Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Have a Green Christmas (In Malawi!)

“Have a green Christmas”, our missionary colleagues wrote via e-mail a few days before Christmas. Far from a naturally consequential curse of over-eating (which some of you may have suffered), theirs is a sure blessing here in Malawi’s second month of rainy season. A white Christmas, barring a very rare heavy pounding of hail out of one of the frequent thunderstorms, is exceedingly unlikely. Today, on Christmas Day, arguably the most widely recognized, if not celebrated, religious holiday in the world, I thought I’d share with you what our first Malawian Christmas has found.

Backing up a few days, or weeks, we’ve noticed from our somewhat distant vista (we live about 30 minutes out of town and are not in the stores every day), the “Christmas spirit” did not really get off the ground in Lilongwe until a few days before Christmas. (The one exception: “Santa Plaza”, a variety store run by Muslims, complete with sleigh and reindeer blazoned on the front fa├žade year round.) Yesterday (Christmas Eve) for the first time we heard carols playing over the loudspeakers in the grocery store. This late appearance of the Christmas “season” is a mixed blessing. We missed the music, but the blatant commercialization of Christmas is not so prolonged or extensive here as it is in America, largely because most of the population has so little money.

Gift giving in Malawi sounds somewhat like stories my parents told me about Christmas in the U.S. during the great depression, when oranges were likely the only gifts. Similarly, a special meal, chicken with rice rather than the boiled corn flour staple, nsima, is often the center of Christmas, if not its only manifestation for a family, if they can afford that. Christmas and New Year’s day are understood to be national holidays, and most workers get off, but the president didn’t get around to making the annual proclamation of such, essential for government workers to get a holiday, until late in the week.

Among members of Churches of Christ in Malawi, because an annual celebration of Christ’s birth is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament, Christmas is generally not recognized or celebrated, though there are exceptions. With the general lack of emphasis on gift-giving, the easily commercialized aspect of Christmas, and the pervasive poverty (political calendars are often wall decorations) it is easy to let this holiday slide, to ignore it completely, and often this happens. This is true of other more conservative, restorationist churches as well. Mainline churches, however, often have a service on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.

Christmas, at least on the surface of things, does not seem to be a big deal in Malawi.

Given this cluster of realities, what we should do as we interact with Malawi while having very different thoughts about Christmas is an interesting problem for a new missionary in early adjustment. Opening some boxes of Christmas things proved quite helpful as we found termites had destroyed the box, with no real damage to the contents. We decorated a tree, put a wreath on the front door and a collection of candles in an internal window sill, and wondered how these would be perceived by our colleagues. (We also mounted a full-scale termite search, which may have saved a lot of valuables.)

Beth gave Florence, the lady who helps her in the house, a bonus of about 22% of a month’s pay. We then took her and her apprentice from Mtendere village to town on Thursday (Florence’s first trip to town in about five years). They split a hamburger and fries and a pizza, which Florence particularly likes. They then went to the market where Florence bought a new wrap-around skirt cloth, a new purse, and a new blouse.

Beth also baked banana bread, giving small loaves to many of our closer friends on the campus around us and some off campus. On Thursday night we went caroling, as was the custom in both our families. We visited several workers on our campus, including Florence, who live in a row of “apartments” which you would probably perceive as small “storage units” based on their size and shape. We stood at the end of the short row of about ten units and sang the three Christmas carols we had found in the Malawian Chichewa hymnal. We then visited a family from church whom we knew would not be offended by our coming. Then we went to Mtendere, the children’s orphanage below our house.

By the time we got there it was after 8:00, and for the first time I saw no one out on campus at that hour. We sang the three Chichewa carols at five stations on the campus, adding “Joy to the World” at one point. Because of the tendency for hymns in Chichewa to be sung to African tunes and rhythms radically different from those we know, Beth had been concerned as to whether the caroling would be appreciated. The next day one of the boys described one reaction to our coming. When singing was first heard from the opposite end of the campus, one of the boys looked at another and asked, “Have angels come to visit Mtendere?” Then another said, “No, somebody’s got their radio on and put it in their window really loud.” Then, as we moved closer to their house and began again, the first went to the window and stuck his head out. “No, it’s Bruce and Berta!” (Beth’s most common identity—the Chewa don’t handle “Beth” well.) We’re certainly not professionals, but good music done reasonably well is generally appreciated across cultures, as it was here.

We had hoped to visit our son who lives about 500 miles east of us in Mozambique, but that proved impossible at the last minute, so we treated ourselves to a couple of days at a nice hotel in the Capital. Christmas Eve we hosted a couple who have no support—she’s from the U.S.A., and he is from South Africa—for a marvelous dinner and several hours of good conversation. I really appreciate their insights into African culture and the involvement of church leaders in the HIV epidemic, a topic of particular interest to them as well. We slept in this morning, Christmas. I ran, and then we had a late breakfast. We’ve rested, read the papers, watched a movie (August Rush—I recommend it), rugby and soccer games, and CNN news, all special treats to us. We’ve enjoyed the air conditioning in the humid weather and have skyped with several friends and relatives: our Korea-based daughter and her husband who are visiting a friend in China, our son and his family in Mozambique, Beth’s brother in Arkansas, colleagues in Turkey and Tanzania, and our always-supportive Missions Minister at Landmark Church of Christ in Montgomery, Wes Gunn. We still hope to catch sisters and our son in California.

Tomorrow we’ll visit a large congregation in town, and then head back to the house, thankful always for our Lord who came to live among us, no matter what day he actually made his entrance on earth, the many blessings he gives us to help in our adjustment to living with and for Malawians, and the many relatives and friends who support us in this mission. In the end, all the hype, glitter, gifts, playing of Christmas music, and other customs, the “externals” which are so different between our family and our Malawian friends, are not what it is all about, are they? Whether Christmas is a “big deal” in this sense doesn’t matter one whit, but the effect of the coming of God to live among us, his life, his death and his resurrection on our lives, whether we also live “resurrection lives”—that is what it, life itself (not just Christmas) is all about, isn’t it? If not, nothing else really matters. And by that measure Christmas may in fact be a bigger deal to the average Malawian than to the average American, in the heart, if not on the surface of society.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Funerals--The USA and Malawi

I remember my first funeral well. Some older person in our church had died, but I didn’t know him or her, and the funeral was to be held in Grand Saline, about 50 miles away. My Daddy was the song leader in our little congregation, and he needed a tenor. I was taken out of school, it was about the 7th grade, and carried to help form the quartet that would comfort family and friends with songs of heaven. It was a good, hands-off, impersonal preparation for my second funeral.

