Livingstone – The First Development Worker?

Tomorrow (Saturday, April 11th) is the 150th anniversary of Dr. Livingston’s arrival in Malawi, and there are public celebrations planned in most major cities. Despite being the first British explorer to “discover” Zambia and Malawi, eventually leading to almost a century of British colonial domination of these two countries, David Livingston is held in high esteem here. Take a few city names: “Livingston” at Victoria Falls in Zambia, “Livingstonia” in northern Malawi, and “Blantyre”, the largest city in Malawi, named after Dr. Livingston’s home city in Scotland.

imagePhoto of Dr. Livingstone (Wikipedia) 

Unlike many other explorers, Dr. Livingston didn’t (explicitly) come to Africa to exploit its natural wealth, or its people. In fact, I really believe he came here with the “best-interests” of the people at heart (which is to say, his interpretation of their “best-interests”).

Angered by the slave-trade (which at this point had been outlawed  by the British, and was practiced in the region largely by Arabs and the Portuguese), Dr. Livingston set out for the region west of Mozambique in 1858, with the intention of bringing to Africa three C’s: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. He felt these three C’s would be enough to end the scourge of the slave trade. He was especially sure that commerce was a solution – by giving African leaders profitable trading opportunities that didn’t involve selling their own citizens, and citizens of their rival communities, he felt the slave trade could be brought to its heels.

“The Lake people grow abundance of cotton for their own consumption, and can sell it for a penny a pound, or even less. Water-carriage exists by the Shire and Zambesi all the way to England…and it seems feasible that a legitimate and thriving trade might, in short time, take the place of the present unlawful traffic.” (Narrative of An Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries: And the Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa 1858-1864, page 141).

In the spirit of the “holiday”, I thought I would share some interesting excerpts from the above journal, which I happen to be reading. I think there’s some pretty interesting parallels between his thinking, and the thinking of the modern development sector. How much have we learned in the last 150 years? Keep reading to find out.

SDC13408 A modern reproduction of Dr. Livingston’s original journal (all 638 pages of it). “Lake Nyassa” is Lake Malawi. (to the actually interested: don’t let the length scare you, it’s really well-written and makes super easy reading).


The Goal for his Writing

“This account is written in the earnest hope that it may contribute to that information which will yet cause the great and fertile continent of Africa to be no longer kept wantonly sealed, but made available as the scene of European enterprise, and will enable its people to take a place among the nations of the earth, thus securing the happiness and prosperity of tribes now sunk in barbarism and debased by slavery…” (page 2)

“…enable its people to take a place among the nations of the earth…”. This dream mirrors one of my biggest motivations for wanting to come and work in Malawi; especially for wanting to work on leadership development with Malawian youth. Does this mean I’m embodying a secular version of his mindset, 150 years later? To some extent, probably yes…

Then and Now

“The main object for the Zambesi Expedition, as our instructions from her majesty’s government explicitly stated, was…to improve our acquaintance with the inhabitants, and to endeavor to engage them to apply themselves to industrial pursuits and to the cultivation of their lands…” (page 9)

If you modernized the language a bit, this is the same expressed goal as thousands of development projects that have been undertaken in Africa in the last 40 years – over a century since Dr. Livingston’s writing.

Cultural Sharing and Influence

“Though [research] collections were made, it was always distinctly understood that, however desirable these and our explorations might be, her majesty’s government attached more importance to the moral influence that might be exerted on the minds of the natives by a well-regulated and orderly household of Europeans setting an example of consistent moral conduct to all who might witness it; treating people with kindness, and relieving their wants, teaching them to make experiments in agriculture, explaining to them the more simple arts…” (page 11)

Hey, it’s a bit like the Peace Corps – act primarily as a cultural ambassador, but then also try to do something useful for “people” while you’re at it.

