The British Empire Library

North of the Zambezi: A Modern Missionary Memoir

by Fergus Macpherson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Gordon Landreth (Nyasaland 1950-64)
Dr Fergus Macpherson is a larger-than-life character who served as Church of Scotland missionary in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (as they then were) from 1946 to 1959 - the period covered by this memoir. Later he was first Dean of Students at the University of Zambia and has a PhD from Edinburgh University for his work on the colonial history of Zambia.

This book consists of a series of 'snapshots' of events he experienced as a missionary, first in the Copperbelt town of Mufulira, then in rural stations in the Northern province of Northern Rhodesia (Lubwa and Mwenzo), and finally from 1956 to 1959 as head of the Livingstone Mission in the north of Nyasaland. The pace is brisk and incidents are vividly portrayed, making for an easy read.

Fergus Macpherson mastered the local languages and really got alongside the local people. He was involved in various Bible translation projects, and his memoirs are peppered with vernacular sayings that give much colour to the narrative. He also conveys the discomforts, dangers and excitements of travel (often on foot or bicycle) in the bush. Clearly he had a real love for the country and the people.

He had a difficult time facing the racism of the European society in the Copperbelt. His implacable opposition to the Central African Federation in the 1950's comes out in many places and led to some tense relations with some government officers. In general his relations with district officers seem to have been distant, and most of us are referred to by office and not by name. An exception is my predecessor at Karonga in the north of Nyasaland, Jo Maynard, described by Fergus as 'splendid' because of the excellent relationship between him and the local Presbyterian minister Andrew Kayira.

But of special interest in this book are the references to Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda (later to become the first President of Malawi) whom Fergus (then 18) met in Edinburgh when Banda was completing his medical qualifications and was ordained an elder in the Church of Scotland by Fergus's father.

Banda gave Fergus his first lessons in Chinyanja, the Nyasaland vernacular, and told him the story of his life up to that time. It was shortly afterwards that Banda found he could not use his medical qualifications in his home country because at that time neither mission staff nor government officers were prepared to work on equal terms with a black doctor. Fergus remembered Banda at that time as a courteous, kindly and compassionate man.

In March 1957 when Dr Banda was invited to return to his homeland by the Nyasaland Congress Party he wrote to ask Fergus his opinion of the various Congress leaders - who could be trusted and who were self-seekers. Fergus declined, as he did not know them well. When Banda travelled through Nyasaland after his return Fergus invited him to meet the local Presbyterian leaders (to the discomfort of the Congress leaders who had other plans) and then to spend a night at Fergus's house at Livingstonia. After a long time in the bathroom Dr Banda confessed to enjoying the luxury of a European style bath in contrast to bathing in the villages with buckets in a little booth - he remained the fastidious man Fergus had known in Edinburgh 18 years before.

A book to evoke memories for many who served in Central Africa in the 1950's.

British Empire Book
Fergus Macpherson
Handsel Press


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