It is twenty years since I arrived in Malawi, the beautiful ‘warm heart’ of Central Africa. Although Gail and I were exploring what we believed to be the Lord’s calling, we had no idea how Malawi would totally steal our hearts.
We were on a short connecting flight to Blantyre in the south. Peering out of the window, I was transfixed by the natural beauty of a land famous for its volcanic mountains and rift-valley lake, but particularly the primitive otherworldliness of a landscape littered with thousands of simple grass-roofed, mud-built dwellings, such as I’d never seen before.
‘This is real Africa’. The silence was broken by a typically friendly Malawian next to me. ‘As close as it gets to what David Livingstone saw 140 years ago’. He was an executive of Southern Bottlers, the licensee for Coca-Cola in Malawi, and I remarked to myself that Doctor Livingstone hardly had the luxury of a cold Coke on his travels.
The licence has since changed hands, but the Coke is still made with Malawian cane sugar and it’s still the best in the world. However, much has changed. Not all for the better. There are more tin roofs, latrines, and wells. Some people have mattresses, even a light bulb. There are more paved roads - and potholes. There are more cars - and congestion. In town, there are coffee shops - and betting shops - and satellite TV - and salacious movies!
The native people of Malawi were originally animistic, worshipping ancestral spirits, but the country was largely Christianized by Scottish missionaries following Livingstone’s 19th-century expeditions. Earlier, the Portuguese brought Catholicism, and Arab slavers, Islam, the influence of which continues to grow apace. Some strong pockets of traditional African religion remain, but its undertones are everywhere.
The most striking thing about Malawi is poverty. The majority are subsistence farmers, manually eking out an existence from a small parcel of over-worked, under-nourished land. Millions barely survive. This presents both challenges and opportunities in the Lord’s work.
Technology and outside influences are rapidly changing one of the most conservative ‘Christian’ countries in the world. Thirty years ago, male tourists would have their hair cut in the airport if the police deemed it too long. Women would be detained for wearing trousers or showing too much flesh. Today, you are likely to encounter young people with ‘enlightened’ views on LGBT issues, and certain to meet many Muslim men and women in full Islamic attire. Such is the persuasive power of the Pound and Euro and Middle Eastern oil money in a desperate developing world economy.
When we moved to Malawi, our work was principally among ‘assemblies’ in the Shire Highlands. Between 2003 and 2006 we visited over thirty in an eighty kilometre radius, occasionally further afield. What we discovered discouraged and frustrated us, but was nevertheless valuable experience, giving insight into the folk gospel that is everywhere in Malawi until today.
Concluding that it was futile to continue itinerating as we were, we decided to concentrate on one ‘assembly’ near where we lived. Further disappointments left us more discouraged, and eventually it became clear that a radical rethink was necessary.
The Lord used these setbacks to lead in an entirely different direction. In early 2009, we began establishing a work in the city of Zomba. We rented a shop unit on the main thoroughfare, opened a Christian bookstore and began holding weekly adults’ and young people’s Bible studies, and a children’s group each Saturday morning.
The interest in Christian literature dispelled a myth I had long believed. Literacy in Malawi is relatively poor, and I thought that it would be pointless to invest in literature work. I was wrong. On the contrary, although education standards are well behind the developed world, people with few material things put a higher value on literature they receive.
In 2011, we had to relocate to the United Kingdom. I wanted to maintain as much involvement in the work as distance would allow and planned to visit as often as possible. The Lord laid on my heart to use these trips to expand the literature ministry. With assistance from a local brother, Harold, we started to distribute gospel tracts, calendars, and other literature across the country.
That work has mushroomed. What started with a few thousand tracts carried in my luggage, has grown beyond my wildest expectation. To date, we have supplied over 14 million items, and demand continues to exceed our ability to supply. In 2018, we formed Southern Africa Literature Trust (SALT) to facilitate the further growth of the work. Our expanding range of literature includes:
We created regional storage depots to improve logistics and recently a central storage and distribution hub at Saidi (Thondwe). However, this work would be impossible without the large band of local volunteers who take the gospel all over the country. Most are very poor. Many don’t possess a bicycle and cover large distances on foot, carrying heavy loads of literature. They are the heroes of the work.
Most of these volunteers are contacts made since 2011. From various ecclesiastical backgrounds, they had no exposure to assembly truth. We freely provide literature based on their commitment to the true gospel. However, we have been building upon the foundation of this shared interest. Each May, when the maize harvest is complete, we invite some of the volunteers for residential Bible conferences. Previously, we had no alternative but to hold these in rented conference rooms, using restaurants and bed and breakfasts for food and lodging, but we look forward to having our own facilities soon. This should remove some of the limitations of such resource constraints. We receive positive feedback from many who have attended, and praise God for the investment of time, energy, and other resources. We’ve even had the joy of hearing of a couple of little assemblies formed as a result. To God be the glory!
In 2003, average life expectancy in Malawi was thirty-seven years, and fifty percent of the population was under fifteen years. Those statistics have improved a little but are a great incentive (if needed) to invest in the rising generation. Brothers Harold and Goodson have a real heart for young people’s work. Goodson has built a strong children’s work at Thondwe - over 300 regulars attended the special Christmas event. Harold’s passion regularly takes him to many schools, where he has freedom to preach and distribute literature.
Recently we introduced Bible Time lessons in the Dzaleka Camp, home to about 50, 000 Swahili-speaking refugees from around ten African states. This has been very successful, and about 1, 000 children are studying God’s word, with many more keen to do so. This is a pilot for the Chichewa Nthawi ya Baibulo which we are presently translating. God willing, the first year’s lessons should be ready for printing shortly. Although there are around fifteen languages in Malawi, every student learns Chichewa, and, if this project takes off, it could be the most significant development in gospel work in Malawi for years.
It’s impossible to be unmoved by the overwhelming poverty in Malawi. Wisdom is needed to respond appropriately, balancing the impulses of compassion with the imperative of the commission. It is not easy. Some projects we are involved in include housing and food for cyclone victims, feeding refugee orphans and street children, and helping child-headed households in our area. We supply hygiene packs in support of the Prison Emmaus work. Our aim is always to keep the gospel ‘front and centre’.
An annual highlight is Malawi Gospel Outreach (MGO) which has taken place each August since 2013, until disrupted by the pandemic. This two-week period of open-air preaching and literature distribution has been a huge blessing, and life changing for some who have participated. God willing, we are looking forward to resuming MGO this year.
Despite frustrations, the Lord has given much encouragement. Anna Vallance (Livonia, Michigan) joined the work in May 2021 and has been a huge blessing already. Our local brothers demonstrate real spiritual growth and maturity, and there are many reports of the Lord saving souls and transforming lives, for which we praise Him alone.
As many facets of the work expand, we thank God for providing a sevenacre site which we are developing as a Christian Resource Centre. Our plans are for the widespread deployment of Nthawi ya Baibulo (Bible Time) and further scaling up the literature work. We are enthusiastic about the opportunity the land gives to develop camp, training and conferencing facilities, and other possibilities we are praying about. We are humbled to see how the Lord has blessed thus far, and excited to see what He will do in the future.
As I write, Anna has just experienced a traumatic burglary. She was tied up and her apartment ransacked. I recently was robbed while driving in Blantyre, and the site at Thondwe has had a series of thefts. The cost-of-living crisis will be catastrophic in Malawi, so please pray about that, but also remember the personal safety of the workers as economic hardship makes such attacks even more likely.
Please remember the logistical challenges of a rapidly growing work and the development at Saidi (Thondwe) - that the Lord will guide and provide.