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Review of In Search of Truth and Justice / Politics and Christianity in Malawi / Malawi's Second Democratic Elections / Living Dangerously


By Kevin Ward

In Search of Truth and Justice: Confrontations between Church and State in Malawi 1960-1999 by Matthew Schoffeleers. Kachere Book no. 8, Christian Literature Association in Malawi, Blantyre, 1999. 383pp. ISBN 9990816190 (pb).

Politics and Christianity in Malawi 1875-1940 by John McCracken.  Kachere Monograph no. 9, Christian Literature Association in Malawi, Blantyre, 2000. 376pp. ISBN 990816245 (pb).

Malawi’s Second Democratic Elections: Process, Problems and Prospects eds Martin Ott, Kings M. Phiri, Nandini Patel. Kachere Book no. 10, Zomba, Malawi, 2000. 220pp. ISBN 9990816158 (pb).

Living Dangerously: A Memoir of Political Change in Malawi by Padraig O Maille.  Kachere Book no. 11, Christian Literature Association in Malawi, Blantyre, 2000. 189pp. ISBN 9990816217 (pb).

(Note: All these books are available through the African Books Collective, The Jam Factory, 27 Park End St., Oxford 0X1 1HU).

In 1992 and 1993 the Banda regime, which had ruled Malawi with increasing authoritarianism and abuse of power for 30 years, came to a sudden and ignominious end. The manner of its demise resembled the rapid collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, under popular pressure, at the beginning of the 1990s. In Malawi, religious communities, which had for long been tacit supporters or silent victims of the regime found the resources to articulate the frustrations felt by the Malawian people as a whole. The University, where dissent had been silenced as effectively as in the churches, also found a voice, largely through student protest and the organisation, by the academic faculty, of seminars critically examining the state of Malawian society and demanding democratisation. The Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Malawi played a distinguished part in this ferment, utilising its dual role as part of the academy and its strong links with the faith communities. The inauguration by this department of the Kachere series of publications, which explore issues of faith, culture and society in contemporary Malawi, is one of the legacies of the ferment of the early 1990s.

The four books under review all examine the interface between religion and society in Malawi. Martin Schoffeleers, a Marxist priest, is a distinguished historian and anthropologist of religion in Central Africa.  In Search of Truth and Justice is a chronicle of the stirring events of 1992 and 1993, in the larger context of the role of religious institutions in Malawi. It was the 1992 Lenten Letter of the Catholic bishops which effectively sparked off the terminal crisis of the Banda regime. As the crisis developed the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) - with its Scottish heritage probably most important Christian religious body in the country - became increasingly involved in the demand for a referendum on multi-party democracy and in negotiating a transfer of power.  Presbyterians had played a crucial role in the independence struggle and both individual Christians and, for better or for worse, were inevitably deeply entangled in the direction of the post-independence Malawi Congress Party. The Catholic Church, apolitical for much of the 1950s, had attempted to form a Christian Democratic Party as independence drew near, a move which the Protestant elite of MCP regarded with suspicion as a brake on the autonomy of the African voice in Malawian politics. The re-entry of the Catholic Church into the political area in 1992 revived those suspicions and, according to Schoffeleers, explains something of the apoplectic response of the government to the Lenten letter. But, as Schoffeleers’ account well illustrates, it rapidly became clear that another dose of repression and the muffling of free speech, was no longer going to work.  The Catholics started the ball rolling, but Presbyterians (lay politicians and clergy) were crucial in the establishment of the Public Affairs Committee. This was to become an important forum for the negotiations for an orderly transfer of power. Intellectuals reared in the Livingstonia Presbyterian tradition of Northern Malawi had suffered grievously from the political purges and clampdown on academic freedom of the Banda regime. Eventually it was only the Central Presbytery, in the area of the country where Banda’s main support was based, which remained committed to ‘Kamuzu’ and the MCP. In effect, the CCAP came to reflect the regional cleavages of Malawi politics, which both the 1994 and 1999 elections seemed to entrench. Malawi’s Second Democratic Elections examines the implications of the phenomenon of regionalism for Malawi’s democracy as a major factor in Malawi’s politics.  It contains essays specifically on the conduct of the 1999 elections and its general political implications, on ideology, the media, the use and misuse of language during the electoral campaign. There is a useful essay by Martin Ott, reflecting on the continuing struggles of the churches on shedding their  ‘ecclesiastical Kamuzuism’, and also examining the public role of the Anglican Church, previously much less significant than the Catholics and Presbyterians. In view of the fact that the incumbent President, Bakili Muluzi, is a Muslim, it would have been interesting to have more extended reflections on the place of the Muslim community in Malawi’s social and political life. (Matthew Schofeleers promises a separate book on the role of traditional religious societies in the political processes of the 1990s.) The book contains useful statistical material on the election results of 1999.

The third book Living Dangerously is a personal memoir by Padraig O Maille (Patrick O’Malley), an Irish Catholic Kiltegan missionary, who worked in the Department of English at the University of Malawi before his deportation in 1992. It is particularly interesting for its account of the imprisonment (and murder) of politicians from the independence struggle (such as Orton and Vera Chirwa), academics and creative writers. The author’s efforts to raise international awareness about the imprisonment of his colleague and friend, Jack Mapanje, is central to the account and was particularly memorable to this reviewer as he heard the reading of a poem by Mapanje at the 2002 Edinburgh Book Festival, in a series of readings by ‘Imprisoned Writers’ organised by Amnesty, Scottish Pen and Index on Censorship.  O’Malley’s book includes at the beginning a brief resume of the importance of Livingstonia (the mission of the Free Church of Scotland) for the intellectual life of Malawi, and in this context it is good that Kachere have reprinted John McCracken’s Politics and Christianity in Malawi 1875-1940: The Impact of the Livingstonia Mission, not least because it will make available to a new generation of students of history, religion and society in Malawi, this pioneering historiographical work.

The members of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Malawi University, not least its former member, Kenneth Ross, now working for the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, are to be heartily congratulated for the Kachere series, a brave publishing venture of considerable importance for African studies in Malawi.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 70-72]

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