Friday, June 27, 2008

“You can’t go to Africa and not go on safari.”
This was my claim three years ago and it still holds. Africa, no matter how desperate the poverty, no matter how bizarre the situation you step into, is a physically overwhelming place. Malawi is a part of Africa that definitely doesn’t disappoint. And our drive on Tuesday was all this and more.

To get to Nyika you drive up M1 to the Rumphi exit and take a left. This road winds around a river and leads to the end of the tarmac just beyond the city itself. Rumphi is more of a trading center for many villages. It has the feel of a western town with all of its life on the street itself. Driving a car through the throngs and vendors, the trucks and bicycles is not for the faint of heart.

On my first visit to Nyika the roads beyond Rumphi were so bad that I held my breath as we got onto the dirt road with 110 km to go. Yet, the road kept getting better and better. Rumor is a uranium mine is up and running and the improvement of this road may be part of the deal. Good road or not you definitely knew you were headed into the bush.

60 km in you start to gain altitude; the bush gives way to forest; and with each bend in the road you get a glimpse of the mountain range you are now a part of. And then, with about 20 km left, you reach the plateau and grasslands begin. The grass lands, or as Kathy called them, “hoof and horn mesa” remembering the zoo of our childhood, the grasslands are what make Nyika special.

(Just before this change, something of great surprise occurred. A leopard walked across the road and stopped on the side to look at us. It was young- about the size of a Labrador- and its coat was a glossy black. Its spots were amazing. The guide at the park said, “you were very lucky.”

The camp at Nyika is a series of chalets with deep fireplaces. I start with the fireplaces as a way to say: it was very cold at night. We were given a cook who prepared all our meals on a wood burning stove and schlepped in the tree trunks he stacked in the fireplace to burn through the night.

Not long after we arrived and checked in Ethan and I took off down a path. The manager assured us we were free to walk or drive on all the paths/roads in the park. Within five minutes we spotted our first roan antellope, and then an eland, and then Zebra, and then gazelle. Soon we were talking in the hushed tones of experienced safari guides doing a documentary.

The next day we spent three hours driving the trails and seeing small herds of these animals. We would stop to watch the zebra play or listen to the gazelle give off their warning whistle. Dave and Ethan argued over whether they were seeing an eland or an antelope until they realized that waterbuck have a black mask around their eyes and eland do not.

The evenings at the chalet were “camp” like. We huddled around the fire until its intensity forced us to move the furniture further and further away. On our third day we drove out and enjoyed the scenery more as we were not looking for the camp, but just noticing the park itself. Almost to the park gate we were given a parting gift, large baboons darted along the road and ran through the trees.

I know some people feel guilty going on safari as they feel called to Africa to help, but what a missed opportunity. It would be like going to someone’s house when they have prepared a great meal and saying, “I’m fasting.” Africa is this wondrous, shocking, grand place. Most people, if they are so lucky to go, will only go once. If ever you find yourself in Africa, make sure to take a day to see what God has made.

“You can eat the fish.”Tuesday was a bittersweet day. We had just spent nearly two weeks with the McGill family and now they were departing for the U.S. to spend a year on “itineration.”

The sweet part was the hope we have for them and us. We hope the year in the U.S. will be a time of renewed connections, perhaps some joy, and a time to find new directions. PCUSA missionaries are on a 4/1 schedule: four years in the field and one year at home. “The four years is easier for you than the one,” I said to Jim McGill. He smiled. “I would do another four years sooner than a year of public speaking.”

The itineration year is hard on some missionaries. Speaking about clean water is not Jim McGill’s idea of making a difference; bringing clean water is. He comes by this honestly. His father was a missionary, a physician, and Dr. McGill’s speeches at home were notorious for the obvious pain they brought him. “Jim has gotten a lot better,” was Jodi summation hoping to encourage her husband that there were a few more miles to go in perfecting his “interpretive” year at home.

Almost five years ago Jim McGill came to Watertown on his last itineration. It was shall we say without fanfare or impact. That we would send two people to work on shallow wells in 2007 and now three in 2008 and in the course fund many projects is more a testament to spending time with him and the program he helped to create than a “dog and pony show.”

Yet I hope this year will prove intriguing. Jim will be speaking not only to clean water, but sanitation. For many people the project he is developing will add a whole different dimension to the world of sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty, and missions. A shallow well impacts about 250 people and changes a village. That’s the bonus of working with water: big impact on a lot of people. With sanitation, we are talking household to household. This is really hard work. Yet, I wonder how readily folks in the U.S. will understand just how daunting and needed this effort is. Will they get the need for toilets? I am not sure which one will be harder: bringing a sanitary life to villagers or convincing people back home to care.

When Jodi spoke of a year of itineration it was a whole other universe. She spoke of schools and doctors and friendships. She will be called to do as much of the public speaking as Jim, only she never speaks of it as a burden. Perhaps it is teaching nursing students everyday that has opened up in her a deep conviction that conveying their experience in Malawi can make a difference too.

