By Duncan Mlanjira
Zomba fire fighters managed to put out the fire that caught the monumental Hotel Masongola, formerly known as Government Hostel, on Sunday but substantial damage has been caused to a good part of the property.
A lot of people lamented this loss on social media as this was the first State House of the country.
Commenting on Facebook, Abdul Khamboo said it is such heartbreaking to see such a historical building succumbing to fire and he hopes it shall be restored to its former glory.
Vanessa Harris said: “It’s so sad to see any building going up in flames even more heartbreaking are historical one which will probably never be rebuilt 😰.”
Hotel Masongola’s neighbour, Pakachere Backparkers Lodge, said they are very sad that one of the most iconic buildings of Malawi has burnt down as this was a historical building in Zomba, built in 1887 as Sir Harry Johnston’s residence and office.
Lisa Bronte said: “Oh my! What a loss! Yes, we had many a fine time there and what a view! But onwards and upwards — something splendid will rise from the ashes!”
Bernard Mkonkha is of the opinion that some of these fires are preventable, especially those caused by electric faults.
“This structure is more than 100 years old, how often do electricians revisited its wiring? Penapake timaunjikira blame on ESCOM but owners of institutions have a role to play to prevent fires such as these.”
John Kawamba Sitembelero agreed, saying it could be pointing to low levels of the safety consciousness and preventive mechanisms in our environment.
“I guess, this could pass as an opportunity to make things better for those trained in the field of safety, environment etc. To be honest, in our culture, we take safety for granted.”
Eric Sulumba said: “This building was old and dilapidated — this is a good opportunity to renovate it.”
According to records, the name, Masongola, comes from its architectural design itself because the building had two sharp pointed roofs or hexagonal towers at both ends (madenga osongola in Chichewa).
It used to attract viewers — being the first modern structure of its kind in Nyasaland and this part of Africa then and as government headquarters.
Local people used to say tikupita ku nyumba ya madenga osongola ija (We are going to that house with sharp pointed roofs).
Later they just blended the two words madenga and osongola to Masongola hence the name, which later came to be used for the entire locality where the building was found until now.
It was constructed in 1887 by John Buchanan, a CCAP Blantyre Mission agronomist and gardener, who was commissioned to construct befitting residence and consulate for British Consul (later called Governor) following declaration of Nyasaland as British Protectorate and Zomba as government seat.
It was first occupied by Consul A.G. Hawes, who commissioned its construction and later on from 1889 Sir Harry Johnstone himself occupied it when he was appointed Consul.
Initially the building used to be grassthatched and it was Harry Johnstone who re-roofed it with corrugated iron sheets and further re-roofed it with Mulanje Cedar in 1893.
Because it used to be official resident of Consuls/Governors its official title used to be The Residency and at one time it used to be described as the finest building of its kind in East Africa, north of Zambezi.
Buchanan bought the land for the building as well as for setting up the botanic gardens for the residency from Chief Malemia and the payment Chief Malemia got for that land was 96 yards of blue calico, 48 yards of white calico, 2 pieces of red handkerchief, 6 Arabic scarfs, 1 dispatch box, 3 mirrors and 3 knives.
The Botanic gardens are as old as that building and were designed and established by the same John Buchanan as he constructed the building.
It only ceased to be The Residency in 1902 following the construction of the current Zomba State House. Originally, it was supposed to be District Commissioners house.
Hotel Masongola was an excellent choice for travelers visiting Zomba, offering many helpful amenities designed to enhance their stay as their ‘home away from home’.