Monday, March 16, 2015

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.