The bitter part, which they both lamented, is the idea of putting their life on hold for a year. Yes, they will be a family; yes, there will be benefits to being in the U.S. (the power stays on all the time in Atlanta); and, yes, a year away will give them a renewed vision and connection to how they are part of the church sending missionaries. But it is also a year away. Spending three months on sabbatical has brought this very clear to me. Benefits, but also challenges.

For us the bitter is that we enjoyed the learning process and conversations with them. “You are terrible for my husband,” was Jodi’s remark after yet another conversation had delayed Jim from helping with bedtime. “Not that he’s not to blame too. He loves conversation.”

It was wonderful learning the ins and outs of running a house in Mzuzu. There is a plethora of tasks and people the McGills keep employed, helped in time of need, or just walking the straight and narrow. “It’s a lot of work being you,” I told Jodi, quoting a line from a Richard Russo novel. We could have benefited from their presence here during the summer and perhaps the conversations would have evolved more slowly.

Yet, that was not to be. Now we are on our own. Well, that is a bit of stretch. We are surrounded by a caring staff, other missionaries who have been alerted to our green status, and many friends we’ve made in the last few years.

As Jim and Jodi were loading the van and double checking a house they wouldn’t see for a year, they each came to me and said, “oh, and you can eat the fish.” The fish in question were small, fishtank size jobbies that had been caught in a nearby creek. After each offer I said thanks. I am still wondering if eating these fish is kind of hazing for newbies. I am pretty sure I am not going to eat the fish. My plan will be to tell the same to Paul and Darlene Heller as we depart. That, I am sure, will guarantee the fish will be alive a year from now when the McGills return.
There was a funeral so most of Mchengatuba was empty. Sam Chirwa kept apologizing for the absence of people. “They are all at the church.”

“Do all the people know the person who died?”
“No. This is just the custom. When someone dies you go to the funeral.” And then in a moment that would have made Yogi Berra proud, “people are worried that if they don’t go to the funerals no one will come to theirs.”

He also kept apologizing for the “short cuts.” The only way I can describe walking through Mchengatuba once you get off the main road is a spider web of backyards and front yards and back alleys.

Our destination was the “dambo.” A “dambo is low point or valley. In Malawi this is the cheapest land as it comes with the added bonus of being mosquito infested. Halfway to the dambo we came upon a school as it was letting out. My son Ethan and I became the object of an impromptu song. All the children started a chorus of “mzungu, mzungu” and danced from side to side. “mzungu, mzungu” menas “white person, white person.”

The shouts of a few children calling mzungu in remote villages is something I’ve grown accustomed to Malawi. Yet, Mchengatuba is a “suburb” of a city close to a quarter million so the idea that these children had never seen a white person is impossible. I turned to Sam and said, “not many white people come to the dambo.” “No. White people don’t come to the dambo.”

A remnant of the school children followed us until I took out the camera, took a picture, and turned the digital screen so they could see their images. As soon as they saw themselves they erupted in glee and then ran back the way they came.

With the children gone and a few more steps taken we were now surrounded by old women, “gogos.” These “gogos” were very excited to see us. They had been given iron sheets for roofing by Sam. But Sam had made it clear: these iron sheets were not from him, they were from Watertown. “This is Fred Garry,” he declared, “from Watertown.” The shouts of glee were again over seeing an image, but this time it was seeing someone from the place that gave the iron sheets.

Iron sheets are big in Malawi. With iron sheets for a roof your mud hut will last longer and will not collapse during the rainy season. The first widow, Mpini, shook my hand repeatedly and said, “towonga chomeni,” thank you very much. She lived in the smallest hut I’ve seen so far in Africa. It was more than small; it was more like an enclosure than a home. In this abode she kept her six grandchildren alive. I am not sure it is much more than that.

Sam then took us to another widows home. “This house collapsed in the rainy season,” he said. “Mestard lives next door and that is how we came to know of her.” Mestard, like Sam, was a member of the choir who came to the North Country last July. The iron sheets, though, were not part of choir practice. The sheets come from monies donated in Watertown in December of 2006. Sam has made it a priority for us to insure that those funds go to help the poorest of the poor.

Looking at the widow’s house, the iron sheets, and the people I thought this is much like my walk to the dambo itself. It’s filled with twists and turns, moments of life and death that somehow bring people together.

As I abide in Malawi in a lovely home high on a hill (nambo in Tambuka) it is clear to me that my life is very permanent. My home and church are not in danger when the rains come. To abide in a place is to remain for a time along the way. My life is being punctuated by a time of abiding. To abide in Mpini’s house, to be her grandchild is to live a life that is somehow always abiding, dwelling in the impermanence and fragility. As you read this know that Mpini is praying for you and giving thanks for the people of Watertown.

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