Donald Fraser and the Ngoni
a Lecture delivered by
Dr Jack Thompson
University of Edinburgh
on the Occasion of the Centenary of Loudon Station
Not to be further quoted without the permission of the author
Jack Thompson email: T.Jack.Thompson@ed.ac.uk
|One hundred years ago Malawi was in the grip of famine (as it is today). In May 1902
nkosi Mzukuzuku called together his people to discuss the possibility of migrating from
their home near Hora mountain, to a new site further south. One consequence of the
decision to move was that the Ngoni asked Donald Fraser - then the missionary in charge of
Hora station - to move with them. This in itself was significant. Rather than the Scottish
missionaries deciding to open a new station at a place of their choosing, the
Ngoni invited them to accompany the migration to the area in which we now sit. Indeed,
some of the other missionaries - notably Elmslie - were against the mission moving at all,
and wanted it to stay at Hora.
I begin in this way, because I think it represents the relationship between Fraser and the
Ngoni - a relationship in which he, more than almost any other Scottish missionary, was
willing to take seriously the ideas and wishes of the Ngoni people among whom he was
Site of first Loudon Mission Station with Georgina Fraser - great grand-daughter
of Donald Fraser.
Grave site for Inkosi Mzukuzuku -
|Donald Fraser arrived in Malawi at the end of 1896, and was posted first to Ekwendeni,
where he worked until 1900, when he returned to Scotland on leave. On coming back to
Malawi in 1901 he was posted to Hora, where he worked briefly before moving south with
Mzukuzuku's Ngoni in 1902. For the rest of his missionary career, until he finally
returned to Scotland in 1925, he was based at Embangweni. During these years he developed
many policies and practices which were distinct to the Ngoni church in this part of
Malawi, and some of which were looked upon with suspicion by some of his more conservative
Scottish colleagues. In this lecture I want to highlight several areas of Fraser's
relations with the Ngoni, and to try to make the point that the genuinely African church
which was created in Mzimba district in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth
century, was made possible precisely because Fraser was willing to listen to his Ngoni
colleagues, and to encourage at least some aspects of African culture, rather than
imposing an entirely European form of Christianity on them.
Fraser's Sacramental Conventions
First, let us turn to Fraser's use of huge sacramental conventions, to celebrate baptism,
and the Lord's Supper. Fraser based his idea for the conventions on the old Scottish
highland tradition of the communion season. This was a tradition with which he was very
familiar, for his father was well known as a leader of such services all over Argyllshire,
and even beyond. It is very likely that Fraser had attended many such gatherings as a
youth, and that this experience helped to produce the sacramental conventions in uNgoni.
The first of these conventions was held at Ekwendeni in May 1898, when people travelled
from many parts of uNgoni to be present. The climax of the convention was the baptism of
195 adults and 89 children, and the communion service in which 365 Christians took part,
but at which the congregation is said to have numbered nearly 4000. A final service was
held later on Sunday during which an appeal was made for volunteers to go and teach the
Senga in the Marambo in what is now eastern Zambia. According to Fraser many responded.
The following year the convention was even bigger. An estimated 6600 were present at some
of the services, and between two and three thousand were said to have come from a
distance. 309adults and 148 children were baptised, and 672 took communion. Most of the
leading missionaries were present for this second convention. Dr. and Mrs. Laws had
travelled from Khondowe with Miss McCallum; so too had Dr. and Mrs. Elmslie, just back
from furlough. Rev. MacAlpine came up from Bandawe.
Laws and others wrote home to Scotland in glowing terms of what had taken place, and, on
the surface, nothing may have seemed to epitomise more clearly the new way of life which
appeared to be replacing traditional Ngoni values. There is evidence to suggest, however,
that, far from being an alien importation, the sacramental convention initiated by Fraser
was successful for precisely the opposite reason - that it reminded the Ngoni of one of
the most important of traditional African festivals - the Nguni feast of the first fruits
- the incwala.
It is likely that the active celebration of the Incwala had died out amongst
M'mbelwa's Ngoni by the 1880s, but it would still be clearly remembered by the Zansi-Ngoni,
and other trans-Zambezian clans, while more recent elements of the Ngoni nation would have
a more sketchy idea of what was entailed, based on related accounts, and the continued use
of incwala songs. Having said that, what is the evidence that the Ngoni saw in
Fraser's sacramental convention enough similarities to the feast they had until recently
celebrated to make a meaningful connection between the two?
