To Get a Visa
After the choir sang their last concert in Bennington, Vermont we went for a walk the next morning. There is a great obelisk with a view of the surrounding valleys Scott Barton said we needed to see. As we walked the sidewalks lined with homes older than Christianity in Malawi I got the sense that our young friends were more enraptured by the size of the homes than their history or architectural style.
As their time in the U.S. was winding down, Kathy, Grace, and I were discussing a new, very large endeavor: bringing her daughter Ruth to the U.S. to live with us. Kathy had made this offer to Grace in Lake Clear a few days earlier and had spoken to me about it. We had already offered to fund Ruth to go to high school in Malawi. When Kathy found out that she was not living at home given the persistent harassment of her uncles to clean Grace out yet again, she said, “she should just come and live with us.”
With the challenge of bringing 15 Malawians to the U.S. very fresh in my mind, I tried to explain to both of them that this may take some time, it may not work the first time, and it will be even more complicated in that it will involve schools, medical insurance, and lots of luck with the consulate given Ruth’s age, she had just turned nine.
One year later, after many phone calls, meetings, forms, and long waits the assistant consular of the U.S. to Malawi said, “Mr. Garry, we can’t by law give Ruth a two-year visa, I can only grant one year.” Hence without a lot of fanfare, a great dream was realized. Later that evening at dinner I asked Ruth, “so do you still want to come to the U.S.?” Having lived with us for the last month she laughed and said, “yes” with a sense of determination.
Our first visit to the consulate on Monday was not as fruitful. They didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes. They said, we need more information. What they really wanted was financial records from Kathy and I that would prove we could fund such a venture. As the consular looked over our documents what bothered him was that we had some money in our accounts. It was recent money was the problem.
Coming to Malawi was funded by the Lily Foundation. Before we left I deposited all the funds that were remaining after the plane tickets, shots, pills, and passports were secured (everyone also got a pair of sandals). Let’s just say, Lily was generous so there was a lump sum deposited just before our departure. He wanted to know about this money. Why would someone coming to Africa to bring back a 10 year old girl suddenly have an infusion of cash?
He was wondering if Ruth was a victim of human trafficking and if I was a kind of modern slave trader. It was at that moment I wished I was wearing my collar and had asked the congressman to draft a letter describing who we are, that I was a known entity in a town, in a church. All he had was a note I drafted on plain white paper and our bank statements.
“What do you do?” he asked. “I am the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown.” Now he had documents in front of him saying that, and I had said as much at least three times in the last five minutes. But he wanted to see if I kept giving the same answer. Finally he said, “how long do you intend to support Ruth’s education in the U.S.?”
This I could tell was a sticky wicket. If I said, “forever” did I mean to suggest that once she was there we would just ignore the residency issues and requirements; if I said for “this year” then our relationship wasn’t as secure as I had suggested in responses. What I said was, “it is our intent to continue to support her education in the U.S. for as long as we can secure valid visas.”
He liked that answer. “We are closing so we can’t process the visa today, but you can pick it up tomorrow.” I thought about saying, “we will be on safari,” but I thought better. “That will be fine.”
Phase three of the sabbatical seems like it is beginning. The struggle of abiding is giving way to the joy.
When we pulled up to the boat launch for Mvuu Camp the park ranger who was there last year walked over and re-introduced himself. He remembered not only that I came to Mvuu last year, but the people in my group, that I was a pastor, and that it was a different time of the year from when I visited before.
It took about two minutes to get the reason for his conversation. In addition to being a park ranger, he was . . . wait for it . . . an elder in a local congregation and, surprise of surprises, they were building a new sanctuary. “It’s not far,” he said upping the ante.
Now I’ve learned to trust these moments in Malawi. Let them be what they are. If you can stop by, stop by. But also realize that if you agree to a “visit” it may morph into a big deal and a few hours.
My first impulse was to say, “we are on safari,” and to suggest perhaps another time would be better. But there would be no other time, there just wouldn’t be.
To boot, he described his struggle the last year. As he was doing rhinosceros research a branch swung into his truck and literally stuck in his eye. “They sent me for surgery in Blantyre. I am better, but still not all right.” The not all right part was keeping him on limited duty and off the big program and excitement that had been his life. I told Kathy later, this was the clincher for me.
She was not very excited that instead of going directly for lunch, we were headed for a the ambiguity of a meet and greet. It was past 12 and in Malawi you get into the rhythm of three meals with no snacking in between, so she was afraid the troops would revolt if they needed to sit through a two hour long tea service where they were being told again and again how they are “most welcome” and “self-service, please”.
