From the Archives


From the Archives: Reaching the Shire River and Kasawa Mission Station

Port Hearald - today known as Nsanje - in about 1900

We continue our journey with the pioneer missionaries of the South Africa General Mission (SAGM), Dr Kidd, Mr Faithful and Mr Raney as they approach the Shire River and Port Herald and then move on to Kasawa Station, the end of their journey.

“The sunsets on the Zambezi were very lovely; a great broad expanse of water, with a thin fringe of land on each side and on the horizon, lent itself to the most gorgeous effects of colour and reflection, as the blood-red sun seemed almost to sink into the placid bosom of the river, on whose surface a few gurgling miniature whirlpools were the only evidence of motion.

“Entering the Shire River the scenery changed. The river is narrower; mountains and hills rise on the horizon, and at times the water winds along the edge of the high hills. The banks are higher, and many native huts skirt the edge of the river. Presently we have passed the Portuguese territory which had surrounded us, and on our left bank the British flag flies.”

Thus the entry to the Shire River is described by Dr D Kidd, one of the pioneers to open up the country for SAGM. This report was in the November 1900 issue of The South African Pioneer.

Dr Kidd and his team had journeyed from South Africa by sea and river, and after several weeks finally arrived at Port Herald – Nsanje, as it is known today. As with many missionaries arriving in a new field, these three encountered bureaucracy in the form of the Collector of Customs (this will be covered in the next article along with the other scourge of missionaries in Malawi – mosquitoes!)

Port Herald was only a staging post, as their ultimate destination, the Mission Station at Kasawa, was still some 30 miles away. The group took some time to prepare for the onward move. Partly this was to recover from the journey and partly, again the scourge of modern missionaries, not all of their luggage arrived when they did!

A 'native village' near Port Harcourt around December 1900

After time spent resting from the journey from South Africa and waiting for missing luggage, the time came for our pioneers to leave Port Herald and travel to Kasawa by a most ingenious mode of transport, the machila – a sort of hammock slung between two poles and carried by four boys. Dr Kidd takes up the story:

“And now the journey to Kasawa started. Four boys take hold of the machila – two at each end. Then they run along at a slow trot. They sing and shout all day long as they carry you. The men in front sing out some words in the Senna language; they are answered by the two men behind. Ten paces farther on this is repeated and so on ad infinitum. You wonder they do not keep their breath for more practical purposes [!]

“Soon the natives are wet with perspiration and tap the pole of the machila. At this sign you are lifted up in the air above their heads and the pole comes down on the opposite shoulders of the carriers, and so they go on changing shoulders until two spare boys in the gang run up and take the pole as two others fall out. Those who fell out ‘rest’ for a few miles by running at a jog-trot!”

The journey was not without interest, as it seemed to dissolve into part sightseeing expedition as they went through village after village and part ‘royal progress’ as villagers came out to meet these strange people being carried along.

“Leaving Port Herald we passed through a great many native villages. Many of these had quite a hundred men, women and children sitting about in the shade. The houses are mainly square and the villages are much more picturesque than those south of the Zambezi.

“As we passed through the villages the people flocked to see us, of course. Why not? If two natives were to pass through a small English village would not the entire population turn out to see them? The boys were very delighted to see us, but the small children simply howled if we came near them. Again, why not?”

One of the early missionaries travelling in a machilla

The journey gave Dr Kidd and his colleagues an excellent opportunity to get to know not just the villages and the people but also the scope of the task before them; both geographic and the risks to life and limb.

Summing up his thoughts thus far, Dr Kidd wrote: “The scope for work seems almost unlimited, but the vast plains we travelled over were fearful fever dens in the summer owing to the swamps. Europeans will have to live on the high land and work the low districts in the winter only. It is easy to see that our work north of the Zambezi may be a very costly one as regards life and health and probably money too.”

On arrival at Kasawa, the missionaries discovered their accommodation had three rooms, no glass windows, no door on hinges, so the wind ‘blows through the house as it likes, night and day’. But like many of us modern-day missionaries they did find something to their liking in the accommodation – the Khonde, or wide veranda – but even that was greeted with caution: “There is a deep verandah which is the best part of the house: it is less draughty than the house,” wrote Dr Kidd. “The scenery is very pretty, but it remains to be seen if the climate will be healthy.”

So we have arrived at journey’s end and the start of the three men’s work in bringing God’s word to the people of this part of British Central Africa. But, just as it had taken a good deal of planning to get this far, Dr Kidd realises that much more planning is still needed and is already looking at how to get local people involved in the work they will carry out.

“It is too early to say much, but one thing seems clear; we must try and get some native evangelists and outstations along the banks of the Shire,” he wrote.

“These could be visited in a boat on the river during the winter, and some of our rich friends will have a splendid chance of helping us with a small boat.

“At present it seems Kasawa will be declared Portuguese territory [modern-day Mozambique] this will not be settled for another year at least. So our plans must be tentative.

“There is a vast sphere of work. Mr Anderson places the Port Herald district as containing 40,000 natives, and as far as we know we are the only Protestant missionaries here. There is no danger of overlapping on the work of others as Blantyre is said to be five-days’ journey off. But before we start our work here we intend visiting Blantyre so as not to touch work that the veteran missionaries there have in hand.”

In the next article Customs officials, lost luggage and mosquitoes – still as much a problem for missionaries in the 21st Century as in the earliest days of the 20th!