Saturday, February 28, 2015

Esther's Funeral--George's Post

The last two days, Wednesday and Thursday, February 25th and 26th, have been among the longest, and certainly the most physically taxing, of our four months in Blantyre.  On Wednesday, we attended our first Malawian funeral service, for Esther, an 18 year old sister who was a church member.   What we thought would be a short commitment ended up consuming the entire day.  Thursday was devoted to assisting Elder and Sister Bodily, the welfare/humanitarian missionaries for the Zambia Lusaka Mission, in distributing bags of maize meal, cow peas, a soy based relish, and salt, and bottles of cooking oil, to flood displaced victims in temporary camps in the Chikwawa District, about an hour and a half drive south of Blantyre.  We had a couple weeks forewarning about that project, and it ended up being as arduous as we anticipated, and as interesting and rewarding as you might expect.  Right now I am close to being as physically exhausted, and emotionally keyed up, as I have been during our mission; and though weary to my bone, it is hard to sleep.  We have lots of pictures of the trip to Chikwawa, but none of the funeral.

Carole will write about the refugee project, in a separate blog post, so I will focus instead on Wednesday’s funeral.   Prior to Wednesday, Carole and I had had only a passing experience with Malawian funerals.  Several times in the last month, we have witnessed funeral processions in Chilobwe, one of the communities where some of our members live.  We had heard that Malawi weddings and funerals are each lengthy elaborate affairs, often involving whole communities and hundreds of people, and extremely expensive for the affected families. 

Each of the events we witnessed followed a similar pattern.    At the head of the procession were eight to ten men, some carrying small bunches of branches, serving as a vanguard for the funeral procession, sweeping the branches side to side, forewarning bystanders.  The proper protocol is for bystanders to show respect by pausing and then standing off by the side of the road until the entire funeral caravan has completely passed by.  Towards the end of the convoy were several cars, followed by an open flatbed truck, full of mourners, carrying the coffin; otherwise all of the participants are on foot.  If there is formal order in which mourners file, the pattern is not readily apparent to us.   We assume, however, the cars and flatbed truck are reserved primarily to carry family members, close friends, and community leaders.  The size of the funeral parties is difficult to gauge, but in each case, it has taken the convoy at least five minutes to pass.   So I would estimate the groups to be well in excess of a 100 to 150 people, comprised of all age groups, from mothers with infants to slightly bent seniors, young girls and boys to adults and adolescents.  But apart from these brief encounters, we had no feel for a traditional Malawian funeral.

While Esther was a member of the church, no one in our district (consisting of the four branches in Blantyre) knew her.  Apparently she had joined the church some time ago while living in Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, a five hour drive from Blantyre. We don’t know quite why she was in Blantyre, but she recently had come here, either to visit or for medical treatment.  We were later told that she had a grandfather who was also a church member, but otherwise none of her family was in the church or appears to know anything about the church.  But because of her church membership, the church was asked to handle the funeral arrangements—including a vigil the night before the church service, the formal church service, getting flowers for the grave, transportation to the cemetery, and the gravesite program.

The morning of the funeral service we, together with several of the other full-time missionaries, were invited at the last moment to attend the service.  The branch members in charge of the program must have been worried that the branches wouldn’t have enough people out to show proper support for Esther’s family.  We were pleased to come out and were, of course, curious about how the service itself would be handled—never having attended one before.  Brother Banda, the Elders Quorum President of the Zingwangwa Branch, conducted the meeting in the chapel, while President Kanjala, the Branch President of the Blantyre Second Branch, presided.  Sisters from one of the other branches arranged for bouquets of flowers.  Somewhat to our surprise, the chapel was full when the program began, which surely would have been a comfort to Esther’s family.   

As it turned out, the church service itself was very familiar, following what for us is a typical format for Mormon funerals—opening and closing prayers, congregational songs, and two talks.  Both speakers were church members from Lilongwe, where Esther had joined the church, so they knew her and were able to personalize their comments.  Since the talks were given in Chichewa, without translation to English, we don’t know what was said.  But whatever they said, both speakers spoke forcefully and without notes.  (Incidentally, we have been surprised with the ease with which many church members speak in public.)  Later I was told both addresses had been basic doctrinal talks, outlining the plan of salvation and our hope of the resurrection and of a better life to the world to come.  Neither was, however, a eulogy as we understand it.    The program itself finished in about an hour, ending shortly before noon.  Carole and I had appointments scheduled for the afternoon and expected to take off right after the service to get lunch prior to our afternoon commitments.

