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Malawi Memories - 50-years on

Malawi Memories

- 50 years on -



Published by Dennis Hawkes at Shakespir


Copyright 2015 Dennis Hawkes



Shakespir Edition, License Notes

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Malawi Memories

About the Author

Other Titles by Dennis Hawkes


It was a 50-year reunion for Malawi VSOs in 2015 that caused me to recollect some of my experiences so long ago when I was a volunteer. I found a diary kept for part of the time that I spent in the north of the country and lots of old slides in the loft. I couldn’t find very much about Malawi from that period on the Internet, especially few old photos. As I started to read and look at my slides it occurred to me that some others might like to see some pictures of that country taken in 1965-66. This short book is the result.

I am indebted to those friends who have read through the drafts and suggested alterations especially to my wife Freda for her repeated and patient proof reading.

Dennis Hawkes

Cardiff, Wales

Dec 2015

Malawi Memories

It was Sunday 23rd May 1965 and the group of local people were happy to be going home. Most of them had been on a trip to hear their Prime Minister address a political rally in Fort Johnson (now called Mangochi) near the southern end of Lake Malawi. Over 200 people were crowded on to the pontoon ferry that was the only crossing of the Shire River near Liwonde. The ferry was pulled across the fast flowing hippo and crocodile-infested river by a single steel hawser and the method had worked well for many years. This time something went wrong. It is believed that the pontoon hit an obstacle in the river, the cable parted and the ferry overturned. Only 57 people were saved – crocodiles ate the rest. I didn’t know about that when I came to Malawi soon afterwards as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas.

Malawi 1966

Shire River Crossing

Crowded Pontoon

Delicate Manouvers Across The River

Following a 5-year apprenticeship with Westland Aircraft Ltd in Yeovil, Somerset, I was still working there and occasionally being asked by the management to show VIPs around the factory and arrange a flight for them in one of the latest helicopters. The phone call came one morning summoning me to the manager’s office and I expected it to be another VIP and another tour. Instead I was introduced to a man from VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), an organisation I had not heard of. Companies were being asked to sponsor the organisation with the costs of volunteer’s insurance, travel and administration and I was told that Westland had agreed to release one of their employees for a year. I was asked if I would like the experience. Although knowing nothing of the relatively young organisation, the first volunteers having only been recruited in 1958, I agreed to go. We had a brief time of instruction in London covering behaviour, history and culture of the country, health, safety and first aid and the memorable ‘banana and boot lace’ midwifery talk. Apparently some volunteers had found themselves in a situation in the bush where they had to act as midwife. We were told what to do including the fact that a sterile surface could be found on the inside of a banana leaf and that boiled boot laces could be used to tie off the umbilical cord. We were very glad that for any mother’s and baby’s sake the lesson was not needed while we were volunteers. I understand that talk was dropped from the course soon afterward. For our flight out to Africa we volunteers wore as many clothes as we could and stuffed our pockets with everything that would go in them, as there was no limit to our own weight only to the weight of the luggage. After all, we were going for a least a year to a largely unknown destination. The airline saw what was happening and made us get on to the scales along with our bags. Fortunately our total weight was below the maximum take-off weight of the plane.

Victoria Street Blantyre.

Blantyre, the first African town I had seen, was small with mostly low-rise buildings and no traffic lights. It was the commercial and industrial capital of the country and Zomba, about 70 km away to the north, was the administrative capital. There were deep culverts alongside the main roads, the purpose of which became clear when the heavy rains came; it was the first time I had seen rain as heavy as that. The Jakaranda trees with their beautiful blue flowers were a feature of the roads around the town. Kandodo was the well-known department store. The first-ever elevator in Malawi was installed in the tallest building in Victoria St, the town’s main street. They had to put guards at the entrance to stop local people, especially children, just riding the elevator for this new experience.

In the early weeks we VSOs met several ex-pats including of course Bruce and Diane Nightingale of the British Council who were looking after us volunteers. They had a deep interest in music and formed a group that several of us joined; we sang madrigals I recall, something quite new to me.

