Mainstream Christianity thrives in poor Malawi

LILONGWE (Reuters Life!) - Our bus is idling at the chaotic terminal in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, its narrow aisles filled with sacks of maize, boxes of electronics, two live chickens and the spirit of the Lord.

The driver, sunglasses adjusted and nerves steadied for the jarring seven-hour journey north, hits the gas, abruptly brakes and turns off the ignition. A Bible is passed forward and heads quickly bowed.

Minutes later a chorus of Amens is heard and the bus comes back to life.

“We were praying to the Lord for protection, to arrive safely at our destination,” said Jordan Ngwira, the Malawian man who led the impromptu prayer session and who sits next to me during the 360 km ride to Mzuzu, the hub of northern Malawi.

The experience is a common one in this impoverished but devoutly Christian nation in southeastern Africa, where Gospel music is the order of the day and newly built churches and worship halls brim with devotees.

Travelers tell of itinerant preachers on minibuses dishing out salvation to the faithful or fire and brimstone to the errant and of strangers offering their “testimony” at taxi stands, market stalls and in grocery stores.

If Africa has a Bible Belt, Malawi may be its buckle.


Christianity came to Malawi, or Nyasaland as it was known under British rule, in the 1880s when Robert Laws and a group of Scottish Presbyterians set up a mission at Bandawe on the verdant shores of Lake Malawi.

Malawians took to the stern, clean-living ways of the incoming Scots with relish. Today, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), is one of the most active Christian churches in Africa.

“Our congregation is growing all the time,” said Rev. H. G. Gondwe, who heads the CCAP congregation near the site of the original Bandawe mission. “That is why we are building a new church here. The old church is too small.”

Catholicism, partly due to influence from neighboring Mozambique, a predominantly Catholic country, has also sunk deep roots in Malawi. It is the biggest denomination here, claiming the allegiance of one-fifth of Malawi’s 13.6 million people.

Presbyterians, Anglicans and other Protestant denominations account for the bulk of the remaining 7.5 million Malawians who describe themselves as Christians.

The established Christian churches in Malawi also have been able to hold on to their flocks in the face of advances by the so-called charismatic Christian movement, which has made huge inroads in Latin America and Africa.

Pentecostals and non-denominational evangelicals are still few in number in Malawi, a sharp contrast to their fast growth in Nigeria, Ghana and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.


But mainstream Christianity faces challenges in Malawi.

Some Malawians, including those who regularly attend Christian services, still follow traditional tribal customs that often conflict with various church doctrines.

The CCAP grappled with just such a problem in 2004 when some of its congregants among the Ngoni people in northern Malawi refused to abandon drinking and polygamy and challenged church leaders to bar them from taking sacraments.

The churches have been at odds as well with Malawi’s Muslim community, estimated to number 1.5 million.

Groups of Muslims stoned buildings belonging to the CCAP, the Seventh Day Adventists, Assemblies of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2003 after the arrest and removal from the country of five Al Qaeda suspects.

Christian leaders also have aroused suspicion in Malawi’s government for taking strong political stands on certain issues, highlighted by the clergy’s role in bringing down Kamuzu Hastings Banda, the nation’s first post-independence leader.

Banda, an eccentric Presbyterian who was the focus of a pervasive personality cult, ruled the nation from 1964 to 1994, suppressing dissent, controlling the media and persecuting perceived enemies, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Banda’s increasingly authoritarian nature -- he once warned that exiled opposition leaders would end up as “meat for the crocodiles” if they returned -- prompted the Catholic Church to issue a 1992 pastoral letter sharply critical of his government.

The move triggered a groundswell of anti-Banda opposition among the churches and civic society, leading to a referendum in 1993 that dismantled Malawi’s one-party state. Banda was swept from power in an election the next year.

More recently, the CCAP and Catholic Church played a prominent role in efforts to stop former President Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim, from changing the constitution to allow him a third term as president.

But the clergy’s interventions in political life have prompted criticism and fears of a blurring of the line between church and state and of favoritism toward certain parties and politicians.