How Malawi is building a movement

Just last year, Malawians across the country celebrated a decisive, nationwide ban on plastic bags. 

This win did not come easily. In the face of a long and arduous court battle against powerful plastic manufacturers, organisations from all different spheres of society came together to champion the government’s thin plastics ban.

The Malawi Creation Care Network, a collaboration of Christian individuals and organisations and the leader of the Renew Our World campaign in Malawi, played a vital role in securing this ban. 

Charles Bakolo is the National Coordinator for the Malawi Creation Care Network and one of the lead organisers of a series of marches that called on the courts to rule against all thin plastic manufacture, import, distribution and use in Malawi. 

An inspiring man with a clear vision, Charles shares how he and the Malawi Creation Care Network are building a powerful movement of people for environmental change. 

Creating the Network

In February 2018, a number of passionate Malawians met at the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care and Gospel Conference in South Africa. Little did they know what exciting possibilities might eventuate from these new connections. 

“The Malawian delegates to the conference thought it wise that we should have our own network in our local context. So when we came back to Malawi, we gathered different people with similar interests and formulated the Malawi Creation Care Network within our country to deal with environmental issues like plastic pollution and deforestation,” Charles recounts. 

“We gathered the churches, environmental organisations, policy organisations, faith-based organisations, youth networks and academia. Because we connected with Tearfund Malawi, we too became part of Renew Our World and the Rubbish Campaign, so we could implement the Rubbish Campaign goals in our network.”

The power of partnership in tackling Malawi’s environmental problems cannot be understated. 

Dr Tiwonge Mzumara-Gawa, activist, ecology lecturer and committee member of the Malawi Creation Care Network, also highlights the importance of collaborative connections in Christian creation care: 

“The key objectives for the Malawi Creation Care Network are to work together to mobilise the Church and advise the Church of its responsibilities in caring for creation. We can’t just be working individually, but we need to have some kind of a network because each individual and organisation has certain strengths that we can tap into. It works well when we use what is already available and in place to achieve what we want to achieve. Involving the Church in this kind of work also means they benefit from working with other non-governmental organisations, who have experience in organising, which sometimes the churches are not so strong with. When you put them together, they get to learn from each other for good works.”

Building a People-Powered Movement

With plastic pollution in Malawi a major issue, the Malawi Creation Care Network decided to focus its efforts on expediting the outlawing of plastic bags by organising a series environmental protest marches across the country.

As an ambassador for the Green Anglicans and the World Council of Churches on issues related to food, water and climate justice, Charles was already perfectly placed to coordinate and grow this movement. 

“I’d been working with different people on issues related to climate change, so with this network it was easy for me to gather these people, like the churches, individuals and local clubs who were doing similar activities, policy makers, academia, etc. 

“The key factor is to bring in people with voice. 

“We also thought it wise to include students, because they boldly voice out issues and people listen to them if they talk. 

“When we are building a movement, we need to include people who are interested, those who have passion. In a movement, where you want to achieve a goal, you don’t want people who are not interested. In a movement, you want to achieve something as a group and you don’t expect anything in return. When we are building a movement, we should bring together people with similar interests. 

“So young people are key. Young people are free-minded. We can do anything. The future is for us, the youth. If we don’t take care of the environment, it will be a challenging future for us. So you don’t really need to convince us to be involved; if you want us to be part of it, just give us a hint of what you are doing and we will join in.”

Dr Tiwonge echoes the strategic importance of harnessing of well-connected people in mobilising broad swathes of society:

“Each partner has their own sources of connection and when you can connect into that it’s amazing what you can do. We were really amazed at the number of people marching. With partners, you get to do things all across the country. We partnered with a lot of schools and universities. We partnered with the Association for Environmental Journalists, who played a very important role. We partnered with youth groups and churches, and also had the Muslim community participate. 

“The lesson here has really been to work with existing networks and key individuals that we know have links to specific numbers of people. Key individuals that know how to mobilise their people. It’s the power of using people who have people.”

With so many different individuals and organisations involved, Charles worked to ensure focus remained sharp. 

“We coordinated hundreds of people from all over at different marches in the Southern region, Northern region and Central region and we had one voice: we wanted the ban to be effected.

“The result in part of such a clear message was that the courts ruled in our favour. When this was announced there was excitement all over! 

“Another amazing thing from reaching out to so many like-minded groups is that we now know who to work with on environmental issues. We can now identify the people who are interested. It hasn’t been an easy journey to the plastic bag ban because we had a few people giving up, but the people that stuck with us have shown us whom to work with in future.”

After the success of Malawi’s marches and subsequent plastic bag ban, that future sure does look bright. 

Inspired by Malawi’s mass marches and progress on plastic pollution? If you’re keen to play your part in this growing global movement of Christians taking action against single-use plastic, send an email to Pepsi and Coke and call on multinationals to take responsibility for their plastic waste in developing countries.

If you’re inspired to start a campaign of your own, click here.

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