Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Opportunity Bank Came to Mchengatuba.

I am still trying to convince myself this happened. When Linda Potter wrote me months ago and said she would like to hook up with the folks from the Opportunity Bank when she is in Malawi, I thought, that will be nice. Futile, but nice.

In the last few years I have become a bit jaded about any preexisting organization. I don’t want to sound like a paranoid, on the fringe protester, but I have lost a bit of confidence in the “institution.” If I am not growing it, making it from scratch, or doing it myself, why bother? This has become my question after trying to start with the larger group, the denomination, the established folk. So the idea of trying to bring in an established bank into our fledgling widows organization sounded like recipe for frustration.

In the last too weeks of working with them the experience has been anything but. In fact things have really got cooking was a whole lot of progress and wonderful . . . well . . . opportunities. The first bit of progress was that the local Roman Catholic priest who heads up the benevolence ministries of the diocese said he would love to come with the staff member who works in Mchengatuba for a meeting with the Opportunity Bank and our Widows Organiztion. And the local Presbyterian pastor said, “I don’t know the priest but I would like to meet him.” They were both really excited about the Opportunity Bank coming out to Mchengatuba; and at the end of the meeting they both agreed to work with us.

When we actually all sat down with the branch manager and the loan officer (Wilson and Peter) the excitement continued. The more we talked about setting up a local committee that would seek out and screen potential micro credit clients, and this committee would recommend projects to a widows organization board, and this board would have the choice of offering an endorsement to the bank made everyone excited. “And the bank is not bound,” I said, “to make loans simply because we endorse them, but simply sees our approval as a recommendation.” There were lots of nods around the living room of Grace Chiumia.

A little more than a year ago Grace and I were sitting in the living room of Jim and Jodi McGill where we negotiated the first step of the “widows fund” as it was then called. Grace was quick to suggest micro lending and everyone said, too soon, too early. I still believe that was the case. The biggest reason we gave Grace then not to rush into micro credit is that you don’t want to be a bank.

Yesterday that is exactly what I said to the folks from the Opportunity Bank. “I don’t want to be you; I am pastor; I don’t want to be a banker.” But I would love for the some of the funds that have been donated to help widows in Malawi be utilized as micro credit loans. They are eager for a chance to move out of extreme poverty and a micro loan has proven a very effective tool to do just that.

After our quasi board meeting, Wilson and Peter met with two groups of widows and discussed the potential of one selling beans in the market and another selling poultry in Mchengatuba. I am not sure of the outcome of these discussions, but I do know what came of their meeting with Grace and her business partner, Sam Chirwa, to discuss the next step for the preschool they have opened: pre-approved. That was a great sign given that we have not yet deposited any money in the Opportunity Bank.

When I am wrong I tend to be really wrong. How great it has been to be really wrong about this one.

The Malawian Lens

Linda Potter is a “mama molesia.” In the U.S. she is a life coach, a business woman, a Christian, a mother of three, Mike’s wife and much more. But in Malawi, she is “mama molesia” (the pastor’s wife).

Being a pastor’s wife in sub-Saharan Africa carries an enormous amount of weight and responsibility. A pastor’s house, or manse, is part conference center, part vestry, part city hall/dining hall, and, when it’s not being used for these, a home run by the mama molesia. Most families in Malawi have between six to eight children. Add to this being a pastor means you have a steady job with an income so you are obliged to raise nephews, nieces, and grandchildren in addition to your own.

I am not sure if Linda would let it go uncontested in the U.S. that she is “just the pastor’s wife.” In fact most people in Canton who know her wouldn’t let that stand, but in Malawi, “mama molesia” is enough said. The crowd always ooohs when her title is given.

It is a safe guess that Linda, and her seven travel companions from Northern New York, weren’t ready for the way they would be interpreted as they sought to interpret the fledgling widow’s fund that was begun in Watertown in 2006. Yet again and again I have watched them see themselves through the lens of Malawian eyes.

“Mzungu” is the most common title they each have received. Mzungu is the word for “white person.” At the village of Mzenga as they listened to political speeches for an upcoming parliament seat, their white skin was mentioned numerous times as a kind of shocking occurrence. That white people would come to Mzenga was hard to fathom. With my family and the ladies altogether, we equaled 15 mzungu. One or two would have brought the village; fifteen brought people from all 32 areas of this remote nook of Africa.

