Monday, June 22, 2015

Malawi Has Been Perfect--George's Post

I. Introduction    D.   Malawi Has Been Perfect

The week does not go by but what Carole and I do not say to one another that Malawi has been a perfect assignment for us; we cannot imagine being happier serving as missionaries anywhere else in the world.  Being here has been a great blessing for us, even though we occasionally wonder how much good we are actually doing, more on that topic later.[1]  If there ever was an inspired calling for a senior couple, this seems to be it, even if Carole and I did much to guide where we would be called to serve.   I admit to being slow, perhaps even hesitant, to recognize the Lord’s hand in my affairs.  It is often easier to see how the Lord blesses and sustains others.  Perhaps I am far too well acquainted with my own weaknesses and shortcomings to think the Lord might be mindful of me.  But nonetheless, Carole and I feel being here is, and has been, inspired, the Lord working through Carole, blessing us jointly, even if I was barely aware of the influence at the beginning, and thought we should have processed our mission call differently. 
Weather should not be much of a factor when assessing the quality of a mission, but it is not a bad thing to serve where the weather is good.  And here in Malawi the weather is unbelievably good; every morning is sunny, the skies clear, the temperature warmish. Now that we are in the midst of Malawi’s short cool season (typically late May through July), it is chilly when we get up and go to bed, but a light sweater and light blanket are enough to take the edge off, and once we are up and about the temperature is comfortable, even better than the dry season, when it can get a tad hot in the direct sun.  Certainly there is a rainy season (roughly the three months from January through March), when you can get stuck, if not careful, in torrential downpours.  Anyone following our blog posts will have seen photos of us getting drenched, wet to the bone, ruining one camera, turning the back lanes into seasonal streams, washing out the roads.  This year the rains were especially heavy, displacing thousands of villagers, especially south of us in the Chikwawa District, creating instant refugee camps.  So life, as it is here, is not always easy—and so what one day is pleasant, and even carefree, can suddenly turn into a mini disaster or life crisis for the Malawians who live so close to the poverty edge.  Yet for those with resources the weather issues are normally just little blips, easily dealt with.  I can’t imagine living anywhere where the weather is better, day in and day out,[2] and shudder at the thought of returning in a little less than a year to the dark and dampness of the Pacific Northwest, however much we find it home, and are comfortable with its rhythm and pace.
I hoped for a missionary call to a beautiful part of Africa and have not been disappointed.  Blantyre is surrounded by a ring of small peaks, the city sitting squarely in the midst of a bowl.  The weather is categorized as “humid subtropical,” but the temperature is moderate because of the area’s relatively high altitude.  The plateau in which the city is located ranges from 3,000 to 4,000 feet, with several of the local peaks approaching 7,000 feet.   Travelling to the north, toward Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, the road gradually climbs until Ntcheu (roughly the midway point, two hours north by car), where one climbs steadily up the eastern slopes of a small mountain range, finally reaching the highest populated plateau in Malawi, where one finds the scenic village of Dedza, locally renowned for its pottery and local arts, reputed to be the highest village in Malawi at an elevation of 8,000 feet.  Travelling south of Blantyre toward Chikwawa one reaches within an hour by car the outward edges of the plateau upon which Blantyre is sited, before dropping down off the plateau, roughly some 500 to 700 feet, to the flat plains of the Chikwawa District, watered by the Shirer River, running off to the south to Mozambique. 
The local vegetation is incredibly lush, tropical, and verdant.  Ever since we arrived, we have been greeted by one flowering bush or tree after another (only a few of the species we recognize)[3] as we cycle through the four mild seasons, one hardily distinguishable for the other.   The colors of the flowers are bold, vibrant and stunning—bright purples, yellows, pinks, reds and oranges.  It is as though the colors of the foliage are intended to match the brilliant colors of the women’s chitenge (though of course the opposite is surely the case).  African women, given the rich brown darkness of their skin, are naturally endowed to wear brilliant colors.  They were not intended to wear English tweeds, small stripes, pastel colors.  They come to life when wearing bold patterns, the brightest of colors, and when enveloped in broad swathes of fabric.  Coordinating colors is not a high priority—chaotic patterns, clashing color schemes, are common.  What might look contrived or out of place when worn by a Westerner looks spectacular on African women.  The soil of Malawi is the orange red soil of Africa, with a texture that stains and marks clothes.  It is virtually impossible to wash it out of clothes once soiled.  The red soil is best on display when viewing the ribbons of village paths breaking off the main paved roads. 
