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.