Life in Malawi suggests Marx was right about religion – Susan Dalgety

St Michael's and All Angels Church in Blantyre, Malawi, completed in 1891, was designed by Rev David C Scott from Edinburgh and built, by hand, by Malawi craftsmen
St Michael's and All Angels Church in Blantyre, Malawi, completed in 1891, was designed by Rev David C Scott from Edinburgh and built, by hand, by Malawi craftsmen
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Nearly everyone has faith of some kind in Malawi, a country where only 11 per cent of the workforce has a formal job with a regular salary and employment rights, writes Susan Dalgety.

The woman heading towards us on the lake shore stopped and smiled. “Hello, welcome,” she said.

Then, turning to the three children walking silently behind her, she introduced them, “These are my family. We are Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and with that she continued on her way.

I thought little of our lunchtime encounter. Everyone in Malawi, it seems, has faith. The majority of the population adhere to the Presbyterian values and traditions introduced by Scottish missionaries in the second half of the 19th century.

One of the finest buildings in the country, St Michael and All Angels Church, was built in 1891 by a team of Malawians led by an Edinburgh minister, David Clement Scott. There is a large Catholic community, a similar number of Muslims, and a growing band of Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Adventists, all in thrall to the idea of a supreme being, whether Allah or God and, of course, life after death.

A few hours after meeting the friendly woman, she arrived at our front door, which was lying wide open to let in the last of the late afternoon sun.

“I have this for you,” she smiled, proffering two copies of the Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytising magazine.

I hesitated, recalling the time as a young mother I argued for 20 minutes on my doorstep, on Christmas Eve morning, with an earnest Jehovah’s Witness determined to show me the error of my heathen ways.

READ MORE from Susan Dalgety’s Letter from Malawi series

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But politeness won out over my scepticism, and I took the magazines with good grace. She bobbed, then said, “thank you, goodbye”, and left me alone with my atheism.

Flicking through one of them later that evening, I found, under the headline “Finding contentment”, a verse from Hebrews: “Let your way of life be free of the love of money, while you are content with the present things.”

Is that why everyone in Malawi has faith? Is religion truly the opiate of the masses, as Marx once said. Does the love of a god make up for having no money for school fees, or even food? Does the prospect of heaven, of a better life after death, compensate for living with HIV, or hunger, or malaria, and sometimes all three?

Why did Malawians embrace a white god when they had perfectly reasonable religious beliefs of their own, like the Bimbi cult in southern Malawi, which, like Christianity and Islam, has its own theology, liturgy and priesthood?

“Why did Scotland abandon God after you gave him to us?” a young journalist asked me several years ago, again on the shores of Lake Malawi. I had just finished explaining to her that most Scots did not go to church. I muttered something about economic development and quickly changed the subject. It is tough to argue with someone who has blind faith, when you have none.

My existential musings were rudely interrupted on Wednesday morning when our cheap Canon printer stuttered to a halt, just as I was trying to print out my book chapter on Malawi’s economy, which is also stuttering.

It turns out our printer cannot work unless both the colour and the black-and-white cartridges are full. “But I don’t need colour,” I wailed to my long-suffering husband. “I hate capitalism,” I shrieked when I realised I would have to shell out £25 for an accessory I would not use.

Ronex, the young man at the stationery shop in the nearby town of Chithenche, who cheerfully printed out my draft chapter on his functioning Epsom, does not hate capitalism, even though he is a victim of its cruel vagaries.

“I just want a job,” he told us later when we met for a longer chat. “I studied computing science and information systems at university, in Zomba, but I dropped out, I couldn’t afford it.”

Ronex is not alone. Access to higher education is fast becoming the preserve of Malawi’s small middle-class. Its elite has always been able to afford to educate their children, often abroad.

The Higher Education Students and Loan Board does offer some help to students from poor backgrounds, but with tuition fees running at around half a million kwacha a year, before living costs, it is struggling to meet demand.

“It is very clear the board seems to be overwhelmed...” thundered a leader in the Daily Times a few weeks ago. “...That is why being selected to university has become a curse to parents and students.”

Ronex explained: “I am trying to study project management by correspondence. And I work in my brother-in-law’s stationery shop when he goes to get more supplies, but what I really want is a proper job with a company.

“But there are no jobs, and very few proper companies.” He shrugs. In one brief, almost throwaway, sentence, Ronex summed up Malawi’s economy.

It has a population of 18 million people and growing. The majority of adults – six million at the last count – are in some form of paid work, but that simply means they, sometimes, earn money in exchange for their labour – as domestic servants, in casual labour, or growing and selling surplus crops.

Only 650,000 people, 11 per cent of the workforce, have a formal job, with a regular salary, labour rights and some security, so they can plan with confidence for marriage, babies and retirement. There are only 14 corporations listed on the Malawi stock exchange, and nine of those are in financial services. The money lenders.

Malawi’s online Yellow Pages shows 10,000 companies and NGOs, but many are small enterprises, employing one or two people at most.

And job opportunities in Malawi’s small manufacturing sector have declined in recent years, though the service sector is growing, albeit very slowly.

Research proves the brutal reality that Ronex faces. Despite investment in education, from early years to vocational training, there is very little evidence of a structural change in Malawi’s labour market. Farming is how most young people will enter the job market, and this is where they are likely to remain.

Ronex is still optimistic he will realise his dream.

“I love project management,” he says, “and I will be a good employee.” But I fear his faith may be tested over the months and years to come.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the majority of Malawians still put their trust in an ancient prophet who declared, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”