Wednesday, August 13, 2008


We are leaving Mzuzu today, but we are not yet leaving Malawi. Leaving Mzuzu really marks the end of our time though.

With this in mind, I was hoping to know your thoughts about the blog. There will be a few more entries as we seek to describe the return home. But I would love to hear your impressions. If you don't want to post a comment on the blog send your remarks to Even though there is an away message, I will check it.

Hopefully the blog has created an opportunity to follow the events we have experienced this summer. In the next two weeks I wiill try to assess and reflect upon, "what in the world just happened?" Your voice in the midst would help me a great deal.
The Co-Inciding

I went to the synod offices mindful that my words being a help to Rev. Hara were a long shot and the likelihood that I might offend was more of sure bet ( I would’ve put the odds of the later at 2-1). Fortunately the three men who greeted me (Rev. Nkhoma, Rev. Nyrendo, and Rev. Munthali) know how to handle the less than tactful.

The conversation began with official business. The council of the Presbytery of Northern New York asked me to inquire as to the renewal of our partnership next year. Having been here for two months and watching groups come and go and seeing the way individual churches interact with the synod of Livingstonia versus presbyteries I am convinced that the renewal of our partnership should articulate both directions. Congregations have far more latitude to act while presbyteries carry the gravitas of the “larger church.” Both are good I said.

We also discussed the widows fund and how challenging it is to wed a grassroots effort with the structure of the synod. There were nods around the room. Care needs to be given that this venture doesn’t create confusion in the synod or jeopardize the larger partnership as it grows. Rev. Nyrendo said, “I am glad we are saying this now.” Rev. Nkhoma said, “this has happened before and perhaps by taking care in the beginning we won’t be forced to deal with problems later.”

But the real conversation was when we turned to Rev. Hara. Rev. Nyrendo smiled as I described my concerns. “I am not here to criticize, but to suggest a delay of his transfer so projects can be completed and the widows fund can mature a bit more.” “Yes, I have heard of your concerns,” he said. Two different elders called to complain about your sermon on Sunday.”

After my third apology he smiled again. “There are some people there who love Rev. Hara and some who hate him. If you spoke in favor of him you will necessarily make some people angry.” We all smiled at this and nodded from the collective experience of being pastors.

As we spoke of the decision it was clear from their words that it had been a real struggle, a great debate. What was unanimous was that they all had great respect for Norman. What divided us was that I felt the synod was acting prematurely and they felt they had actually let the situation go on too long. For this reason I don’t think my suggestions will prevail.

And then something was said that just dumbfounded me. “There is a sect in Mzuzu. All of these people who are complaining and threatening are part of sect. We know who they are and what they are doing. It is a complicated matter and needs great care.”

The shock was the coincidence that for the last six months I have been doing research on 1 John, a book that is built around the impact of sects upon the early church. Never in my wildest dreams would I think that my time in Malawi would have been shaped by the same force that shaped the book I was studying. It was the sort of thing that just baffles me. I know it’s the Holy Spirit, but sometimes I would like to have some sort of clue where my life is going before I get there.

Farewell Speeches

For the last four days I have been making farewell speeches. Everyone is convinced here that I will return, but they have said again and again, you don’t realize how hard it is to say goodbye. We will cry they claim.

Part of being a pastor is not letting your emotions overwhelm you. I am not saying you need to be a stoic rock of indifference, but you do need to keep your composure in the midst of very emotional moments. I want to say that I have led hundreds of funerals. There have been many moments where the person being buried was a dear friend. To not have the opportunity to weep in the midst of worship, I believe, is part of the cost and gift you give to others. You create the place for them to feel free, while you yourself do not enter such a place. A pastor creates the opportunity, you hold the door open so to speak.

I didn’t stop being a pastor in Malawi, but I am not a pastor here so to speak. It’s true that I’ve preached almost every Sunday. And when I walk into a room I am very conscious of the expectations and definitions that apply to me. But I am not being a pastor here. My congregation is in Watertown, not Mchengawatua. I have grown very fond of many of the elders in Mchengawatua and was even compelled to attend church business meetings, but at no point did I say to Kathy, “I was going to my office.”

The freedom of being something in between an observer and a leader, a pastor and a guest, somewhere in the midst of this I was no longer the doorman. (On most occasions, though, I was the driver. This was a joke I offered to Rev. Nkhoma’s driver, Owen. “I was the associate minister, but I got a promotion. I am a driver now.” He liked the joke.)

Being somewhere in between was the great gift of the sabbatical. About a week ago it became clear as I felt ready to get back to work. It wasn’t anything pressing; it was renewal. It wasn’t dread or anxiety or a need to leave: it was a readiness to do what I am called to do. This is what the Lily Endowment calls renewal and I think I understand what they mean, or what they intended to offer when they sent me a truck load of money and said, “go to Africa this summer.”

With this renewal beginning to take shape and the freedom of just being in the midst of life having had effect, my farewell speeches became more and more emotional. (Last night Mary Taylor said, “was that a tear I saw?” I said no, but it was.)

Saying farewell, then, is mixed. I am saying goodbye to friends, but I am also saying farewell to a unique time, a gift of time whose value I have seen again and again as immense. In most of my speeches I talk about the difference between being in Malawi for two weeks and being here for two months. The difference is profound. It is the difference between living some place and visiting. While I know that I will visit Malawi again, I am very mindful that my next visit will be based upon having lived here. I look forward to what that will mean.

Mostly though as I say goodbye I am just mindful that a great gift has been given. A time of renewal was given and for that I can’t be thankful enough. As I have said this to my Malawian friends the emotions have been far more complex than I usually allow to linger. I am not sure if that is a normal part of a sabbatical, but I am glad it was a part of mine.

Monday, August 11, 2008

From the Thrill of Victory . . .

At the end of synod meetings in Malawi there is a palpable tension. The synod meeting is comparable to the national assemblies the Presbyterians have the US. This is the decision making body for the larger church. Yet, in the US the decisions are truly about the larger church. Their decisions and actions may annoy or even dismay the local church, but they don’t have a direction impact.

In Malawi, the synod has a huge reach into the life of a local congregation as they work on an appointment system. Pastors are appointed to churches not called by congregations. Every two years pastors are told if they are staying or going by the “business” committee of the synod. This announcement is literally the last action of a weeklong meeting. After the list of changes are read, there is a hymn, a prayer and some handshaking, but no discussion. If you are moving or staying you find it out at the eleventh hour in the midst of your peers. No warning is given.

Needless to say all the pastors stay to the end. When I have gone to the General Assembly in the US I have never stayed to the end, just can’t do it. And I wouldn’t have been at the end of this one until I knew what was going to be said.

The first name I heard to receive a change was Rev. Gondwe of Bandawe. Gondwe has finished an amazing church, headed up scads of other building projects, and been helpful in our work at Chivumu. But after seven years I had my suspicion that he might be “appointed” somewhere else. Gondwe is heading for Embangweni. This is a kind of lateral move for him in that he will be the “head of station” again as Embangweni is like Bandawe and Ekwendeni. I have never been to Embangweni, but thought, well, now I will.

But then came a name I truly hoped I wouldn’t hear. Rev. Hara. I asked the man behind me what this meant after all the singing was done and he said he has been moved to Karonga. Now being moved from Mzuzu to Karonga is not a “lateral” move. It’s moving from the benefits and comforts of the north’s one city to a border town at the top of the country. When people say Karonga there is a roll of the eyes.

It has taken me most of the last few days, much discussion, and a sermon to get my head around this news. The rumor is that someone called the synod meeting and told the “business” committee they will kill Rev. Hara is he wasn’t relocated. Which, if true, is part of the confusion. Why would church leaders capitulate to such foolishness?

In the next two days I will meet with the synod officials and ask them that question. The new General Secretary and Synod moderator were supposedly opposed to this move. How can they be outdone when they are in charge?

I will know more soon, but for now it is just quite confusing.

