Introduction Until recently mission scholarship has given priority to the agency of European missionaries in Africa. This has tended to paint a picture of Africans as passive recipients of the faith while the Europeans did the real work of planting the faith in the red soils of Africa. However, more recent scholarship is beginning to recover the role that Africans have played in establishing Christianity in Africa without necessarily undermining the role played by the European missionaries. The story of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta is just such an example of the need to recover the “indigenous factor” in the spread of Christianity in Africa. Matecheta was the first African ordained to holy ministry in the Church of Scotland’s Blantyre Mission. He served his church with great diligence and loyalty and was instrumental in spreading Christianity, helping to establish Presbyterianism throughout southern Malawi.
His Life Story
A Yao, Harry Matecheta came from Nguludi in Che Lopsa’s village in Chiradzulu district. He first heard about Jesus Christ at the age of six, during the trip Henry Henderson and Bokwito made from Cape Maclear to the Shire Highlands in 1876. The two were on a quest to identify a mission site on behalf of the Church of Scotland. The site they found was subsequently called Blantyre, to honor the great missionary doctor David Livingstone who had travelled through the same area in the late 1850s.
Starting in 1884 Harry went to school at the Blantyre Mission up to grade four before becoming a teacher at the same school. He was later trained in printing. He was baptized on December 29, 1889. Alongside John Macrae Chipuliko, Mungo Murray Chisuse, Thomas Mpeni, James Gray Kamlinje, James Auldearn Mwembe and John Gray Kufa, Matecheta was ordained a deacon on November 4, 1894. These seven men had been handpicked by Blantyre Mission’s superintendent David Clement Scott to form a team of deacons—a first step in his agenda to develop indigenous leadership for the African church.
In 1900 a decision was made by the various Scottish Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed missions in British Central Africa to ordain Africans to holy ministry. This decision received great opposition from some Blantyre Mission staff such as R. S. Hynde, who argued, “It is utterly wrong to teach any native he is as good as a white man because he is not. If he were, he would be on the level with the white man, but it is because he is inferior that he is under the white man.” All the ministers in the Blantyre Mission remained European missionaries until 1911. On March 9, 1911, Harry Kambwiri Matecheta was the first indigenous minister to be ordained at a service held at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Blantyre, a mere three days before Stephen Kundecha was ordained on March 12, 1911 at Zomba Church. The two had been trained for four years prior to their ordination.
In the subsequent minutes and records of the Presbytery of Blantyre, Matecheta would be typically referred to simply as "Rev. Harry," rather than by his surname as was the custom with the Scottish missionaries. This might suggest that he was not yet considered a full equal, meaning that this was an example of missionary paternalism. Yet in many ways, Matecheta was equal to none in helping to spread the Christian faith in southern Malawi. He served at Mulanje mission, Ntcheu, Blantyre, and many other surrounding churches for forty-six years. Despite many challenges, Harry Matecheta received a certificate of recognition for the valuable service he rendered as a member of the district council and district school committee in May 1933 from King George V. Matecheta died on July 13,1962. His remains were laid to a rest at Bemvu CCAP cemetery, one of the mission stations to which he had contributed so much.
Contributions to the Church
The contributions of Harry Matecheta in southern Malawi were mainly through (1) the spread of Christianity and (2) through community-level education.
In 1893 Scott selected seven bright students, including Matecheta, with the aim, as he himself expressed it, of "making them. into pillars of the church.” Matecheta and the rest of the deacons at the Blantyre Mission were entrusted with preaching and teaching in the surrounding villages. Also, under a Scottish missionary, together they formed a "native kirk" session. This responsibility even extended to taking charge of the Blantyre Mission’s various substations. Matecheta’s outstanding performance in these responsibilities, while he was also undergoing basic medical training, led to his appointment as an evangelist to Ngoniland in the mid 1890s. However, one can also argue that his appointment came at a moment of crisis following the deaths of a number of Scottish missionaries, which had created a human resource shortage at the Mission.
Matecheta’s work in the Ngoniland began by identifying the mission site, then building both the church and the houses at Nthumbi station. Matecheta faced many challenges even to acquire the basic building materials for the station, for he was suspected by the Ngoni (who were not yet part of the British Protectorate) of carrying the white man’s flag. With the English Bible as his only weapon, Matecheta displayed great courage and a resilient focus on his mission. It should also be pointed out that Matecheta did most of the work at Nthumbi Station with very little supervision from white missionaries. This was mainly due to the area’s bad weather and excess of mosquitoes, which made the environment unsuitable for white missionaries. The white female missionaries, Miss Bell and Miss Werner, who were assigned to be at the station with him were quickly struck by malaria and had to return to Blantyre. Apart from malaria, life at the station meant facing constant threats from the tribal wars that were taking place in the surrounding communities, as well as occasional direct attacks on the station by the Hindi, the Ngoni chief’s war band.
