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Africa’s Wall Street Quiets Christian Worship

In the commercial capital of Malawi, Pentecostal pastors and churches face fines or removal for making a joyful noise.
Africa’s Wall Street Quiets Christian Worship
Image: wilpunt / iStock / Getty Images
Blantyre, Malawi

Loud Pentecostal worship is part of the soundtrack of Africa’s major cities. From Johannesburg, South Africa, to Lagos, Nigeria, booming preaching and boisterous worship rings through the alleys, apartments, and street corners.

But in Blantyre—the commercial capital of Malawi—church noise is conspicuously absent.

Though located in one of the poorest nations in Africa and the world, Blantyre’s central business district contains one of the largest concentrations of investment banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, and posh restaurants on the continent.

Banks like National Bank of Malawi tussle for space in the district with foreign behemoths like Standard Bank Group (Africa’s richest by assets) and the domineering skyscraper of the Reserve Bank of Malawi, the country’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve.

“It is a Wall Street of the Southern Africa region. The city is just artificially too clean, too smart, and designed for banks,” said Susan Mani, one of a few highly regulated mobile chefs who serve suited bankers and hedge fund managers rice and chicken during a two-hour lunch window.

“The thinking of the city fathers is, ‘Do you want some noisy, prayerful African church beating drums in the basement when hedge fund investors from Singapore or Dubai are meeting in the boardroom of a bank atop?’”

City officials have made it clear their answer is no. While quieter Anglican and Adventist congregations dot the streets of Blantyre, noisy African-initiated churches are unwanted. They face fines or possible removal from the district for their traditional style of worship.

“It’s costly to be caught leading a church where bass drums, loud prayers, and the noise of thunderous sermons is filtering into the street,” said Dennis Labo, pastor of Zion Christian Church (ZCC Malawi), an African Pentecostal church that has thousands of followers across Malawi and neighboring African countries.

Labo was fined 370,000 kwacha ($220 USD) and told to relocate his 80-person congregation from the avenue that houses the National Bank of Malawi, the wealthiest bank in the country.

“The Blantyre City Council wants to present the city’s [central business district] as the epitome of a well-clean financial district without … noisy churches or fruit vendors,” he said.

Pentecostal churches aren’t the only targets. Gerald Lipikwe, a council member, stressed that any church, business, party, or dwelling that goes over noise thresholds in the central business district can face steep fines, license restrictions, or removal.

Blantyre follows the harsh bureaucracy of Rwanda, which restricts African Pentecostal churches, forcing congregations to hold covert, quiet services mainly on Fridays after business hours.

“We dare to hold informal services when the bankers have left town,” Nisbert, an evangelical African pastor, told CT.

He avoids giving his surname because his church faces potential removal from the Blantyre central business district. It’s on its last warning after holding an all-night prayer gathering that disturbed a corporate meeting at the nearby Malawi Stock Exchange.

The restrictions on African worship also hurts church growth, pastors say. In a country where three-quarters are Christian, evangelical and Pentecostal churches are eager to draw in young Black bankers who can afford to tithe generously.

Blantyre was the colonial capital of Malawi, the headquarters for banks, universities, hospitals, and government offices. In 1975—a decade after the end of British rule—the government of Malawi gradually transferred offices to its current capital Lilongwe, a new city built out of the bushes.

But the banks never left the former capital, said Labo. Even today, a presidential palace remains in Blantyre.

The place where extravagant sugarcane and tobacco profits were banked by British colonial plantation owners still remains the “money city of Malawi,” according to John Tembo, an independent financial historian who’s lived in Blantyre for the past 50 years.

The city’s hostility to noisy congregations—code for “indigenous African churches”—is unfair, Tembo said. Many among the political and banking elite instead attend Anglican and Baptist parishes, which are considered “classy” and “civilized.”

“European/American legacy churches like Adventists and Anglicans have large outlets and hold services,” Tembo said, pointing to a sprawling Adventist hospital along the posh hotel lane of Blantyre’s city center. “The so-called ‘civilized’ European churches in the Blantyre business district have invested in upper-class hospitals, so they are tolerated.”

Pentecostal or evangelical churches are often unregistered and informal, so the city doesn’t draw taxes from them.

The history of churches in Malawi is colorful, varied, and synonymous with the colonial takeover of the territory that was formerly called Nyasaland. When Scottish missionary David Livingstone arrived at Lake Malawi (then Nyasa) in 1859, he established the country’s first missionary church. Anglican missionaries like Edward Steere followed, as did Dutch Reformed missionaries and, later, the Catholic church.

The Anglicans’ dominance helped solidify the colonial takeover of the country in 1891 by the British crown. Africans who converted to the faith largely joined the Anglican church because it built the most schools, hospitals, and colleges in Malawi.

Following closely were the Adventists, Dutch Reformed, and Catholics. Not many independent African churches existed in Malawi when the country overcame colonial rule in 1964 or in the couple decades after. But as the sense of independence and access to education grew in Malawi in the ’80s, the spirit and confidence of establishing African-initiated churches grew too.

A scatter of numerous African-led churches mushroomed in Malawi—Zion Christian, Pentecostal, and evangelical—many of these mixing traditional African ancestral beliefs and Christian ethos. Because of class differences, they hardly ever united or cooperated with believers in legacy European and American churches.

However, the only point of meeting was when congregants from upstart African churches attended Anglican or Catholic primary schools and urgent care clinics. In impoverished post-colonial Malawi, the Western-founded churches still provided education, health care, and relief.

In the early 2000s, a Pentecostal Christian re-awakening began to sweep through Africa. As African economies got hit by World Bank–enforced austerity, dubious African “prophets” like Shepherd Bushiri in Malawi and T. B. Joshua in Nigeria began to dazzle millions of poor African believers with promises of miracles and instant wealth.

Millions of Black Malawians were won over and began leaving legacy colonial churches and older African churches for the charismatic “miracle” prophets. For poor believers in the country, the promise of instant wealth and miraculous breakthrough holds significant appeal.

Mani, the lunch vendor, says the restrictions and stigma around African churches reflects underlying anti-poor attitudes in a country with extreme inequality. Oxfam America says just 10 percent of the population consumes 22 times more resources than the poorest Malawians.

“It’s a dangerous inequality,” said pastor Labo. “Just a few meters out of Blantyre’s central banking district you will find the most chaotic slums where the real citizens, the majority of Blantyre, live and worship loudly.”

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