SITIMA, Malawi In this remote quarter of east southern Africa where villages dot the land and droughts are common, the first member introduced himself to the gospel, persevered for many years until a branch of the Church was established, and now, as branch president, oversees some 200 members progressing in the gospel.
Malawi, with a population some 8.5 million people who live mostly on agriculture in rural villages, is located between Mozambique and Tanzania. The village of Sitima is about 100 miles north of Blantyre, one of the country's major cities. Scottish missionary David Livingstone introduced British influence here in 1859, and the country was a British protectorate until 1964.
In a rural setting beyond the reach of electricity, telephone, running water and paved roads, the Sitima Branch holds regular general meetings for the membership and auxiliaries, and has a branch choir. A second branch in Blantyre was established July 30 of this year, and now has about 60 members.
The genesis of the Church in Malawi came through efforts of expatriate members serving in the nation, and the remarkable leader in Sitima. In 1978 the year of the priesthood revelation the leader, a school teacher named McFarlane Phiri, visited a friend in Mzuzu, located in Malawi's northern province, who had on his bookshelf a copy of Articles of Faith, by Apostle James E. Talmage. The origin of the book is unknown, but was presumably given to him by an LDS expatriate many years earlier. After expressing interest in the book, Mr. Phiri was given the book as a gift.
"I started reading the book," he said. "I read it through. I finished the book no matter that I couldn't understand some of the words there. But my interest was to find out what these people are teaching," he said.
He was impressed by four points of doctrine: a modern prophet, modern revelation, the restoration of the gospel and baptism for the dead.
After reading it, he corresponded with the Church, addressing his first letter to: "The Church of Jesus Christ, Utah, USA." His letter was answered and he was sent literature about the Church, including Gospel Principles, and a copy of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. The accompanying letters encouraged him to "start praying with your family, and reading Gospel Principles with your family. Continue doing that until the time when our Lord will make it possible for us to come to Malawi to start the Church."
He followed this guidance and soon expanded his circle of study to his neighbors. As the group began to grow, he requested missionaries. Missionaries were not sent, but he was always asked to continue his patience.
In the meantime, the Church made efforts to gain legal recognition in Malawi. Papers were submitted in 1991. Elder Richard P. Lindsay then of the Seventy and president of the Africa Area, visited Malawi and met with a group of expatriates including Jerry Mills, the group leader. At that time, Mr. Phiri traveled by bus to Lilongwe and met Elder Lindsay.
Unfortunately, the government's approval for the Church to send missionaries was not forthcoming. A severe drought followed and was complicated by a difficult political situation when more than 1 million Mozambican refugees fled to Malawi.
In 1992, 14 years after McFarlane Phiri first inquired about the Church, the first missionary couple was allowed to enter Malawi. McFarlane Phiri and 74 others were baptized in July.
Missionaries traveled to Malawi from Zimbabwe for about a year, then unrest in neighboring regions discouraged the missionaries from travel. Unfortunately, changes in leadership occurred and the obscure membership was lost to headquarters. However, the Church was registered in Malawi in 1995. Expatriate James Palmer, an LDS diplomat then stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe, often traveled to Sitima to teach and assist the people, and has continued to do so.
In 1999, Elder Dennis E. Simmons of the Seventy and president of the Africa Southeast Area, accompanied by President Frank Bagley of the Zimbabwe Harare Mission traveled to personally visit them. After observing the faithfulness of the people, Elder Simmons organized a branch on May 20, and called Brother Phiri as the first branch president. Missionaries were sent and within a year, membership of the branch increased to about 200.
The branch meets at President Phiri's home under a bowery for general meetings. Afterwards, the auxiliaries divide up and meet under shade in various parts of the yard. Land has been set aside for a meetinghouse, and construction is currently underway for the facility.
Joining the Church changed his life, said President Phiri. "I knew that I was converted by the Lord. When I received His Spirit, I was encouraged, I was strengthened, I had more happiness than I used to have, and also I felt that even if I die today, I go into the hands of the Lord.
"This is the only true Church, which has the restored gospel," he continued. "So everyone who will hear my message, I would like to encourage them to join this Church."
The missionaries who were sent in 1999 were Elder Dan D. and Sister Berylene Frampton of the Holladay 14th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay South Stake. They served in the Zimbabwe Harare Mission from 1999 until October 2000, and were stationed in Blantyre where they visited Sitima Village weekly.
"It was a wonderful adventure," said Sister Frampton. "We recommend [missionary service] to anyone and everyone." The Framptons said they were received like king and queen when they arrived, and the people pleaded for baptism. Many of them had been living the baptismal commitments since 1992.
They taught as many as they could, then interviewed them and prepared for a baptismal service. "We baptized more than 20 each week for four weeks," said Brother Frampton. They were assisted by Malawians Leonard and Mary Nchika, well-established members living in Blantyre, fluent in the language of the village, Chichewa. Two young elders stationed at Blantyre later accompanied the Framptons.
Sister Frampton said that as the first day's interviewing drew to a close, others waiting outside "were weeping because they were not included in the baptismal service for that day."
"We bought up all the white clothing we could find from the street market, but it still wasn't enough," said Sister Frampton. "We held a little baptismal service. They sat on mats under a thatched area, out of the sun, and when they were ready to go for their baptism, the women carried boxes of baptismal clothing on their heads, and their babies in slings on their backs and carried umbrellas, and walked to the warm springs." The river was closer, but because of a danger of crocodiles, they went to the springs, she continued.
"The women were singing and halfway to the springs, I pulled myself out and stood and and looked forward and back. I thought to myself, 'This is an experience I would have missed if I had chosen not to come on a mission, and I will be ever so grateful to have this memory.'
"At the warm springs, the women changed on one side in the high tooleys, and the men on the other side. A number of them changed into wet baptismal clothing, and never, never did you hear a word of complaint; they were so grateful to have the gospel and to be baptized."
One of the villagers who wanted to be baptized was a woman named Angela. She was disabled and crawls on her hands and knees to get around. After she was taught and interviewed, she was baptized. She crawled on her hands and knees from the Frampton's utility vehicle to the baptismal site.
The Framptons, like the two missionary couples before them, could only visit Sitima during the dry season between April and November. After November the dirt roads become rivers of mud and are impassable.
"We were told to finish as soon as we could," said Brother Frampton. "We were stretching it into November and it started to rain a little. We were hoping the rain would go away but it began to fall in torrents. President Phiri told us to gather our stuff and go. We feel it was only by divine intervention that we were able to make it out on the dirt road, which is 12 to 15 kilometers (7-9 miles)."
In the past few months, a literacy program has started in the village, and a bore hole, or well, has been drilled to provide the village with nearby clean water. Gardens have been started. However, ancient cultural traditions are deeply held and all progress comes slowly and at a price. Yet in the progress that is basic to the gospel, the Sitima Branch is moving forward with great promise for the future generations. John L. Hart