Monday, March 16, 2015

Maxwell's New Plans--George's Post

 In my last blog (“What is a “typical” day?”), I talked about the struggles trying to get one young man—Maxwell Mbera--out into the mission field.  He is going to the Mozambique Mission, right next door to Malawi, but, because Portuguese is the language of his mission field, he must start off spending six weeks in the Church’s Brazilian MTC (“mission training center”), learning the language.  Late last night we learned his entry to the Brazilian MTC has now been pushed back to April 29th  because the delay in getting a visa from the Brazilian Embassy.   He will be disappointed when he gets the news.    

What is a "typical" day?--George's Post

A week ago Seth, our eldest son, asked if we had a “typical” day, giving expression to a question many of you may have had when reading our seemingly random, unconnected posts.   The question naturally leads to other somewhat similar questions.  How much routine do we have?  Do we do the same things every day and at the same times?  Is there an overall pattern to our week?  How often is our week thrown off kilter by unexpected requests or surprises?  Do we find ourselves occasionally bored?  What can we do to break up the routine we do have?  Are we required to keep to the same demanding schedule the young elders and sisters are asked to follow?
I doubt I can discipline myself enough to answer all of these questions, but let me take a stab and try to give you a sense for our daily and weekly activities.  First of all, senior couples have much more flexibility than the younger full-time missionaries.  This applies both as to what we do and when we do it.  Our days are not as regimented as theirs.  We are not required to leave our apartments when they do, to be back in the evening by their deadlines, or to adhere to the same study schedule.  Most missionaries don't have cars or trucks, so a fair portion of their free time is consuming getting from place to place.  Life is much easier for us, having access to a truck to get around. 
From week to week, we certainly have some routine, but rarely do the days go as planned.  Something invariably pops up, often quite out of the blue, throwing off the schedule and plans, requiring patience and flexibility on our part.  Carole and I don't really think we have "typical" days--even though we do have some regular activities, which usually come off as planned.  While this keeps us from getting bored, and makes the time go by very fast, we yearn, on occasion, for a tad more stability.

For example, this past Saturday, at the last moment, I got a call from President Chinyumba, the District President, advising us that the Brazilian Embassy in Lilongwe had yet to issue a visa allowing Maxwell Mbera of our branch to attend the Brazilian MTC, to learn Portuguese, before returning to Africa to serve his mission in neighboring Mozambique. 

[This is the photo we took of Maxwell for our branch photo directory.  Maxwell has a twin brother, Benson, who claims to be an hour older.]


That delay threw a wrench into everyone's plans.  Maxwell was scheduled to catch a flight at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, from Blantyre, the first of two flights, on his way to Brazil.  With that schedule in mind, I had already arranged to set Maxwell apart as a new missionary on Monday morning, before taking him to the airport.  President Chinyumba thought there was an outside chance that the Embassy would issue the visa early on Monday morning, and wondered how we might re-jigger flights and schedules so that Maxwell could still get to the Brazilian MTC in time to join the incoming class of new missionaries. 

The belated news unleased a flurry of fanatic, last-minute calls:  President Chinyumba to his contact at the Brazilian embassy to get a better read on when the visa would really be ready for release; several calls to Sister Erickson, the Mission President's wife, first to see if the flights could be changed, so Maxwell could fly out of Lilongwe rather than Blantyre, and later to see what it really meant if we couldn't get Maxwell out until later  in the week; and lastly, several status updates to Maxwell. 

[Maxwell was one of the three young men who helped with the Chikwawa humanitarian project, here resting at the final stop, just before we started to distribute the food packages to the flood-displaced refugees.]

Three options were considered for getting Maxwell into the mission field. 


The first involved having President Chinyumba in Lilongwe first thing on Monday morning, in the hopes of being able to grab the visa right when the Embassy opened its doors at 8:00 a.m., then driving back to Blantyre, fast enough and without being stoped by the police, so that we could still put Maxwell on the 1:30 flight.  But in the end, everyone conceded the option was a high risk proposal not worthy of further consideration.  It's a 4 hour 30 minutes drive from Lilongwe to Blantyre and how likely was that the Embassy would really be in a position to release the visa during the first hour on Monday.  
The second option involved moving Maxwell and not the visa, driving him to Lilongwe so that he would be there first thing on Monday morning.  If the first leg of Maxwell's travel could be rescheduled, flying him out  of Lilongwe to Johannsburg, rather than from Blantyre to Johannsburg, we could buy a few hours on Monday morning.  Carole confirmed there was an South African flight from Lilongwe to Johannsburg, leaving at 1:00, that would get Maxwell there in time to catch the second connecting flight to Brazil.  This might have been doable, but for the fact we had no assurance the Brazilian Embassy could even produce the visa Monday morning, and we didn't know if we could book Maxwell on the Lilongwe flight, the Church's travel department being closed over the weekend.
The last option was really not an option at all.  It simply entailed asking the Brazilian MTC as to how much leeway we had for getting Maxwell to Brazil.  The original news was not encouraging.  We were told that if he missed the flight he would have to wait 6 weeks for the next regularly scheduled training session.  Sister Erickson however agreed to follow up with the Area Office, first thing on Monday morning, to see if there was a little more wiggle room than originally suggested.  Obviously, this has been stressful for Maxwell, and upsetting to his family, many of whom are not Church members.  We know everyone here in Malawi, and at the Mission Home in Zambia, is working hard to find a solution to the problem caused by the delay in getting the visa back from the Brazilian Embassy.  Similar delays in getting visas issued in a timely fashion for our prospective missionaries from Africa have caused endless headaches for the Church and much stress for the young members anxious to begin their missions.
This rather lengthy story illustrates how problems can quickly crop up, requiring immediate attention, and demanding our best efforts to craft makeshift solutions.  Other senior couples have frequently reminded us of the need of keeping positive and staying patient.  Many of our plans will not go as planned and we need to accept that with good cheer.  It doesn't help to get unduly exercised.
Below is a brief description of those activities that are fairly predictable during the week, but often even these commitments must be skipped due to unexpected developments:
Sunday: Each Sunday we have four hours of regular Church services, starting at  8:00 in the morning and ending just after noon.  Our Sunday meetings are an hour longer than most congregations, because the Zingwangwa Branch has two, not one, sacrament meetings. The reason for the two meetings is that our meetinghouse is not large enough to accommodate all of our members at a single seating.  Accordingly, the branch has split its members into two groups—the Soche and Chilobwe sides of the branch.  The Soche group has its sacrament meeting at 8:00, while the Chilobwe group has its sacrament at 11:00.  Between these meetings, we have Sunday School, Primary, Relief Society and Elders Quorum.  Because those are smaller groups, those meetings can be attended simultaneously by members from both sides of the branch.  Usually, Carole and I have people to meet  for an hour or so after Church, but otherwise the balance of the day is free from fixed commitments.  Once a month the branch hold a baptismal service, immediately after the four-hour block, for new members.

