Mission Diary. Malawi. In the shade of the baobabs

Father Mathurin Mokpi-Dewe tells us about his mission in a rural area

I am in Lusungwi in southern Malawi, a rural part of the Archdiocese of Blantyre. The parish is dedicated to Saint Kizito. In our community we are three priests. Our natural environment is truly beautiful. I remember on my first visit to the Nkombe community, I was amazed by the large number of baobabs I found. According to local beliefs, the spirits of ancestors and sorcerers live in these majestic trees. That’s why the villagers never cut them down, it would be like destroying their houses.

Here I have learned that sorcerers can be jealous of the enrichment of community members. That’s why people have a certain fear of progress, which becomes a brake on development. In fact, in the different villages of the parish it seems that everything is the same: the houses, the huts and the productive activities that the people engage in.

Magic and its consequences are another reality of this mission. In Mweta Ngombe, where we have one of our chapels, lives a woman they call Godmother, who practises magic. People who are looking for easy money, who want to travel abroad, do business, have a successful marriage, buy nice cars and so on, visit her to intercede and know about their future. It’s interesting because this woman is very rich. She lives in a big house, has an immense field, a farm and also people who work for her – they call them “punished ones or slaves” -. It is they who have disobeyed the “rules” of magic and, in order to avoid death, become “slaves” of this lady for two or three years.

Here we attach great importance to catechesis and the practice of the sacraments, but also to the formation and awareness of human and Christian values. In my case, I work a lot with young people who live with realities such as illiteracy, alcohol and drugs or abuse, so, most of them think only of emigrating to South Africa. I am also struck by the number of 14–15-year-old girls who are mothers.

On an educational level, much remains to be done. I have visited some schools in the villages where the students sit on the ground under a tree. I remember one of those places where the only chair was that of the teacher who had just an old wooden table for a blackboard and 15 books for a class of 115 students.

The people are welcoming, respectful and hard-working. Both men and women work very hard, usually in the fields. One of their main businesses is the production of charcoal, which they pack in big bags and cycle to the markets. Social roles are very marked and women never mix with men. In church women sit in one place, men in another and the children in another. And they do the same in meetings or funeral ceremonies outside the church. Women “respect” men very much: they kneel down to talk to them, as if talking to a boss or employer, and often speak to their husbands in low tones.

They have a proverb, akulu aakulu amapempha ndi maso, which means that when adults want something, they ask for it with their eyes, without expressing it in words. To do otherwise would be humiliating and disrespectful.

In our area there are numerous ethnic groups: Chewa, Lomwe, Ngoni, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Sena…, and although they speak different languages, they all use Chichewa, the national language, which facilitates communication. The level of English, one of the official languages of the country, is quite low. Young people are ashamed to speak it because they know they can’t speak it well. It is normal that when I talk to someone in English, even about very simple things, they answer me in Chichewa. In the future, I would like to start an English course, but at the moment I try to speak Chichewa, which is what people prefer.

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