Mama Meli Update Part 3

Mrs. May in 1903

We return for our final update; Meli is to be married, and Mrs. May, having recently lost her husband, decides to organize the wedding herself.

Whatever the reason, when it came time for the wedding, they really made a whole to-do of it. Mrs. May went to Meli’s future father-in-law, telling him she wanted to organize the wedding herself but she wanted to do it in accordance with Mambwe custom, saying “I shall buy the oil, perfume, and flour to anoint her during the wedding.” The one exception was that she said “I will not brew beer.” On the day of the wedding, Mrs. May had invited a whole bunch of people, including Meli’s relatives and her soon-to-be-husband’s relatives, and it seems like it was a great time. There was music and “great rejoicing,” and everything seems to have gone fantastic. Mrs. May got in on the action when, as the bride’s “mother,” she was cajoled into getting up and dancing, and apparently when she got on the dance floor the club really went wild:

“Mother of the girl, why don’t you come and take up the nsimba [finger piano] and let it be heard?” But she replied, “Fellow women, you must show me how.” The forced her and she joined in the dance. When the people saw how she danced they went wild dancing… the house was filled with excitement.”

After the wedding, Meli actually continued to stay at the mission (which… she was probably about 12, maybe 13). The missionaries wanted Jones to escort Mama May to Karonga on Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyassa), where she would start her journey by boat back to England. They probably set out around May in 1902, and Meli joined Jones and Mrs. May on the trip to Karonga. They remained in Karonga for about a month while they waited for other missionaries to arrive. Then, having seen Mrs. May off, Jones and Meli returned to the mission, where Meli continued to spend another three weeks working for the mission before “they finally called my husband to come and take me away.”

To put a coda on these missionary women, it doesn’t seem that Mrs. Purves and Mrs. May travelled together, but Mrs. Purves also returned to England around this time. Mr. Purves had died unexpectedly on November 18th, 1901. I lost track of Mrs. Purves in the pages of The Chronicle after it notes that Mrs. Purves arrived in England “from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Dunvegan Castle, on September 6th,” 1902. It wasn’t until the next month’s issue that The Chronicle noted the arrival in England of “Mrs. May and child, from Lake Tanganyika, Central Africa, per steamer Walmer Castle, on September 13th,” 1902. Mrs. May pops up a few more times in the pages of The Chronicle over the next few years. At a Society meeting in June of 1903, she seems to be grappling with the legacy of what the missionaries were doing in Central Africa, berating herself and her fellow missionaries for a “lack of prayer and slackness in habits of devotion,” and worrying about “backsliding on the part of many whom the missionaries had considered examples of Christian life and conduct,” referring to people they had converted. About a year after that, in May of 1904, Mrs. May is noted as speaking at an event where people were assembling “missionary boxes” (kinda like those UNICEF trick-or-treat boxes). The article ends with an especially cute note: “A very interesting box was that of Mrs. May’s tiny daughter, the youngest worker in the assembly” (she would have been about 2½ at the time). Mrs. May also seems to have gained a more favorable view of the Society’s legacy in Central Africa:

Mrs. John May, B.A., late of Central Africa, said she thought that looking back over the twelve or thirteen years since permanent work had been carried on in connection with the present chapter of the history of the Central African Mission, they saw wonderful signs of progress. Intertribal warfare was a thing of the past; slave raiding, at any rate openly, was entirely gone; some of the barbarous heathen practices of the olden days had been swept away through the presence of Christian workers and a more settled government.

I haven’t looked way too hard, but she seems to have stuck with the London Missionary Society, and doesn’t seem to have remarried. She helped to author a report for the Society in 1924. As for her daughter, one day I’ll dig into what The Chronicle has to say about it, but at the end of her story, Meli notes “In 1936 a mishap occurred at Senga. Porrit’s wife died. She was Mama May’s daughter, whom I used to look after, the one I used to call ‘my sister’ because her mother had cared for me as if I were her own child.”

But! This story is supposed to be about Mama Meli. After finally leaving the mission, the first thing that happened is that Meli had another wedding. Apparently for all the people that Mrs. May invited, she had not invited Meli’s new father-in-law, Mutota, who didn’t even know about it. He was so upset that he threw a whole second wedding, and unlike Mrs. May he “soaked a large quantity of millet and made plenty of beer.” There was more drama at this point about the fact that Meli didn’t know how to grind millet (which is the first step in making nshima), but I guess Meli just paid someone else to do it. After the wedding, Meli and Jones went back to Kawimbe, where the mission had built a house for them.