It was indeed a short drive from the boat launch to the church. And true to form there was a very large sanctuary next to a smaller one. The newer one lacked a floor, roof, trusses, windows, and doors. This the elder explained had taken two years. But now they lacked the funds for the rest.
This is a common sight around Malawi. It looks like a build has caught on fire and left a shell, only there was no fire, it was just that there was no money. Given the quality of the soil, clay to make bricks is out everyone’s front door, so walls are not a problem. But the cash to purchase the iron sheets for a roof or the holy grail, iron trusses, this is a big problem. Doors, windows, pews, and a floor are pretty easy to find. But the remaining two items (roof and trusses) are the real cost of construction, which for this church would be about $15,000.
All of this I understood going in. What is still hard to fathom, no matter how many times you do this, is to be seen as a big bucket of money. This was a church in another region from where I work, an elder I spoke to casually once a year ago, but maybe, just maybe, I might just write a check. It could happen.
When the pastor finally came out from his lunch, he was “out” when we arrived, he was just as crestfallen when I described the impression the people in the North would have if I started building churches in the South. Their sadness lasted for about thirty seconds and then it turned to laughter as they did try to imagine it. “I think they would say, ‘we have a few more churches to build up here.’” The North, indeed, has many churches without trusses and iron sheets for a roof.
To this the pastor offered a great comment. “You see we have a problem here with the Muslims. They are growing and if our growth is not as swift they take advantage and ridicule us. It looks like we are not faithful.”
I’ve sat through a lot of church meetings, especially in the mid-West, were a local congregation and its quick growth has been a topic of conversation. There is a kind of envy, but also strange reassurance. “At least someone is doing something right.”
Listening to the pastor I tried to imagine what it would like for the “other” church to be Muslim. And it’s not Muslim in the sense of the great umbrella of American spiritual diversity. It’s Muslim in the form of political consequence, the loss of your daughters to marriage, the potential of radical influences that seem to be brimming in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s a different kind of “other.”
I was nervous driving to Liwonde. We have talked so much and been excited for so long about going on safari at Mvuu. Sometimes the build up can make the actual experience seem like a shadow of what was expected. After all the wait, what if all the animals in the national park had a freak disappearance on our day of safari? I could see the guide shrug his shoulders and say, “the hippos were here yesterday.”
To get to Mvuu you drive south from Lilongwe about three hours. The road is hilly with lots of mountain curves. You are stepping into yet another climate of Malawi. The villages here are built in the valleys and they look like small worlds unto themselves.
Once you reach Liwonde, there are people waiting by the side of the Shire River who know your name and all have matching khaki clothes. Matching clothes is a big deal here. It means something very significant. In the U.S. where people chafe at the idea of uniforms, here it means you are part of something big. And more importantly, you are gainfully employed.
As we loaded onto the riverboat my fears were there again. I knew we would see hippos, but if they could just see one elephant, then the pressure would be off for the rest of the time. We were about fifteen minutes on the water heading north on the Shire when we spotted three elephants getting a drink. We pulled to within twenty yards and all the cameras came out. Five minutes later we were looking at a herd, and then a few minutes after that a large elephant with a broken tusk eating grass at the rivers edge. And then the hippos and the crocodiles started. They glom together and provide an intriguing contrast. The hippos are smooth and round, the crocs are jagged and long.
Unlike previous visits in April where all you saw of the hippos was the top of their heads, in July they were up and walking around the shore, lumbering slowly. The hippos didn’t move if we came up close, but the crocs did. They are less excited about being photographed. Each time they dove into the river and swam past the boat, Ruth asked, “will they come into the boat?” In all we easily encountered two dozen on the way to the camp and her question never ceased. It was clear that safari was more than sightseeing in her mind.
Upon arrival we enjoyed the fine dining the camp provides and everyone was taken aback by the décor of the chalets and just the atmosphere. After lunch and a swim we headed into the bush for a game drive. We were looking for rhinos and zebra but found only antelope, impala, and elephant. In the night drive, we were lucky enough to spot a civet, jackal, and a white tailed mongoose amongst the waterbuck and the wild boar.
Yet, the real “safari” moment came upon our return just after dinner. Everyone was exhausted after a day of so many sights and I was quick to wave off the guide as he offered to escort us to our chalets. “I know the way,” I said, “and we have a torch.” “No,” he said, “the elephants have taken to walking through the chalets at night, it’s better I go with you.”
Coming around the corner I was getting impatient with his speed and when he stopped on the path maybe twenty yards from where we wanted to go, he said, “there is a large elephant eating in front of Chalet #5.” This was Laura and Beka’s room. And the elephant was literally straddling their porch. We took a vote and this was the most popular moment of the safari.
