It was my third trip to Kabwanda.
Two years ago Grace took us out to see this remote village as way of understanding the way the hospital must go to the people in order to combat malaria. Two hours into the bush and the car getting stuck in a ravine let me see the reason hospital must go to the people.
Kabwanda, once you get there, is lovely. They have a nice school, maize mill, and a church under construction. (They have the iron sheets and trusses so it’s just a matter of time. There pastor just died so the matter may be a bit complicated.) The newest addition to Kabwanda was the construction of a clinic. Grace turned to me and said, “you built this.” By “you” she meant America. “I don’t take credit for the federal government,” I said, “but I will pass on your sentiments.”
The latest loss, other than the pastor, is the headmaster, Kenneth. Kenneth has been reassigned and there is a new man. Where Kenneth was very down to earth and personable, the new man headmaster is reserved and somewhat formal. Formal seems a bit strange in Kabwanda.
We traveled out with the widow’s group from the US. Upon our arrival hundreds of children surrounded the cars. One kid caught my eye: he was wearing a small box as a hat. Malawians carry every thing on their head, so a box on someone’s head wasn’t strange. What was strange was that the box was turned upside down.
After the tour of the new clinic where everyone enjoyed the sight of the weighing station for infants we headed back to the school for a time of song and dance.
We opened up with speeches of course. The Canton ladies have the speeches down. Katrina, especially, gets right into the spirit and seems to enjoy the give and take. (Although they all turned a bit ashen when they were told the “sermon” time is awaiting them on Sunday.)
After the speeches there were poems and women’s dances. Almost all the ladies at one point or another were brought into the circle to dance with the women of the village. The drummers would slow between each song and then pick up a new rhythm, this rhythm would be matched with a new step. There would be a moment of chaos as our ladies would look for a leader to follow as the new direction started.
The highlight of the dancing though was the Ngoni dances we had learned to enjoy from the choir. The boys came out in the warrior dress and started singing the chants that, at least for me, seem ever in my head. Rev. Hara jumped in and joined the boys and kept perfect pace.
As we were driving away Laura reminded me of what Grace told her last year. Half of Kabwanda has HIV/AIDS. “It’s crazy to see the happiness with the dancing and the singing and know what they are facing.”
I field tested a theory tonight. We were at Sam’s house for dinner. His father and I were deep into an hour long discussion regarding the church and my time there when we drifted into the visits and the question of “sange.”
After he affirmed the depth of the challenge and spoke about how it related to our recent challenges with the choir, I asked him this. “It seems that Mchengatuba is unique in that when I go to the bush, like Kabwanda it’s ‘same, same, same.’ When I go to the neighborhood where the McGills are at it is ‘same, same, same.’ But here in Mchengatuba there is a lot of difference. There are some with very little, some with a little more, and then some with a good deal more. Do you think that makes sange more powerful here?
Yes. It is more powerful here.
The conversation then drifted back to the church and its dynamic. The church like the village itself is complex. It is a young congregation, but it has a seasoned pastor. Rev. Hara served six congregations before this one and he was not swayed as easily as some would have thought.
Mr. Chirwa related a session meeting where some of his detractors aired their grievances (mainly that he wouldn’t give them the roof money). “When they were done,” and at this point Sam’s dad offered the dialogue in a great impression of Rev. Hara, “I’ve very much enjoyed your talking. You talk and talk and talk.” I can see Norman saying just this.
“People are always surprised when someone stands their ground.” Mr. Chirwa’s eye got a bit bigger. “Yes. Yes, they were surprised.”
He went on to describe the conversations Norman has related to him regarding our time. Norman and I have spoken about the way you must see the church as not your own, but at the same time stand firm for what you believe is right. Doing what is right for the church is not always popular or serves the interests of people who feel entitled that some part of the church be theirs to control or be to their benefit.
And then I brought it full circle with the choir. “I don’t believe the choir was the reason for the problems,” I said. “I believe they uncovered problems that were already there.”
“Yes. They were already there.”
“That is why I must visit every family.” He nodded in agreement. It would be very easy for the sange that swept some of the choir members after their return could fall back on them in spades. In Malawi, envy is not just wanting what someone else has it is wishing them harm because they have you want.
Talking with Mr. Chirwa my fear that has lingered without a name came to the fore. I was afraid that a juvenile mistake on their behalf would bear the brunt of mistakes much more profound. At the end of our conversation this is where we lingered. And I think this is what made him believe what I said when I promised to keep working with Mchengatuba. “The choir was door, not an end. We need to keep working together, to build a partnership. It wasn’t the intent of the choir, but their foolishness has actually brought us together in deep way.”
