By Matt Williams, Resident Tutor (Check out part one here)
Not to make any hasty judgments about demographics, but most of you reading this blog will have never been really hungry. It’s one thing to go all day without eating and be ‘starving’ at dinner, but it’s another thing to eat one basic meal every day or two, for a period of months. The sheer lack of energy passes into a lack of hope, and it’s very difficult to do much more than scrape by. True, you may not be in danger of starvation, but to actually live a fulfilled life quickly begins to look like Never-never Land.
My point is not to be morbid or make people feel guilty, but to stop and take seriously an experience that millions are going through, particularly those who live in economies dominated by subsistence agriculture. Sure, things sometimes go well, and even when they don’t, there may be worse things to suffer. Besides, nutrition is no magic wand of course – human problems are too deep to disappear with a full belly. But chronic hunger is a horrible thing and food security is a massive boost to a community, making everything look brighter and providing a platform upon which to build life.
When I wrote my last post in August, I was preparing to go out to Africa to visit Chilida Farming Project, which is establishing sustainable agriculture in rural Malawi. I gave some background about the project and did promise to write again in September, but let’s just say I’m on “African time”…
I say that, but the guy running things in Chilida (the famous red-suited Reverend Maere) is far more punctual than I am. When he came to the little guesthouse at 7am to collect me for the visit his village, I was, let’s just say, less than ready. But we got in our borrowed car and headed down the bumpy road to Chilida to see how things were.
One thing is for sure; I have never seen so much maize in my life. Storerooms and even a whole house were stuffed with it, and folks are saying “chakurya chinandi chilipo!” meaning that they are food secure, some for the first time.
I got to see how the treadle pumps bring up water from the river and how farmers are forming groups in order to share the task of doing agriculture in a new way. There was even talk of digging up old pit latrines in the understanding that human manure is one of the best ways to provide soil with nutrients. You can imagine the cultural barriers that need to be overcome in order to do that, and of course we would be the same if we thought our vegetables were grown out of our poo. But it’s already starting to happen and this natural resource is beginning to bear fruit.
None of this is to say that things are perfect, but things are definitely moving, and moving in the right direction. For me personally, it is always a privilege to be in Malawi and reconnect with people, since these relationships are the one factor that has continued over the decade or so sinceI first went. And it’s actually relationships that keep the project going. Not only do the farmers have to work in more cooperation than they did before, but there are community events that involve training or, as you see in the photo, just a lot of singing and dancing.
But these celebrations are the occasions when the true nature of the project comes into focus, because people turn their minds to being thankful. When people do that, they praise God. They know that a whole chain of events for which they could never claim to be responsible has ended up revolutionising their food production. I’m grateful to be part of that chain of events, equally aware that it’s not something I can claim responsibility for either.
What does this have to do with my PhD in New Testament studies?
On one level, absolutely nothing – when you study the Bible academically, fieldwork is very rarely part of it and you’re lucky to even get out of a library. But the whole point of my thesis is to show that what seems to be the most ‘abstract’ has everything to do with the most ‘concrete’ things in life.
John says that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). If you are familiar with that verse, you may think “Ok, so you make a confession of faith and go to heaven when you die”. To be a typical theologian, my response to that would be “yes”, and “no”.“No”, because believing is about a full-blooded commitment which includes love for others in response to God’s love for us, not just lip service. This involves the shaping of a new set of relationships that make you treat others as family, people whose material as well as spiritual needs matter to you. “Yes”, because that quality of those relationships stretches beyond the world’s broken structures that, whether they are social, political, or economic, are only made by humans. Most people do not think that John’s Gospel has anything to say to this bigger picture, but my slog through the scholarly undergrowth, aka ‘PhD’, is motivated by the fact that I do.
I’m looking for people who are interested in researching or helping to develop this sustainable agriculture project. If that’s you, send me an email at email@example.com.