The familiarity of the morning’s activities quickly gave way to an afternoon that was totally different from anything we expected.  Just as we were getting ready to leave the Blantyre chapel, Brother Chinomwe (a counselor in the Blantyre First Branch) asked if we could provide “transport” for several church members to the gravesite service.  After family and church members had crowded into a private bus, a flatbed truck, and several cars to travel to the cemetery, there not sufficient seats or standing slots for everyone wanting to go to the cemetery.  We said we could help out, but would not be available to help with the return trip because of our afternoon appointments.   We assumed, and this ended up being a flawed assumption, the cemetery was close by (somewhere within the city limits), and we could easily make the round trip in time for our meetings.  We also assumed those we were driving wouldn’t be stranded by our heading back to town after dropping them off, because they could get a ride to Blantyre’s city center using one of the many mini buses servicing Blantyre, Limbe and the surrounding communities. 

Recently, we have found there can, and frequently are, major difficulties in understanding precisely what is wanted or needed by Malawian church members when they ask for our help.  Rarely is it clear what they want.  Language may be part of the problem, but I don’t think it accounts for all of the misunderstandings.  Often we think they are asking for a little help, only to discover they have something quite different in mind.  What we anticipate is a 30 minute drive or time commitment ends up being two to four times as long.  Moreover, requests often come with no advance notice.  Wednesday was just such an occasion. 

[Why they are not clearer about the extent or nature of their needs—and precisely what aid they are seeking from us--is a good question.   Perhaps they are not clear because they know we, as full-time missionaries, are here to serve, so what does it matter whether it takes us much longer to help out than might normally be expected.  Perhaps they are accustomed to helping one another without imposing time limits or otherwise limiting the nature of their help.  If they treat one another that way, why should they, they may think, expect any less of us—we should be equally willing to devote time, to be flexible in readjusting our schedules, to break commitments to others, and to make personal sacrifices.  It is also possible they operate from a bit of an aid-dependent mind set:  Westerners have the resources and means to help; they have helped in the past; so there is no reason why they shouldn’t help out now.   Moreover, Westerners can afford to help (even after helping, the Westerners will have more than enough for themselves), so why should they complain, even if the aid sought goes far beyond what the Malawians would ever ask of one another.  Fear may also be a motivating factor: they may be afraid that we will not help out if we “really” understand the scope of the help being sought: best to be unclear and to count on the Westerners not backing out.  There is no harm in pushing the envelope.]

In any event, what we initially thought of as no more than an hour commitment (a quick drive to the cemetery) morphed into an all-day adventure, one we thoroughly enjoyed and one which I imagine we will remember for the rest of our lives.  The cemetery was not in Blantyre, but instead in a small village, called Mpemba, about 20 kilometers south of Blantyre, off the main road from Blantyre to Chikwawa.   As we drove south toward Mpemba, we found ourselves driving into increasingly heavy cloud cover, accompanied by heavy rain.  The drive out of town, on both the paved road, and muddy country lane, took us the better part of an hour.  By the time we got to the end of the line (which was in the middle of nowhere), it was evident we could not leave our passengers stranded there--we were miles from a paved road where they could catch a mini-bus back into Blantyre.  So whether we wanted to stay or not, we were committed for the long haul.

The last several kilometers of the drive were on red clay, rutted roads, climbing steadily up through maize fields and past clusters of small homemade brick homes, some with thatched roofs.    Short of the village, the bus, flatbed truck and cars pulled off the single lane road, disgorging their passengers for the final walk to the cemetery.  Driving closer to our destination was no longer possible, owing to the narrowness of the lane and the slickness of the path.  As we got to the parking area, we could see the funeral party stretched out in a long file, slowly winding its way further uphill toward the village.   By this time, the weather had further deteriorated, the rain coming down heavily and the footing on the path becoming extremely treacherous.  Some in the funeral party had umbrellas, but most did not.  Yet inspite of everything, they trudged ahead, seemingly oblivious to the rotten weather, the mud, and wetness.

Unfortunately, Carole and I were ill-prepared for an afternoon of rainy weather.  Early Wednesday morning, just before heading to the funeral, we were forced to switch trucks, because of a problem with our safety alarm system.  In our haste to get to the funeral on time, we failed to transfer our raincoats and umbrellas to our replacement vehicle.  After having been drenched the prior Saturday, Carole decided to forego the hike up the hill, electing to stay with the truck.  By this time, it was obvious we would need to cancel our appointments.   Leaving our passengers without a ride back to town (there being no mini bus service within kilometers of the village) was not an option.  And in any event, we were already too far out of Blantyre to make it back to our appointments on time.  Under the circumstances, and anxious to see the balance of the funeral activities, I opted to ignore, as best I could the awful weather, and joined the long line of the funeral party slugging its way up to the village.  It was a 20 minute hike to Mpemba, steadily uphill, past maize fields and small farms.  The main trail (by this time, it was little more than a country lane) meandered, crisscrossed by side trails heading off to who knows where. 