A few weeks later a boy in our small town (about 95 in my graduating class) was killed. He was one grade ahead or behind me; I think his name was George. He had lived, just around a corner or two, but we were not good friends. His single mom tried, but he ended up being one of the boys my mom didn’t want me to play with. That’s why he died. The square dance club met in the City Auditorium, an old frame building out by the rodeo arena. I was in that Auditorium only once or twice in my life. It was just the other side of the railroad tracks from down-town and our houses, mine and George’s, and about a mile down the tracks the other side of Main Street. Drinking was strictly prohibited in the Auditorium by the Baptist members who’d broken into square dancing, but not alcohol. The Methodists conceded, but some folks kept a flask under their front seat to loosen up their turns between dances. And in a small town, nobody locked their car.

The County was dry, and booze hard to get, but George had figured this one out. While the fiddle scrawled and the gentleman called, George was helping himself outside. He was pretty drunk when the dancing ended for the evening, but he made it to the tracks without being discovered. He didn’t make it home. He just laid down on the ties and gravel between the rails to rest a bit. He was drunk enough to sleep in that unlikely bed, but not enough to sleep through the 2:30 train that came through town. He was too low on the track to be seen until he raised his head just before the train reached him. I remember a few things about the funeral: almost everyone from school came; they didn’t open the casket; and it was generally very quiet but for his mother sniffling up front, fighting back the pain.

Malawian funerals are not quiet. No one is fighting back the pain. Men and women who are close to the deceased wail almost continuously, even through the hymns, except when a preacher calls for quiet for prayer or an exhortation. Most of the rest of the time, during visitation (12-36 hours) and the trek to the grave a host of mourners including the close family wail, and contort the body, some walking around outside the house where the body lies and calling on the deceased “mkazi wanga, mkazi wanga” (“my wife, my wife”) or “mlongo anga, mlonga anga” (“my sister, my sister”). My friend Steve Kay, who out of his own profound experience speaks and writes well about grief, especially male grief and its expression, would admire the Malawian men I think, bent at the waist, arms wrapped around their bent heads, weeping and crying, wailing and calling of their loss and for the departed. I am also reminded of the Biblical stories of funerals, where Jesus quieted the mourners before challenging death itself.

The body lies in state in the front room of a small hut, usually for less than 24 hours, but occasionally longer if some family must come from afar. Wailing women fill the small room, surrounding the body, covering the floor, spilling down the hall toward the bedrooms. A thin path through the legs from the door to the head of the deceased, and sometimes out the back door allows others to view the body, or at least the face, where only a small portion is visible, the rest, including the mouth and nose, wrapped in cloth. The closest female members of the family are literally and bodily supported by other family members, propped up where they are sitting on the floor.

Male family members visit the body periodically, joining the wailing on entering the door, and sometimes continuing in the courtyard as they walk off their grief outside. Clusters of men and women sit in their respective, quite separate areas all around the house, sometimes stretching throughout the neighborhood, but in these circles quiet respect reigns. Stores in the close neighborhood are “closed” though discrete sales through a cracked door allow life to continue in this world of many funerals. Some women bring in food (meaning nsima, the boiled corn meal which is the staple of diets throughout this part of Africa), while others stir the flour into pots of boiling water and prepare greens, beans or meat to add “relish” to the center of the meal. I’ve never seen a small funeral or memorial service. Honoring the dead is a core part of African life, and everyone shows up who knew the deceased and knows of the death. All the neighbors are there, and friends and relatives from near and far. Everyone is fed. Contributions are made, and a list of civic leaders who contributed, and how much they gave, is announced at the formal service before the shift to the graveyard. The village chief speaks of the deceased. An obituary is read. Singers sing. A preacher preaches.

When the grave is ready, or some other social marker unknown to me is reached, the body is witnessed by as many as possible as it is being transferred into the coffin. The tapping sound that followed puzzled me until I remembered the two hammer-bearers entering the house. The wailing, which had grown with the transfer of the body, swelled even more as the lid to the simple casket was nailed shut. The casket was moved to the bier, and the trek to the grove of trees marking the graveyard began, women leading if the deceased is female, men if male, but never mixing. Sometimes the grave is near, sometimes far.

At the graveyard there is more singing. More preaching. And more wailing, but now by isolated family members overcome by the grief of the moment. Some are comforted by others. One by one family members may be removed from the scene by friends or other relatives, perhaps because their display of grief is too much for that moment of the service, or perhaps for fear that the depth of their grief might become harmful to them on witnessing the burial. One wailing young man fell flat on the ground and was carried out, apparently unconscious. Later another followed suit but was left to lie. At one point a young woman near the grave stood, turned, gasped deeply, and let out a short but forceful cry which ended with her swoon to the ground, arms and legs flailing. Four women lifted her by her four limbs and carried her out despite the jerking of the appendages. Most sat quietly as the casket was lowered, the dirt returned, and the preacher preached on. A choir sang a few songs.

When thunder and lightning neared, women began to slip away. “Mvula! Rain!” One said to Beth. “You’re going to get wet! Tiyeni. Come with us.” The preacher continued. Men soon followed. The preacher himself soon gave up and the feeding began: nsima and goat. The rain mercifully held off another 30 minutes. Then we were on our way home, hurrying against the approaching darkness to get to the highway and then the city before the multitude of bicyclists and pedestrians scurrying home fade into the obscurity and danger of nightfall on the busy road.

Funerals in southeastern Africa have a major effect on business productivity, not only through the loss of skilled employees in their prime years (Malawi lost 6,500 teachers to death in the last three years) but also due to the massive social participation that is required of the living. Funerals take at least one day, often two, and not uncommonly three days away from work, and each worker attends multiple funerals a year. We attended three last week. Employers are expected to be major benefactors toward the costs of funerals in their role as the primary sustenance of the family. Funeral support is in the budget of every major business as a line item, but in one recent year a major civic unit drained that item long before the year was over. Some control of HIV (50% of those needing treatment in Malawi are getting it) and an increase in the line item budget for funerals have avoided the problem of running out of help in subsequent years, but deaths continue in large numbers.

