Open Day at Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art, 2022

The Chameleon has been blessed with eyes which provide 360-degree vision allowing a clear view of the journey taken and the movement forward. It is also much admired for its ability to adapt to its present milieu. It is this animal that God used in the Chewa myth of creation to announce the Good News that there is life after death although it was out paced by the swifter lizard who provided a contradicting message.

In Kungoni we have chosen the chameleon as our mascot. We too want to help people, especially Malawians, to learn from the journey of all the generations who have preceded us. We believe that this wealth of knowledge can provide a much clearer vision for our future. We are not beginners on our journey but hold within us a reservoir of history and thought. It is this storehouse which we want people to tap into.

The chameleon is also our inspiration because we are all called to adapt to our present environment. This is even more pertinent for missionaries sent to different cultures and contexts. Just as the chameleon merges into its surroundings so too we are called to immerse ourselves in the context we are sent to serve. Through our efforts to learn the language and understand local culture and ritual we can also begin to understand the world from a different perspective. It is this knowledge which allows us as missionaries to share the Good News in a meaningful way which can have an impact on people’s lives. Facilitating such experiences has been the mission of Kungoni Cultural Centre since its establishment in 1976 under the guidance of Fr. Claude Boucher Chisale. 

As Missionaries of Africa, we have been commended in our desire to adapt to our milieu. Adaption is only possible with knowledge – knowledge is only possible with encounter. It is this experience which inspired our 2022 Open Day. Originally, this day was inspired by Fr. Champmartin (known locally as Chamare) who was one of the long standing members of the Missionaries of Africa community in Mua. This day is one of the highlights of our calendar as an annual event, with an open invitation to all.

For our team here in Kungoni, the preparations began long before the day arrived. Key to all the discussions was the need for inclusivity, recognising the richness that can be found in diversity. Such a desire dovetailed very easily with recent discussion at our 2022 General Chapter. In Rome we were reminded of the importance of encounter as a means of fulfilling our mission. We all acknowledged that the fruits we produce as missionaries can only taste good if they are rooted in the lives and culture of the people we are called to serve. It was for this reason that we at Kungoni felt it was only right that we should begin our day with an inter-religious prayer service.

The first step in preparing such a service was not ritual and rubrics but rather a knock on a door and a heartfelt greeting. And what a welcome we received. It was as if these church leaders had been waiting for this moment. The C.C.A.P. Pastor even arranged that we pray together on the following Sunday in his church. It is always a moment of enlightenment and an important moment of recognition that nobody can claim to have a monopoly on how we understand the human relationship with God. It would seem a natural inclination to realise that we have so much to learn from each other in our understanding of something that is beyond our comprehension – that something being God. 

And so the encounters continued with phone calls and visits to the homes of the Muslim, Anglican and Traditional authorities. What we lacked in experience, we gained in enthusiasm. Nobody missed a meeting or practice. We struggled with meanings and symbols. How could we, after asking for forgiveness, express our desire to be reconciled in a post-Covid era which prohibits the shaking of hands. Somebody suggested planting a tree together as a sign of sowing the seeds of new life. We discussed about carrying the Koran during a procession and sharing the word of God in Arabic. Everyone agreed that we should all be free to express ourselves in a respectful and meaningful manner. As all our prayers were calling for greater unity and understanding, we wondered if we could not express this desire in a way which would be meaningful in our local culture. We shared about how unity and solidarity is expressed during the grief of a funeral or the joy experienced during a wedding. We noticed that during a funeral grandchildren of the deceased carry flags made from identical cloth. Women also choose a cloth to signify the friendship of their group which they wear at various gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Such cloth is called “kalala” and upon seeing it one instinctively knows that it is a sign of familial or group unity. So we too adopted this approach by choosing one design which would become the sign of our common heritage in faith and culture. Each participant was given this cloth to tie around a central pole (mzati) that we carried together into the arena. It is the “mzati” which provides the central support for the traditional round house. This symbolism of unity continued throughout the day as more “kalala” were added by the various groups who came to perform, recognising that we all share a common home, Malawi.

The reaction to our prayer service has been overwhelmingly positive. As a group we have subsequently met and hope to have similar services linked with national events like the National Day of Prayer for the Sick. More importantly we have encouraged visiting and getting to know each other better. 

The upcoming documents of the Chapter once more remind us that encounter and dialogue are by no means the preserve of specialists. For many of us as M.Afr, this is already a reality as we meet different faith beliefs in our work through funerals, development projects, and other community events. However, the General Chapter 2022 calls for a proactive approach encouraging us to seek out this encounter as part of our charism as Missionaries of Africa.

The second part of our Open Day aimed to provide a platform for various groups to present their performances in line with our theme; “Let Us Reconcile So As To Build The Central Pillar Of Malawi. Remember Culture Is Our Backbone.” It is our belief that song, dance, poetry and drama have incredible influence on the human psyche.These forms of cultural expression have evolved over generations and are embedded in the DNA of our human nature.

Before the advent of mass media, song, dance, poetry and drama had already developed to become one of the most effective means of teaching the next generation. It is also through these expressions that we can understand how our ancestors were able to negotiate issues of grief and joy, and the expectations of growing up in a community. It is imperative that young people understand the power of these cultural expressions to present a message. It is this format that we used during our Open Day to help people reflect on the power of having a unified voice in our efforts to make Malawi a better country.

We also wanted to continue the efforts for inclusivity at all levels. Therefore, our groups were varying in age, gender and capacity. We invited the children from the local School for the Deaf to prepare a performance of their skills. These children astounded us in their ability to formulate and coordinate three dance performances. One of their performances included highlighting the value of education and avoiding activities that confuse young people. The very fact that the whole auditorium waved their hands rather than clapped to show appreciation was already a learning lesson. 

Other performances called for greater respect for our environment and more efforts to appreciate our differences. Overall, everyone contributed their part in showcasing the incredible wealth of knowledge and skills we have here in Malawi.

The forthcoming Chapter documents will reiterate that encounter is at the heart of our mission and invites us to dialogue with all cultures and religions. It has been an integral part of our congregation from the very beginning. Our founder, Cardinal Lavigerie was indeed a man ahead of his time. With the limited knowledge and exposure of that time, the first missionaries immersed themselves in a world very different from their own and sought out encounter as a means of understanding this new reality. These men have been our inspiration ever sense and have provided us with the blueprint for what we now call “The daily dialogue of life and faith.” We are now fully aware of the diversity that exists in our world and its potential to build or destroy. We can be at the forefront in harnessing this wealth to present the Gospel message in a more dynamic and inclusive manner. However, nothing can replace the beauty of an encounter and a desire to know the other. It is such a desire that promises to make us true Missionaries of Lavigerie.

By Fr. Brendan O’Shea (M.Afr)