Malawi

"A house that’s complete"

“A home is not complete unless it has visitors.” Following the announcement of the journey to be made by three of the brothers in East Africa in October 2007, this reaction was sent to us by someone committed in the service of the Anglican Church in Malawi.

I was thrilled to hear that you will be visiting East Africa with two of your fellow brothers, and that you will continue to search for how the pilgrimage of trust can be lived in Africa. Kenya, while not being nearby, is certainly more of a possibility to invite people to. Christianity here has a wide spread allegiance in name if not always in depth of commitment. In many respects there are cultural resonances with the Old Testament and often preaching can focus on the need to repent and adhere to "Thou shalts and thou shalt nots". For most it is a strong and reassuring community which gives great comfort and support, particularly at the major landmarks of life such as sickness and death but also times of family celebration when all are expected to attend the wedding of a son or daughter.

There is a great sense of belonging, and giving support to each other is often sacrificial, as may be acts of Christian service. However, any thought that there could be active participation in changing things for the better is quite alien to peoples’ thinking and cultural practice. People will often go more than the second mile to assist a family member, friend or neighbour when disaster has struck, but will make no connection with the fact that maybe it could have been prevented in the first place. If difficulties arise, it is what God has given us and we must accept it. He will provide. The fact that God is providing all the time, but we are required to recognize what He is giving us and to be active in using His gifts in the best possible way is not part of Malawi culture. A Taize understanding of prayer and living the Gospel would I feel, give a new vision to so many.

I was talking to the younger clergy about some of the causes of food insecurity and they cited corruption as being one major issue. On further questioning they said that the Village Headmen are responsible for distributing the vouchers which entitle people to buy greatly subsidized fertilizer. These they distribute mainly to their friends who they know will be growing tobacco and will reward them accordingly for their assistance. It is these same Village Headmen who will have to deal with the issues arising from poor harvests. It is these same Village Headmen who are Church Elders. I asked if there was any way they could discuss this with the local Government Officials responsible and the Village Headmen concerned and they were adamant that this door was closed to them. They had no right to knock upon it.

It is difficult being a young priest. "Youth" in Malawi is seen as extending from the age of about thirteen to 40 -45 years and of course, many will be married with young and not so young families. Most of these priests are in their late twenties. It is seen as lacking in respect and being rude to challenge elders on issues such as these. This is a common complaint when the Bishop visits the various stations that the youth are "rude" and the youth say the elders don’t listen. He now makes a point of sitting with both groups to hear what they have to say. This feeling is probably universal but I think more profound here.

The Diocesan Youth Department runs on a shoe string budget. But every three years the Diocesan Youth Adviser does his best to organize a week long Diocesan Youth Conference in Mzuzu, the Administrative Centre of the Northern Region. In 2006 it was held in a girls’ boarding school the last week in November early December. Each parish was asked to choose ten representatives and the numbers were intended to be in the region of certainly no more than 250. Close on 340 came and members of the local church in Mzuzu threw open their doors uncomplainingly to allow the over spill to sleep on their floors and dug into their pockets to help provide extra food even when their own lives are such a struggle. In spite of the large numbers, the school was most impressed at how well everything was cared for. I was most impressed when I heard that 41 young people had walked from Usisya on the Lake shore. They had been unable to pay the transport and walked for several hours on perhaps the most appalling road I have experienced in the Northern Region, a dirt road with steep ups and downs and hair pin bends dropping away to near vertical sided valleys. When the Conference was over they walked back again. I think this is a measure of one of the few instances when young people feel that something of worth is happening involving them and they will have a forum in which to speak and to share and be heard.

Their Conference coincided with World Aids Day, 1st December. The whole day was spent discussing the various issues arising from that life threatening situation. I think there is no one in Malawi who is not either infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. We have certainly lost several work colleagues in the Diocesan Office to AIDS and it is not infrequently that I have young men (teenagers) begging me to help them complete their secondary education (fee paying, though eight years of Primary Education is free) and find themselves not only without the one who was helping them to find fees but also as the head of a household of younger brothers and sisters. If it is hard to fund oneself through secondary education, it is well nigh impossible to get funds for tertiary training and then jobs are so scarce. It is a miracle that they do not get more disheartened.

You will probably realize from this that Malawi fills my heart and mind. Please continue to pray for us here, to light candles in your beautiful church. It would be so wonderful if you could visit here. Visitors are so welcome and as they say here: “a home is not complete unless it has visitors”… Maybe the first step would be to send someone to Kenya should Taize hold a meeting there. If there is any literature you think might "introduce" Taize to here in a way that makes it relevant to Malawi, to Africa I would love to hear about it. Our music here is so different but it is interesting that the Bishop’s driver plays a tape of Taize music when he is driving. He asked me to tell him what it said. That brought back good memories.

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