Missionaries and their African successors


King Menelik of Ethiopia described the process of colonisation thus: first comes the explorers, the missionary and lastly the gunboat treaty maker. This picture is almost correct with regard to how most African states were annexed to European empires.

No impartial historian, however, would say that missionary arrival did nothing but harm. To the contrary, since what they introduced is being carried on and continued by their indigenous successors, they must have brought something valuable.

Whether we believe in Christianity or not and whether we belong to a particular denomination or not, we can learn some valuable lessons from the manner many of the missionaries were dedicated to their duties. They referred to their careers as a calling from God, and not just a matter of picking up jobs. Their spirit of dedication was astounding. They came to work among people whose languages they did not understand and in environments that were harsh; some teemed with tropical diseases which were not familiar to them.


Let us first take their pioneer, David Livingstone from Blantyre, Scotland. He started his missionary career in Cape colony and Botswana where he learned Setswana. But he decided to be a pathfinder for other missionary societies to publish the evils of slave trade and open routes for legitimate trade. To their objectives for him it was a matter of life or death.

Most of the times in his travels, he was just accompanied by African guides and servants.

He then did not know most of the languages of the chiefs or kings he visited and yet he was received with open arms. How he overcame the language barriers is a story that has not been fully explained. After he visited many parts of southern and eastern Africa, he appealed for the missionary work in 1857 at Cambridge University in the Shire Highlands. The first batch of missionaries at Magomero in 1861 met disasters. This did not deter others to come. In 1875, two years after Livings tone’s death, missionaries from Scotland arrived and started work at Cape Maclear in Mangochi. Several of them died but their leader Dr Robert Laws did not give up; he was determined to succeed.


In October 1876, the established Church of Scotland with the permission of Yao Chief Kapeni started its own mission between Ndirande and Soche mountains. Its leader was Henry Henderson whose name is commemorated in the Henry Henderson Institute.

Pioneer missionaries were very resourceful. They were what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called self-actualisers; people who aimed to fulfill themselves by doing something extra and above the requirement of their offices they held. They learned African languages sufficiently to preach in them. Dr Alexander Heatherwick wrote the first known Chinyanja or Chimang’anja dictionary.

In the North, Dr Donald Fraser, a prolific writer, wrote a Ngoni dictionary while Dr W. Turner wrote the Tumbuka and Tonga dictionary. Thomas Cullen Young who came as an accountant of the Livingstonia Mission studied African customs and history and wrote books – the best known is History of the Tumbuka Kamanga People.

Similar stories can be mentioned of other missions. A recent example is Father Matthew Shoffeleers who came to serve the Catholic Church. He wrote books on the people of the Shire Valley, the Chewa and perhaps most important the book that narrated how multiparty system was restored.

Some missionaries encouraged Africans to write books concerning their tribal customs or histories. Others like Fraser were impressed with Ingoma and mthemba (wedding) songs encouraged Africans to compose hymns using traditional tunes. The Dutch Reformed Church reared Samuel Yosiah Nthala, author of Mbiri ya Achewa, Nthondo, Namon Katengeza and Msiyamboza.

Half a century has passed since Malawi took over management of local branches of their churches. It is not easy to identify works of self-actualisation among them beyond routine performance.

Most of our prelates are highly educated. Some have doctorate degrees. But when shall we have original thinkers among them even if it means interpreting for us teachings of the Fathers of the Church; the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin etc.

The Nyasaland government did not take genuine interest in African education until the year 1926 following criticisms by the Phelps Stokes Commission of 1924. By that time, missionaries had introduced writing into African languages, inducted Africans in journalism through publishing newspapers such as Zoona (truth) and Vyaro na Vyaro (miscellaneous countries). They had built hospitals and teachers training colleges. Government built on foundations laid by missionaries.

Some of our prelates think their primary duty is to criticise government for its acts and omissions. As has been said many times by sages of the world, example is the best method of teaching. Let your works speak for you; when you spend too much time pointing fingers at other people, you forget your primary responsibility which is to do best in your own field. To churches, politics is incidental not their main objective. I am not suggesting that churches should close their eyes when they see corruption or neglect of duties in places but that they should keep pioneering in the fields which government is not doing or doing much. We should like to see a Mother Theresa or an Albert Schweizer among us.

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