Malawi Mission Network partners help create 100,000 protective masks

Prevention key to preventing spread of COVID-19 in southeast Africa

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Sam and Elsie Kaonga model two of the thousands of masks made for and by Malawians to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — While there is still much to learn about COVID-19, medical experts are certain that the virus is particularly deadly for people with underlying health conditions. In Malawi, a large portion of the nation’s 18 million residents fall into that category.

Over a million people in Malawi have been diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. There is widespread malnutrition. Another million suffer from a range of infectious diseases such as typhoid, malaria and hepatitis. With a lack of resources and a shortage of providers, the health network is fragile, making preventative care especially important.

Tom O’Meara knows that. A member of the Malawi Mission Network, he has been to Malawi many times and his church, Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin Texas, has hosted members of its partner church, Manyamula CCAP (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) Congregation, many times.

In early April, O’Meara called his friend and fellow mission network member Holly Pettit in Colorado. She founded Africa Bags, a network partner that provides work for rural women in Northern Malawi. The women make colorful decorative bags, which are sold through churches in the United States. Due to the global pandemic, the organization had recently switched to making face masks.

He asked if the group could deliver facemasks to Manyamula, its partner congregation. Pettit said yes, and then O’Meara approached Shepherd of the Hills’ Mission Committee, which immediately gave the green light to purchase 400 masks.

O’ Meara called Elsie Kaonga, wife of the pastor at Manyamula, also a Malawi government health worker, to tell her that 400 masks would be delivered in the next couple of days. She said she could actually use at least 100,000 masks for the people she cared for in the region.

Undaunted by the huge number, O’Meara discussed it with his wife Martha, who had visited Malawi with him many times, and they told Kaonga they would get a pattern to her if she could enlist the local women’s guild and church members to make them.

O’Meara called his sister Ellen, a second-generation seamstress and quilter, who created and sent the pattern. Production started the next day. Additionally, they sent a link to a YouTube describing how to make the masks to Dr. Kondwani Zgambo, the leader of the regional hospital near Manyamula, who is expected to empower the Women’s Guild there. He is serving an even larger population than Kaonga serves in Manyamula.

Some of the colorful masks made by women in Malawi. (Contributed photo)

Malawian women are using their chitenje fabric for masks. The chitenje is generally wrapped around the waist, tied around the head or used as a sarong, sometimes making everyday clothing more special for church and other important occasions. It can also be used as a baby sling.

O’Meara has been fascinated with Africa ever since, as an 8-year-old, he would look through his parents’ Maryknoll Magazine about the educational work being done by Catholics, primarily in Africa, South America and Asia. Right then and there he decided he wanted to teach college in Africa. His career path became law instead, but he never forgot his childhood desire. Through his work with the church, he’s had three opportunities to teach at the University of Livingstonia, part of CCAP.

More than anything, he said he admires the incredible faith of the Malawian people.

“If you go to the gas station, you get gas and that’s it. But if a Malawian goes to the gas station, they stop to pray and offer thanks that gas is available. When they get out of bed in the morning, they thank God for letting them see a new day. They think and feel themselves interacting with God all day long. I just can’t believe how great that is,” he said.

In 2019, Tom and Martha O’Meara visited the Matopoto Prayer House and School. Matopoto is a sub-village of Manyamula. (Photo by Tom O’Meara)

The Church of Central Africa Presbyterian is the largest Christian denomination in Malawi. About 44% of the entire population are Christian Protestants, 19% are Sunni Islam, and 18% are Roman Catholics.

Presbyterian World Mission has a long history of partnership with the CCAP. Through the partnership, there is support to train theological students and strategic church leaders, strengthen work in primary and secondary school education, encourage interventions to combat endemic poverty, and address strategic issues of women and children.

“I am thankful for the way in which Malawi Mission Network members have been able to work together to provide face masks,” said the Rev. Debbie Braaksma, coordinator of World Mission’s Africa Office. “I’m also grateful for PC(USA) members’ generosity, which has enabled World Mission and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to provide $28,000 to assist CCAP’s health departments and hospitals  to respond to COVID-19 by supporting:

  • procurement of hygiene materials, IV fluids and   medications
  • conducting community and hospital staff trainings on prevention and preparedness
  • provision of oxygen concentrators.”

Today, there are 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi, and nine people have died. About 29 people have recovered from the virus, health officials say.


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