Meli titles the next part of her story “We Become Wealthy.” Since Mrs. May and the missionaries had acted as Meli’s parents during the engagement, they had received the brideprice paid by Jones. I guess they didn’t quite know what to do with it, because they all (the missionaries) got together and decided to give Meli and Jones back the brideprice, plus interest in the form of a cow. The happy couple settled down, and about a year after marriage had their first child in 1903 (making Meli about 13). They name this child Elizabeth, I assume after Mrs. May.

Here Meli mentions a man she calls Heman. This is James Hemans, who was in Africa as a missionary for the society along with his wife, Marcia. I really need to dig up more information about the Hemans, but if you click on that last link the mission did not treat them well. But Meli and Jones went to greet the Hemans at Niamkolo and visited for five days. When they left, the Hemans gave Jones a roll of calico cloth and six shirts, along with “little dresses and diapers” for baby Elizabeth, and then to Meli a “small roll of spotted cloth, fashionable for women, and a bunch of black beads,” and to the both of them “a tin of sugar, three boxes of soap, sugarcane, a bunch of bananas, and a bag of rice.” He had to send two people along with Meli and Jones just to help them carry all these gifts. Jones took these gifts and started running a shop, which set the couple up nicely.

At this point, I have to skim through the rest of Meli’s life, because I am like 4,600 words into this at this point and I will have probably spread it out over three weeks, if not more, and I know my loyal readership is probably tired of Meli. Anyways. Elizabeth unfortunately died in 1905 at age two of smallpox. Meli had a second child, a boy, in 1907, named Satu. In 1910 they had another child named Kela, who died before being a year old, and in 1911 they had a girl named Lukoti. She notes then “the last-born was named Henry.”

They couple had a setback in World War I when the German forces looted the wealth they had, but Jones got a job with the district officer buying mealie meal (corn/millet flour to make nshima with) for the forces, and then later another gig distributing supplies to military carriers, and then a final job hunting for game to feed the soldiers. Meli and her husband got to witness the German surrender at the end of WWI, but shortly thereafter in January 1919 Jones died. According to Mambwe custom, Meli was “inherited” by her late husband’s family, and they chose for her to marry a man named Mbokosi. She objected because he was already married, but he divorced his first wife and Meli married him. Mbokosi squandered all of Meli’s money, leaving the children uncared for, so in 1922 she left him and returned to Kawimbe mission, where she got a domestic job.

In 1925, she then married again, to a man named Harry Sichikandawa. He had told her he was single, but this was a lie because he was already married, but Meli wound up staying as his second wife. While she was living in Kasama with Harry, she was recruited by the hospital to learn midwifery. In 1934, Harry died, and Meli returned to Kawimbe. She would remain there for most of the rest of her life, with interludes living with her children in other places, and held various jobs with the mission. In 1945, Meli became ordained as an elder of the church, and preached in surrounding villages, before eventually dying in 1972. Meli was born long enough ago that she didn’t know what shoes were when she first saw Mrs. Purves wearing them, and at a time when slavers were still capturing children to be sold in the markets in Zanzibar. But she persevered through every challenge and when she died, it was in an independent Zambia, when the future couldn’t have looked more bright.

Mama Meli Update Part 2

Reading this week:

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

We return after last week’s update, where Meli has wound up in the care of missionaries in Kawimbe!

But at last we’re finally to Mrs. Purves. I like this woman a lot. The above photo was pulled from a 1902 article in The Chronicle written by a Mr. Nutter. One of those kids could very well be Meli, but Meli is never, as far as I can tell, mentioned by name in The Chronicle, even though other children are. From what I found, Mrs. Purves joined her husband in the Central Africa mission in 1894, where he had been serving for at least a year. Mr. Purves is described as maybe even a bit abrasive in his outgoingness, and served it seems as a general sorta engineer-type before eventually becoming ordained (if anyone is writing a paper or something off of this, please fact-check that first, I wasn’t too interested in Mr. Purves when I was doing research). Their home base seems to have been Niamkolo, and Mrs. Purves laid I think the first stone in Niamkolo Church. She accompanied her husband when he made an expedition to negotiate with Chief Ponde and try to open a mission there, and would eventually join him as they were the first to preach in Bembaland (again more fact-checking please). She seems adventurous and dedicated, and by the time Meli was in her care she had been in the area for five years, which made her one of the longest-serving missionaries in a place with an alarmingly high death toll for Europeans.

