Kwenderana - Robert Laws


Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 8 says, “It was faith that made Abraham obey when God called him to go to a country which God had promised to give him. He left his own country without knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the country that God had promised him.”

I have often thought about these verses in relation to our 19th century missionaries and their wives who left Scotland never knowing if they would ever return. Some are very well known such as David Livingstone and Mary Slessor but many are not although they served God and there will be some whose names are only to God and perhaps a few family friends or descendants. Today I would like to share with you the story of a remarkable man who is not very well known in Scotland. His name is Dr. Robert Laws and he was born in Aberdeen in 1851. I would go as far as suggest that he should be known as the Father of Malawi.

He was part of a group which left Scotland after Livingstone`s death to carry on Livingstone`s work. They called themselves the Livingstonia Faith Mission and set up their first mission station at Cape Mclear in the south of Lake Malawi. David Livingstone had named this cape after his friend astronomer Thomas Maclear in 1859.

Dr. Robert Laws was the only ordained missionary and medical doctor in the group. The rest of the party were tradesmen eager to build the mission station and to share their skills with the indigenous population. They arrived at Cape Mclear in 1875 but before long many had died or found the conditions too arduous for them and returned home leaving the leadership of the Livingstonia group to Robert Laws – a post he held for fifty years!  In 1876, he used chloroform to remove a cystic tumour from above the right eye of a young man. You can imagine the effect of this operation on the local population. They saw him as a person invested with great healing powers and his fame spread rapidly with people coming from all directions to be healed by him.

Meantime the Scots in the Mission group were dying rapidly due to the climate and malaria at Cape Mclear so Laws decided in 1881 to move the mission further north to a place called Bandawe still on the shores of Lake Malawi.  It has to be remembered that roads in Malawi would be virtually non-existent so the most efficient way to move around the country was by using the lake.  Sadly Bandawe wasn`t much better than Cape Mclear and within a few years many of Laws young missionaries, doctors and ministers died prematurely some in their late twenties serving God in a foreign land very unlike their own.  Faith had taken them there but malaria curtailed their service.

Laws knew from his native Aberdeenshire that the air was usually better in the mountains than the low lying areas so in 1884 he moved the mission to the top of a plateau which is known today as Livingstonia. It was and still is a beautiful place with a healthy climate, fertile land and plenty of fresh water. It has one drawback today – one of the worst roads in Africa leading to it!

            Laws laid out plans for a town with roads and areas designated for residential, industrial and agricultural activities. The plans included a sawmill and brickworks, a piped water supply, a post office and a beautiful brick church with a clock tower. One of the houses built by Laws is called the Stone House and is now a Guest House. The site was connected to the lake by a telegraph line. In 1905 Laws introduced hydroelectric power for lighting and to run the machinery.

At Livingstonia he trained Africans in engineering, entrepreneurship, bookkeeping, teaching and the ministry. By 1897 he had 302 pupils. Many of the graduates used the skills they had acquired in other African colonies. The Livingstonia mission was the main source of education for Africans in the former Nyasaland, and in the early years of the twentieth century had more schools than all the other mission stations added together. Men educated in these schools became the politicians of the developing colonies or nations within Africa. The first Native Association, the North Nyasa Native Association, was founded by Simon Muhango and Levi Zililo Mumba in 1912, and was soon followed by others. Dr. Laws encouraged these Associations as he thought it was important that the governments in Africa should involve this new class of educated Africans to develop and modernise their countries.  Initially Laws thought that the Associations should elect Europeans as well as Africans, to the Legislature. As colonial prejudices was rife at this time he put himself in an very difficult position but his  attitude laid the foundations for Scots and Malawians working together in partnership to this day. In Malawian eyes the Scots were never seen as Colonialists but rather as fellow Christians and friends.

In October 1925, the Governor of Nyasaland laid the foundation stone for Livingstonia University which was intended to develop and educate African students in Nyasaland and the neighbouring colonies to eventually be able to govern their own countries.  Livingstonia University has a wide variety of colleges in it and is well respected to this day.

By the time Laws returned to Scotland in 1927 he left a legacy of over seven hundred primary schools and many secondary schools which taught theology, medicine, agriculture and technical subjects to the local population. During his time there he converted more than 60,000 people to Christianity and ordained thirteen African pastors.  He was a man of great vision who laid the foundations of the church in Northern Malawi which is still there to this day. Ekwendeni Church is part of the Synod of Livingstonia although the headquarters is now in Mzuzu as it is much easier to access.  

            After his death in 1934 a columnist wrote in the Glasgow Evening Citizen  "Nothing impressed me more about Dr. Laws than his humility. He was a great man who was unconscious of his greatness".

Page last updated: Monday 9th November 2015 2:21 PM
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