First of all it is clear that for as long as fourteen years before the arrival of
Fraser in uNgoni, and indeed, well before the first Ngoni converts were baptised,
some Ngoni villages were already making use of Christian worship to fulfil a need in their
own religious observance apparently left by the disappearance of the incwala. As
early as December 1882 M'mbelwa had asked William Koyi to hold a special service to pray
for good crops. Though mission work among the Ngoni was still in its infancy, and the
first Ngoni converts were not to be baptised for another eight years, 1500 people attended
the service which Koyi held - a clear indication of its importance in the eyes of the
Ngoni. By the late 1880s services of thanksgiving before harvesting the crops were being
held regularly in some of the villages.
Fraser's conventions had a wider significance. They involved the assembling together at
the mission station of large companies of people from all over uNgoni, just as in the old
days they would have come to the chief's kraal for the incwala ceremony. The
length of the ceremonies was approximately the same, and in the same way whole families
came, carrying their cooking utensils and their food. Compare, for example the following
two descriptions - the first by A.T. Bryant in his book The Zulu People of the
traditional first fruits feast, the second referring to the sacramental conventions.
|Every man, every young bride, every carrier-boy, and every girl, wended
their way together to the regimental headquarters of their particular male folk, the boys
carrying the sleeping-mats and karosses of their fathers and elder brothers, the girls a
food supply for at least a week.
By Tuesday evening the footpaths were full. Whole families were coming, the mothers and
daughters carrying cooking-pots on their heads and bags of flour, the men with strings of
maize cobs on their shoulders and other produce of their gardens for the collection, and
often a tired child on their backs.
Fraser was aware of the comparison. It is doubtful if he had anything more than the
vaguest outline of what was involved in the incwala but he did know about the
national gatherings of the Ngoni which welded together the nation and often preceded war
raids, and in one of his accounts of the early conventions he made the connection clear.
|In the olden days the unity of the tribe used to be expressed in the
national gatherings for raiding. Such meetings could no longer be held. Now the unity of
the tribe was to be expressed in the national Christian Conventions.
If Fraser was aware of a national significance in the event, it is likely that many of
the Ngoni would have noticed it also.
A further similarity between the incwala and the conventions was in the practice
of constructing misasa (temporary grass huts). Though in some ways the building
of such huts was nothing out of the ordinary, it was precisely because of this that the
construction was important. Most buildings and ceremonies connected with a Christian
mission a hundred years ago were extraordinary from the African point of view. They were
strange and foreign. The building of misasa and indeed, many of the other details
of the conventions, were important for their very 'Africanness'; they allowed people to
feel at home.
The second point is much more specific. The misasa of an incwala ceremony
had two quite distinct functions. They served as temporary huts for the visiting
regiments, and the most sacred part of the ceremony - the taking of medicine by the king
to strengthen both him and the whole tribe - took place inside a specially constructed
grass shelter. At the sacramental convention grass shelters were used both as houses, and
as a large open-air enclosure in which the congregation gathered to receive the
Finally, the first sacramental convention in 1898 took place at the time of the full moon
- the very time when the traditional incwala feast reached its climax.
Fraser was not deliberately creating a Christianized incwala; but what is likely
is that there were enough similarities in the traditional and Christian celebrations for
the conventions to strike a note of responsiveness in the Ngoni who attended them. Another
indication of the response and enthusiasm are the numbers attending the conventions in
relation to those directly involved in the sacraments. In 1898 the attendance was four
thousand, though only 365 of those were church members who could partake of communion. The
following year the relevant numbers were 6600 and 672. What is certainly evident is that
the various factors which helped to give the conventions their distinctive character
together contributed powerfully to the growth of Christianity among the Ngoni.