The west has a short attention span, and the current waning attention to the African HIV problem is evidence of that. The US and Europe are moving on (actually around in a cycle) to attack once again Maternal-Child Health. While some shifts in AIDS budgeting may need to occur, the need for western government to support availability of the expensive medications needed to treat HIV still exists. Write your senators or representatives today. Western Christians need to support widow and orphan care by local agencies and churches in Africa. Just as the effects of previous efforts are beginning to be observed, the West is backing out. This is not the time to back out, but rather the time to press forward, to make treatment available for everyone lest the wailing never stop.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Here Comes the Bride--But Who is She?

It was a beautiful wedding. We got there late, but the service had not yet started. In fact, though only a few more entered after us, the wedding party didn’t come down the aisle for at least 45 minutes after we arrived. We didn’t see our friends who had invited us, but that wasn’t terribly unusual. About 250 people were there, a good crowd in a much bigger building. Our friends were probably hidden on the front rows with other family members or helping out with last-minute, pre-ceremony details.

We didn’t know the name of the couple getting married, which calls for some explanation. You and I know how invitation lists are constructed for weddings in the U.S.: carefully and thoughtfully, and input comes only from the bride and groom and their parents. Even grandparents rarely have any say. In Malawi things are quite different. We’ve been invited to four weddings since we’ve been here. First, a lady who works here on campus invited us to her sister’s wedding. That felt really strange and uncomfortable—we didn’t know her sister. We politely declined, but afterward were repeatedly reminded that we didn’t attend her sister’s wedding. That was our first clue that things were different here. We knew the father of the bride of the first wedding we actually attended. The announcement was made in church, of which he is a member, and he lives near the church building. It was a triple wedding, three couples tying the knot at once, but separate receptions. It seemed to us like the whole village went to the reception we attended—another clue that things were different.

Then a couple who are our dear friends at church, the Gondwe’s, invited us to attend two weddings, a week or two apart, which were for children of their relatives. Our friends were responsible for many of the arrangements for these two weddings, but that wasn’t the big factor that led to our invitation. In Malawi any member of the extended family can invite his or her friends to a relative’s wedding. And family is defined very broadly by U.S. standards. We had a conflict for the first of the two Gondwe weddings, but we were here in this Presbyterian church waiting for the second to begin. With over two hundred people ready and waiting the keyboardist practiced his rifts and adjusted this and that. The music sounded great for a few bars, but invariably broke off too early for our satisfaction.

Finally the preacher appeared and the music continued for more than a truncated refrain. The first bridesmaid appeared in a purple dress and began her slow dance down the aisle. No simple walking, this procession. The beauty of the special people in special dress with special motion for the special occasion was designed to last as long as possible. As the maid neared the end of the aisle her groomsman counterpart appeared, matching her steps up the aisle to meet her then circling her on her left and catching up to her on her right, joining her in motion up and down, diagonally left across the aisle, then right, moving in multiple dimensions at once, but always steadily toward the dais. The church we were in had no center aisle, and the wedding party moved down the left cleft in the wooden theater seats. When they cleared the forward-facing main body of seats they worked their way right, toward the center, the groomsman leaving his maid to cross to the right side of the hall. As the ring-bearer, then the three bride’s maids, and finally the two flower girls (the children accompanied by supportive adults) each did their dances down the aisle and then were joined by their respective groomsmen, two gendered companies of swaying, stepping attendants assembled at the front.

Then the music changed, and after a bit the bride appeared and began her dance down the aisle, in the company of an older lady, apparently her mother. Her progress was repeatedly accompanied by the high-pitched trilling of the tongues of the women so characteristic of African celebration, a little slower than that of Hispanics, as tongues are wagged back and forth across the mouth. As the bride neared the front, the groom appeared, accompanied by an older man, apparently his father. When they met, the trilling gained intensity, and he joined her with the same circling motion his groomsmen had used, complicated a bit by the train and the extra people in the aisle. The older couple fell back and together followed the younger couple past the last few rows. The about-to-be-weds moved to the center, the music came to a halt and then all sat in the front row.

The hymns, prayers and sermon were in Chichewa, so the scattered words I picked up meant little to me, but the scripture passages were much like ones I hear in American weddings. The exchange of rings and vows was followed by prolonged demonstration of the respective rings as each in turn was held aloft for long moments on its newly found perch for life for all present to behold, as if proclaiming “this one is now wed and I mark her/his covenant made this day”. The pronouncement of husband and wife was made, accompanied by much more trilling. A final prayer was said, and the recessional of the audience began. We watched several pass by, looking for our friends, but now both aisles were being used, so we joined the exodus and sought a spot outside where we could scrutinize the door for the emergence of our friends.

Outside we found traditional dancers, a row of women backed up by a row of men, singing loudly and dancing to the traditional drums and occasional shrill piping of a whistle. No slow swaying here! Stomping forward then backward, left then right, the steps were interjected frequently by sudden, almost violent suggestive pelvic moves that should have put several joints I hardly, if ever, use out of place. Some were left and then right, some up and forward, then back and downward, but there was no sign of back trouble in this group as they celebrated the joy of the moment.

Eventually the bride and groom appeared and puzzled from the door about how to get from that observation point past the dancers to their car, appropriately decorated with colorful puffs of paper mums and broad ribbons. The dancers seemed oblivious to everything except the insistent beat of the drums and the shrill excitement of the whistle. But our friends were not present. The building was empty, and they had not been seen.

As we made our way from there, we called our friends' adult son who was Bruce’s second language helper. “Now, which CCAP church did you say your family’s wedding was to be at, the principal CCAP in Lilongwe? We’re in Mama Kadzamira’s church in Area 12. [Mama Kadzamira is the first among Malawian women, the former ‘first hostess’ for Malawi’s bachelor first president.] Your church is not in Area 12? Which Area is it in? You don’t know? Is it in Falls Estate? Yes? Ohhh.” We had attended the wrong wedding. We talked with Jeremiah a bit about the reception to begin two hours later, but as we had headed down the road we decided not to try. We had invested a lot of energy in this cross-cultural event, only to learn that it was the wrong one, and we were a bit deflated. We decided we needed a little time together, retreating a bit from our many cross-cultural experiences. We didn’t need to try a second one today. Besides, we didn’t know the couple who had gotten married anyway—at the wedding we should have attended, or the one we actually did.

