The diocese of Karonga in Malawi is desperately poor. There are few proper roads, too few schools and medical centres, and three people in every five live on less than a dollar a day. Generally speaking, the time from January to April is a season of hunger.

Poverty and hunger drive many people to shocking practices that reflect this desperation. Kupimbira is the name of one of these unfortunate customs, whereby poor families have to ‘pay’ the rich by ‘marrying’ their young daughters – often still children – to wealthy older men. For example, 13-year-old Maria was forcibly ‘married’ by her father to a 78 year old man from the neighbourhood. It is traditions such as these that Pope Francis has in mind when he writes in Evangelii Gaudium (69) that ‘It is imperative to evangelise cultures in order to inculturate the Gospel…Each culture and social group needs purification and growth.’

It is precisely this purification of traditional culture, through the message of love, that the young diocese of Karonga is seeking to achieve during this Year of Mercy. There is so much to do: a number of Catholics are being drawn to the assemblies of the sects, while polygamy, belief in witchcraft, alcohol abuse and the exploitation of widows – in order to acquire their inheritance – are widespread practices.

All these things lead to conflict and enmity, often to decades-long feuds between and within families and clans. And so reconciliation, education and enlightenment against superstition and dialogue between and within families are among the priorities of the programme. None of this will overcome the underlying poverty, but it will help the people to deal with the issues in a Christian manner. For as St. John Paul II has said, ‘It is from the family that peace will grow for the human family.’ We have promised our support for this young diocese  in its programme for promoting peace and reconciliation.

This article can be found in Mirror 0616.