The next event is the one that really caused me a lot of head-scratching about what exactly the missionaries thought they were doing in Africa. Meli, safely ensconced at the mission, was walking about one day when her cousin spotted her. The cousin was pretty stunned, because the family had all thought Meli was dead from a slave raid now five years ago at this point. It was at this point Meli’s sister, “the mother of Mulenga Chisani,” is sent to verify the story, and as Meli tells it, “we sat looking at each other” for two days. With everyone satisfied that Meli is the long-lost Mwenya, Meli’s uncle (I think) sends Meli’s older brothers to retrieve Meli. It is at this point, that the missionaries don’t let Meli leave. They instead say “this person was brought to us. We therefore cannot let you take her. If you really recognize her as your family, go and tell Chief Changala himself to come and bring a cow with him to redeem her.”

From the June 1902 issue of The Chronicle.

The family is unable to muster a cow in payment, and when the Chief protests that other people get to retrieve their family members, the missionaries then reply “you may not take her now because she is very hardworking in the house and at school.” While doing this research, I mostly conceptualized the missionaries of the London Missionary Society as fellow development practitioners. There is a lot of overlap between what they were doing and what modern-day development specialists are trying to do, and however flattering or not you find that comparison I think I would agree with your assessment. Their main mission was of course to save souls and get converts, and at that they were pretty dismal. In a 1903 article in The Chronicle, the mission tallies their success at a whopping 22 converts. They fret about their convert-to-cost ratio, while simultaneously saying that is a terrible way to measure mission success. So I think partially because it is a good thing to do anyways, and also in reaction to their low convert numbers, the Central Africa mission really heavily touts their anti-slavery successes. But here is the head-scratcher: why would a mission that is so proud of their anti-slavery mission refuse to return a little girl to her family unless they were paid, especially since it seems the reason is that she was such a hard worker around the house?

I have a few theories. The one I have the most evidence for comes from an article Mrs. Purves herself penned for the May 1898 edition of The Chronicle, titled “Some of Africa’s Slave Children.” I know she was thinking about whether or not they were enslaving these children themselves, because she notes explicitly that “we did not look upon these children as slave[s because we paid] them cloth or something else equal to it as payment for their work.” But in this article, she relates the story of Maggie, who’s father had died and “according to native custom, her uncle claimed her as his child.” But then that uncle, according to Mrs. Purves, had tried to sell Maggie into slavery before being stopped by the colonial magistrate. This makes me think that the missionaries demanded a cow to ensure that the family wasn’t trying to claim Meli just to turn a quick profit by making it more expensive to get her back from the missionaries than what they could get by selling her back into slavery. I am in no position to judge how much of a worry that really should have been, but I could see the logic. Another theory I have is that they were just really worried about converts. Their first convert in the Central Africa mission was a man named Kalulu. Kalulu had only been baptized in 1891, and was himself a former slave that one of the missionaries had ransomed. Most of their other converts were people close to the mission, either in its employ or employee’s family members. I wonder if the missionaries weren’t just inclined to keep children like Meli close just to up the chances that they eventually converted, as she in fact did in 1910.

But with the ability to go home denied to her, Meli was still at the mission in 1900 when Mrs. Purves leaves with her husband, putting Meli in the care of Mama May. The Mays I dug up a bit more information than I did the Purveses. They were quite the couple, and I kinda really do admire Mrs. May. The above photo comes from The Chronicle (of course), and was published as they were about to set off for Central Africa. If it was a recent photo, John is 31 in that picture (a year younger than me), and had spent some time as a marine engineer working on “men-of-war and torpedo cruisers.” He decided to pursue missionary work, and graduated London University in 1894. There, I assume he must have met his classmate, Elizabeth Burton. I wonder how they thought about what they were getting themselves into. In March 1897, The Chronicle notes that “Mr. John May, B.A., was appointed to the Tanganyika Mission, Central Africa.” Two months later, on May 4th, John and Elizabeth were wed at the Ipswich Presbyterian Church, and two days after that John was ordained as Reverend May. One month after that, on June 8th, they were both outbound on the steamer Illovo, headed for Kawimbe. In the article that published the above photo, The Chronicle notes that “never before had so large a party set out for that distant mission field, a mission which had passed through such various changes and vicissitudes, and for which so many lives had been laid down.”

