Driving from Blantyre to Bemvu early this morning got me thinking that the same journey was made in the 1880s by the Scottish missionaries as they first made contact with the Ngoni people of the Bemvu area. Both were relative newcomers to Malawi – the Scots arriving in David Livingstone’s wake and the Ngoni as refugees, having lost out in a power struggle in the Zulu kingdom in South Africa.
Known for their military prowess, the Ngoni struck fear into the hearts of their new-found neighbours. The Scots must have had some qualms as they made their way from Blantyre down into the River Shire valley and up into the Angoni Highlands. Soon, however, they struck up a friendship with Gomani, the Ngoni chief, and his people. Strong bonds were formed – so much so that Bemvu and surrounding areas remain to this day within the Synod of Blantyre.
During the past decade I have been privileged to be part of a rekindling of relations between Scotland and Bemvu as the Netherlorn Churches, where I was minister, have shared a twinning relationship with their counterparts at Bemvu. Together they have built a “Seed for Life” project that strengthens agricultural production at Bemvu and provides a daily meal for the schoolchildren – 1200 of them. So I was among friends and the welcome was overwhelming.
I can only describe it as the spiritual equivalent of a sauna. Not that it was very hot – it is winter time in Malawi. But I felt like I was bathed in a spiritual warmth that touched every pore. A simple yet profound prayer before breakfast set the tone. Then in church we sang some of the old Ngoni war songs that were transposed into Christian hymns – particularly poignant at a time when Malawi is divided with political demonstrations sometimes turning violent. People sang and danced with passion, everyone caught up in the spiritual power of the occasion. Deep notes of faith were struck, punctuated by ripples of laughter. Malawi might be ranked low on the scale of economic development but in the life of faith it leads the way.