P.S. To our amusement when we went to the Capital Hotel after lunch to try to find a spot where internet connection was available, who should we see but the bride’s maids from the wedding we had attended! We had inadvertently also shown up at the reception site of the same wedding.

World AIDS Day 2010: Bystanders Watching Death’s Onward March

We spent World AIDS Day thinking about funerals. We didn’t actually attend any funerals on Wednesday, December 1, but we were getting over one and planning for two others. I did not medically take care of any of these folks, didn’t see their death certificates, so I can’t say that any of the deceased had AIDS, but three funerals in one week? Malawi’s adult death rate is very high, much higher because of AIDS than it was 20 or 30 years ago precisely because of AIDS. If AIDS played no part in any of these deaths, it would be rather strange. It may have kissed them all.

The first funeral, on Tuesday, November 30, was for a man about 50. He wasn’t close to us, I don’t know that I’d ever met him, but a relative of his was an acquaintance and he lived very near. We’d not been to a funeral in our neighborhood yet, and I did personally know several of his neighbors (which I found out when I got there). We walked down the hill a bit and thankfully were met out on the highway by a person we knew. Every other funeral or like event which we’ve attended we’ve had the blessing of a friend to act as a social coach, and I was wondering how to handle some of the unknowns of this event when God provided the person we needed, a former guard at our complex whom we hadn’t seen for some months. We sat on the ground with our respective genders, Beth with a cluster of ladies on the periphery and I with our friend across the way.

I was on the front row of the front cluster of several groups of men, scattered and strung out among the mud-brick huts in that part of the neighborhood. After we’d squatted on the ground I realized we were right in front of the bier, consisting of several tree branches lashed together, that would carry the casket to the grave from the house where it lay for visitation. Neither of us went in. My coach asked if we wanted to see the body, but I didn’t know the man personally and felt no need. Funerals, in my mind, are for the living.We had asked our coach how long we needed to stay, and he said, “Whatever time you want.”

“Thirty minutes or an hour?”

“That’s fine. You’ve paid your respects.”

I wanted to give some money to my acquaintance who was related to the deceased, as is the custom here, but I hadn’t seen her. I asked coach how to find her, since men aren’t supposed to be in contact with the women at funerals. Before we left, coach led me behind the house in front of where we had sat and motioned for one of the women who were cooking there to come. I realized it was Florence, Beth’s helper around the house who had asked the day off for the funeral. We I asked Florence to get our friend, and she went into the back door of the house where the casket lay and brought the friend out to us. I expressed my condolences with the one appropriate Chichewa word I know, “Pepani” (“I’m sorry”). She shook my hand, accepting the money: “Zikomo kwambiri”. She returned to the mourners around the body in the little house. We slipped back around the house, sat for about 10 minutes more, then got up and went to the road where we met Beth who’d seen us leaving. “Coach” went back to the group, and Beth and I walked up the hill to the house.

The next morning, World AIDS Day, we were awakened by Florence who brought the news that the husband of another neighbor and closer acquaintance had died, a man who was maybe 30. I had met him, but did not know that he was that friend’s husband. He’d been sick for some time. In fact she’d been off work the week before to care for him, but he’d gotten better. Then he’d suddenly gotten very ill, having extreme difficulty breathing. A car had been hired and he’d been taken to a hospital about 6 miles north of us. By the time they got there his breathing had stopped. There was a need to move the body to his home village, and could I contribute? I gave Florence what seemed a reasonable donation. The funeral would be Thursday and she would be back to work on Friday. Would that be ok? “Of course,” I answered. “Tionana lachisanu,” (“We’ll see you Friday.”) We made a brief visit to this funeral, at a town 30 minutes north of us, on Thursday morning.

Before dark on Wednesday I got a call from one of my best friends in Malawi, my running partner. His sister, who’d been bothered for three months with severe stomach pain and intermittent headaches had taken a turn for the worse early that morning. She had gone to the nearest health center where she’d been sent to the nearest hospital which in turn had referred her to the regional medical center in town where she’d died shortly after arrival. He didn’t know what she had. Her husband was alive and well, and she left two children under five. She was 38. Women who are 38 do die in Malawi, but usually in childbirth. And this was a fairly prolonged illness. I asked if she had AIDS. He didn’t know. As many of our staff attended the funeral to our north, Beth and I carried several others the 2.5 hours south to this one, staying through the burial, getting back about 7:30 in the evening after stopping in town for supper. It was a day full of funeral.

AIDS is not something that is discussed over the dinner table in Malawi, or much at any other time, at least in a personal sense. People seem to think if they just don’t talk about it then it will leave them alone. And it keeps on killing people right and left, making its presence known in powerful and painful ways, at the most inconvenient times, even on World AIDS Day, 2010.

P.S.: The publication of this post was approved by the my friends and acquaintances who were kin to those mentioned as deceased and the reason for my attending the funeral.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's Rainy Season, and It's (Mostly) Cool!!!

Rainy season has begun. We are sitting through our biggest storm of the new season, and it’s only our second. It rained on us Saturday afternoon, a nice little shower, as we sat in the parking lot of the fastest internet service provider in town trying to Skype with the Mission Vision Team of Landmark Church of Christ, our primary supporting congregation. Yesterday we got our first good rain here at the house, but not this heavy or brilliant. Now it is raining: cats and dogs, buckets, gushers, raining up a storm, a real gullywhomper thunderstorm.

And it is lightening. Most of the strikes are 2.5-3 seconds away. One was less, and threw our main breaker. I had just unplugged our laptop, the printer next to it, a heavy-duty surge protector which fed the electronic piano, and an uninterrupted power supply which carries our desktop. Then the blue-white flash of light and “Craaackkkk”. Our house is on the highest hill for some miles around. I am aware that we could use lightning rods, but our house built on a rock would have a hard time finding ground. How long can the lead wire be?