Malawi Broadcasting Corporation had begun operating the year before in 1964. Another new experience for me was working on several programmes for the station including for some time taking over a record request programme. Radio was important for entertainment, as there was no television in the country in those days.

Socializing With A Dik-Dik

Arriving in Blantyre the capital at that time in summer 1965 I quickly met up with other Christians in particular a missionary couple from America, Rev. Robert and Elinor Barr, who had been working in Nyasaland (Malawi) since the 1930s. The Likhubula Bible Institute (now the Evangelical Bible College of Malawi) opened in Blantyre in 1964 under Robert’s leadership when it moved from Chididi. Chididi was rather isolated, being in the Nsanje region near to the southern border with Mozambique. I taught the bible at the institute in Blantyre each week with permission from the Polytechnic University of Malawi where I was assigned by VSO. At my selection I had been asked what I would like to do and had said anything except teaching and that I would prefer to go to a French speaking part of the world. Of course I ended up teaching and in an English speaking country! That turned out to be a turning point in my life as I subsequently spent the rest of my career in education.

Robert and Elinor were fluent in the native language Chinyanja (now Chichewa) and experts in local culture so were a great help to me in the several weeks before teaching began. Elinor made wonderful banana bread that we had whenever I visited their home. My first Christmas with them included eating not turkey but venison outside on the lawn in the sunshine.

It was during that time that I went with Robert to visit the mission at Chididi and helped to repair a broken down vehicle. It meant crossing the infamous Shire River, at Chikwawa on a similar pontoon ferry. I was to cross that river at Liwonde and Chikwawa several more times during my time in the country. We made a number of other visits to churches in isolated areas during those weeks waiting for the university year to start. This helped me understand the sort of conditions that my students came from – very different from the UK.

Typical Village Church

Church Leaders Meeting Before A Service

My accommodation with several other male volunteers was a large top floor apartment close to Ginnery Corner and near to the brand new Polytechnic building where I taught engineering. It was painted pink so we called it Poly’s Pink Apartment, and had a sign made to that effect. I was told that the name stuck for years afterwards.

Poly’s Pink Apartment

Malawi University Polytechnic

Typical Classroom

We VSOs soon learned of ‘the lake’, the third largest lake in Africa, with its wonderful unspoiled beaches and crystal clear water with tropical fish. Lake Malawi is about 560 km (350 miles) long, about the same length as the English Channel, and 80 km (50 miles) wide at it widest point.

Lake Malawi At Cape Maclear

Boys Fishing

Running Repairs

How to get there was the problem. Monkey Bay in the south was 240 km (150 miles) on mainly dirt roads. The roads were often very poor unless they had just been graded. The heavy grading machines smoothed out the corrugations that naturally formed when traffic drove along the dirt roads. The roads were usually very dusty in dry weather and flooded when it rained heavily in the wet season November to April.

Dry Roads In The North

Flooded Roads In The Rainy Season

Tea Plantation In Mulanje

Mulanje Mountain lay 65 km to the east of Blantyre with peaks rising to 2,500m. An excellent climbing experience if you could get there as one could stay in basic forestry huts on the plateau at 1,800 m. At the foot of the mountain were the tea plantations for which Malawi was famous.

Picking Tea

We sometimes managed to find people with cars to get there and if we went with any of our Peace Corps friends could borrow the fine equipment they had. This included ex-army outdoor sleeping bags and sometime on Mulanje we slept outside the huts and marvelled at the stars. There was of course no electricity up there so the night was pitch black.

Lichenya Forestry Hut On Mulanje Plateau

Chambe Forestry Hut

Three of us volunteers, Pauline, Sheena and I, decided to try to buy a car. With the assistance of Bruce Nightingale from the British Council we took a loan to be paid back monthly with post-dated cheques. We bought a Volkswagen Beetle registration number BA 2599 with raised suspension so that it could cope with the rough African roads. I with a friend and the use of the Polytechnic engineering workshop overhauled the engine. The VW was probably about 10 years old and at that time they had no fuel gauge or warning light to show you were running out. Instead it had a reserve tank with enough fuel for about a further 40 miles. When the main tank, fortunately holding almost 10 gallons, was almost empty and the car started spluttering the driver had to reach down below the dashboard and turn a lever to switch to the reserve tank. It was important to switch it back when filling up again. Later I retrofitted a fuel gauge after almost running out on a long journey. Petrol stations were few and far between.

