Stephen Kauta Msiska was a leading pastor of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian [CCAP], Synod of Livingstonia, whose silencing by political authorities in the 1970s and subsequent ostracism robbed Malawian Protestantism of an original theological voice.
A Tumbuka, Msiska was born in 1913 in Rumphi district in the north of Malawi, and educated at the Scottish Presbyterians’ Overtoun Institution. Ordained in the CCAP Livingstonia Synod in the early 1940s, Msiska became a highly respected pastor and church leader in an era when indigenous ministers were still not well represented in mainline mission churches. After a year of theological studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1961, in 1962 he was appointed to the Theological College at Nkhoma (in central Malawi) that was operated jointly by the three constituent synods of the CCAP. A few years later he became the first Malawian to serve as principal. Remembered by one of his Scottish colleagues as a “highly intelligent, spiritual and much respected leader of the African church,” and praised in 1973 by Bridglal Pachai—the leading Malawian historian of his generation—as a “deeply read” and “remarkably talented man,” Msiska’s promising career ended abruptly in 1974.
At that time, Malawians were expected to wear a lapel badge of the ruling Malawi Congress Party [MCP] as a profession of loyalty to life president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Msiska recommended that students at the Theological College refrain from wearing this badge while in the pulpit, as it compromised the preacher’s exclusive allegiance to Christ and distracted from the preaching of the Word of God. A student from Nkhoma Synod (which encompasses the central region of Malawi that had constituted the core of Banda’s support) reported him to the authorities. The MCP was enraged, condemned Msiska as a “confusionist” and gave him forty-eight hours to leave the Central Region. Msiska and his family fled north under cover of dark to his home village in Rumphi. As Kenneth Ross notes:
Underlying the lapel badge issue was a struggle concerning the move of the CCAP Theological College from Nkhoma to Zomba. Rev. Kauta Msiska was a champion of this proposal which aimed to locate the College in close proximity to the main campus of the University of Malawi. It was being resisted by the Nkhoma Synod and the Central Region politicians who enjoyed the prestige of hosting the Theological College and feared the potentially critical theology which might have developed through connection with the University.
It is also possible that some members of MCP had been harbouring a grudge against Msiska since the early 1950s, when despite his personal opposition to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland proposed by the British Colonial Office, he was deemed insufficiently radical in his opposition by the Nyasaland African Congress (the forerunner of the MCP), and was subjected to abuse and intimidation. Msiska would spend the remainder of his life in his home region, forced into obscurity by the MCP and isolated even within his own denomination until Banda’s downfall in 1994.
Msiska’s rehabilitation as a noteworthy theologian and churchman began in 1996, when the Scottish missionary and professor at the University of Malawi, Kenneth Ross, included one of Msiska’s reflections, “The Certainty of Christianity among the People in the Villages,” in his important anthology Christianity in Malawi: A Sourcebook. One year later, the Kachere Institute at the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Malawi, published this essay along with Msiska’s thoughts on the relationship between Christianity and traditional Tumbuka religion as Golden Buttons: Christianity and Traditional Religion among the Tumbuka. This book has since come to be considered a significant contribution to Malawian theology as well as an important emic account of Tumbuka religion and culture. Msiska lamented the fact that missionary attitudes towards African culture had effectively severed Malawian Christians from their heritage. The forfeit of their “whole religious past and background” as a result tempts new Christians to syncretism, a constant hovering “between [traditional religions] on the one hand and orthodox missionary Christianity on the other.”  Rather than rejecting Tumbuka culture for European Christendom, Msiska recommends instead the conversion of the Tumbuka past by the gospel. Such a conversion would purge the dark aspects and “cruel customs” of traditional culture whilst preserving and refining all that was good and true—which could then serve as the foundation for a genuinely African Christianity. He wrote:
The African therefore has left his old religion, and rightly so; but he has lost many things which were good for him as an African. He has lost his whole religious past and background on which the Christian faith could have flourished through all time. The African has rightly thrown out his dirty, torn shirt, but he has at the same time lost his golden buttons with it.
Much of Golden Buttons is dedicated to identifying some of these “golden buttons”, and advocating for a Christology for the African context: Jesus, the one true mediator between God and humankind, who alone can liberate people from sin, evil, and fear of malicious spirits.
Although the bitter circumstances of his life prevented him from reaching his full potential as a theologian and church leader, Stephen Kautu Msiska should be remembered for his personal integrity and bravery, and for his pioneering attempt to recover Malawi’s religious-cultural past for the sake of the present mission of the church.
Stephen Kauta Msiska, “The Unity of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian through CCAP Theological College,” Unpublished manuscript in the National Archives of Malawi MSS 68/SK/1/1 (1963).
Alistair M. Rennie, Scotch Broth: A Mix of Memoirs of Ninety Years, (Self-Published, 2009), 185; Bridglal Pachai, Malawi: The History of a Nation, (London: Longmans, 1973), 207.
The story is recounted well by Silas Ncozana, Sangaya: A Leader in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, 2nd ed. (Blantyre: CLAIM, 1999), 32-36. See also the entry on Msiska in the Historical Dictionary of Malawi, ed. by Owen Kalinga (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 315.
Christianity in Malawi: A Sourcebook, edited by Kenneth R. Ross (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1996), 69.
John McCracken, A History of Malawi 1859-1966, (London: James Currey, 2012), 315.
Stephen Kauta Msiska, Golden Buttons: Christianity and Traditional Religion among the Tumbuka,(Blantyre: CLAIM, 1997).
Golden Buttons, 19.
Golden Buttons, 35.
Golden Buttons, 45.
Golden Buttons, 19.
Kalinga, Owen, ed. Historical Dictionary of Malawi. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. 2012.
McCracken, John. A History of Malawi 1859-1966. London: James Currey. 2012.
Msiska, Stephen Kauta. Golden Buttons: Christianity and Traditional Religion among the Tumbuka. Blantyre: CLAIM. 1997.
Msiska, Stephen Kauta. “The Unity of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian through CCAP Theological College.” Unpublished manuscript in the National Archives of Malawi MSS 68/SK/1/1. 1963.
Ncozana, Silas. Sangaya: A Leader in the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, 2nd ed. Blantyre: CLAIM. 1999.
Pachai, Bridglal.* Malawi: The History of a Nation*. London: Longmans. 1973.
Rennie, Alistair M. Scotch Broth: A Mix of Memoirs of Ninety Years. Self-Published. 2009.
Ross, Kenneth R. ed. Christianity in Malawi: A Sourcebook. Gweru: Mambo Press. 1996.
Statham, Todd. ‘“Like Jairus I call you’: Two Theological Attempts to Recover the Malawian Past.” Journal of African Christian Thought 17 (2015): 40-49.
This article, received in 2016, was written by Todd Statham, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada from 2011 to 2015, seconded to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod as lecturer at Zomba Theological College in Malawi.