[Malawian children are well-behaved and attentive, love singing primary songs, are used to learning by rote, frequently memorizing long passages of scripture.  For reasons we have yet to understand, they  rarely act up or push the limits in class settings.]

[Two props Carole uses to keep the children's attention riveted in Primary: the first the "reverence zebra," the second, batons for leading music during sharing time.  Brother Banda, our resident artist, painted the faces.]


 [Sister Nancy is the newest member of our branch, a lovely young lady.  She was recently baptized by Elder Mwangi, who is from Nairobi, Kenya.  The branch has a portable baptismal font in the backyard of the meetinghouse.]

Monday:  Monday (or at least the day until the late afternoon) is the day set apart for preparation—doing shopping, answering emails, catching our breath, giving the Sisters rides, taking care of the laundry, getting haircuts, writing blog entries.  It is on Monday when Carole frets most about not driving, wishing she had more flexibility to go shopping on her own without dragging me around like an unwanted anchor.  Every other Monday evening, we get together with the other senior couples (the Merrills and the Reynolds)  for "family home evening."  Our little circle will get smaller in a week when the Reynolds return to the States, after two years of dedicated service.

[The Reynolds are standing in front of the Blantyre Chapel (far and away the nicest Church meeting in Malawi), saying goodbye to Elder Osman Njanji (in the suit), who was heading off to the England Birmingham Mission, the first from Malawi to leave Africa on a mission..  To the far left is Christopher Sitolo, who lives in the boys' quarters behind the Reynolds' home, and is a returned missionary,  the first counselor in the Blantyre Second Branch, and one of the stalwarts in the Church.]

Tuesday: On Tuesday morning, usually for an hour and a half, we participate in a district or zone meeting, conducted by the younger full-time missionaries. The elders and sisters use these meetings to give instructions, to share experiences and testimonies, and to motivate one another.  We work primarily with  existing members, while the younger missionaries devote their efforts to finding new members; but despite this difference in focus, we have learned much in these sessions.  It is inspiring seeing the younger missionaries and their energy is infectious.  
[Our district is small: Elders Hiltbrand of Orange County, the district leader; his companion, Elder Ngendabanda, of Burundi; Sister Griffus of Minneapolis-St Paul; and Sister Browning of Caldwell, Idaho.  They are standing in the small foyer of our building.  The thumbs up sign is the idiosyncratic greeting of our two sister missionaries.]
[Elder Sagers, to the left, is one of the new Zone Leaders, replacing Elder Barnards, when he returned to southern Idaho, about four weeks ago.  Elder Sagers is from the Provo-Orem area, and recently joined us from the Copper Belt area in Zambia.  Elder Mwangi has been serving in Blantyre since we arrived and we have gotten to know him well.  He is really as friendly as his smile makes him appear.]
[The Blantyre Zone has close to twenty missionaries.  Our last Zone outing, shortly before Christmas, was to Mulanje, Malawi's highest mountain, at about 8,000 feet.  Missionaries are constantly coming and going.  Two of the missionaries in this photo, Elders Barnard and Johnson, have now returned to the States, and at least five of the others are now serving in other areas within the Mission.]

Wednesday:  We have made it a practice to meet with President Chikapa on Wednesday evening for about an hour to review what is happening in the Branch.  We pick the President up in Limbe, at 4:30 p.m., after he finishes up at work, and give him a ride home, where we then spend about an hour reviewing our assignments and pending matters.  A couple of times we have just stayed in the truck, for our short meetings, but we have found that practice to be less than satisfying.   So we usually leave the truck parked in front of the Chilobwe Police Station, continuing on to the Chikapa’s home, another 15 minute walk.

[The Chikapas in their home in Chilobwe, together with Nimrod (age 2) and Time (age 12).  Time, Brother Chikapa's nephew, is being raised by his uncle and aunt, because his parents have passed away, taking care of the relatives of deceased parents is a common practice here.]

Saturday:  On Saturday morning we head over to the Zingwangwa Chapel for an hour or so to join with the other full-time missionaries in our district, the branch missionaries and the branch missionary leader, for what is called a “mission correlation” meeting.  This is when the full-time missionaries report on weekly activities and have an opportunity to ask for member help in teaching and fellowshipping those investigating the Church.   This meeting is held right after the seminary and institute classes, so we usually get a chance to see many of the members, even though they  do not attend the missionary correlation meeting.


