A Ngoni by tribe, Reuben Konyani Ngahapa came from Dedza district in central Malawi. As a boy ten or twelve years old, he was captured as a slave together with his parents during the last days of the slave trade in Malawi. Even though the British had declared Nyasaland a protectorate in 1891 and had outlawed slave trading in their territory, the illicit trade was still being carried on stealthily. As a young lad captured with his parents he was not chained together with the adults, so he just went along with the slave caravan. After a while he escaped and the slavers did not really bother with him.
Having escaped from the clutches of the slavers, young Reuben ran home, only to find the house deserted and burnt. Some of his other relatives who had escaped the slave hunt also clawed out from their hideouts to inspect the damage. He stayed with his relatives who raised him and never heard from his parents again.
When he was about twenty, he heard of missionaries near his area who had opened a school. Livingstonia Mission was established in Malawi’s northern region in the late 1800s and its influence spread far and wide. Reuben had heard of the magic of reading and writing and decided to go there to learn. Eagerly he grasped the rudiments of learning which, at that time, included Bible teaching aimed at bringing the natives to Christ. In the process Reuben came to trust Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. Later he became a teacher and an evangelist.
In the early 1900s the South Africa General Mission came to Nyasaland through Nsanje in the southern region and settled among the Sena, an ethnic group from the lower Shire in the districts of Nsanje and Chikwawa. Being new to the area and faced with the problem of language they decided to seek help from their fellow missionaries in the north. They asked their missionary friends to give them some of their teachers and evangelists. Reuben Konyani was one of those asked to go south and work among the Sena to lay the foundations for the preaching of the Gospel in an area where Christ was just being introduced.
As an itinerant evangelist he preached in many different places. For days on end he travelled and preached. Sometimes after sunset he would seek shelter with a friendly local chief. In other instances he was denied food and even fire to warm himself at night. His wife, who had initially come with him, soon returned home, finding that life unbearable. He was alone for the rest of his life and ministry. However, in spite of this, he led a pure and God-honouring life in an age when chastity was unheard of among normal men. His ministry and purity of life was a great testimony to God’s grace in his life. He always wore long shorts and a long shirt which went down to just above the knees. As he grew older, he looked like a prophet to many people especially considering his rare lifestyle.
For many years his ministry as an evangelist touched many hearts. Several places for prayer and Bible study were started which were strengthened by the missionaries who followed up later. These places later grew into churches belonging to the Africa Evangelical Church. The mission also established several schools to act as links with the local people and Reuben, as a teacher, became the superintendent of schools. This put his ministry on another level as he now reached the community both as a teacher and an evangelist.
In the late 1930s Reuben was diagnosed with tuberculosis and as a result, he could no longer travel as an evangelist and superintendent of schools. By this time, through his efforts, the first crop of an educated class had emerged by the standards at the time and they could do what he had been doing all along. As a result of his poor health, he stayed at Chididi, the mission headquarters and worked as a kapitawo or foreman of the mission works for many years. As his health further deteriorated he began instead to help at the clinic, preaching every morning to the patients. This he did for many years. Many hearts were brought to the Lord through his ministry and the Christian community grew stronger every day.
Between 1957 and 1958 while Konyani was in hospital getting his tuberculosis treatment, he never stopped preaching and testifying to what the Lord had done in his life. Again many hearts were touched with the message of Christ.
In September 1958, after being discharged from the hospital he enrolled at the newly opened Bible School led by Charles Long and his wife Mary. He was almost in his eighties when he began to study at the school. As usual he was the most outstanding student in terms of character. In class he would sit next to the teacher with eyes sparkling with enthusiasm to learn the word of God. He was known as a man who loved to read the Bible and hear it preached. However he did not do very well on exams. Mary Long said that during the end of term exam he could not write anything on his answer sheet . He only wrote “I can’t remember all those things which you taught me but I can tell you the wonderful things that the Lord has done for me.” And then he wrote his testimony to the surprise and laughter of the teacher. In 1960, he graduated with an honorary certificate in recognition of his long and faithful service in the Christian community.
In 1962 the disease worsened and Reuben was readmitted to the hospital. Again he was a blessing to those in the hospital where he was always testifying to the wonders of God’s grace. People came to his bed to hear him preach and many were saved. Doctors were stunned at the results of an X-ray examination of his lungs which revealed that, medically, he should have died many years before. One of his lungs was just a paper pot, full of holes. Amazingly, in spite of the deplorable condition of his lungs, the man was always out and about in the hospital preaching the Gospel.
After this spell in hospital, the missionaries discouraged him from working much and, as a result, he just stayed at his house. He then spent most of his time praying and reading the Bible. He could often be heard praying in his house as if he were talking to somebody. His prayer life was reflected in his prayers in the church on Sundays. When asked to pray after the sermon, he could pray through the sermon,–to which he would add some things,–and then begin to pray for the whole congregation by name, including all the missionaries he knew and many others. By the time he finished everyone had gone home!
In 1964 Reuben was back in hospital. This time, after battling tuberculosis for almost thirty years he was very frail. He never went about any more: instead people came to his bed to hear him speak. One day in February, after he had finished speaking to people who had gathered around him, he said, “Let’s pray.” He prayed one of his longest prayers and never opened his eyes after saying, “Amen.” He had peacefully gone to be with his Lord!
Three years later the the Christian community that he had served for over thirty years was registered as Africa Evangelical Church after the mission changed its name to Africa Evangelical Fellowship.
Many remember him as the man whose work laid the foundation for the church in the lower Shire area.
Louis W. Ndekha
Interview with Mary Long, his teacher in the Bible school she and her husband Robert established in 1957 where Reuben was one of the first students. The information about his earlier life and ministry was given to her as his autobiography during his student days. The other information is from what she knew of him. (Mary Long, Bonis Avenue, Scarlborough, Ontario, MT 3rd, Canada. [email protected])
Interview with Rev. Major Jimu, former General Secretary of Africa Evangelical Church.
Interview with Rev. Elias Soya, current General Secretary of Africa Evangelical Church.
Interview with Rev. Justice Maguza, pastor, Chilomoni Africa Evangelical Church.
This article, submitted in 2003, was written and researched by Louis W. Ndekha, DACB Liaison Coordinator, under the supervision of A. Folayan (missionary, Zambezi Mission), principal of Evangelical Bible College of Malawi, a DACB Participating Institution.