To be seen as an honored guest, to be as someone who needs a seat on the dais, to be praised as a kind of wonder of the world is to be seen through a different lens than these ladies are use accustomed. (Later that day, a persistent comment was, “now we know what it means to be hounded by the paparazzi.)

Yet, perhaps the most profound and new way of being seen was to be seen as the one who can bring about a new world.

During the rally, a young person was invited to give a list of grievances. It was a moment to make a pitch to the visitors. The young man chosen to speak made two requests: they need an ambulance and they need a high school. You can’t walk to any hospital and many kids are walking more than five miles to school each way. Now the first one is approximately $50,000. I know as First Presbyterian in Watertown “topped up” the funding for one this year. A secondary school . . . I want to say is somewhere between $75,000 - $200,000. (That’s quite a bargain for an entire school when you remember your last levy and what it bought.)

I am not sure if the ladies from Watertown and Canton fully understood that they were being asked to fund these projects, but in fact, that is exactly what was happening. They were seen as the ones who can bring these things to Mzenga.

The longer I spend time in Malawi the more this interpretation challenges me. My first response is to laugh when I think of how little chance there is that I could just write a check for $50,000 let alone four times that amount. Yet, the real challenge of these kinds of requests is the knowledge that “we” can bring this about if we chose. If we believe it is the right thing to do, we could very easily transform Mzenga with an ambulance or a school. It is really far within the realm of the possible.

I hope at some point each one of the ladies from Watertown and Canton will begin to see themselves as the Malawians see them. They are hope; they are someone you can ask to change the world. And this world looks a lot different when you realize what a difference you could make if you chose to try. It doesn’t look easy, but it does look doable. At least one young man in Mzenga truly hopes they see the world the way he does.

DPP Oye!

The district political leader shouted, DPP oye!
And the crowd responded, “Oye!”
“Dpp, oye!” he charged them again.
And then he introduced the candidate, “Grace Chiumia, oye!”
“Oye!” They answered with a frenzy.

The ladies from Northern New York (Heather White, Rita Gefell, Rene Waterbury, and Liz Bonisteel of Watertown; Linda Potter, Vicky McClean, Katrina Hebb, and Ellen Grayson of Canton) had strayed a bit from the standard tourist path. Malawi often presents these “alternative” tours and a political rally supporting their friend Grace Chiumia for a seat in parliament is definitely off the beaten path most visitors trod in the warm heart of Africa.

In March of this year Grace came to Watertown and Canton to prepare the ladies for the trip to Malawi in July. The purpose of their trip was to interpret the widow’s organization Grace has developed with our funds. Upon her arrival in the North Country she was quick to broach an issue with me: with how I would feel about her running for parliament? Would I see this as a good thing?

Her face lit as I said, “you are the sort of person Malawi needs to build the future. Do you need me to make speeches? I will do it.” We laughed at this, but I wasn’t joking. I had all confidence that during my sabbatical, at some point, I would be saying, “vote for Grace” to a crowd of Malawians.

True to form, after a two hour drive into the bush and with all the introductions made to the few thousand people who had gathered on the football “pitch” in Mzenga; after all the people went wild seeing my wife, daughters, and the “ladies” from New York wrapped in chintengis (bright cloth worn as a skirt) imprinted with the face of the president of Malawi, I began my speech.

I asked if the people could help me understand the politics of Malawi. Were there politicians here who liked to hear their voice? Were their politicians who lined their pockets? Were their politicians who just like to sleep instead of work? To each query the Malawians gave a tentative “yes.” They didn’t know exactly where I was going with this. Should they tell the visitor their real interpretations?

Finally I said, are their politicians who will work hard, not make promises they can’t keep, and give their life so others would see a better future? Before they could answer I said, “look no further here is one.”

I explained my relationship to Grace and her selflessness. But what truly needed to be said was spoken before all the speeches: she is someone who brings the unimaginable- a whole band of Americans to a remote village; she delivers a group of American’s to Mzenga of all places, a group whose only motive was to help the most vulnerable in their midst the widows. That is gold in Malawi. I am pretty sure I really didn’t need to stump, but there would have been great confusion had I not spoken. No matter. Malawians love speeches. And if the truth be told I would do it again, and most likely will. “Vote for Grace; vote for Grace!” I said before I sat back down.