Two weeks ago it was hot, very hot. But about a week ago, as rain began to fall within sight of the house, the temperature graciously dipped as well. The clouds have been hiding the sun and the breeze has kissed our arms and brows after coming through the drops that we can see falling in the distance: relief from the heat. The sun has passed overhead on its journey south in relation to the earth, and will be back in a few weeks, after its overhead rendezvous with the tropic of Capricorn. Though my logic says it should remain hot, a critical point has been reached such that the updrafts provoked by those rays work steadily every morning lofting water droplets off Lake Malawi and the Indian Ocean which in turn cool, condense and fall to freshen the breeze blowing our way. Even from unseen parts we feel the results. Where seen, it is beautiful as the cumulonimbus billow overhead higher than we fly when coming here, sheets of rain fall, marching across the Lumbadzi River valley north and east of us, progressively hiding the Dowa mountains in the distance, visually demonstrating the process which brings us relief, and water to settle the dust and seemingly awaken the world.

Many have already planted. Others are doing so now. Napoleon and other large farmers are busy spraying herbicides before their fields are taken over ere the corn even sprouts. Fields prepared by hand have been ready for several weeks revealing freshly brown broken lumps of clay. A few are still being turned by hoe. But now it is planting time, and most are at it. The frogs form a deep-throated “amen” chorus, welcoming the gushers as the storm passes and the rain subsides to a drizzle. The birds sing after the rain as if it were morning again, and maybe it is, a seasonal morning of new life.

For several days now the little orange and blue-black beetles (see “Lava Bugs”, posted Wednesday, March 17) have swarmed our ceiling and walls. We’ve learned that the mosquito coils we use have no effect on them, but they occasionally do fall off the ceiling to crawl through hats and hair, down our necks or up our sleeves. Interesting little critters—they do keep you awake in the late evenings with dim light and the press of the day every heavier on the eyelids. The mosquito population has not changed much yet. But they will soon catch up. We’ve been trying to get the holes in our roof patched and some better screens on our house, whose windows are filled with an eclectic ensemble of American and African architecture, each having its respective advantages, mostly in its proper place, but together conflicting frustratingly and preventing the best use of each the other’s features. The carpenters on campus have been tied up for weeks on other projects of higher priority, so we are making efforts to get those underway—and hopefully finished—soon. Then the blessings of rainy season will not be slighted by its problems, and we’ll be able to enjoy without compromise the cool rebirth of life which will bless the next few months.

Then today I learned that a dear friend and her husband are both infected with HIV, and he is ill. I am poignantly reminded in this season otherwise refreshing of the wise preacher’s comment that there is a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to be happy, and a time to be sad. And sometimes in the many lives playing out before us, those times come to meet each other.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A New Friend, Unwanted and Self-Detached

I have a new friend. Without invitation or welcome he first came into my sight on a recent Monday. One minute he wasn’t there, the next he was, off to my right and a little above center of whatever I was looking at. I call my friend “Maejong” because he reminds me of some of the characters on the playing pieces of that game. This new friend looks like a nest of folding dark lines with weighted strings hanging down, at times appearing as a jellyfish, at times like a ranger dangling from his parachute. I knew from first sight that my new friend was somewhere in my eye, my right eye. I can’t see him well as I can’t focus on him; he moves with my eyeball, always off to the right, always a little above the level of the object of focus.

I thought it was my cataract. About a year ago my family doctor (yes, I have one) told me I had an immature cataract in my right eye. I just thought it had caught my attention for the first time, that I was seeing it layered onto whatever I focused on. There was, however, one problem. The parachutist swung in the breeze at the end of his lines. Whenever I looked quickly to the left, as my eyeball came to a halt, and with it most of my friend, the lower “strings” of my new friend swept up and left. When I looked right, my friend’s dependencies swung up and to the right. This is not what a cataract should do. Then the lights came.

Six days later after I first saw my friend, on a Sunday evening just as dark fell I was walking out to the Blessings Hospital portal to welcome some friends who were driving out to visit us. I was reading in the dim light and my eyes were flitting back and forth across the page. When they moved to the right I saw a flashing band of blue light, over and over and over, line by line on the page, running from the top of my eye to the bottom flashing through the spot occupied by my new friend. Light flashes are associated with retinal detachment which may cause loss of sight. My friend had my attention. But my impression was that there was no ophthalmologist living and working in Malawi.

Early the next morning I called my friend Perry Jensen, another family doc who has cared for AIDS patients in Malawi for ten years. Perry knew of two opthalmologists in the country, one at Kamuzu Central Hospital, the referral hospital for the central region of the country, the other was at a Nkhoma Mission Hospital about 40 km south of the capital, and Perry knew him. I chose Perry’s friend, gave him a call, and was encouraged to show up as soon as possible that day.

Mtendere’s driver was able to accompany us, and we took off, arriving a little before noon. After discovering that we had met the hospital’s volunteer optician from Luxembourg in the immigration office, I had a thorough exam by a young ophthalmologist who looked younger than my son. You know you’re getting old when your doctors look like your children, and I got another gentle reminder when the doctor told me my new friend was nothing to worry about, just the result of a “maturing” eye. It seems the vitreous in my right eye, the gelatinous stuff that fills most of the eye ball, back in the back, is drying out, shrinking, getting a little wrinkled, and doesn’t need as much space as it once did. Thus it has pulled away from the eyeball, a “posterior vitreous detachment”. Some strings of tissue are literally hanging loose in the space that is left. There is a slightly increased risk of a future retinal detachment, which would be accompanied by a different pattern of light flashes, but nothing really serious at the moment. He will see me again at a hospital closer to home in about six weeks.

So I confidently play with my new friend, aware of his faithful presence when I move my eye, especially at night, enjoying the blue light, usually a bar, at times a ring around my visual field, but always a reminder of the sixty-one years walking on this earth.

“Today I’m nearer to my home,

much nearer than before.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wheels!!!—Or, “Lessons on the Importation of Diplomatic Vehicles Already in Malawi.”

Our quest for transportation for our ministry began at budgeting time about 18 months ago. We had been assured by Malawian missionaries that churches could import vehicles free of duty, so we counted on that, budgeting $55,000 for a Toyota Hi-lux or Land Cruiser allowing for addition of an extra fuel tank, bull bar, luggage rack, etc. A number of good folk shared with us generously (see below), but we always seemed a little behind on our budget, not quite getting there. Then we moved to Malawi, and a number of smaller “one-time” expenses came due, drawing down our fund.

Very early on here we learned that some Malawian churches had been passing out duty free vehicles to their senior members as benefits, not exactly what the law had envisioned when it gave churches duty-free status. So, seemingly overnight (was it by presidential decree?) churches were allowed only to import single cabin pickups, trucks or buses, none of which fit our needs for village visits in Malawi and travel to other countries in the region.