We had several trips out in the countryside visiting villages sometimes when one had to beware of elephants on the road. Always there were lots of children crowding round to see these strange white foreigners since Europeans were not so common except in the larger towns and lakeside. Driving was rather dangerous at times with only one main tarmac road out of the Blantyre/Limbe district and people, bicycles and animals crossed without warning. One sad event was when a VSO called Alice lost her arm in an accident. She was travelling in a vehicle with her elbow resting on the sill of an open window when the vehicle struck one coming in the other direction. I visited her in hospital a number of times before she was fit enough to be sent home.

Village Visit

Beware of Elephants On This Road

One Sunday when driving to church I was going up a hill when over the brow came the President’s convoy. There was no warning and no siren wailing as there usually was when the President drove along. The last vehicle swerved towards me and took my registration number and shortly afterward I had a Summons for failing to stop for the Prime Minister. This was a serious offence at that time and carried a fine or substantial term of imprisonment. When I read the summons I saw that there were several mistakes in it including the time that the offence was supposed to have taken place. I went to see the chief of police a British man and pointed out that the time of the offence on the summons was when I was in church that morning and I had plenty of witnesses to that effect. The summons was dropped.

At that time there was only one road out of town that had tarmac. The rest were graded dirt roads or in the north un-graded at times and very rough. After that there were many trips at weekends and holidays to the lake, Mulanje Mountain and to the first place over the Mozambique border, the town of Milange where Portuguese food was available in the hotel there. As you entered the country a large roadside sign said ‘Welcome to Portugal’ as in 1951 Portugal had designated Mozambique an overseas territory. On one occasion the meat served at the hotel restaurant was particularly delicious and we wondered what it was, not beef, not pork, what was it? We asked the owner who was waiting on us and he said in his strong Portuguese accent that it was Go-At. We had never had goat that tasted so good. The Malawi Peace Corps home recipe Cook Book had recipes for both enhancing the flavour of goat and for disguising the flavour of goat! This chef must have read the first one.

Our Car With Sheena At The Tea Plantation

The lake was quite a draw for all VSOs and we went there a number of times. Despite the long journey on dusty rough roads the final destination was worth it. One hotel had a main reception and restaurant and the rooms were Rondawels right on the beach. It was run by a single lady, as I recall, who after dinner at night would get out the wind-up gramophone (there was no electricity there) and a pile of ancient 78s, playing dance music and try to teach us the Charleston. The lighting was with paraffin fuelled Tilley lamps that hissed quietly all evening.

Our host warned us about the leopards that were in the nearby bush at night and you could indeed sometimes hear the monkeys screaming alarm calls if one was detected. She said she kept a loaded gun in her room as once a leopard had come as far as her door. This may have been a ‘travellers’-tale’ or perhaps a way of making sure guests stayed in their rondawels at night or maybe it was a serious warning about the local wildlife.

At another time several of us hired or were loaned a missionary’s cottage on the beach farther north and we once went swimming at night. The nights were very dark with a brilliant star studied sky so we put a Tilley lamp on the shore to make sure we knew where the shore was. Only later when talking to a crocodile hunter did we discover that was the way they attracted crocs. We never did find out if there were any in that part of the lake.

Grand Beach Hotel Entrance

Hotel Accommodation In Rondawels

Malawi had gained its independence on 6th July 1964 and on the first anniversary in 1965 there were celebrations to mark that event at Blantyre stadium. It was a time of some tension in the country and security was tight as a group of rebels in what came to be called the Revolt of the Ministers was active in terrorism. The last leader to be captured, Medson Silombela, was caught and hanged in Zomba prison on Tuesday 1st Feb 1966. The execution was witnessed by about 400 relatives of the eight people he had murdered, in order to dispel the myth of his invincibility.

