Mainstream Christianity thrives in poor Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi - A 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 are 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 at the start of the 360 km (224 mile) ride to Mzuzu, the hub of northern Malawi.

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

Travellers 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 and a group of Scottish Presbyterians set up a mission on the 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 in the continent.

"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 neighbouring predominantly Catholic Mozambique, is the biggest denomination here, claiming 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 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 expulsion 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 authoritarian nature 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.

Recently, the CCAP and Catholic Church played a key 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 intervention in politics has prompted criticism and fears of a blurring of the line between church and state and of favouritism toward certain parties and politicians.