Our partner, Napoleon Dzombe, who is very well-known in central Malawi, and is also the imagination, brains and probably the biggest single contributor to the hard work behind the six different projects here on our campus, was sought out by the new Land Rover dealership to help them launch their sales campaign, trying to put Land Rover back on the road here. Napoleon encouraged us to try to get the same sweetheart deal he’d been given, but the problem was we didn’t have quite that much cash. Then when we got it, the Land Rover had gone up $10,000, and the next month it went up $10,000 more. We visited the Toyota dealership regularly and wrote letters seeking funds. Another foundation offered us a challenge grant which would get us close to the purchase price. But we just couldn’t seem to get over the edge. Then Napoleon went to Europe.

He had to get a visa via a European embassy here which, in Malawi, covers for its neighbor which Napoleon was visiting. The Malawian who was screening Napoleon asked him, “Would you like to buy a good car?” Napoleon learned that one of their diplomats was finishing his two year tour, and that he wanted to sell his personal vehicle which had only 30,000 kilometers (about 19,000 miles) on it. Napoleon looked at the car, a beautiful 2008 Nissan Patrol and knew it was a very good deal, even if not inexpensive.

He called us to a meeting before he left. “If you don’t buy this car, I’m going to sell you! We made an appointment to see it and were given a ride by the same embassy worker. It was a very nice car. Not the luxury model, but very nice. It was not a steal, but the price was reasonable for what it was. And it would go to any village in rainy season as well as cover the mileage of southeastern Africa we'd be traveling. The price would more than double, however, with the import duty, and we didn’t have that much money. Some modifications would also have to be made to bring it up to the standards we were seeking (bull bar, etc.). A series of meetings with the diplomat began. He wanted to be paid in his home currency which would protect him against vacillations of the dollar. For the same reason, we would have rather paid in dollars. Others wanted the car, but had trouble coming up with that much of the diplomat’s currency. We could get the currency, as our money was in a U.S. bank, but we wanted a guarantee that we would not go above a certain dollar figure. We dickered over this point, the diplomat refusing to sign a contract we drew up until the currency exchange rate was no longer an issue.

The diplomat wanted to keep the car until the day he left and all the money had to be in his bank account before he would hand it over. We wanted the deal to be called off if an accident occurred on his watch. Eventually it became apparent that trust was necessary to make a deal, a trust greater than our brief friendship with this announced agnostic would support, even though he was also a gentle and wise senior statesman who cared deeply for the impoverished villagers and workers of Malawi. We could only trust him in spite of the many circumstance which could intervene to sour this deal by first trusting the Lord.

As the diplomat’s departure date moved back and forth we were rattled and frustrated. The dollar rose and fell against his currency, but never so far that the deal would have to be off. Finally we had to say to the good brothers and sisters at church and the bank in Montgomery, “Just do it. Buy the currency at the best possible moment and wire it to his account." The best possible moment became “anytime now”; then it was done, at least in America.

The currency was purchased and wired on a Tuesday. The diplomat had promised that his assistant would help us with the paperwork for the two remaining steps, importation and change of title, but the assistant wanted the week of his boss’ departure for vacation. We had to finish all the paperwork before the end of the previous week. To change the title we would also have to demonstrate that we had insurance. We priced insurance on Wednesday and sealed a deal with the best offer. On Thursday morning we changed money at the ForEx (foreign exchange bureau), and purchased the insurance, receiving the certificate and sticker we needed. We visited the embassy and got the diplomat’s signature on the importation papers verifying that he was selling the car to us, at what cost, and his original cost of the car. The assistant brought the car for inspection to Customs who verified the VIN and motor number and certified that the price was reasonable for that car. It was then discovered that a mistake had been made on the documents by Customs and new paperwork had to be signed by the diplomat. This would be done Friday morning.

Beth got in line at the bank Friday at 7:30 to get a certified check for the duty while I went to the embassy nearby to pick up the re-signed papers. With those in hand we headed back to Customs. At the proper office no one was in. They were all in a meeting. We took the check downstairs and paid the tax (greater than the selling price of the car!). On return, no one was there yet. An attentive ear at each door discovered the meeting, the door was cracked, the supervisor’s eye caught, and he came to help us. In five more minutes we were off.

At the regional road traffic office we were told that a diplomat’s car had to be handled at the national office, thankfully only two blocks up the street. We raced up the way, arriving at 10:30. The staff was very pleasant with the bad news: “Your papers are all in order, but the network is down. Please come back after lunch.” At that point the diplomat’s assistant left us to try to finish up some things at the office before his vacation. We were on our own.

We returned at 1:30. The staff arrived at 1:45. The network was back up, and we got in line near the front. Our turn came quickly, and the re-review of our papers was met with, “Where’s the letter saying the car is being sold to you?”

“We have this sales agreement, signed by both parties.”

“No, that won’t do. Here, use this one for an example,” and from the stack someone else’s letter appeared. Beth quickly took notes while I called the diplomat.

“We need you to sign another letter, sir. May we come over right now?”

“Another letter? My assistant said that would be all.”

“Yes sir, we thought so, but they say we need another letter.”

“Of course. I’m here packing. Come right over. I live in Area . . . Do you know the way?” I took careful notes on the directions.

And, “yes,” the clerk responded to our query, “you will have to have the car inspected to complete your paperwork, but if you get back before 3:30 we’ll be able to finish everything.”

Mtendere Children’s Village uses its truck on Fridays to shop for the next week’s operating supplies, so we had rented a car with driver for what we knew was going to be a harrowing and possibly feverish race against the clock. We were glad he was driving as Beth dictated based on the letter we’d seen, in the back seat I wrote by hand in a steno pad, trying to compensate for the bumps and curves. The assistant called me regarding why another letter was needed. His reply to my answer: “Oh, yes. That letter.”

We arrived at the diplomat’s home just as I finished writing, finding the house on the fourth leg we tried from the appointed intersection. The maid ushered us to the patio and offered much-needed water. The gentleman appeared, inquired about the rationale again, then signed the letter handwritten on both sides of a steno page. Then we told him we had to have the car inspected. This had not been contemplated by his assistant either, but the diplomat drove with us, I riding with him, Beth carrying the letter on ahead with our driver. The diplomat could not let someone else drive a car with his embassy’s plates on it.

