In Malawi, God’s word is everywhere.
Minibuses have “Fear God” scrolled across their hoods, salons signs are painted with “God is Great Beauty Salon” and restaurants menus read “God’s Tasty Foods”.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Questions about your religious beliefs are common among co-workers and friends – even from strangers.
God is also the answer to all problems. As my Canadian co-workers and I were told, “You aren’t married? Because you don’t go to church” and “You are unhappy? You need Jesus.”
With another four months ahead of me here in Malawi, I longed to be a part of a community – and attending the Catholic Church in my neighbourhood seemed like the perfect introduction.
It had been 15 years since I last attended a church service and, even then, I only went a handful of times with my German grandmother. I dreaded those early Sunday mornings full of endless preaching that left me feeling little more than a cynical sinner.
I arrived half an hour early at St. Montfort’s Parish to attend the 8:30am English service. A vast crowd had already formed outside the red brick archways. I held my breath and pictured myself going up in flames as I was shoved through the threshold of the church.
Inside, the church was simple: the walls were whitewashed and filled with wooden pews – a far cry from the over-embellished churches I had seen in Europe and Latin America.
The pews were packed and the aisles full. Smoke and incense filled the air and white and purple fabric was draped throughout the church celebrating September, which was declared by the Pope as “Bible month”.
I shuffled around searching for a seat and found the last remaining spot, front row and center, right beside a nun.
In Canadian churches, it always seems as though there is an abundance of free seats. Here, even with five services on Sundays, the church is overflowing with worshippers. While 84 per cent of Canadians adhere to a religion, approximately 97 percent of Malawians attend church or are religious.
As is the case in many other African countries, Malawians have a profound and perpetual belief in God.
Christianity is the main religion in Malawi, with 60 per cent of Christians being Protestant and 15 per cent Catholic. Other sects include Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Church of Central African Presbyterians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was outlawed by President Banda and made legal again in 1995.
The second most prominent religion in Malawi is Islam, with 15-20 per cent of the population being Muslims.
Indigenous beliefs and religions make up about 5 per cent of the population.
David Livingstone first introduced Christianity to Malawi at the end of 1800 during the British colonialism. The religion spread quickly across the country, and until 2001, Bible study was an essential subject in Malawian secondary schools. However, Christianity in Malawi doesn’t follow strict Western practice, as many Malawians practice Christianity alongside traditional African rituals.
This quickly became evident as the church service got underway.
“Satanism and witchcraft is everywhere,” warned the priest. “Witchcraft is in our country, communities, schools and families. Even if you don’t believe, it’s there. Jesus even had to face Satan. “ He then proceeded to explain the three stages of evil- 333, 666 and 999,
“The only way to combat evil is through the word of God,” he explained.
Although Malawi is deeply religious, you don’t have to go far to hear criticism of the country’s God-fearing ways.
One person I met blamed religion for making Malawians lazy, “because they believe God would solve their problems and the people will not help themselves.”
And many human rights organizations blame strong religious influence for Malawi’s strong anti-gay stance.
The United Nation recently produced its first brochure highlighting its position on sexual orientation and gender identity human rights, in response some African countries, including Malawi, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) are fighting to define human rights regarding religion to exclude homosexuality.
However, the Zambian priest presiding over this church service preached about acceptance between Christians and non-believers. This church was also the “House of Everyone” regardless of their race or nationality, he announced as he glanced at me, one of the only “mzungu” – or white person – in the congregation.
Between hymns and much to the delight of the worshippers, the priest told jokes, referring to “the constipation and gas of religion”.
When the service ended, I left the church not converted, but with a smile on my face – and feeling a little more Malawian.