Thy lonely waters, as they gently swing
And murmur ‘neath the cloudless azure sky,
Full many a lofty message through the eye
That rests upon the impressive scene do bring
To minds attuned to high imagining,
And spirits yearning for eternity ;
Such messages, I ween, can never die,
From heaven they come, despatched by heaven’s King
When people take to the mission field in far-flung regions of the world, there is an emphasis on learning the language and understanding the culture of the people to whom they are sent. Both of these things are worthy pursuits, are intertwined with one another and completely vital to the mission task among unreached people groups. However, after living in Mozambique’s northern Niassa Province for the last six years, I have come to appreciate another side to mission here. I’ve learnt to appreciate the history of the place and of the people, and of the efforts of missionaries who went before us many years ago. Knowing what has happened and what people have tried to do in the past means that we can understand why certain things happened the way they did and why things are the way they are now. We can also learn from these previous attempts and build on them or do things differently.
Despite a chequered history of mission to the Yawo in Mozambique for over one hundred years, they remain largely unreached (something like 98-99% of Yawo identify as Muslims). Why is this so? Has the Holy Spirit not been moving among these people?
The history of mission to the Yawo and the history of the Yawo embracing Islam interestingly enough coincides during the same time period, at the end of the nineteenth century. Why did the Yawo shift to Islam and not to Christianity, to the hope of Jesus? Aside from any spiritual reasons for this, there were some pretty potent things going on historically that made it happen the way it did. The Yawo had been involved with the lucrative slave trade on the east coast of Africa for a couple of centuries before the Europeans really got hold of the Yawo part of the continent. Although the Portuguese had been active on the coast of Mozambique ever since Vasco da Gama stopped by at the end of the fifteenth century, they hadn’t really penetrated into the interior, into Yawo heartland. Yawo slavers had dealings with Muslim Swahili Arabs at places such as Kilwa on the coast of Tanzania, although the Yawo as a people didn’t initially adopt Islam during those first couple of centuries of trade. They were quite content to do business without taking on the religion of their business partners. All of this changed in the nineteenth century however, when a number of Yawo chiefs began to amass more power, due in part to the benefits of the slave trade. Over time, a few different Yawo “chiefdoms” developed and eventually, one-by-one, the chiefs adopted Islam, partly as a way to control their people through identity rituals such as circumcision.
In 1857, when David Livingstone returned to England after his first stint on the African continent, he issued a call during some university lectures for the establishment of missions to southern Africa. Out of this call, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) was born and Anglican mission to the Yawo began. One of the first missionaries to arrive in Yawo territory, aside from Livingstone himself, was a fellow by the name of William Percival Johnson. At one point, Johnson resided in a small town called Mwembe within the chiefdom of Mataka, a notorious name that still has quite the reputation in Yawo stories. After initially receiving the blessing of Chief Mataka, Johnson established his ministry and stayed in Mwembe for about a year before things went rather drastically wrong. A slave caravan belonging to Mataka was intercepted by British colonial forces who by this time had banned slavery and were using the navy to enforce this ban. Despite the good intentions, however, it was these sorts of actions that further isolated the Yawo people from European colonists and pushed them toward embracing the Islam of the Swahili Arab coast. Why would a man like Mataka embrace the message of Jesus coming from a British missionary like Johnson, when Johnson’s own countrymen were responsible for interfering with what Mataka perceived as legitimate business? Clearly slavery was and is completely abhorrent, but it is a little depressing to think that a side effect of stopping the slave trade was that any chance of effective mission to the Yawo was nipped in the bud.
After this Mataka incident, and a little way away from Mwembe, another mission was started by the UMCA in 1893. This spot was intended to be more permanent than the Mwembe attempt so they built a station at the foot of a double-peaked mountain called Unangu right in the heart of Yawo territory. Unangu today is around 60 kilometres away from Lichinga, the provincial capital of Niassa and where we currently live. Back then, there was said to be over one thousand people living in Unangu village before the community eventually moved away over the years to more fertile soil. In some of the old books about the history of the UMCA, there is reference to the mission station at Unangu and of the church they built there in 1900. Apparently, up until the massive cathedral of St. Peter was built on Likoma Island on Lake Malawi, the church at Unangu was the largest church in central Africa. If that was true, where is that church now? I’d driven past Unangu before and I’d never seen anything like a church! So, one day I rode my motorbike out to Unangu and started asking around. This wasn’t too easy because, unlike back in the nineteenth century, there isn’t a big population of people there. After making a couple of trips there over a period of a few weeks, I eventually found someone who could take me to the church (even though he thought the site was Portuguese). I couldn’t believe it – I knew it must have been around there somewhere! Although I wasn’t disappointed to find the site, it was disappointing to see the state that it is in. Among the tall grass at the base of the mountain, there only remains the stone foundations of the church, some surrounding buildings and part of a wall, along with dozens of graves. I guess it’s a good thing that it hasn’t all been dug up and used as farmland.
My own work over the last 9 months or so has been to survey the Yawo language in our province with a view to either using existing Malawian Yawo Bible translation materials or to do something separate in Mozambique. Standing on the crumbled wall of the old church at Unangu I was humbled indeed as I pondered the fact that the very first Ciyawo Bible translation work was done by a UMCA missionary by the name of Chauncy Maples – a fellow who visited this site at Unangu and later drowned on Lake Malawi after the boat he was on sank. It truly is humbling to know that so many of these early missionaries perished tragically whilst in service to their God and to the Yawo. Chauncy Maples was only one loss among many who died from sickness and other causes. Despite the fact that the Anglican legacy of the UMCA mission still persists in Lichinga and a few other places, it saddens me to see that Unangu itself is nothing but a forgotten pile of rubble. There was another mission station at a place called Mtonya that was started a few years after Unangu and it too has befallen a similar fate (albeit the Anglican church community continues to exist in a nearby village). Mtonya is a site that is a bit more difficult to get to from Lichinga but one I intend to visit. One of the bishops who served at that site died and was buried there in the 1920s – far away from his English home across the seas.
For us now, living and ministering among the Yawo, it inspires me that other people have gone before us. It is also sobering to think about what has become of those efforts. Although I can’t say their efforts were fruitless, because the Anglican church does exist in the city of Lichinga and a few other towns, it remains true that the majority of the Yawo are unreached and that the ones that were reached somehow haven’t expanded since those early days. The unreached ones went down a very different path way back then and have stuck to it, from when the messages of Islam and Christianity first reached the ears of the Yawo. The Bible translation work that was done then is virtually lost, except for copies held in archives in Zomba (Malawi) and Cambridge University in England. There might be some copies in a few other places, but they are certainly not available to any Yawo folk, and even if they were, a lot has changed since then. I can’t find any copies to get my hands on either, aside from those archived ones.
Lack of accessibility to Scripture is a tragedy and one that I believe God has called us to work on – to get the Word of God into the hands of Yawo people so that they can encounter Jesus and the transformation he brings for themselves. As I continue to move forward in ministry, I hope that I have learnt from history. I hope that God will teach us how we can do things differently so that the Yawo can be reached. I trust that the Bible will be available and that the Holy Spirit will transform Yawo hearts and minds.
It’s a privilege to be a part of the continuing story of mission in this place. At a time when technology has changed so that translation work can be done much faster on computers and travel between places is easier (even though it is still quite difficult here), I really hope and believe that this can be a new season in Yawo history, a season where Jesus is recognised as king.