I was one of the last to arrive in the village, which is perched on a small rocky knoll in the hills, and consists of a handful of traditional mud brick homes, outbuildings, and animal pens for hogs and cattle.  So far from Blantyre, the village has no electricity or plumbing or indoor water.   Mpemba is located in a high plain, surrounded by hills, just north of where the highlands drop off, through a series of ridges, finally flowing down into the bottom lands, where the Shirer River cuts through southern Malawi.  (The recent rains have caused heavy flooding in the bottom lands, where Chikwawa District is located, leaving over 300,000 homeless and, in some cases, leaving large villages isolated from the neighboring communities and major roads).  But Mpemba has been spared those problems, sitting as it does high in the uplands.  Esther’s family home is situated on one of the highest points in the village, surrounded by several thatched roof outbuildings and sheds.  Just before reaching the flat shelf, upon which the family home was built, is a final climb up a muddy ridge, which had, by the time I got there, been churned into six inches of muck due to the rain and heavy traffic.  Footing was tricky at best. 

I would estimate close to 200 to 300 people were assembled around Esther’s home, of which approximately 40 to 50 were church members who had managed to make the trek from Blantyre.  The coffin was placed in the family home, with 20 to 25 crowded inside, sitting cheek by jowl, and another 10 to 15 clustered by the front door, many being church members.  The rest of the audience lined the sides of four or five buildings surrounding the family home, seeking whatever meager shelter from the constant rain they could under the slight overhangs of the thatched roofs.  Most were without umbrellas.  Initially I joined one group of men leaning up against the mud wall of a home, but later, when offered a chair, sat outside totally exposed to the rain.   For the better part of two hours, I sat hatless in the rain, wearing my gray pin stripe suit, with a white shirt, and muted red tie, and certainly would have cut quite a strange sight for the villagers.  I was the only white and the only Westerner in the audience. 

But curious though my appearance may have been, it was nothing more than an oddity.  For over two hours, the church members, to give support to the family, sang one church hymn after another.  They had brought hymnals with them.  They were as close to a celestial choir as one is apt to experience in this life.  Their music was simple but sublime.  Most of the lyrics and melodies would have been new to the villagers—since the songs were largely drawn from traditional Mormon sources-- Come Come Ye Saint; O God, The Eternal Father; Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah; How Great Thou Art; Abide With Me, Tis Eventide.  The community listened spellbound.  Once I can remember looking to the hills across the way, seeing the clouds and mist swirling below us, and the rare breaks of blue being suddenly engulfed again by more clouds and mist.  It was a sacred setting and, at least, for a while, I think most of us thought we were on sacred ground, consecrated by the holiness of life and death, and blessed by the sweet spirit that can come from heavenly music.

Shortly before the village women brought dishes of food to the family and guests (including the church members), there was one brief comic event.   For a while I was standing near to the mud ridge, just below the family home.  When women, especially the older ones, started up the ridge, or descended, I would offer a hand of support.  I am not sure it helped much, but it seemed the right (and the proper) thing to do.   Occasionally, another African would also help.  One woman, with a small child in hand, started down the ridge. She offered the child to the African, who in turn passed the infant on to me to hold, while he reached back to help the mother with her footing.  While the infant had no problem being held by the African, he immediately shrieked when I took him in my arms, and his utter panic and cries only subsided when he was passed back to his mother.  The villagers found the event understandably humorous. 

After a couple of hours, and after the weather broke a bit, I called Carole on my cell phone, encouraging her to walk up to the village.  I met her half way and we got back to the village just as they started a short hillside program.  Brother Banda spoke, representing the church, and he was followed by various village elders and family members, including the deceased’s uncle, a distinguished looking African, with an impressive bearing, who was the family representative.  Everything was said in Chichewa.  A closing prayer was offered and then the group broke up and proceeded back down the hill, in the direction we had come, to the village gravesite, sequestered in a small copse of trees, off the main path.   While in transit, the church sisters began singing again, but this time chanting some traditional Malawian songs. 

The community encircled the burial site, family members in the foreground, church members in front of the burial plot, and villagers in the back and on both flanks.  Again the church members sang church hymns, and their singing was then followed by a few short remarks.  One of the speakers was the village elder.  He was ancient in appearance, standing less than five feet, wearing white tennis shirts, without laces, and bearing a white knit cap (perhaps suggesting that he was a Muslim). The coffin was lowered into the grave and six or more men covered the coffin with dirt, using the traditional khasus as shovels, and built up a mound several feet above the ground.  The choir sing multiple refrains of  “God Be With You Until We Meet Again,” as various family members and village leaders were invited to come forward to place floral and other decorative wreathes on the grave.  Each time one of our church sisters would carry a wreathe to the gravesite, bow before the guest as a sign of respect, and extend the wreathe to the guest to place upon the grave.

