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.