The Independence celebrations were quite spectacular. The city of Blantyre was decked out with colourful banners and large pictures of the president and people wore clothes printed with his portrait. In the stadium there were parades of groups of people from the different regions in the country in their local tribal dress, rather like the parades at the Olympic Games. The crowds were very large and at times frightening, as you couldn’t move your arms in the crush after leaving the stand and a fall, if that had been possible, would have resulted in being trampled.

President Banda On Display For The Independence Celebrations

Crowds Waiting To Hear The President’s Address

Another favourite trip was to Zomba plateau. Zomba was the country’s capital at the time and for many years had been popular with ex-pats due to its fresh water and picturesque landscape. The plateau is 1,800 m in height and the air in summer is cooler than on the plain, an ideal place to have tea! The road up was very narrow and had an interesting system that avoided meeting someone coming in the other direction. The road up the mountain was open only between the hour and quarter past and the road down between half past and quarter to the hour. This left a quarter of an hour spare for slow vehicles. The system relied on trust but worked well for many years.

Zomba Plateau Road System

Tea At The Top

Most of the time in Malawi was naturally taken up with work, in my case teaching engineering. Many hours preparing lectures and marking course work took up any spare time in the week. Apart from teaching in my home church in Yeovil and in the Bible Institute in Blantyre I had never taught classes, but because of my training and experience with Westland Aircraft I found it a rewarding time teaching engineering to eager students. So much so that towards the end of my time I asked how I should go about changing my career and was advised to apply for post-graduate teacher training at Garnett College London. That was the start of a life-long career.

During the summer holiday in 1966 all VSOs were ‘volunteered’ to take part in the first national population census. In return for being volunteered we were allowed to choose where to go and most chose to go to parts they had not been to before. Those in isolated primary schools in the rural north may have chosen to come to the ‘big city’ of Blantyre. I chose to go to the less developed north to a place in the Karonga region called Chilumba on the shore of Lake Malawi. We were told to take everything we needed for a month except food that would be provided locally. That was clothes, bedding, mosquito nets, eating utensils, torches, toiletries and a camp bed, and in my case a Phillips portable reel-to-reel battery powered tape recorder loaded with music and plenty of spare batteries as I expected a lonely time up there. It all amounted to several large bags and boxes of luggage.

On Friday July 29th Pauline and Sheena were picked up in Blantyre at 5.30am and we boarded the train that left at 7.35am with our entire luggage. The train went to the terminus at Salima. The train journey was slow, averaging about 12 miles per hour for the first 100 miles with many stops with people selling things to the passengers. We bought some sugar cane to chew on. The Malawi pound was equal to the pound sterling at that time. There were twelve pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound.

Slow Train To Salima

Lunch on board at midday, for the price of five shillings (about 26p today), was soup; fish and salad, corned beef, potatoes and peas followed by coffee and listening to songs by Françoise Hardy on my portable tape recorder. This was the life.

We watched the sunset at 5.30pm just twelve hours after I had set out and still we had not arrived. Eventually at 9pm we reached Chipoka the stop before the end of the line. Chipoka a small town in the Central Region district of Salima is about a quarter of the way north along the lake shore and the point at which there was an embarkation for the MV Ilala.

The MV Ilala On Lake Malawi

In the dark and in rough water the lifeboat that acted as the Ilala’s tender made its way to the larger ship and we embarked at 10pm. The Ilala had been launched in 1951 and has continued to serve and is still in operation today (2015), based at Monkey Bay in the south of the lake. It was built in the Yarrow Shipbuilders in Scotland, dismantled and transported in pieces first by ship and then overland through Mozambique by rail to Chipoka. Scottish engineers assembled it there. The Ilala, diesel powered and over 600 tons with a length of 52 m (172 ft) carries 360 passengers and freight. Everything was carried on the Ilala, chickens, bicycles, goats and everything else that needed to be transported along the lake including some weary VSOs and their entire luggage. After watching the lifeboats being hoisted and the ship anchor weighed we turned in to our cockroach-infested cabins at 11.15pm.

