I forgot that it was Palm Sunday today.
That is . . . until I saw the hundreds of green palm fronds waving in the air, held high by a procession of believers on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
As a traveler, happening upon great spectacles in the street is part of what I live for, which is why I just had to jump out of the car and join in with the jubilant praise of the Mtima Woyera Catholic parish. All the churchgoers were dressed in their finest clothes and together they sang a rhythmic hymn that was so contagious, I am still repeating the refrain in my head, over and over again.
I have never seen this kind of celebrating around Easter: the dancing, laughing, jumping and singing astonished me. Among the crowd, little kids and old people alike danced and sang, waving their palms, sweeping and beating the ground with this symbol of Christ’s return to the holy city.
That Malawi is a very religious country is no secret—more than 80% of Malawians are Christian and you can’t go far without spotting some brick building that isn’t a church of some sort. There are mosques too—Malawi’s Muslim population is quite visible and prominent, even if they are the minority. Missionaries of almost every faith are in Malawi. In the two days I’ve been in this country, I’ve met or seen Catholics, Evangelicals, Protestants, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Wahhabis, and even Scientologists—all folks on a mission in Malawi.
Africa’s missionary tradition goes back centuries and is ongoing today, so that God is everywhere in Malawi—on tire repair shop signs and in peoples’ names (Yesterday I met a boy named Chisomo or “Grace”). So far, Malawi is the only country where people open a conversation with me by asking, “Where do you pray?”
Malawians pray in many different places and countless churches. Driving south, I watched for hours as families walked along the roadside, traveling on foot to and from the dozens of different Sunday services. All were dressed in their finest clothes, some carried their shoes in one hand. As they returned, they stopped along the road to shop for fresh-cut sugarcane: long green fibrous stalks saturated with natural sugar juice.
Just as I had joined in the morning’s procession of palm fronds, that afternoon I joined in the roadside procession of sugarcane. One stick of sugary bliss cost me about fifteen cents and lasted me about fifteen minutes. Like the believers with their palms, I held up my sugarcane and waved it at all the passing cars and open-topped trucks where Malawians shouted and waved back at me, exuberant.
I know that it can take a lot of time to really know a place well and I am only just now discovering the complex recipe of Malawi and its people, but for now, I can say with some experience that faith and sugar are both key ingredients.