But apart from these commitments, our daily schedule is flexible, each day taking a unique course, differing from the days before or after.   So far most of the uncommitted time has been devoted to visiting members in their homes, Carole’s working with new primary teachers, setting apart new missionaries, visiting teaching and home teaching, the unavoidable chores of keeping up a household, skyping with kids, and writing blog posts. 
One of the more time consuming tasks I have undertaken is preparing what I grandly call the “Blantyre Office Couple Handbook.”  Now pushing 35 pages in length (single spaced), it memoralizes the lessons learned from the Reynolds, who have been serving as the Office Couple here for the last 20 months.  Sister Reynolds is the Mission nurse, and Brother Reynolds is, as I have mentioned before, an incredible resource, keeping the machinery of the local mission effort going--from paying bills, working with landlords, maintaining the trucks, ordering supplies from the Area Office, interfacing with vendors, knowing where to go to purchase office supplies and hardware goods, and knowing what to do if there is a truck accident or a missionary needs to go to the hospital.  On March 23rd, in less than a week from now, the Reynolds head home, leaving Carole and me to somehow pick up the office couple functions for Blantyre.  It has been basically a full-time job for Elder Reynolds, his cell constantly ringing during our visits to their home.  Everyone knows, from President Erickson to the local missionaries, that I will never be able to replace Elder Reynolds.   Not my skill set.  
Our only hope is that the office couple function here does not totally crater in their absence.  But somehow we will muddle through; the full-time missionaries will no doubt be asked to shoulder more hands-on responsibility for their day-to-day affairs than has been the case in the past.  They could always count on Elder Reynolds to bail them out of virtually any scrape or to work around any household problem—getting back into locked apartments, towing a truck whose clutch has gone, hanging mosquito nets over twin beds, fixing a leaky faucet or spraying WD-40 on a squeaky door.   I can’t think of anyone less suited to tackling these day-to-day hassles than myself—either in terms of skills or interest.  Carole and I don't want to give up visiting members in their homes or focusing primarily on member and leader training.  So somehow we will need to find a way to balance these two roles--handling the office couple functions for Blantyre, while not losing our commitment to member and leader support.  Longer days and more efficiency will likely be part of the solution.  



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Mystery Photo--George's Post

For years Travel and Leisure published “mystery” pictures, inviting magazine subscribers and well-seasoned travelers to identify the location of the photos.   I always liked looking at the shots, even if I didn't have a clue where they were taken.  Invariably they represented some exotic place in the world, which we had yet to visit.  When I took this picture the other day, I thought it would be fun to ask if anyone could identify, not the location of the shot, but its subject. 
First the clues.  This photo was taken when we took Maxwell Mbera, a young man in the Zingwangwa Branch, to Blantyre’s office of Malawi’s Department of Immigration.  The photo was taken of a canopied area in a small parking area about 50 yards from the office.   If you look carefully, you will spot on the ground scraps of sliced paper and a car battery that is being used to generate juice to power a printer.   The product we purchased had a “red” background, not quite what one would expect of a similar product in the United States, but at a purchase price of 800 kwacha or $1.80 it was definitely a bargain.  The cottage industry that had grown up around the Department of Immigration was just what we were looking for.  It shows how enterprising Malawians can be, when given an opportunity.   How many copies we needed may be debatable, but in any event, we got four.
By now most of you, certainly all of my grandchildren (over the age of five), will have guessed the right answer.   The little shop generated passport size photos for those applying for passports and visas.


Monday, March 9, 2015

The Plan for Helping Our Branch Members--George's Post

The worst seasonal rains of this wet season, which caused most of the property damage and loss of life, are now six weeks behind us.  The rains have continued, but we have been spared the high winds and nasty torrential rains of January that did most of the damage.  The final tally among the Zingwangwa Branch members was two homes destroyed and four others with one or more walls down, leaving the homes dangerous or uninhabitable.  This inventory does not include damage to outbuildings or leaky roofs or cracks in walls, all nasty problems, but nothing like the loss of a wall or roof.  Had more minor problems been included, the list of affected families would be much longer.   Members in the three other congregations in Blantyre (Blantyre First, Blantyre Second, and Ndirande Branches) sustained similar levels of damage.   Recently we were told that roughly 20 member owned homes in the Blantyre District were totally or partially destroyed.

For weeks, the local Church leaders have worried about how best to help these families.  Not surprisingly, even though the homes are modest structures, the affected Church members do not have the savings at hand to purchase the bricks, cement, sand, support beams, and metal roofing materials, and to hire the labor, needed to restore their homes.    In most cases, the families have been able to move into temporary housing, often staying in crowded quarters with other family members.   Malawians are amazing generous, always willing to open their homes, frequently for months on end, to help out others in the family, even though distantly related.  They do this without fanfare; it is simply what family does.  Few, if any, have private insurance and local government assistance is non-existent.  Foreign aid, and there are many NGOs working in Malawi, is primarily directed at the high density disaster areas, where the needs are the most visible.   And while extended family can and does help with shelter and food, they are usually as poor as those displaced and can’t loan or gift the money necessary to fund major restoration projects.

By Westerner standards, the requisite financial outlay to repair or restore one of these homes is inconsequential in amount.   The bricks, sand and cement needed to build a wall will not cost more than 100,000 kwacha or roughly $200.  Two or three men or women, working one or two eight hour days, can supply all the labor needed.  Labor costs are cheap, so it is not expensive to hire the labor to replace a wall.   Roof materials (the wood beams, nails, and corrugated metal strips) are more costly, but all of the materials to build one of these small brick homes, from scratch, could be acquired for less than 500,000 kwacha or $1,000.   Remember most of these homes do not have electricity, indoor plumbing or water—adding those amenities would substantially increase the construction costs.  Usually, the main home is serviced by at least two outbuildings—one an outdoor toilet, the other a small shed for cooking and to ensure privacy for sponge baths.  We estimate the construction materials for the five affected home in the Zingwangwa Branch would not exceed 1,250,000 kwacha or $2,500, a manageable number in the United States, but an unreachable sum for our poor members.