Awake just before sunrise at 6am after a rough night we arrived at our first port, Kota Kota at around 7.30am. We watched people disembark in the choppy water and saw two people thrown from the lifeboat and two or three more from the landing stage. They were all rescued but had had a good soaking. We hoped the water was calmer by the time it was our turn to leave. During the next meal the lake was very rough and the ship was rolling so much that the crockery and cutlery were sliding across the dining table. One-by-one people left the table feeling unwell until only a handful of us stayed to eat. The steward came and watered the tablecloth to prevent everything slipping about. It worked, he had done it before. A few of us including the captain continued to eat, swaying unsteadily.

The weather did get better as the morning wore on and the Ilala reached Mbamba Bay a port across the lake on the western edge of Tanzania. Since the ship stayed for some time unloading the cargo we had time to go across the nearby island of Likoma entirely surrounded by Mozambican waters where there is an imposing church. Missionaries from the Mission to Central Africa in response to a plea by David Livingstone founded their headquarters there in 1880. Because of their presence the island was assigned to Malawi rather than Mozambique after World War II. It was a very peaceful island with no paved roads and we spent a few hours there seeing the hospital, the village and visiting the imposing St Peter’s Cathedral. Back on the Ilala we crowded round a radio on the bridge with the captain to listen to the England v Germany world cup. It was July 30th 1966.

St Peter’s Cathedral Likoma

On Sunday 31st Pauline and Sheena left the ship at Nkata Bay to start their time helping with the census there. I awoke as usual about 6am when the ship arrived at Usisya, a very pretty place, Ruarwe at 7am and Milowe at 10.30am. At every port dugout canoes came out to meet the ship selling fish and mangoes and the lifeboat/tender ferried passengers and freight back and forth.

The Lifeboat Leaving The Ilala

At almost 4pm we arrived off Chilumba, the last stop and my home for the next month. I had been told I would be met on arrival at the jetty and shown to the Government Resthouse where I was to stay. The rest house was a small building erected to give government officials somewhere to stay overnight whilst waiting for the Ilala to arrive. Despite the crowds waiting for the Ilala’s arrival as it brought family and friends and much needed supplies, there was nobody to meet me.

Arriving At Chilumba

I asked where the rest house was and engaged some people to carry my luggage for the agreed sum of three shillings and tuppence. It wasn’t far away and I eventually found the local census organiser who didn’t seem to know what was happening. My home was a small two room brick-built hut with a corrugated iron roof in contrast to the mud huts with thatched roofs around. There was an outside kitchen that wouldn’t have passed any hygiene inspection. The toilet, some distance away, was a long drop type in a grass hut and the adjoining shower was a circular grass fence under a tree where a leaking bucket full of water could hang from a branch. Later I made it a brick floor, otherwise the mud just made feet dirtier than before the shower. The house had a table and a chair, a simple cupboard and in the other room a bed with a mattress and a mosquito net although I had been told to bring both mattress and bedding and a mosquito net. That was to come in useful later when I had visitors.

My Toilet And Shower At The Government Resthouse

I had not been there more than 20 minutes when a government Land Rover drew up and Margaret another VSO told me they were there to take me to the Census centre at Karonga.

Government Land Rover Negotiating The Rough Roads In The North

We loaded the Land Rover with most of what I had just had brought to the hut as we didn’t know what to expect and we left immediately because it was about to get dark. We had an interesting and very rough 54-mile drive to Karonga. There we had been assigned a large Peace Corps house in which to stay. No one was there so we just made ourselves at home and went to bed very tired at 11.30pm. Paul, one of the American volunteers, got back late and we met him over breakfast early next morning. We reported for duty at the census office at 8am for training. The local trainer wasn’t easy to understand so three of us worked out a visual aid showing the progress of material through control centres and a diagram of the organisational structure. During the 3-day Ilala trip we had studied all the documentation so knew more than the local organiser I think. Late morning there was nothing left for us so we left and Paul showed the sights of Karonga including the all-important post office and the novel postal sorting system, pile it on the ground and everybody help themselves – it seem to work.