The following is the conclusion to the sermon I preached at Mchengatuba on Sunday. It was a bit surreal as I was preaching on the Sunday after the church had heard the news that their pastor was being relocated. It was a kind of farewell on many levels. I began the sermon talking about my experience with conflict in a congregation and how I dealt with it. Essentially I told them that being right, and standing with the truth and friendship are powerful tools in the midst of congregations in conflict. The texts for the sermon were 1Corinthians 13: 4-6 and IJohn 5:1-5.
Being here in Mchengatuba these last two months has been very reminiscent of my second congregation. The factions, the lies, the reluctance to stand and fight, the influence of a few over what they believe is the church: I have seen all these before.
When I encountered them in my second church I made a second mistake that I didn’t fully understand until I was here with you. After four years I left my second church believing that the conflict would never truly end as long as I was there, that I needed to leave for them to have a fresh start, to try again to be a church without taking sides over me. I believed that as long as I was there the conflicts would persist no matter how much I was loved.
Walking with Rev. Hara, your pastor, these last two months I can now see how little I understood the power of love. I must say before you, Norman, and all the congregation, that I am a better pastor and better person watching you live out your faith. Too often I look for answers in books, but I am thankful that for these last two months you have let me see your heart and watch the way you love a church.
The great lesson I have learned, that I failed to see in my second church, is that love will conquer, love will be victorious. But it must persist. When there were lies told about your pastor, when twice a mob surrounded his house, and when some idiot and evil doer called the synod and said they would kill him unless he was removed, transferred, he didn’t give in. He stood firm. He didn’t waver: he kept loving you.
You need to know that. He loves this church as a pastor should: he believes love will conquer. There have been times as I have watched him that I thought I would have done things differently. I would have chastised more openly; I would have given ultimatums to the session; I would have sought more loyalty from elders. Yet as I have watched him what I have come to understand is that love is not chastising; love is not given as an ultimatum; and love doesn’t demand its own way. These were the words of the apostle Paul; for the last two months I have watched them lived out, written upon the heart of your pastor.
The synod has decided to make the same error I made six years ago. They have decided to let a new pastor deal with your conflict. I have heard that he is far more like me than Rev. Hara. He is someone who will push you, confront you, be ready to fight with you. If you had asked me two months ago if this would be the right step for all I would have said yes. But now I know the difference, now I have learned that love is what will create the victory in Mchengatuba. I am humbled to say that I have walked with your pastor and learned this lesson.
We don’t have all the answers. None of us knows what is right for all, the proper definition of the truth that will be satisfy all hearts; no one has the voice that speaks for all with a power transforming all opposition into support. Yet, none of us is incapable of letting love empower us to what is right and true. Love is not a personality or even a purpose: it is the presence of God saving our souls from death unto life.
That your pastor wanted to say that and the lesson was not heard is the tragedy of this day. As I leave I have not lost my faith in you like your pastor has not. He still wants to bring you the victory of love conquering sin and death. For this he is to be commended. But in his commendation you are not to be scolded or shamed. Love is hard to learn, to live. We want to live by what we believe, by power, by strength, by skill. These are the easy paths compared to that of love.
It is fair to say that when his house was mobbed or when elders let lies persist or when even now they wavered at restoring his reputation because of the stupid greed, the sange, of some of you, that you didn’t love him. I am not sure he believes this. It’s hard to be a church; it is a miracle for a church to be a place of love, a house where love brings the victory. It is much easier for the strong to get their way, for the pushy to make their demands, for the greedy to get what they want (much more than what is fair or right). It is hard to even imagine what a church would be that is defined by love. To be a church where love is the victory: that is the intent of your pastor; that is what is being taken from you.
I was sent on a sabbatical to learn how to abide. It was quickly apparent to me that abiding was not what I thought it was. I thought abiding was about being free from concern; abiding was about being in a kind of immovable peace, settled in joy. Abiding I was quick to learn was not about the absence of conflict; it was about finding peace in midst of it. Abiding was not about staying put, but being willing to venture, to risk, to be cast out, even set adrift in life. Living for 9 weeks in Malawi I have learned what it means to truly give up my life, to put aside my comfort and security. I must say some of it I enjoyed, and some of it I fought and resisted.
But the greatest lesson of abiding has come from watching your pastor. To abide in love is what I found in him. To abide in love means you resist the easy victory of truth; you are patient when justice would have been more to the point; you abide in the chaos so that love has time to overcome. This is what Jesus meant when he said abide in me. Abide in love. Let love be victorious. It would seem that the synod is not as patient, not as ready to risk as Jesus calls us to be. I know I wasn’t, but thanks to Rev. Hara, I now am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Kathy writes

It’s been a good day in Mzuzu. We are in countdown mode. We have been here for eight weeks so far and this week will be our last full week here. This Sunday will be our last Sunday in Mchengatuba where Fred has been made Rev. Hara’s “associate minister.” Suddenly we have gone from gaping amounts of time to fill to only one week to wrap up loose ends and leave Mzuzu by next Thursday.

Fred shared with you about visiting the widow who had their houses roofed for them by Mark Purcell when he was here visiting the end of July. We had a great afternoon touring the different houses in the dambo last Thursday. At the 1st house we went to Laura asked if they had bednets (if you remember the dambo is the free low lying ground that is overrun with mosquitoes during the rainy season). At each of the six houses we found than none of them had bednets and at three of the houses the widows said they didn’t have a bed but would like a blanket. How do you even fathom such a thing? No bed, no blanket, but ever so grateful to now have a solid roof over their heads. They were so thankful to us and I wished so much that Mark could see the joy and hope he has brought them.

The next day Sam and Grace went to work finding the best deals on wooden beds and mattresses. By Saturday, the carpenters they had contracted with had completed three of the beds (three quarter size) and we picked them up. After loading all three on the top of Jodi’s van we headed into town to purchase mattresses. After getting them rolled up and stuffed into the car with the 9 of us (sans Fred who was on top of a mountain a couple hours away observing a synod election) we carefully drove to the dambo.

As we started out Sam said, “We will have to go the back way so we don’t get stopped for overloading.” I thought O.K. that sound about right. We arrived without incidence and were able to deliver the beds to the widows who had no idea we were going to get them for them. It was a very good day.

That was Saturday. Today, Monday, we did our shopping in the market, finally, found the phone company, purchased some more blankets, renewed Laura’s, Beka’s, and Zoe’s visa, found a warehouse to buy porridge for the dogs, and delivered the rest of the things for the widows to Sam and Grace. Almost as an afterthought Grace handed me a folded envelope. I asked her, “What’s this?”. It was Ruth’s passport and visa. Ahh! Finally. I didn’t think I was ever going to hold that in my hand! Then Grace tells me that they’ve stamped it for an unprecedented two year period. Unbelievable. We are awed and stunned . . . and very, very excited.

What will tomorrow bring?

The Synod Meeting
Being in Livingstonia always has the weight of history. It is a historical place as it was the site where Dr. Robert Laws developed a mission station that introduced not only Christianity to the Ngoni people but also modern medicine (as it was modern in the 1880s), building and architectural innovations that must have seemed like magic for people who were living in caves at the time.

I am seated in his church and it has the feeling of a cathedral. There is a stained glass window, tall windows and cut stone arch ways. It is impressive for Malawi today, I can’t imagine what it looked like 100 years ago. The reason for my visit would be just as hard to imagine for the people of Dr. Laws time. I am here as a visitor to the Synod of Livingstonia which is the northern region of the Presbyterian Church in Malawi. There are 600,000 adult members and the churches of the synod are community centers offering not only worship, but public health, primary education, and opportunity for development as well as justice.

You get a sense of what Jesus meant by the mustard seed. Laws cast some seeds that truly took hold. Yet the people who came after him, the Malawian pastors, elders, deacons (the churches) kept casting seeds.

My day here began with a worship service that was unique. In a sense it was just like any worship service that opens a denominational meeting, but at this one the sermon was powerful. It was a call to be salt and light, but why we should be such was so much more than the usual sermons I hear at Presbyterian meetings where the preacher tries to give a lecture on good manners and professional conduct with Christian overtones. This morning I was told to be salt and light because this is how we will bring salvation to the world.

From there though the meeting went down hill. At least in terms of an American perspective. There was formality after protocol after recognition. My thought was, this is too much of a cultural divide for me to span as I can barely handle a bit of this in the US. This went on for an hour.

And then something great happened: people stood up and said, this is going on too long. We have to get to business or we will never get out of here. This was the first two hours of a weeklong meeting. It may be that cell phones and text messaging have had an immediate impact upon the Malawian pastors, or it may just be people truly had business and didn’t want to see it cast adrift by a spirit of minutia.

Perhaps the real reason was the pastors were recognizing the significance of their meetings and what is at stake. It is clear in Malawi that pastors are beginning to see their role and what may happen in their country in the next year as tantamount to its future. There is a feeling in the air that decisions here are not just church matters, but Malawian matters; there is a sense of momentum that now is a time of great importance.

Its hard to tell if that is the impact of being in Livingstonia or just a lovely coincidence that a meeting of historical importance is happening here. Time will tell.

The Swan Song
Big meetings make me nervous. A few people around a table hashing things out is where my comfort level begins and ends. Get everybody together, you are likely to get a lot of foolishness and folks putting on airs.