The diplomat’s presence provided a little grease to the wheels of bureaucracy. As I mentioned his presence to the clerks, and that he hoped this process could be completed today, the information was relayed to supervisors, papers were placed on top of the stack and returned in a few short minutes. A first payment was made downstairs, a computerized form generated, back to clerk, back to supervisor, back across the hall to the clerk, a second payment was made downstairs, and then the “last step”. “Where do we find the inspector?”

“Oh, for that you have to go back to the regional office of the Road Traffic Department.”

Back in the two cars we hit the busy main street and pulled into the front lot of the appropriate office. A quick inquiry revealed that we needed to pull around back to the inspection lane. Having done so, I sought an inspector. One was engaged, took our paperwork, and eventually came out to inspect.

The inspection lane is a narrow alley between two buildings with a dangerously deep center pit for underside inspections (absolutely unused for any of several cars I’ve seen inspected there). With the diplomat in the car, the balding inspector, walking around the car to observe, shouted for him to turn on various lights and turn indicators. We could not figure out how to turn on the fog lights and the inspector gave up. They aren’t mandatory, just interesting. But it’s nearing 4:00 on Friday.

The diplomat was asked to wait on the side, the inspector slid behind the wheel, shut the door, sounded the horn several times, revved the 6 cylinder diesel, and popped the clutch. Smoking rubber was left on the slick cement both on takeoff and on slamming the all-round ABS brakes two seconds later. The triad was repeated with braking after a run of about 20 feet onto gravel approaching a curve with a steep upward bank guarding the far side of the curve. Our car joined the previous cars that had “Passed”, sliding into the curve with ABS complaining, coming to a halt before it hit the bank. “He’s no inspector, just a cowboy!” the diplomat expressed his disgust at the treatment of the vehicles. I was thinking about how much a tire balancing would cost and where I’d get it done well. But forms were checked off: “Pass”. This was verified, as required, by a second official. “What next?” I asked, as one man reviewed my papers.

“Take this and hurry, hurry to the front of the building and pay 1000 Kwacha. Hurry!!! It was straight up 4:00. I ran.

The office was closed at 4:02 but two or three others bargained through an open window. As I joined them the diplomat pulled the car around in front of us. “Good afternoon. Please, this car is being sold by a European Diplomat, and he wants to finish today so he can leave the country shortly.”

“You live in Lumbadzi; you’re no diplomat.”

“Noooo. I’m the buyer. See that car out there? That’s the diplomat. See those plates? ‘10 CD 8’”. [CD = diplomatic corps.]

“Well, all right. That’ll be 6000 kwatcha.”

“I was told 1000.”

“No, it’s 6000.”

I handed over six thousand. “But I need a receipt.”

“That paper you have is your receipt.” There it was: 1000 Malawi Kwacha. I didn’t argue. The day was over. The deed was done. We had been helped. The cost of express service.

We left and hurried back up the road to the national office, all our papers in hand. “Is there anything else we need to do?”

“Just make your plates.”

“And where do we do that?”

“Just down the street here, at the bakery, just before the regional office.” The driver knew the place.

It made no sense, but we headed for the bakery as the diplomat headed home to finish packing. I had been told that one of several [Asian] Indian shops could make the plates.

We saw the bakery, surrounded by several auto parts stores and pulled in. As we hopped out, appropriate documents in hand, an employee on his way out the door of one of the parts stores turned around and ushered us in. Over the protests of the manager he asked for our number, the size of our plates (which we quickly confirmed on their samples), if ours was to be a private vehicle (yellow plates), grabbed the blanks, went aside to a machine, and quickly stamped out both front and rear plates. “Four thousand nine hundred kwacha.”

“I understood they were twenty-five hundred.”

“A decade ago.”

More express service. We paid up and walked out, paint still wet, carefully propping our new plates on the floorboard and in the back seat. One thing was left: the money for the sale had not yet arrived in the diplomat’s bank account. He had remarked that it was interesting that we were navigating the Malawian bureaucracy faster than we could that of U.S. capitalism. Sometimes that’s the way it is.

The diplomat called on Saturday afternoon to say that the money had been posted to his account. Would we like to come get the car? We declined, noting that we’d spent three days in town and were just “hanging low” at the house today with no desire to get out. We’d pick the car up on Sunday afternoon after 4:00 when we finished doing some internet work in town. A call from the diplomat Sunday afternoon noting an urgent matter at the embassy moved us to 10:00 Monday. We were able to get there in time with the help of Mtendere’s driver, change the plates out, and then drive off in the car which many of you have made possible.

We are thankful to God for this very unusual opportunity. We would not have bought so nice a car, but it was the only one we could afford. A new car never came within reach of our bank balance, and most used imports are 6-8 years old or older, too worn to take on international trips regularly. We are thankful to all those who contributed specifically to this effort (including some of you of whom I probably haven’t heard of yet), and those who are considering a contribution based on our recent appeal. Though I know we’re close, I don’t think the car is paid for yet. (I’m not sure where our current balance stands, and the final cost of the car was more than we had planned due to exchange rates and higher-than-expected taxes). To enable the deal, Landmark (www.landmark.org) has covered the difference to the end of the year. And, we still need some money for the add-ons I’ve mentioned and driving the car around the region next year for the seminars we will teach. Our working fund is supplying current, “without-a-car” needs, so one-time or regular contributions would still be of help.

Those whom I know have contributed toward our “one-time” expenditures, the largest of which is this car, include:

The Church of Christ Foundation (of southern California)

Christopher Matthews

Henriette Baker

Sunny Hills Church of Christ, Fullerton, California

Mr. and Mrs. Russell Presley

Otter Creek Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee

David and Rebecca Matthews

Peter and Pamela Bogdanovic Charitable Trust

Body and Soul Ministries (BandS)

Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, Little Rock

Warren and Phyllis Skaug

Boyd Pate

Ezell Foundation

Christian Service Committee, Searcy, Arkansas

Margaret Peters

Julie Commander

Summer Darnell

Kelley Maltby

An Anonymous Foundation Supporting Mission Efforts in Churches of Christ

Regular contributors include:

University Church of Christ, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Chandler Street Church of Christ, Kilgore, Texas

Redlands (California) Church of Christ

Linda Taylor

George and Kris Conner

Henriette Baker

Robert and Allison Berger

Paul and Judy Teeter

Our primary salary and support come from Landmark Church of Christ, Montgomery, Alabama.

