Kenneth Gray Mdala was born around 1880 in what was later to become Nyasaland and is now Malawi. It is that part of Africa through which Livingstone trod or was carried, defined for strangers by its long, thin lake lying in the Rift Valley and by the ravages of the slave trade. Mdala came from a chiefly family and belonged to an ethnic group known as the Yao, who were one of the agents of that trade. Like many African ‘tribes’, the Yao have relatively recent origins, having been ‘created’ by their trading activities, their partial Islamicisation, their adoption of the ways of the Swahili coast and their absorption and conquest of other groups in the region.
Kenneth Mdala was educated by the missionaries of the Church of Scotland in the kinds of thing which Scottish missionaries thought it appropriate for ‘natives’ to learn. He learned printing and in 1913 he passed the ‘Anglo-Vernacular’ version of the Upper School Certificate with flying colours (First Class), having attended courses in religious knowledge, ‘Vernacular’, English, arithmetic and historical geography. For Mdala, a chi-Yao speaker, Vernacular was the language of a conquered ethnic group, the Nyanja.
Mdala left the mission in 1913 to work as a typist and clerk in the colonial Public Works Department in the capital, Zomba, very close to his birthplace. His employers there referred to him as a ‘very willing boy’. In 1916, after the British occupied the German colony of Tanganyika, he was transferred to New Langenburg to work in the Finance Department. With the handover of Tanganyika to the British after the war, he stayed on as a ‘native accounts clerk’ – a post he held for the rest of his working life. He retired to Nyasaland in 1943 and died in 1945.
I know all this because Mdala, writing mostly from the town of Tukuyu in the Rungwe district of Tanganyika, kept up a voluminous correspondence (all type-written) from the late 1920s to the early 1940s with British colonial administrators in Nyasaland. It was a somewhat one-sided correspondence, for though generally polite in their replies to Mdala (there is only one reference to him as ‘that lunatic’), the British were brief. A fifty-page exposition would produce a one-line reply, thanking him for his observations, which had been ‘noted’. In their memos to each other they referred to Mdala’s letters and their enclosures as ‘effusions’, and passed them from one to the other – apparently taking it in turns to reply. Mdala had advice to offer the British on just about everything, from statues of Queen Victoria to chiefly insignia, from sanitary matters to witchcraft accusations. But mostly he was a kind of ethno-historian. He took the British at their word when, in the 1930s, they set about introducing a system of indirect rule in the territory. This basically meant reviving and putting the official stamp on a rather unrealistic and romanticised hierarchy of chiefs, some, but not all of whom had not been chiefs before. Mdala was very keen not only that the Yao should continue to benefit from British political recognition, but that their chiefly powers should be enhanced. He stressed the importance of one clan in particular, the Milasi, and one chiefly line, that of Chief Mlumbe. Mdala, of course, was a Milasi from the Mlumbe chiefly line. The British had created a system which not merely encouraged, but required ethnic chauvinism on the part of their subjects, but faced with its consequences, they felt distinctly uneasy. In Mdala’s plan all Africans in Nyasaland would ultimately be happily and united under the enlightened leadership of the Milasi Yao chiefs, in what he called the ‘Amilasi Commonwealth’. These chiefs would be proper chiefs, not the impoverished and degraded specimens of his day. They would be surrounded by suitably deferential courtiers wearing gold pins in the shape of bamboo – ‘Milasi’ means ‘bamboo’.