Preaching in Bandawe is always an adventure. Rev. Gondwe doesn’t stand on a lot of protocol in terms of order. If you are taking the service he pretty much throws you in. So I was prepared for nothing being prepared when arrived to preach on Sunday.
Some might consider the lack of preparation Malawians bring to their life a kind of laziness, or at least a lack of appreciation for details. There is some of that. Malawians will be quick to castigate each other for being lazy. When I hear this I know I am in another culture. “Lazy” in America is a pretty serious accusation. We work hard to use it sparingly and restricting it to a specific event. A second grader may be told that their lack of effort on a project was “lazy”, but if that teacher were to tell a parent their child is lazy, there may be some sparks.
Yet it is nothing for a Malawian to chastise a colleague for being lazy, for a pastor to exhort a congregation not to be lazy, and I have read in the national press calls by the President for the people to rise above laziness. I can’t imagine President Bush suggesting the rebound of our economy hinges upon our ability to not be lazy.
My text for the morning was John 15, the Abide in Me passage. The sermon emerging from this passage had two purposes. The first was to explain why I didn’t come to the lakeshore for my sabbatical. There had already been some confusion when I appeared in June. Bandawe was for all intents and purposes the place where I felt at home. Why wouldn’t I come home if I were going to live for 10 weeks in Malawi?
Abiding I explained is about not being at home, its about losing your home or giving it up: it is about being displaced. The Holy Spirit told me, I said, if you want to understand abiding you need to go to Mchengatuba. As this was the promise I made to my home congregation (I will spend the summer learning what it means to abide), I felt bound to follow the direction. At this point I interjected the story of Jonah saying this is where I wanted to be. All the Malawians needed was the reference and they got the point. When I told them I was a bit nervous when I get too close to the lake as the fish are quite large, they really laughed.
The second point of the sermon was what I learned about abiding in Mchengatuba; I learned about sange. Working from the theory that in Bandawe there is a greater sense of community and deeper family relationships that keep sange more at bay, I told the congregation that most likely sange was not a problem here. There was a lot of chatter as I continued. (Perhaps there is not as much community as I thought.)
As the service was winding down, Gondwe went to the lectern and gave an impromtu sermonette about sange. In fact he said sange is not a problem in this congregation, but it is a huge problem in the presbytery. Again the ladies from Northern New York were being given a glimpse of Malawi you don’t see on safari. Gondwe went into great detail about his experience of sange.
After the service two men from the church approached me as we waited for lunch. They wanted to expand my understanding of sange. “You see, we’ve heard about Mchengatuba. It happens,” he said, “because people believe they will get rich if they go to the U.S. They believe they will come back with pockets full of money and extravagant gifts. And when they don’t their friends and family believe they are holding things back from them.”
With this the wires started to cross. One of the parts I truly admire in this culture is that if you have something you share it. There are no “leftovers” here. If you come into some money, you don’t save it, you help others. Some might suggest the down side of this is that it erodes initiative. The sense of dependence doesn’t work well with the motivation necessary to succeed, say, in business or in a career. A shop owner who “shares” all their goods is quickly out of business.
Yet the person who does work and does succeed and saves money in this culture becomes a kind of cultural deviant. And so in Mchengatuba as someone succeeds and they don’t simply “share” but save or invest, they are in a cultural sense out of step, or in moral categories, doing what is wrong.
Now the picture of a twenty year old who concocts a story about a second check from the U.S. and seeks to claim money given to the church has some clarity. They were supposed to come back rich. If they don’t get some money some place no one will believe them when they say, they don’t have any thing to share. And the idea that someone’s success is only a real blessing when it’s shared.
It was about responsibility, Rev. Nkhoma said.
Linda Potter asked him to explain how someone like Grace, a professional with tons of connections who is now running for parliament, was still without the leverage necessary to keep her in-laws from cleaning her out. How will this end was Linda’s point.
Rev. Nkhoma never ceases to amaze me how he can clarify a cultural issue using history and how Malawi has changed in the last thirty years.
“Before the cash economy,” he said, “a man had a hoe, an ax, maybe a canoe or some nets. These were his ‘possessions.’ This is what he used to provide food for his family. When he died and his brother came to take them, he was saying, in essence, ‘I will uses these to provide for you as your husband did.’ Taking the possessions were a promise that he would be responsible for his sister in law and his nieces and nephews. He would use the hoe to bring them a harvest; he would use the canoe to bring them fish. In taking them he was keeping them alive and now seeing them as his own. It was about responsibility.”
In the last twenty years, arguably, Malawi has moved more and more from a purely subsistence economy, where cash was very scarce, to a cash based economy. People are still very much involved with subsistence, but with an ever present element of supplementing their income.
