Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Bandas--Part II--George's Post

We knew we could not find the homes of the Branch members without help.   There are no detailed maps of the townships in our Branch area-Zingwangwa, Chilowbe, and Soche, to name the ones we know best.  With few exceptions, the roads, lanes and alley ways are not named.  And even if they were, the homes, often clustered in odd groupings, are not numbered.   As a consequence, at the first meeting with the Branch presidency, we asked President Chikapa (the Branch President) for the names of members who could take us to the homes of a few of the Branch members, knowing we had to start somewhere.   He suggested working with the Bandas, Brother Banda serving as the Branch’s Elders Quorum President, and Sister Banda as the Branch’s Relief Society President.

For this reason, Carole and I soon got to know the Bandas, more intimately than we did other members, whom we only saw weekly at Church meetings.  As I mentioned before, the Bandas live high on the slopes of Mount Soche, in a slight bowl on the mountain, where a number of other members live—Brothers Sangala and Petro, the Phiris, the Tellas, the Malungas, and the Themkas .   They have three children—Comfort (11), Conscious (9), and Cornice (or Corney) (3).  Our first member visit was to the Bandas’ home.  Banda is one of the most common Malawian surnames—like Smith or Brown or Johnson in the United States.  [Malawi is currently in the midst of a major political scandal—called “Cashgate”—where a number of high ranking government officials—including the former President Joyce Banda (no relation)—embezzled millions and millions of dollars.]   Although I have shared this photo before, I will use it again here to reintroduce the family:
Brother Banda is artistic and musical.   Often he is called upon to lead the congregation when singing hymns.  With expansive sweeps of his arms, he marks the beat of the music and urges us to sing along.  Not musically inclined, I generally don’t like to sing much, but even I find it hard to resist Brother Banda’s encouragement.   Brother Banda tries to eke out a living selling his wood curvings, hand-made and individually designed cards, and water colors, not an easy way to support a family, whether it be in the States or here in Malawi.   He comes by his talent naturally, his grandfather before him having also worked as an artist.   We understand Brother Banda’s family has been in the Blantyre for several generations, but before that the family was from a district in the northern part of Malawi, not far from Mzuzu, the major city in the north.   For the last three or four weeks, Brother Banda has been out of town, called north to work with his uncle on some kind of family business venture.   Since most men do piece work—miscellaneous work projects as opposed to steady employment—to make ends meet, it is not uncommon for men to pack up and go at the spurn of a moment, to the home village, to another town in Malawi, or even, on the rare occasion, to another African country, for a temporary job, usually one sourced by family members or close friends.  Brother Banda stays in touch with the family with occasional phone calls, but must do so sparingly because of cost.
Brother Banda introduced Carole and me to the Phiris, Brother Sangala, and Brother Petro, winding through the paths of upper Soche, and leading us to their homes.  These introductions launched us, giving us the confidence and orientation necessary to find those families later on our own.   Even now, after almost two months in Blantyre, we are more comfortable picking our way through the backlanes of Soche than any of the our townships in our Branch, owing to Brother Banda’s, and then later Brother Phiri’s, assistance.
Sister Banda, like her husband, is a stalwart in the Branch, leading the women’s organization (the Branch Relief Society), and making herself available, however inconvenient personally, to help out with virtually every service project the Branch sponsors.   Carole and I think of her as having a heart of gold, a true example of the type of “charity” the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13.   Sister Banda must make real sacrifices to take on projects during the day.  First of all, like other young Malawian women, she has to tote Corney with her wherever she goes, Corney being too small to walk very far on her own.    And because the Bandas live high up the slopes, she usually has a long walk to meet the other sisters for their compassionate visits to other Branch members.  It is at least a 40 minute walk each way from her home to the Zingwangwa meetinghouse, and back again.  The following photos capture how Malawian women attach their infants and young children to their backs for long walks. 
The wrap used for carrying the infants/children is called a “chitenge,”  one of the most commonly used items of women’s clothing.  Once the infants/children are hoisted up, the mothers will carry them on their backs for miles.   The first week we were in Blantyre Sister Banda assembled a group of women to make a compassionate visit to Sister Nkandawire, whose mother had just died.   Carole felt privileged to join with those sisters.   The visit to the Nkandawires consumed the entire morning, first gathering at the Church, then crossing town for the visit,  (the Nkandawires actually live outside the physical boundaries of the Branch, but want to continue attending our Branch).  Here are a couple of photos of the women who participated in the trip, showing how much support the women give one another, giving meaning to the simple proposition that, in times of trouble, the saints should be ready to mourn together, an living example of the unity in the Church.
