There are three basic rules to driving in Malawi: don’t drive at night, keep to the left, and watch out for tobacco trucks.
The last rule is probably the most important, especially if rule number one is not being followed. Each year beginning in April the tobacco harvest calls for the resurrection of the most decrepit, slap dash, large trucks you can imagine. They are only used for a short time each year so maintenance is not a high priority. With such a lack of attention, the trucks are terribly prone to breaking down on the windy, mountainous M1 that is Malawi’s main artery for commerce.
When a tobacco truck breaks down the driver puts branches on the road to warn oncoming traffic that there is a semitruck occupying the entire lane ahead. The only problem is that you can’t see these branches at night. Were it one or two on the road a driver could use caution, but these trucks litter the highway. I imagine the drivers don’t base their delivery time on the distance, but on the number of breakdowns to be expected.
Yet, rule number one is really made problematic not by tobacco truck but by the sheer darkness that cloaks the land at 6:00 pm. As you might expect 6:00 is a bit too early for life to stop so the highway has plenty of people, bicycles, livestock, vendors, and the occasional oncoming car- the last actually helps determine what obstacles are forthcoming if they cut off their high beams.
“Keep to the left” is a rule because the British hoodwinked yet another country into buying automobiles with the steering wheel on the wrong side. I was trying to follow this rule yesterday and learned the hard way that there are caveats. Caveat #1: Don’t keep too far to the left, especially when said leftside leads down to a gorge and certain death.
Now I was trying to avoid a rut in the dirt road that would have some geographers willing to apply the title canyon, but it was my fault that I steered too clear. All of a sudden people in the back yelled, “stop, stop.” There was enough panic in their voice to suggest that this was not to take a picture. They were on the side that was heading for the gorge; their panic was well deserved.
Everyone quickly piled out of the car so I could attempt to steer away from the ditch without endangering more people unnecessarily. The owner of the vehicle, Jim McGill, sauntered to my side, sized up my situation, and said, “welcome to Africa.” His wife began to take pictures . . . and then my wife did as well. Twenty minutes of rock placing, pushing and heaving left us no closer. At this point Jim tried his hand by backing up the vehicle. Within a few seconds the Land Rover surpassed precarious and now reached perilous.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get more stressful the village we were coming to visit surrounded us and begged us to come as they had been awaiting our arrival for quite awhile. At this moment Jim made a decision: I would go on to make the speeches and receive the gifts; he would stay back and see if he could get the Land Rover back on the road.
I don’t remember a lot of what came next. It was rather surreal as the van was surrounded by women singing and dancing, older women trilling who led us to a row of rather annoyed village headmen. Within thirty minutes, though, the dancing and singing and speech making had to be cut short due to darkness. There was no electricity or running water in the village.
And then came the wait. While we waited, a meal was served that by African standards was a feast. I am glad to say that I thought about “abiding”; I must confess I wondered if I would be a good person to abide in Africa. Just when there was enough self loathing to have effect, I heard something. You could just barely make out some shouting. The shouting kept getting louder and louder until you could make out a chant of victory and then the headlights of the Land Rover broke the darkness of the village. It was the Land Rover filled to overflowing with very excited men.
It turned out a truck happened down this dirt road in the middle of the bush. Of course the driver knew Jim and was glad to pull him out. Arriving with Jim and the villagers were all the people who had been in the Land Rover with Kathy and I. They were happy the car was free, but now they were nervous.
It took a few moments to discern their concern: Jim McGill was just crazy enough to let me try to drive back through the bush in the dark after my less than stellar performance. And true to form he was quick to ask, “are you ready for the drive back?” “I thought about it,” I said. “I am going to be here 10 weeks. I need to face it and not run.” He was the only person who liked my decision.
The people I drove in with were not excited about driving two hours home in the dark in the bush with me at the wheel. Yet, after all the proper speeches of thanks were offered, we all piled in. The first step was to go through the gulch/canyon/place of my earlier failure. As I drove past the ditch the car was quiet. As we made our way through the tea plantation that abuts the village, the car was quiet. When we were neared the end of the dirt road, the chatter began. People relaxed a little. Everyone one relaxed except for me and Mr. Chirwa.
Sitting shotgun, Mr. Chirwa gave me good advice as we drove and there was a quiet message not to let down so soon. He knew that reaching the tarmac was half the challenge. Navigating the rough dirt road in the bush was hard, but driving on a Malawian highway at night was just plain dangerous. With each curve, each passing car, each branch in the road I could sense Mr. Chirwa was not going to let down. He kept his eye on me and the road and offered the foreknowledge of someone who had made this drive countless times. And then, reaching Mzuzu, he leaned closer and said something that was a gift, “See how the air changes. We are near the city.” I took this to mean: while I passed the test, I needed to stay in my current occupation.
After we dropped everyone off at their respective homes it was just Kathy and a sleeping son for the short drive back to the house. She expressed her relief that we made it. I said, “I couldn’t just give up. I needed to try.”
Abiding in Africa seems to render you transparent quickly. While I might have let a fear linger for a time in the U.S., here it is dangerous. In Watertown, I could have avoided a problem like this for quite some time; in the bush, there is a sense of now or never. I need to drive the car; I need to learn; I can’t abide in Africa and be driven everywhere. It is not real life, nor is it in the budget.
As I walked to church this morning I thought: one of the key parts of my sabbatical attempt to abide is walking. Walking is not driving. A part of me wanted to ask, “did I really need to drive out?” It may just be the vestige of testosterone I have left, but my thought was, “yes. You can’t abide in fear. It’s not a question of transportation, but being in a place. Be here.”
