/ 25 January 2023

The missionary accused of sexual abuse

Malawi, One Of Africa's Poorest Countries, Is Suffering From The Double Effect Of Drought That Has Cut Output Of Maize, The Staple Food, And Aids Affecting 15 Percent Of The Population.
A Dutch citizen is facing multiple criminal charges in Malawi. Now, he is pursuing an unlikely legal defence — as a protector of gay rights. (Photo by Antonello NUSCA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In the Netherlands, only a quarter of the population consider themselves to be Christian. However, this small European nation has a Bible belt – a region where many are very strict in their beliefs and some are convinced that God has given them a mission to evangelise far beyond Dutch borders. 

A popular place to do so is Malawi, a country that is safe, stable and welcoming to foreigners. “Africa for beginners”, it is sometimes called here. As in colonial times, modern European missionaries also claim to bring development.

Along with the Bible, they provide food, shelter and schooling. In 2009, the Netherlands-based Stéphanos Foundation — which aims to provide education “from a biblical viewpoint to the most vulnerable” — dispatched Wim* (now 52 years old) to Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, as a teacher. 

The foundation manages a village for orphans, a primary school and a vocational training centre in the country. After an internal dispute, a similar foundation was created, the Timotheos Foundation, where Wim was appointed financial director. 

The foundation is supported by boards in the Netherlands and Canada. At the Blantyre office of the NGO People Serving Girls at Risk, which stands up for alleged victims of sexual exploitation, two men, Francis and Samuel**, described being sexually abused by Wim. 

Francis, 24, grew up in poverty. In 2015, he was awarded a scholarship from Timotheos for secondary education. “I was happy at school; things went well,” he says. But then, in 2019, Wim wanted something “that costs nothing”. 

As Francis speaks, Samuel covers his face in his hands. Wim picked him up to go to a hotel. 

“You can’t refuse that to your boss,” Francis says. 

“Wim pulled down his pants and asked me to touch his penis. He was intimidating; I was scared. If I said ‘no’, he would stop my scholarship. Afterwards, he gave me a smartphone and 4 000 kwacha (about R70) for travel expenses.”

According to Francis, Wim later asked for oral sex. 

Samuel, 23, says he had similar experiences. After working in Wim’s garden, he went into his house to collect his payment. 

“To my surprise, he undressed and asked me to do the same. I was terrified but also thought, maybe that’s how things go in his house. ‘I need sex,’ he said. I had no idea how men do that and masturbated him until he came. He gave me 5 000 kwacha to buy food but I was very frustrated. I wanted to go home but I was afraid of disappointing him. I had to stay calm.” 

In an internal enquiry, based on interviews with 63 current and former bursary students and employees of Timotheos, 32 of them claim to be victims of abuse and/or transgressive behaviour by Wim

They were all above the age of 18 at the time of the alleged incidents and they all say they let it happen out of fear of losing their job or scholarship. Nine of the alleged victims reported Wim to the police, which resulted in his arrest in April 2020, for “gross indecency”. 

After six days in detention, he was released on bail and signed a caution statement: “Although I never had the intention to abuse [alleged victim 1], actually it looks like he felt like that. […] Now I admit to doing wrong to [alleged victim 1]. To [alleged victim 2], only once he touched my penis and I paid him for that and he said it was not any problem to him.” 

Wim later withdrew this statement, claiming it was written under police pressure. But according to an internal Timotheos report, he admitted to transgressive sexual behaviour in four other conversations with board members and an external investigator. 

He denied some of the other allegations raised against him. Wim did not respond to requests for comment.

Homosexuality is technically prohibited in Malawi — the legislation dates back to colonial times — but prosecutions are rare. Somehow, Wim’s lawyer succeeded in getting the case before the constitutional court instead of a criminal court. Therefore, the question became not whether he is guilty of sexual abuse and/or abusing power over people in a relationship of dependency but whether a criminal court is allowed to rule on what happens inside the bedroom. 

In an ironic twist, Wim now presents himself as a gay rights activist. “I never suspected that as a strictly reformed Christian man, I would become a symbol for gay rights in Malawi,” he told the Christian daily Nederlands Dagblad

“But that’s what happened. And I stand for it, because I think government has nothing to say about someone’s sexual preference.” 

In September 2020, he became a suspect in a new case. Photos of a sexual nature depicting three young African women with an older European man were circulating and witnesses claimed they recognised Wim’s body and clothing — his face is not in the photos. 

One of the women, who is allegedly involved, reported him for abuse and human trafficking. This time, Wim strongly denied the allegations and claimed to be a victim of a conspiracy. He said that one of his co-workers at Timotheos was spreading lies to destroy his reputation in order to get his position. 

The woman later changed her statement to exonerate Wim. Almost two and a half years later, not much progress has been made in either case. All parties accuse each other of bribing and menacing witnesses. 

One of the alleged victims received a phone call from Patricia Kaliati, the influential minister of gender and social welfare, which he experienced as threatening. “Were you abused or did someone tell you to say so?” she asked in a conversation that lasted one minute and six seconds. 

“As a minister of gender, where we protect the children, it’s normal for me to ask what has happened,” Kaliati says. She admits to knowing Wim, saying that as minister she works closely with NGOs. 

However, “These children [the alleged victims are adults] should not come to you, but to me, because this is the ministry.” 

Meanwhile, by the end of 2020, Wim had co-founded a new school in Malawi, the Kids Academy of Excellence. He also got involved in the establishment of the Lukas Foundation in July 2021, “offering help to people in Malawi who are having an extra hard time, such as victims of abuse and prisoners”. 

At the Blantyre office of the NGO People Serving Girls at Risk, chairperson Caleb Ng’ombo is firm: “These people don’t practise what they preach. The Netherlands is not a Christian country. Just look at the Red Light District in Amsterdam. We should send missionaries there.

*Not their real names.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.