Later that night Kathy and I were awaken by an elephant eating right outside our window. It was a racket beyond imagination. Still half asleep I started to get up so to shoo it away. Luckily I woke up a bit more so as to remember, the elephant may not take to being shooed.
The next morning Kathy, Beka, Laura and I joined our guide Duncan for a six o’clock bird walk into the bush. As was the case last year, this is a highlight for me. The birds in Africa are shocking in their variety and omnipresence. Everywhere you turn there is an intriguing bird to spot and watch.
After our boat safari we headed out a bit before twelve. We sped down the Shire at a clip. As we did herds of elephants walked in the marshy grasses and hippos and crocs lined all available muddy spots. We watched fish eagles and kingfishers dive into the water. By that point no one needed to stop as we were flush with so many sights. Sometimes the reality is even more than the hype.
Mark Purcell Goes to the DamboOn Saturday we made the drive from Lilongwe to Bandawe. Mark Purcell was ending his trip to Malawi with a few days at the lakeshore and we were to join him. We pulled in around 3:30 and the stress of the drive just evaporated. Oh, the lakeshore.
Mark and his sons, Andrew and James, arrived in Malawi a week before. They spent a few days in Lilongwe seeing the crisis nursery, a few days at Mvuu seeing the elephants, and then four days in Mzuzu being led by Sam and Grace. I gave some suggestions as to where they might lead the Purcells, but it was not necessary.
When we met up at the Chinteche Inn James and Andrew were still excited about the day before. Grace took them to a DPP rally where she was the focus. “So your Dad made a political speech,” I declared. They both smiled and said, “yeah, he did.” “Never thought you’d see that did you?” They both shook their heads and continued to smile.
As we all unwound a bit the details of Mark’s time in Mzuzu started to unfold. They pretty much jettisoned all the sightseeing and got to work. Mark, like the eight ladies from Watertown and Canton, was a bit bothered that we had purchased iron sheets for the widows of the dambo but had yet to get any of them installed. So instead of touring he jumped into inspection mode and then set about hiring contractors. All the ladies of the dambo now have new roofs installed.
One house though was not salvageable. This problem led to negotiations to purchase a few acres on the outskirts of Mchengatuba so this one can, as Mark put it, “just have a whole new house.” I am not sure that dambo has ever seen a day like this one before: the day Mark Purcell came to town.
I spoke with Sam later about the land in question and we believe we can get it for under a thousand, probably around $700. “There will be enough room,” Sam said, “for at least ten houses.” All the teenagers starting tossing around names for this new village. I think “Graceland” is the one everyone agreed to.
Word travels fast in Malawi and its not just the omnipresence of cell phones. “Maurice is insisting that you eat dinner at his house when you return to Mzuzu.” This is the Deputy General Secretary. “He wants you to have dinner with Father Andrew.” We both smiled at this. Such a dinner means the gears of the political machine are starting to turn. I laughed and said, “of course I will have dinner with Maurice.”
I want to say it took Mark Purcell about ten minutes to figure out how much joy can be had in Malawi. The possibilities, the people, the rate at which significant change can occur are truly a lot of fun. I tried to stress to him how we need to get to work on the U.S. side. The church is still the umbrella for the widow’s fund, but we need to formalize it as a nonprofit. We also need to form a board and get everyone on the same page.
When I told him I don’t want the U.S. board to be the decision makers, he smiled. “No, the people here should be making the decisions.” With that I could see he really got the beauty of being a friend of Malawi. It’s about creating the possibility of something and getting out of the way. The women of the dambo are very glad Mark gets it.
I had an epiphany Sunday morning. I wish it had come as I was listening to a sermon or enjoying the sound of the waves beating the shore of Lake Malawi, but alas, it was not. The epiphany came when the church elders invited me into the vestry, saying, “bring your case with you.”
Most pastors here carry a leather briefcase which holds their bible. My gut told me, they are going to ask me to preach.
Inside one of the elders started with apologies. “Rev. Gondwe is in Lilongwe. He didn’t tell us you were coming. All of our ladies and most of our people are at another prayer house this morning at a fundraiser.” The picture went from bad to worse when he said, “we have voted that since you are here you should take the service.”
I have preached with a few hours notice, but only in Malawi have I experienced the pleasure of a few minutes notice. They took pity on me and made one of the elders do all the logistics and keep the service flowing. Had this been my first trip to Malawi I would have refused. Now though I know better and I just smiled and said, absolutely I will.
As the service got started I tried to craft a message in my mind. I took the passage the elder was going to preach and figured the congregation and I would just “listen” to it together as if it were the first time for both of us, which was true.