The Mays would have personal experience with that death toll. By the time Meli was in Mrs. May’s care in 1900, the Mays had already buried one child, a still-born son. By the end of that year, the Mays would be burying a second child, John May Jr, who died at six months old on December 17th, 1900. When I was doing this research I went back and looked through the photos I had taken of that graveyard we were shown in Kawimbe, and the only one I took a particularly good picture of was the above one, which I can now identify as that of John May Jr.

One major aspect I was unable to really come to a conclusion about when doing all this research as about how special Meli was. She was clearly a remarkable woman, as her later life showed, and by the time she was in the missionaries’ care she had been through a great deal of trauma. But she was far from a unique case; like I quoted before, Mrs. Purves detailed a number of enslaved children that had been freed by the missionaries, and Meli never made it into The Chronicle like those other children. Mrs. Purves also describes marrying some of these children off, to people who worked for the missions. Mama Meli is usually billed as something like “the only known freed slave buried in Zambia,” and that “only known” is doing a lot of work because clearly there are other former enslaved people who lived out their lives and died in Zambia. If Mama Meli’s story hadn’t been recorded by her grandchildren and been published in Marcia Wright’s book, I suspect she would be “just” another one of those children that Mrs. Purves posed with in the photo.

It’s because I’m not sure how special Meli was that I find the next episode of her life somewhat confusing. In 1901, Meli says, “Jones Changolo [also known as Silanda] sent word to Bwana Goven Robertson to say that he intended to become engaged to me and sent a nsalamu [token payment to indicate interest in marriage]” (there’s a whole side-drama with his family, who did not approve of Meli because she couldn’t cook nshima, and that could lead to a whole discussion about the sorta cultural upbringing Meli experienced, but alas I don’t know how to shoehorn it in here except for this parenthetical). Bwana Robertson is Rev. W. Govan Robertson, and given that there had been other marriages I am a bit confused about why, as Meli details, he apparently had to go ask the local Mambwe elders how the engagement customs go. But I guess the missionaries viewed Jones as a favorable choice, because he worked as a carpenter for the mission (at least they knew him well, and also he was a carpenter, I am assuming he did some work for the mission). Mrs. May and Rev. Robertson have a meeting with Jones and ask “if his intention to marry [Meli] was serious.” He apparently said “Yes” and went home, coming back the next day with ten sheep as an engagement gift. Meli was also at the meeting with May, Robertson, and Jones, and, as Meli recalls, “as I was dressing, Mama May came to see how I was doing and she gave me some oil to rub on my body.” Meli was probably about 11.

I’m torn here in how to tell the story. If I was writing a novel that was ungenerous to women and had never heard of feminism, the easy spin would be that a grief-stricken Mrs. May had more or less “adopted” Meli as a substitute for her own children (this ties into wondering how special Meli really was to the missionaries). Mrs. May would in fact (according to Meli) say that she wanted to marry off her “daughter” before she left. Mrs. May was not lacking for reason to grieve. It was in the months before Meli was engaged that Mrs. May had lost her second child. It was Mrs. May that called back Jones so they could hold the wedding, which happened in 1902. Mrs. May was leaving Africa because her husband had died on August 21st, 1901, leaving her six months pregnant. She wanted to stay in Africa, but as she would note later for The Chronicle, the conditions at the mission just didn’t support lone women. The story of a grief-stricken woman, however, doesn’t quite jibe with the other evidence in The Chronicle: “Many young missionaries in similar circumstances would have lost heart for the rest of their life-work were they to have suffered, as we know Mr. and Mrs. May did, in the loss first of house and home by fire, immediately after their arrival at their station, and later on in the loss of their two little ones. Not so they, however: it only seemed to make them brighter and more unselfish than ever.”

Join us next week for our exciting conclusion!

