June 1, 2005
The Missionary Cemetery
Over a hundred years ago some very brave people came from Scotland to Malawi as missionaries. They knew before coming that they would probably never see their homeland again. They realized that the malaria, black fever, typhoid and cholera would probably kill them. Yet they felt the call of God so strongly that they left their loved ones behind to bring the three Cs to Africa – Christianity, Commerce and Culture. One of their chief aims was to abolish the slave trade. They were successful. They also built schools and hospitals with startling alacrity. Most of them knew that it was only a matter of time before they succumbed to one of the fatal ailments. Many of them arrived in Africa with their belongings packed in coffins.
They did everything they could to avoid disease and death. They built their missions and cities at high elevations to avoid mosquitoes, the oppressive heat, and to have access to clean water. However, many of them died. There is a long list of missionaries who died here on the bell tower at Blantyre Synod. Recently, the director of the Synod’s Camp and Conference Center at Likhubula discovered a long forgotten cemetery nestled in the foothills of Mt. Mulanje. It contains the unmarked remains of some of the earliest missionaries who worked in the area. Only three of the 12 graves have markers.
The Waynesburg College Service Learning trip members volunteered to clean up this forgotten historic spot. It had not been attended to in nearly a hundred years. So, on a bright Tuesday morning the nine of us hiked up to the secluded cemetery.
When Malawians say, “It is a short walk,” you should regard the comment with extreme skepticism. We drove about five miles and then hiked about the same distance uphill through thick bush. Admittedly, the younger members of the group did better than the older ones, but we were all huffing and puffing in the thin air. Much of the time we worked our way up steep slopes covered with overgrown tea plants. Decades ago, when the mission moved further to the west, the area around the cemetery was transformed into a cultivated tea plantation. Later, that was abandoned, and trees were planted, so now it is a dense forest, with huge tea plants. We even hiked past an abandoned tea processing plant.
When the guides finally ushered us into the brick walled cemetery, we were very relieved. We prayed and then got to work at clearing 100 years of weeds and decay. I pulled weeds from the crevices in the brick wall, and tried to fit some of the fallen masonry back in place. The students got busy with spades, sticks and slashers (a Malawian grass cutting implement) and tackled the graveyard. They pulled weeds, rearranged brick edging and pieced together grave markers.
After several hours we took a break. Cold drinks never tasted so good. (One of our guides had carried these in a cooler on his shoulders the entire way.) We completed our work and hiked back to the car.
The next morning we trekked up to the spot again. This time we were accompanied by over 50 Malawians. This group included a score or so of elders and two Abusas (the pastors of Mulanje CCAP and Likhubula CCAP). Once at the missionary cemetery, we donned our chitenjes. We hiked up in jeans, while the Malawians were wearing their Sunday best, including wing tipped shoes and slippery plastic slippers. After we were properly garbed, the service of re-dedication and thanksgiving began.
The female Abusa from Likhubula did a wonderful job. During her sermon, she talked about the sacrifices that the missionaries buried in the graveyard had made, and how all of us should work as hard as they did to be fruitful laborers for Christ. When I was asked to “say a few words,” I told the congregation that the pioneer missionaries would be thrilled to see them assembled there and would be even happier to know what a strong and vibrant church the Blantyre Synod CCAP has become. I said that the fruits of their labors were “sweeter than mango juice.”
After prayers, singing, and a wonderfully informative lecture (in two languages) about the history of the mission, the service concluded and we all greeted one another and posed for group pictures. It was a memorable event for everyone.
We then all hiked down the mountain together. Some of the Mvano gathered branches and firewood as they walked. Others plucked passion fruit off vines in the woods. We chatted and talked as we walked through the tea.
We got into cars and headed back to the camp, but most of the Malawians continued walking back to their villages and homes.
That night we gave thanks again before we ate our traditional meal of nsima, goat stew and boiled greens. Hard work makes for healthy appetites. Each member of the group was thrilled to have been part of such a special event. The CCAP members promised to look after the historic graveyard, and plan on having a Celebration of Worship there once a year.