For the most part, the ceremonies were conducted without bursts of uncontrollable emotion—but instead were done in a quiet but reverent manner.  But the burial itself was obviously a painful time for the family.  Several family members had difficulty containing their emotions, breaking into fits of sobbing.    After the burial itself was completed, but before the end of the formal program, Esther’s sister, who we were told was doing something in China, finally arrived at the cemetery.  Unfortunately, she had been unable to get to the village earlier, and had not had time to work through her feelings.  As soon as she arrived, she sobbed uncontrollably, threw herself upon the grave, and was largely inconsolable.  After her mother wrapped her daughter in her arms, and constantly caressed her, she found a margin of peace and regained a little of her composure.  Her unexpected outbursts triggered similar expressions of emotions from several of the other women in the congregation.  But finally she quieted, finding, I think, some comfort in the singing of the church members.  Her feelings were nonetheless still very close to the surface as we reached the end of the gravesite service.  Brother Mkandawire and Alex Tsegula of our branch gave the dedicatory prayer and final prayer, bringing the afternoon’s service to an end.

The villagers then returned to their homes and the church members headed back to the bus, trucks and cars for the return trip to Blantyre.  On the way back, the rain picked up, rendering the red clay roads almost impassible.  The bus was stuck for two hours and, because our car was blocked by the bus, we in turn were delayed for more than two hours before getting back on a paved road.  The funeral was, I suspect, a fusion combining elements of a traditional Malawian funeral with that of a Mormon service.

A Visit to the Hospital - Carole's Post

Last week we received a call in the morning that one of the sisters in a Blantyre branch needed to go to the hospital right away.   Her parents reside in the Zingwangwa Branch and President Mwale, her father, is in the district presidency.  About two weeks ago we stopped by to visit with Sister Mwale and we could tell that she was anxious and distressed while waiting for a call from her daughter Juliet, who at that time was in St. Elizabeth's, the large government hospital in Blantyre.  She had since come home but in a few days, her condition had worsened and this time, they had arranged for her to go to the district hospital in Chiradzulu.

The Mwales live in Chimwakhunda  on a street that can be accessed two ways, neither of which is easy.  Usually, we park at the bottom of a very steep hill and walk up the completely undrivable" road" for 50 yards to their home.  It is deeply rutted with many jagged rocks protruding from the ground.  Still, is is easier than driving on the road from the other side, which is not steep, but neverless presents its own challenges.  We have to drive over a short but EXTREMELY narrow bridge without any side guards and make a very sharp turn to do so.  It is difficult to turn around once you get to their house and you can't drive out the other side because of the aforementioned reasons.  This time we decided to drive because we needed to get as close to the house as possible.  Though she lives with her family in another home, Juliet had been staying with her parents because of her condition.  She is married with three children.

She was unable to stand or walk on her own.  I put one arm around her waist and draped her arm over my shoulders.  Nora, her sister, was on the other side.  We slowly made our way to the car.  Her mother and Maxwell, a family friend who knew the way to Chiradzulu got in the car with us and off we went.
I discovered that Juliet had been in St. Elizabeth's but had never been diagnosed because they had "lost the lab results".   She was given mostly ibuprofen for her swollen legs and arms, her most serious symptom, but when she didn't improve they sent her home and said there was nothing more they could do.

We drove about forty minutes to reach the hospital.  It is actually a lovely drive with views of Mulanje and wide expanses of maize fields.
From the outside, the hospital looked fairly nice.  We managed to track down a wheelchair, very old with broken leather and tightly-tied rags for a footrest.
Juliet was taken to an examining room and we waited in the hallway.

The bulletin boards were filled with notices about procedures for disposing of hospital waste and how to keep things sanitary.  About half were written in Chichewa.

After about an hour, we were told that she was going to stay in the women's ward.  I met a nurse assistant who directed me to the ward and said she had been assigned to clean the bed.  We chatted as she moved a thin plastic coated mattress to the standard hospital (wire mesh) bed and then wiped it down with a sanitizing solution.

Her mother had come prepared and pulled out clean bedding.

Each bed had a metal bedside table and there was one electrical outlet close by, though most of them were hanging out of the wall.

A mother always knows what to bring!  Can you see a copy of the Liahona in the top of the bag?  The two bags contained additional clothing for both of them, some eating utensils and pans, and some bedding for her mother who remained with her, and slept on the floor, for the five days she remained.

The ward of forty beds was only half full, so it was nice that Juliet got a bed by the window.

Hospitals do not supply meals for the patients except some porridge in the morning.  Sister Mwale went to the street market just outside the hospital grounds and purchased food, then paid a small amount to prepare it in the hospital kitchen.  This she did daily.

We checked our cell phones to make sure we had correct numbers for one another.  You can see some of the visitors in the background.  They are gathered around various patients.

We came back two days later to visit.  The ward was filled with family and friends everywhere, many sitting on the floor and eating out of common pots.  Malawians eat with their hands. Sometimes the patients were up and part of the social scene but some were just lying on their beds.   Juliet was sitting up on her bed, eating chicken and rice, surrounded by family members.  The hospital is so far from Blantyre, that I was really moved by the efforts of so many to travel and spend time with their loved ones.