Karonga Post Office

Sorting The Post

Next day Tuesday 2nd August we again went to the centre for more ‘training’ but again there was nothing for us so we looked around the small dusty town with its Kandodo store, tiny compared to the one in Blantyre. Wednesday was mostly spent lazing around and swimming in the lake with Thursday much the same except on that day we went to fetch the mail. It was brought in to the local air strip by Beaver aircraft and sorted at the post office as normal. Since there was no telephone in the rural areas the European world revolved around the post. I ordered two spears as souvenirs from the brother of Paul’s cook. He made them not as souvenirs but for use by people working in the fields as defence against wild animals. He demonstrated their effectiveness by throwing them into a nearby tree trunk. They cost eight shillings and sixpence each. I expect he wondered what sort of wild animals we had in the UK.

The practice enumeration was held on the following day starting at 2.30pm and lasting until after the sun went down. There were a lot of mistakes coming in and some enumerators didn’t seem still to grasp what was involved and what it was all about, not surprising as this was the first ever census in Malawi and the instruction had not been very clear as far as we could tell.

Saturday – Paul left Karonga by plane, pleased I was sure, as he was tired and probably not well as he told us he used to sleep for 13 hours each night. I bought a locally made axe in the market as a souvenir and then Margaret and I set about a thorough cleaning of the Peace Corps house. In the evening we had the people in charge of the census to dinner; it was a good evening.

The next day I went back to Chilumba by Land Rover with Alex my cook who had been found for me by the authorities. They said he had had experience of cooking for foreigners and I was to pay him two shillings and fourpence a day for his services at the end of the time. I actually gave him fifteen pounds – he was overjoyed. As we arrived back at the rest house we found a man from the information department asleep on the bed, he was waiting for the Ilala. After unloading my baggage, Alex set about cooking; the Bisto in the soup was awful. The language of the area was Tumbuka (now Chitumbuka) also a Bantu language, not the more familiar Chinyanja, a smattering of which I had been starting to pick up. The Ilala arrived and my guest vacated the bedroom and I also went on board to meet Captain Kemp again. Some folk and another VSO Colin, who was heading for Karonga, came ashore to look around my home. The Ilala stops were often quite lengthy.

Monday – I was woken during the night by a loud scratching sound and fortunately I had thought to take a torch into the mosquito net with me. This showed several bats on the outside of the net, presumably feeding on the mosquitoes there. I left them to it and went back to sleep. After breakfast of porridge and coffee I explored the area and found the small local Deep Bay post office and discovered I had several letters from friends back in Blantyre.

Deep Bay Post Office

I visited the small outdoor market and then found the Census Control Centre and did some filing of papers a number of which had already been misfiled. Before it got dark I went fishing but caught nothing.

Market At Chilumba.

The next day I borrowed a paper punch from the police station on my way to the centre and spent the day waiting for enumerators to return and recording their results. No provision had been made for returning enumerators who got to the centre at the end of the day and couldn’t get home, so all of the staff put them up. I had two students from Dedza, over 400 km (200 miles) away, staying with me.

On Wednesday after the next batch of enumerators had arrived at the centre and their results had been processed by midday, I started to walk to Uliwa, it was about 5 km. I went to visit the market there and wait for my visitors Margaret and Tricia who were to stay in my house for a couple of days as they had nothing to do where they were. Part way I had a lift on a lorry carrying steel door frames that had just come off the Ilala, It made a lot of noise but was better than walking in the dust and heat. The market had little to sell; some tinned Stork margarine; tinned milk; patent medicines; cigarettes; shoes and cloth of all descriptions including some left over from the independence celebrations with the new President’s portrait printed all over. The bus arrived at 4pm.

Part way back from the bus stop we had a lift to the rest house in the census Land Rover that had been somewhere and was returning to base. In the evening after our meal we just chatted and sorted out the sleeping arrangements. The girls slept in the bedroom, one on the bed and other on the floor, and I slept on my camp bed in the other room. Fortunately we had enough mosquito nets as whenever we were going to be away overnight we took them with us.

