Any kind of theological training in Malawi is tough, lay training especially so. The logistical barriers are staggering. While Malawi’s overall literacy rate of 65.8% is better than some of its neighbouring countries, it is still far below the world average of 86.3% of countries such as Canada who are roughly 99% literate. Most often literacy here means the ability to read and write a short, simple statement relevant to everyday life. This standard is not very high and is inadequate for deep thinking about difficult subjects.
Add to this the reality that the majority of Malawians are poor. They need to make every kwacha (the Malawian currency) count. All education must have financial benefit as an outcome otherwise people will not invest what little money and time they have in it. There are some people who take some form of Christian education for the spiritual benefit but large-scale efforts that make demands on people’s time and resources must have some pragmatic payoff or they will fail.
Theological Education by Extension Malawi (TEEM) offers various kinds of theological education. One of these, what is often called grassroots training, is outside of the conventional education system. Based on the idea that all of the people of God should have the opportunity to love the Lord with all their heart and minds, grassroots training gets out of the classroom and into people’s lives. Given that there are thousands of Christians to every trained minister, an educated laity has the possibility of changing the face of the church in Malawi.
Grassroots training like this faces another challenge that other forms of education do not. Malawi is a hierarchical society which, according to Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, means that “an organisation is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralisation is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.” Grassroots training is designed to be egalitarian, decentralized, student driven, and consensus seeking. In other words, grassroots training is the exact opposite of Malawi’s general value system.
Rev. Patrick Mbanga gets this better than most. Rev. Mbanga is a minister within the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (Blantyre Synod) and was educated here in Malawi but he also spent time at Knox College in Toronto. The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) supported his studies and he got to see first-hand a very different understanding of education. In his work as one of 4 center coordinators for TEEM he sees what happens when large groups of people can engage directly with basic theological education. Uniquely, as a CCAP minister and therefore part of the upper levels of hierarchy, Rev. Mbanga can work with his colleagues to demonstrate the value of grassroots training. He recalls his time in Toronto as an education on education; in Canada he really caught a vision for widespread lay education in Malawi.
Part of my work here in Malawi, work that is paid for by International Ministries of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) through Presbyterians Sharing…, is to aid Rev. Mbanga and his colleagues at TEEM so that the power of releasing the Gospel amidst all of God’s people can happen. I am not the first PCC minister with that mission; TEEM’s first executive director was also a PCC minister, Rev. Scott, now retired in the Courtney/Comox area. Then, as now, the harvest is ready but the workers are few. Hopefully, through the partnership between the PCC and people like Rev. Mbanga, the numbers of workers can increase.