Two weeks ago I scheduled a mid-week visit with Sister MaKawa, an active member of the Branch who comes to Church with her four year old daughter, Gertrude.  She and her family live high above Chilobwe market, among the last two or three homes before the government land.   Not knowing where they lived, we asked Sister Banda if the MaKawas were close to the Bandas and, if so, if she could show us the way a day or two before our appointment.   Her response was “no problem, they are quite close.”   I doubt Carole and I will ever again believe Sister Banda, her natural willingness to help trumping any sense of self preservation.   The Saturday before our scheduled visit we trekked for nearly 45 minutes, in the baking mid-day heat, along a winding path high up the hillside, from the Bandas to the MaKawas, the last 200 years to the home a rock scramble.   The whole time Corney is perched on her mother’s back, Sister Banda striding along, without water or rest breaks, waiting on occasion for Carole and me to keep pace. 
Sister Banda met Brother Banda when they both attended a secondary boarding school, miles from their homes.   They were each selected for the school because of their sterling school performance.  Sister Banda’s family comes from Likoma, the largest of the two inhabited islands in Lake Malawi (the country’s best known natural attraction).  Her island is actually within the territorial waters of Mozambique, just miles of its coast, but the residents speak Chichewa and are Malawians.  Sister Banda has not visited home, since she married 14 years ago, not an uncommon byproduct of the challenges of growing up and living in Malawi, where considerations of cost dictate much of what one does.
Working now with the Primary at the Branch, Carole has Comfort and Conscious in Primary during the Sunday schedule.   They are exceptionally quick and well-informed.  She can count on them to have answers to the questions about the Bible and Book of Mormon, which she has for the Primary children.  Comfort is like his father when it comes to music.   Without help, during sharing time in Primary, he can lead the children in singing, using the same dramatic arm gestures to beat time, and starting the songs with “one, two three, sing.”   The other day Sister Branda told us that Comfort has been at the top of his class for the last several years, no doubt a tribute both to his innate smarts but also to his parent’s encouragement.   Conscious is also a good student, but not quite the standout that his brother is.   It will be interesting to watch the boys progress over the coming years.   Like many who join the Church (the Bandas have been members for only three years), families usually experience radical changes in their individual circumstances within a generation or two.   I am confident the boys will have bright futures, both in terms of their leadership potential in the Church, but also in their standing in the community.  They will learn much for taking on leadership roles in the Branch, giving talks in Church, participating in Primary and Young Men, and eventually serving on missions. 
Usually we see the boys playing around the Bandas’ home, when we drop by the house, in the late afternoons.  The other day the boys had fashioned self-made Indian-like headdresses, chicken feathers attached to a band of some material.  Unfortunately, I did not have a camera at hand.  It showed how inventive boys and girls can be, even at a young age, making due with what they have at hand, and finding ways to create an imaginary world for child-like play.  I should have asked the boys about their play, both are pretty fluent in English (though Chichewa will be spoken at home), wondering if they really were playing “Cowboys and Indians,” something they would know little about.  The Bandas do not have a TV or DVD player in their home, and I would be surprised if many of their immediate neighbors did either.  The following photo was taken during a recent baptismal service in the backyard of the Zingwangwa Branch, capturing a group of primary children looking on.  You shouldn’t have too much difficulty spotting the Banda brothers, they have a distinctive look (top and center):
At three, Corney is the baby of the family.   We have shared photos of her before; here she is playing with her brother Conscious close to their home:
Life is fragile in Malawi, especially for the young.  Two weeks ago, while Brother Banda was out of town, Corney had a sudden fever, which they could not get down.  With a neighbor’s help,  somehow Sister Banda got Corney to the hospital in the middle of the night.  In Soche this is easier said than done, bearing in mind that there are no street lights, no taxis, few cars, terrible roads.  Carole and I felt bad we were not there to help, after getting so much help from Sister Banda and her family over the last several weeks.  What would have been easy for us (a quick ride in the truck) was a real trial for the Bandas.  Fortunately, with some medications and care, they were able to bring the fever down, and in a few days, Corney was back to normal, running about and causing mischief.   Had Corney contracted malaria, the story might well have had a different ending, a crushing fear that every Malawian mother carries in her heart.