In June 2016, as we returned from our trip in the north of Malawi, you might remember that we found the ‘New Bandawe’ Station (or Thipura) that Jack helped build in the 1920’s. This was after we became fascinated by the ‘must read’ story of the wonderful Scots couple Jack and Mamie Martin (see the original post here).
However, at that time we almost got our X-trail stuck in sand as we failed to locate ‘Old Bandawe’ where the couple had started their missionary life. So, armed with newly discovered old paintings of the site, ‘Time Team Myles” could not resist the temptation to try again to find the original mission site as we traveled back in January to Blantyre from our holiday on Likoma Island.
(More about Likoma Island in another ‘backlog post’ as we catch up with Malawi stories that have been sitting in the ‘draft’ folder for quite some time!)
An additional impetus for history-geek Myles to discovering Old Bandawe was that it would mean we had visited all three sites of the Livingstonia Mission headquarters of the Free Church of Scotland. The mission was founded at Cape Maclear in 1875 but high mortality among the missionaries from tropical diseases forced a relocation to (old) Bandawe in 1881. The unhealthy climate again drove the mission in 1894 to relocate its HQ again, this time to its present site at Kondowe, further north and some 3,000 ft higher.
This time, soon after turning off the main tarred road onto the sandy roads of the area, we were once again lost. However, stopping to ask the way we inadvertently discovered some young members of Old Bandawe Church and gave them a lift to their communion service in return for directions through the rabbit warren of tracks. And finally we were there!
As ever, the hospitality of the local churchgoers was wonderful. An elder was deputised to act as guide, but all memory of the location of the original mission houses had disappeared, as had any sign of them. However, guided by Mamie Martin’s descriptions in her letters home and the historic images we had found on Google, we soon found the location. Sure, the mobile phone mast might be new but there was no doubting the hill and the old straight tracks.
However, as we began to consider going back towards the car we were in for a surprise: “Would you like to see the missionary graves?” said the guide. And there, just a little down the hill from where the station houses would have stood, was the most moving of sights: a ‘Flanders Fields‘ like row of some 24 graves.
Who could not but be moved by this quiet row of graves looking out to the still blue waters of Lake Malawi. With the church elder we stood quietly, and reflected on the human history of this place that had suddenly been made so very tangible, reflected on the brave men and women in their 20’s and 30’s who sacrificed so much for their Lord in the fields of Malawi, and on the unusual epitaph of assured hope repeated on several stones:
“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee”
(Song of Solomon 2:17a)
Just how must the father have felt as he buried his 2 month old baby boy in late 1902, only to then bury his wife less that two weeks later? The parents who left the pitifully small pile of rocks with the marker stone simply saying “Baby”? The couple who laid their 2 year old girl to rest in 1912 to be followed 3 years later by her 3 month old brother? The friends back home of a young man buried 4 days after his 20th birthday and given a fine iron cross “erected by Edinburgh school boys”?
Once again we were reminded that our own stumbling service in Malawi follows in the footstep of giants; that while in so many ways they lived in another world they also served the same Lord; and that their example must challenge us all about what we are willing to risk and sacrifice for our Lord today.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Malawi fields.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
(with apologies to John McCrae)