The frenzy of the thousands, the five different speeches, the dancing, the singing, the dramas, were just a bit different for the visitor. This was not a church event; this was not a business meeting: this was a rally. Again and again I spied our “ladies” and my family; their eyes were wide.

As we left the rally, it was clear that we were in a different place. The van with the ladies was bedecked with three boys would had jumped on the bumper for a ride. As we drove away through the dispersing crowed they kept shouting in Tonga, “Grace has already won; Grace has already won.” This I hope is a true prediction of the vote count. Yet, as bizarre as the scene was for the ladies, as much as they might have wondered what other world they had stumbled into, it was clear they were a part of the hoped for victory, a part of something amazing.

“DPP, oye!”

What do you like most about Malawi?

That was Katrina Hebb’s question to me as we drove out of Mzenga in the rain through the tea plantation.

I thought and thought and thought and finally said, “I’ve never thought of it; I’ve never asked myself that question.”

Now if she had asked what are the things you like about Malawi . . . no problem. Beer is cheaper than water. People say yes and no when answering one question in the same breath. The lakeshore. The way a conversation is a kind of expectation and an art. I love that being in a hurry is really distressing to people. Although it has taken awhile to learn how to enjoy it, I find great pleasure that all plans are tentative and subject to great delays and postponement with non chalance.

This list can go on and on. But what was the one thing I like the most? The dirt road was very slick so I needed to watch where I was going, but soon the answer came to me. “What I like the most is that you can change things, make a difference and its not Herculean, its not beyond everyone’s imagination. You can build an entire school for a fraction of the cost of a house in the U.S.” In fact a school is about the cost of a luxury car, maybe a little less.

My visits to Malawi and this thing I like the most has come with a cost. Now, as I go about my day and face the choices of life I am presented with a question carved in relief from the extreme poverty of Africa: do you really need this? The answer is most often “no.” I don’t need new golf clubs; I want them, but I don’t need them. I don’t need more clothes; I need to give away more than half of what I already have. I certainly don’t need a twenty dollar bottle of Le Crema pinot noir. (Well that is unless I am making the petit peas and pepper bacon carbonara. Paradox always has a place where wine is concerned.)

The tension of this question is a result of counting kwatcha. The exchange rate in Malawi right now is 140MK/1US. A bottle of beer is 50MK- thirty-five cents. A night at a beach resort with breakfast included 3,500MK or $25. I bought a lovely wooden bowl today for $10. Something like this would sell for $50 in the US or more. My point is that a daily part of life in Malawi for an American is to count kwatcha. Usually your are left with an impression: it can’t cost that little.

The glory of the bargain, though, wears off when I realize I pay each of our staff less than $50 per month for full-time employment. All of sudden the bowl which I got for a steal represents nearly a week’s wage. I think of what I earn a week and consider “would I buy a bowl for that?”

I wouldn’t but I am starting to think I don’t want to buy an athletic field for a high school for a million dollars either. I balked when the wood carver started the bowl at twenty dollars. “Please, please,” I said, “be reasonable.” Such a price is gouging; it was. Yet, what about Chivumu Primary school and their desire for a “football pitch” (soccer field)? Would I balk if they needed $1,000? No. Would I wonder if they could get it cheaper or if they really need it? No. $1,000 is doable, a great investment in a community.

Counting kwatcha has given rise to what I love most about Malawi: you can make a difference here for under a million. You can build an entire school for under $50,000. You can build dormitories, auditoriums, churches for something close. The annual cost for the malaria program at Ekwendeni is less than $4000.

It’s not the bargain that has the greatest appeal; it’s how it reminds me and inspires me to do something. “You can do it” is what I hear so often in Malawi. That the Holy Spirit says this to me is like the bottle of pinot noir, quite a paradox.

Abiding in Malawi is powerful. It upsets the apple cart in ways that need upsetting. We need to see our opulence and our decadence as unacceptable. Unacceptable not because someone else could use our money or needs our stuff or can be helped if we just didn’t buy $50,000 cars. We need to see it as a choice on our part. Can we make a better choice?

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