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Mission in Malawi

Malawi (1960-the present)

When in 1960 the Brothers of Maastricht arrived in Malawi, it was still called Nyassaland, as a part of a federation set up by the English with neighbouring Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now respectively Zambia and Zimbabwe). In 1963 the federation broke up. A year later Nyassaland became an independent nation under the name of Malaw^i. The beautiful country - four times the Netherlands - with its large Lake Nyassa (now Lake Malawi) forms part of the great African rift valley, the lowest point being the sweltering valley of the Shiré in the south of Malawi, where the temperature regularly soars to forty degrees centigrade and higher. It is a mountainous country. The average annual temperature varies from 23.3E to 25.6E depending on the altitude. In the elevated region where the brothers live (1,100 m) it may be pretty cool during the night in May. The principal income is from agriculture; tea is the main export product. The greater part of the population lives in the rural areas. About sixty per cent of the population are Christian and about fifteen per cent Muslim. About a fifth of the population are followers of traditional religions. Chichewa is the official language. But English is widely used, e.g. in parliament and in official government documents.

The Brothers of Maastricht went to this country at the request of the Dutch Montfort Fathers. Through their mission Bishop, Mgr J. Theunissen, - born at Schimmert, a village near Maastricht - they had asked for brothers as early as 1958. The aim was not different from the one expressed in earlier requests from Indonesia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone: the support of Catholic missionary work by means of the education of youth at Catholic schools. Initially the General Council did not want to commit itself, for there were no brothers available. The Bishop, however, kept on asking, and in April 1959 Maastricht told him that he could look forward to the arrival of six brother teachers in his vicariate before the beginning of the scholastic year 1960-1961. For a start they would take over an existing secondary school at Mzedi and at the same location open a training college for Catholic teachers. The British colonial administration would contribute towards the cost of that training college. The Bishop had even more ambitious educational plans, but for lack of funds they had to be shelved for the present.

The common problems experienced by the brothers in Sierra Leone repeated themselves in Malawi, at that time still called Nyassaland. But there were some extra difficulties. Independence was round the corner; this redoubled the spirit of rebellion which had plagued the secondary school in Mzedi even before the arrival of the brothers. On the whole the pupils had a poor foundation and were too old for the school. They showed little appreciation for the work of the brothers. The Teacher Training College was in turmoil. All through 1963 there were strikes; the students, all boarders, refused to eat, and at times even directly threatened the staff. It was only the direct interference by the governmental educational inspection that put an end to the regularly rising unrest. The inspection gave binding instructions about a better way of running the school. (In their report the inspectors, who judged from the standpoint of outsiders, inadvertently also gave a sketch of the general approach to teaching which prevailed in the Dutch Congregation!). The inspectors declared that the teacher-centred style should go; instead the school was to be transformed into a living community in which the responsibilities were shared by teachers and pupils alike. Two of the ways to give the pupils more responsibility were: giving the form captains the opportunity to meet independently and the formation of a library committee. The one-sided emphasis on book learning had to be balanced - at last - by promotion of the arts. The inspectors also advised the staff to acquaint themselves with a well-directed school in some other place. The advice was followed and the Brothers' school got into smoother waters, so that the work could be expanded a little.

At the time of writing the province of Malawi numbers five houses: Limbe- Mzedi (1960), Limbe-Mary View (1962), Limbe-Newlands (1980), Thyolo-Mitengo (1991) and the formation house in Limbe (1993) for Malawians who wish to join the Brothers of the Immaculate Conception. The first candidates came forward in 1964. The beginning was an uphill struggle. Nevertheless, at the moment some ten Malawians are full members of the Congregation, two of whom with perpetual vows. Meanwhile they have taken over some administrative tasks in the province, as the Dutch brothers have to retire from office because of advanced age.

The most important expansion of the missionary work in Malawi was the schools for the blind and for the deaf in 1968. In the same year the brothers, in collaboration with the Montfort Fathers, started a Catechetical Training Centre in Likulezi. In all their work in the various schools the brothers were assisted by lay people, European as well as Malawian. The assistance of Malawians was essential for the required teaching in the official local language, Chichewa. The brothers in Malawi received financial support for the construction and furnishing of their schools from various foreign organisations in Europe and America. In the course of years the knowledge of the brother technicians in the field of construction, the digging of wells and the spreading of modern methods of agriculture also benefitted institutions which were not under the brothers' management.

A remarkable enterprise of the Montfort Fathers' missionary work in Malawi was their own printing-press, called “Montfort Press”. This printing-press was set up - with very simple means - in the second half of the 1950s. The Fathers went begging in the Netherlands for money to buy more and better machines. With a loan from the German foundation Misereor in Aachen (Germany) a printing-press, which was well-equipped indeed, could start up in Limbe, in the beginning of 1962. Its main purpose was the distribution of simple, educational Catholic reading matter among the Catholics of the country. The printing-press also did commercial printing to give the enterprise a financial basis. From 1967 the press was managed by the Brothers of Maastricht. In 1997 the business turned into a limited liability company and they withdrew. 

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