Ngoni Christian Music
Another distinctive feature of Fraser's work which was closely connected with his
conventions was his encouragement of the composition by Ngoni Christians of indigenous
church music. Singing competitions were often held during the annual conventions, and up
to fifty new hymns might be heard in the course of one convention. Though closely
connected with Fraser, Ngoni composition of Christian hymns was not started by him, but
pre-dated his arrival in uNgoni. Furthermore it took its strength not simply from
missionary encouragement, but from the inherent Ngoni love of music and strong tradition
This tradition is reflected in the Ngoni songs collected by the anthropologist Margaret
Read during her field-work in Mzimba district in the 1930s. While some of these songs were
comparatively modern, others went back to the time of Zwangendaba. The growing integration
of Christianity with Ngoni life is shown in this instance by two quite specific
connections between traditional Ngoni music and Christian worship. In the first place, as
Margaret Read discovered, Ngoni Christian ministers used some of these traditional songs
as sermon illustrations, to highlight such things as the difficulties of polygamy. In the
second place, some at least of the hymns composed by Ngoni Christians were set to
traditional tunes, as, for example, the well known hymn Wakuchema, wakuchema vyaru
vyose [He is calling, He is calling all countries] - which is said to have been
composed to the tune with which chief's messenger traditionally called the people together
into the kraal.
First Ngoni contacts with Christian music were with Zulu or Xhosa hymns introduced from
South Africa by William Koyi in the early 1880s. By 1886 Elmslie had produced the small
booklet Izongoma zo Mlungu - almost certainly the first printed book in chiNgoni
- which as well as the ten commandments, the Lord's Prayer and a few selected scripture
passages, also contained Elmslie's translations of fourteen hymns, including 'Just as I
am' 'Hallelujah what a Saviour' and '0 come all ye Faithful'. Four years later Elmslic
wrote to Laws that he had obtained permission from missionaries to the Zulu to use their
hymns in uNgoni.
By then, however, Livingstonia Christians in the different areas of the mission's work
were already beginning to compose their own hymns. Almost certainly the earliest of these
was not a Ngoni example, but was one by Albert Namalambe (the first convert of the
Livingstonia mission) probably composed in the early 1880s, which was revived in 1975 for
the Livingstonia centenary celebrations. Amongst the Tonga also a similar development was
taking place, and MacAlpine singled out Samuel Kauti Longwe as the outstanding
It was primarily among the Ngoni, however, that the tradition of hymn composition
developed. It was already well under way when Fraser arrived in uNgoni, and was
particularly strong at Njuyu station - at that time under the control of Mawelera Tembo.
Both Fraser and Stuart commented in 1897, on the value of these local compositions, which
were used, not only in worship, but also in school instruction. It is significant that
this tradition developed in an area so strongly influenced by Mawelera Tembo, for he was
not only one of the leading Ngoni composers of Christian music, but remained right up
until his death an expert on traditional Ngoni songs.
Fraser, then, found an already thriving tradition of Ngoni Christian music by the time he
arrived in uNgoni at the beginning of 1897. His contribution was to encourage and organise
this tradition to an extent totally unmatched in any other area of Livingstonia's work.
Soon after his return from Scotland in 1901 he was already organising musical competitions
between the different schools. At Hora in 1901 about two dozen new hymns were heard; the
following year fifty new compositions were submitted, and Fraser commented
|Some pieces were particularly beautiful, and it was felt that a valuable
contribution had been made to the hymnology of the Central African Church.
By the time that the new church at Loudon was opened in 1904, the musical festival had
become an annual event - closely linked with the sacramental conventions.
It is clear that Ngoni hymns were becoming part of the ethos of the conventions, and of
Ngoni Christian life, in a way which obviously differed from other parts of Malawi where
the mission was working. Writing of her visit to the Hora convention in 1902, Miss Martin,
a missionary at Khondowe, described how she sat on a hill and watched groups of people
wending their way towards the mission station, singing as they came:
|The singing still went on, and I noticed, as they stood to go through one
stanza, that not only were the people clapping their hands, but were also at times
accompanying the singing with slow movements of the body and the elevation of their
sticks. I was quite at a loss to understand what it all meant.
Though new missionaries, or those from outside uNgoni, may have found it difficult to
understand or appreciate the mixture of the old and the new which this musical blossoming
represented, Fraser had no such difficulties. He recognised that the inherent Ngoni love
of music was best encouraged as a channel through which the newly emerging Christian faith
might be expressed and shared.
