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Feb 23, 2010 | Lucy Germany

Back to the Future

Images from Those Remarkable Village People, a book of postcards from Malawian artists

Between 1963 and 1978, a companionship between Texas and Malawi remained firm. They were years in which the word “mission” in Texas became synonymous with “Malawi.” The diocese sent groups of pilgrims to Malawi, charging them with the serious commitment—upon their return—to spread the word of their experience throughout churches in the diocese. Texas Episcopalians who had never heard of Malawi began serving Malawian food gleaned from a cookbook produced in Nkhotakota, wore java cloth wrap-around skirts and shirts and sang the Malawi national anthem and other African tunes. We were—you might say—“head over heels” in love with this small central African state, one of the poorest on the continent, its major attraction, Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in all of Africa.   Under the guidance of the Rev. William Sterling, rector of Good Shepherd, Friendswood, (later elected suffragan bishop), as chair of World Mission, we published Sunday School curricula that included African games, legends, history and language. The material captivated churches large and small throughout the diocese. Malawian foods, dress and legends not only served to enlighten Texans about their far-away companion, they also helped to develop an extraordinary closeness to a land and people most Texans would never see. 

The relationship continued to mature through  numerous visits from clergy and laity of Malawi to Texas, groups of Texans visiting Malawi, the “adoption” of women’s arts and crafts groups, which made available interesting  hand-made treasures still cherished in many Texas Episcopalians’ homes. 

Texas sent a Master of Works and his artist wife—Bill and Margaret Eignus from Friendswood—to Malawi for two years during which time the lights went on in Nkhotakota—the largest village in Central Africa—for the first time in years, thanks to Bill’s genius with generators. Margaret offered art classes to young boys whose villages were often miles from Nkhotakota but who were willing to walk those miles barefoot and even on crutches to take part in her classes.

The Diocese of Texas persisted in its faithfulness to  Malawi for years beyond the original companion relationship. Texas money built a large lay training center in Nkhotakota, and funded numerous classes ranging from auto repairs to farming and fish raising. Texas funded a hospital just outside Malosa, not far from the capitol city of Blantyre and staffed it with a doctor and nurse—Arthur and Nan Johnson from Houston—a couple whose generosity is still talked of in that place. There were countless “adoptions” over the years of parishes and individuals in Malawi by Texas Episcopalians. These primarily involved exchange of letters, music, books and prayers between the two peoples.

Malawi has been and still is an integral part of the history of the Diocese of Texas. The relationship has produced many “finest hours” for people in both dioceses and has substantially contributed to an extraordinary sense of partnership that goes in both directions. The two dioceses have long been united in ways that continue to feed both spiritually, and now we are embarking on another era in a relationship with a people who have long been in spiritual partnership with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.  As Malawians  traditionally express their thanks by the words in the Chichewa language —“Zikomo Wanbeeri”— the seed that was first planted so long ago now will bear new fruit for new generations.