An easy solution will come to mind for most of you.  We could fund the total costs out of our reserves or, if we wanted to spread the expense, could fund it with our own monies together with modest contributions from family and friends.  It would be easy to raise the money, knowing the generosity of friends back home. 

But the easy solution ends up being a bad one for the members, even if it is simple for us, represents a quick fix, and may make us feel good.  The problem is that undermines the teaching of important principles that many Africans, including Church members, have yet to learn fully.  The Church is working hard to teach the African members the importance of self-reliance—the skill of standing on their own--so that they are not dependent upon gifts or loans from senior missionaries, aid from NGOs, handouts from Westerners.  Instead, they are to look to their own resources, working with what they have at hand, to make ends meet.  That way they can stand on their own, in the months and years to come, without external aid or crutches.  By solving their own problems, through initiative, hard work and resourcefulness, they will develop the skills and aptitude requisite to becoming and staying independent.  And as they do so, they will acquire feelings of independence, develop a pride in hard work and obtain a sense of self-worth.  

The Church recognizes self-reliance is a skill that must be taught and is in the process of implementing a major program throughout all of Africa, available to Church members and others as well, teaching the basic skills people need to master to stand on their own—budgeting, distinguishing between basic needs and wants, learning to save a portion of one’s income (however modest it may be), learning to “invest” in oneself through education and training.  The program also includes materials to help participants continue their education, get a job or start a new business.  Learning these skills is the ultimate solution to Africa’s poverty.  While the task may seem daunting, there are enough local resources in Blantyre, if harnessed and properly put to use, to improve dramatically the quality of life here.  Hard work, initiative, budgeting, investment, and shrewdness are the qualities that must be harnessed.  The weather in Blantyre is close to being perfect—almost everything grows here—with diligence and sweat, it could be transformed into the Garden of Eden

Still floods, earthquakes, devastating rains, and other natural disasters call for short-term solutions, to address the critical, and immediate, needs of shelter, food and water.   The challenge the Church faces is to care for the poor and needy in their distress, without undermining the core principles of self-reliance that the Church is so urgently trying to teach.  How is it possible to help out without making Africans aid dependent, undercutting the urge to work hard (why work if it will be given to you), or destroying the personal discipline one needs to invest and save for the future.  Why should an Africa work or invest or save, if Westerners (whether the Church or others) always are around to bail them out when they have unexpected crises.  

There is an undeniable irony here that is hard to ignore: when aid is given to those who are already self-reliant and hardworking and self-disciplined, one does not worry about the effect of giving the aid upon those receiving the help.  The act of charity is precisely that--an act of charity—a blessing to the recipient at the same time it is a reward to the one showing compassion.  No one thinks that the recipient of the aid, after it is received, will be any less hard working, independent, self-motivated, or prudent.  The aid is nothing more than a bridge to span what is seen as an unexpected, but short-term, gulf in one’s journey through life.    On the other hand, when aid is given to those already aid-dependent, or lacking discipline, or prone to laziness, the receipt of aid may have a corrosive effect upon the ones being helped, causing them to be more dependent, and less able to fend for themselves.  It is perverse that it is easier to help those who need less help, and more challenging to help those who need help the most. 

Our local Church leaders struggled to find the correct balance: teaching correct principles of personal responsibility, while at the same time demonstrating compassion and charity.  After considerable thought and prayer, the district presidency, and the four branch presidents, endorsed a plan, to be implemented on a district wide basis, incorporating these key elements.

First, Church leaders had to come up with guidelines defining which members the Church would assist.  After discussion, there was quick consensus.  The Church should focus on dwelling houses—not outbuildings--and should limit their assistance to those members who owned their own homes, not those who were renting. The landlords of the renters should be responsible for restoring rental homes and, if they couldn’t or won’t, the members should move out of their current homes, even then livable, into new rental homes.  The scope of the restoration was also defined.  The project should be confined to restoring, as nearly as possible, the existing structure, using the current footprint to set the boundaries.  The intent was not to use the Church’s funds to expand or improve the homes.  Everyone agreed, however, to one qualification to this rule.  The Church would use “fired bricks” for the new construction, even if the home had previously been constructed using “unfired bricks.” 

The second element of the plan dealt with the level of sacrifice that members participating in the program would be asked to make.  The sacrifice required was finally defined in two ways: one financial, and other in terms of donated labor.  With respect to money, each family should be asked to contribute some money toward the rebuilding of their homes, however modest that contribution might be.  It was not considered wise to establish a fixed percentage.  Some of the affected members were extremely poor and would be hard pressed to come up with any money for the project.  In other cases, they were better off, and could probably come up with 5% to 20% of the estimated material costs.  So it was decided that the branch president would first sit down with each family separately to review their finances and to assess whether extended family members were in a position to help.  Based on that assessment, the branch president would determine the amount of money the family needed to raise before getting financial support from the Church.  The family’s donation would need to be in hand, before the construction began.

The branch presidents thought teams of 6 to 8 men and/or women would be ideal for doing the labor.  Each team would need at least one member who had experience in building homes of this type—laying the foundation, building up the initial layers of bricks, getting the right mixture of sand to cement, fixing the right plumb line.  Given that most homes are homemade, this requirement is easy to satisfy.  With teams of this size, single walls could be reconstructed with a day or two of labor, and an entire house within a week, once all building materials were on site.  While families may not have money, they certainly can work.  The general rule was that each assisted family should work, not only on the construction of their own house, but also on at least three to four other homes.  The branch presidents would also ask other members to help provide labor, following the model of the early Mormon pioneers, when they can together as whole communities to help one another in building their barns and homes.   The leaders thought this communal effort would do much to knit the branch together.

