Some intercultural experiences doing field research in Malawi

14 November 2018

Thandi Soko-de Jong shares her experiences as a Malawian in Amsterdam, and going back to Malawi with the eyes of a researcher. Thandi is an AIO at PThU. 


Being a Malawian AiO here at the PThU has given me the opportunity of being an 'outsider-insider'. That means over the past two years I have learned some of the dynamics that go with theological study in the Netherlands. I think a major thing has been grasping how and why philosophy and not, say, elements from the social sciences, are closely tied to the study of Beliefs in theology. It has been a journey of discovery finding my place by drawing from both the Humanities and the Social Sciences to develop my theological position on my topic of Intercultural Theology research: faith and healing in situations of treatable but incurable illness. 

This past summer I had the opportunity to be an 'insider'. With my family in tow, I spent a month in my home country, Malawi, conducting the first phase of my empirical research. I spent most of that period in the southern Malawian cities of Blantyre and Zomba. My fellow PhD candidate, Jos Colijn (Theologische Universiteit Kampen) was also in Malawi concluding the fieldwork portion of his Intercultural Theology research on the topic of global reformed tradition and infant baptism.

Stroopwafels at Nkhoma

Jos was based at Nkhoma Mission, the mission centre of the Nkhoma Synod of the Church of Central African Presbyterian (CCAP). We met there briefly for a group discussion together with Prof. dr. Benno van den Toren, supervisor for both our theses. It was remarkable, discussing the observations my Dutch colleagues had made and giving my input as an insider into the culture whilst acknowledging at the same time that I was an “outsider” when it came to the finer details of the inner workings of the Nkhoma Synod. The group discussions went long into the night as we had a lot of material to go over as we happily shared stroopwafels and later pizza for dinner. Food is always a good reminder that in some things, we are all insiders.

 After our session, I went off to join my family in our guest accommodation. The guest house manager had assigned me a peculiar room, at the edge of a larger house which happened to be at the edge of the compound where my colleagues were housed. It was an interesting moment when she realised my husband is from a European country close to hers. It was indeed a peculiar room, we agreed. Left unsaid was the fact that if it had been made clear that I had a Dutch family, I would not have seen that room. But these are important things for my family to see that sometimes insiders can be  made to be outsiders too. We took the room and promptly set about planning for our long trip back to Blantyre the next morning.  The room cost practically nothing but the experience had much educational value.

Exploratory Research

The trip was the first of several phases of my study. It was the “exploratory phase”; an opportunity to test out the feasibility of the research plan. This strategy was invaluable because even with my Malawian background,  a lot can still go over my head – as with most developing countries, things change rapidly in Malawi all the time. So, for example, the big theological discourses when I was there last (three years before this study trip) – have long been replaced with new ones. And some of the research methods I had used there six years ago were no longer useful!

So over the period of exploratory research, adjustments were made but the core direction of the study remained the same. One of the things that stood out the most was a challenge from several interlocuters who, after listening to me introduce my topic asked: “have you also talked to Christian HEALERS? You know, the nurses, clinicians, doctors, traditional healers and practitioners of alternative medicine?” I realised that this a blind spot I will need to consider because, until then, my research design had made no special provision for this group. Rather, I had focused on preparing to collect the perspectives of faith and healing from ministry leaders and lay church members. But indeed, Malawi (and many other parts of Africa) have Christians practicing medicine both using either traditional or Western methods…or both. An interesting group to include. 

Open-air charismatic conference. Photo credit: Dag Heward-Mills Ministries social media

Activist-theology and the Danger of Shadow Sides

As far as labels go, I am an activist-theologian. The learning-through-sharing experience in the Intercultural Theology programme over the past years has highlighted for me that activism is crucial but on its own, it is incomplete.  Disrupting power structures at times comes at a cost. Therefore activist-theologians can do well to guard against complacency by being open to consider the merits in the arguments of our critics. This can help us see where our efforts may have unintended consequences – causing harm in the path of our successes. An example from my fieldwork was observing that in the faith and healing discourse, solidarity also means listening, even when the urge to pronounce a theological statement is big. It is for this reason that (semi)guided focus group discussions will come later in the timeline – after getting to know the participants and their individual contexts better.  

Some of the books purchased during research, photo credit: Thandi Soko-de Jong

A Final Thought: the Dutch Medics and the Hospital Chapel

A final thought from the study trip brings together, in my mind, something of the Dutch, Malawi, and faith and healing worlds. On the side-lines of one of the interviews sessions, I noticed a group of young Dutch volunteers in scrubs. They were attending to their duties at the Christian hospital (locally described as Mission hospital) that was the site of one of my interview sessions. Such groups of Dutch student nurses and doctors doing their internships in tropical medicine are a common sight around Malawi.  My curiosity got the better of me and I asked the informant, an employee of the mission hospital, what her experience was of the volunteers in relation to the topic of faith and healing. She chuckled and commented, “We have a deal with them now. Every year a new group comes. They are very resourceful and enthusiastic but they want nothing to do with the fact that this is a mission hospital. No one was saying anything about it before but the patients were beginning to notice and question us. The patients look for pastoral reassurance in difficult moments and opportunities to acknowledge God’s intervention when medical treatments work. After negotiations with the interns’ manager, he agreed to -for the sake of appearances- convince his teams to attend the weekly chapel services.  They don’t have to participate but this is a symbol of reciprocity. We have to support each other for both sides to achieve our goals”.

My experience of exploratory empirical was rich and varied. Challenges, such as very long hours of travel in-country, malfunctioning recording equipment, sporadic electricity and travelling with a young family aside – I look forward to the next phases! 

Thandi Soko-de Jong. Intercultural Theology, Beliefs, 2018


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