When in 1910, a new Tumbuka hymnbook was being drawn up for use throughout the
Livingstonia mission area, Fraser's membership of the committee ensured the inclusion of
many Ngoni hymns. To-day, in Sumu za Ukristu, 127 out of 401 hymns included are
attributed to Malawian writers. In fact this is certainly an underestimation, since many
unattributed hymns are also of African composition - notable among them number 46, 'Hena
mwana mberere' [Behold the Lamb] one of Charles Chinula's best known hymns. Of the 24
African writers named, 21 are from uNgoni. Among the Ngoni writers included, the
most prolific are Peter Thole, Charles Chinula, Mawelera Tembo, Jonathan Chirwa, Hezekiah
Tweya and Elija Chavula.
Several Ngoni hymns are also included in the hymnbook of the Blantyre synod of the Church
of Central Africa, Presbyterian, and in various English anthologies of Africa hymns
published in Britain and the United States.
The existence of a strong Ngoni tradition of musical composition, its adaptation by the
Ngoni to Christian hymnology, and Fraser's sympathetic encouragement of this trend, all
helped to integrate Christianity into the mainstream of Ngoni life, and to some extent
helped to preserve the Ngoni language as a medium of ritual and worship.
Masessioni ghachoko and Balalakazi
In many ways Fraser stepped out of line with his Scottish colleagues, in order to
encourage greater local participation in the church. Two examples of this were in his use
of sub-sessions (Masessioni ghachoko) and women elders (balalakazi).
The system of sub-sessions began in 1908, shortly after Fraser's return from furlough in
Scotland, and at the beginning of an unbroken stretch of five years at Loudon. The huge
Loudon district was divided into a dozen large parishes. Each one was put under the
control of an evangelist and a few elders and deacons, who formed a sub-session, with
responsibility for the day-to-day running of the church in their area. At the end of 1908
Fraser reported that the system was working admirably, and had led to better pastoral
care, a more careful administration of discipline, and a great increase in the liberality
of the people.
Although their powers were limited, the sub-sessions fulfilled a useful and important
function. They had power to hear cases, and could suspend and restore hearers and
catechumens. Cases involving church members, however, had to be referred to the main
session at Loudon. Even in such cases, however, the sub-session could investigate the
details of the dispute and present them to the Loudon session, so that a more accurate
decision could be reached.
In addition to the hearing of cases, the sub-sessions were responsible for the day-to-day
running of the congregation, the organisation of financial contributions, and the pastoral
supervision of the Christians in the area. They met regularly and kept minutes which were
occasionally checked either by a missionary, or, increasingly after 1914, by an African
minister such as Jonathan Chirwa.
They appear to have been used as a means of ascertaining grass-roots opinion on important
matters. For example, in 1913, after the introduction of the barrier act, both the
questions of the introduction of a central fund to support African ministers, and of a
proposed creed for the church, were sent down to Loudon session. They proposed that both
documents should be translated into chiTumbuka and sent down to the sub-sessions for
further discussion. One result of such detailed discussion was that while most sessions
agreed to the setting up of a central fund, Loudon reported that they thought it was too
early for such a move.
In spite of their limited powers, it would appear that sub-sessions were both popular and
useful. They probably developed out of the more modest deacons courts, and were merely the
institutionalizing by Fraser of a grassroots control of the local church which was already
in existence anyway. Nevertheless they were one of the very few church bodies which met at
that period without the presence and control of European missionaries, and as such, their
importance should not be underestimated.
Another distinct grouping organised by Fraser during this period were the balalakazi
[women elders]. They were first elected in 1901 at Hora to provide for the spiritual
oversight of the female Christians. In the same year, Fraser proposed in presbytery the
organisation and training of an order of deaconesses - but no decision was taken. At
Loudon during this intervening period the balalakazi occupied something of an
intermediate position between elders and deacons. During communion, for example, they sat
on the platform with the other elders, but did not distribute the elements. Though the
eligibility of women as deacons was accepted by presbytery in 1922, it was not until 1935,
and a strong appeal by Fraser's widow Dr. Agnes Fraser, that presbytery agreed to
recognise women as elders on the same basis as men.
