Combatting Harmful Beliefs
This is a story about a small village in Mzimba, a northern district in the Southern African country of Malawi. It is a story about love and the relentless pursuit of the truth—a truth that has set the village of Jenda free and paved the way for love to flourish.
Five years ago, the Ngoni people never could have imagined the transformation their district was about to experience. Though amongst some of the poorest people in the world, the Ngoni are a proud people, rooted in age-old traditions, closed to outsiders and cautious of change.
Before World Relief began working in Mzimba, life was dictated by tribal traditions that oftentimes perpetuated, or worsened, the cycle of poverty and suffering in the community.
The Ngoni people lived their day-to-day lives believing that:
- A malnourished child meant there was infidelity within the marriage.
- Girls were valuable solely for their bride price and should not attend school.
- Upon puberty, girls foreheads should be cut and scarred to reveal their readiness for marriage.
- If women did not bear sons, men may continue to marry as many women as they like. (Polygamy was commonplace.)
- Upon the death of their husband, widows must walk on their knees to the closest river without food or water.
- Pregnant women must not breastfeed or eat eggs.
- Witchdoctors were the only solution to sickness and challenges.
In many cases, these beliefs lead to chronic malnutrition, child abuse or gender injustices that could often mean the difference between life and death. Yet, this way of life went unchallenged for the Ngoni people, who had no expectations or hope of a different way — no opportunity to act on their natural instinct to love, and no relief for the suffering they endured.
Change Takes Root
In 2012, when local World Relief staff first arrived in the village of Jenda, villagers were guarded. They sent local pastors and leaders to meet with the outsiders, doubting the significance of the gathering, in some cases even fearing it was a scam. Little did they know, this meeting would be the beginning of a vibrant transformation. One that revealed life-altering truth, rooted in love and that would lead to the renewal of their lives, their people and their entire community.
As leaders around Jenda came together with World Relief staff in vision-casting seminars, community-based needs assessments and cross-denominational conversations, a wave of excitement and optimism began to spread. Like wildfire, 15 churches soon became 22, spanning 10 denominations and multiple villages across Mzimba as community leaders realized that a different life, and future, for their people was possible.
“We began to understand God’s vision for our community. A truth that had been obscured from us due to age-old cultural practices and mindsets. We learned God had a desire to see us and our community working together in unity to serve one another, love one another and to lift up our community. We learned to work together, to realize our part in helping the most vulnerable, to become self-reliant and to shed harmful beliefs that were hindering us.” — Church Network Committee Chairman
As community leaders and increasingly, community members, began coming together in conversation around these new truths, the tide began to shift.
“We began to understand poverty in a deeper way. We came to realize the power of knowledge, and of self-reliance. And we realized some of our practices must change if we were to lead better lives. — Modesta, Jenda Savings Group Participant
A Flourishing Community
As the people of Jenda gathered to discuss the needs of their village and their vision for the future, the community began adopting changes that gradually gave way to community-wide flourishing.
New cash crops were planted to include soya beans and groundnuts, yielding added household income. With the pooled profits, seedlings were planted to regrow trees that had been lost to deforestation, hundreds of thousands of bricks were molded for the construction of a new school and homes for teachers, a clean-water well was dug, and savings and agricultural groups were formed.
As each new need was identified, the community gathered together to raise money and invest back into their collective vision for their lives and the lives of their children.
But the changes were not just physical. Love and appreciation for the children of the village was instilled as community members began to understand the meaning of Imago Dei—each child created in the image of God and possessing inherent worth.
The value of the girl child and the importance of education for both boys and girls began to take root. Community members began looking out for their friends and neighbors, and families began to repair once broken relationships, thriving in a growing love, care and respect for one another.
Little by little with each passing year, leaders and community members alike began speaking out against harmful practices of polygamy, rites of passage, child brides and witch doctors.
Mothers groups were formed to keep children in school and protect the rights of children, especially girls.
Leaders from other districts began to visit Jenda to witness what, why and how such positive transformation was taking place. And Jenda’s influence was so great that even local government Village Development Committees took note—putting in place by-laws that forbade marriage under the age of 18 and required mothers to give birth in health-centers or local hospitals so as to ensure proper care.
A Flourishing Future
Today, the village of Jenda is unrecognizable. As you enter the center of the village, you pass a deep-water well, three primary school blocks, five well-constructed teachers’ homes, three large enclosed cultivation plots, two brick-molding kilns and a large field of newly planted trees.
The church, which sits as the center of the community with two classrooms, continues to be a place of planning and dreaming toward a flourishing future. Community members plan to build more schools and child care centers, a library and a recreation hall. They want to ensure all girls attend school and every disabled child has access to wheelchair and wheelchair accessible classrooms. And so much more.
Ten years ago, these plans were not even a thought, let alone an aspiration for the Ngoni people in Jenda. Yet today, they stand before us, proclaiming the gospel and the truths that have opened their minds, encouraged love and instilled a bright and bold vision for their future. It is a truth we can all rejoice in.
*At World Relief, our goal is to see local churches continue to serve the most vulnerable long after World Relief transitions out of the area. We do not seek to establish a long-term, ongoing presence in the areas we serve, but instead build capacity among local leaders to sustain the progress they themselves initiated. Once a community is able to meet their target goals, World Relief begins the process of graduating the community, which includes a time of reflecting and celebrating together. The Jenda community is currently set to graduate in 2023! Join us in celebrating and praying for this continuous transformation.
Francesca Albano currently serves as Director of Branded Content at World Relief. With a background in Cultural Anthropology and a graduate degree in Strategic Marketing Communications, she connects her interests in societal studies and global cultures with her training in brand strategy and storytelling. Francesca is especially passionate about grassroots community development and the treatment and advancement of women and girls around the world.