Fear on Every Side - Writing about Malawi

by Jonathan Newell

Malawi is a beautiful country. Its people are extremely friendly and generous to visitors. The land is fertile and contains one of the most glorious lakes in the world. As a nation Malawi is very religious. Aside from the Muslim minority, most Malawians attend the numerous churches that can be found throughout the country. In some villages locals can be seen flocking to the mosque on Fridays, to Seventh Day Adventist churches on Saturdays and to many other Christian denominations on Sundays.


Visiting evangelists to Malawi often report huge numbers at their meetings and inform their supporters of the revival that they believe is taking place. Hundreds of thousands have been recorded as having responded to the gospel through church-planting campaigns, evangelistic films and mass meetings. Malawi boasts a noble history of Christian missionary work which stretches from David Livingstone to the present. Today the country contains many expatriate missionaries and others visit regularly from overseas. Christian development programmes are evident across the nation and there are simply thousands of Christian charities, churches, denominations and ministries registered with the government. The much-needed practical support that has been given, and continues to be offered, to thousands of Malawians in the name of the gospel is itself a remarkable story.


To the casual visitor Malawi appears to be a very 'Christian' nation. There are prayers in parliament and almost every public institution has its own Christian fellowship group. Church leaders are prominent on television and the radio. Christian music is popular and rapidly becoming quite an industry, and every church, no matter how small, has its own choir. It is not unusual to see preachers on street corners in cities and towns. Christian names are not uncommon among the populace and many shops have titles such as 'God is with us grocery' or 'Jesus loves you corner store'.


Meanwhile, traditional religious practices continue to thrive throughout the nation. Church leaders, government ministers, poor widows, simple farmers and university professors all turn regularly to the world of the ancestors and the spirits, especially at funerals. Alcoholism remains a huge problem, as does drug abuse. Sexual immorality adheres stubbornly to the culture and undermines fidelity within marriage with depressing regularity. According to the national anthem three 'enemies' assault Malawi and her people - hunger, sickness and jealousy. While hunger and sickness might be explained by the extremely meagre resources of the nation, the presence of jealousy suggests a social malaise that has never been touched significantly by the gospel. Moreover, corruption remains the 'elephant' in most rooms: people accept it but it is not spoken of, seating itself even at the top table in numerous churches!

The simple truth is that Christianity has merely settled on the surface of Malawian life and culture; it has not penetrated to its heart. Of course this is a generalisation and there are pockets of deep spirituality and fine individuals of sincere Christian maturity within the country. Nevertheless, the genuine transformation of people's lives through the power of Christ and the permeation of the culture around them as a result, has not happened as much as might have been hoped.


It was for all of these reasons that I started writing as a missionary in Malawi. My conviction was that books, composed in a manner that reflected the daily reality of the people I was coming into contact with, might be one small way of helping to penetrate a Christian sub-culture that was visibly very popular and yet had become detached in people's minds from what they were actually experiencing. It could be argued that this was a waste of time. After all, are the challenges facing most Malawians not fundamentally about food, health care and security? Moreover, literacy rates are very low and people do not have disposable income to use on books. What value then could any new Christian literature have? However, such arguments are ultimately only counsels of despair. If they had been listened to by men like John Bunyan, Martin Luther or William Tyndale then they would never have written anything! Faith like a mustard seed is as appropriate to writing a Christian book for Africa as it is to founding a new mission hospital or organising a food distribution programme.


I began my missionary writing career with children's stories because there were no Christian books to buy or read. These were based on an unofficial cultural icon of contemporary Malawi - the minibus. Blessings Minibus (Madalitso Matola) became a character in a series of Jesus' parables adapted to contemporary Malawi. This was followed by an African version of Pilgrim's Progress, which I called The Journey of Life (Ulendo wa Moyo). I also started a free Christian newspaper featuring practical Bible teaching, relevant articles and testimonies. All of this literature was published as creatively and attractively as possible - reflecting a country that is itself full of colour.


My work on The Journey of Life convinced me that the format of a story illustrating spiritual principles needed to be taken further. The result was my first novel, Fear on Every Side, the story of which is centred around a Malawian boy called John Banda, a very common name not unlike John Smith. Born in a typical village in rural Malawi, his life is the narrative thread used to challenge the reader to consider many of the issues that face Malawians today from a biblical perspective. The title reflects one of the abiding experiences I encountered in Malawi - that so many people live in fear: fear of their ancestors and the spirit world; fear of the jealousy of their relatives and neighbours; fear of sickness (especially AIDS) and death; fear of having insufficient food or that the harvest fails; fear of traditional hierarchies and rejection by their own people; fear of the rapid changes taking place in the nation; fear of grinding poverty and of wealthy relatives; and fear of having no future at all.


The story of Fear on Every Side twists its way through the various ups and downs of John's life until he reaches his late teens. His parents' marriage comes under strain when his father takes up with a second woman in the city and develops a drinking habit. His father is killed in a road accident and his mother turns ever more deeply to traditional religion in her sorrow. Eventually she dies from an unspecified sickness, which is how AIDS is often described in contemporary Malawi. John becomes an orphan and is brought up by his aunt, whose husband beats him. He is saved by a good teacher at the rural primary school he attends. Finally, an expatriate Christian missionary starts to visit John's village. His presence and preaching cause John, and the entire village, to reflect upon how they should react to this visitor and his message.


Each chapter of the novel is followed by a series of questions to encourage readers to consider the problems that John's story raises, together with biblical references to guide their analysis. At the end of the book there is also advice about how to use it to set up a little discussion group or Bible study, with extended answers to all the questions to help readers generally and to provide a resource for Christians battling with life's daily challenges. The book is illustrated with photographs of everyday life in Malawi and has been attractively published with the intention that everything about it should look familiar to a Malawian reader.


Essentially, the thinking behind Fear on Every Side is a challenge to standard approaches to Christian literature written for Africa. Generally speaking, our western method of imparting Christian truth is based upon the assumption that biblical principles ought to be outlined in a logical manner, point by point, and readers will then adjust their lives accordingly. Fear on Every Side is intended to complement this approach by offering an example of a life that is commonly not straightforward or logical at all, a life that contains much grief, some encouragement, considerable confusion and not a little bewilderment; it then persuades the reader to see how this might fit into a biblical world-view. In effect, it uses a narrative form, which is so popular in Africa, to draw the reader into an interaction with the Bible's message. It is written in simple English with considerable use of dialogue throughout, to drive the narrative forward and to outline realistically the kind of views that are regularly heard throughout Malawi.


Fear on Every Side has been read with considerable interest in other African countries and found to be both understandable and helpful. The challenge with any material like this in Africa is one of distribution and finding a price that is affordable for potential readers. Giving books away rarely works because it does not encourage people to value them. Fear on Every Side is distributed most successfully in Malawi, as are all my books, by Ananda Pulla (India), who has taken on my former responsibilities. The intention is to produce a sequel that will recount John Banda's eventual conversion to Christ and his marriage to a Christian girl. I would value prayer for this and my other ongoing Malawian literature projects.


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