Chirwa, Yuraia Chatonda

Church of Central Africa Presbyterian

Yuraia Chatonda Chirwa was prominent among the first generation of African leaders in the Livingstonia Mission, known especially for the partnership he formed with Scottish missionary Robert Laws, which spanned almost 50 years. [1] Both are remembered on a stone cairn that marks the spot where they camped on the first night they spent on Khondowe plateau where they established the influential headquarters of Livingstonia Mission. [2] Chirwa was a Tonga by tribe. His father Chaoyoka Chimweyo was a Village Headman in the Bandawe area and a Nyaluwanga by clan. He had four wives and Yuraia was the first-born son of his first and principal wife Akundachoka NyaMhoni. One of his half-brothers, Philemon, trained as a teacher and he too became a prominent figure in Livingstonia Mission, particularly in the Bandawe area. Yuraia was about twelve years of age when James Stewart of Lovedale visited Bandawe in 1877 so it is estimated that he was born around 1865. He could recall being present for the visit and being trampled by the stampeding crowd which panicked when Stewart blew a whistle that he had brought as a gift to Chief Kanyenda. [3] Yuraia was born and grew up at the lakeshore village of Mchaya, a short distance from Makuzi Bay where the Livingstonia missionaries landed when they came to settle at Bandawe in 1881. [4]

When Robert Laws and the missionary party approached on their small ship, the Ilala, a large crowd of people gathered on the shore. They were curious and very scared. Women and children were hidden. They thought that the boat was a living creature, possibly a large fish. When a white figure appeared on the deck wearing a helmet, they thought it was the owner of the Lake. Some wondered why the creature had two faces – this was the first impression created by the pith helmet. The alarm subsided as the boat approached and William Koyi, the Xhosa evan¬gelist from Lovedale, appeared on deck and spoke in vernacular. After explaining who they were and the purpose of the visit, he asked for their permission to land. This was granted and the missionaries were well received by chiefs and people. When they opened a school, Yuraia was among the first to enroll. [5] Soon he was identified by Robert Laws as someone to be offered special tutelage. On April 21, 1889, he was baptized by Laws along with four other early converts, James Sadala, Charu, Shem Maraie, and Moses Mawesha. [6] In October 1891, when Laws was going to Scotland on furlough, he took Yuraia and Charles Domingo to Lovedale in the Eastern Cape to receive training while he was away. [7] On his return from Lovedale, Yuraia became Laws’ most trusted com¬panion, a relationship that continued unbroken until Laws retired in 1927.

One aspect of the Mission work at Bandawe which expanded rap¬idly during the 1880s was the school system. By 1890, there were almost 5,000 students on the rolls of 26 schools throughout the mission. As Laws became convinced that the lakeshore site was not conducive to good health for the missionaries, he began to search for a more suitable headquarters for the rapidly expanding educational system. In 1893, while on leave in Scotland, he prepared a report outlining his plans for the future. Soon after his return in 1894 he and Yuraia set out on their journey of exploration to find a new place at higher altitude for the Mission headquarters. Since Yuraia had just recently returned from Lovedale, his father was reluctant to let him set out again on a long journey but was reassured when Laws said that he would be back in a couple of months. Little did they know that it would be 33 years before Yuraia returned permanently to his homeland.

It did not take long for Yuraia to show his worth. It proved very difficult to recruit porters for the expedition, which left Bandawe on September 17, 1894, since most of the Tonga were engaged elsewhere, or busy in their fields. [8] Yuraia, however, was able to commandeer twelve of the ablest and fittest men to join the party. One night when they camped near the lakeshore, Dr Laws’ tent was attacked by a lion and it was only the prompt action of Yuraia, who appeared on the scene and opened fire on the lion, that saved the life of his leader. [9]

When they reached Manchewe on the seventh day of the journey, Laws and his party met Chief Mwabanga. Through Yuraia’s diplomacy this encounter proved fruitful as they gave the chief nine yards of cloth as a token of friendship, receiving a goat in return. From Manchewe they climbed to the top of Khondowe plateau where they realized they had found the site of which they had been dreaming. It was 4,400 feet above sea level, had good water supply, an excellent climate, and an area of four square miles, much healthier than any other place they had seen. [10] It was here that Yuraia’s life’s work was to be done.

To his new sphere Yuraia brought the considerable range of skills he had acquired during his three years at Lovedale. In addition to pastoral and general education, he became proficient in carpentry, masonry and building. He was now fully equipped to play a key role in the construction of the new mission station and in the development of industrial training. He was still single on his return from Lovedale but, now in his early thirties, he began to feel the need to have a companion in life. In September 1898, he married Miriam Nyauhango who had been one of the first students at Livingstonia [11]. They had a big family of eleven children, nine girls and two boys. The second child was a boy, named Robert after Laws, but he sadly died in infancy.[12] Yuraia was by now the Boarding Master of the industrial class pupils, and the two upper schools. He was the storekeeper for the merchandise and foodstuff for the entire institution. He was also acting as the overall foreman for the mission. He had worked very hard to earn this position. As a Boarding Master, Yuraia was entrusted with the responsibility of finding foodstuff for the boarders and was also the paymaster for all the general workers. [13] He continued for decades in this pivotal role, turning Robert Laws’ dream into reality as Livingstonia became the most influential educational center in all of Central Africa.