That recognition took so long was due to several factors. First while the place of women
in the non-Ngoni societies of northern Malawi was of considerable importance in
socio-economic terms, they were allowed very little political power by their male
counterparts. Secondly, even in Ngoni society, where the royal women, at least, had
considerable political power, this was normally exercised as a distinct female group,
rather than in a mixed group of men and women. Thus the idea of balalakazi, while
more acceptable to the Ngoni than to other groups, took the form even here of a separate
office. Thirdly, the ecclesiastical and social background of the Scottish missionaries
themselves did not encourage the recognition of female elders. Indeed, it was not until
1966 - thirty years after the church in Livingstonia had taken the step, and more than
sixty years after Fraser had first introduced balalakazi in uNgoni - that women
became eligible for election as elders in the Church of Scotland.
To the extent that Fraser's scheme was not adopted by presbytery in the early years of the
century, and therefore was not officially recognised by the church, it may be said to have
failed. Agnes Fraser believed the scheme failed because it was premature. Yet Margaret
Read compares the groupings of men and women elders in uNgoni to the madoda and manina
groupings of traditional Ngoni society, and there can be little doubt that the continuing de
facto existence of the balalakazi in uNgoni did much to strengthen the
church, especially with the increasing drain of male leadership due to the growing
necessity of migrant labour.
Fraser and Ngoni Culture
Fraser's attitude to Ngoni culture in general was, on the whole, much more positive than
that of most of his colleagues. The anthropologist Margaret Read, in writing of the Dutch
Reformed missionaries among Gomani's Ngoni, commented on 'their lack of interest in Ngoni
culture as contrasted with the Scottish mission tolerance and respect for certain
elements'. While this comparison is clearly true, it might be more accurate to say that
Ngoni culture was much stronger in the north, and therefore the missionaries had to come
to terms with it in one way or another. This is not to say that the Livingstonia
missionaries were universally sympathetic to Ngoni culture - far less that the Ngoni were
always satisfied with missionary attitudes. They were not. Furthermore, the Scottish
missionaries, Fraser included, made no attempt to accept Ngoni culture as a whole, but
judged individual aspects of it against their own standards of right and wrong, or
sometimes against similar customs in surrounding tribes. Nevertheless, given these
provisos, it is probably true to say that the Scottish missionaries in general, and Fraser
in particular, had a more sympathetic attitude to Ngoni culture than that displayed by
missionaries to other Ngoni groups elsewhere in Malawi.
Fraser's general attitude to African culture may best he summed up in one quotation from
an article he wrote towards the end of his career, and which was based on a lecture which
he gave to more than two hundred delegates concerned with Christian mission in Africa at
the Le Zoute conference in Belgium in 1926:
|I fear the evangel which de-nationalizes, which refuses to recognize the
power of the Gospel to purify what is not essentially wrong, and which preaches first
through prohibitions, rather than by the attraction of what is positive.... we come not to
destroy distinctive nationality, but to fulfil what men have searched after gropingly; and
for the enrichment of the world to retain and purify all that is not evil.
Yet the difficulty of a European missionary of Fraser's generation reaching an
accommodation with Ngoni culture which was totally acceptable to Ngoni Christians
themselves, can be seen in the reaction of Charles Chinula towards Fraser's attitude to
traditional dancing. Fraser strictly distinguished between those dances which he
considered immoral and those which were acceptable. Of the latter, the main dance of which
he approved was the ingoma, though even here he sometimes felt that it took up
too much time. Nevertheless he approved of it, and even arranged a special session of many
traditional dances for W.P. Livingstone, the missionary biographer, and editor of the Missionary
Record, when he visited Loudon. In spite of what appeared to his European colleagues
as a liberal attitude to dancing, Fraser's outlook did not satisfy Charles Chinula, who,
while a teacher at Loudon in 1908, encouraged his pupils to take part in secret dance
sessions at the school.
Nevertheless Fraser's attitude to Ngoni culture was basically sympathetic. While opposed
to individual elements within the culture, such as polygamy and beer-drinking, he was, at
the same time, highly attracted to the Ngoni as a people. One example of this paradox
occurred in 1907 when induna Ng'onomo Makamu and nkosi Mabulabo died.
