Please send us missionaries...and please send them as soon as possible.
Those were the pleading words of the Christians of the newly established parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary at Chisankwa, Karonga Diocese, Malawi, when we visited in November 2019.
The Forgotten People of Chisankwa
The territory around the parish of Chisankwa is largely hilly and mountainous. The majority of the people are farmers. It is situated in the northern part of Malawi that borders with Tanzania and Zambia.
The south of Malawi is where the capital city Lilongwe, and Blantyre, the financial and economic centre, are located. However the northern part of Malawi is neglected and poor. Chisankwa is located almost in the extreme northern tip of Malawi and the people there feel that they have been forgotten both by the politicians and religious leaders.
That is why Bishop Martin Mtumbuka, the Bishop of Karonga Diocese, decided to create a parish at Chisankwa to better serve the people. However having only about 14 diocesan priests serving a huge diocese with an area of 12,000 square kilometers, he has appealed to CICM to send missionaries to serve in the diocese, including especially this frontier parish of Chisankwa near to the Tanzanian border.
The parish of Chisankwa is extensive and it is sub-divided into four outstations with 18 substations and 39 small Christian communities. There are 3,124 Catholics and catechumens out of a population of 11,694 people spread over a very large area in the mountainous region.
A New Mission and New Challenges
It is in view of accepting this new mission that I visited Chisankwa and Karonga Diocese in November 2019 together with our Superior General, Fr Charles Phukuta, and Fr Aubrey Sumbukeni, a CICM Zambian missionary working in Kinshasa, Congo.
As we drove with the bishop to Chisankwa the Bishop cited some of the challenges that our missionaries would face.
One of the challenges is the lack of schools. There is only one school and it is about 13 kilometers away. Due to the distance and the absence of any form of public transport, children have to leave their homes very early in the morning, usually without breakfast, and walk to school. So even for those brave and strong enough to do the daily trek to school, they are often too tired and hungry to concentrate in class to learn. And so many children do not go to school.
When we made a stop at the Songwe River that marked the boundary of the parish and Tanzania, we saw a group of children washing and swimming in the water. The Bishop was immediately moved with compassion for the children. He called one of the children and personally interviewed a 16-year old orphan girl on why she did not go to school that day.
Another challenge is the lack of health facilities in the area. The Bishop’s voice choked with emotion as he recounted to us that some babies had died because mothers could not reach the nearest clinic on time. Due to the almost absence of motorized transport to town, sometimes the sick are transported on ox-carts.
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Meeting the People of Chisankwa
As we drove along the dirt road leading to Chisankwa I could understand why the people felt that they had been forgotten. The area has no electricity lines and portable water. The Bishop says that some people are even drinking directly from the dirty Songwe River that runs through the area.
On the day of our visit to Chisankwa, the parish leaders and many of the Christians turned out in full force to welcome us. Many had walked for kilometers to be present that day, some even spending the night in villages along the way. The more fortunate ones came on their bicycles.
Arriving before us, the people had formed two lines on the road leading to the church. Seeing our approaching vehicle they immediately started beating their drums and began singing, dancing and ululating. We got off from our car to greet the people.
I was almost touched to tears as I greeted and shook the hand of each and every Christian who had lined the road to welcome us. They had been told of our visit and that we were the missionaries who would come in the near future to serve them.
I could sense their sense of happiness that the missionaries had finally come, even if it was just to visit for one day. I could sense their thirst to hear God’s word and celebrate the Eucharist. No one seemed to mind that there were no benches in the church and that they had to sit on the floor during mass. I could sense their joy as they sang and danced during mass that finally God has heard their prayers and that they were no longer forgotten.
The Plea for Help and Missionhurst's Call to Action
When we were finally introduced and presented to the people, one of the leaders representing the people made this passionate plea to our Superior General, Fr Charles: “Please send us missionaries….and please send them as soon as possible!”
Fr Charles in his speech explained that our Founder Theophile Verbist had left the comfort of Belgium in 1862 to evangelize the Chinese in northern China and to take care of abandoned Chinese orphans. Our Founder was not afraid of the extreme weather of Inner Mongolia. Neither was he deterred by the difficult task of learning the Chinese language.
Seeing the situation in Chisankwa, we believe that it is completely in line with CICM missionary charism. We too shall not be deterred by the difficult physical challenges that Chisankwa will present to us. If our Founder, a Belgian, could learn Chinese we too will learn the local language of Citumbuka.
During our visit we learnt that the people of Chisankwa had already done a lot on their own initiative. They have put up a church building and are in the process of molding and burning bricks to build a clinic and a school. They are now turning to us to journey with them on this mammoth undertaking.
And so YES we shall go to them!
CICM has decided to send a team of four missionaries to Karonga Diocese and in particular to Chisankwa.
I am happy to be one of the four missionaries going to Karonga Diocese, and I hope we can leave as soon as possible.