Harry Kambwiri Matecheta is remembered as the first Malawian to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Less well remembered is another distinction – he was the first Malawian to publish a work of church history. This was his Blantyre Mission: Stories of its Beginning, published in 1951. Last Saturday saw the launch of a new edition.
At the time he wrote there were already a number of accounts of the early history of Blantyre Mission, a story well worth the telling. But Matecheta was motivated to put his own perspective on paper. He was very loyal to the Scottish missionaries, who regarded him as their protégé. But he was also deeply aware of the Africans who had played their part in the life and work of the Mission:
It seems that in all of the mission stations there are Africans who always support the work of God. The whites will come and work for a while and then leave, but the Africans will not leave; they must be honoured greatly, for they have become pillars of the church.
He was ahead of his time in realising that the story of the Christian missions was primarily an African story. European missionaries had a role to play but it would always be a secondary one. He set out to strike the right balance.
What was most gripping about the story in Matecheta’s view was the way in which, through the Mission, tribes that had been in deadly conflict found peace with one another. No one exemplified this better than he himself. As a Yao he could write, “In 1884 the Ngoni had brought their warring to our village. In 1893 we brought the Gospel to their villages.” Not only that but Matecheta was to spend most of the rest of his life as a Yao living and serving in a Ngoni area.
He chose to finish his history with an account of the opening of the Henry Henderson Institute, a major educational initiative, at Blantyre Mission in 1909:
That was a great day, with thousands of people gathering together. Present at the function was Tom Bokwito, one of the slaves freed by Dr. Livingstone at Mbame, and Rev. Thomas Maseya, son of Chief Maseya. I too was there: a son of a Yao who fought against Dr. Livingstone; and man whose uncle was shot by the Mang’anja. In those days the Yao were conquering the land of the Mang’anja. Is this not true peace that the children of those who were once great enemies now learn together?
He has a message for Malawi of the 2020s as much as that of the 1950s. And a message that is not only for Malawi. It is therefore a joy to see his pioneering book back in print.