Neither of these old Ngoni leaders had become a Christian. Many missionaries would have
ignored their deaths altogether, or at least used them in a negative way to argue against
'heathenism'. Fraser, however, wrote an article about the two old Ngoni leaders which
ended with the sentence 'to the end they lived and died polygamists, drunkards, heathen,
yet brave and honourable gentlemen'. It is a sentence which few missionaries could have
written with sincerity, as Fraser did; yet it is a sentence which sums up the deeply
unresolved ambiguity at the heart of much missionary thinking about African religion and
On occasions Fraser's attitudes to African culture could bring him into conflict with his
missionary colleagues. One such occasion was the discussion in Presbytery in October 1911
of the issue of chokoro - marriage to a deceased brother's widow. This topic had already
been discussed three times in Presbytery. As a result of these discussions the ruling of
Presbytery was 'that a man may not marry the widow of his deceased brother.' This ruling,
however, was apparently not acceptable to many Christians in uNgoni, and in October 1911
Loudon session brought up the question again.
MacAlpine, seconded by Walter Henderson, the builder, moved that 'as this matter was
discussed on two previous occasions ... the Presbytery do not re-open the question.'
Fraser pressed ahead, however, moving an amendment, seconded by Edward Bothi Manda, that
|Considering the marriage with a deceased brother's wife is common native
custom, and is not clearly contrary to Biblical Law, the Presbytery, while discouraging
the custom, do not think such a marriage sufficient cause for discipline.
This amendment was carried by nineteen votes to nine. The following year, however,
while Fraser was on leave in Scotland, Elmslie and Laws combined to reverse Fraser's
motion. Their proposal was passed unanimously - probably because chokoro had been
declared illegal by the colonial government. The incident, nevertheless shows very clearly
the way in which Fraser was prepared to take the side of the African church, against the
opinion of his senior Scottish colleagues Laws, Elmslie and MacAlpine.
Above all, while by no means entirely satisfactory to all Ngoni Christians, Fraser's
attitudes were sufficiently open to encourage the Ngoni to work out their own response to
Christianity in the light of Ngoni culture, and to find an answer which gave to that
culture a place of some importance in the new way of life. That the Ngoni were able to
preserve a distinctive and valid culture, while turning in large numbers to Christianity,
was due mainly to their own inherent strength and cohesion, but partly also to the
sympathetic approach of Fraser.
There were also times when Fraser's policies made him temporarily very unpopular among the
Ngoni (though this occasion of celebration is perhaps not the time to dwell upon them in
any detail). The most obvious occasion was early in the First World War. At a time when
nkosi Chimtunga was refusing to supply carriers (a refusal which led to his deposition and
exile by the British) Fraser was supporting the war and the need to recruit amtengatenga.
These attitudes led to him becoming temporarily unpopular with many of the Ngoni during
the First World War.
Fraser's African Relationships
Yet when all is said and done, Fraser's most important contributions might be thought to
have been simply in the friendships and relationships which he made with many Malawians,
such as Daniel Nhlane, Jonathan Chirwa and Clements Kadalie. Shortage of time does not
allow me to speak in much detail of each of these relationships, so let me mention briefly
two incidents involving Daniel Nhlane and Clements Kadalie, and then speak in some more
detail of Fraser's relationship with Jonathan Chirwa.
First, one story of many, linking Fraser and Daniel Nhlane: in 1899 a European from
Zimbabwe named William Robert Ziehl entered uNgoni to buy cattle. While there he committed
theft, rape, and murder. Fraser, who was at Ekwendeni at the time, wrote to Daniel Nhlane,
and asked him to go and investigate. Nhlane and several companions went to see Ziehl, and
in the argument which followed, Ziehl was hit over the head with a ntonga. Fraser
supported Nhlane's action. Ziehl then fled from the area. The Ngoni were so incensed that
Fraser found it difficult to hold them back; so he suggested sending out an impi
to pursue and arrest Ziehl: an impi which Fraser himself volunteered to lead. At
the very last minute Cardew, the government agent at Nkhata Bay sent some of his police to
pursue Ziehl, and thus was averted by a just few hours, what would have been the
unprecedented sight of a Scottish missionary leading out an Ngoni army.
When Ziehl was eventually caught and brought to trial, Fraser firmly supported the actions
of Daniel Nhlane and his companions in confronting Ziehl, who was found guilty of eight
out of nine charges - though he escaped with a fine of �50. The Ngoni gave Ziehl the
nickname Kanjechi, which I think might be translated as 'the one who was really
beaten into shape'. The incident shows Fraser identifying with and supporting the Ngoni in
a time of need.