The Synod of Livingstonia has 600,000 adult members, a bunch of presbyteries, and more churches than you shake a stick at. So the idea that you get together all the ministers and vote on things they consider significant . . . well, its fair to say there might be some dry parts.

I was there for two reasons. The first one was guilt. I was sick for the presbytery meeting and Rev. Hara was a bit embarrassed that his “associate pastor” was absent. So I told him I would be at the synod meeting for the big introduction day and I would drive. As none of the pastors have cars this was a big offer. I figured he would use this to his advantage and he did. There were six other passengers by the time we left Mzuzu and he was pleased as punch to be the one offering rides.

The other reason was Rev. Nkhoma. I have spent a fair amount of time with him and he never disappoints. Perhaps I am just an easy sell for a man who knows a lot of history (and lived it) but it’s fair to say that being with him these two months as he ends his career in ministry was a rare and unique privilege.

On the opening day of the Synod meeting (which lasts a week) Rev. Nkhoma was making his swan song, he was retiring officially and his replacement was to be voted in immediately. If that sounds a bit odd, the living out didn’t stray far from this mark.

I’ve already described the events that led up to his time of farewell but let me just give a brief recap: a lot of posturing, minutia and wrangling, a good sermon, tea, and lunch. When he was finally given the floor people were ready for something good. He delivered.

His speech was easily an hour long and was written out in single spaced pages that seemed to never end. (The moderator after it was over said, “that was a good speech, long, but good.”) It was long, but it needed to be to capture 20 years of being a leader of the synod. He literally started at the beginning and talked about the good the bad and the beneficial. There wasn’t a lot of ugly.

The theme of his speech was a passage from Genesis where Jacob meets Esau while returning home and says, I crossed this river with just a staff and now I am returning with two companies. Rev. Nkhoma tried to make clear that he felt as if his experience these last 20 years has left him like Jacob, amazed by the blessing he received.

His speech often felt like a catalogue of blessings. As he spoke I kept waiting for him to mention Chivumu and he never did. He started to wrap it up and I felt a little sad. This as “our” project and after listing all the rest this one was conspicuous for by its absence. And then he said, “now I can depart. I have a full primary school in my home village.” Last line . . . I got choked up.

But then he did something that got everyone a bit emotional: he rolled on the ground. He walked off the chancel, leaving the microphone behind, and said with a shaking voice, I want to express my gratitude to you in my culture. In the Tonga tradition the supreme act of thanks is roll at the feet of your benefactor. Before the hundreds of pastors and hundreds of elders, the media, the choirs, the students of the college, Rev. Nkhoma got down on the floor of the church and rolled back and forth. He said, “I want to thank you for what you have given me.”

This was one big meeting I am was glad not to miss.

Phase Three Joy

I’ve had four bottles of maple syrup sitting on our counter for a month. They were supposed to be for the ambassador, but we forgot them when we went to apply for Ruth’s visa. My intention was to say thanks for helping with the choir last year. It was a good intention that just didn’t seem to happen.

This morning, with the french toast, I let the kids open one as we were out of powdered sugar. Well, I thought, three is just as good as four, kind of.

Part of my willingness to share was that I had already made the decision of offering them with a letter explaining our intentions with Ruth to the consular instead of the ambassador. The consular, the assistant consular that is, dealt with her visa application and went out of his way to help, even staying later than the office is supposed to be open.

I’ve described my exchange with him and how happy we were at the outcome in an earlier blog. We asked for twenty four months knowing it was a kind of wish dream and were told that such a request was actually against the law, as the visa can only be a year. That we would be given a valid visa for Ruth to come to the US was more than enough no matter the length I told him.

Today Grace dropped off Ruth’s visa. Sam’s dad was in Lilongwe and we finally got the I-20 to the consulate so they could “seal” it. Part of the visa process is that there are no clear descriptions of the rules or requirements. It often feels like a hazing process and to some extent it is. So when Kathy said she had her visa in hand I kind of shrugged it off.

But then she said, “I knew it. Someone wrote 24 months on the I-20 and I wondered if that meant the visa would be for 24 months.” I looked at her visa and sure enough it was valid until July 22 of 2010. I just stared at it in unbelief.

I am still a bit in shock. A two-year visa. That changes so many things. First it saves almost $5,000 a year. Most important though we would rather bring Grace here to visit Ruth than fly Ruth out, and then struggle to get here back going through the whole visa process each year. With a two year visa we’ve been given a much different process. If by some chance we can renew this visa in the states then Ruth can visit Malawi in the next four years when it works best not when the paperwork needs to be filed.

I’ve pretty sure I will not let the kids open another bottle of maple syrup. The assistant consular who assured me he couldn’t give a two year visa and then provided one is worthy of a little thanks. I just hope he likes pancakes.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Sange #9
I went for a hair shaving today. Grace knew an expert and told Sam the directions. Leaving her house I was uneasy. I felt like we were being sent into a strange world. Neither Sam or I knew who or what this expert was going to be. This was the only time I have ever hesitated with Grace.

Reaching the shop it didn’t sit well. This was a beauty salon, not a barbershop. Fortunately the expert was out; she was at a funeral. Had she been in I would have been forced to sit like a carnival exhibit. The ladies in the shop had already given many glances my way suggesting this was not the place big white men should wander.

Sam knew of another shop so we headed off. Walking into this shop it was much of the same only a little less high end and there were two men working there. All of the clients gave the same look as the other shop, but the stylists started a conversation with Sam. They knew where I should go; I should go see Peter.

Sam knew Peter and was excited to find out he too was an expert in cutting white people’s hair. “You see it’s easy for us. They just shave it off. But with you it’s more complicated.” Being a hairdresser’s son I thought, you don’t know the half of it.

It turns out Peter was more than ready for the challenge my hair had become after three months without a trim, let alone a cut. I kept hearing him say “hair shaving” in my head as Peter started working. He started as he should with the sides and then the back. With this done his rate of speed dropped dramatically. It was now left with the top and I could tell by his technique that “expert” may be a bit of a stretch. So I turned to Peter and said, “lets just take it all down.” With that we were back at normal speed and confidence.

As Peter lowered my ears Sam chatted him up with gossip and helped himself to their razors to trim his aspiring goatee. “Florence,” he said, “she works next door.” I knew Florence was a hairdresser and that she worked in this general location, but I was surprised and amused to think she was just next door. Florence and Chimwemwe have proved the real hold outs in the youth choir. Almost all the others have come to Rev. Hara’s house to apologize. Anthony hasn’t, but I don’t think that will last; Lusaka came with two others to apologize but had to take a call before the apologizing started. Florence and Chimwemwe, though, flat out refused.

“She ran off when she saw us coming,” Sam said. I guess Florence has a habit of running when things get dicey. The image is both funny and sad. “I went next door and asked about her and they said she just left. She knew we were here.”

With my hair ready to pass boot camp inspection, I gave Peter a generous tip and told him he was indeed an expert.

After lunch Sam and I came back to Peter’s shop with my camera. I wanted a picture of Peter. It was a moment to remember. With the picture done, Florence appeared. She said hello and shook my hand. “I thought I saw you before,” she said. “Are there a lot of mzungu that get their hair cut here?”, I asked. She laughed. “Have you spoken with Rev. Hara?” “Yah, three days ago.” With a little more awkward chitchat done I thanked her and walked away.

Later in the day I spoke with Rev. Hara to see if what Florence said was true. It was not. That was my suspicion, or my expectation. Yet, I still don’t understand it. How can truth be so fluid in such a small place? I mean I can’t even get my hair cut in a town of a quarter of million folks without running into one of the fifteen choir members. What sort of world is this that no one believes anyone can just not tell the truth? I would expect truth telling to be tantamount here.

In a moment like this I feel like quite a novice, quite a beginner. I have experienced lies before. Seen people lie to themselves and others. And I know the words of Shakespeare, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Standing outside of the “hair shaving” shops I felt the dizziness and disorientation a fly must feel in an intricate web.

Extreme Dambo Makeover Edition
I felt like I was in a strange version of extreme home makeover.

I loaded up the ambulance with Kathy, Laura, Zoe, Sam and Rev. Hara and we headed for the dambo. Our purpose was to visit all the houses that received new roofs thanks to the Widow’s Fund and Mark Purcell. We visited six houses altogether and each one had it own surreal quality.

The first house was a kind of showcase. It turns out the widows fund built the whole house. When we arrived the widow came and hugged everyone and there was a lot of “tawonga chomeni” (thank you, thank you so much). We toured the house and thought it was quite nice compared to the other houses we had visited. (Later we would come to find out this widow was the victim of greedy in laws and had lived on a different social level before this. It showed.)

