I preached the early service- the English service.
The current sanctuary of Mchengatuba is a long mud hut with a low slung roof. The only other part of the building is a “vestry” directly behind chancel. Were it not for the thousands who can gather here on any given Sunday, the building would be a truly sad moment.
As the choirs warmed up the early arrivals, I sat in the tight windowless vestry with twelve elders. They were scrambling to figure out what hymns should go with I John 4:7. “We are saved” I said,” because God loved us first.” “Mercy,” I said, “is the theme of the sermon.” This prompted some ideas from the paperback hymnal they all carried, their names penned to the top. The church doesn’t stock these.
Next came the discussion of choirs. For this service there would be five choirs. The week prior, when I took part in a joint English-Tambuka service, there were twelve. So it was clear to me: I was the warm up band for the big show at 10:00.
With some hymns everyone could sing we all entered through the back door. At this point there were about 300 people (an hour later, when I was given the pulpit it would be three times this many). Malawians don’t come to church at a certain time. And they don’t worry about sitting still. Later in the service one of the members of the “adult choir” sang with a baby on her back. When the baby started to cry someone simply came and took the child. The song was never interrupted, the mother never lost her rhythm in the dance.
Today was a big Sunday. My presence at the church last week had spurred the elders to a point of decision: they would stand with the pastor and deal harshly with the members of the youth choir who had caused problems. While I wanted this for Norman, I was still not convinced that so many of them were to blame for trying to extort money (my hunch is that there were at least two parents who were more at fault than their children). But I don’t know this for sure.
So I preached mercy. I told the story of Jacob at Bethel, how the man who was blessed and given a vision of a wonderful life was not such a great guy at that moment. When God came to him at Bethel, Jacob was a liar, a thief, and a man on the run. He was everything we would not want to bless. Again and again I came back to the theme that before Jacob was a good man, before he was something God treated him like he was everything. That’s been my experience of mercy.
Later that night forty of the elders, and more importantly the district leaders from all but two of the area churches gathered to discuss my time in Mchengatuba. The gathering was Norman’s moment of restoration and it felt like it. The tide was turning. As each elder rose to introduce themselves a giddiness filled the air. It may just be the knowledge that a great meal was moments away, but it felt like something more.
After the meal the first person to give a speech was the session clerk. His words were well chosen and, while he spoke from notes, it was clear that his heart had been poured onto the page. As is often the case in Malawi, he showed how much he had listened to my sermon by offering it again, but in a new context. Here he said we all make mistakes, let’s begin again with mercy.
The evening wound up soon after as both Norman and I didn’t impose a pastoral discourse to the clerk’s speech. He truly spoke enough for all. And he said it well.
Yet as the final words were offered, I was sad. I was sad because this was not just a gathering of a church; it was a gathering of a community. More than half the people in Mchengatuba are Presbyterians and thus members of the church. The other half of the people are Roman Catholics. I was sad because I knew this kind of gathering was unprecedented. What an amazing opportunity for community, for people to gather and discuss. As we drove away I could see this still going on and I wondered why it was so hard for people in any place to be together and see what life has in store for them.
I am glad the tide is turning in Mchengatuba. I hope it rises high.
How to make poop pay
Sitting in the McGill home is always an adventure. The people who come and go here are ever on the cusp of one public health crisis or another. It is not uncommon to find a visitor walking in describing a water system, malaria coordination, and, today, sanitation.
Jim McGill was excited. He wanted to show me a “spread sheet.” I’ve grown accustomed to what excites Jim and it may need a bit of translation. This is a man who spends his day talking water tables and latrine distribution strategies. What excites him may or may not hit your radar. Part of the translation is to find a sense of what it means to change the world.
In the U.S., we live in a world that has been made for us. Pioneers, inventors, city planners, founders, benefactors, and federal programs have created a safe place where the lights light, the toilets flush, the traffic flows, and, for us in Northern New York, the snow gets plowed. Where and how all of this came to be is a mystery to most of us. Try to imagine for just a moment how you would bring water to your home. Take away the water lines, the spigots, the sinks: how would you get water if none of these things were there. This is where Jim McGill comes in.
Village after village in Malawi are still living without accessible clean water. Let’s take away the convenience of the water flowing to a particular home. That’s a “pipe” dream in the literal sense. Just having drinkable water, water that is not brackish, or polluted by livestock and people trudging to and from it. Jim brings two options: shallow wells or bore holes. The first costs approximately $350, the second nearly $6,000. Lucky are the villages where shallow wells are possible for in a land of extreme poverty, the former is so out of reach you can imagine how likely a bore hole would be.
Through the last twenty years, Jim has worked to bring water to Malawi. He does this with a quiet presence and echoes of a southern drawl. His day often consists more in politics and problem solving with folks from the government, from the church, and, then, there are the local chiefs and headman than it does with actual water. It turns out that people are an essential aspect to water.
Funds find their way to Jim from as humble a source as you and me and from as grand and large an organization as the World Bank. It is this organization that has funded a new direction for him. Partnering with a group called, Water for People, Jim is helping to compliment clean water with sanitation. Clean water and sanitation go together. I say this as someone who needed to learn it. As far as I knew these things have always been there.