"To God be the glory,

Great things he has done,"

And continues to do.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Needless Death-II

She was about 25. She hadn’t done well in school, so at a young age she had decided to try her hand at something else where she might do better—marriage.

She found a man to marry her and they began their life together. No wedding, just a coming together with an announcement to the community: “We’re married now.” Two children were born. One died of malaria, and the community became suspicious of HIV.

A divorce occurred. Her brother did not know why or what the circumstances were. Now she was a single mom with one surviving child, and HIV.

Her test had been positive, and at some time she had begun on antiretrovirals, life-saving medicines that have normalized the life span of HIV patients who are diagnosed early in the disease’s progression and while they are still young—if they take their meds like their lives depend on it; they do. She was young, but apparently not diagnosed early. The hospital was not very far away, but she was sick a lot, and going even a few kilometers on foot was a problem when sick. She was very poor, and probably ashamed of her status. It was not easy to get a ride. So she missed an appointment and then ran out of meds. She may have stopped and started her meds several times. And then she died.

Primary Cause of Death: Unknown, but some opportunistic infection, possibly tuberculosis, malaria, or cryptococcal (fungal) meningitis.

Secondary Cause of Death: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—AIDS

Tertiary Cause of Death: Infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus--HIV

Contributing Factors: Stigma, Shame, Poverty, Unfaithfulness, Single Motherhood, Social Isolation. All these are things which the church must address in its God-given mission to help the helpless, defend the fatherless and the widow, offer forgiveness to the guilty and hope to the hopeless, to love the apparently unlovely whom Jesus loved enough to associate with, to care for, to speak up for (as his Father and ours has done since the beginning of time), and then to die for that we (yes, we are among them) might live to tell the story to others who need to hear it and to live that ongoing story in relationship with them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

“We are One”

I have been reading psychiatrist F. Scott Peck’s, The Road Less Traveled, which was recommended to me by the late Dr. Henry Farrar, inspiring mentor to many of us, just two weeks before his death in February. Peck talks about the peace he had as his wedding approached, peace that lasted until he arrived at the altar where he was almost overcome by terror: he suddenly realized the magnitude of the commitment he was making, and the implications of that commitment being permanent, and conversely of it being anything but permanent.

A few weeks ago Beth and I began to eat lunch at Mtendere Children’s Village, the home for over 100 orphan children which is located right behind the house where we live. We looked forward to the help for our Chichewa from conversing with the children and staff, as well as the increased time with them. We paid the administrator of the orphanage, Gracian Chisema, for the first couple of meals, a very small sum, probably less than we spend at home to fix lunch. We missed several days after that and then started up again, and talked to Gracian about payment. “Talk to Tiwonge” [his operations manager]. “She’ll take care of it.” We talked to Tiwonge, and she refused to take our money, referring us back to the administrator. When we saw Gracian again, he said, “Yeah, Tiwonge talked with me the other day and said, ‘We all eat down there from time to time, and none of the rest of the staff pay, so why should the Smiths pay. They’re just as much our staff as anyone else.’ So, you’re not going to pay. We are one.”

“We are one.” That’s quite a statement. It’s a sword that cuts two ways. First, it’s a really high compliment. At this stage in our language learning to be told, “You are just as much a part of our staff as anyone else here,” is really an honor. We are not staff. Not for the orphanage, nor for the food processing plant, nor for Feed the Children, nor for Educate the Children, certainly not for the School of Agriculture for Family Initiative [SAFI], nor even for Blessings Hospital. We are students of Chichewa working toward a new HIV project which will be based on campus because we are here. We occasionally chauffer the staff here or there. I hold a devotional with the older boys of Mtendere two or three nights a week. One or two of the guards run with me most mornings. And, we are the only biological family living on campus. But we are not really staff. Something is happening, however, that is bonding us to them--and them to us. This blessed something is also a two way street.

With privilege comes responsibility. Beth and I have been reading a couple of relevant books: African Friends and Money Matters discusses the clashes between American values about money and African values about money, and Leading Cross-culturally points out that many American (and some African) values about money have their roots in the Kingdom of Darkness, the Kingdom of this World, not in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Africans are much more communal about money. Americans are much more individualistic about it. For Africans, what is mine, or yours, is often ours. For Americans, what’s mine is mine unless I decide to make it yours. And don’t push me! It’s still mine!!! For Africans, whoever has a lot of money is a welcome part of this sharing community, a tremendous potential resource. And though we Smiths may have much less money than we did not too long ago, we still are so, so rich compared to most of our colleagues. We thus qualify: we’re a tremendous resource. I must add here that this is not consciously nor conspiringly considered any more than “It’s mine!” is consciously or calculatingly contemplated. They are, respectively, each in the place where it rules, just part of the unconscious fabric of life.

I’m not sure I want to be “one” with anyone but Beth and the Lord, and at times I have my doubts about them. I want to keep what’s ours. I want us to use it the way we want to. I don’t want anyone considering mine to be his or hers. But (the books also point out) that is not the way of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Read the ends of the 2nd and 4th chapters of Acts.) And as I exhort some of you to give up some fairly large chunks of “yours” to help us do what we want to do here, I run a great risk of standing condemned on my own appeal. Now don’t get me wrong. In Africa there are ways of saying “No”, ways to save some money, there is wisdom and foolishness with regard to money. But current relationships are more likely to rule than the bank balance or fears for the future. Days are taken more one at a time. I think there’s something about that in a book somewhere too, isn’t there?

And so “We are one.” As we by fits and starts, through hesitation and willingness, stubbornness and submission grow in these new relationships and by so doing learn more of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, what the guidelines are for really trusting the Provider of us all (and not our own strength, or financial acuity, or business skills or any other aspect of “me” which I’ve been really been given by Him for service to others, which I’ve supposedly entrusted to Him as part of our agreement), as we learn what the guidelines are for living the best kind of life possible, pray that we will receive them, live them, and demonstrate to the world around that we do know the One who is three in one, who invites us to be one with him, and with each other through trust, to his praise and glory, and the growth of this life-giving oneness throughout the world.