Last week I narrowly escaped a deadly encounter with a minibus. The last words I would have read would have been “Fear God” in flashing blue on the hood of the car. Do you think it means something that I almost got run over by the fear of God?
Minibuses aren’t the only sources of religious verbiage, what appears to be God’s sticker-graffiti army has plastered the city with amusing slogans such as “This car is protected by the blood of Jesus” and “Jesus Never Fails.” As you drive through the Malawian countryside, passing villages outside of Blantyre, you can’t help but chuckle at the “Let God Be God Tailoring Shop” or “Jesus is My Boss Mini Shop and Restaurant.”
Earlier this week after a successful meeting with journalism students at the Polytechnic University of Malawi, we thanked the students for their time and interest in jhr and began to pack up our stuff. “Since Malawi is a God-fearing nation,” the professor piped up, “you won’t mind if we close this meeting with a prayer.” After we nod in dumb agreement, a prayer closes the meeting and the students file out the door.
After nearly two months in Malawi, we realize that this process is pretty standard. Upon meeting our coworkers, questions pertaining to our religious affiliations were almost immediate and we were promptly invited to attend several church services. As a Christian, I admit I feel rather comforted by the prayers that open and close editorial meetings each morning at most Malawian media houses.
Curious about statistics on religion in Malawi I was shocked to discover that 80 percent of Malawians claim affiliations to Christianity, only slightly more than Canada’s own 77 percent. But with only a three percent difference between Canada and Malawi’s Christian population, I have to wonder where Canadian Christian enthusiasm has gone? Has our focus on “cultural sensitivity” and “political correctness” silenced the voices of religious Canadians or have we collectively accepted that religion is a private matter?
As far as anyone can tell, Christianity first came to Malawi in 1859 when Dr. David Livingstone reached Lake Malawi via the Shire River. A slew of Christian churches followed Livingstone and Malawi was subsequently “mission-ized.” Religion became an all-encompassing social norm that trickled into political and economic practices.
In 1992 the Roman Catholic Church exercised its power in making the unprecedented move to publically criticize the government in a widely distributed pastoral letter which noted that the “monopoly of mass media and censorship prevent the expression of dissenting views [and] some people have paid dearly for their political opinions.”
The government attempted to muzzle and slander the Catholic priests that were involved but the damage was already done. Several other churches followed suit and subsequently made huge strides for freedom of expression.
Not long after this episode, a political upheaval resulted in the introduction of a multi-party system and the sense of excitement for journalistic freedom that Jika Nkolokosa, the Acting Executive Director at MIJ (Malawi Institute of Journalism), describes in an earlier blog, Political Fascination in Malawi.
But with enormous social power, religious institutions also have the burden of social responsibility. The concept of the separation of church and state go back at least as far as 1802 and since then there has been serious debate as to the presence of religious associations in a political context. In Malawi, the church’s social influence both directly and indirectly affects political activity and for now the debate seems stifled, if existent.
With blatant displays of the church’s reach through messages of God flashing at me from the minibus to the newspaper stand, I’d like to explain to the Malawian sticker-graffiti army that I already had a healthy fear of God, now I fear minibuses.