As we were leaving the first house Laura said, “does she have bed nets?” I was not used to offering things, leaving this in the hands of the Malawians it never occurred to me. Of course they didn’t. I asked the widow if she and her six children would use them she said yes. So Kathy got out her small notepad and wrote six bed nets.

At the next house we could see that the house, while improved with the roof was still a bit on the rough side. There were no windows, the chambuzi was a scary sight, and the gaps below the roof were sometimes a foot deep. “What would it take to finish this house?,” I asked Sam. He spoke to the widow: bricks for the gaps and glass for the windows. We tossed in bed nets and a concrete slap for the chambuzi. I handed her 1,000 kwatcha to start her on the purchase of glass for the windows and this was a nice moment.

At the third house we found out that bed nets would be a bit of problem as she and her four grandchildren don’t have any beds. They sleep on the dirt floor. How much are beds? We found this question coming up again in the next three houses. In the last one the widow was willing to forego a bed if she could just have a blanket. (Weeping here is fine.)

The fourth house was when the whole extreme hovel makeover took hold. When I found out she didn’t have a chambuzi, that she just went in the bushes, something just snapped. “If we built a chambuzi,” I said, “where would she want it?” Sam liked this question. After we handed her 500 kwatcha for bricks and mortar and labor to fill the gaps beneath the roof Sam said, “after you leave she is going to dance then cry.”

When we were at the next house, which was literally the next house, we could hear shouting. We looked back and the widow was indeed dancing. Then she did something I have never really gotten used to: she rolled on the ground at our feet. This is a Tonga custom to express extreme gratitude. It is definitely extreme.

The last house a safety code nightmare. It was small, not just in terms of square feet, but also in proportion. The doorframe couldn’t have been more than five feet high. The widow wasn’t much more than four feet and her grandchildren were all small so this was not a problem for them. Here too we tried to find out what it would take to finish off the houses to get them a moment where the widows felt done. I don’t think we provided more than $100 to each, but it was as if it were $100,000.
The roof for each house cost about $500 so our “finishing” touches were nowhere near as substantial. But there was something in the flourish, the lottery win, the dream. Sometimes when I have watched our version of extreme home makeover the extravagance is a bit much. Yet, with our widows today I felt like extravagance was the point. It was supposed to be big moment.

It is a sobering moment, though, when a blanket is a really big moment and a bed is just too much to even hope for.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

To Get a Visa

After the choir sang their last concert in Bennington, Vermont we went for a walk the next morning. There is a great obelisk with a view of the surrounding valleys Scott Barton said we needed to see. As we walked the sidewalks lined with homes older than Christianity in Malawi I got the sense that our young friends were more enraptured by the size of the homes than their history or architectural style.

As their time in the U.S. was winding down, Kathy, Grace, and I were discussing a new, very large endeavor: bringing her daughter Ruth to the U.S. to live with us. Kathy had made this offer to Grace in Lake Clear a few days earlier and had spoken to me about it. We had already offered to fund Ruth to go to high school in Malawi. When Kathy found out that she was not living at home given the persistent harassment of her uncles to clean Grace out yet again, she said, “she should just come and live with us.”

With the challenge of bringing 15 Malawians to the U.S. very fresh in my mind, I tried to explain to both of them that this may take some time, it may not work the first time, and it will be even more complicated in that it will involve schools, medical insurance, and lots of luck with the consulate given Ruth’s age, she had just turned nine.

One year later, after many phone calls, meetings, forms, and long waits the assistant consular of the U.S. to Malawi said, “Mr. Garry, we can’t by law give Ruth a two-year visa, I can only grant one year.” Hence without a lot of fanfare, a great dream was realized. Later that evening at dinner I asked Ruth, “so do you still want to come to the U.S.?” Having lived with us for the last month she laughed and said, “yes” with a sense of determination.

Our first visit to the consulate on Monday was not as fruitful. They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes. They said, we need more information. What they really wanted was financial records from Kathy and I that would prove we could fund such a venture. As the consular looked over our documents what bothered him was that we had some money in our accounts. It was recent money was the problem.

Coming to Malawi was funded by the Lily Foundation. Before we left I deposited all the funds that were remaining after the plane tickets, shots, pills, and passports were secured (everyone also got a pair of sandals). Let’s just say, Lily was generous so there was a lump sum deposited just before our departure. He wanted to know about this money. Why would someone coming to Africa to bring back a 10 year old girl suddenly have an infusion of cash?

He was wondering if Ruth was a victim of human trafficking and if I was a kind of modern slave trader. It was at that moment I wished I was wearing my collar and had asked the congressman to draft a letter describing who we are, that I was a known entity in a town, in a church. All he had was a note I drafted on plain white paper and our bank statements.

“What do you do?” he asked. “I am the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown.” Now he had documents in front of him saying that, and I had said as much at least three times in the last five minutes. But he wanted to see if I kept giving the same answer. Finally he said, “how long do you intend to support Ruth’s education in the U.S.?”

This I could tell was a sticky wicket. If I said, “forever” did I mean to suggest that once she was there we would just ignore the residency issues and requirements; if I said for “this year” then our relationship wasn’t as secure as I had suggested in responses. What I said was, “it is our intent to continue to support her education in the U.S. for as long as we can secure valid visas.”

He liked that answer. “We are closing so we can’t process the visa today, but you can pick it up tomorrow.” I thought about saying, “we will be on safari,” but I thought better. “That will be fine.”

Phase three of the sabbatical seems like it is beginning. The struggle of abiding is giving way to the joy.

Another Roof

When we pulled up to the boat launch for Mvuu Camp the park ranger who was there last year walked over and re-introduced himself. He remembered not only that I came to Mvuu last year, but the people in my group, that I was a pastor, and that it was a different time of the year from when I visited before.

It took about two minutes to get the reason for his conversation. In addition to being a park ranger, he was . . . wait for it . . . an elder in a local congregation and, surprise of surprises, they were building a new sanctuary. “It’s not far,” he said upping the ante.

Now I’ve learned to trust these moments in Malawi. Let them be what they are. If you can stop by, stop by. But also realize that if you agree to a “visit” it may morph into a big deal and a few hours.

My first impulse was to say, “we are on safari,” and to suggest perhaps another time would be better. But there would be no other time, there just wouldn’t be.

To boot, he described his struggle the last year. As he was doing rhinosceros research a branch swung into his truck and literally stuck in his eye. “They sent me for surgery in Blantyre. I am better, but still not all right.” The not all right part was keeping him on limited duty and off the big program and excitement that had been his life. I told Kathy later, this was the clincher for me.

She was not very excited that instead of going directly for lunch, we were headed for a the ambiguity of a meet and greet. It was past 12 and in Malawi you get into the rhythm of three meals with no snacking in between, so she was afraid the troops would revolt if they needed to sit through a two hour long tea service where they were being told again and again how they are “most welcome” and “self-service, please”.

It was indeed a short drive from the boat launch to the church. And true to form there was a very large sanctuary next to a smaller one. The newer one lacked a floor, roof, trusses, windows, and doors. This the elder explained had taken two years. But now they lacked the funds for the rest.

This is a common sight around Malawi. It looks like a build has caught on fire and left a shell, only there was no fire, it was just that there was no money. Given the quality of the soil, clay to make bricks is out everyone’s front door, so walls are not a problem. But the cash to purchase the iron sheets for a roof or the holy grail, iron trusses, this is a big problem. Doors, windows, pews, and a floor are pretty easy to find. But the remaining two items (roof and trusses) are the real cost of construction, which for this church would be about $15,000.

All of this I understood going in. What is still hard to fathom, no matter how many times you do this, is to be seen as a big bucket of money. This was a church in another region from where I work, an elder I spoke to casually once a year ago, but maybe, just maybe, I might just write a check. It could happen.

When the pastor finally came out from his lunch, he was “out” when we arrived, he was just as crestfallen when I described the impression the people in the North would have if I started building churches in the South. Their sadness lasted for about thirty seconds and then it turned to laughter as they did try to imagine it. “I think they would say, ‘we have a few more churches to build up here.’” The North, indeed, has many churches without trusses and iron sheets for a roof.

To this the pastor offered a great comment. “You see we have a problem here with the Muslims. They are growing and if our growth is not as swift they take advantage and ridicule us. It looks like we are not faithful.”

I’ve sat through a lot of church meetings, especially in the mid-West, were a local congregation and its quick growth has been a topic of conversation. There is a kind of envy, but also strange reassurance. “At least someone is doing something right.”