Mama Meli Update Part 1

I have some significant updates to the story of Mama Meli! When I wrote about her and trying to find her grave, I was doing most of my research on my phone while living in a mud hut and also mostly just trying to find cool locations to add to Atlas Obscura, so please forgive my mistakes in that post. I’ve been digging back into the story for a final project (Hello Professor Lombard!; I assume you will find this), and whoo boy have I found out a whole lot more information.

When I first read about Mama Meli’s story, I was more than a little confused about the timeline. The story to me read like she had gotten captured, her captors quickly tried to hustle her to the border, and they got caught by one of the types of British colonialists in the area. I thought this happened when she was about 10 or 12, over the course of like a month. Then, I assumed, since her parents had been killed in the slave raid, she was sent off to live with the missionaries at Kawimbe Mission. I lobbied some criticism about the fact that when her relatives came to claim her, the missionaries demanded payment of a cow. And then I mostly busied myself with looking at old gravestones.

I have learned so much more! The first big change between then and now is I have access to a library with a copy of Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life-Stories from East/Central Africa by Marcia Wright. In the last blog post I name-checked Women in Peril; that is Marcia Wright’s first book on the subject, which is wholly included in Strategies, but Strategies includes much more information. The second big change is that the library also has access to The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is an absolute treasure-trove of information on the Central Africa mission of the LMS (I link HathiTrust there, but they’re also on Google Books).

From Strategies, I learned I had very much misunderstood Meli’s story. Wright estimates that Meli was captured in probably 1894 or 1895 when she was about 5. Meli’s story is so very much wrapped up in the story of Kawimbe Mission, and so I find it fitting that Meli was likely born very close to the founding of the mission in 1890. Another intriguing bit was that Meli was probably something of a political prisoner. Meli was the youngest daughter of Mumembe, and was born with the name Mwenya (in her oral history, Meli/Mwenya refers to herself as Meli, so I am going to stick with that). Around the time when Meli was born there was Chief Ponde of the Bemba who was launching raids and attacks into Mambwe and Lungu territory. Meli’s older brothers were often called to fight in defense (I think) against these attacks. Chief Ponde was also having some marital troubles with at least one of his wives. This wife ran away at some point during the course of all this fighting, only to be knocked up by Meli’s oldest brother. This made Chief Ponde mad, and he swore that he would get retribution against this brother. Mumembe, fearing for his son’s life, hustled him way up north into Mambweland so Ponde couldn’t get to him.

Fwambo village, from the April 1897 edition of The Chronicle

A few years later, Chief Ponde was (still?) at war with the Mambwe chief Fwambo. Chief Ponde was set to launch an attack against Fwambo, and the brother decided to actually go fight for Ponde, figuring that if he did well in battle he would be forgiven. The fight was somewhat disastrous. Fwambo was well fortified, and apparently it was cold up on the plateau where Fwambo was, but since Fwambo’s men were used to the cold they routed Ponde when they launched a counter-attack while Ponde’s men were still warming themselves. I also found it pretty intriguing that the missionaries from Kawimbe mission sent armed men to help defend Fwambo as well. This was far from the missionaries’ only interaction with Ponde; they had a range of relationships with the Bemba Chief. The missionaries had been harassed by Ponde, received messengers and entered into negotiations to set up missions in Bemba territory, and Mr. A.D. Purves (watch for his wife later in this narrative) bought the only known contemporary war charm from the man.

Anyways, despite Meli’s brother distinguishing himself in battle, Ponde failed to forgive him, and I guess remembering about his wife having gotten knocked up, vowed to attack Mumembe’s village in retribution. It was in this attack that Meli was captured. It is also likely that Meli’s mother was killed in this attack. After being captured, she was taken (along with other captives) to Chief Ponde’s village, and then given to a family. For the next five years or so, she lived the life of a slave. It’s with this first family that Wright identifies Meli as something of a political prisoner here because when she accidentally burns down the hut of the family she was given to, the father is about to kill her when his wife reminds him that Meli is “the family of a Chief” (uncle maybe? I was a bit unclear).