Talking to Malawians (oops)

“…it is a curious fact that Europeans almost invariably begin to speak with natives by adding the letters ‘e’ and ‘o’ to their words, ‘Givee me corno, me givee you buscuito,” or “Looko, looko, me wante beero muche.” Our sailors began thus, though they had never seen blacks before. It seemed an innate idea that they could thus suit English to a people who all speak a beautiful language…” (page 77)

Why “oops”? Here’s an excerpt from language learning document I was given, which has been used by EWB volunteers/

“In Nyanja (and in most other Banthu languages), syllables always end in a vowel. This means that when a person whose first language is Nyanja or Chewa tries to speak English – they will always end in a vowel. An example of this is the word “of” – often pronounced “ofu”. Adding vowel sounds to the end of your English words will drastically help with people’s understanding of your English.”

In our defense though, Chichewaized English words always end in vowels, e.g. buku (book), thebulo (table), supuni (spoon), sukulu (school), etc.

A Mistake that We’ve Never Stopped Making

“We brought cotton-seed to Africa, ignorant that the cotton already introduced was equal, if not superior, to the common American…” (page 81)

Ok, during the next century, the development sector will figure this one out. From now on: find out what people already have before bringing new technologies and new ideas. I’ll check in on this in 2108 to see if we’re getting any better.

We Sure Messed this One Up…

“When we meet those who care not whether we purchase or let it alone, or who think men ought only to be in a hurry when fleeing from an enemy, our ideas about time being money, and the power of the purse, receive a shock. The state of eager competition, which in England wears out both mind and body, and makes life bitter, is here happily unknown.” (Page 104)

Good thing, 150 years later, we’ve finally managed to fully share our system that “wears out both mind and body, and makes life bitter”. You’re welcome Africa…

(I’m being facetious, of course, but hopefully you get the point).

Causality or Correlation?

“The juices of plants, and decaying vegetable matter in the mud, probably form the natural food of mosquitoes, and blood is not necessary for their existence. They appear so commonly at malarious spots that their presence may be taken as a hint to man to be off to more healthy localities.” (Page 108)

Hey, that makes sense, because, wait for it…mosquitoes carry Malari. How many more decades passed before people figured this one out? (I’m actually curious).

The Difference between “a market” and “The Market”

“In a few hours the market was completely glutted with every sort of native food; the prices, however, rarely fell, as they could easily eat what was not sold.” (page 118)

These days a lot of people are starting to farm semi-commercially, and rely on selling a large part of their harvest. Take, for instance the thousands of Malawians who grow big fields of tobacco – you can’t eat tobacco leaves if you don’t like the price.

A Final Lighter Note - Drinking

A lot of people (or at least a loud and visible minority) in Zambia/Malawi get very publically and belligerently drunk on a regular basis. When in my mindset most predisposed towards unjustified assumption making, I used to muse that maybe it was some symptom of post-colonial dislocation, or a reaction to having limited social and economic opportunities. Apparently though, at least for some people here, drinking’s been around for a while.

The Manganja are not sober people; they brew large quantities of beer, and like it well…The veteran traveler of the party remarked that he had not seen so much drunkenness during all the sixteen years he had spent in Africa.” (page 129)


So, that’s it for my Livingston-related writing, at least until I get a bit further in the book. Don’t read too much into the above thoughts – they’re just the product of my brain at it’s most random. My one major take-away though: reading history is really interesting. I’m getting a lot more from actually reading Livingston’s writing then I ever would from reading a summary book about colonialism in Malawi. I highly recommend this kind of thing for anyone who’s interested in learning more about the history of European-African relations.



  1. Fascinating! I'm more than guilty of picturing all colonists as barbarians whose sole purpose was (is?) to exploit, but this really gives a different perspective.

  2. Thanks for this post Owen! I found it both interesting and inspiring. History has so much to teach. All to often we don't bother to reflect on what's been done before and doom ourselves to repeating the past. As always well written and insightful. Keep it up!

    Gato (Ian)

  3. Hey Owen,

    Sir Ronald Ross made the connection b/w mosquitoes and malaria in 1897.

    The website below is from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

  4. That's a really interesting connection. Respect is also pretty central to good development I think.