1. Branch Continuity—Marriages and Families
Often continuity in local congregations depends upon the Church’s ability to build around a handful of strong active families. These families are the cornerstone of the congregations. The husbands and wives hold critical Church positions. They get their families to Church on time, their children can be counted on to be in Primary, Young Men, and Young Women, and their homes often serve as informal clearinghouses where other members can meet and socialize. They are anxious to have all of the Church’s auxiliaries functioning, because they need the support to help raise their children in the gospel. Mission presidents encourage their missionaries to work with intact families, knowing this will help strengthen local units, and enhance the likelihood of member retention. But it is easier to talk about teaching “families” than to actually do it. For the most part, new members come into the Church in ones and twos. In Malawi it is common for other members of the family to join the Church after a father or older son becomes the first member.
An alternative way to build up the family network in a local congregation is through the marriage of active members. The Blantyre District has cause to be optimistic in this regard. Currently, the District has a number of unmarried returned missionaries, who presumably will establish households within the next few years. It is not unreasonable to expect that these returned missionaries will marry in the Church or will marry spouses, who join the Church during courtship or early in their marriage. In Malawi, women often follow their husbands’ lead when it comes to church attendance and membership. Since the majority of the returned missionaries are men, this augurs favorably for the District. Indeed, this pattern already exists.
Right now there are at least eight returned missionaries still unmarried, looking to find wives and to establish homes. The branches also have a number of other young men, not returned missionaries, who are of marriageable age. What may be unexpected is that these young men, like their counterparts in the United States, are waiting longer to get married. Many of them are in their middle 20s to early 30s—certainly of an age when they are looking for companionship and anxious to have children and set up homes. For them the biggest hurdle is finding employment to allow them to support a family—jobs are hard to come by and many of them are still in school, working on certificates, diplomas, and degrees to increase their prospects. To their credit they understand the importance of being self-reliant, and are looking for steady employment. Another potential snag is the existence of the historical practice of “lobola”—or bridal price--still practiced by some Malawian tribes. Not able to pay the lobola in full forces many to defer marriage for months, even years, while the bridegroom works to save money—a situation the Church leaders find deplorable. But, as these returned missionaries, and new members of the same age bracket, get married, the Church should see greater stability. Young men in Malawi may not be as much at risk with these marriages (some of which may start as part-member families), as men in the United States, because of the general willingness of women to follow their husbands’ lead when it comes to Church affiliation.
Several months ago Carole and I felt prompted to start working with the District’s Young Single Adult Leader, Jonathan Banda, to jumpstart the YSA program. Jonathan and President Matale were supportive of this initiative and this month (November 2015) we will see the fourth consecutive monthly activity. The goal is to hold a District-sponsored activity each month (for continuity purposes, starting at 2:00 p.m., each third Saturday) throughout the year, except for December, when the normal activity will be replaced by a New Year’s Eve activity and dance. Prior activities included a fireside, a panel discussion about keeping Church standards, watching “The Man from Snowy River,” in several cases followed by a dance, always a local favorite. October’s activity attracted close to 60 young adults, making it the best attended activity to date. Jonathan has assembled a four-person committee, a representative from each branch, to brainstorm for good ideas and to help get out the word about District events. The committee meets monthly to plan upcoming events.
The branches also have many older men and women of marriageable age. Second and third marriages are not uncommon in Malawi, due to the high mortality rates among adults and occasional divorces. I can think of at least 9 active unmarried men and women in the Zingwangwa Branch, who might remarry, all with children from prior marriages or relationships. Should they marry in the Church, or marry spouses who later became members, this will go a long way toward increasing the branch’s size as well as augmenting its strength. Many of these members, being older than YSA and carrying some of the baggage that comes with prior marriages, may find it challenging to find spouses. Given the widespread poverty in Malawi, unmarried men will likely enjoy better prospects, than the women, if they have jobs or other resources (including homes), enabling them to support a second family. Widows with children, as well as single mothers, are definitely at a disadvantage. A little to our surprise, we have found that women, who marry for a second or third time, frequently are forced to parcel out children from a prior marriage, sending them to live with grandparents, aunts and uncles, because of the unwillingness of the new husband to assume responsibility for the children or to have them in the home. While Malawians are exceptional generous when it comes to taking in nieces and nephews, even the children of friends, this does not translate into the rearing of the offspring from a prior marriage. We can only think of a couple of cases where the new husband was willing to have the children of a prior marriage stay in the home.
A number of African tribes settled within the lands that today constitute the boundaries of modern day Malawi. These tribes included the Chewa, Nyanja, Tumbuka, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, and Ngonde. Over time we have learned where these tribes settled (or at least in which Malawian Districts most of their tribal members currently live), but otherwise we know little of their customs, rituals and language. Chichewa, the most prominent of the local dialects, is the language of the Chewa tribe and is the national language of Malawi, along with English. The Yao tribe lives along and close to the shores of Lake Malawi, and many of them are Muslims. The Ngoni tribe is known for its fierce warriors and once were thought of as a fierce and aggressive people. Some of the dialects are close enough in speech and vocal patterns, syntax and vocabulary, that members of one tribe can understand the language of another. Today Malawians however pride themselves with the harmony existing among the tribes and the absence of intertribal rivalry and conflict. Inter-marriage between tribes is common, and has been for several generations, so the genealogies are getting increasingly mixed.
Historically, one distinctive family tradition, however, distinguished the tribes. Some of the tribes follow the maternal line, while others the paternal line. The tribes in the northern districts are paternal in orientation, meaning that the new wife, after marriage, leaves her family village and goes to stay in the husband’s village, living with or close to the husband’s family. The pattern is reversed for the tribes in the southern districts. Following the maternal line, the husband leaves his village and goes to stay in the wife’s village, living with or close to the wife’s family. As you can imagine, it’s tricky to sort out the proper familial relationships, when someone from the north marries someone from the south. With the increasing encroachment of the modern world, and the greater mobility of Malawians, these patterns are slowly being eroded.