We know there are other private hospitals in Blantyre, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist, which have good reputations but most of the members we know go to the government hospitals.  The government hospitals also have large outpatient clinics.  When people say they went to the hospital, it sounds very serious to us, but it usually means that they went to the doctor.  Only when they say they are "in hospital" do we realize that they had a stay there.

We picked Juliet up after five days and this time, she could walk very slowly to the car.  In this hospital,  the lab results determined that she had malaria, but there were (are) probably other complications.  We are getting mixed messages as to how she is doing at home so time will tell.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Photo Directory--George's Post

One of the first tasks we undertook after arriving in the Zingwangwa Branch was to assemble a photo directory of the branch members.  We thought this task would help us get to know the branch members and to memorize their names.  The Malawians speak softly, so I often have to bend down to hear them saying their names.  And many, though not all, of the names, are challenging to remember because they are poly-syllablic African names, with sounds quite unfamiliar to the Western ear.    One of the teachers in the Primary goes by “Thoko,” easy enough to recall, but her full name is Thokokani Mzunga. 
Thoko works with Carole in the Primary (the organization working with young children), and is an invaluable help.  Carole doesn't know what she would do without Thoko's support.

Fortunately, the pronouncement of the African words is largely phonetic, with every letter being pronounced, using consistent sounds, much like Spanish.  There are a couple of tricks, “l”s and “r”s can be pronounced interchangeably.  Many surnames start with multiple consonants—Mkochi, Nthenda, Nkhoma, the first consonant sounded ever so lightly, and the final “h” not articulated at all.
Below is a picture of Brother Mkochi.  He is the branch's executive secretary, and is a pillar of strength for the branch.  He is several years off his mission to the Zimbabwe Hrare Mission.  He and Thoko were engaged, at least for a while, but we don't know what their plans are now.

I am constantly surprised by the number of Westerner names that surface, some commonly used back home, some quite old fashioned.  Several men carry the given name “Clement”—“Clement” Chikapa, our branch president, and “Clement” Phiri.   One of our members is “William James,” another is “James William Tsegula.”  There is “Stanford” Chimera, “Bessor” Petro, “Amos” Monjeza, Kondwani “Ben” Mkochi, “Damiano “John” Chimaliro, “Elliot Francis” Mkandawire, “Maxwell” Mbera, “Albert James” Kunje, and “Andrew Makwa Kajawo, and “Wrighton Goodson” Magombo.  Given Malawi’s recent English colonial period, one should hardily be shocked by the prevalence of English names.  While most young adults, adolescents and children speak English, it is still a “second” language, with few speaking and readily fluently.   Most are much more comfortable in Chichewa, the predominant dialect in Malawi, though they frequently use English in Church, sometimes I think in deference to the Westerner missionaries. 
Brother Wrighton Goodson Magombo is as "African" as one can be, but carries a very British name.  At 77, he is the oldest member of the Zingwangwa Branch; while he speaks English, I have never understood a word he says.  He is surprisingly strong and active, and never tires of helping out at Church, stacking chairs, distributing hymnals before services, sweeping the meetinghouse. 

The Malawians have a fondness for religious-oriented names; “Grace,” “Praise,” “Patience,” “Happiness,” “Goodness,” “Joy,” “Innocent,” are commonly used as given names, sometimes appearing in their Chichewa forms—“Chisomo” (Grace) or “Chimwemwe” (Happiness), sometimes appearing in their English counterparts.
Sister Chisomo Phiri, pictured below, just returned home after serving 18 months in the Nairobi, Kenya Mission.  She is the half sister of Brother Banda and now "stays" with the Bandas in their modest home up Soche Mountain.  The transition back to normal life for an African missionary can prove to be very stressful, as they worry about how they are going to fit in after being somewhat "westernized."

Another motivation for doing the photo directory was to have an excuse to visit the branch members in their homes.   By now we have been in the homes of over 40 branch members, located in all of the small communities making up the Zingwangwa Branch, from Soche to Chilobwe, Chimwankunda to Zingwangwa, from Chemwembe to Manga.   When I look around Sacrament Meeting on Sundays, I am pleased to see we have now made friends with almost all of the regular members.  Each Sunday there are non-members sprinkled throughout the congregation, and the occasional members we haven’t yet met, but for the most part we know everyone.  It is a nice feeling and gives us a greater sense of community and belonging.
Here are a couple of photos of the photo directory as it was being assembled in the living room of our apartment:


These visits have been invaluable in building a bridge of trust between us and the members.  They are not just faces, but families we know and enjoy.  Usually we leave a short message and prayer, visits usually lasting no more than 30 minutes; yet sometimes we do nothing more than stop by for a very brief greeting or to schedule a follow up appointment. 
Quite unlike the United States, we can invariably find someone home, almost any time of the daylight hours.  Our branch members frequently have neighbors or family members visiting, for Malawians are extremely social and have a strong communal sense.  They look after each others children, indeed children (even the smallest of toddlers) roam freely, without apparent supervision, from one home to the next.  As best we can tell, everyone just keeps an eye out for their own children and their neighbors’ kids.  There is always several adults around, within line of sight, to help out if a child gets in trouble or is scared or takes a tumble. 

