Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bank

The Opportunity International Bank is there for people who are living in extreme poverty. It’s their motto, their purpose. In spite of this I was suspicious. Malawians I had spoken to expressed disdain that the rates were too high the terms too short for them.

We went to the Mzuzu Branch which has been up and running for the last four months. The location of the bank is wonderful: it’s right in the heart of the business district of the town, not far from the central market. It was as if they were saying, we want to be in the middle of everything, where the people are.

This was the exterior. The interior seemed to argue the opposite. There was a tiny waiting room with one window to a teller. One chair in the waiting room didn’t suggest a homey feel. In fact, it suggested you won’t be here for long so don’t get comfortable.

True to form we were not there for long. Linda Potter, Katrina Hebb, Rita Gefell, and Heather White and I were whisked from room to room until we came to land in the big conference center. (Maybe that’s the point. Once inside, you are made to feel like you are really in.)

The ladies were there representing the Widow’s Fund; I was there to offer interpretations. It takes a while to learn the nuances of a Malawian negotiation. For instance, a Malawian will say yes and agree to things they have absolutely no desire to agree to or to offer, but it is more polite to say yes. Usually it takes about three stabs at an issue, coming at it from different angles, before you can be sure that what is being said is what is really meant. It may sound strange or untruthful, but it is not intended to be.

We were greeted by Wilson and Peter, the branch manager and the lead loan officer. We offered general chitchat for a time. The conversation was staying in the “this is what we are here to do” category, so I decided to up the ante a bit. “This is what we are looking for: we would like to develop a relationship with groups or individuals whose business has a positive impact on widows or empowers widows to move out of extreme poverty. We would like to invest between 5-10k annually for loans that would have a more generous rate than you are offering and with longer terms. Our funds would be more of a first step for widows, a kind of venture capital. We would like you to work with them and our organization so we don’t reinvent the wheel of micro finance.”

I told Linda Potter later that this was the point I thought we would be given a polite invitation to leave. Most organizations work hard to establish a focus and a set of goals, and Opportunity Bank is very much in this ilk. They are there for the establishment of small businesses that need a short term loan to improve their business. That they do this without real collateral or the markers a traditional bank likes to see, and that they offer business training with their loans that far outweighs the value they receive in debt service is what makes them a radical and promising element. But they are not there for the person who just wants some money or for the people who are just getting started. And that, unfortunately, is where our widows can be found.

I told Linda, “this is when I thought they would start talking about their goals and giving us a sense of ‘if you want to work with us this is what we offer,’ but they said the opposite.” They did. They said, we want to work with you.

Now it could be that we are taking all the risk and they are getting a very nice screening of future clients, but such things are not always enticing enough for a company to work outside their box. “And the widows of Mchengatuba are outside the box,” I told Peter and Wilson at the end of our meeting.

Leaving the meeting Wilson offered to come and meet our groups we have identified as potential “clients” for micro lending. This was big- he wanted to come to come to Mchengatuba and meet the widows- this was probably the biggest step we have seen with the fund so far. I love being wrong when its something like this. And I was wrong.

Later that evening Sam Chirwa told me, “I don’t think they would have invited Grace and me to the big conference room.” “Partnership, Sam. Partnership seems to open doors.” He smiled.

Micro lending sounds glorious until you start to walk through places like Mchengatuba and you see the complexity of extreme poverty. When I met with the women who want to open a chicken and egg business they were very transparent about the dangers that would arise. Getting along with each other, profit sharing, securing their merchandise from the constant threat of theft, and on and on. Despite this, though, they are hungry for a chance.

And their chance is $700 U.S. for two years. This is what we will try to develop for them next week. The interest rate is yet to be determined, but it will be lower than the 12% for four months the Opportunity Bank would have offered them. It may not sound like a lot, but it represents two years of income for the average Malawian. Take your annual salary, double it, and think about trying to repay it in four months. That’s daunting.

Sange #5
I was excited when Katrina volunteered to preach. In four years of doing this, she is the first layperson who said, “preach? I’ll do it.” That was nice.

What was better was her sermon. She preached like a Malawian and then in pure revival fashion had them demonstrate their understanding of the sermon with an act of devotion. She asked Rev. Hara if she could stay. He said yes.

Katrina took the Tambuka service and I took the English one. The English service is shorter and more staid. I wanted her to experience the pure chaos that is Tambuka worship. My hunch was that she would blend; I think its one of the few guesses I’ve made lately that panned out. She told me, “I’ve preached six times before and it always takes me like 20 hours to prepare.” I just grinned and gave a Malawian grunt, “uhhh.”

I had shared with the Widow’s Group the experience with “sange” and how it is so pervasive in Malawian culture. There is a sense of wanting others to fall who have gained so to equalize them, return them to their place in misery with everyone else. Mchengatuba, I theorized, seems unique as there are so many layers here for sange to take hold.