Whatever happens I am finding sange to be quite a window.
An Abiding Thought
A wise man once described grief as relearning the world. Well, no one has died- that is the good news, but I feel like I am relearning the world.
When you move to a new town you need to learn the roads and major thoroughways and what not. Here I needed to learn how to drive. I’ve got the roads down. There are not that many. I am even learning the spider web of Mchengatuba and in our drive out to Kabwanda I was proud that I remembered the way. It’s not directions I needed to learn, its how to drive in the midst of madness.
Tonight I told Mr. Chirwa, I am getting the intersection after the dambo down. “You need to watch the bike taxis to see if they are going to look before turning. That’s the key.” He smiled in a way that said I was actually learning. But it’s not just the bikes, it’s the people, and if you are driving in the afternoon, it’s the kids getting out of school. A little later it’s the people getting out of work. And then at six it’s all the people coming home late from work because they went shopping. Ten o’clock in the morning is the safest time to drive. Other than that, you are on your own.
Shopping here for Kathy is not just finding the right store; it’s learning a whole other way of finding what a family of nine needs. I love the central market, but that’s because I take my camera not a shopping list. Add to this she isn’t shopping for what she will make, but what Mr. Nyasula needs. It’s not a list really, but a whole new relationship with food and commerce and people.
I love the fact that Mr. Nyasula makes tea whenever I carry in the teapot. I’ve actually dreamed that at some point in my life this would be the case: hot beverages would just be made for me all day long- although in the dream it was with coffee, but that doesn’t matter. Yet, even this perk is balanced by putting together the butter sandwiches and tea for the watchman at night. It is the easiest thing in the world, but it just changes the way I end an evening. For twenty one years my day was done when children are tucked in. Now it’s not done until I take three tea bags and put them in an orange plastic cup with a spoon. Again, it doesn’t seem like much, but it is a kind of relearning, recalibrating. I end my day with a man over a small charcoal fire who more often than not refers to me as “master.” (Yeah, that one is as weird as it sounds.)
The more I have reflected upon I John and what he meant by abiding in Christ, the more I am convinced that he was calling upon early Christians to relearn their world. They were being thrown out of the synagogue by people they thought they knew, hated for proclaiming a message of love, and trying desperately to understand what it meant that Jesus was alive after he died. These three changed everything. With them they lost their culture, their safety, and any semblance of an order.
Abiding, by its definition, is trying to rest in a foreign place. Abiding isn’t about being at home, but finding the sense of home when you are lost, traveling, or otherwise displaced. To abide is to be at peace when you are a stranger or estranged.
I wish I could say this is why I chose to come to Malawi, but its not. I thought abiding was about not leaving home. Trying to find the opposite I stumbled into what it actually is. This is what I have come to call the Holy Spirit: finding your way home while being lost the whole way. Stumbling into this place we have lost our culture, often times the feeling of ease which is what we feel when we are safe, and any notion of order.
This is where the people were at when John was speaking and he said, abide in God. I asked God that I would understand what abiding means. You must be careful for what you wish.
Now here is the good news. Abiding is for a time. That is the really crazy insight that has took hold this week. Abiding in God is not forever. When John records Jesus as saying, abide in me, he isn’t saying move in and stay. He is staying weather the storm in me, find refuge in me; pitch a tent, but don’t build a house.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says, the eternal has been put inside of us, but we don’t understand it. I read “I abide in me” and sense it was Jesus I immediately jumped to forever. What is eternal is tough to grasp and where it can be found is tough to find.
Abiding is all about getting through the problem. Each of us has had a moment where you needed help and then you say, “I am fine now, I can do the rest.” Abiding is the moment where you needed the help; it’s not the rest.
We can recast the words of Jesus in John to be this: when you need to abide, abide in me. This is what we implore our friends, if you need something, call me.
And this is where abiding starts to become clear and really dicey. It ceases to be a kind of “serenity now” place we just find, or a kind of magic power to endure. It’s all about friendship. And it’s about trust.
When people lose the ones they love the weight of the loss is poignant in friendship and trust. When you have defined the world with someone, through someone, and then you lose that person, you need people to help you relearn the world. In the end you will need people who will help you abide in the midst of grief and come out on the other side. Without being too reductionary: you need a friend you can trust. If you read John 14-18 you find a lot about friendship and trust being spoken by someone who would die in 24 hours.