Despite these challenging circumstances, Ngoniland was widely evangelized by Matecheta. His commitment and hard work were manifested in the growth of membership of the church. The Blantyre Mission’s monthly periodical, Life and Work, lists the statistics in 1904 for the various mission stations under its care. It is remarkable that Nthumbi has the largest Sunday attendance of any congregation—with even more people at worship than at the mother kirk, St. Michaels. Ngwira noted that by 1905 over 1,400 Africans in the area were being reached on Sundays by Matecheta. In the same year, the church had 112 communicants, 196 catechumen members, and 46 adults and four children earmarked for baptism. In order to reach out to these people Matecheta “used to give out some gifts of calico and salt to those who attended church services and long robes to the chiefs and village headmen to wear on Sunday.”
As if these challenges were not enough, Harry Matecheta committed his life to encouraging and mobilizing children from villages around Nthumbi Station to attend school. At that time parents were typically not interested in sending their children to school because they were assigned to take care of livestock. As a result, he resorted to distributing gifts such as salt, beads and sugar to the potential pupils as motivation. Matecheta records in his book that one time a boy threw a spear at him when he tried to persuade him to come to school. Yet even in such a hostile environment the number of schools initiated and supervised by Matecheta rose to five. The total number of pupils was as high as 671 by 1905.
The great evangelistic work of Matecheta at Nthumbi Station and Ngoniland at large can be summed up in a statement by his Scottish colleague Rev. Robert H. Napier: “Nthumbi— I visited and examined about hundred candidates either for baptism or the Catechumen. Rather more than half passed…these. were a certificate asked sic. for the reliability and capability of Harry to be a minister, a sight of his work at Nthumbi supplies it.” Again, speaking of the mission work in "Pa-ntumbi," the Life and Work report reads: "All this work is supervised by Che Harry Kambwiri, who has proved himself one of the best teachers we have ever had, and worthy of the trust placed in him. So many of the natives are quite unable to occupy a place of responsibility that it is a great pleasure to find one who can carry on such important work."
Matecheta also worked temporarily at the Mulanje mission, which was one of the larger sub-stations of the Blantyre Mission. In 1893, a Yao chief, Nkanda, waged war on Mulanje Mission, plundering personal possessions, blankets, medical equipment and clothes. The white missionaries fled the mission for Blantyre, and some even returned to Scotland. In the absence of leadership at Mulanje mission, Matecheta volunteered to go and take over the task. The Presbyterian missionary Rev. Dr. Alexander Hetherwick allowed Matecheta to leave his medical training and take up the challenge. While heading up Mulanje mission Matecheta led the construction of a school block at Nkanda. This demonstrated his courage in crisis and his passion for the education of his people.
Matecheta Returns to the Ngoniland
After his ordination in 1911, Matecheta was put in charge of the churches that were in Mulanje, Chiradzulo, Chikhwawa, Ntcheu, and Blantyre. His passion for Ngoniland was, however, still vivid. It is not surprising therefore that he dedicated much of the rest of his career to ministry at Nthumbi station and the three schools which were still in operation by then. Furthermore he was committed to the work of building a church at Bemvu (which lies about five kilometers east of Nthumbi). By then the church was in the hands of an evangelist in the name of James Poya. Following the ordination of three other African ministers in 1923, Matecheta was made full time minister of the churches in the Ngoniland to be stationed at Bemvu. Eventually Bemvu became the new base for both the religious and educational activities of the missionaries.
Despite taking on other tasks, such as the work of the Blantyre presbytery moderator and the training of African ministers, Matecheta’s passion for evangelism continued. This is manifested in the record that by 1950 his work among the Ngoni people had produced over three thousand communicants. At the same time, Matecheta resolved to train teachers by himself to meet the demand for teachers in all the schools he had introduced in each village. In doing this Matecheta reduced the financial costs required by the presbytery for the training of teachers. This act can be described as a display of the trust he had in other Africans, just as he had been trusted by the early missionaries. And despite wearing a clerical collar Matecheta did not throw aside his medical kit. His ministry was holistic: he also ran a dispensary where he helped dress wounds while his wife acted as midwife.