Next, let us look briefly at one incident involving Fraser and Clements Kadalie. Now
immediately, those of you with local knowledge may be asking 'Why is he talking about
Clements Kadalie? he was a Tonga; not a Ngoni.' Well that is true; but what is also true
is that Clements Kadalie grew up here at Embangweni, where his father was one of the
bricklayers working on the building of the church. Kadalie, who was related to both Y.Z.
Mwasi and Yakobe Msusa Muwamba, later became internationally famous as the founder of the
first major black trade union in South Africa, the Industrial and Commercial Workers'
In 1920, Fraser was on his way home to Scotland, and was passing through Cape Town. There
he met both Kadalie, and an unnamed Malawian on his way back from service in Europe during
the First World War. When, a few years later, Fraser came to write his last book, The
New Africa, he chose to begin the book with an account of this meeting, and wrote
very positively of the Malawians who had become the trade union leader, and the soldier.
Of Kadalie he wrote:
|The Scottish missionary who had taught the Trade Union secretary would
possibly have been shocked at the idea of native workmen combining [to go on strike]. But
this clever lad had gone on to another school, and other teachers had been educating him
since he was a pupil in a mission school.
Clements Kadalie liked Fraser's account of the meeting so much, that when he came to
write his own autobiography My Life and the ICU he included the whole story, just
as Fraser had told it. This account by Fraser shows that his concerns were much wider than
the merely religious or spiritual. In writing positively of the trade unionist and the
soldier, he was applauding the fact (as he said in the passage) 'that the present
generation is stretching out its hands in new demands undreamed of by the fathers'.
Finally, let us look at Fraser's relationship with Jonathan Chirwa, as summed up in his
campaign to have Chirwa restored to Christian ministry. Chirwa, following his ordination
in 1914, had worked with Fraser at Loudon, before being sent to Mwenzo in 1916 to take
charge of the station, and fill the vacancy caused by the death of John Afwenge Banda.
While there he committed adultery, and, following a confession to Fraser, resigned his
Christian ministry, and was suspended from church membership by the presbytery which met
in July 1918 at Khondowe. For the next six years the Ngoni church, closely supported by
Fraser, carried on a constant struggle to have Chirwa restored.
In July 1919 presbytery received various petitions for the restoration of Chirwa to the
Christian ministry, and Fraser and Andrew Mkochi reported on his conduct in the previous
year. Presbytery decided by twenty-three votes to nine that he should not be restored yet,
but Mkochi and Fraser were given permission to appoint him to any work they saw fit.
That full restoration did not take place then, only twelve months after Chirwa's
suspension, is hardly surprising, but when restoration was again refused the following
year, it became obvious that some members of presbytery, including several very
influential missionaries, were opposed to restoration in the foreseeable future.
Presbytery recorded that
|The fear was expressed by many speakers lest the presbytery seem ahead of
Christian public opinion and by a premature restoration lower the estimate of the
Christian ministry at the very outset of its history in the country.
Yet it seems clear, that in uNgoni at any rate, Christian public opinion favoured
restoration, for a Ngoni elder of the period was quite clear that 'people wanted him to
come back'. The influence of the European missionaries on presbytery was still very great
at this time In the absence of Fraser - on his extended furlough from 1920 till 1923 - no
other European missionary seemed willing, or able, actively to pursue the case for
restoration. Those opposed to restoration adopted the tactic of delay. In 1921 the annual
petition from the Loudon group of congregations was presented by Andrew Mkochi. The minute
merely recorded that, as Jonathan Chirwa was not present no decision was taken.
By now the divisions on the missionary side were becoming more clear-cut. At the beginning
of the year Fraser had written to Elmslie from Scotland, protesting his dissatisfaction
that Chirwa had not been restored, and implying that such restoration would be in
accordance with the mind of Christ. Elmslie, however, dismissed such a view, claiming that
'Paul's clear actions in an atmosphere such as we have point to caution' He added:
|I think Jonathan has been pampered since his case came up, and his
repentance has made him a hero in the attitude of many. I myself think he should not have
been permitted to take any public duties. He was suspended from the ministry which is not
merely dispensing the sacraments.