The first three weeks we were in Malawi, Sam kept apologizing for the absence of his mother. She is in Msimba. What she was doing was bringing in their crops. They live in an urban place with everyone looking for work, but they also have crops in a field in their home village. The crops are brought in to feed their family through the year, but you can’t live on nsima. You need more. In Mchengatuba that means you need cash.
Cash, while it is becoming more and more a part of the culture, is still hard to come by. You may need to send your husband to South Africa to work; you may need to pick tea at abysmal wages; you can try your hand at “business.” With any luck you will succeed. With success comes cash and with cash comes stuff. It is not uncommon to find a television in a Malawian home. It only gets the one free channel of bizarre public television but it’s on all day. It’s not uncommon with success for someone to have furniture in their living room, a stereo. They have stuff.
I will never forget being in a home in Kabwanda. It was a mud house with mud floors and rough openings for windows. There was no furniture. Everyone slept on the floor. But in the corner was a television and a stereo run off a car battery. The husband was in South Africa.
Now, when a husband dies (which is very common for the men coming back from South Africa; you can get a job there, but you will most likely become infected with HIV/AIDS as well), when a husband dies, his brother doesn’t come to take on his job in South Africa, he comes for his stereo. When a brother dies who had a good job in a city, his brothers don’t come for his hoe and his canoe, but the dining room set.
Sange, when coupled with a cash economy, quickly eliminated the role of responsibility that came with the collections of a brother’s possessions. The only problem is that the widow is now just left without anything. And if sange is really in play, she is left homeless as the husband’s family takes over his house and kicks out his wife and children.
It’s hard to say when this became a norm. I want to say I am just scratching the surface of a huge cultural shift. Hopefully this is a bad phase, a cultural crisis that will find a resolution. I hope.
As August is closing in our time has started to take on shape.
The first three weeks, phase one, were a kind of crash course, bronchitis fueled, struggle. There were a number of moments where Kathy and I wondered if a sabbatical where I explored my interest in the ancient near east or Italian food may have been more “sabbath” like.
Sitting at the American Embassy yesterday we rehashed this. The intent of the trip was to deepen my understanding of Malawi and it’s culture so our mission work would have greater clarity and purpose, but also for my family to share this direction. If we are going to keep working with the Malawians, especially raise a Malawian child, we need to understand what this means as a family.
In phase one, I don’t believe we achieved these objectives. What we encountered in the first three weeks was what it meant for Americans to live in Malawi. The McGills offered this picture in spades. They made clear all the hidden costs, the web of decorum and protocol that defines a culture that cannot begin a meeting on time, and the many of the dangers. A part of me wonders if we were too informed. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Yet, I am glad we had these pictures as the success is much sweeter each time we navigate the dangers.
Phase one was also just really, really stressful. Driving in Malawi is not something you come to enjoy in a few weeks. Just last night as we drove from Lilongwe to Mzuzu the car in front us had to dodge a violent brawl and then a nearly run over a drunken man who staggered into oncoming traffic. That’s just the extra fun of one drive. The usual subjects of stress (livestock, bikes, tobacco trucks, pedestrians, children playing, potholes that are crater like) are just part of getting from here to there.
Phase two was about being hosts. The ladies from New York arrived with our “girls”. All of sudden we had two groups we were keeping track of. Laura, Zoe, Beka, and Chelsea had one schedule and the widow’s group had another. They all did great and were a blessing, but all of sudden we were interpreting Malawi to others instead of trying to understand for ourselves.
In this we did learn a great deal about what it means for us to do mission in Malawi. And my family has now had a profound experience. The fellowship of friends from home also diffused some of the stress of immersion. It was during this time that “sange” started to emerge. I truly don’t believe I would have ever begun to understand this complex layer of Malawian culture on a two week visit. It came first as a warning from the McGills, “sange is a big problem here.” And then it came like a tidal wave, a kind of cathartic eruption in the village of Mchengatuba.
And now we are heading into the last phase. What it will hold is starting to emerge. It seems as if we are finally ready to just enjoy the people and the places. Our guard isn’t completely down, but we are heading into the fruit of abiding. Jesus said in John 15 “abide in me.” He said this on the night of arrest; he said this to people just before he was crucified. And John wrote this to Christians who were being expelled from their church home and thrown into the chaos of being displaced. Yet, John 15:11 says, I say this to you so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” This to me is the other side of abiding.
I am not sure what form this may take, but it seems to be the theme of phase three. Abiding is about being displaced, and enduring, and trusting in the midst of chaos; yet, it is also the mysterious way in which joy is to emerge. Again, abiding is word that doesn’t disappoint. There is a reason John chose this image as a way of defining the church. As I look to understand what it means for the church to be in mission, abiding seems to provide a powerful answer.