We have found the branch members (indeed non-members) to be exceptionally welcoming.  Even without an appointment, they invite us in to chat, and seem happy to see us.   With hindsight, we did not need to have the photo directory as an excuse for making these in-home visits.  It has been our practice to take a photo for our directory of the family at the end of our first visit--though sometimes we retake the photo later at Church.  We always have two prints produced, one for the family, the other for the pin board at Church.  Initially, we thought the “photos” might disappear over time at Church, families or kids wanting to snatch copies for their own use, but that hasn’t really happened.  Thus far, only one photo has gone missing, so perhaps the two-photo approach has been effective. 

Recently I started charting our visits or “meaningful” one-on-one contacts on an excel spreadsheet, in an effort to keep track of what we were doing and to ensure that our visiting was spread out more evenly across our branch family.    There is a risk of getting stuck in a rut of contacting “favorite” members, or those most accessible, rather than doing the hard work of tracking everyone down, including those less accessible or less enthusiastic about our visits.  Over the last five weeks, we have averaged 18 contacts per week, with a high of 24 and low of 11.   If my records are roughly accurate, Carole and I have made  over 165 visits to branch members, covering over 40 households, during our three plus months in the Zingwangwa Branch.  
We have only one regularly scheduled appointment.  Each week we meet with President Chikapa, the branch president, to report on our activities and talk about what we might do to help strengthen the members.  Carole and I have been hesitant to take up much of his time, knowing how busy he is, and how little time he has for his family.   He devotes much of his Saturdays and Sundays to Church service and is frequently at the chapel at least one evening during the week.  Like all members, he has a long walk to and from Church, about 30 minutes each way.   President Chikapa works in Limbe, an hour and a half walk from his home in Chilobwe.  If the weather is decent, he usually walks to and from work, even though this consumes close to three hours.    It is faster of course to take a minibus (about 30 minutes each way), but a one way trip costs 250 kwacha or about $.50.   One day he mentioned in passing that using a minibus back and forth to work each day would eat up much of his profit, taking food off the table for his family.   He said it in a matter-of-fact way, not complaining, not whining, not asking for sympathy or support.  Several weeks ago, we proposed to President Chikapa that we pick him up at work at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon and give him a ride home.  This would allow him to get home quickly, and without expense, and at the same time free up some time for us to visit about Church matters.  Generally speaking, this worked out super.  We have time with the President, and yet don’t feel as though we are encroaching too much on the precious time he has with the family.

Apart from President Chikapa, Carole and I have visited the most with the Banda family, since Brother Banda is the Elders Quorum President and Sister Banda the Relief Society President.   Those visits have been made on as-needed basis, as I have coordinated with Brother Banda about home teaching, and Carole with Sister Banda about visiting teaching.  The Bandas are a wonderful family, with a great commitment to the gospel, with an amazing capacity to make exceptional personal sacrifices.  I think of Sister Banda as a modern-day saint, always prepared to strap her three-year old on her back and march off to visit those mourning or in need.    But other than these two families, we have spread our efforts across a broad swath of the branch members.

In about a month, the Reynolds, the other MLS (“member leader support”) missionaries in Blantyre, return home to Everett Washington, after two years of faithful service.  We will miss their companionship; occasionally it’s nice to share experiences and frustrations, and to commiserate with someone from back home, however much we enjoy our fellowship with the members here in Malawi.   Their departure will also effect our assignment.  To date, the Reynolds have handled all of what we refer to as the “office couple” functions in Blantyre—this means paying the bills for the missionaries, dealing with landlord issues, shuttling missionaries to and from the airport, taking care of the five vehicles used by the missionaries (registration, insurance, repairs, and routine maintenance).  At least twice a month, the Reynolds have to balance the checking account with Standard Bank and send financial reports to the Area Office in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Elder Reynolds is a gifted handy-man (he has an amazing breath of knowledge of all things practical), and has done much of the day-to-day apartment maintenance by himself.  They have deliberately spared us of these tasks in order to give us a time to get to know our branch members. 

When they leave toward the end of March, we will, by default, inherit their responsibility for all of these office functions.  This news will, or at least should, send a shiver down the spine of all who know me well.  I do not have a practical bone in my body.  Over the years I have always turned to others, Carole at home and Vicki Lynn at the office, to take care of the practical things—Carole handling car maintenance, flight and car rental reservations, birthday presents, and holiday planning; Vicki Lynn tackling CLE reporting, computer glitches, working around administrative hassles at work, making lunch and dinner reservations, working with accounting, and interfacing with clients.   Taking on these tasks will, no doubt, cut into the time we can devote to visiting members.  I worry about this, and know we will have to find ways of being more efficient.

