LETTER FROM MALAWI

Rodney Schofield describes a Church which has Faith in the Future

 

WHATEVER THE PUBLIC HYSTERIA in Britain, genetically modified food is certainly good news for Malawi. Two years ago about 25% of smallholders were using GM maize seed; today the figure has risen to 75% - not through any government pressure nor through the blandishments of advertising, but because farmers are impressed with the results. Where previously (let us say) fifteen bags of corn were harvested, GM seed can double this figure. True, it takes fertilisers if it is to flourish, so a farmer has to sacrifice the equivalent of two bags to buy the necessary chemicals. But he can still produce vastly more than before. In other African countries smallholders can usually raise a cash crop as well to pay for such overheads: in Malawi, land is all too scarce. Other GM developments are likely to improve the intake of essential vitamins and minerals. By way of comparison, scientific advances in China now means two billion people benefit from rice that is boosted to carry vitamin A and iodine, where previously they were suffering deficiencies.

Another myth that needs demolishing relates to an understandably popular cause in England: the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Certainly Malawi and other third world countries need all the targeted and well-monitored help that western countries can give. Around 25% of the population here (the elderly and the handicapped particularly) do not have the resources or the physical strength to work for a living, to grow their own food, or to take part in projects which reward the participants with "food for labour". So until Malawi can support social welfare schemes, outside funds will be needed for the most vulnerable. (However, identifying them fairly is easier said than done: the local chief may well be enriched in their place!) What is not true is that outside donor assistance is nullified by the net outflow of funds, as Christian Aid persistently claims. This is true of only two African countries, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, but even allowing for this deficit Africa as a whole, and Malawi in particular, is genuinely better off because of aid loans and donations.

Relief assistance is also likely to be needed because of the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. Global warming seems to bring with it, not so much a recognisable change in local climates, as the growing prevalence of extreme conditions. Malawi fortunately was scarcely affected by the recent floods in Mozambique, and was in fact, along with South Africa (which was affected), first in the field with rescue helicopters. Curiously, though, while Mozambique was experiencing the most rain received in 50 years, Malawi in the last wet season has had the least rainfall in that same period. This contrast can remind us that weather patterns do change over the centuries, and it is worth remembering that Lake Malawi was much smaller in extent two or three hundred years ago, when the country must have experienced generally drier conditions. It is likely that in those days sorghum was the preferred crop, rather than maize which needs more rainfall. Actually, a very interesting phenomenon has occurred in the past 9 months on the Lake. Last August and September an unusual wind managed to alter the prevailing currents, bringing quantities of decomposed matter much nearer the surface. Starved of oxygen many fish died, and for several months the livelihood of fishermen was in jeopardy. Now, however, their fortunes have revived, because this richer food source in the Lake has significantly increased the fish stock beyond the level that previously obtained.

Not everything, therefore, is bad news from Africa. Human beings, given training and motivation, can work together to overcome the setbacks and difficulties, and nature herself does seem to possess restorative powers. But farsightedness is needed, wisdom that goes beyond political opportunism and even beyond technological capability. One illustration taken from Somalia half a century ago may make the point. Drought conditions are nothing new in Africa. In Somalia the people expected them to occur every so often - and prepared themselves in advance. The chiefs would meet together, and would debate their contingency plans for days at a time. Eventually agreement would be reached as to which tracts of land should be set aside for emergency use. Anyone taking his animals to feed there without permission would be shot! Hence, when disaster did befall, there was an untouched area available to sustain the herds through the time of crisis.

It was an African solution to an African problem, and it depended very much upon an ordered social and political structure. One thing desperately needed today is an adequate pool of such uncorrupt and farsighted leaders. And it remains crucially important for outside help to be offered on strictly accountable terms: even here in Malawi, by any standards a "religious" country, the temptation to misuse overseas aid is considerable. (Rumours abound of how many people have been "bought" by the President. And in Zomba only last week pharmacists at the hospital were arrested for selling medicines on the black market.)

The Church here has the task of fostering what Jonathan Sacks called in his seminal book Faith in the Future. That is not so very far from Forward in Faith! I take great encouragement from a pilgrimage made recently with a fellow (Malawian) priest. We followed country tracks for several miles away from the highroad, and then found local guides, in our search for Magomero, the short-lived site of the first mission to Central Africa back in 1861. When I was directed to drive through a narrow strip of long grass between two maize fields I nearly lost heart. But there as we emerged into a clearing bounded by a loop of the Namadzi river was a living Anglican community. After only one year in Magomero Bishop Charles MacKenzie had gone way down south to locate fresh medical and other supplies - but in vain. MacKenzie died of fever on 31st January 1862, and when his companion returned to base after burying his Bishop (although one hundred years later his body was transferred to St. Paul's Cathedral in Blantyre) Father Burrup also died of the same fever. There is a stone cross at Magomero marking his grave. That seemed to be the end and soon afterwards the mission was withdrawn. In the following decade, however, there was a renewed fervour which led Anglican missionaries into Malawi from the east, rather than from the south. And in due time a priest visited Magomero again, a church was built, a few paces from Burrup's grave, and a congregation re-established. They were in good heart on the day of our visit, a choir of young people rehearsing for the following Sunday, singing so exquisitely any cathedral in the world would have been honoured to hear them. I asked what was the dedication of the church. The answer came unhesitatingly "St. MacKenzie's".

That, I believe, is the story of the true Church wherever it finds itself. Despite setbacks, despite inauspicious beginnings, God can be trusted to fulfil his mission. And that message is good news not only for the Church, but also for the people she serves. God has the strength to recreate his world, despite our many blunders: our Christian faith assures us that he has the willingness and the love to do so.

Rodney Schofield is a member of Forward in Faith teaching at Zomba Theological College, P.O. Box 130, Zomba, Malawi (e-mail: rschofiel@chirunga.sdnp.org.mw)

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