Thursday, December 18, 2014

Visit with the Munthalis--George's Post

In Malawi it is rare to find men and women living into their 50s.   Living conditions are too hard, and the perils to health too ever present.  Malaria is one of the most pervasive killers, especially among those under five.   The very young  are also vulnerable to cooking accidents.   Over 12% of the adult population is HIV positive.   Public water sources are often polluted, so many in the population carry around various forms of bacterial infection.  Serious illnesses are frequently undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and even when properly understood, proper medical care, and access to the needed drugs and medications, are limited.  Hence, few live into their 60s, and often those who do are crippled with various ailments-- poor eye sight, limited mobility, constant pain.

Carole and I have quickly learned it is hard to estimate the age of the Malawians. Children are small in stature, when compared to children in the United States, probably due to poor diets.   Most of the little girls and boys are slight in build and short for their age.  Obesity is not a problem in Malawi, no sugar pops for breakfast, no chips and pop after school, no fast food chains on every corner.  I usually guess children to be younger than they actually are.    On the other hand, adults age prematurely.  Early pregnancies, coupled with the hardships of daily living—carrying water, caring for children, struggling to find food from day to day, inadequate health care—take a relentless toil on the health of the young women.   Life is not much easier for the young men.  And, in any event, when adults reach their 40s, if they are fortunate enough to live that long, they look much older to our eyes.

The Zingwangwa Branch has several older members: Brother Sangala, a tailor by trade, who is 50; Brother Magombo, the oldest member, who is 77 according to the Church records; and Brother Mwale, at 69, who is the first counselor in the District Presidency and has a large household for which he remains financially responsible.
Brother Sangala, the branch’s Sunday School president, lives alone, high up Mount Soche, in a one-room cottage.  He is gracious, has an kindly countenance, and is very faithful.  It is hard to think of someone more humble and self-effacing.  Here is a photo of him standing in his one-room home:

Below is a photo of President Mwale and his wife, surrounding a number of grandchildren, who live with them.  It is common for grandparents to take care of grandchildren and other younger  members in the extended family, especially if they have a home and source of income.  So many adults die at young ages, often leaving behind spouses and children totally destitute or in tight financial straits.  Children are sent to live with those having the means to care for them.   There are no annuities, life insurance policies or social security to serve as a social safety net for orphans and widows.  Extended families are the first, and usually only, line of defense.  The system actually seems to work quite well—we have never heard a complaint spoken about the hardships of taking in a child or elderly adult.

Brother Magombo, at 77, is the oldest member of the Branch.  As you might imagine, he has an amazing robust constitution, no one lives that long in Malawi without it.  He is surprisingly spry and alert.  He comes to all the Church meetings  and helps out however he can.  Here is a picture of him collecting hymnals after a Church service:

I would like to introduce you to another of our senior members--Brother Shauta Munthali—whom we visited last week.  The primary purpose of our visit to the Munthali household was to visit with Memory, a young woman just 20 in the Branch.  Here is a photo of Memory and her father, sitting in the front room of the Munthalis’ home.
Memory was just called to serve as the President of the Young Women’s Organization in the Branch, even though she herself is just a few years removed from Young Women.  She has asked Carole to instruct her on her duties as a new leader.   Memory is also preparing to serve a full-time mission, working to secure a passport, one of the critical time sensitive prerequisites for serving as a missionary. She hopes to be in the mission field sometime next year.   [In our mission, the Zambia Lusaka Mission, roughly half of the missionaries are from the United States and half from other African countries—Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, to name a few. Consequently, most companionships pair one African with one white or western missionary.  Having gotten to know several of the missionary pairs well, both sisters and elders, Carole and I have been impressed with how well they appear to get along.]  Even though our branch is small, currently it has five of its young folks out serving on missions, all assigned to work in African countries.   At our last District meeting, held in the Blantyre Chapel, we learned of two Africans, from the other branches in Blantyre, who have recently been called to go to England on missions, one to serve in London, and the other in Birmingham, prompting lots of jokes about cold weather.  The Malawians can’t stand the cold, bundling up with knit caps and sweaters at the slightest dip in temperature.
Carole had firmed up the appointment with Memory the prior Sunday.  Not knowing where the Munthalis lived, the plan was to meet in the front of the Mwales’ home—a family we have visited the week before. Memory told us that she lived close to the Mwales and that would be a convenient meeting spot.  We had seen Brother Munthali’s name on the Branch list, but had never seen him in Church, nor heard the Branch members talk about him or his family. 
When we arrive at the appointed meeting place, Memory is not there.   After waiting for 10 or 15 minutes, Carole calls Memory (fortunately, we have her cell number with us).   Somehow the plans for meeting have gotten scrambled, Memory thinking the appointment is for the next day.   After rescheduling for another time, Carole and I start down the hill, the truck being parked a couple hundred yards away.   The unpaved roads in that township are awful, so we usually leave the truck parked, off to the side of the dirt roads in what we think of as safe areas in the flats, and hike in, and usually up, to our appointments.  [We find that easier on the truck and our nerves.] Yet before we manage to get back to the truck, Memory, slightly out of breathe, magically appears.   How exactly she manages to find us we don’t know—though, of course, we always stick out and are, in this case, not too far from the scheduled rendezvouz spot.
This is a photo of Carole, Memory and Brother Munthali:
 The Munthali home sits back from the lane, with a broad open front yard, an uncommon feature in the community, most homes closely crowding the road.   The outside of the home is plastered with concrete—setting it apart from neighboring homes with their unadorned brick facades.  The home is far more specious than expected from first appearance—the living and dining areas are separated, behind which is a connecting hall, bedrooms and an indoor bathroom.  A small backroom opens out to a covered back porch and a barren backyard.  It is certainly one of the nicer homes in the immediate community.  
The front of the house also has a narrow covered porch.  It is here we met Brother Munthali.  He is lying down, knees ups, in what appears to be a tangled clump of clothes, propped up against the side wall.   Several boys are on the porch, playing some kind of game, and seemingly keeping him company.   He is spectral in appearance, all legs and arms, angular, giving him a length quite at odds with his slight frame.   I lend him a hand to allow him to stand upright.  He has no weight, but sinewy strength in his frail arms.    He greets us warmly and invites us into his home, saying over and over, we are most welcome.   At first, I am not sure if he knows who we are and why we have come.
But quickly, it becomes appear he is alert and understands we are the new senior mission couple, working in the Zingwangwa Branch, visiting the members’ homes.   I had expected our visit to focus on Memory, but it does not play out that way.  Carole talks to Memory and I to Brother Munthali.   He and I, we learn, are from the “same sheets,” he being 62 and I 66.  We have both had long lives and are close to the end.  He and his wife, now 10 years deceased, are the parents of five daughters, something he touches upon wistfully.  No mention is made of sons, but the way in which  he talks of his daughters, nothing more than a slight inflection in tone—like the deft striking of a piano chord--seems to reflect a wordless yearning for a son.  Memory is the fourth daughter and takes care of him, fixing meals, keeping the house clean, shopping.   Several other daughters are in Blantyre, but at least one of them lives in LiLongwe, Malawi’s capital, a five hour drive to the north.
 I am surprised to learn he spent two years in the mid-1970s, in Belfast, Ireland, going to school and improving his English.   He studied computer sciences.   While going abroad to school is common in the States, it is exceptionally uncommon here.  It would have been even more so 40 years ago.  No one can afford travelling or studying outside the country.   Most have never been outside of Malawi.  Buying a passport is beyond the means of the average individual.   To have struck out, when he did, leaving behind village, and family, and home, would have required great courage and gumption, making him as a true pioneer.  Knowledge of geography is limited among Malawians.  Most in Malawi would not have a clue where Ireland appears on a map.  [Yesterday one middle-aged sister in the Branch, a new member, could not locate Africa on the world map, pointing instead to North America.]   The world is still a small place in Malawi.  The options for travelling are narrowly defined, and are circumscribed in terms of shuttling between one’s village and Blantyre or making brief trips to LiLongwe, Zomba, or Mzuzu.   Few have been to Mozambique, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe or South Africa.  Europe, Asia or the United State are out of reach, only visited by the rich and government officials. 
Brother Munthali has bad legs and finds it difficult to get around.  And several years ago he largely lost his sight, leaving him to suffer with one eye milky and the other not much better.  These events have conspired to render him essentially house bound.   His world is contracting, as it does for many older seniors.  But he, like many elderly adults, has a rich personal history, with years of activity and accomplishment, a history now largely unknown to any but his closest family members.  I doubt many in the Branch know much about him at all.   After returning from Ireland, he thrived financially, buying a car and financing the purchase of two homes, evidences of worldly success not common found in the Zingwangwa area.   He supported his large family and, even today, with the rents collected on his second home, he supplies the monies needed to support Memory and other family members.