Listening to the pastor I tried to imagine what it would like for the “other” church to be Muslim. And it’s not Muslim in the sense of the great umbrella of American spiritual diversity. It’s Muslim in the form of political consequence, the loss of your daughters to marriage, the potential of radical influences that seem to be brimming in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a different kind of “other.”

Mvuu Camp
I was nervous driving to Liwonde. We have talked so much and been excited for so long about going on safari at Mvuu. Sometimes the build up can make the actual experience seem like a shadow of what was expected. After all the wait, what if all the animals in the national park had a freak disappearance on our day of safari? I could see the guide shrug his shoulders and say, “the hippos were here yesterday.”

To get to Mvuu you drive south from Lilongwe about three hours. The road is hilly with lots of mountain curves. You are stepping into yet another climate of Malawi. The villages here are built in the valleys and they look like small worlds unto themselves.

Once you reach Liwonde, there are people waiting by the side of the Shire River who know your name and all have matching khaki clothes. Matching clothes is a big deal here. It means something very significant. In the U.S. where people chafe at the idea of uniforms, here it means you are part of something big. And more importantly, you are gainfully employed.

As we loaded onto the riverboat my fears were there again. I knew we would see hippos, but if they could just see one elephant, then the pressure would be off for the rest of the time. We were about fifteen minutes on the water heading north on the Shire when we spotted three elephants getting a drink. We pulled to within twenty yards and all the cameras came out. Five minutes later we were looking at a herd, and then a few minutes after that a large elephant with a broken tusk eating grass at the rivers edge. And then the hippos and the crocodiles started. They glom together and provide an intriguing contrast. The hippos are smooth and round, the crocs are jagged and long.

Unlike previous visits in April where all you saw of the hippos was the top of their heads, in July they were up and walking around the shore, lumbering slowly. The hippos didn’t move if we came up close, but the crocs did. They are less excited about being photographed. Each time they dove into the river and swam past the boat, Ruth asked, “will they come into the boat?” In all we easily encountered two dozen on the way to the camp and her question never ceased. It was clear that safari was more than sightseeing in her mind.

Upon arrival we enjoyed the fine dining the camp provides and everyone was taken aback by the d├ęcor of the chalets and just the atmosphere. After lunch and a swim we headed into the bush for a game drive. We were looking for rhinos and zebra but found only antelope, impala, and elephant. In the night drive, we were lucky enough to spot a civet, jackal, and a white tailed mongoose amongst the waterbuck and the wild boar.

Yet, the real “safari” moment came upon our return just after dinner. Everyone was exhausted after a day of so many sights and I was quick to wave off the guide as he offered to escort us to our chalets. “I know the way,” I said, “and we have a torch.” “No,” he said, “the elephants have taken to walking through the chalets at night, it’s better I go with you.”

Coming around the corner I was getting impatient with his speed and when he stopped on the path maybe twenty yards from where we wanted to go, he said, “there is a large elephant eating in front of Chalet #5.” This was Laura and Beka’s room. And the elephant was literally straddling their porch. We took a vote and this was the most popular moment of the safari.

Later that night Kathy and I were awaken by an elephant eating right outside our window. It was a racket beyond imagination. Still half asleep I started to get up so to shoo it away. Luckily I woke up a bit more so as to remember, the elephant may not take to being shooed.

The next morning Kathy, Beka, Laura and I joined our guide Duncan for a six o’clock bird walk into the bush. As was the case last year, this is a highlight for me. The birds in Africa are shocking in their variety and omnipresence. Everywhere you turn there is an intriguing bird to spot and watch.

After our boat safari we headed out a bit before twelve. We sped down the Shire at a clip. As we did herds of elephants walked in the marshy grasses and hippos and crocs lined all available muddy spots. We watched fish eagles and kingfishers dive into the water. By that point no one needed to stop as we were flush with so many sights. Sometimes the reality is even more than the hype.

Mark Purcell Goes to the DamboOn Saturday we made the drive from Lilongwe to Bandawe. Mark Purcell was ending his trip to Malawi with a few days at the lakeshore and we were to join him. We pulled in around 3:30 and the stress of the drive just evaporated. Oh, the lakeshore.

Mark and his sons, Andrew and James, arrived in Malawi a week before. They spent a few days in Lilongwe seeing the crisis nursery, a few days at Mvuu seeing the elephants, and then four days in Mzuzu being led by Sam and Grace. I gave some suggestions as to where they might lead the Purcells, but it was not necessary.

When we met up at the Chinteche Inn James and Andrew were still excited about the day before. Grace took them to a DPP rally where she was the focus. “So your Dad made a political speech,” I declared. They both smiled and said, “yeah, he did.” “Never thought you’d see that did you?” They both shook their heads and continued to smile.

As we all unwound a bit the details of Mark’s time in Mzuzu started to unfold. They pretty much jettisoned all the sightseeing and got to work. Mark, like the eight ladies from Watertown and Canton, was a bit bothered that we had purchased iron sheets for the widows of the dambo but had yet to get any of them installed. So instead of touring he jumped into inspection mode and then set about hiring contractors. All the ladies of the dambo now have new roofs installed.

One house though was not salvageable. This problem led to negotiations to purchase a few acres on the outskirts of Mchengatuba so this one can, as Mark put it, “just have a whole new house.” I am not sure that dambo has ever seen a day like this one before: the day Mark Purcell came to town.

I spoke with Sam later about the land in question and we believe we can get it for under a thousand, probably around $700. “There will be enough room,” Sam said, “for at least ten houses.” All the teenagers starting tossing around names for this new village. I think “Graceland” is the one everyone agreed to.

Word travels fast in Malawi and its not just the omnipresence of cell phones. “Maurice is insisting that you eat dinner at his house when you return to Mzuzu.” This is the Deputy General Secretary. “He wants you to have dinner with Father Andrew.” We both smiled at this. Such a dinner means the gears of the political machine are starting to turn. I laughed and said, “of course I will have dinner with Maurice.”

I want to say it took Mark Purcell about ten minutes to figure out how much joy can be had in Malawi. The possibilities, the people, the rate at which significant change can occur are truly a lot of fun. I tried to stress to him how we need to get to work on the U.S. side. The church is still the umbrella for the widow’s fund, but we need to formalize it as a nonprofit. We also need to form a board and get everyone on the same page.

When I told him I don’t want the U.S. board to be the decision makers, he smiled. “No, the people here should be making the decisions.” With that I could see he really got the beauty of being a friend of Malawi. It’s about creating the possibility of something and getting out of the way. The women of the dambo are very glad Mark gets it.

O Gondwe
I had an epiphany Sunday morning. I wish it had come as I was listening to a sermon or enjoying the sound of the waves beating the shore of Lake Malawi, but alas, it was not. The epiphany came when the church elders invited me into the vestry, saying, “bring your case with you.”

Most pastors here carry a leather briefcase which holds their bible. My gut told me, they are going to ask me to preach.

Inside one of the elders started with apologies. “Rev. Gondwe is in Lilongwe. He didn’t tell us you were coming. All of our ladies and most of our people are at another prayer house this morning at a fundraiser.” The picture went from bad to worse when he said, “we have voted that since you are here you should take the service.”

I have preached with a few hours notice, but only in Malawi have I experienced the pleasure of a few minutes notice. They took pity on me and made one of the elders do all the logistics and keep the service flowing. Had this been my first trip to Malawi I would have refused. Now though I know better and I just smiled and said, absolutely I will.

As the service got started I tried to craft a message in my mind. I took the passage the elder was going to preach and figured the congregation and I would just “listen” to it together as if it were the first time for both of us, which was true.

The elements of the service were as free flowing and bizarre as usual. A staff member from the synod was in attendance and had brought a nice mirror for the church. I was directed to pray over the mirror and give it a blessing. Later Mark Purcell told me he was duly impressed that not only did I do it, but had something cogent to say. I told him I have blessed a lot of things, but this was the first mirror. (I also told him boats are my favorite to bless as it’s always followed by a party.)

During the offering came the epiphany. Had I done my sabbatical at the lakeshore how I had intended, this would have been my lot. All of a sudden the image of Norman Hara came to mind. For six weeks I have worked with him and spent time with him and never did I feel dumped upon or used. In fact, it has been just the opposite. He has made sure that my time in Mchengatuba is not grunt work or that my presence is an excuse for him to let me take over.

I knew in an instant that had I come to the lakeshore for the nine weeks I would have been working all the time. This would have been very problematic given the intention of my sabbatical. In Mchengatuba I haven’t been working; I have been abiding. Sometimes the abiding has been bitter like the night we met with the choir; sometimes the abiding has been joyful like the moment Sam and I walked the dambo. Be it hard or happy it has been abiding.

