scotland, a country which has had a connection with Malawi (where I’m from) ever since the Christian medical missionary and explorer David Livinsgtone journeyed up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers to Lake Malawi in 1859. Scottish churches had established missions in Malawi by the mid-1870s and there remains a very strong culture of partnership and development between Malawi and Scotland to this day.
At the turn of the last century, my friend Maggie’s family were part of the British colonial enterprise that had largely been triggered by Livingstone’s travels. In 1909, the eldest son of Maggie’s family (her great-great-uncle?), a young man aged 19, went off to what was then known as Nyasaland (now Malawi) as an Assistant to the District Commissioner. His stay only lasted for 9 months as he promptly died of fever (his death bizarrely only being reported back to London at the end of the weekly telegraph to the Foreign Office, listing the latest grain prices).
The Curious Beaded Necklace
Whilst at her family home recently, Maggie discovered a letter sent by the young man from Nyasaland to his younger brother in Scotland. The letter said he was in ‘Ncheu’, which he described as a very nice place, in Upper Shire District, ‘close to the Portuguese border’.
In the letter he complains about it raining a lot, which both Maggie and I found amusing, coming from a Scottish man. Anyway, he goes on to mention his interactions with people in the Ngoni tribe that were local to ‘Ncheu’.
There was also a gift which he’d sent back to his brother. An item that’s sat quietly undisturbed in Maggie’s house, carefully wrapped in paper for over a century. It’s an intricately beaded panel with tiny glass beads very skilfully woven into a symmetrical geometric pattern, with a single strand fastening to the back, suggesting that it is some kind of collar.
Maggie was fascinated and sent me a picture and I was immediately awed and intrigued. It’s been a few months since, and I know the impact of this discovery will last for a long time.
The Ngoni beaded collar which was made in the very early 1900s in Ntcheu, Malawi
I’m intrigued not only because this beautiful artefact is a little piece of history, sitting quietly in Scotland for over a hundred years, perhaps one of only a few that have survived this long. But I’m also fascinated because the places Maggie’s forefather described visiting were exactly the places my people originate from.
Both of my parents are of the Ngoni tribe, descendants of the great and powerful Zulu nation of southern Africa, a tribe that migrated northward in the early nineteenth century after the rise of Shaka Zulu.
My mother’s people eventually settled in Ntcheu (the district to which Maggie’s forefather was stationed), near the boma, or the administrative centre. Within a short distance of the boma is the border Malawi shares with Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony (which was also mentioned in the letter).
My ‘Cloud Atlas’-eque Fantasy
I couldn’t help indulging for a few moments in a fantasy that over one hundred years ago a young Scotsman, still a teenager and therefore probably completely out of his depth in the middle of a tropical rainy season, landed in Ntcheu.
He must have been struggling to learn the language and the culture, he might have met and befriended another man, a Ngoni who took a liking to him and presented him with a gift from his people – a beaded collar. I’m not sure what the Ngoni man intended the young foreigner to do with it, but I’m sure it must have been valuable and represented high status.
Now I don’t pretend that colonialism was the kind of rose-tinted romantic affair that we see in the old Hollywood movies. But I do know that among the many terrible acts of exploitation, there are positive and uplifting experiences, ones that were based on mutual respect. And I like to think that this was the case with our young Scotsman and his Ngoni friend.
In reality it’s more likely that Maggie’s forefather never even met any of mine, but I just love that there’s a possibility that in a brief moment in history two unlikely men crossed paths, oblivious to the fact that their descendants, two unlikely women, would one day forge a lasting friendship.
A pub in modern-day Ntcheu with rolling hills in the background
My Eyes Have Been Opened!
Ntcheu is a beautiful, hilly place with lush vegetation and vibrant, hospitable people who are proud of their Ngoni roots and culture. Women love to adorn themselves with beads around their necks, arms and waists, particularly when dressing in traditional regalia for events such as weddings.
Modern-day Ngoni royal family members from the Maseko and Gomani clans dressed up for a function
But to think that such intricate and beautiful artwork as the beaded collar could have been produced by my people in the humble villages of Ntcheu all those years ago is hugely enlightening.
I’ve often wondered what ancient skills and crafts may have been lost by our people over the years through migration and modernisation. Around the Africa, there are cultures which have done a much better job of sustaining and promoting their creative traditions and skills. The Masaai, Ashanti and Ndebele are just a few that come to mind.
Perhaps I’m to blame for my underestimation of what my own people had the capability to create. I stand corrected and I stand prouder still, but I am concerned that unless we do something fast to capture those skills from our elders, we’re at risk of losing them forever. The challenge we now face is reviving these forgotten skills, now.
I’m now doing some research into antique/ancient beaded collars and jewellery and so far have found similar types of this jewellery all over Africa, from Egypt to the Eastern Cape. Here are a few examples I found online:
A beaded collar from the Thembu Xhosa people of Southern Africa
Archive: A Thembu woman wearing a beaded collar and other jewellery
A Maasai beaded collar with metal embellishments
A bust of Nefertiti wearing a beaded collar
An ancient Egyptian beaded collar
This has become somewhat of a fascination for me now. My research continues, and I’d love to hear from our readers about any useful or interesting information they might have on this topic!
Post-script November 2018: I’ve received a note from Stephen Long, a dealer in traditional beadwork who lives in South Africa, who suggests that the beadwork in the story is actually a pubic apron worn in the past by older teenage girls and young married women, not a collar as described – thank you!