TUCKED away in a quiet corner of Blantyre, the David Livingstone Centre is shrouded in early morning rain. Its rolling grounds, dominated by an enormous sculpture of the famous explorer battling a lion, are empty save for the odd dog walker.
Yet this weekend, this unassuming National Trust property will become the centre of a remarkable piece of international diplomacy that has been more than a year in the planning.
Later today, Blantyre, a former mining town with a population of just over 17,500, will become the first place in South Lanarkshire ever to receive an official visit from an African head of state.
This afternoon, Her Excellency Joyce Banda, president of the Republic of Malawi, will be swept past the 24-hour Asda and the terraced houses of Station Road for lunch with the First Minister Alex Salmond and a number of local dignitaries, before heading to the town’s David Livingstone Memorial Church for a special afternoon service.
It is part of a three-day visit that Banda, a native of Blantyre, Malawi, so-named by Livingstone, is making to the UK in which she will also address the Scottish Parliament, see Edinburgh Castle, and lay a wreath at Livingstone’s grave at Westminster cathedral.
She almost didn’t make it. Last Monday there was an attempted coup in Malawi. The country has been dogged by civil unrest ever since. But Banda was keen to come, and chose not to cancel her plans. After all, Tuesday will mark the bicentenary of the birth of Livingstone – one of her country’s greatest heroes.
There’s much excitement in the town as it prepares to honour its most famous son and welcome the woman recently named by Forbes as the most powerful woman in Africa. In the Livingstone Centre’s Africa Pavilion, which will host today’s buffet lunch, assistants scurry to and fro, carrying piles of chairs and answering phones. As local MP Tom Greatrex, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Malawi and along with former first minister Jack McConnell one of the main architects of the trip, remarks: “It’s not every day you get a head of state visiting Blantyre.”
In fact, locals are unsure if a head of state – certainly an African president – has ever set foot in Blantyre. In the complex fabric that makes up Scotland’s national landscape, Blantyre’s name usually tends to crop in connection with less salubrious activities than the hosting of one of the sub- continent’s most high-profile personalities.
In 2011, the murder of 19-year-old Reamonn Gormley, a promising student who was stabbed in an unprovoked attack in the town on the same street as the Livingstone Memorial Church, caused national outrage. Blantyre has, in common with many former mining towns in South Lanarkshire, problems with social deprivation and unemployment.
But, says Jean Gray, an elder at the Livingstone Memorial Church, who has been highly involved in preparations for today’s service since 2011, it also has a fierce sense of community, one that has been enhanced by today’s events. “There’s still a village feel to Blantyre, and planning this visit has really been a wonderful thing for the community. It has brought David Livingstone and what he actually stood for to the forefront again, and it’s brought us as a community together, too.”
Bobby McKean, who owns the Country Shop on Glasgow Road, which is bursting with fresh local produce, says the visit will be good for the town.
“Something like this helps 100 per cent when it comes to rehabilitating Blantyre and focusing on the positive,” he said. “We have a strong community here and it’s good to see that image being promoted more widely.”
There will be around 450 attending today’s service. Banda herself will give the first reading, a chapter from the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah, and there will be prayers from both the Reverend Mercy Chilapula, moderator of the Synod of Blantyre (Malawi), and the Reverend Clifford Baloyi, moderator of the Synod of Livingstonia.
But not everyone was convinced of the benefits. Just outside the Memorial church, two women walking past, hoods up against the rain, look sceptical when told that Africa’s most powerful woman is en route to their doorstep. “I don’t think many people here will care,” said one. “You learnt about Livingstone growing up here, but I don’t think he’s relevant to people any more.”
Further down Glasgow Road, a man carrying two pints of milk is even more scathing. “I’ve not heard anything about the visit,” he said with a shrug. “David Livingstone is pretty old news in Blantyre.”
Yet he still has relevance for at least some young members of the community. At the lion sculpture back in the grounds of the Livingstone centre, created by Gareth Knowles and donated by Hollywood special effects producer Ray Harryhausen and his wife Diana, who is Livingstone’s great granddaughter, 11-year-old twins Jennifer and Zoe Martin are examining the inscription, a quote from Livingstone which reads: “He shook me like a terrier does a rat.”
“Can you imagine?” said Zoe, wide-eyed.
Jennifer recently chose the explorer as her topic for a project at school in nearby Uddingston, and was keen to learn more during her visit.
“I really like him,” she said. “He was amazing. I find his life very interesting.”
By all reports, President Banda does, too. Livingstone is adored by many Africans, particularly Malawians, who view him as a reformer and a liberator.