Staring out at the congregration and remembering the words of the elders, “he didn’t tell us you were coming,” I thought, “Gondwe, Gondwe.” One Sunday was annoying. Nine would have not been any fun at all. What abiding reveals never ceases to amazes me.

We stayed an extra day at Chinteche on the lakeshore. It hit us: the fatigue and the motion and the change and the sense of being gone. When I asked if there was room for another night, there must have been something in my voice, because the manager seemed pleased to say, “yes.” I was pleased as well. We needed another day of being on the beach, eating delicious food, and enjoying the sound of the waves at night. The weight bringing the exhaustion wasn’t one thing; it was a moment of too many things.

I’ve tried to balance the two intentions of the sabbatical. The first intention was to learn more of Malawi than can be achieved in a two-week visit. This is my fourth time in Malawi and at this point I have exceeded the amount of time spent in the last three trips combined. I have now been around long enough that the rhythm of life is coming into focus; the friendships made in the past are being tempered by real life; and, most importantly, a complex culture is coming into view in ways I scarcely could have imagined.

This has proven rather straightforward. I imagine it may have been forfeit if I had withdrawn, hiding myself away behind the gates of the McGill house. Yet, except for a few days of illness and two days of exegetical work on I John, I have made sure to be in the midst of people and places so I know more than a kind of cursory impression. The secret it would seem to ethnology is the same as being a pastor: show up, be in the midst, and listen.

The second intention of the sabbatical has not proven as easy. Bringing my family into nine weeks of Malawi so they can share this part of my life has not been as obvious as amateur anthropology. With their suitcases came our life together; with their passports came emerging identities and complex relationships.

It’s fair to say, I am a better pastor than parent, a better preacher than a husband. In this I am well within the experience of many men I’ve met. Deferring attention because there is more work to be done; being absent is excused as part of the job. Being together in such a different place, being part of every step and dust up has been a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t part of the sabbatical I asked the Lily Foundation to provide and First Pres to support. Yet, in some ways it has been even more revelatory than being immersed in a different culture. This “part” has made many things very transparent.

Anthropologist might call this a “liminal” experience. Liminal is when we are taken to the edges, the edge of meaning where we can see ourselves and our life in a way that is profound and insightful. Another anthropologist might call my ramblings about our time in Malawi as “thick.” Thick in the sense that there are so many layers we are sifting through, so many parts of our life being exposed at one moment, it is rich and all too clear.

Being so exposed, so transparent can be just a bit on the taxing side. There was the drama of trying to be a family in a new house, a new city, a new country, and a new continent. That was a bit of a stretch. Add to this the absence of all the creature comforts like friends, phones that work, television, and a newspaper that is delivered to my door at 4:00 am so I can read it at 4:30 each morning (not to mention a second newspaper that comes in the mail that I can read over dinner until Kathy chastises me). I’ve whined enough about driving that it need not be explained here, but I now long to drive on paved roads where there are no chickens, goats, bicycles, or children darting about. Each one of these has uncovered or revealed something in us, in me.

We’ve talked for a few weeks now trying to imagine if it would have been easier if we would have done this or that. Yet, the conclusion we seem to reach is that nine weeks in Africa is a kind of challenge that has proven as enlightening as taxing. There was some heavy lifting that just is what it is.

So an extra day at the Chinteche Inn was, shall we say, a very good idea. It was a great idea because we are not done yet. We are only 2/3 of the way through our time. That there will be more insights, more moments of “ahahs,” and more times where I stop and say, “I didn’t see that before” is pretty much a guarantee. Be that as it may, it is good to just be on the lakeshore for another day and rest a bit before the next round. Seeing this much of life is a gift, an extravagant indulgence that surprises me each time I think of it. It also comes with a heavy dose of emotional baggage.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sange #7
Preaching in Bandawe is always an adventure. Rev. Gondwe doesn’t stand on a lot of protocol in terms of order. If you are taking the service he pretty much throws you in. So I was prepared for nothing being prepared when arrived to preach on Sunday.

Some might consider the lack of preparation Malawians bring to their life a kind of laziness, or at least a lack of appreciation for details. There is some of that. Malawians will be quick to castigate each other for being lazy. When I hear this I know I am in another culture. “Lazy” in America is a pretty serious accusation. We work hard to use it sparingly and restricting it to a specific event. A second grader may be told that their lack of effort on a project was “lazy”, but if that teacher were to tell a parent their child is lazy, there may be some sparks.

Yet it is nothing for a Malawian to chastise a colleague for being lazy, for a pastor to exhort a congregation not to be lazy, and I have read in the national press calls by the President for the people to rise above laziness. I can’t imagine President Bush suggesting the rebound of our economy hinges upon our ability to not be lazy.

My text for the morning was John 15, the Abide in Me passage. The sermon emerging from this passage had two purposes. The first was to explain why I didn’t come to the lakeshore for my sabbatical. There had already been some confusion when I appeared in June. Bandawe was for all intents and purposes the place where I felt at home. Why wouldn’t I come home if I were going to live for 10 weeks in Malawi?

Abiding I explained is about not being at home, its about losing your home or giving it up: it is about being displaced. The Holy Spirit told me, I said, if you want to understand abiding you need to go to Mchengatuba. As this was the promise I made to my home congregation (I will spend the summer learning what it means to abide), I felt bound to follow the direction. At this point I interjected the story of Jonah saying this is where I wanted to be. All the Malawians needed was the reference and they got the point. When I told them I was a bit nervous when I get too close to the lake as the fish are quite large, they really laughed.

The second point of the sermon was what I learned about abiding in Mchengatuba; I learned about sange. Working from the theory that in Bandawe there is a greater sense of community and deeper family relationships that keep sange more at bay, I told the congregation that most likely sange was not a problem here. There was a lot of chatter as I continued. (Perhaps there is not as much community as I thought.)

As the service was winding down, Gondwe went to the lectern and gave an impromtu sermonette about sange. In fact he said sange is not a problem in this congregation, but it is a huge problem in the presbytery. Again the ladies from Northern New York were being given a glimpse of Malawi you don’t see on safari. Gondwe went into great detail about his experience of sange.

After the service two men from the church approached me as we waited for lunch. They wanted to expand my understanding of sange. “You see, we’ve heard about Mchengatuba. It happens,” he said, “because people believe they will get rich if they go to the U.S. They believe they will come back with pockets full of money and extravagant gifts. And when they don’t their friends and family believe they are holding things back from them.”

With this the wires started to cross. One of the parts I truly admire in this culture is that if you have something you share it. There are no “leftovers” here. If you come into some money, you don’t save it, you help others. Some might suggest the down side of this is that it erodes initiative. The sense of dependence doesn’t work well with the motivation necessary to succeed, say, in business or in a career. A shop owner who “shares” all their goods is quickly out of business.

Yet the person who does work and does succeed and saves money in this culture becomes a kind of cultural deviant. And so in Mchengatuba as someone succeeds and they don’t simply “share” but save or invest, they are in a cultural sense out of step, or in moral categories, doing what is wrong.

Now the picture of a twenty year old who concocts a story about a second check from the U.S. and seeks to claim money given to the church has some clarity. They were supposed to come back rich. If they don’t get some money some place no one will believe them when they say, they don’t have any thing to share. And the idea that someone’s success is only a real blessing when it’s shared.

Sange #8
It was about responsibility, Rev. Nkhoma said.

Linda Potter asked him to explain how someone like Grace, a professional with tons of connections who is now running for parliament, was still without the leverage necessary to keep her in-laws from cleaning her out. How will this end was Linda’s point.

Rev. Nkhoma never ceases to amaze me how he can clarify a cultural issue using history and how Malawi has changed in the last thirty years.

“Before the cash economy,” he said, “a man had a hoe, an ax, maybe a canoe or some nets. These were his ‘possessions.’ This is what he used to provide food for his family. When he died and his brother came to take them, he was saying, in essence, ‘I will uses these to provide for you as your husband did.’ Taking the possessions were a promise that he would be responsible for his sister in law and his nieces and nephews. He would use the hoe to bring them a harvest; he would use the canoe to bring them fish. In taking them he was keeping them alive and now seeing them as his own. It was about responsibility.”

In the last twenty years, arguably, Malawi has moved more and more from a purely subsistence economy, where cash was very scarce, to a cash based economy. People are still very much involved with subsistence, but with an ever present element of supplementing their income.

