Martha Mwale was the first woman to serve as a Presbyterian parish minister in Malawi.  She was born on April 4, 1945 at Matiki in Dwangwa, Nkhotakota District, the third born in the family of Fletcher Kameta Chirwa and Fanne Bokawo Nyalongwe.  Her sisters were Miriam and Fedesi while her brother was Fletcher Kameta. Their father was Tumbuka by tribe and a Presbyterian evangelist while their mother was a Chewa and a leader in the Women’s Guild.  Her father was working in South Africa during much of her childhood, so she was brought up by her mother and grandmother at Nkhunga in Nkhotakota. She became fluent in Chitonga, Chitumbuka, Chichewa and English.
Martha grew up during the period of colonial rule when the only available schools were mission schools.  In 1953 she enrolled at Mlala Primary School, an Anglican Mission School about ten kilometres from her home. She responded to her parents’ encouragement to work hard at school, determined always to be first in the class. She liked English and was nicknamed “English Girl.” Her ambition was to graduate from university as a teacher or nurse. When Martha sat the Standard Six examinations at the end of primary school in 1962, her results were among the best in the whole country.  She was selected for Likuni Girls Secondary School where she completed her secondary education in 1966. She then took a four-year course in midwifery at Cherry Hills Manor Home College in the USA before returning to Malawi to gain a Diploma in Education at Soche College in Blantyre. 
On December 21, 1970, Martha married Winfred Abner Taonga Mwale, a fellow Presbyterian from her home village in Nkhotakota. They set up home in Lilongwe where Martha worked as a teacher at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School while her husband worked as a medical doctor at Lilongwe General Hospital. In 1974 she was invited by President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who was trying to increase the number of women MPs, to accept nomination as a Member of Parliament. While this was an honor, Martha had misgivings about the repressive one-party system that was in force in Malawi at this time and she declined. This led to her being investigated and the police discovered a notebook in her house in which she had written 45 statements that were critical of the Banda regime. She and her husband were both arrested and detained without trial at Mikuyu Prison near Zomba.
Conditions for political prisoners like Martha were harsh. She was kept in chains, beaten, given rotten food and subjected to various forms of torture. Her husband was released after a short period, but Martha remained in detention for two years. When she was released, she refused to attend political rallies in Lilongwe and was imprisoned for a further three years. By this time the couple had three small children: Wezi, Chanju and Chimangu who were deprived of the care of their mother. When she returned to prison, she was pregnant and had to give birth in her prison cell where her baby boy died a few minutes after delivery.  She was finally released from prison on July 6, 1979 as part of a tradition of releasing some prisoners on Malawi’s independence day. However, she was banned from being employed by governmental or non-governmental organizations. These were very painful experiences, but Martha accepted them as an opportunity to trust in God and to find joy through her faith in Jesus Christ. She had seen many of her companions die in prison, so she regarded her release as a resurrection from the dead.
Her deep faith can be traced back to her upbringing in a strongly Christian family. Her father was an evangelist and was nicknamed “Jerusalem” because of the quality of his hospitality and concern for the glory of God. No visitor could leave his home with an empty hand, he always had a small gift for them. As a child, Martha loved praying, singing and memorizing Bible verses. She was devoted to her Sunday School teacher, Mrs Balani, and won many prizes for her work. At the age of 16 she was confirmed and became active as a choir leader at Nkhunga CCAP. Her favorite hymn was the Tonga song Jani mukhola laku Chiuta (“Stay in the kraal of God”). She became secretary of the Christian Youth Fellowship at Nkhunga congregation and, though still very young, was elected as a church elder.  It was rare for women to preach in church at that time, but Martha proved to be an excellent preacher and was always ready to deliver a sermon when asked. At secondary school she was a choir leader and chaired the school’s branch of the Student Christian Organization in Malawi (SCOM). She also became a member of the Women’s Guild (Umanyano) which plays a major role in the life of the Synod of Livingstonia.