The latter references are to the fact that Chirwa, in accordance with the permission
given to Fraser and Mkochi in 1919, had been gradually allowed to assume various
ecclesiastical duties in the Loudon area, and was, by now, performing the duties of an
Once again, in July 1922, Loudon petitioned presbytery for Chirwa's restoration. This time
a special committee was set up to enquire into the case, which reported back four days
later that no final decision should be taken until the two European missionaries who had
heard the original case - Laws and Fraser - returned from furlough. This effectively
postponed the decision until the presbytery of 1924, which met at Khondowe in September of
By that time Fraser had returned from furlough, and became, once again, directly involved
in the case. Earlier in the year he had taken Chirwa on ulendo with him (helping
to dispense communion in the outlying districts around Loudon) and had described him as
'my beloved native helper'. It was clear that the time for a decision had arrived. When
presbytery met MacAlpine and Laws proposed that the case be referred to a joint synod of
Livingstonia and Blantyre (who were just about to unite to form the Church of Central
Africa, Presbyterian). The Ngoni church was by now in no mood for further delays and two
leading Ngoni Christians, Andrew Mkochi and Yobe Nhlane proposed 'that the case be
proceeded with now'. This proposal in itself was an indication of their determination, for
seldom, if ever, up to that point, had African Christians so directly opposed the will of
Dr. Laws in Presbytery. Their amendment was, nevertheless, carried by twenty-nine votes to
Immediately after that Mkochi moved and Fraser seconded 'that Jonathan Chirwa be now
restored'. Laws moved that he be not restored. At this point the minutes merely record
that the meeting was adjourned for the night. In fact, the adjournment was necessary
because the strong feelings expressed on both sides were getting out of hand. When it
reconvened the following morning Laws changed his amendment to 'that Jonathan Chirwa be
not restored now', and was seconded by MacAlpine. When a vote was taken, only two voted
not to restore, and thirty-six to restore, and Jonathan Chirwa was immediately re-instated
as a minister.
Behind the personalities of the 1924 presbytery deeper issues were involved. According to
one eyewitness account African opinion was unanimously in favour of restoration, but Laws
and MacAlpine refused, arguing 'it is not law in Scotland'. Their argument was that for
the purpose of maintaining the high moral standards expected of the clergy, no minister
guilty of a serious moral lapse should be restored. This was a view which Fraser had had
to fight right since 1918, for when Chirwa had first resigned his ministry and been
suspended from church membership, some had argued that he should be deposed with no hope
of future reinstatement. At the time Fraser had argued strongly against that line, and now
again, in the presbytery of 1924, in answer to the argument that it was not law in
Scotland, he countered, 'This is an African church. We cannot take the laws of home.'
Four years later, in 1928, Jonathan Chirwa was elected as moderator of presbytery, and is
remembered as one of the finest of the early ministers. By the early 1930s he had become
an elder statesman at Loudon, described by one young missionary of the period as 'a real
father-in-God to me' and by another as 'a very loving and loveable man'.
Even in this long lecture, it has been possible to cover only a small part of all that we
might say about Donald Fraser and Loudon. I cannot finish without praising also Dr. Agnes
Fraser. One of the things which distinguished Donald Fraser was the large amount of time
he spent travelling around Mzimba district on ulendo. Sometimes he was away for
many weeks at a time. During these periods his wife Agnes was in effective control of the
station. She was, of course, also a medical doctor, working at the hospital at Loudon; and
after Fraser's death, she returned to Africa to work with the United Mission to the
Copperbelt in Zambia. She was a woman of great talent and achievement in her own right.
|Donald Fraser died in Scotland in 1933. His remains were cremated, and two
years later his widow Agnes brought his ashes back to Loudon to be buried. Today, if we
leave this hall, and walk just a short distance, we will come to the graveyard where, side
by side, are buried Donald Fraser and Jonathan Chirwa - the Scottish missionary and the
African minister. Nothing could speak more elegantly or movingly of the love and respect
which Fraser and the Ngoni had for each other. Together, they helped to create a church
which was at the same time, both Christian and African. I hope we may agree that this
remains the case today.
Grave site of Donald Fraser, Jonathan Chirwa and Johannes Nel