Religious institutions have made Malawians what they are today. This is so particular with Christian institutions. They introduced into this country educational and health systems of the type we know today.
They taught a variety of educational discipline, vocational courses and the English which, despite the departure of colonial rule, we have found too valuable to dispense with.
Unfortunately some of the people who have access to the print media and some of those who participate in public affairs do not seem to know the history of this country and the role some of the religious societies play. They are apt to abuse or ridicule such institutions at what seems to be slight provocation, what a pity.
A case in point is the manner a minister responded to the Livingstonia Synods plea for government bursaries for students of the newly established Loudon Training College. He is reported to have referred to the synod as crazy, an offensive word to describe a person heading a respectable and historical institution.
A recap of the Livingstonia Synod’s role in the starting and spreading of education in Malawi might help us see the Synod differently.
Beginning operations in Mangochi in 1875, the Free Church of Scotland in 1879 moved up north and established a station at Bandawe Nkhata- Bay in 1881.
Hitherto prospective missionaries overseas had a poor view of the Shire Highlands and lands west of Lake Malawi.
This was because of the unhappy experience of the Universities Mission to Central Africa (Church of England) at Magomero in 1861.
They heard that this country was a field without peace because of Arabs and Swahili slave traders with their Yao collaborator in the south, in the bloody-thirsty Ngoni in the centre and north.
They saw Malawi as too risky, until they heard of the progress the Free Church was making both in the centre and the north. Then other missionaries started arriving in droves but they confined themselves to the south; a few went to the centre.
Hardly any proceeded to the north.
The people of the Northern Region must be especially grateful to the Free Church of Scotland.
When government officials, missionaries and traders were talking of the Dead North not worthy of their venture, it was the Free Church alone that fixed its tap roots there.
It made friendship with Mazongedaba Ngoni, planted two mission stations and went about opening village and central schools all over the north including Kasungu in the Central region and Lundazi in eastern Zambia.
Scotland was no El Dorado. The missionaries it sent did not arrive with the trappings of wealth. The missionaries persuaded chiefs and village headmen to build village schools by voluntary labour, offer free food and accommodation to mission teachers.
The policy of the mission was to offer education to everyone who was willing. It charged very low fees so that no one would give lack of money as the excuse for not sending his children to school.
When I first went to school on the eve of World War II the fee for class one pupils was three pence per annum. It is difficult to convert this to modern currency.
With three pence you could buy ten eggs those days. During my father’s schooldays people could go about six months or a year without touching a penny.
Missionaries allowed pupils to pay fees and buy books using pumpkins and chickens.
In one year there was a plague of rats. Missionaries directed that any student who brought six tails of a dead rat would be admitted free. My father was one of those who took advantage of this clever step of destroying the rodents.
On a scanty budget the missionaries went on building more and better schools, modeling the primary education on that of Scotland.
The North was dead because there were no tea or tobacco estates. The only people who had money in their hands were those who had gone abroad to work. You could walk on a dusty road for sixty kilometers and never meet a vehicle.
But was the North then a region of backwardness all around?
Zimbabwean authors of a history book titled ‘From Iron Age to Independence’, D.E. Needham et all write on page 106, “The Northern Province of Malawi became the most educationally advanced in the whole of Central Africa.”
All this was the achievement of Livingstonia. The other mission you see there in the North these days become active at the beginning of World War II. More than once, I have read that Rumphi has the highest literacy rate.
Livingstonia missionaries learned local languages there and put into writing Chitumbuka, Chitonga, KwaNgonde and Ngoni (Zulu).
They recorded tribal histories and made observations on tribal habits and customs.
At their Chilanga mission station in Kasungu they educated a pupil called Hastings Kamuzu Banda; at Bandawe and Livingstonia they taught Clemens Kadalie, and at Ekwendeni a woman called Rose Chibambo.
The Livingstonia Synod has played a substantial role in educating the Malawi nation on the basis that fees charged should be so low or subsidised that no student should be stopped from taking higher education because of poverty.
Education is a birth right to everyone. The DPP government ought to create scholarships for the deserving poor rather than buying cement and iron sheets for those who can either pay the full price or dispense with the items altogether.
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