Sometime after his wife’s death, he went to the temple in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Getting to the temple is a primary goal of many members.  It is expensive to go, so many have to wait years before they can save the funds needed for the trip.   It takes over 20 hours by bus to make the trip to Johannesburg.   As a consequence, temple trips, when made, are scheduled as multi-day events, recognizing that, for many, it may be the first and only time they have the opportunity of attending the temple.  The level of sacrifice demonstrated by the local members, in going to the temple, paying tithing, and even trekking to Church on the Sabbath, is inspiring.   For them, these acts of obedience are not casually done.   They require discipline, planning and sometimes years of months of savings.    They do not complain or bemoan their lot in life.   They are not bitter or angry.  They do not feel God has forgotten them or been unfair.  Instead, they see themselves as having been blessed and recognize the hand of God in their affairs.  Their spiritual lives are rich and alive.   They embrace the gospel readily and find its simple truths to give them hope and to infuse their lives with meaning.  
Brother Munthali’s life abundantly demonstrates this.  With his health afflictions, limited mobility, and isolation, he could have been despondent.   He could have complained about the lack of visitors, this poor eyesight, being alone, or pain in his legs.  But instead he was so appreciative of our dropping by to meet him and Memory.  He was the consummate host, welcoming and gracious, lifting us up and making us feel special.  He epitomizes what we now think of as the quintessential Malawi greeting “you are most welcome.”
Towards the end of our first visit, I asked Brother Munthali if he would like to receive a priesthood blessing, guessing it may have been years since such a blessing had been given to him.  He responded enthusiastically. Priesthood blessings are given to the faithful—that through their faithfulness, as well as through the faithfulness of those in attendance when the blessing is pronounced, the sick or afflicted may be comforted, or healed, or, even in some cases, promised a release from the continuing pains and suffering of this mortal life.  The one giving the blessing is expected to listen carefully to the promptings of the Holy Ghost when pronouncing the blessing upon the sick.  The priesthood bearer is to be the conduit through which the Lord speaks.  As a consequence, the giving of blessings is not a casual matter in the Church.  Pronouncing a blessing is considered a sacred matter and, when done properly, can be a great blessing, not only to the afflicted, but also to the afflicted’s family and to those in attendance. 
When we returned to the Munthalis, several days later, for the blessing, we were joined by Elder Mkochi, a returned missionary from Zimbabwe, who is the executive secretary in the Zingwangwa Branch.  Elder Mkochi, age 27, is engaged to be married; his intended is Sister Toko, who is one of the two primary teachers.   I wanted Elder Mkochi to accompany me for several reasons.  I thought Brother Munthali might prefer having the blessing in Chichewa, his native language, not knowing how comfortable he would be with English.  But more importantly, since our role is to act as “shadow” leaders, the African leaders to assume and take the primary responsibilities, I thought Brother Mkochi should act as the spokesperson in giving the blessing.  Here is a picture of Brother Mkochi:
 Once we were gathered in the Munthalis’ living room, I took a few minutes previewing the steps of the ordinance that was about to take place, explaining that a priesthood blessing involves two parts: an anointing with consecrated oil of the head of the sick or afflicted; followed by a “sealing” of the anointing, coupled with a priesthood blessing, given by the spokesperson as he feels inspired to speak.   I anointed and Brother Mkochi sealed.  Brother Mkochi gave a wonderful blessing and I trust Brother Munthali was comforted, not only by the words spoken but as also by the warm spirit felt by the small group who were there to support Brother Munthali.
At this time I will not review in detail what we think happens, both to the person being blessed, as well as to the person giving the blessing, when priesthood blessings are administered.   I would, however, like to leave one thought about priesthood blessings.    This I do by analogizing to our personal prayers, when we seek blessings or protection or comfort of the Lord, either for the benefit of ourselves or others.   We think we know what is good for us or for others, but that is frequently not the case.   We, like children, often ask for the wrong things.  We ask for relief from trials, for success in our earthly endeavors, for material possessions, often when each of these prayers is not what we need.  Indeed, from the Lord’s perspective, the trials we have may be for our eternal benefit, learning patience and obedience through our struggles to overcome them; getting a new job or the next promotion, earning more money, may give rise to pride and distract us from pursuing diligently what are really the most important things in life; and getting more of what the world offers clutters our lives.  The life of the Malawians makes that abundantly clear.  They have little, but they are rich in the things of the spirit. 
It is the Lord who knows what is best for us, and we need to trust in Him.  Paul recognizes our lack of vision, saying “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.  And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.  And we know that all things work together for them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8: 26-28.   The Prophet Joseph Smith receives similar counsel, when suffering in Liberty Jail in the winter of 1839.  Joseph laments, as he pleads with the Lord to avenge him and the saints, and to relieve him and them of their burdens.  “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?  How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?  Yea O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?...Remember thy suffering saints, O our God: and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.”  D & C 121: 1-3; 6.  
The Lord’s reply to Joseph’s complaint is short and direct.  It does not bring the relief Josephs wants or asks for.   “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;  And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.”  D & C 121: 7-8.  Instead, the Lord offer His peace, not the peace of the world; the Lord asks for patience, for long-suffering, for courage in the face of trials.  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  John 14: 27.  This is what we can rely upon when asking for the Lord’s blessings—whether these requests for blessing come through personal prayers or as a result of priesthood blessings.   We can count upon the Lord to speak peace to our hearts.  To give us strength to face adversity.  To give us the assurance that we are in the Lord’s care and that He is mindful of us, whatever our circumstances, whether they be painful or challenging, seemingly hopeless or bleak.  I hope Brother Munthali felt that spirit of peace, as Brother Mkochi pronounced his words of blessing, that he knows of the Lord’s love for him, and knows that he is engraven in the palms of the Lord.