One of the most commonly used words in Malawi is munthu (person). It peppers everyday conversation, especially in its plural form anthu (people). But this common and constantly used language has hidden depths, according to Malawian theologian Augustine Musopole.
In his quest for an authentically Malawian theology, he has identified uMunthu (personhood or human-ness) as the starting point. Hold on, you might protest, is theology not supposed to be about God? Yes, says Augustine, but truly knowing our humanity leads us to true knowledge of God, especially when we remember that God has come among us in the truly human life of Jesus.
In part, it is a protest theology. Augustine is aggrieved that many missionaries saw little value in traditional Malawi culture and sought to replace it with their own Western Christian faith. He argues, to the contrary, that it is by digging deeper into Malawi’s traditional life and culture that a proper foundation is found for Malawian Christian faith.
This is not just an argument about history but something of vital importance for the Malawi nation today. Against many dehumanising trends, Augustine presents his uMunthu theology as a sound philosophical basis from which to address Malawi’s many contemporary challenges. He has been prolific in addressing this theological critique to all kinds of malaise, pointing the way to a wholesome and hopeful renewal of national life.
He draws deeply on Malawian sources, but his theology is far from parochial. As we all battle with the demoralising impact of the corona pandemic, we face the question of the human person. Who are we and what is our vocation?
One attempt to answer the question comes from Malawi in the shape of Augustine Musopole’s new book uMunthu Theology: an Introduction. I feel honoured that I have had the privilege of editing it for publication – a task that lifted my spirits in what otherwise could have been rather a dismal January. Now it is ready to go the press, a book that can act as a launchpad for the next stage of theological work in Malawi, while at the same time being a gift from Malawi to the world.