Victoria Falls
Picture by Gary Bembridge, Creative Commons

Two hundred years after David Livingstone was born, the debate over whether it is right to intervene in Africa has very nearly been settled. We are all interventionists now….despite our misgivings.

The aid and medical agencies are all at work there. Governments around the world are supporting the struggling economies of the 54 African nations. French troops, with British support, are fighting Al-Qaeda-inspired rebels in Mali. Cruel dictators are being hauled before the international court of justice. Gradually, we are realising that basic human rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – extend to people in Africa as well as everywhere else.

Dr Livingstone, I presume, would have approved. He wDavid Livingstone 2as a pioneer in the field of “liberal interventionism”. Of course, he was the missionary and explorer we all know but he was also a campaigner against the slave trade and he wanted Africa to be opened up for commerce and development.

He was an extra-ordinary man and, like that other local hero Robert Burns, the product of an extra-ordinary family. Livingstone’s father was a door-to-door tea salesman in the cotton town of Blantyre with a burning interest in self-education and radical Christianity. On Sundays he would take his family of five children out of their single room tenement, past the Presbyterian church and down the road to the Congregationalists to hear more robust sermons against poverty and slavery.

The boy David began work in the cotton mill at the age of 10, slaving for 12 hours a day among the clanking machines and then having the energy to study in the evenings and somehow get himself into college. He qualified as a doctor and then a missionary and off he went to South Africa. He only made one convert – a tribal chief who later went back to his old ways when he discovered Christianity would only allow him to have one wife at a time.

Lake Malawi, Joachim Huber (Creative Commons)
Lake Malawi, Joachim Huber
(Creative Commons)
But Livingstone’s journeys across Africa – and more importantly, his vivid accounts of them – captivated Victorian society. Here he is, for instance, spending his first night on the shores of Lake Malawi, which he famously called “the lake of stars” because it reflected the night sky so clearly:

“The chief of the village near the confluence of the lake and the River Shire, an old man called Mosauka, hearing that we were sitting under a tree, came and kindly invited us to his village……He brought us a present of a goat and a basket of meal to comfort our hearts. He told us a large slave party, led by Arabs, were encamped close by. They had been up to Cazembe country for the past year and were on their way back with plenty of slaves, ivory and malachite (copper carbonate). In a few minutes, half a dozen of the leaders came over to see us. They were armed with long muskets and, to our minds, were a villainous-looking lot. They evidently thought the same of us, for they offered several young children for sale.”

Livingstone’s books and public lectures shocked, as well as informed, his audiences back home. He told them about his travels from coast to coast of the “dark continent”, of his discovery of the Victoria Falls, of listening to debates among his porters over the privileges of tribal chiefs. He didn’t spare his delicate audiences the details of people being eaten by crocodiles or the best way of cooking elephant foot. “But their porridge is a failure,” he wrote,“ at least for a Scotch digestion that has been impaired by fever.”

It is a pity that one of his most poignant writings did not reach the British public until very recently. In 1871 Livingstone witnessed the massacre of over 400 slaves by Arab traders in the Congo.

David Livingston Centre in Blantyre
David Livingston Centre in Blantyre
But, having run out of paper and ink, he wrote an account of the horror between the lines of a newspaper using berry juice as ink. It soon faded, of course, but modern spectral imaging has now allowed us to read it and the document is on display at the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre.

This is just one of over 40 events being held this year to celebrate the Livingstone bi-centenary – ranging from local events in Blantyre, a major exhibition at the National Museum in Edinburgh, a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, a debate in the Scottish Parliament and week-long mountain bike expeditions along his travel routes in South Africa and Malawi.

The President of Malawi, Mrs Joyce Banda (right), is in Scotland to take part in the celebrations and to mark the special relationship Scotland now has with Malawi. The Scottish government has just announced £5m support for another Joyce Banda15 projects over the next three years. It continues the links between Scottish schools, universities and hospitals established under the Scotland-Malawi Agreement of 2005 and which renews a strong tradition of Church of Scotland missionary work in Malawi, stretching back to those whom Livingstone directly inspired – Robert Laws, Henry Henderson, Duff MacDonald and Clement Scott. Catholic missions were not far behind and together the churches provide around half of Malawi’s education and health services to this day. The remarkable success of Mary’s Meals is a case in point, providing over 500,000 hot meals a day to school children from desperately poor villages.

There are those that argue that such intervention only serves to hold up change within Africa itself. The travel writer Paul Theroux makes this point in his book Dark Star Safari. There are those too who say that foreign aid is a new form of colonialism, exploiting Africa’s natural resources and undermining its traditional cultures. Then there are those who say the 0.7 per cent of our GDP we are pledging to overseas aid would be better spent at home. And finally there are those who are disenchanted with western intervention after the bruising experience of Iraq and Afghanistan.

To all of those Livingstone would say – we just have to intervene better. We cannot stand by and watch people – especially children – waste away in their villages for want of clean water or food or medical care. All God’s children deserve a life free from war, a decent home and a school and the means to be happy.

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John Knox lives in Edinburgh. He has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He began his career on the Alloa Advertiser, then worked on the Southern Reporter and the Birmingham Post before settling down for a long spell at the BBC in Scotland. He retired from the BBC in 2009 and now spends most of his time working as a volunteer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Scouts."