James Bonongwe was born on September 4, 1914 at Bonongwe village near Ntonda in Ntcheu district. For a long time his father was the Zambezi Industrial Mission storekeeper in the Balaka area until his death. By the time of his death, he had divorced his wife and young James had been taken to live with his grandparents who were of heathen background. He grew up in this setting, with his grandmother the priestess of a local shrine. Everyone, including himself, felt certain that he would one day succeed his grandmother as the priest of the village shrine.
He first came into contact with Zambezi Industrial missionaries at the age of five when he went to seek treatment for a large ulcer on his leg which took three years to heal, leaving that leg permanently lame. The missionaries encouraged him to come to Sunday School and as his ulcer healed he was slowly drawn to the Sunday School. Later he said, “It was so surprising that even my grandmother encouraged me to visit the mission hospital and later in 1924 she allowed me to join the Sunday school class.” In 1925 he began elementary school there. In 1929 he joined the baptismal class but his baptism was delayed until 1934.
A decisive moment in his life came in 1932 at the death of his grandmother, who up until then had been the priestess of the village shrine. He was approached by the village elders and chiefs to assume the role of village priest after his grandmother. To the annoyance of village leaders he turned down the offer in order to continue his Christian pursuits. He now zealously decided to seek education.
However, a year after his grandmother’s death, when Mr. and Mrs. Cairns, the missionaries who had encouraged him, left Nyasaland on furlough in 1933, life became so difficult for him that he was forced to sever ties with the mission school. He trekked south to Thyolo–some 300 hundred kilometres from his district–where he secured a job as a herd boy. He had only been working for four months when he was called back by the Cairns who wrote him after they heard about his departure.
Soon after returning he enrolled in the Normal School at Muluma and graduated in 1935 as a primary school teacher, teaching only in the vernacular. For one year he taught at the Kammwamba and Mtonda Mission schools. In 1936 the mission sent him to the Nkhoma Teachers’ Training School, opened by the Dutch Reformed Church, to do the English Grade. The following year he graduated as a qualified English Grade teacher. Later, after twelve years as a teacher, he enrolled in the teacher training program in Domasi in what was known as the Jeans Education Program. He was a teacher until his retirememt in 1966. During this time he was inspired to write a book on the history of the Zambezi Industrial Mission. He started the work in 1961 but it was never published.
In 1967 Bonongwe went to Likhubula Bible Institute for a three year pastoral course. In 1969 he graduated and became a pastor for four years. In 1973 he was called to be principal of Likhubula Bible Institute to succeed Rev. Barr, thus becoming the first Malawian principal. He was also elected chairman of the Zambezi Evangelical Church to replace Diston Chitonya who had just died. He served in these posts for eight and ten years respectively. During the same time he was involved with the New Life For All Ministries.
During his term as principal of Likhubula Bible Institute, the number of students gradually rose, primarily because of the changes he implemented in the way tuition and boarding fees were paid. At first students paid the whole fees from their own means which meant the institution attracted mainly retired men, epecially teachers, who could afford to support themselves on their pension and savings. Later subsidies by the sending churches were offered to the students. This system increased the number of graduating students who went to work in the churches and many pastors, teachers and evangelists were trained for ministry.
As synod chairman, he decentralized the church’s administrative system. To strengthen this new system, Bonongwe encouraged the church in the area of tithing, using the card system for every baptized Christian whose tithings were thus recorded and monitored. He also laid the foundation for the Fellowship of Youth Ministry which has greatly contributed to the church’s development and revival.
After his retirement as church chairman, he worked with World Vision International as coordinator of education for three years. Later he became pastor at Chiole local church for four years and retired as pastor at the age of seventy-five in 1989. He then took on a less public role as the advisor of the church. He still hopes to publish his literary work which is deemed valuable, though it is still in manuscript form and the church says it does not have the money to publish it
Rev. Bonongwe is an important figure in the history of the Zambezi Evangelical Church but surprisingly he has never thought of himself that way. He once remarked, “One thing that touches my life is that I was heathen but God changed me and used me but I don’t know how significant I have been to the church.”
Interview with Rev. J. M. Bonongwe.
Interview with Rev. W. Chidzammbuyo, former student under Rev. Bonongwe and later principal of Likhubula Bible Institute.
Interview with Rev. Chimkwende, pastor of Zambezi Evangelical Church.
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched by Anthony Masala and Louis W. Ndekha, DACB Liaison Coordinator, and written by Anthony Masala, under the supervision of A. Folayan (missionary, Zambezi Mission), principal of Evangelical Bible College of Malawi, a DACB Participating Institution.