As the plan was being devised, the leaders worried about whether other members would become envious of those being helped or would get unrealistic, and unhealthy, expectations about the level of assistance they might receive in the future.   Members should stand on their own and should look to their own resources, and those of their own extended family, before asking the Church for help.  If they act prudently, and invest wisely, they will be blessed and should, absent extraordinary events, be positioned to weather the adversities they face.  Even in this case, it should be remembered that the families affected were in part at blame for their own problems.  Most had built their homes without proper foundations, using unfired bricks and mortar with too much sand to concrete.  Had they been more patient in the first place, their homes could have withstood the problems.  Moreover, others, even with homes similarly constructed, were able to screen their walls with large sheets of plastic on the days of the worst weather and hence keep their walls standing upright, despite the driving rain.

The members whose homes survived the bad weather should not resent the help to be given to the less fortunate.  Their blessing was that they were preserved.  But the members are still new in the Church, and envy, jealousy, pettiness, back biting can still creep in.  And, as mentioned before, the greatest risk was that of undermining the members' understanding of the principle that they are responsible for themselves and their own families and should not look to others for help.  After much discussion, it was decided to dedicate this past Fast Sunday to praying for and remembering the needy, asking all members to be even more generous than normal in contributing their fast offerings.   President Chikapa spent time, both the Sunday before the fast, and the Sunday of the fast, explaining the role of fast offerings in the Church.  He encouraged everyone to be more generous than usual when contributing fast offering, and to pray for the relief and comfort of those whose homes had been destroyed or substantially damaged.  I thought he did a marvelous job and, as best I can tell, the Branch members have rallied around those most in need of help.

Helping Hands--Malungas, Makawas and Magomba--George's Post


Three other families in the Zingwangwa Branch have borne the brunt of the recent storms in Blantyre.  
The Malungas, who live on Soche Mountain, close to the Bandas and Phiris, had their home's front wall collapse, forcing them to vacate their residence in the midst of an awful storm.  They have now moved to a small one-room building, on the same site, while they try to piece together a plan for restoring their home. 
Here is a photo of Sister Malunga and one of her three daughters.  Their home is located on a rocky knoll, surrounded by large boulders, similar to the ones shown in this picture.

Sister Malunga is painfully shy and seems quite uncomfortable with us; like many of the Branch's sisters, she struggles with English, making it difficult to communicate.  She was serving as the primary president when we arrived, so Carole was anxious to work with her, President Chikapa having singled out primary as one of the areas where we could most help.  But Sister Malunga has only been to Church a couple of times during our four months in Blantyre, leaving it to Carole and Sister Thoko to run primary on their own.  And Carole, despite her best efforts, hasn’t been able to train Sister Malunga.  

Sister Malunga, with Janet (19) (her oldest daughter) and  Olivia (10) on the family property.  Not pictured are Chimwemwe (15) and  George (12)


Sister Malunga in front of her home before the storm. 

The rains caved in the front wall, forcing the Malungas to relocate to a nearby one-room shed.


Several weeks after the rains, when I was going to visit with the Bandas, I met Brother Malunga for the first time.  He stopped me on the uphill trail, inviting me to accompany him to his makeshift home.  On what was another day of lousey rainy weather, the entire family was  found huddled in a one-room shed, all of their earthly goods piled high in the room, leaving the family with less than half the floor space for sleeping, eating, and passing time.  It was clear Brother Malunga wanted to share with me his story.  He briefly reviewed his history in the Church, saying he was one of the earliest members in Soche, and the one responsible for introducing the Bandas, Phiris, and others to the gospel.  He felt he had legitimate grievances against the Church, because years ago he had not been awarded a construction contract to do some work on the chapel, even though he had taken the time to put together an estimate for the work.  The work has been awarded to others, something he found most unfair.   Brother Malunga explained he was then working in the Mulanje District, some 40 miles east of Blantyre, overseeing the cultivation of local maize crops, and hence not around to help his wife with the day-to-day challenges of making ends meet and taking care of the kids. Several years ago, the Church took disciplinary action against Brother Malunga, owing to the defalcation of funds, so there is much more to the story than Brother Malunga let on.   But whatever the total story, and wherever the ultimate blame might lie, the current living circumstances of the family are undeniably bleak.  
Next to the Nthendas, the Makawa's home sustained the greatest damage.
They have lost two main exterior walls, leaving four of their six rooms exposed to the elements.  This battery of photos gives a sense for the scale of the destruction:


Our first visit to the Makawas, before the storms, left the impression that their home, though high on Mount Soche, was one of the nicer ones we had visited: it had six rooms (rendering it larger than most), a nice concrete floor (not compacted dirt), well fitted doors and windows, clean, well swept floors, and spectacular views over Blantyre.  The home is located high, directly above Chilobwe Market, a 20 mile hike up the hill.  The storms however made it painfully evident that the builder had cut corners, not setting the home upon a solid foundation of crushed rock and concrete.  The rains basically washed away the foundation on the downside of the hill, leading to the collapse of the front wall, and endangering the entire structure.  
The collapse of their home has left the MaKawas numb, wondering how they are going to manage.  Brother MaKawa had, until recently, some kind of installation or service contract with ESCOM, the local utility, but that contract was not renewed upon its expiration, leaving the family without a steady source of income.   He is trying hard to find a new job, but has yet to find something.  We know he is pounding the pavement in an effort to find employment, having met him by chance several times walking home from Limbe and Soche after a day of job hunting.  He is obviously motivated to get a job to provide for the family.    The Makawas have a four-year old daughter, Gertrude, who can't stay still in primary or at Church, a characteristic one notices more here because most children are so quiet, strait laced, and well behaved. 