These visits are truly the best part of my missionary labors.  It is the grassroots, one-on-one experience, Carole and I wanted to experience.  I love walking the lane and byways, searching out the homes of our members, meeting with them and sharing a few thoughts about the good news.  For the most part, I am not discouraged by the heat, the sunburn on the top of my head, the sudden rain squalls, the occasional rejection, the fatigue we feel at the end of the day.   We know progress may be slow.  Daily we remind ourselves that our members, even the most stalwart, have only been in the Church for a few years.  It takes a while for the gospel to season and for members to appreciate its beauty and reach.  Patience is a virtue we, and other missionaries, must nurture.   Often Carole and I have thought how different the Church will be in Africa in 10 years, when current members gain more experience and become more comfortable with Church doctrine and practices.  But, even now, they have a wonderful spirit and have a spiritual maturity far beyond their years in the Church.  We have great expectations for them and are confident that they will learn much in the years to come, as long as they remain steadfast in their commitment.   We certainly hope we are doing good—knowing we bring a message of great peace and hope.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Missionaries: From Malawi with love (of the Gospel) - Carole's Post

There is another story about getting to know wonderful missionaries - not the ones we serve with, but the Malawians who are either preparing to go on missions, those who are on the cusp of leaving, and those who have returned.

A few weeks ago, we were so excited to be able to go to the airport to pick up Chisomo Phiri, who had just completed her mission in Kenya.  Chisomo is a sister to Brother Banda in our Zingwangwa branch so we picked up the Banda family so they could welcome her back as soon as she came out of the airport.
 It took two cars to get everyone there and to have room for her luggage.  Once we got there, we saw that the flight was delayed.  That was okay, because Comfort, Conscious, and Cornus (Corni) Banda had never seen a plane before except once high in the sky in the distance, so we walked all around the airport to find the most strategic spot to see the plane arrive.  We waited and waited; there were no airport personnel to give us an update on the arrival. The posting on the arrival board listed the Enthiopian Airline arrival time as:  TODAY.  It got darker and darker...

And there she is!

The Reynolds took the Bandas home and George dropped off Sister Phiri's aunt in another part of town. Then George and I drove back to Soche and made the climb to the Banda's home so he could release her from her mission. We brought our flashlights and umbrellas, but the conditions were terrible!  I slipped and fell, getting covered with mud all down one side. Still, when we arrived, there was such a sweet spirit in the home.  How great to be reunited with family!

On Sunday, we added Chisomo's photo to the picture board at the branch.

The following day, George set apart Felix Paul as a missionary in the Johannesburg South Africa mission.  The senior couples, along with his branch president who is still filling out paperwork, gathered inside the Blantyre building.
Brother Christopher helped him with his new tie.
Notice the tag on his brand new suit!

The new Elder Paul will make a wonderful missionary!

And off he goes to the MTC in Jo'burg!

We currently have two missionaries in the Zingwangwa branch who have received callings.
Maxwell Mbele, who has been a member for three years,  leaves in four weeks for a mission to Mozambique. 
He will fly to Brazil for for language training at the MTC!

 Khama Gangire leaves in April for the South Africa Johannesburg mission.

Having Sister Phiri back in our branch means we now have four missionaries still serving.  We also have six returned missionaries in the Zinwangwa branch.  They serve as the branch president, executive secretary, clerk, YSA and gospel doctrine teachers, institute teachers, and in the district YW presidency. 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said  “Africa has been held in reserve by the Lord.   Africa will someday be seen as a bright land full of gospel hope and happiness.

 These are the people who will make that come true.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Missionaries: Our Blantyre Zone - Carole's Post

When George and I became missionaries last October,  I knew that we were one senior missionary couple joining the ranks of a record high number of 85,000 plus missionaries in our church.  I love the feeling of being part of something so grand!  I love singing "Called to Serve" and being addressed as "Sister".  I treasure being able to wear my badge.  What I did not anticipate was how much I would learn from my association with other missionaries, both young and, um, "senior".   We have both in the Blantyre zone, and like missionaries in many zones of the the world, I feel like we have something quite special here and that perhaps the best missionaries are sent here for a reason!

Elder and Sister Reynolds are the "office couple" here in Blantyre, meaning they are responsible for taking care of the finances, apartments (leases and rents), cars, the distribution center, and all-around everything to keep the zone running.  They picked us up at the airport and brought us to our flat that they had outfitted with everything that would make us comfortable, including Kellogg's Corn Flakes and peanut butter and jam!  Sister Reynolds is the mission nurse and Elder Reynolds - well, I can call him about any practical question and he has the answer.  We are going to be in big trouble when they leave at the end of next month!