The first three weeks we were in Malawi, Sam kept apologizing for the absence of his mother. She is in Msimba. What she was doing was bringing in their crops. They live in an urban place with everyone looking for work, but they also have crops in a field in their home village. The crops are brought in to feed their family through the year, but you can’t live on nsima. You need more. In Mchengatuba that means you need cash.

Cash, while it is becoming more and more a part of the culture, is still hard to come by. You may need to send your husband to South Africa to work; you may need to pick tea at abysmal wages; you can try your hand at “business.” With any luck you will succeed. With success comes cash and with cash comes stuff. It is not uncommon to find a television in a Malawian home. It only gets the one free channel of bizarre public television but it’s on all day. It’s not uncommon with success for someone to have furniture in their living room, a stereo. They have stuff.

I will never forget being in a home in Kabwanda. It was a mud house with mud floors and rough openings for windows. There was no furniture. Everyone slept on the floor. But in the corner was a television and a stereo run off a car battery. The husband was in South Africa.

Now, when a husband dies (which is very common for the men coming back from South Africa; you can get a job there, but you will most likely become infected with HIV/AIDS as well), when a husband dies, his brother doesn’t come to take on his job in South Africa, he comes for his stereo. When a brother dies who had a good job in a city, his brothers don’t come for his hoe and his canoe, but the dining room set.

Sange, when coupled with a cash economy, quickly eliminated the role of responsibility that came with the collections of a brother’s possessions. The only problem is that the widow is now just left without anything. And if sange is really in play, she is left homeless as the husband’s family takes over his house and kicks out his wife and children.

It’s hard to say when this became a norm. I want to say I am just scratching the surface of a huge cultural shift. Hopefully this is a bad phase, a cultural crisis that will find a resolution. I hope.

Phase Three

As August is closing in our time has started to take on shape.

The first three weeks, phase one, were a kind of crash course, bronchitis fueled, struggle. There were a number of moments where Kathy and I wondered if a sabbatical where I explored my interest in the ancient near east or Italian food may have been more “sabbath” like.

Sitting at the American Embassy yesterday we rehashed this. The intent of the trip was to deepen my understanding of Malawi and it’s culture so our mission work would have greater clarity and purpose, but also for my family to share this direction. If we are going to keep working with the Malawians, especially raise a Malawian child, we need to understand what this means as a family.

In phase one, I don’t believe we achieved these objectives. What we encountered in the first three weeks was what it meant for Americans to live in Malawi. The McGills offered this picture in spades. They made clear all the hidden costs, the web of decorum and protocol that defines a culture that cannot begin a meeting on time, and the many of the dangers. A part of me wonders if we were too informed. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Yet, I am glad we had these pictures as the success is much sweeter each time we navigate the dangers.

Phase one was also just really, really stressful. Driving in Malawi is not something you come to enjoy in a few weeks. Just last night as we drove from Lilongwe to Mzuzu the car in front us had to dodge a violent brawl and then a nearly run over a drunken man who staggered into oncoming traffic. That’s just the extra fun of one drive. The usual subjects of stress (livestock, bikes, tobacco trucks, pedestrians, children playing, potholes that are crater like) are just part of getting from here to there.

Phase two was about being hosts. The ladies from New York arrived with our “girls”. All of sudden we had two groups we were keeping track of. Laura, Zoe, Beka, and Chelsea had one schedule and the widow’s group had another. They all did great and were a blessing, but all of sudden we were interpreting Malawi to others instead of trying to understand for ourselves.

In this we did learn a great deal about what it means for us to do mission in Malawi. And my family has now had a profound experience. The fellowship of friends from home also diffused some of the stress of immersion. It was during this time that “sange” started to emerge. I truly don’t believe I would have ever begun to understand this complex layer of Malawian culture on a two week visit. It came first as a warning from the McGills, “sange is a big problem here.” And then it came like a tidal wave, a kind of cathartic eruption in the village of Mchengatuba.

And now we are heading into the last phase. What it will hold is starting to emerge. It seems as if we are finally ready to just enjoy the people and the places. Our guard isn’t completely down, but we are heading into the fruit of abiding. Jesus said in John 15 “abide in me.” He said this on the night of arrest; he said this to people just before he was crucified. And John wrote this to Christians who were being expelled from their church home and thrown into the chaos of being displaced. Yet, John 15:11 says, I say this to you so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” This to me is the other side of abiding.

I am not sure what form this may take, but it seems to be the theme of phase three. Abiding is about being displaced, and enduring, and trusting in the midst of chaos; yet, it is also the mysterious way in which joy is to emerge. Again, abiding is word that doesn’t disappoint. There is a reason John chose this image as a way of defining the church. As I look to understand what it means for the church to be in mission, abiding seems to provide a powerful answer.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Opportunity Bank Came to Mchengatuba.

I am still trying to convince myself this happened. When Linda Potter wrote me months ago and said she would like to hook up with the folks from the Opportunity Bank when she is in Malawi, I thought, that will be nice. Futile, but nice.

In the last few years I have become a bit jaded about any preexisting organization. I don’t want to sound like a paranoid, on the fringe protester, but I have lost a bit of confidence in the “institution.” If I am not growing it, making it from scratch, or doing it myself, why bother? This has become my question after trying to start with the larger group, the denomination, the established folk. So the idea of trying to bring in an established bank into our fledgling widows organization sounded like recipe for frustration.

In the last too weeks of working with them the experience has been anything but. In fact things have really got cooking was a whole lot of progress and wonderful . . . well . . . opportunities. The first bit of progress was that the local Roman Catholic priest who heads up the benevolence ministries of the diocese said he would love to come with the staff member who works in Mchengatuba for a meeting with the Opportunity Bank and our Widows Organiztion. And the local Presbyterian pastor said, “I don’t know the priest but I would like to meet him.” They were both really excited about the Opportunity Bank coming out to Mchengatuba; and at the end of the meeting they both agreed to work with us.

When we actually all sat down with the branch manager and the loan officer (Wilson and Peter) the excitement continued. The more we talked about setting up a local committee that would seek out and screen potential micro credit clients, and this committee would recommend projects to a widows organization board, and this board would have the choice of offering an endorsement to the bank made everyone excited. “And the bank is not bound,” I said, “to make loans simply because we endorse them, but simply sees our approval as a recommendation.” There were lots of nods around the living room of Grace Chiumia.

A little more than a year ago Grace and I were sitting in the living room of Jim and Jodi McGill where we negotiated the first step of the “widows fund” as it was then called. Grace was quick to suggest micro lending and everyone said, too soon, too early. I still believe that was the case. The biggest reason we gave Grace then not to rush into micro credit is that you don’t want to be a bank.

Yesterday that is exactly what I said to the folks from the Opportunity Bank. “I don’t want to be you; I am pastor; I don’t want to be a banker.” But I would love for the some of the funds that have been donated to help widows in Malawi be utilized as micro credit loans. They are eager for a chance to move out of extreme poverty and a micro loan has proven a very effective tool to do just that.

After our quasi board meeting, Wilson and Peter met with two groups of widows and discussed the potential of one selling beans in the market and another selling poultry in Mchengatuba. I am not sure of the outcome of these discussions, but I do know what came of their meeting with Grace and her business partner, Sam Chirwa, to discuss the next step for the preschool they have opened: pre-approved. That was a great sign given that we have not yet deposited any money in the Opportunity Bank.

When I am wrong I tend to be really wrong. How great it has been to be really wrong about this one.

The Malawian Lens

Linda Potter is a “mama molesia.” In the U.S. she is a life coach, a business woman, a Christian, a mother of three, Mike’s wife and much more. But in Malawi, she is “mama molesia” (the pastor’s wife).

Being a pastor’s wife in sub-Saharan Africa carries an enormous amount of weight and responsibility. A pastor’s house, or manse, is part conference center, part vestry, part city hall/dining hall, and, when it’s not being used for these, a home run by the mama molesia. Most families in Malawi have between six to eight children. Add to this being a pastor means you have a steady job with an income so you are obliged to raise nephews, nieces, and grandchildren in addition to your own.

I am not sure if Linda would let it go uncontested in the U.S. that she is “just the pastor’s wife.” In fact most people in Canton who know her wouldn’t let that stand, but in Malawi, “mama molesia” is enough said. The crowd always ooohs when her title is given.

It is a safe guess that Linda, and her seven travel companions from Northern New York, weren’t ready for the way they would be interpreted as they sought to interpret the fledgling widow’s fund that was begun in Watertown in 2006. Yet again and again I have watched them see themselves through the lens of Malawian eyes.