Still new to the Church, baptized within the past year, the Makawas are anxious to learn more about the restored gospel. The full-time missionaries assigned to Chilobwe (Elders Hiltbrand and Ngendabanda) have been reviewing with them the five basic lessons from “Preach My Gospel.”  From our part, Carole and I have recently met with them, reading a couple of chapters from First Nephi (the first book) of the Book of Mormon, both to get them started reading on their own, and to help them understand better the basic doctrines of the Church.  We have found many in Malawi to get a spiritual testimony of the restoration, and the truthfulness of the Church, quickly after being introduced to the most basic Church doctrines.  Over time, as they attend Church meetings, and institute or seminary classes, their knowledge of Church doctrines and practices is broadened.  

To some this may seem strange or possibly even suspect.  How is it possible for them to get a testimony when they know so little?  But Malawians are not Westerners—they are not jaded or cynical or closed to spiritual matters.  They are not stiff necked. Quite to the contrary, they are extremely responsive to the spirit and have great faith in God and accept Christ as the  savior and redeemer.  When introduced to basic Church doctrines, they find them intuitively true, and faith comes easy to them.  Nor are they impatient--they do not expect to learn everything at once.  Starting with the basics, and exercising faith, as they slowly move beyond that,  is an acceptable course of action. 

Sister Makawa is the secretary in the Relief Society, a comfortable position for her, since she is a close friend of Sister Banda.  She is less at ease at Church, perhaps because she finds English a struggle.   Her household includes Andrew, Brother Makawa’s younger brother (about 16).  For years, one of Brother Makawa’s younger siblings, and then another, have rotated through his home, staying for varying periods as they finished up secondary school. Almost every family in the Branch is a mixed family unit, and includes one or more brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles, or aged parents, as is typical in Malawi due to the high mortality rates among adults and absence of a social safety net. Or perhaps better said, taking care of one’s own family, which is a firmly-entrenched social tradition, is the Malawian safety net.   Someone has to take care of children who have lost their parents and the elderly.  Malawians are exceptionally welcoming and gracious in this regard.
It is hard to imagine someone more selfless or more dedicated to the Church than Brother Magombo.  At 77, he is, by far, the oldest member of the Zingwangwa Branch.  Yet his energy belies his age.  He lives miles from the chapel, on the outskirts of Chilobwe, and takes care of a young grandson.  His wife lives in some village, and we have never seen her.  Long separations are commonly accepted here as an unavoidable part of life.  We were somewhat surprised to learn that Brother Magombo was an ordained pastor for some twenty years.  He proudly showed us several certificates confirming completion of various course of bible study when we visited with him in his home several weeks  after the bad storms.  Brother Mkochi, who served as our guide in finding the Magombo home, praised Brother Magombo's faithfulness, but also wondered openly about how much he really understood about the gospel.   While Brother Magombo understands English, his English is virtually unintelligible, so it is hard to get a fix on what he understands or what he doesn't.  Yet, without fail, each Sunday he is at Church early, setting up chairs, distributing hymnals.  With the loss of one wall, his modest home is now even more cramped.
The day of our visit Brother Magombo had been patiently waiting for us to arrive.  We were late because Brother Mkochi had trouble finding the way and we wandered around aimlessly, for some time, before finding the right neighborhood.   It was clear that Brother Magombo would have been bitterly disappointed had we not come.   These pictures were taken as we were leaving his home, though neither picture shows his place:





A Brief Sequel to Esther's Funeral--George's Post

This past weekend Carole and I made our first trip to Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, located in the central district, which is a four to five hour drive north of Blantyre.  We wanted to meet the leaders in the four congregations in Lilongwe and I needed to conduct a number of interviews, interviewing young men to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, calling a new branch presidency counselor, and reorganizing one elders quorum presidency.  Over a two day period, I visited with about 15 young men, two of whom were from refugee camps.  An unexpected byproduct of the trip was to resolve one of the mysteries associated with Esther’s funeral.

For those who read the post about the funeral, you will remember that Esther’s sister, whom we were told had flown from China, arrived just after the coffin had been lowered into the grave and was being covered with dirt.  Her sister made a dramatic entry, throwing herself on the gravesite, sobbing inconsolably.  Finally, a woman, we assume an aunt or other close relative, cradled her in her arms and was able to calm her.  But the story did not make much sense—how could Esther have a sister living in China, when most Malawians have never been outside of the country, and the cost of flying, certainly so far away, is far beyond the means of all by the wealthy. 

When visiting with the Fisks, one of the two senior couples in Lilongwe, we were able to piece together part of the puzzle.  Esther and her grandfather joined the Church in Lilongwe about eight months ago.  Both of Esther’s parents died of AIDs years ago, and Esther, who was 18 when she passed away, was born with AIDs and it is likely that AIDs or some AIDs related illness was the cause of her death.  She had at least the one sister, the one who attended the funeral.  Esther’s grandfather comes from a prominent, and wealthy, family and is the cousin to the current president of Malawi.   He was recently appointed the Malawian ambassador to China and moved to Beijing, taking with him Esther’s sister.  The Chinese government apparently blocked incoming mail to his personal internet account, so until very recently none of his friends in the Church were able to contact him.  China is one of the major trading partners with Malawi, most large infrastructure projects in Malawi being contracted out to Chinese companies.  And while the grandfather comes from a well-known and well-connected family, it is common in Malawi for family members to be buried in the villages from which their family originally came, even if they have been away from home for many years.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Helping Hands--The Tsegula Family--George's Post