Generally, Matecheta was quite mild in his criticism of the colonial regime as shown by his response to the famous Nyasaland Uprising of 1915, which was led by Rev. John Chilembwe. While admitting that there were a lot of evil things the white settlers did to their employees, such as imposing hard labor without appropriate pay, beating and deriding Africans as "monkeys," yet he insisted that the radical approach taken by Chilembwe was wrong. Matecheta recalled a meeting with Chilembwe, where the latter tried to enlist him:
One day on my way from Ndunde I spent a night in his home; together with his church elders we never slept that night as he kept talking about his enmity with the whites. I told them that the whites had come to help develop our country, they denied. I told them that if I was to join them then my way was that of love. We needed to wait patiently to receive freedom and learn from what the whites had brought for us. After his uprising, his church disbanded, while he was killed.
The contribution of Matecheta to the establishment of Christianity in southern Malawi is remarkable. Not only should he be considered the father of Presbyterianism in Malawi, his evangelistic and educational efforts over a sixty-year career were almost unparalleled. A summary of his mission work in Ngoniland shows that he was a man of great faith and courage with a passion for ministry. Instead of looking at the Ngoni people as eternal enemies who had troubled not only him personally but also his family and tribe historically, Matecheta reciprocated with love. As he himself observed with joy toward the end of his life, “The son of a Yao and children of their enemies, the Ngoni, are now learning together.” He worked hard to see the Ngoni chiefs and their subjects come to Christ just as their children attained education. To achieve his goal, Matecheta displayed great loyalty to the missionaries at Blantyre, earned their support, learned from them and built on their principles. His refusal to join up with John Chilembwe is a further manifestation of his loyalty to the Blantyre Mission. David Clement Scott once argued that “people will not believe how much an African is capable of until they have tried him.”—and Matecheta was the first to prove this sentiment among the Presbyterian missionaries. By proving wrong the critics of David Clement Scott in his agenda for African leadership in the church, Matecheta opened doors for more Malawians to rise to leadership in the church while simultaneously setting a very high standard for them.
Andrew C. Ross, Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996), 42.
Amstrong E. Khoza, Memorial History of Mulanje Mission (Blantyre: E+V, 2002), 23.
Kenneth R. Ross, "Vernacular Translation in Christian Mission: The Case of David Clement Scott and the Blantyre Mission 1888-1898," in Gospel Ferment in Malawi: Theological Essays (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1995), 107-126.
Cited in Khoza, Memorial History of Mulanje Mission, 27.
Minutes of the Presbytery of Blantyre, July 1911, National Archives of Malawi 50/BMC/1/2/1.
Harry Matecheta, Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace. (Blantyre: Hetherwick Press, 1951), 24.
Emily T. Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” (Unpublished History Seminar Paper, Chancellor College, University of Malawi, 1973), 1.
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 5.
Ross, Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi, 152.
Matecheta, Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace, 19.
Life and Work in British Central Africa,July1904.
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 7-9.
Matecheta, Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace, 119-20
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 9.
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 11.
Life and Work in British Central Africa, May 1903.
Ross, Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi, 161.
Matecheta, Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace, 17.
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 14.
Ngwira, “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962,” 14.
Harry K. Matecheta, “The Origins of the John Chilembwe Rising”, in Christianity in Malawi**: A Source Book, edited by Kenneth R. Ross (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1996), 146-148.
Matecheta, Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace, 27.
Ross, "Vernacular Translation in Christian Mission," 115.
Khoza, A.E. Memorial History of Mulanje Mission. Blantyre: E+V Publications, 2002.
Church of Scotland, East Africa Mission. *Life and Work in British Central Africa. *
Matecheta, Harry K. “The Origins of the John Chilembwe Rising.” In Kenneth R. Ross (ed), Christianity in Malawi: A Source Book. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1996.
Matecheta, Harry K. Blantyre Mission: Nkhani za Ciyambi Cace. Blantyre: Hetherwick Press, 1951.
National Archives of Malawi File 50/BMC/1/2/1.
Ngwira, E. T. “The Life and Times of Harry Kambwiri Matecheta 1870-1962.” Unpublished History Seminar Paper, Chancellor College, University of Malawi, 1973.
Ross, Andrew C. Blantyre Mission and the Making of Modern Malawi. Blantyre: CLAIM, 1996.
Ross, Kenneth R. "Vernacular Translation in Christian Mission: The Case of the David Clement Scott and the Blantyre Mission 1888-1898." In Gospel Ferment in Malawi: Theological Essays, 107-126. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1995.
This article, received in 2014, was written by Thokozani Chilembwe, a Bachelor of Divinity student at Zomba Theological College (ZTC) and ordinand of the Blantyre Synod, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, under the supervision of Dr. Todd Statham, a missionary and lecturer at Zomba Theological College, a DACB Participating Institution.