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Livingstonia: a glimpse of Malawi’s colonial past

Perched high on an escarpment overlooking Lake Malawi, Livingstonia was established by missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland back in 1894. The story goes that they tried several times to establish missions down on the shore of the lake, but kept losing missionaries to malaria until they moved up the escarpment to higher, less mosquito-ridden, ground.

The colonial-era hospital in Livingstonia, Malawi, is still in use. (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

The colonial-era hospital is still in use. (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

Livingstonia is named after Stanley Livingstone, the Scottish missionary of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame. He  died twenty years before the mission was founded, but he paved the way for European settlement in Malawi through his missionary expeditions to spread “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” and to fight against the slave trade. He was seen as a hero by later missionaries.

What to see in Livingstonia

A colonial-era house in Livingstonia, Malawi

A colonial-era house in Livingstonia

The original church, a hospital, a school (now a university) and a number of other colonial-era buildings still stand and are in use. Strolling around the red-brick buildings, cool under the trees, you can clearly imagine what it was like back then. I could practically see those pale Scottish men, dressed in khakis—wearing knee socks in my imagination—sitting on the verandas of these houses, being served gin and tonics by their local servants.

Livingstonia church

Livingstonia church (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

Make sure to go into the Livingstonia church. Notice the stained glass over the entrance depicting Livingstone, presumably preaching his missionary message. It’s … well, I’ll let you judge for yourself:

The stained glass window above the entrance to Livingstonia church

The stained glass window above the entrance to Livingstonia church

If you’re there on a Sunday, make sure to attend services; I promise you will love the Malawian traditional singing. The video below shows a church choir rehearsing in a different town, but you can hear what I mean about the Malawian style. Imagine this with the acoustics of a big church:

The Stonehouse, a small museum, is worth a quick visit to learn about the history of Livingstonia. It’s housed in the only one of the original buildings made from stone rather than brick. It also offers modest guesthouse beds and campsites.

Getting to Livingstonia

Getting to Livingstonia is a challenge since none of the roads are good. You can approach from the south, but I’d recommend driving up from Chitimba. Only do this if you have a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle. This route to Livingstonia is nicknamed “the 21 bends,” meaning hairpin turns, but, believe me, you won’t be going fast!

This is more Paris-Dakar race (only slower!) than Monaco Grand Prix. Driving it is, at times, like driving up a steep, dry mountain stream bed: all sharp jutting rocks. It’s paved here and there, though never for long. Let’s just say it is not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, the views of the lake open up as you ascend: truly breathtaking! This video I found on YouTube shows the road, though not the rockiest parts, which are on the hairpins themselves:

Where to stay

A number of accommodations are available in and around Livingstonia to cater to tourists. I can’t judge any except the one we stayed in: Lukwe Ecocamp.

Lukwe’s biggest asset is its location on the edge of the escarpment with breathtaking views over the lake far below. The management has capitalized on on those views by building “chalets”—essentially thatched-roof platforms—perched right on the edge. Each chalet opens to that view and includes a seating area outside.

part of the view from our chalet at Lukwe Ecocamp in Livingstonia (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

part of the view from our chalet (photo courtesy of Albert Smith)

Despite being very basic structures, we were perfectly comfortable in a real bed with good sheets. Lighting is from kerosene lamps. The toilet is in a separate building nearby, and is a pit toilet, but don’t be scared off by that. It’s positively chic and doesn’t smell at all. The showers are also half-outdoors, with enough walls to protect your privacy, but open enough to allow you to enjoy the greenery during your hot shower.

Lukwe also has an organic garden of its own, so it was the first place on our trip in Malawi where we dared to eat uncooked vegetables. I don’t think a salad has ever tasted that good! The food is tasty and well-prepared and you can enjoy a drink and the view to your heart’s content.

Visiting Livingstonia combines well with a visit to Nyika National Park and, of course, with a bit of relaxation or watersport on Lake Malawi.

Have you ever been to Malawi? What would you recommend seeing?

a sign outside the Livingstonia hospital in Malawi promotes breastfeeding

a sign outside the Livingstonia hospital promotes breastfeeding

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  • Ruth - Tanama Tales

    April 1, 2016 at 6:18 am

    What crazy road (and you say the video doesn’t show the worst parts!). If it is difficult to make it to the town nowadays, I can’t imagine the troubles the missionaries had to get there. Reminds me of one of the roads we recently took in Mexico. We even had to cross a river.

    • Rachel

      April 1, 2016 at 3:51 pm

      I suppose the missionaries walked (and some people hike up nowadays too). They would have had servants to carry their things up though. Yes, crossing streams is sometimes necessary in Malawi too, generally in the rainy season. Another reason to drive a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle.

  • budget jan

    April 1, 2016 at 6:39 am

    OK You won me with those Chalets. That magical view would inspire many a day dream on my part. I followed your link to Nyika. Scotland with Zebras sounds perfect. How come you lived in Malawi for two years?

  • Marcia

    April 3, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    Paved roads are so overrated, don’t you think? LOL!
    Seriously, though, the hospital seems to be in quite a remote location. I guess the bikes also act as ambulances for the sick. Life for too many of us is such a challenge.
    Love the view from your chalet!

    • Rachel

      April 4, 2016 at 9:29 am

      Although Livingstonia seems remote because the roads are bad, it’s a big community. Lots of people live nearby, either in Livingstonia or in surrounding villages.

    • Rachel

      April 4, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Unfortunately I don’t seem to have a picture of the rest of the view, but take my word for it, it was also incredible, and reached all the way down to the lake.

  • Janice Chung

    April 4, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    So of course I had no idea that Dr. Livingstone was a missionary. Gettingto to Livingstonia is a challenge. THOSE roads will kill me (make me nauseated!) but the view from the chalet would be worth it. Lovely!

    • Rachel

      April 5, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      Yes, and apparently he was also very strongly anti-slavery. I’m not sure that the roads would bother you like hairpin roads in, say, the alps would. You drive really slowly. It’s hard on the spine, though!

  • Nancie

    April 5, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Hi Rachel! I had never heard of Livingstonia until today. However, as soon as I read the name I thought it had to be connected to the Mr. Livingstone. Getting there sounds like an adventure. Being a solo traveler, I’m not sure I’d want to venture those hairpin curves alone. Maybe I can advertice for a travel buddy 🙂 I’d love to the hear the singing in the church, and those views would mean a lot to time spent lingering. Thanks for hosting this week. Sorry I am not around that much. Writing assignments are starting to flow in, so I’m going through a lot of ink right now! Thanks for hosting this week. #TPThursday

  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    April 6, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to the country of Malawi and Livingstonia. It sounds way off the beaten path even with that incredible chalet and view- just the kind of place I like! And thanks also for sharing the Malawi Gospel Music video – I loved the “feel” of the melody and rhythm.

    • Rachel

      April 6, 2016 at 11:01 pm

      I was living in Mzuzu, Malawi, in the Peace Corps, the first times I went there. This recent visit was a trip down memory lane with my husband (who I met in Malawi) and our children, 25 years or so after I left Malawi. Livingstonia was one of our favorite places, so we had to show it to the kids!


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