On her release from prison, she became the secretary of the Women’s Guild in Bandawe Presbytery, a role that involved organizing and promoting the work of the members. She encouraged Bible studies, prayer, visiting the sick and bereaved, and caring for the needy. She offered courses on home management, literacy, small businesses, tailoring, banking and Bible study. She initiated the construction of Women’s Guild houses at Nkhunga and Bandawe. Her experience as a leader of the Guild prompted her to enrol for theological studies at Zomba Theological College where she was a student from 1987 to 1990. At this time, it was very rare for women to study theology but Martha was undaunted by the male-dominated environment at the College and successfully completed her studies.
In 1991, she was appointed Deputy Women’s Guild Coordinator for the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia and, in 1994, became the Coordinator. While she flourished in this role, she was also increasingly aware of a call to serve as an ordained minister. Until this time only men were allowed to serve as ministers in the Synod of Livingstonia but thinking was changing and in 1997 the Synod decided to open the door to women being admitted to serve in the ministry. Martha was the first to apply successfully and began her work as a probationer minister in 2000 at Eng’colweni congregation in Ekwendeni Presbytery. It was here that she was ordained on September 17, 2001, becoming the first woman to serve as a Presbyterian parish minister in Malawi.
At Eng’ocolweni CCAP she soon established herself as a dynamic parish minister. She made long journeys on foot to carry out pastoral visitation and opened two new vestries at Kapondero and Kasasire. She was instrumental in establishing a partnership with Dalgety Bay congregaton in Scotland and organizing exchange visits.  With funds from Dalgety Bay, Rev Mwale initiated the construction of a new church at Eng’ocolweni, with an electricity supply. Another project brought piped water to the area. She encouraged pig-rearing as a contribution to economic development.  Though some members had initially been reluctant to accept a woman minister, Martha soon won them over through her kindness and demonstration of the love of God.
While serving at Eng’ocolweni, Rev Mwale was elected to serve as Moderator of Ekwendeni Presbytery from 2002 to 2003. Later in 2003 she was transferred from Eng’ocolweni to Lupaso in Mzuzu Presbytery.  She suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, which led to her death on February 4, 2004. She was buried at her original home at Nkhunga. Though her time of service as a parish minister was short it was historic and influential. It has played its part in encouraging many other women to discover their calling to serve as ordained ministers in the Synod of Livingstonia.
- Frank S. Kadogana, “A History of Women Ministry in the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia,” PhD, Mzuzu University, 2022, 131.
- Wezi Mwale, daughter of Martha Mwale, interview by author, June 5, 2022, Nkhunga.
- Mirriam Chirwa, sister of Martha Mwale, interview by author, June 5, 2022, Nkhunga.
- Chanju Abinala Mwale, daughter of Martha Mwale, interview by author, July 5, 2022, Lilongwe.
- Kadogana, “A History of Women Ministry in the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia,” 132.
- Chanju Abinala Mwale, interview by author, July 5, 2022, Lilongwe.
- Kadogana, “A History of Women Ministry in the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia,” 134.
- Chanju Abinala Mwale, interview by author, July 5, 2022, Lilongwe.
- Vyson Nhlema, elder at Eng’ocolweni CCAP, interview by author, July 7, 2022, Eng’ocolweni.
- Wezi Mwale, interview by author, June 5, 2022, Nkhunga.
Chirwa, Mirriam. Interview by author, June 5, 2022, Nkhunga.
Kadogana, Frank S. “A History of Women Ministry in the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia.” PhD, Mzuzu University, 2022.
Mwale, Chanju Abinala. Interview by author, July 5, 2022, Lilongwe.
Mwale, Wezi. Interview by author, June 5, 2022, Nkhunga.
Nhlema, Vyson. Interview by author, July 7, 2022, Eng’ocolweni.
This article, submitted in November 2022, was researched and written by Edward Singini, minister, Edundu congregation, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synod of Livingstonia, under the supervision of Professor Kenneth R. Ross as one of the requirements of the Church History course on the MTh in Contextual Theology at Zomba Theological University.