Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 September 2018
When Paul writes to Timothy, “Continue in what you have learned … because you know those from whom you learned it”, he’s referring to his grandmother and mother. In Timothy’s childhood, it was the faith that first lived in Lois and Eunice that deeply impressed him. Paul reminds him how from infancy he had known the holy Scriptures.
Today, I’ve witnessed how this works firsthand, but in a setting for which I never thought I’d have the privilege. I walked in my friend Moses’ shoes for a day, sat with his “Eunice”, heard stories of his “Lois” and discovered how oral tradition passes on the teachings of holy Scripture. I’ll never be able to read these verses from Timothy in the same way again.
Leaving the tarmac at Balaka, the dirt “road” only takes us so far, so we park in the grass and meet the village head-man (CHIEF) for courtesies and pics. You become chief through bloodlines, usually by being the eldest son of a chief. You carry localised authority throughout the village. He and his deputies promise to look after the car for their local man-made-good (Moses) and we set off along a grassy goat track, and into a gully. This is where Moses is negotiating with government authorities trying to get a road built and bridge across the river one day soon. By “river”, please understand that this is the dry season and there’s not a drop of water left … anywhere.
We make it up the other side and into his village compound. Here is Moses’ clan. I’ve never been in such a setting before. Rudimentary subsistence-type living with no benefit at all from any modern progress. I say this with no disrespect – but it seems as if the entire 20th century has not happened. Picture a circle of 3-roomed, mud-brick and timber pole, tinned-roof, weather-worn homes. Each of them with family members such as Moses’ mum, aunty (no. 1), aunty (no. 2), nieces and nephews. This clan is so proud of the one member of their family who’s made good.
Picture neatly swept bare ground with not a speck of debris, leaf or twig. The ground is so neat and clean you can see the sweep marks from the broom. The clan’s nearest water supply is a bore hole, a torturous 2km away. There is no electricity, no English, no school or church. The nearest school and CCAP church is a vigorous 5km walk away in Balaka. This is Moses’ family compound. The only English came from one niece who’s made it through to level 12 at school yet with no obvious future course of training available for her. This young girl was afraid of opening up in conversation before this stranger, in case her school English let her down.
Many of the older folk have lived in this village all their lives with no ability to read or write (in any language). For Moses’ parents’ generation, it was poverty (no school fees) and other family necessities that demanded they drop out of school after Standard 2 (that’s second grade at Primary school). Sadly, the pattern repeated for Moses’ generation and now even the next. The hindrances are felt more so for the girls of the family. As soon as there’s a call for domestic duties – to assist in water collection, cooking or looking after little ones – the girls are expected to stay home.
These beautiful people received me warmly. I sat on the ground in the dirt and played “what’s your name” with about a dozen children. I think this might have startled them at first (“What’s this strange visitor doing sitting on the ground with us?”). I frightened some of the little ones as they had never seen a white man. But there’s always a way to break the ice. Even when there’s no common language available, you can start with your own name. Then you include the name of every child in front of you, playing that old game Concentration – trying to memorise and say out loud each child’s name in turn.
There were at least 12 in front of me. They laughed hilariously at every mistake. Then, I started to analyse meanings and I get a little English from them as they tell me “Chisomo” means Grace, and “Chifundo” means “Mercy”. I tell them about twins I know named Chisomo and Chifundo, and make something out of that. The third step in this is to (hopefully) find some disciples names and I get these boys proudly come to the front. Sure enough, I found a Simon and a Thomas, and, let the reader understand, I already had a John. This leads me to talk of the best name, the name above all names (and the WHOLE group of children look around anxiously, secretly hoping it will be them) … the name Jesus … and then I can say why. By this stage there’s a helpful old uncle who joins me and helps with language. This is Sunday School 101 without a common language.
After playing with the kids, Moses and I enjoyed nsima and chicken. I gathered the village together and gave a Bible message from Acts 16, especially the part of Lydia’s conversion where, down by the river, the Lord opened her heart to believe. I spoke of what it means to be born again. And I pointed to agogo (Moses’ mum) whose heart was opened to the Lord’s message years ago and through that all her family can likewise come into that same blessing. Moses knew the holy Scripture from infancy from his mum and his grandmother.
While speaking, I realised that here was a whole family locked into village life with no Bible and that the ONLY way they are coming into contact with the Word of God is by memory and the oral teaching of a parent, or on this odd occasion when a visitor speaks to them. Here’s Moses’ mum, a dear woman with a sincere faith in Christ, literally bubbling with joy at my message. She was sort-of bouncing up and down in delight. It’s a very hard trek for this frail old lady to get the CCAP church on a Sunday. Even when she does hire a pushing bike, it’s questionable what Bible exposition they might have on any given Sunday. I can’t say for sure that the Word of God is central in the lives of every CCAP congregation. For this moment, I wanted to stay forever.
Imagine … your entire life contained within the confines of your village. And while there is a written language available and printed copies of the Word of God, it’s all inaccessible for you because you cannot read any written words. There’s no Christian fellowship for miles. The only access to Christian faith is word of mouth from older folk who know the faith and can remember and recite verses of Scripture. One of Moses’ plans is to build a prayer house in his family compound so they can meet for Christian fellowship without trekking.
Here was this dear saint (agogo) bobbing with delight … then there were a few nodding heads from aunties, and then wide-eyed children. At that moment, apart from stored memory, I am their SOLE SOURCE of God’s Word. They can’t read, and they live too remotely to access the “big city” of Balaka. I was it. I feel I must come back, live in Balaka and visit the village daily with a message from God’s Word and spend time training up someone to take over.
The need is urgent: Islam is active and clever. It’s a Muslim area and they are well-resourced. They persuade young girls from the village to marry a Muslim man with the promise of a clean home and “free” education for all their children. A desperate desire to find release from poverty allows girls to be tempted. The lure of daily food and a clean bed means that an offer to become the 4th wife of a Muslim man is worth considering. Young girls from these “Christian” villages don’t know any better, and they’re off – seduced and trapped by the tentacles of a false and dark religion. Moses weeps over this. We should weep with him.
But wait, there’s more: there’s ten thousand other remote villages like this in the land. Who will come with me for this ministry? The folk are hungry, attentive, wide-eyed, responsive ... but WHO will come? It felt strange to ask that in this day and age, surely we have covered the globe? Haven’t all peoples been “reached”? Not so. I can show you village after village in Malawi where there is no access to, or memory of, the Word of God. Illiteracy, village constraints, old traditions still prevent hundreds of thousands of people from hearing the Word of God and seeing the beauty of Jesus Christ.
I wanted to stay. But, after speaking from the Scriptures about the need to be born again, the best I could do was to pray for them. With the help of the previous game of Concentration, I prayed for each by name ... then sadly had to trek out of village, down the gully, back to the car and the long drive to Blantyre. THIS is why I come. I want to reach these people for the love of Christ. One village at a time, but I need ten thousand lifetimes.
I know, I know ... sounding a bit like my missionary hero David Livingstone ... “the smoke of a thousand villages” … but it gets to you.
“How can they believe in the one of whom they have never heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them.” (Romans 10).
John P Wilson