Next day we all went to the control centre by 7.30am as usual and as there was nothing happening went for a walk to the lake shore and bought some fish, one for four pence and one for six pence, part of our supper that night and Alex knew how to cook fish.

Fishermen Preparing Their Nets

Author With The Fish

On the way back home we stopped to watch a brick maker at work, with his family helping to fill the wooden moulds. He told us he charged two pound ten shillings per thousand unless it was for a government project when the price was three pounds ten shillings!

Brick Making

As we got back to the rest house I spotted a yellow snake more than a metre long disappearing under the steps, I got one of my spears and poked it out and it slithered away into the bushes. The locals laughed, as I hadn’t been able to spear it and kill it, as they would have done.

Next day was another free day and so we walked the 5 km to Uliwa and bought some meat. It was covered in flies of course and presented with a loop of grass to hold it. Fortunately someone took pity on the strange foreigner and found some newspaper to wrap it up in for the journey back. Newspaper was quite hard to come by as they were not sold in Uliwa and only got there if brought from away. The Deep Bay post office had no post so we walked to the jetty and tried to talk with some local boys. At the house there had been a puff adder killed by the cook.

Enjoying The Water

Saturday was shopping day again and we walked over to buy fish. There were 14 small fish for a penny each, so we bought them all. They had no change so we gave them two shillings. Lately people had been coming to the door with food to buy so it had been easy to get eggs and fruit. Eggs were a penny each, grapefruit three pence, a large bag of peanuts for one shilling and even tomatoes at one to three pennies each. One day Tricia was given a chicken and a bag of rice so food was not a problem. Usually in the evening we listened to music from my battery tape recorder and worked on census material.

On Sunday went to the CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) church in the village after we heard some singing one day. The lesson was from the Gospel of John Chapter 7 although we couldn’t understand the sermon as it was in the local language. Later I saw Margaret and Tricia off on the Ilala going back to Karonga. By Tuesday they left from the airport there to go back to Blantyre, their census having finished.

Church at Chilumba

By Friday 19th August having walked the previous day about 16 km (10 miles) with the local organisers checking on the enumerators work I realised that I wouldn’t be able to go back yet as the office work could not be completed until all the enumerators had done their job. It was a very rural area with lots of walking to find isolated villages and individual scattered huts. Later the first enumerator returned from area 077 and processing all his data took just 4 hours. If all of them returned soon I knew I should be able to return on 29th August, the date I had expected to finish.

On Saturday after working in the morning I went to watch traditional dancing in the nearby village. I don’t remember what I ate that day but was violently sick that night. Next day when the Ilala called I went on board and got something for it. I had always avoided the local drink especially the home brewed beer made by women who chewed maize and spat it out into a container. Their saliva helped to break down the corn starch, ugh I had never fancied it. I guess it was something I ate.

By Tuesday the number of enumerators back had risen to 18 and by the following day 26, only 2 more were left to go. I had made friends with a fisherman who spoke a little English and who had lent me his dugout canoe and he came to visit me. He saw my tape recorder and asked if it was a radio and I told him what it was. He had never heard of this and I explained it with a demonstration. I spoke into the microphone and I played it back; he was astonished. I recorded his voice but he said it didn’t sound like him but it was what he said. He insisted that I came to his village and demonstrate this new thing to everyone and this I did on the following day to everyone’s amazement and no doubt to his credit for finding out about it. They spoke and sang and listened to each other with shrieks of laughter. I had a really enjoyable afternoon and didn’t look forward to them coming to see me off on the Ilala, it would be very emotional.

On Friday 26th August the final enumerator came back and I spent the day finishing the data processing. By the end we had counted 8,100 dwelling units, 12,013 males and 13,904 females. The whole of Malawi eventually totalled 4,305,583 people, double the number counted in the previous census in 1945. The present population is now (2015) over 17 million.

After a last meal of tinned fruit and coca-cola and some emotional goodbyes I was escorted to the jetty by my new friends and embarked for the journey back to Chipoka and train to Blantyre. We stopped at each port and with others on board swam in Ruarwe, a beautiful place with very clear water. At Usisya we went ashore, saw coconuts growing, a spectacular sunset and walked on the beach in the moonlight, wonderful.

