Journey to Africa: Bishop Zinkula witnesses the joy of Catholics in Malawi amidst economic challenges

Bishop Thomas Zinkula sits with young adult members of one of the tribes that performed the story of their tribe’s roots in Africa. The performance took place during the bishop’s journey to Southern Africa Sept. 22 to Oct. 5, representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Africa.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Malawi, described as “the warm heart of Africa” is also one of the poorest countries in the world, two realities that Bishop Thomas Zinkula witnessed during the second half of his journey this fall to Africa.

Over dinner in the Archdiocese of Blantyre in southern Malawi he listened to Archbishop Thomas Msusa, S.M.M., share his story of conversion from the Muslim faith to the Catholic faith and his vocation to the priesthood. “He is very instrumental in Muslim/Catholic Church relationships and dialogue because he can walk in both worlds. He is highly respected in both communities,” Bishop Zinkula said.

At the Catholic University of Malawi, Bishop Zinkula, who practiced law before discerning his vocation to the priesthood, enjoyed talking with law school students and touring the university, which has experienced phenomenal growth. Enrollment rose from 500 students 10 years ago to 6,000+ students today. The university is self-sustaining and has two new satellite campuses (north and central Malawi), said Fritz Zuger, a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Africa. He accompanied Bishop Zinkula, a subcommittee member, on the journey to Africa, Sept. 22 to Oct. 5.


Malawi has a population of 15 million people and 3.1 million of them are Catholic ( Bishop Zinkula learned that 60% of the Catholics there are younger than 30 years of age. “The youth have a passion for education,” he said. Many of the schools, primary and secondary, are Catholic, but everyone can attend. The government pays the salaries, including that of religious sisters and brothers and Catholic laity. “The Church can help transform society through education.”

The bishop also visited a private boarding school for boys in Blantyre, which benefitted from the Subcommittee on the Church in Africa’s Solidarity Fund that provides monies to help build capacity in the Catholic Church, Zuger said. Many of the school’s students go on to university or the seminary. Twenty-three seminarians of the diocese are studying philosophy and 27 are studying theology; formation of seminarians is among the capacity-building efforts the Solidarity Fund supports.

Commerce on foot and bicycle
On the six-hour drive to the Diocese of Lilongwe in central Malawi, Bishop Zinkula saw “young guys on bicycles carrying large loads of wood or charcoal to sell in ‘nearby’ cities and children holding chickens to sell on the side of the road. I saw other people selling tomatoes stacked up like a pyramid and still other people selling gypsum in chunks, gravel or powder form for construction and other projects. I saw a man riding a bicycle while carrying a baby.”

He saw shacks, cows, maize, goats, chickens, cabbage, potatoes, cucumbers, tobacco, watermelon, bananas, cassava and “mountains” along a large lake. Women carried containers of water on their heads, water drawn from the river or boreholes. Drought and flooding have challenged the people of Malawi, struggling to eke out an existence growing food. While the unemployment rate is listed at 7%, some 90% of Malawians “live on what they plant in their backyard.”

Sometimes, it’s not enough. During their visit with Archbishop Msusa in Blantyre, Zuger took Bishop Zinkula to the garage of the archbishop’s residence where he keeps 50-pound sacks of maize to give to people who stop by because they do not have enough to eat. The archbishop receives hungry visitors daily, Zuger said.

The sight of a pickup truck with flashing lights and five to six young men sitting with their arms around each other so they wouldn’t fall off the back of the truck caught Bishop Zinkula’s attention. A body was in the center of their ring. “They were transporting the body of a loved one from the mortuary to the burial site.”

Bishop Zinkula, Zuger and their driver, Father Alfred Chaima, the new secretary general of the Malawi Bishops Conference, stopped along the way to visit Bishop Peter Adrian Chifukwa, who leads the Diocese of Dedza in Malawi. “There is a tradition that when you travel and pass through villages or towns you must visit everybody you know in that town,” Zuger said. The tradition complements a saying, “You Westerners own the clock and we Africans own the time.”

In the Archdiocese of Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, Bishop Zinkula shared ideas with Archbishop George Tambala on new ways to collaborate, which the bishop will relay to the Subcommittee on the Church in Africa. The subcommittee meets next month during the USCCB’s fall meeting.

Jubilant celebrations
Archbishop Tambala invited Bishop Zinkula to a jubilee Mass to celebrate the anniversaries and profession of final vows for nuns of the Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Hundreds of people attended the outdoor Mass, the second of two large outdoor Masses that Bishop Zinkula concelebrated during his journey to Africa. The first Mass took place in Windhoek, Namibia, during the plenary assembly of the Bishops Conferences of Southern Africa. “When there is a celebration, everyone comes,” Zuger said of the large turnout. Catholics bring their friends, whether or not they are Catholic.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula congratulates Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus celebrating anniversaries and profession of final vows in Malawi. The bishop visited Malawi during his journey to Southern Africa Sept. 22 to Oct. 5.

Masses last several hours or more, including the jubilee Mass, which lasted 4-½ hours, Bishop Zinkula said. He did not understand the language but understood the joy with which the sisters and their guests celebrated. “Girls were dancing with an innocent, pious movement of the head, looking up to God.” The offertory gifts, brought to the altar with elaborate ceremony, included fruits and vegetables, flowers, buckets and even toilet paper.

“The sisters’ mission is the liberation and empowerment of women who are enslaved as a result of miseries like gender-based violence and human trafficking,” Bishop Zinkula said. “They empower women through education and encounter women and girls, following up if there is a problem. They help abused women find alternative means of survival and safety.”

He told the sisters, “St. Therese of the Child Jesus no doubt is smiling down on your religious community today.” Then he told the entire assembly, “The Church is certainly alive and well here in Malawi. Your strong faith is inspirational and heartwarming. God bless you all.”

He also met three missionaries from India, “three young, faith-filled, committed religious sisters who moved about nine months ago to southern Malawi, where they are ministering in a hospital to the poorest of the poor.”

Enhanced vision
While poor and dependent on help from the outside, “The Church is vibrant in Africa,” Bishop Zinkula said after his journey to Southern Africa. “The goal of the Church in Africa is to build churches and schools on its own. That is happening, but it takes time.”

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