The elements of the service were as free flowing and bizarre as usual. A staff member from the synod was in attendance and had brought a nice mirror for the church. I was directed to pray over the mirror and give it a blessing. Later Mark Purcell told me he was duly impressed that not only did I do it, but had something cogent to say. I told him I have blessed a lot of things, but this was the first mirror. (I also told him boats are my favorite to bless as it’s always followed by a party.)
During the offering came the epiphany. Had I done my sabbatical at the lakeshore how I had intended, this would have been my lot. All of a sudden the image of Norman Hara came to mind. For six weeks I have worked with him and spent time with him and never did I feel dumped upon or used. In fact, it has been just the opposite. He has made sure that my time in Mchengatuba is not grunt work or that my presence is an excuse for him to let me take over.
I knew in an instant that had I come to the lakeshore for the nine weeks I would have been working all the time. This would have been very problematic given the intention of my sabbatical. In Mchengatuba I haven’t been working; I have been abiding. Sometimes the abiding has been bitter like the night we met with the choir; sometimes the abiding has been joyful like the moment Sam and I walked the dambo. Be it hard or happy it has been abiding.
Staring out at the congregration and remembering the words of the elders, “he didn’t tell us you were coming,” I thought, “Gondwe, Gondwe.” One Sunday was annoying. Nine would have not been any fun at all. What abiding reveals never ceases to amazes me.
We stayed an extra day at Chinteche on the lakeshore. It hit us: the fatigue and the motion and the change and the sense of being gone. When I asked if there was room for another night, there must have been something in my voice, because the manager seemed pleased to say, “yes.” I was pleased as well. We needed another day of being on the beach, eating delicious food, and enjoying the sound of the waves at night. The weight bringing the exhaustion wasn’t one thing; it was a moment of too many things.
I’ve tried to balance the two intentions of the sabbatical. The first intention was to learn more of Malawi than can be achieved in a two-week visit. This is my fourth time in Malawi and at this point I have exceeded the amount of time spent in the last three trips combined. I have now been around long enough that the rhythm of life is coming into focus; the friendships made in the past are being tempered by real life; and, most importantly, a complex culture is coming into view in ways I scarcely could have imagined.
This has proven rather straightforward. I imagine it may have been forfeit if I had withdrawn, hiding myself away behind the gates of the McGill house. Yet, except for a few days of illness and two days of exegetical work on I John, I have made sure to be in the midst of people and places so I know more than a kind of cursory impression. The secret it would seem to ethnology is the same as being a pastor: show up, be in the midst, and listen.
The second intention of the sabbatical has not proven as easy. Bringing my family into nine weeks of Malawi so they can share this part of my life has not been as obvious as amateur anthropology. With their suitcases came our life together; with their passports came emerging identities and complex relationships.
It’s fair to say, I am a better pastor than parent, a better preacher than a husband. In this I am well within the experience of many men I’ve met. Deferring attention because there is more work to be done; being absent is excused as part of the job. Being together in such a different place, being part of every step and dust up has been a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t part of the sabbatical I asked the Lily Foundation to provide and First Pres to support. Yet, in some ways it has been even more revelatory than being immersed in a different culture. This “part” has made many things very transparent.
Anthropologist might call this a “liminal” experience. Liminal is when we are taken to the edges, the edge of meaning where we can see ourselves and our life in a way that is profound and insightful. Another anthropologist might call my ramblings about our time in Malawi as “thick.” Thick in the sense that there are so many layers we are sifting through, so many parts of our life being exposed at one moment, it is rich and all too clear.
Being so exposed, so transparent can be just a bit on the taxing side. There was the drama of trying to be a family in a new house, a new city, a new country, and a new continent. That was a bit of a stretch. Add to this the absence of all the creature comforts like friends, phones that work, television, and a newspaper that is delivered to my door at 4:00 am so I can read it at 4:30 each morning (not to mention a second newspaper that comes in the mail that I can read over dinner until Kathy chastises me). I’ve whined enough about driving that it need not be explained here, but I now long to drive on paved roads where there are no chickens, goats, bicycles, or children darting about. Each one of these has uncovered or revealed something in us, in me.
We’ve talked for a few weeks now trying to imagine if it would have been easier if we would have done this or that. Yet, the conclusion we seem to reach is that nine weeks in Africa is a kind of challenge that has proven as enlightening as taxing. There was some heavy lifting that just is what it is.
So an extra day at the Chinteche Inn was, shall we say, a very good idea. It was a great idea because we are not done yet. We are only 2/3 of the way through our time. That there will be more insights, more moments of “ahahs,” and more times where I stop and say, “I didn’t see that before” is pretty much a guarantee. Be that as it may, it is good to just be on the lakeshore for another day and rest a bit before the next round. Seeing this much of life is a gift, an extravagant indulgence that surprises me each time I think of it. It also comes with a heavy dose of emotional baggage.