Dr Livingstone, I presume?

22nd February 2013 at 00:00
David Livingstone's bicentenary is being celebrated on a grand scale this year. Douglas Blane takes a closer look at `Africa's first freedom fighter'

It's hard to imagine how five children and four adults could live in a room smaller than many a modern kitchen. But the effort helps to bring David Livingstone to life for visitors to his birthplace in Blantyre, says Alison Ritchie, who runs many of the educational visits at the David Livingstone Centre.

"My favourite story is about how, as a boy, he'd take a candle out into the corridor here and sit on the floor to read," she says. "This was after working from 6am to 8pm in the mill and then going to school. He would often stay up until midnight, out here with his books and candle."

The 200th anniversary of David Livingstone's birth falls on 19 March this year and preparations are well under way to make it memorable, interesting and educational, says project leader Nat Edwards - and to raise the profile of one of Scotland's greatest sons, now sadly neglected.

It's a shame, he says, that someone so inspiring is not more highly regarded in his own country. "It is such an exciting and inspirational story. But there's a feeling, especially in schools maybe, that it's all about colonialism and imperialism. It's not. David Livingstone was way ahead of his time in his attitudes to the cultures, religions and people of Africa. He was never a colonialist. He believed in equality and self- government for Africans.

"There's a lovely bit in his book Missionary Travels - a nice place to start, as he's a good writer, for anyone who wants to know more about the man - where he tells of a debate with a local witch doctor, who basically ran rings around him. He writes with sensitivity about local religious beliefs and understanding of the world. It's clear from his writings that education and tackling disease were more important than converting people to his religion."

To this day, Livingstone is held in high esteem in the continent where he spent most of his adult life, Mr Edwards says. "We have visitors from Africa coming here all the time. Last week the High Commissioner for Malawi, Bernard Sande, came and the first thing he did when he walked into Livingstone's birthplace was phone his wife and say: `You'll never guess where I am.' Then he spent the next half-hour phoning all his friends to tell them too."

A good indication of Livingstone's reputation among Africans is that in the 1960s many newly independent countries altered place-names to remove reminders of colonialism, he says. "But places such as Blantyre and Livingstonia in Malawi, Livingstone in Zambia and Victoria Falls, which were named by the explorer, were all allowed to keep their names, out of respect for the man.

"In a great many African towns you still find Livingstone streets or Blantyre streets. Staff here have lots of stories about the emotional impact - tears and laughter - on people from Africa, when they come here. Kenneth Kaunda said that Livingstone was `Africa's first freedom fighter'."

Once past the mistaken identification with colonialism, we find a fascinating story, Mr Edwards says. "David Livingstone is exciting. Here's a young boy who decided he was going out into the world. As a teenager he walked every day from Blantyre to Glasgow to study for his medical qualifications.

"As a young man he set off to Africa on a steamship, on which he taught himself navigation and the Bakwain language. He spent the next 30 years exploring 30,000 miles of untracked Africa, mostly on foot. He was mauled by a lion. He suffered from terrible disease. He had his house burned down by settlers when he objected to their treatment of black people. He spoke and wrote against slavery and inspired the abolitionists. He was a great man."

Events for Livingstone's bicentenary are being organised across Scotland - and in London - and throughout the year. They began early, with the November opening at the National Museum of the exhibition Doctor Livingstone, I presume?, which draws on the experience gained during the recent refurbishment (TESS, 29 July, 2012) to create an engaging exhibition that "brings a new focus to the man, the myth and his legacy".

Museum staff in Edinburgh are working with colleagues in Malawi to mount a Livingstone exhibition there, Mr Edwards says. "That will lead to outreach in schools. Then there's the Botanic Garden, which is creating trails linked to plant species he collected, while the Zoological Society is producing a schools pack linked to their African habitats and animals."

Learned institutions around the UK, such as the Royal Geographical Society, have events planned that are likely to interest secondary pupils and their teachers, he says. "It's not dry academic stuff. The explorer John Blashford-Snell is giving a talk, using early images and magic- lantern slides, about the man, his expeditions and his fight against slavery."

The Livingstone 200 website is the best source of information on what's on, where and when around the country, Mr Edwards says. "It's got places, events and resources and is growing all the time. There is everything there - from talks and seminars to explorers' weeks and drumming workshops (see below).

"But, of course, in the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone, we would like to encourage everybody to visit his birthplace. There's something here for everyone - and for every subject in school. Inside the tenement and the museum you get a real depth of understanding of the man and of one of the most amazing things about him.

"David Livingstone was a boy from very humble origins who was sent to work 14 hours a day in the local mill. But he had a vision - and he took the first small step to realising that vision when he got his first pay packet. He used it to buy a Latin textbook so he could begin his medical education. He was 10 at the time."

Education then and now

"This is a favourite feature for many children," says Alison Ritchie, as we pass a metal bucket painted black, in a recess at the David Livingstone museum and birthplace. "It was for tipping the contents of the toilets outside the tenement building. There was no running water, so people had to use chamber pots in their rooms, while the other occupants pretended they were invisible. The kids love hearing about things like that."

Current educational visits to the David Livingstone Centre range from shorter trips around the museum or nature activities in the wildlife-rich grounds all the way to a full-day Victorian childhood workshop, complete with dressing-up, playing traditional games, doing the laundry in the washhouse, and getting a lesson in the spacious, stone-flagged schoolroom, where one teacher taught 200 mill-worker children on hard, wooden benches. "We do a role play with them," Ms Ritchie says. "So first they line up outside and the teacher appears in his gown. He takes them inside, gets them seated and reads and discusses a letter David Livingstone sent from Africa.

"They do handwriting and arithmetic on their slates. All the time he's telling them off quite sternly, as they would have done in those days, for not sitting still or for talking. They love it. So do their teachers."

Other educational opportunities at the David Livingstone Centre include handling workshops using objects in the collection, and talks and tours on topics from Africa and Citizenship to the Industrial Revolution and the slave trade.

"We are very flexible," Ms Ritchie says. "We can do just about anything the teachers want."

Apart from young David's living quarters, the slave room, with its shocking images and objects, is the part of the centre that makes most impact on young minds.

"Just feel the weight of that," she says, offering a heavy wooden yoke, taller than herself. "That would be attached to the necks of two slaves to hold them as they walked. These irons were fastened to their necks and legs at night, so the slaves could not stand up and run away.

"This is a good room to bring young people. You ask them to imagine what it was like to be a slave. At first they ask lots of questions and want to try things for themselves. Then gradually they get quieter and quieter, as it all sinks in."

Outside in the fresh air, she pauses to point to a plaque on the wall that tells how the centre began its life with contributions from local children.

"New activities here, for the bicentennial, include storytelling, drama, role play, dance and African music workshops," she says. "We have a volunteer in today working on scripts and a new learning officer starting soon. It is exciting."

School visits to the David Livingstone Centre: www.nts.org.ukPropertyDavid-Livingstone-CentreSchool-visits


The Scottish government is funding activities and events around Scotland during David Livingstone's bicentenary year, as well as supporting a partnership between the National Museum of Scotland and the national museums in Malawi. Events include:


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now