Apparently her worth drops over time, because after a bit she is sold off to Chona Maluti, an Arab (Wright prefers the term “Swahili” for being more accurate) trader/slaver and elephant hunter. Chona would be killed when he was trampled by an elephant, and Meli would be taken to the encampment of other Swahili traders in the area. It was around this time that she heard that her father had died, and I think she wound up with these traders for about a year. Her nose was pierced “in the Muslim fashion,” and she was renamed Naumesyatu. She was sold to another Swahili trader, who fed her better, and then was sold off again to a set of traders who renamed her Mauwa.

As a bit of an aside, for all the different names that Meli gets, she’s actually a bit remarkable for having an independent identity. From my experience with Mambwe culture, I know that as soon as you have a kid, you are typically referred to as “Father of” or “Mother of” your first-born. So in her story, Meli refers to her older sister as “the mother of Mulenga Chisani.” Later on (I swear I am getting to them), Meli will mention she was in the care of Mama Purves and then Mama May. I found both these women in The Chronicle, but they are exclusively referred to as “Mrs. Purves” and “Mrs. May,” immediately becoming subsumed into their husband’s identity as soon as they are married. Interesting little cultural overlap there, if you ask me.

Anyways. These latest traders who had bought Meli were going to finally try to bring her to the coast, likely to be sold at Zanzibar. During the time Meli had been enslaved, however, the British had set up a boma at Fife (roundabouts modern-day Nakonde, though I’m actually unsure how much they overlap) and declared the slave trade outlawed. And now here is a whole thing I didn’t pick up the first time around. The traders have to get past the outpost at Fife. A man comes along and offers to help the traders out. Turns out, the traders had his kid, and I assume he wanted to use the British people at Fife to get his kid back. So the traders take him up on his offer to lead them past the outpost. Except then this guy just goes to the outpost, and tells them all about the traders, and together they lay a trap. He leads the traders right into an ambush, and during the pandemonium Meli runs into the woods with the other children. They come out later that night when they were hungry, and are picked up by some villagers who bring them to the outpost.

After I assume being fed and taken care of, the children who knew where they were from were sent back home. The rest of the children were eventually sent to Kawimbe Mission. This was about 1899, and the children wind up in the care of Mama Purves. Meli was initially actually identified as a boy and briefly named Jim, before she identified herself as a girl and was dubbed with her final name, Mary. “Mary” winds up getting pronounced as “Meli,” which is how it is written in her oral history, and therefore in every subsequent source, including this one.

Join us next week for the second part of the update! I wrote like 5,000 words about Meli and I am going to milk it!

Niamkolo Church

From Chronicles of the London Missionary Society, January 1902

I’m doing research for a project on Mama Meli, and you better believe you’re gonna get some of that action in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I’m going to post some interesting stuff I have found out about Niamkolo Church. I mentioned the church briefly in my Mplungu post, and this post will consist entirely of me posting in their entirety three articles from The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is turning out to be a trove of information on northern Zambia at the turn of the 20th century. I wish I had the ability to peruse gigantic PDFs back when I lived in a mud hut. I know there’s not a lot of analysis here, but I’m working on finals, and also retyping these articles took me longer than just writing a post probably would have. Also also also, the most intriguing part of all of this are photos/engravings from the church’s heydey. If you Google the church currently, you get modern-day photos, which is cool, but nothing showing the place with a roof. So that should be exciting!

But before we begin, two more things. First, this is the header of one of the issues of the Chronicle, and I just want to say these guys weren’t messing around:

Two, an excellent Instagram is “Sacral Architecture,” which publishes drawings of various religious buildings in Africa, and yes of course they did Niamkolo Church:

Alright! Now we shall begin in earnest:

April 1891 – “Tanganyika Sketches”

[This is before the church was built]

These are sketches of the Niamkolo station, which is situated at the south end of Lake Tanganyika, and were drawn from photographs sent home by Mrs. Swann. In “Our House” we see her with her husband at her side, and Mr. Carson standing a little way off. The little steamer Good News, having met with an accident, had to be docked and thoroughly repaired, which accounts for one of the sketches. Cloth (calico) takes the place of money in Central Africa. Porters and workmen of all kinds have to be paid in cloth. Hence the need for a “Cloth Store” at each station.