“Mzungu” is the most common title they each have received. Mzungu is the word for “white person.” At the village of Mzenga as they listened to political speeches for an upcoming parliament seat, their white skin was mentioned numerous times as a kind of shocking occurrence. That white people would come to Mzenga was hard to fathom. With my family and the ladies altogether, we equaled 15 mzungu. One or two would have brought the village; fifteen brought people from all 32 areas of this remote nook of Africa.

To be seen as an honored guest, to be as someone who needs a seat on the dais, to be praised as a kind of wonder of the world is to be seen through a different lens than these ladies are use accustomed. (Later that day, a persistent comment was, “now we know what it means to be hounded by the paparazzi.)

Yet, perhaps the most profound and new way of being seen was to be seen as the one who can bring about a new world.

During the rally, a young person was invited to give a list of grievances. It was a moment to make a pitch to the visitors. The young man chosen to speak made two requests: they need an ambulance and they need a high school. You can’t walk to any hospital and many kids are walking more than five miles to school each way. Now the first one is approximately $50,000. I know as First Presbyterian in Watertown “topped up” the funding for one this year. A secondary school . . . I want to say is somewhere between $75,000 - $200,000. (That’s quite a bargain for an entire school when you remember your last levy and what it bought.)

I am not sure if the ladies from Watertown and Canton fully understood that they were being asked to fund these projects, but in fact, that is exactly what was happening. They were seen as the ones who can bring these things to Mzenga.

The longer I spend time in Malawi the more this interpretation challenges me. My first response is to laugh when I think of how little chance there is that I could just write a check for $50,000 let alone four times that amount. Yet, the real challenge of these kinds of requests is the knowledge that “we” can bring this about if we chose. If we believe it is the right thing to do, we could very easily transform Mzenga with an ambulance or a school. It is really far within the realm of the possible.

I hope at some point each one of the ladies from Watertown and Canton will begin to see themselves as the Malawians see them. They are hope; they are someone you can ask to change the world. And this world looks a lot different when you realize what a difference you could make if you chose to try. It doesn’t look easy, but it does look doable. At least one young man in Mzenga truly hopes they see the world the way he does.

DPP Oye!

The district political leader shouted, DPP oye!
And the crowd responded, “Oye!”
“Dpp, oye!” he charged them again.
And then he introduced the candidate, “Grace Chiumia, oye!”
“Oye!” They answered with a frenzy.

The ladies from Northern New York (Heather White, Rita Gefell, Rene Waterbury, and Liz Bonisteel of Watertown; Linda Potter, Vicky McClean, Katrina Hebb, and Ellen Grayson of Canton) had strayed a bit from the standard tourist path. Malawi often presents these “alternative” tours and a political rally supporting their friend Grace Chiumia for a seat in parliament is definitely off the beaten path most visitors trod in the warm heart of Africa.

In March of this year Grace came to Watertown and Canton to prepare the ladies for the trip to Malawi in July. The purpose of their trip was to interpret the widow’s organization Grace has developed with our funds. Upon her arrival in the North Country she was quick to broach an issue with me: with how I would feel about her running for parliament? Would I see this as a good thing?

Her face lit as I said, “you are the sort of person Malawi needs to build the future. Do you need me to make speeches? I will do it.” We laughed at this, but I wasn’t joking. I had all confidence that during my sabbatical, at some point, I would be saying, “vote for Grace” to a crowd of Malawians.

True to form, after a two hour drive into the bush and with all the introductions made to the few thousand people who had gathered on the football “pitch” in Mzenga; after all the people went wild seeing my wife, daughters, and the “ladies” from New York wrapped in chintengis (bright cloth worn as a skirt) imprinted with the face of the president of Malawi, I began my speech.

I asked if the people could help me understand the politics of Malawi. Were there politicians here who liked to hear their voice? Were their politicians who lined their pockets? Were their politicians who just like to sleep instead of work? To each query the Malawians gave a tentative “yes.” They didn’t know exactly where I was going with this. Should they tell the visitor their real interpretations?

Finally I said, are their politicians who will work hard, not make promises they can’t keep, and give their life so others would see a better future? Before they could answer I said, “look no further here is one.”

I explained my relationship to Grace and her selflessness. But what truly needed to be said was spoken before all the speeches: she is someone who brings the unimaginable- a whole band of Americans to a remote village; she delivers a group of American’s to Mzenga of all places, a group whose only motive was to help the most vulnerable in their midst the widows. That is gold in Malawi. I am pretty sure I really didn’t need to stump, but there would have been great confusion had I not spoken. No matter. Malawians love speeches. And if the truth be told I would do it again, and most likely will. “Vote for Grace; vote for Grace!” I said before I sat back down.

The frenzy of the thousands, the five different speeches, the dancing, the singing, the dramas, were just a bit different for the visitor. This was not a church event; this was not a business meeting: this was a rally. Again and again I spied our “ladies” and my family; their eyes were wide.

As we left the rally, it was clear that we were in a different place. The van with the ladies was bedecked with three boys would had jumped on the bumper for a ride. As we drove away through the dispersing crowed they kept shouting in Tonga, “Grace has already won; Grace has already won.” This I hope is a true prediction of the vote count. Yet, as bizarre as the scene was for the ladies, as much as they might have wondered what other world they had stumbled into, it was clear they were a part of the hoped for victory, a part of something amazing.

“DPP, oye!”

What do you like most about Malawi?

That was Katrina Hebb’s question to me as we drove out of Mzenga in the rain through the tea plantation.

I thought and thought and thought and finally said, “I’ve never thought of it; I’ve never asked myself that question.”

Now if she had asked what are the things you like about Malawi . . . no problem. Beer is cheaper than water. People say yes and no when answering one question in the same breath. The lakeshore. The way a conversation is a kind of expectation and an art. I love that being in a hurry is really distressing to people. Although it has taken awhile to learn how to enjoy it, I find great pleasure that all plans are tentative and subject to great delays and postponement with non chalance.

This list can go on and on. But what was the one thing I like the most? The dirt road was very slick so I needed to watch where I was going, but soon the answer came to me. “What I like the most is that you can change things, make a difference and its not Herculean, its not beyond everyone’s imagination. You can build an entire school for a fraction of the cost of a house in the U.S.” In fact a school is about the cost of a luxury car, maybe a little less.

My visits to Malawi and this thing I like the most has come with a cost. Now, as I go about my day and face the choices of life I am presented with a question carved in relief from the extreme poverty of Africa: do you really need this? The answer is most often “no.” I don’t need new golf clubs; I want them, but I don’t need them. I don’t need more clothes; I need to give away more than half of what I already have. I certainly don’t need a twenty dollar bottle of Le Crema pinot noir. (Well that is unless I am making the petit peas and pepper bacon carbonara. Paradox always has a place where wine is concerned.)

The tension of this question is a result of counting kwatcha. The exchange rate in Malawi right now is 140MK/1US. A bottle of beer is 50MK- thirty-five cents. A night at a beach resort with breakfast included 3,500MK or $25. I bought a lovely wooden bowl today for $10. Something like this would sell for $50 in the US or more. My point is that a daily part of life in Malawi for an American is to count kwatcha. Usually your are left with an impression: it can’t cost that little.

The glory of the bargain, though, wears off when I realize I pay each of our staff less than $50 per month for full-time employment. All of sudden the bowl which I got for a steal represents nearly a week’s wage. I think of what I earn a week and consider “would I buy a bowl for that?”

I wouldn’t but I am starting to think I don’t want to buy an athletic field for a high school for a million dollars either. I balked when the wood carver started the bowl at twenty dollars. “Please, please,” I said, “be reasonable.” Such a price is gouging; it was. Yet, what about Chivumu Primary school and their desire for a “football pitch” (soccer field)? Would I balk if they needed $1,000? No. Would I wonder if they could get it cheaper or if they really need it? No. $1,000 is doable, a great investment in a community.

Counting kwatcha has given rise to what I love most about Malawi: you can make a difference here for under a million. You can build an entire school for under $50,000. You can build dormitories, auditoriums, churches for something close. The annual cost for the malaria program at Ekwendeni is less than $4000.

It’s not the bargain that has the greatest appeal; it’s how it reminds me and inspires me to do something. “You can do it” is what I hear so often in Malawi. That the Holy Spirit says this to me is like the bottle of pinot noir, quite a paradox.

Abiding in Malawi is powerful. It upsets the apple cart in ways that need upsetting. We need to see our opulence and our decadence as unacceptable. Unacceptable not because someone else could use our money or needs our stuff or can be helped if we just didn’t buy $50,000 cars. We need to see it as a choice on our part. Can we make a better choice?