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Interview: Eileen Eggington, project officer, Malawi Association for Christian Support

28 May 2021

‘People who’ve worked in Malawi have a huge love of the place’


I first visited Malawi in 2006, with friends from St Alban’s, North Harrow, where I’m a licensed lay minister [LLM]. The trip was organised by the Malawi legend Bishop Donald Arden, and his wife, Jane. In every village, we were met by a sea of blue and white — members of the Mothers’ Union — who came out to greet us in song and dance. I lost my heart to them all, and vowed to return with young people from our church.

People don’t forget Malawi. It’s very poor, and the governance has always been problematic; but people who’ve worked in or been brought up in Malawi have a huge love of the place. It’s known as the “warm heart of Africa”.

I’ve worked for MACS [Malawi Association for Christian Support] for the past decade, working closely with our Malawi representative, Grafiud Tione. We laugh and talk together several times a week on WhatsApp. We’ve got an active group of trustees, and about 100 regular donors — many former colonial families. We concentrate on the two central and most highly populated Anglican dioceses: Lake Malawi and Upper Shire.

We’ve funded school blocks, staff houses, medical facilities, solar support, medical-training initiatives, church roofs, and so on, over the years. We also administer about 60 secondary-school bursaries, more than half of which are for girls. We’ve responded to flood and famine appeals, and there’s a Bishop Donald Arden secondary-school bursary fund for clergy children and ordinands at Leonard Kamungu Theological College.

Eighty-five per cent of Malawians are subsistence farmers. Sixty per cent of the population are Christians, ten per cent Anglicans. Parishes have a dozen or more congregations — some with a strong church building, others a church with mud-brick walls and grass roofs — and many Anglicans still gather under a tree to worship. Where a congregation has built firm foundations — with white-ant protection and strong walls — we sometimes fund a good church roof. The single priests or catechists travel around their vast parishes on foot or by bicycle. An archdeacon may have a vehicle, but few resources to maintain it.

I’ve always had a love of people, and I’m always up for a challenge. Perhaps I’ve a tendency to take a lead and step in where angels fear to tread. Maybe that helped me to thrive in the police service — though current extreme media scrutiny might have led to my speedy downfall.

I joined the police out of desperation to escape from my first job as a junior clerk at the Pearl Assurance Company, in High Holborn. I didn’t think I’d be tough enough, and, in the 1960s, there was a ceiling of 600 women in the Met, but I was selected.

I loved it all. The camaraderie among colleagues surprised me most. My first posting was to Paddington Green Police Station — of The Blue Lamp and Dixon of Dock Green fame. I’d grown up with three sisters in leafy suburbia, and was educated at a girls’ grammar school; so I wasn’t well prepared for a world of drunks, prostitutes, and neglected children, but I learnt fast from experienced colleagues, and my compassion grew for lives blighted by poverty and violence.

The work that women police did then was more an extension of social services. I loved it, but my sense of adventure led me into the Special Branch at New Scotland Yard, gathering intelligence to counter terrorism, espionage, and subversion. It was a world of secrecy, intrigue, and endless fascination. I served for over 30 years, and rose from detective constable to detective chief superintendent. In 1997, Her Majesty presented me with the Queen’s Police Medal, which was a huge surprise and a great honour.

Because of concerns about corruption among plain-clothes detectives in the CID, you had to do a year back in uniform on promotion. Suddenly, I was high-profile — the first woman inspector at West Hendon Police Station in charge of a “relief”.

I’d been a WPC before the Sex Discrimination Act stopped women’s specialist work in dealing with children, young people, and women prisoners, and then I’d moved to Special Branch. Suddenly, I was responsible for 30 police on uniform duties. I’d absolutely no experience of day-to-day uniform policing, and I hadn’t worn uniform for over a decade. I was terrified, but also comforted by words from Joshua 1.9: “Be strong and very courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

I was the most senior officer for the whole of the division on night duty after a week, which was even more terrifying. My month-long training to prepare me didn’t start until after I’d taken over. That wouldn’t happen, now.

At the first morning “parade”, I invited the guys to sit down, explained my lack of general policing experience, and asked for their support. They looked totally shocked, but they didn’t let me down. I had a great year out on the streets. I also taught them how to track down missing persons: a skill I learnt as a young WPC at Paddington Green.

I retired 20 years ago, soon after the Lawrence report had labelled the Met Police as “institutionally racist”. That hurt, because it didn’t chime with my lived experience. But diversity training opened my eyes to unthinking prejudice in me, in colleagues, and systems that clearly disadvantaged those from minority-ethnic communities. It’s important that we’re willing to learn.

I pray for Cressida Dick, a good woman whom I know and respect, that she may be given wisdom, courage, and support from politicians to deal with professional political agitators as well as peaceful protesters.

I was the second of four girls. Our parents were loving and hard-working, and we lived in small house near Dollis Hill. Church was important, and I joined the large robed choir at the age of eight. During my teens, we moved upmarket along the Metropolitan Line to Northwood Hills.

When I was six, I had scarlet fever. I was taken by ambulance to Neasden Isolation Hospital, where I then caught chicken pox. I was there for six weeks. Although my parents visited daily, they were allowed only to wave though a glass window. The Victorian-style wards were long and dismal, and the milk of human kindness was somewhat lacking among the nurses, but every night before I fell asleep, I quietly prayed the Lord’s Prayer. That’s when God became real to me.

My firm faith in the reality of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — hasn’t ever dimmed, though there were periods of disappointments and disillusion along the way. My LLM training led me to question some of my conservative Evangelical understanding of scripture, and convinced me that much would remain a mystery. I believe God guided me into the police service, and he sustained me in tough and challenging times. I know we’re still work in progress: trying to grow the Kingdom of God in a loving, inclusive, and non-judgemental way.

Abuse of power in both Church and State makes me angry.

I’m happiest being with those I love, who accept me for what I am, warts and all. My favourite sound is shared uncontrollable laughter recalling past embarrassing moments.

I’m an optimist by nature, and have hope that the pandemic will result in us becoming a more caring and compassionate nation.

I mostly pray for family and friends both here and in Malawi, especially those who are sick or in special need. For the past six months, I’ve prayed with our Vicar and church friends on Zoom for the needs of the Church worldwide and people of all faiths suffering persecution. Prayer remains a mystery, but I believe it makes me more open to the needs of others.

I was introduced to Nelson Mandela in Buckingham Palace in 1996. During that four-day state visit, I was bowled over by his joy and evident love of people. Of course, there was no time to talk, and so I’d love the chance to explore with him how he came to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation with his guards on Robben Island.

Eileen Eggington was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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