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.