The passages I selected for the early service were the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis Six) and the reflection of I John on the passage (I John 3:11-17). It was my intent to suggest that Mchengatuba could mirror John experience of being cast from the synagogue when they move to their new sanctuary. “My hope for you is that when you leave this sanctuary you leave all the sange here.”

Katrina took the same passages and preached a metaphor of planting seeds and caterpillars to butterflies. At one point she said, “do you have butterflies here?” I leaned over to Rev. Hara and said, “isn’t Malawi known as the ‘Butterfly Capital of the World?’” He nodded. Unless it was rhetorical she had stumbled onto a deep point of contract.

At the end of my sermon a choir jumped up and sang a “sange” anthem; at the end of Katrina’s they were waiting with a kind of reggae jumping “sange” song. Needless to say the message connected. A part of me had been reluctant to preach repentance here. The voice inside my head said, “who are you?” At the end of the services there was a new voice that said, “isn’t the voice of the stranger revealing?”

After the first service Lusako made a point to come up to me and say thanks for the message. Man, Malawi never disappoints in the keeping you on your toes.

After the second service we had lunch at the manse. During the time of speech making I made a point to say, it’s time for some visits, visits that may not be pleasant. “I’ve learned through Malawi that important things can come from hard ones. Grace was cleaned out and from this a widows fund was born; I was going to spend my sabbatical in Chivumu on the lakeshore, but when I heard of all the troubles that were coming to Grace and Rev. Hara I came to Mchengatuba and I am glad I did.”
In the same way sange, which is bad and evil and destructive has unwittingly created a door to enter the heart of this hard scrabble shanty town which is blessed and cursed with a young church.

Timing is Everything

In the early ‘90s as Banda was divesting himself of power as a 30 year dictator, Dr. Fred and Nella Stone came to Malawi. They came at just the right time.

In 2005 I made my first trip to Malawi. This was beginning of Bingu’s presidency and hopefully the first of two terms. It was a hard time to come to Malawi as it was reeling from three solid years of drought and ten years of mismanagement by Muwezi. Each year as I have returned it was as if the country has been healed, reawakened, made to live again. As Bob Dylan said, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

One of my side projects this summer has been to scout the lay of the land for the presbytery of Northern New York as they are set to reestablish their partnership with the Synod of Livingstonia in 2009. A few days ago it hit me, the presbytery just never got a good break. And it was nothing more than timing. They started with a joint business venture that went bust and tried to develop their partnership with the North at a time when politically, economically, socially, and even physically Malawi was at it’s lowest ebb. They came at just the wrong time.

In 2003, I heard Rev. Nkhoma preach in Peru, New York. His message was very simple, things are getting very crazy. The Libyians are trying to steal the election and Muwezi is trying to rewrite the constitution to be another Banda, but this time turn Malawi into the kind of place we see in The Sudan. Not good.

Sitting in the pew I distinctly remember thinking, “are you out of your mind? A small presbytery in Northern New York is going to wade into an African presidential election to thwart the designs of radical Islam? Not a chance.” I’ve said before and will say again, I am now ready to say, do you need me to campaign, give money, politic? I am ready for all the above. What a difference five years and four trips to Malawi has made.

In 2009 the Presbytery of Northern New York will send a group to “discern” whether or not to renew its partnership with the Synod of Livingstonia. This could be the best of times or the worst of times. The determining factor will be how much it wants to help the North fight off the influence of radical Islam in Africa and who the new General Secretary will be. But if it comes unprepared to stand in solidarity with the challenge Libya and others represents, its overtures will be met as nothing more than cash. And you want to be much more than cash here. You do.

At the home of Mr. Mkandawire this became flesh. “We pray for you since 9/11.” This is good, but what is better is the Malawians in the North do more than pray. They work to protect their country from becoming the place where the next terrorist cell emerges. That’s a lot of hard work.

Next summer the presbytery of Northern New York will send a group to “discern.” I hope when they come they have a good idea of the stakes. For in 2009 the stakes will be high.

The stakes are so high I will encourage my congregation and others in the presbytery who are deeply invested in Malawi to negotiate partnership agreements of their own. The reason: an organization that meets four times a year with spotty attendance of its members might not be prepared to move as quickly and as intentionally as our “partners” might need. This will not prove popular on the U.S. side, but so be it. For me it’s a question of timing. Now is not the time for bureaucratic slow play. I believe Malawi will grow and human rights will prosper and people in extreme poverty will rise beyond it with democracy. In 2009 Malawi will choose if this is the course it will take. What a time to be in the midst. In such a moment its good to remember: timing is everything.

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