Elder and Sister Merrill are an inspiration to all of us because this is their seventh mission and their fifth in Africa!  Elder Merrill is a doctor and six of those missions he served as the area medical authority.  They are here serving a CES mission for all of Malawi so they have to travel to Lilongwe monthly.  I love this photo of them at the missionary Christmas party with three of the sister missionaries.
 George and I go visit them often because not only are they knowledgeable about the gospel and the Church in Africa, but they are the most fun people we know.  We laugh so hard it is therapeutic!
I also had a bad case of envy when I saw their lovely home. However, when Elder Reynolds told me the guards/caretakers had killed FIVE black mambas so far in the previous seven months, I lost some of that envy!  

 Our district consists of Sisters Griffus (from Minnesota) and Browning (from Idaho)

and Elders Hiltbrand (from Arizona), the district leader,  and Ngendabanka (from Burundi).

Every Tuesday, we have a district meeting (or monthly zone meeting) at the church where we report on our work, receive training by one of the missionaries, and talk about concerns where we can all give input. 
Missionary work is hard work, no doubt about it!  These missionaries arise at 6:30 am for personal study and preparation.  By 9 AM they are out the door to their area for the day and they stay out until 6 PM for the sisters and 7 PM for the elders.  Because missionaries in Malawi spend their evenings in their flats, they do some of their companionship study and preparation at that time. 

During the day they have appointments, do street contacting, service, and knock on doors.  They do all their travel by minibus or by foot.

The minibus system is a highly effective relatively inexpensive way of getting around Blantyre.  However, George would say they also make driving the city extremely challenging.  They have their own traffic rules:  stopping in the middle of the streets, weaving around other minis, and pulling out in traffic while always assuming that you will be the one to stop.  After all, time is money...They probably make up 50% of the traffic!

Our zone leaders, Elders Barnard (from Idaho) and Mwangi (from Kenya) stop to chat with people along the way. 
 Here are our shoes at the end of a day....

The zone leaders have the only car for the younger elders and that means there are many leadership responsibilities.  An unusual one in February was delivering water to all the missionaries (after waiting for hours to fill up the tank at the water board) in the evenings when the taps ran dry in Blantyre after the storm. 

The most common type of companionship is a pairing of one African elder/sister with a Western elder/sister.  Some of the advantages are obvious, because the Church looks less like an American institution and Africans can perhaps relate to their contacts more easily (though Africans always point out that there are big distinctions between the various African countries).  Even more, the missionaries bond and frequently a great love can grow between the companions. Westerners usually come with more experience in the gospel, and Africans come with an enthusiasm to spread the gospel that converts frequently have.  They both learn to appreciate  the cultural differences and discover there are far more similarities than differences.  

In early December, the zone leaders arranged a P-day activity for the entire zone.  It was definitely a bonding experience as we climbed a trail up Mulanje, the highest mountain in Malawi.  

At Christmastime, President and Sister Erickson came to Blantyre and met with all the missionaries in Malawi for a holiday celebration consisting of a dinner, white elephant gift exchange, and watching the Patrick Sterwart version of "A Christmas Carol". 
Yes! a movie for the missionaries!

Sister Komiha got a surprise with her gift choice!

We also got together for Christmas Eve at the Reynolds.

Two weeks ago we had the annual Mission Tour, meaning a member of the Area Presidency (in this case, the President Carl Cook) tours the entire mission with the President and Sister Erickson, spending 2-3 days in each zone.  Their flight to Blantyre from Lusaka was delayed and then cancelled until the next day.  All the missionaries in Malawi, (the zone in Lilongwe had traveled down the previous day) waited in the chapel on Saturday morning to see if they would arrive.
President and Sister Cook finally walked in the door, directly from the airport, and immediately began to lead a training session.

You can see George sitting by the window.

At one point, it began raining so hard on the metal roof that we couldn't hear.  Sister Cook helped her husband by holding the mike for him.

After lunch, we all gathered for a photo.

We were joined by Elder and Sister Bingham (on the far right), the Self Reliance missionaries, and Elder and Sister Bodily, the Humanitarian Welfare Services missionaries, next to them.

One of the more exciting days for young missionaries is transfer day, when several of them receive assignments to move to new areas.  It's hard for us because we get attached to the missionaries we know and we hate to see them leave.  Last week, our zone leader, Elder Barnard, left for home.  He has been such an example of dedication to missionary work - being sensitive to the Spirit, being positive, and loving the people he serves.
Hard to believe that two years is over.  Everything goes into the luggage.


Elder Johnson is also headed home - to Utah.

We took them to the bus station and they loaded their baggage onto the bus.
We will miss them but it's time for Elder Barnard to head back to the ranch in Idaho!  He is reminding me that I have to keep an eye on Elder Beal!

It is an extraordinary experience spending  so much time with all of these wonderful elders, sisters, and couples. 

Doctrine & Covenants 4:1-3
"Now behold a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men.
Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. 
Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God, ye are called to the work:"