Moonlight On The Shore Of Lake Malawi

At Nkhata Bay I left the ship for a while and went to find Pauline and Sheena at their rest house and Peter who was engaged to Sheena. They hadn’t finished yet and still had a lot of work to do. Again I went ashore at Kota Kota and the VSOs hadn’t finished there either.

We arrived at Chipoka where I was to disembark and at 5.30am I was told that the train was leaving at 7.30am so that there was plenty of time to eat breakfast. Shortly afterwards the train left early and I was still on board the Ilala. There was nothing for it but to stay on board until Monkey Bay where I would try to get a lift back to Blantyre leaving my luggage somewhere and come back in the car with our friend Liz to get it later in the week as Pauline and Sheena were still away.

When I disembarked I managed to find a pick-up truck and had a lift all the way to Blantyre sitting on my luggage in the open cargo area at the back, as the cab was full. It was not comfortable but got much worse when we went through a bush fire with flames on both side of the road, the driver had forgotten I was behind him in the open!

My last memories of Malawi were of the final dance, when all the returning VSOs and Peace Corps and some who had just arrived had a party. Songs popular at the time included the early Beetles songs of course, and “I’ll never find another you” by the Seekers, a hit in 1965 with the lines:

There’s a new world somewhere

They call The Promised Land

And I’ll be there some day.


“Please Mr Postman”, the still popular 1961 number-one single by the Marvelettes, had the words:

Please Mister Postman, look and see

If there’s a letter in your bag for me.

Letters had become very important to us all during the time we were away from home. There were of course no laptops, Internet or mobile phones yet in 1966.

We all sang the latest hit songs as we danced to them including the Nancy Sinatra song just released in February 1966:

These boots are made for walking

And that’s just what they’ll do

One of these days these boots

Are gonna walk all over you

Another favourite was a 1965 hit single by the Animals:

We gotta get out of this place

If it’s the last thing we ever do

We gotta get out of this place, there’s a better life

Don’t you know …

Although we sang loudly and probably sounded as if we did want to leave, for all of us it had been a great experience and for many one that would change the course of our lives.

NOTE: These notes have been compiled from a diary and from digitised 50-year-old slides – sorry about the quality.

About the Author

Emeritus Professor Dennis Hawkes (BSc, PhD, DTech) originally trained as a mechanical engineer in the aircraft industry and after his VSO experience and Teacher Training in Garnett College London began his academic career. He later gained a PhD in an area of renewable energy. After a teaching and research career he retired in 2009 as Professor from the University of Glamorgan (now the University of South Wales), Wales, UK. In 2010 the university admitted him to the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Technology.

Other titles by Dennis Hawkes available from Shakespir

A 1st Century Travellers’ Guide to Palestine

Places Paul Knew

Church – The Early Years

Early VTOL Aircraft (before 1967)


Malawi Memories - 50-years on

Dennis Hawkes went to Malawi, Central Africa, as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas in 1965. The normal period abroad with VSO at that time was one year but he stayed for eighteen months teaching engineering in the University of Malawi Polytechnic. The country had gained its independence from Britain in 1964 and changed its name from Nyasaland to Malawi. In the following year the celebrations were held in Blantye stadium. Apart from teaching at the University Dennis was involved with Likhubula Bible Institute and briefly with Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. Free time saw visits to Lake Malawi and Mulanje Mountain. This little book contains some memories of that time with VSO prompted by a reunion held in December 2015 and aided by a diary and old slides. The diary was kept during a period helping with the first Malawi Census when the author was in the north of the country. The old slides were digitised, despite some colour loss over the years, and these prompted other memories of the time in Malawi. The book was published with no charge in case it helped others looking into the early history of Malawi. Those who visited the country in those early days will no doubt also find some of the accounts of interest.

  • Author: Dennis Hawkes
  • Published: 2015-12-05 18:40:10
  • Words: 7082
Malawi Memories - 50-years on Malawi Memories - 50-years on