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16 October 2014

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John Conlon

John Conlon


Malawi...


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John Conlon

"That night when I went to my room I felt there was something niggling at me…"

The story...

John invites us to share in a day from his past that is still very vivid in his mind…

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John wrote...

I spent 5 years working in Malawi as a priest.  However I did not own a camera and never thought of taking photographs of my life there.  Most of the time I lived in local villages where villagers gave me a hut to sleep in and I ate with them.  The people I worked among were the Achewa the largest ethnic group in Malawi, and the language I spoke was Achewa – one of the many Bantu branches of languages spoken in several countries in East Africa.  We all ate out of the same bowl with our right hands.  The staple diet was, and still is, Nsima made from maize cooked in water with the consistency of dough.  This was served with some kind of side dish, wild leaves, eggs boiled till they were black around the yoke, perhaps on a good day a pigeon or a chicken.  In season roasted ants were a favourite dish.  The season for these was early in the rainy season which started in November.  When it was time for the ants in the large ant hills to mate, they developed small wings and a fat body.  For days and days they streamed out of holes in the ant heap like a stream of water.  The easiest way to catch them was to put a bag in front of one of the holes so that they flew straight into them.  The other common way was to throw water on a patch of ground and to put a light on it.  They were attracted to the light in the dark like moths and when they landed on the wet ground their wings got wet and they were unable to fly off again until their wings dried so that it was easy to scoop them into a container.  They were roasted on a piece of tin over the fire.  They had a crispy taste and were quite nutritious.

As explained in my story I continued to collect proverbs and stories, attach relevant passages of the Gospel and devise 5 or 6 questions to generate discussions on a wide variety of issues in everyday life.  I had regular training sessions with village leaders helped by the ten catechists we employed.  People also continued to write their own religious sons and music which was totally based on beat.  Some of the songs were adapted from existing songs such as wedding dance songs.  The main idea was not to come with the fully packaged version of Christianity that we had inherited from two thousand years of European history which included answers and dogmatic teaching for every small bit or our lives.  This included our Canon law which often had little relevance to Achewa life and customs, our hymns our rituals etc.  instead it was an effort to go some way towards coming to Malawi in a way that God came into our world – a tiny vulnerable baby, powerless and naked as a baby but with a power that attracted rather than prescribed.  The core wisdom of the Achewa had been handed down through the generations through their proverbs and the stories attached to them – much as ours was when we were a predominantly oral society.  My aim was to work with the Achewa to enable them to marry their core wisdom with the core wisdom of Christianity which comes to us through the gospel so that they could build a Chichewa Christianity rather that have an alien European version superimposed on them.

After five years I met Mary Ann who had come to our local hospital to work as a volunteer.  We decided to get married and moved to Northern Ireland.  We have 11 children – six long term foster children, one child adopted and four birth children.  We have children from six different families in our family but two of our foster children who were disabled are now dead.

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