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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.

The photo shows just the front of LIvingstonia church: red brick, with an arched stained glass window above the entrance.
Livingstonia church

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: notice the colonial-era message of the white man bringing the word of God to the natives.
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 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
pinnable image showing the front of the Livingstonia church

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