The Tsegulas constitute one of the two large extended families who live within the boundaries of the Zingwangwa Branch.  Together the elder Tsegulas gave birth to 11 children, 8 of whom are still living, about what one might expect given the national mortality rates.  Like some large families back home, the Tsegulas have, in essence, established a family compound on a large, level parcel, several acres in size, close to the Three Ways Market (so called because three roads converge) in Manga.
Below is the first photo we took of the Tsegula family: Brother and Sister Tsegula on the far left, Innocent on the right, and two grandchildren in the middle.  Neither Alex nor Theresa is pictured.
At least four or five of their children live, with their families, in homes scattered around the family property.  The homes are surrounded by numerous outbuildings, maize fields, mango and avocado trees, cassava plants, garden plots, and sand piles, with a small stream cutting through the upper fields, supplying a ready source of irrigation water.  There is a well right in the middle of the site.  By careful husbandry, they can, we imagine, grow enough produce to feed the family, and their property, which is flat, arable, and well watered, is far and away the nicest parcel of any owned by our local members. But, like many in the area, they are cash poor, and while they won’t starve, there is not much excess product available to trade for other food stuffs or commodities.  They must be careful to rotate their crops from season to season to avoid depleting the soil.  Crop yields can be bolstered through use of the fertilizer, but fertilizer is expensive and not always available.  Their property is a few hundred feet off the dirt road running from East Soche to the Three Ways Market, and off a second dirt road coming up from Manga into the market, affording them ample privacy, but complicating the delivery of building materials.
Carole and Sister Tsegula on the family compound.  Mount Soche in the distance, and the Three Way Market, though not shown here, is off to the far left.

Given the size of the family, someone is always home when we drop by—some eclectic combination of parents, children, grandchildren, spouses, in-laws, cousins and neighbors.  Often we are not quite clear about the relationships.  Malawians can be somewhat casual when identifying how folks are related.  Visitors may be introduced as brothers and sisters, when in fact they are half-brothers and half-sisters, or brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, or, on occasion, even more remotely related as the brothers and sisters of uncles and aunts.  More than once Carole and I have found ourselves totally bewildered.  Sometimes the confusion is due to language barriers—while most of the family speaks English, it is not their native tongue.

I remember vividly the first time I saw Brother Tsegula (James), who at 62 is close to my age.  He was standing at the top of the flight of stairs, leading down to the Zingwangwa chapel, across from the infamous broken truck used as a landmark to identify the Church’s location.  Even though slight in build, short in height, with cropped gray hair, he stood very erect and had a commanding presence.  He was dressed in what is commonly referred to in the Church as “Priesthood” attire, a white shirt, dark slacks, a light blue tie, and I thought he was probably a district leader coming to visit the branch.   We have come to know that he is very much the patriarch, in mostly good ways, in his large family.   His English is refined—he taught school for a while and then worked as an accountant and executive for the government for many years.  He has a wonderful mastery of the scriptures, including the Bible and Book of Mormon, is blessed with a spiritual sensitivity, and has great faith.   When we first went to console him and his wife about the partial destruction of their home, his first response was that Lord is great and they were richly blessed.  Not a word of complaint was voiced.
James Senior and I on the family parcel.  With the recent rains, the parcel is lush and green.

He has a keen mind and breadth of knowledge, both about Malawi but also about the broader world, though I don’t think he has ever set foot outside of the country.  He is one of a handful of Malawians, to whom I can turn to get insights about life here, not only because his English is easy to understand, but also because I trust his judgment.  Perhaps due to the similarity of our ages, he and I have much in common, and I genuinely enjoy visiting with him and hearing what he has to say.  He was considered “less active” when we first arrived, and apparently had been for a few years—the only member of his family who came regularly to Church was one of his last sons, Alexander or Alex (more about him later).   We have never gotten the full story, and perhaps that is as well.  But somehow his feelings were bruised and he stopped coming to Church some time ago.  Before that he was active, and had been one of the stalwarts in the branch.  President Chikapa speaks very fondly of Brother Tsegula, saying they were good friends before his mission to Kenya but had found him inactive upon his return.    He and his wife joined the Church in about 2007, making him one of the longest tenured members in the branch, and contemporaries of Brothers Mwale and Munthali, two of the other seniors in the area.

Fortunately, something has touched him recently, and he and his wife are now usually out for the Sunday meetings.  Elder Barnard, the last zone leader (now back at his home in Oakley, Idaho), and his companion, Elder Mwangi (from Nairobi, Kenya), went to considerable lengths to visit the family, and no doubt rekindled in Brother Tsegula a desire to come back into full activity.  He is an active participant in classes, and his comments are invariably insightful.  A preacher by disposition, he can dominate discussions and needs to remember to give others, who are less confident and less informed, a fair chance to have their say.  Whenever he is asked to give a prayer in Sacrament Meeting, we must steel ourselves for a mini-sermon.  But his prayers are so heartfelt and so articulate that once one can get by their length, and somewhat theatrical delivery, they are very inspirational.