February 1896 – “A New Church”

On returning to his station from the Committee meeting at Fwambo, Mr. Jones spent a Sunday at Niamkolo and preached to the largest congregation he had seen in Central Africa. There must have been 700 people present, and it was a cheering sight. On the following Thursday (August 22nd) a memorial stone in the new church was laid by Mrs. Purves. Copies of the new hymn-book, the Society’s CHRONICLE and News from Afar, and the British Central Africa Gazette, together with cloth and beads to represent the currency, were laid in the cavity, the ceremony being witnessed by a large crowd of natives. Mr. Purves had been fortunate enough to discover an excellent quarry near the lake shore, whence huge slabs of grey freestone were dug, which looked as if they had come from the mason’s hand, so regularly did the seams lie. “It is amusing to see the children now busy on the lake shore,” says Mr. Thomas, “building stone houses and churches. The African in that respect is not very much different from the child at home.”

May 1896 – “New Church at Niamkolo”

Dear Mr. Cousins, – At Niamkolo “a notable great frame” has been erected in the form of a stone church, and I should like to tell you something about it. It is as yet but a “frame,” as you will see from the photographs which I enclose, if you can make any use of them.

The sense of wonder is not so easily roused in the African as some people at home imagine. If he has been any time in contact with the white man, he looks upon most of his actions as a matter of course; so that when he can really do something which makes the native open his eyes and mouth, exclaiming “Yanga we!” (“Oh, mother!”) it is a triumph. It is no uncommon thing to see strangers standing in front of this building, bowing their heads, and accompanying the motion with a “He! He! He!” of astonishment, and perhaps enter into a hot discussion as to whether there are any poles hidden away in the walls to hold the stones together. He is only accustomed to wattle-and-daub shanties, and a large stone structure with a tower piercing the heavens beats him. One of the men said that Mr. Purves, who had to do with the building of it, possessed the wisdom of the gods who piles up the mountains. A wattle-and-daub house at best will only stand five years, so that on a station the work of building is never finished, unless one deals with more permanent material. So that it was a great find to come across a quarry on the lake shore near the station, whence huge slabs of freestone have been dug with edges so straight as to make one think they had just left the mason’s chisel. These were brought round to the station in canoes, and the main outdoor work during the last dry season was the rearing of this structure. It roused a great deal of interest among the people, and even the children were busy building stone churches on the lake shore. One day, as I was watching them at it, I saw the little naked brats setting to and eating the mortar which they had made by dipping a dirty loin cloth in the lake and wringing it out over some stones they had ground to powder. I suppose it served for nsima (native porridge). It made me think that, whatever the African has not got, he is the happy owner of a digestion that many a dyspeptic at home would covet.

Tier upon tier the building went up, while scaffold rose above scaffold, until the heavy beams were laid across the walls, and the couples spanned the abyss. These the natives swarmed and laid on the pliant twigs, to which the grass was fastened by means of fresh bark form young trees. This was the offering of the villagers. They brought in all the trees and twigs, and roofed the building without any pay. Finally the more daring spirits working at the tower completed their dizzy task and capped it with a glass [sic, grass?] roof.

A round cap on a square tower does not look artistic, hence the necessity of some friend to open his heart and send out a number of sheets of corrugated iron to replace it. H.C. Marshall, Esq., the representative of the British South Africa Company nearest us, has kindly promised a bell for the tower, so that when it arrives no villager can say that he did not hear the call to service. One cannot boast that this temple was reared without noise, for a good deal of shouting had to be done to keep them up to the level, and at first a good deal of pulling down, but it is something to be thankful for that it was completed without a single accident. It has proved a fine object-lesson for the training of hand and eye, and will act as a beacon to voyagers on the lake, and, above all, a guide to the hearts of children yet unborn to Him in whose name the house has been built.

The spiritual temple is slower in the building than this stone one. During the year seven have been admitted into full membership at Niamkolo. May be, one is over-particular in rejecting the stones until they are trimmed in the accustomed way; while, on the other hand, one shuns the accusation of first making them church members, and then making them Christians.