In most Malawian villages though good sanitation (i.e., a proper toilet and waste system) is not a reality. What is a reality is dysentery. Dysentery is what I would call the Chimbuzi Blues. Chimbuzi is the word for toilet in Tumbuka. Bad chimbuzis are just a part of life. And they bring with them a terrible, wasting scourge that robs Malawians of health on a daily basis.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would not want a proper toilet, but it’s not a priority for most folks here. Enter Jim McGill and his spreadsheet. Jim and his partner, Stephen, have worked together a scheme whereby the toilet is sold by a local agent; this agent contracts with a mason; and then the new owner of an elevated latrine is responsible to hand over the human waste to be used as fertilizer. The spread sheet magically tells you how many agents need to sell “x” number of “chimbuzis” and how much profit could be made if the fertilizer goes for “y.”
After a number of years of simply trying to sell toilets, the effort is being ramped up to include more parties. Essentially, they are looking for the right catalyst. By introducing more parties and more possibilities they may just find the tipping point: the place that energizes the consumers to buy a toilet. It turns out changing the world isn’t just telling people how to live or what they need. It’s more like a long awkward dance lesson that stumbles and steps on toes until “voila” you’re dancing. It’s hard to tell what it will be, but it will be.
At home in Watertown I know the benefits of a toilet after living in places where there are none. After many a Mexico Mission where the port-o-potties are a not for the faint of heart or in the bush of Africa where the “loo” is often the second bush to the left, I always return home thankful for the most creature of comforts. Yet, I also return determined to support people like Jim.
He is the man who came before. He is the one who brings a standard of life to Malawi that someday, God willing, they will assume is just a part of life. Someday Malawians will wonder where water comes from and be unable to tell you where the “waste plant” can be found. On that day, their children will, like ours, be needing someone answer: what is dysentery? Then the Chimbuzi blues will be a folk tune, not a popular tune.
Steven, known as the “Bog Man”, dropped by this morning and within a few moments I was lured into the latest hope: turning human waste from latrines into fertilizer. Jim McGill, who works primarily on water and a recent convert to what a pit latrine can do to combat amebic dysentery, was quick to hand me a book to peruse. It’s title, “What does your poo tell you?
All of this was over lunch- very tasty- with Kate from Water for People and an engineer, Anthony. I first heard about the pit latrines three years ago, but only last year did I encounter the idea that you could use human waste as a fertilizer. (If this makes you squeamish don’t worry your plumbing is in doors). This year though the conversation about sanitation and latrines has reached an important stage: income generating.
These are the wires of mission work in Malawi: public health and entrepreneurialism. When you cross these two, things really start to happen. Three years ago the conversation was a modest hope of selling subsidized toilets to folks here in the north. The benefits of these “outhouses” is monumental, yet the value is unforeseen by most. They can free families from a persistent, curable disease that often goes untreated is the claim, but freedom is not always an easy concept to grasp by those who live without its power.
The path to freedom in this instance is very steep. To see freedom from dysentery, a village needs 70% of its households to have gone from poor hygiene practice to healthy practice. 70% would then be the “tipping point” toward eliminating one of the big four in any village.
The big four are malaria, HIV/AIDS, dysentery, and malnutrition. Ever before all discussions seems to be a kind of cart and horse, chicken and egg debate. Which one first? Which one is the priority? Yet, no matter what the priority it is the presence or absence of power- which actually determines the pecking order. So it seems you start everywhere hoping one will take.
The recent conversation around latrines is trying to cross the wires of mission in Malawi: how can you take a public health issue and turn a modest profit? How can someone be motivated to make a significant change in their life without a very concrete benefit? In other words, how do you make poop pay? Because without this the chances of generating the social power of 70% is near hopeless. In a country where everyone is ready to sell something as the only means of generating cash, finding something to sell is a great motivator.
Yet, how in the world can you convince someone to collect their feces to sell, let alone find a buyer?
Easier than it would seem. Malawians are primarily farmers who want to see results. Hence they are not sold so much on concepts or ideas as they are on yields- think cash. If you add fertilizer made from feces, your tomatoes grow bigger. If you spray diluted urine on your corn, they start grow faster and produce more maize. More crops mean something to sell. Something that will create more things to sell is valuable. So the proof is there, but now comes the risk.
To do this right, everyone must have a fair share of the enterprise. In other words, the people who make the toilets (masons), the people who promote the toilets (Bog Man et al), and the people who use the toilets, should each have a share of the risk involved. This is much slower way of bringing public health to a village, but it is the right way. Each one of these three need to have a share in the success or failure of the enterprise. Success in this instance would be the sale of manure made in a “sky loo” by a farmer. The risk of the promoters comes in subsidies and guarantees. No one would be motivated to risk any of these if there were not cooperation by all three.
Undercutting this effort is the other form of public health effort, headed up primarily by UNICEF. This effort is best categorized as the big “give away.” The benefit of this method is that it builds confidence in the west that something is happening now. This is a huge benefit when the word crisis gets bandied about. Yet, in the end, this method undercuts any market formation. Why would you buy something you can get for free? And no NGO is willing to give everyone everything. While more people may get a sanitary toilet quicker than in the entrepreneurial model, there is great evidence to show there is no sustainable impact nor the relationship that is necessary for such an innovation to impact long held habits and beliefs.
The greatest difference though is one of power. In the UN based model the power stays with the West. We determine the number, we determine the distribution, and we determine the price. In essence we hold all the cards. Who has the power is the question I have learned to ask when working with Malawi. If I hold the power over others, then I have taken away something more precious than what I hoped to offer. This question must be asked more and more as we get involved with Malawi or any country racked with extreme poverty. For to give help but keep the power, ultimately dissolves as fast as it appears. If you give people power, though, the change goes deep. And so the question remains, how do you make poop pay?