His stature and the scale of his contribution was recognized on the May 5, 1935 when he received a meritorious award from King George V, presented by the then Governor of Nyasaland Sir Harold B. Kittermaster for his dedicated and loyal service. [14] Nevertheless in his later life in retirement at Bandawe he was given little recognition. He remained weak, tired, and without support until his death in March 1951. [15] He died of kidney failure and was laid to rest like a com¬moner simply and humbly, just like his beginnings. There were no flowers, accolades, tributes or eulogies to be read. He was not mourned by the church except by his relations and a few close friends at home and abroad.

Yet Yuraia was a remarkable person, a man of deep religious conviction, a symbol of decency, courage and selfless devotion to duty, universally held in affection and respect. Some thought he was a better missionary than most of his European contemporaries who are celebrated in the missionary annals. He has been ranked with heroes like William Koyi, and his friend and mentor Robert Laws. Summing up the stature of Yuraia, Rev. Mezuwa Banda remarked that, “Yuraia stands out as probably the first educated Tonga man who was instrumental in the building of the mission at Bandawe and Livingstonia. His loyalty to Dr. Laws is something that one would admire. Dr. Laws is counted as a successful missionary in Malawi but little do we see that behind Dr. Laws’ success lies Yuraia.” [16] While Laws has been much celebrated, there is need to redress the balance by recognizing that his long-time “foreman” and partner Yuraia Chirwa was scarcely less significant in the early success of Livingstonia Mission.

Masautso Wellby Tembo


  1. Gomezgheka Mkandawire, great grandson of Yuraia Chirwa, interview with author, September 20, 2022, Mzuzu.
  2. Austin Chuma Mkandawire, Yuria Chatonda Chirwa: the Faithful Servant (Zomba: Kachere, 2004), 10.
  3. T. Cullen Young, Notes on the History of the Tumbuka-Kamanga Peoples in the Northern Province of Nyasaland (London: Frank Cass, 1970, first published 1932), 128.
  4. Robert Laws, Reminiscences of Livingstonia (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1934).
  5. Midauko Makani Gha Wa Ngoni (Livingstonia Press, 1934).
  6. Yuraia Official Baptismal Record, Bandawe, April 21, 1889, cit. W.P. Livingstone, Laws of Livingstonia: A Narrative of Missionary Adventure and Achievement (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921), 248.
  7. Livingstone, Laws of Livingstonia, 257; Hamish Macintosh, Robert Laws: Servant of Africa (Edinburgh: Handsel Press & Blantyre: Central Africana, 1993), 112.
  8. Livingstone, Laws of Livingstonia, 272.
  9. Ibid, 267.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Livingstonia Institution Register, (OPCIT) Vol. 1, 1896.
  12. Yuria Chirwa’s Family Register, “Parents’ Names, Children’s Names, marriages and deaths.”
  13. Macintosh, Robert Laws, 224.
  14. Yuria Chirwa to William Chiswakhata, Dwambazi, April 11, 1935, cit. Mkandawire, Yuria Chatonda Chirwa, 10.
  15. Gomezgheka Mkandawire, great grandson of Yuraia Chirwa, interview with author, September 20, 2022, Mzuzu.
  16. Interview with Rev. Mezuwa Banda, St Andrews, Mzuzu, September 17, 2022.


Banda, Mezuwa. Interview with author, September 17, 2022, St Andrews, Mzuzu.

Laws, Robert. Reminiscences of Livingstonia. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1934.

Livingstone, W.P. Laws of Livingstonia: A Narrative of Missionary Adventure and Achievement. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921.

Macintosh, Hamish. *Robert Laws: Servant of *. Edinburgh: Handsel Press & Blantyre: Central Africana, 1993.

Midauko Makani Gha Wa Ngoni. Livingstonia Press, 1934.

Mkandawire, Austin Chuma. Yuria Chatonda Chirwa: the Faithful Servant. Zomba: Kachere, 2004.

Mkandawire, Gomezgheka. Interview with author, September 20, 2022, Mzuzu.

Young, T. Cullen. Notes on the History of the Tumbuka-Kamanga Peoples in the Northern Province of Nyasaland. London: Frank Cass, 1970, first published 1932.

This article, submitted in November 2022, was researched and written by Masauko Wellby Tembo, Minister, Monkey Bay congregation, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synod of Livingstonia, under the supervision of Professor Kenneth R. Ross as one of the requirements of the Church History course on the MTh in Contextual Theology at Zomba Theological University.