So often I hear people speak about their life and it is clear that they are completely disconnected from the place they live. Televisions, computers, a nice house, cell phones they all help to fashion a world of our own. We live in a place without being in it. I don’t think that is even remotely possible in Africa. I have a cell phone here; I am living in a nice house; and, I can get on line (just not as fast). Yet, what I can’t do is live in these. I can’t abide in them here. You can’t remove yourself with these.
Abiding in Africa seems to be about other people and being a person with others. It is certainly not about things or money or a sense of self-fulfillment that is often attempted with these. I know it seems a bit mundane, but I never thought abiding meant people. Jesus says, “Abide in me”. I never thought abiding would mean people. Abiding me, yes. Abiding in faith, yes. Abiding in a place, yes. Yet Jesus was a person. It just never seemed likely abiding would mean people.
Standing by the driver’s side door and seeing the looks on the faces of the people I was going to drive home, I thought, you have their life in your hands. I don’t think this when I drive people around Watertown. Before we left one of the people in our car offered a prayer. I can’t remember wanting a prayer more. I wanted to abide in that prayer.
The greatest challenge of preaching is that it is for all to hear.
The sense we make of something with a friend or a spouse, the outrage we shout with a cadre of similar minded folks, even the vanities we express to ourselves to stave of the vagaries of life, all of these can be spoken without recrimination. Words flow from our lips like a river in early spring. Yet words from the pulpit, they are different.
From the beginning of my sermon writing I took to a manuscript. On numerous occasions I have flirted with the idea of preaching extemporaneously, a few members have even expressed such a desire for me- although I suspect it is to fuel an image of a prior pastor of for the hope of novelty. I have kept to a manuscript for one reason: to be sure of what I am saying from the pulpit.
Having a fertile imagination and a dexterous mind, I don’t lack the ability to speak “off the cuff.” I can do it; I just choose to force myself into the discipline of the manuscript. “O for an iron pen,” Jeremiah lamented. A pen that could transcribe events with the depth they deserve. The manuscript to me is the iron pen. Or like Habakkuk, write it down, write it down plainly for all to see. These visions and inspirations that arise out of scripture have such power, such intensity when seen in full, they demand a response as carved and crafted.
In all of their power and intensity they are also more than can be contained. Who knows where the spirit blows? Perhaps I am just not as bold as I need to be, but I would rather abide with caution in all this powerful meaning for a time and emerged with a careful accounting of what the spirit wrought, than simply wade in and see what happens.
Being in Africa I see the manuscript as a great luxury. There are no manuscripts in Malawi. There are no bulletins here. The hymnals are brought by the congregants if they are fortunate enough to have them. The instruments of the church are stomping feet, clapping hands, and the voice. On Sunday there were twelve choirs who sang. They didn’t know when or if they would sing. Some choirs were called upon to offer an anthem while people were processing, some sang while children came and went at their feet, and one choir was joined by other choir members who delighted in the opportunity to sing a song not often heard.
Imagine someone rising out of the congregation in your home church and just joining the choir half way through the anthem.
The pastor who offered the sermon on Sunday, one Rev. R.V. Banda, led them in a rousing, rollicking shout fest for twenty minutes. The people laughed and trilled and shouted on cue. He used no notes, but he knew what he was going to say. His sermon was part drama, part dance, and began with a solo completed by the congregation. The best I could make out of his sermon was that we don’t let the Holy Spirit cure our soul while all the while we hope he will cure our body; our spiritual ills are left unattended, while our physical ails are spoken with great clarity.
Before he gave his sermon I spoke to the congregation. My mission was twofold. I needed to address why I was here and what I believed about the infamous “roof money.” Last year we sent the Malawian youth choir home with $10,000 to pay for a roof on their new sanctuary. Upon arrival a controversy broke out led by some families of the choir that the money was actually for each member and not the church. That I explained this to each choir member clearly and with no uncertain terms before they departed and then to have this arise has been a great disappointment.
Yet, what was disappointing for me was dangerous for Rev. Harra, the pastor of the church. Arriving with a check made out to the Synod, not the church, helped, but it didn’t forestall a group to harass him for the money. My job on Sunday was to say, “I am the one to whom you need to speak. I am the one who knows what transpired. I will be here for ten weeks.”
As I spoke I watched one of the choir members put her head into her lap. It goes without saying that had I come for one or two Sundays, my presence could have been twisted to fit the foolishness that had prevailed. Ten Sundays . . . not so much.
I thought about writing out what I hoped to say, to publish it as it were. But that seemed so out of place. So I just rose and told the story of the choir to the 1000 or so folks who had come out to worship. I didn’t castigate or shame, I didn’t scorch any earth: I simply said, it cost 4 million Malawian Kwatcha to bring the choir and when it was all said and done there was monies left over. A decision was made to give this money, not to individuals, but to the church. (I also explained that had I done the former I would have been violating the restrictions of their visitor visa.)
Before and after I spoke there was a palpable sense of chaos in the sanctuary. It was more than randomness. I can’t imagine putting everything that was in this service into a worship service in America. There were some wild moments as well as some bizarre ones- a five minute talk was given by a guest who would return in two weeks to provide basic health exams for all the members for a cost of 15 cents.
The service was also three hours. Children came and went; mothers pulled out a breast laden with milk to feed their babies; conversations occurred without hushed voices; the offering lasted nearly forty minutes as special attention needed to be given to the members who paid their tithe in grain or fruit or stalks of sugar cane. When an elderly woman walked down the aisle near the end of the offering with ten-foot stalks of sugar cane on her head I realized why such offering came after those with money: it would be dangerous for those in front and behind her.
In some ways I feel I have chosen to abide in chaos by coming to Malawi. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if what I have been given is an opportunity to learn, truly, what it means to abide while there is chaos all about.
The manuscript for me is like an anchor in the storm of thoughts and images. It is the way I abide in the pulpit. Here though this anchor doesn’t reach bottom.