The electricity had been out for 24 hours where I was staying in Namiwawa, Blantyre, either due to the heavy seasonal rains or the theft of the oil out of the area transformer tower.
It was Sunday morning and still raining heavily when I set out on the 45 minute walk to town where there would be electricity and maybe even an Internet connection.
Here in the “Warm Heart of Africa” it wasn’t long until a Malawian man walking in the same direction offered to share his umbrella.
“Are you going to church?” he asked as we walked through the rain. “No, I’m going to buy one of these,” I said, pointing at his umbrella. “Are you Christian?” he persisted. “No,” I said. “Then you must be Muslim,” he stated with the satisfaction of someone who’d just solved the Sunday crossword puzzle. “No,” I said again. “Then, what are you?” he asked. “Nothing I guess,” I said.
The base reality of my response was resonant: “Nothing.” Because in Malawi, religion is everything, with religious belief even manifesting as an indirect or direct roadblock to the realization of human rights.
According to Chrissie Kabaghe, a language and culture officer working with the Peace Corps, the ubiquitous nature of religion in Malawi means that “everything is rested on God” and that Malawians’ undulating acceptance of God’s perceived will often takes the place of agency in the fight for acceptable standards of living.
“Religion is so hard to understand in Malawi,” Kabaghe said. “Everything is rested on God. A lot of people die and people accept that it’s God’s will, but it’s really people not doing anything.
“Very few people understand that they have to make their own life – that they have to work hard to make their own dreams come true,” she said. “Even people who are educated still believe that if you’re dying early, if anything bad happens, that it’s ‘God’s time’, that ‘it’s God’s plan.’”
For Kabaghe, the ill effects of the “It’s God’s will” mentality have hit close to home.
“I take the case of diabetes in Malawi right now; people are dying from diabetes and people are saying, ‘It’s God will.’
“I tried to explain to my mom that it’s not God’s will, it’s our own making – taking five sugars in our tea, our eating habits, no exercise; we’re doing harm to ourselves. But people still want to believe that it’s God’s will.”
In the same way that the saying “It’s God’s will” is being used to excuse unhealthy habits, the ideology has become embroiled in human rights issues as it has been invoked to explain away unconstitutional human rights abuses – habits that the Malawi-based Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) is working to educate and advocate against.
According to CHRR’s Luke Tembo, “religion and ‘God’s word’ have always been used as an excuse to perpetuate human rights abuses and violations in Malawi.
“We have had instances where children have been denied medicine by their parents or guardians because their God and religious beliefs do not believe in medicine,” Tembo stated in an email.
“It is even worse when you come to rights of minority groups like LGBT – we have witnessed people calling upon the killing of these people because they are doing things against the will of God.”
Tembo stated that from Malawi’s rural areas through to its urban city-centres, the “It’s God’s will” mentality reigns supreme, especially as many Malawians “have lost trust in their leaders and they think the only way to turn to is God.”
“We as human rights organizations have a very big task to challenge this belief and it will take a very long time,” he said.
In the meantime, Tembo with CHRR are devising strategies to advocate for human rights that work within the religious context of the country.
“Mainly, we have incorporated religious leaders into our work of human rights advocacy,” he stated, noting that the organization maintains a team of advocates that includes two Reverend fathers. “We use these leaders to counter and teach in religious ways why we need to respect and protect human rights.”
Because in the fight for health and human rights, “It’s God’s will” isn’t good enough.