It is much harder to get a read on Sister Tsegula.  She is a few years younger than her husband.  Often they are both at Church, but they don’t seem to come together or rarely sit together as a couple during the meetings.   While that would be odd in the United States, signaling a rift in the family, neither of those things are strange here.  Families come and go to Church, individually, and often at staggered times.  It is not uncommon to see husbands, wives and children descending the stairs to Church at different times on a Sunday.  [The windows to the chapel open up to the stairs, so the arrivals and departures of those who attend the meetings are very public, especially in view of the fact that most members and visitors come late to Church.]  Men often sit on one side of the chapel, and women congregate on the other, resulting in gender based segregation in the chapel.  The Church, we know, is anxious to help Malawian couples work on being more evenly yoked as partners in a marriage.  Public displays of affection are rare, no holding hands, sitting together at Church, or acknowledging one another publicly.   If you didn’t know who was married beforehand, you won’t find yourself much the wiser after attending a meeting.  We have not seen evidence of male domination or spousal abuse, but we understand it is a societal problem.  But far and away the greatest obstacle to our getting to know Sister Tsegula is the language barrier.  She speaks virtually no English, and how much English she understands is unclear.  About all Carole and I can do is smile and greet her, with the occasional pantomime.  Often, when we suddenly drop by, she and her husband are found working in their fields and gardens, and there is no doubt but what they are hardworking and committed to supporting their family, even though they are of retirement age and certainly should be looking to their kids and grandkids to shoulder more of the load of providing for the greater family.    Sister Tsegula can’t be happy about the recent property damage to their home, because the rooms exposed by the collapsed walls were their private chambers. 
You may wonder how the recent storms destroyed these walls.  The water penetrates the bricks (which are often unfired and not adequately protected by the plaster), and once saturated, they get heavier and heavier, placing too much pressure upon the lower bricks, finally collapsing.  The home destroyed is the one the Brother and Sister Tsegula use as their primary residence.  They have now relocated to another building on the site.
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Alexander (often called Alex), at 27, was the first of the Tsegulas we met at Church.  The branch mission leader, he is in charge of running the weekly missionary coordination meeting, held on Saturday morning.   He is soft spoken, so much so, that Carole and I must strain to pick up his voice, and often can’t hear him at all.  The Saturday meeting sometimes comes off, sometimes doesn’t, a frustration for the full-time missionaries.  There have been more than a few days when no one had an idea where Alex was when it was time to begin the meeting, since he could not be reached on his cell phone.  Serving as a missionary would have been a blessing in his life, but for some reason, he has chosen not to serve.  Alex is paradoxically a foil to his father, whereas his father is direct, bold and assertive, Alex is quiet and unassuming.  He is hard to understand, even in private conversations, because he speaks so quietly and can be self-effacing.    But it would be a mistake to think of him as a poor man version of his father: he has at least five years of college-level training, most recently pursuing a degree in computer sciences, a very popular course of study in Malawi; he has studied for years French and Portuguese, and though we find his English hard to understand, he must have an aptitude for languages, for once he toyed with the notion of becoming a linguistic.  Like many others of his age, he is in and out of school, because, from one semester to the semester, he struggles to find the money for tuition. 

Alex showed us some of his other skills when he came with us to help distribute food supplies to the flood-displaced victims in the Chikwawa District of southern Malawi.  He really took ownership of the distribution process: working with the local tribal leader, and the government official, he worked with the list of designated camp members, organizing and calling out the ones on the list to ensure that the aid supplies were only given to those entitled to receive aid.  If aid goods are indiscrimantely distributed, there is a high risk of chaos and rioting, because one is always surrounded by large crowds, many of whom are in need.  They understand however the concept of lists and are prepared to accept the system, but only if it is surreptous followed.   Amid all of the commotion, Alex was tireless and on task, from the beginning to the end, of what was an exhausting and hot day.  Frequently, he was called upon to arbitrate disputes, resolving discrepancies, soothing tempers, moving the process along, all in the heat of the day, and under the relentless sun.  He kept meticulous records and was the perfect steward, showing a side to his personality we had not seen before. 
Alex was our interface with the government agent (the woman with the purple blouse), the community leaders, and the aid recipients, and tirelessly worked to make sure that the donations got to the right people.


Here is Alex with Brother Mkochi and Maxwell, the two other young men of the Zingwangwa Branch, who generously give of their time to help with the humanitarian project.  If their chatter in the back of the truck, all in Chichewa, on the way home from the project is any indication, they appear to be fast friends.

Innocent Tsegula, the youngest son, in his early 20s, is very handsome and well-pleasing, with a mild mannered and quiet demeanor, much like that of his elder brother Alex.   In appearance, he, like Alex and Theresa (the youngest daughter) takes more after his father than mother—family members has a strong familial resemblance.  We see him more at Church now than we did when we first arrived.  Several weeks ago I, together with Brother Tsegula, gave him a priesthood blessing; he suffers from some ill-defined nervous disorder that leaves him restless and agitated and sleepless.  The family has taken him to the hospital several times in the recent weeks, but we don’t know if his condition has been diagnosed or whether he is getting any medication to calm his nerves.  I fasted the day before the blessing and then walked the better part of two miles to their home, in the late afternoon heat, to meet with the family. I was surprised to find James senior dressed in full priesthood attire when I arrived, showing his faithfulness, and at the same time reverence for the ordinance that was to be performed.  Before proceeding with the ordinance, I reviewed with the family what we would be doing, both for training and to help them be at ease.  James senior anointed, and I sealed the blessing.  And both James senior and Alex stood in the circle for the priesthood blessing.  It was a sweat experience, and I hope a comfort to Innocent and the family.  Alex, Innocent and James Senior have since told me that Innocent is doing better, but the treatment of mental disorders is tricky and usually requires a carefully-prepared, and carefully- monitored, regimen of medication to stabilize those who are suffering, not the kind of care that one is apt to get from the government hospitals.  The faithfulness of the one being blessed, and that of his family, is critical to a blessing of healing, and at the end of the day, it is also in the Lord’s hand, but the Lord still expects the family to do all it can to take advantage of the medical care that is currently available.

Of the Tsegula children, the last with whom we have had any contact is Theresa, the youngest child.  She is 18 and a beauty.   We have seen her frequently at the family compound, and a few times at Church.  I was surprised to see her at the funeral of Esther.