In its early days in the late 19th century, Blantyre Mission suffered a series of heartbreaking losses. One after another, young men and women who were loving their life and work in Malawi, succumbed to fatal diseases like blackwater fever. They were mostly in their late 20s or 30s, several recently married with young children.
For those who survived it was very difficult to come to terms with such devastating losses. One step they took was to create memorials to their fallen colleagues in the churches that were just being built in their main centres like Blantyre and Zomba. In some cases, they commissioned stained glass windows while in others they ordered suitably inscribed brass plaques.
By now, of course, the names on the plaques can be honoured but there is no one left who remembers the people. But there is one plaque that is different from the others. For one thing, it honours not a European missionary but an African minister. For another, he did not die young but was over 90 when he died in 1962.
It is also different because it is not in a city church but in the rural church at Bemvu. It honours Harry Kambwiri Matecheta, the first minister and founding father of the church. He was an extraordinary man – Malawi’s first African Presbyterian minister. As a boy in a Yao community, he had been on the receiving end of Ngoni raids but he ended up being a missionary to the Ngoni who adopted him as one of their own.
He loved to preach a message of peace and reconciliation, something that he embodied in his own life. It is a message that continues to be highly relevant, so the living memory represented by the plaque carries much more than mere historical interest.
This might explain why the local community were troubled that a mistake was made when inscribing the dates on the plaque. (If you are ever writing in brass, make sure you get it right!) Today a new plaque, with everything correct, was dedicated. Judging by the enthusiasm of the community, there can be little doubt that the living memory of Harry Matecheta will continue to inspire.