[Here Niamkolo Church stuff, and all paragraph sensibilities, end]

At our new station called Kambole, on the Ulunga plateau, a large church, built of wattle and daub, was finished by Mr. Nutt, before he had to leave for home after the second attack of haematuric fever. He will be greatly missed, for he was a most enthusiastic African, and full of energy. Mr. Jones is now left there alone, a day and a half’s journey from a white man. However, just lately he has been kept far from being dull. Ponde, the Awemba [Bemba] chief I visited last year, made an attack upon the village of Kitimbwa – the paramount Chief of Ulunga – which is only some four miles distant from the new station. There has been a good deal of raiding carried on between these two parties of late, but the final provocation that led to the attack was the fact that one of Kitimbwa’s sub-chiefs had, a few days before, taken two women belonging to Ponde’s village, and the very day he was presenting these to his head chief, Ponde, together with another small Awemba chief, called Zisampa, appeared near Kitimbwa’s, and found the village – although a large one – an easy prey. Instead of making the attack at deep dawn as is their custom, they besieged it about 10 am, when most of the people were away at their gardens, and the chief was left with a few people in the village. Kitimbwa was killed, and a number of those with him, although it is said the chief lost his life dearly, having shot the son of Kitimkuru, the great Awemba chief, who was among the besiegers. The people in their gardens, instead of running to aid their chief when the weird alarm was sounded on the drum, fled and left him to his fate. Mr. and Mrs. Purves, who were up spending a short holiday with Mr. Jones, heard the war beat, and wounded women with their children soon after fled to them for refuge, and the next two nights they had a very anxious time, for on the first night the Awemba camped at the village of Kitimbwa, close by, and during the night a man, supposed to be a spy, attempted to climb the stockade; having refused to say who he was, or to speak at all, he got a cold reception from one of the men on guard, and disappeared. I sent forty men up from the lake as soon as possible, and they remained there until they knew the Awemba were well on their way home with their spoil of cloth and powder, a large number of women, several heads, and the body of Kitimbwa. This was cut up and burned on the ruins of an old Ulunga village which they sacked years ago, on the boundary of their country. The body of a chief taken in war is burned outside their own territory, lest his spirit should return in some other form and wreak vengeance. Mr. Jones, in a letter to me, said: “Yes, Kitimbwa has gone to his account, the only chief who has actually and openly opposed missionary work in the district. Is not that a significant fact? Better for him if he had done otherwise. Most of his villagers are now in this boma, and all say they want to settle here. Whether they will or not depends upon the measure of safety that will be guaranteed to them.”

Here, to my mind, is strong evidence that the Awemba do not wish to molest the white man. No doubt they have a wholesome fear of the gun; but here was Mr. Jones, with a mere handful of people round him, and a strong temptation offered in the way of cattle, although flushed with their unexpected success, they left him alone. The sight of the village after the attack, with mutilated bodies lying within and without the stockade, haunted one day and night for a long time. Surely the cup of this dominant tribe must be about full, and this extensive upland, and well-watered country, which remains a hunting-ground of the Arab slaver, must come under a better rule. It seems that at last the British Administration has given his quietus to Mlozi, a powerful Arab slaver at the north end of Lake Nyassa, the head and front of the offending in the Karonga war eight years ago, described by Captain Lugard in the first volume of his “Rise of our East African Empire.” There is a rumor that the British South Africa Company, under whose aegis this region has recently come, intent do settle the Awemba problem next year. Then there will be a fine opportunity for a mission to enter, for the country is healthy, and the people are a physically fine race, brave and industrious. Who is to enter in and possess the land? Already the French Fathers have established a station on the edge of it. However much we might wish, we are in no position to move a step in the matter, as things are at present reduced to one man on each station except this one. Since I came out six persons have left for home, and no new man come to take their places. Fever, after two years’ conflict, has driven me from the lake up to the hills, wehre Ihope to share the work in the coming ear with Mr. Carson at Fwambo. A fine, comfortable brick house which he had built, or at least the natives, who, he said, needed but little superintendence, was ready to receive me, with a flourishing fig-tree in the square in front. To my right a road recently constructed stretches away for some distance in the direction of the lake, but one cannot hope to see Mr. and Mrs. Purves coming along, as they cannot leave the station for any length of time. Another long stretch runs in the direction of home, and it is in vain that one strains his sight along this for coming of the much-needed reinforcement. If it was not for the native teachers we should be at a loss what to do. The charge of the outlying schools both here and at the lake depends almost solely upon them. One can but do his best, sitting at times under his fig-tree, though the vine may be absent, and labor and wait for the fulfillment of that fine prophecy: “But in the latter days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow into it. And many nations shall go and say: Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths… And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall reprove strong rulers afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” -Yours truly, W. Thomas.