We hoped to see the vibrancy of Africa, after our earlier pre-mission experiences in Kenya and Tanzania, and that vibrancy is all around us—especially in the city centers and markets--a swirl of constant activity, people crossing the streets, kids chewing sugar cane stalks, women carrying babies, constantly readjusting their chitenges, market goods—bags of maize, bundles of long kindling, water—moved, not by modern means, but balanced on women’s heads, heavy loads of charcoal transported on bikes, flashes of color, dust and commotion.  People are everywhere--clusters of kids mulling around; women, old and young, by their small open air stands, idly chatting, waiting for local customers; kids playing improvised soccer games, using small piles of rocks as goal posts; the locals making small purchases at mini-shops selling Sobo (a high-concentrated local fruit drink), candies, and snacks, and at wood stalls set up for tomatoes, bonya (small dried fish—a bit like sardines), chambo, bananas, and lettuce.  Mini-buses are the constant on the roads, pulling in and out of their standard stations, clogging up traffic, breaking down or running out of gas in the middle of roads, pulled over by local police checking for safety violations and the adequacy of the documents (current car registrations, annual driving permits and mini-bus registration),[4] mini-bus flank men hawking rides, half cantilevered out of the left side sliding doors.   Each small community has its share of vegetable stands, hair salons, barber shops, stores selling airtime, furniture operations, selling the same upholstered and wickeder stairs, sofas, mirrors, and baskets.  The townships spread out horizontally, there being no high rises, walk-up apartments, or office or commercial buildings. 
Never have we lived anywhere where people are as friendly and quick to smile as they are in Malawi.  Whenever we nod or smile, we are greeted with a nod or smile in return.  The Malawians are not sullen, tight lipped, too busy to be bothered.   Perhaps their slower pace of life, not unlike the proverbial village life, is part of the reason for the friendliness—rarely are they in a hurry and being late is just expected.  No one (other than the Westerners with whom they are dealing) gets too stressed out if they show up an hour or two late.[5]   Westerners are shown considerable deference in common day life—they are presumed to have wealth and be important.  They are frequently surprised by our greetings and seem pleased we have seen fit (i.e., deigned) to reach out to them.  By adults, I am routinely addressed as “boss,” “elder,” “pastor,” and Carole as “sister" and "mommy," each name signaling respect and social standing.  We have been told it is a great honor to have “azungus” (whites) visit their homes, and, when giving them  rides home, they want us to drive the truck the last couple hundred yards to their homes, however narrow, rocky, rutted, and torn up the lanes. 
But it would be wrong to see their openness and kindness to us as only a symbol of racial/ethnic inequalities.  They are, in our experience, nice to one another.  They visit friends and neighbors when someone is sick or in the hospital.   Funerals and marriages are huge affairs, whole villages and communities coming together to pay respects and show support.  And this gentility is apparent even in the most casual of interactions.  They speak and listen to each other quietly and without interruptions, free of the speaking over one another so common the United States.   They stand and visit easily, without impatience or signaling a need to hurry on.   For hours on end, women (especially those at the small stands and stalls) chat quietly, in the most companionable way.  Men frequently come and go, joining the conversations, then moving on, with no overt signs of the sexism one suspects when thinking of the highly hierarchical structure of African tribal life.[6]   Even the play among children is remarkable in the absence of fighting, bullying, and nastiness.  Young boys, as well as girls, frequently walk hand in hand, or with an arm draped over another’s shoulders.  Play is tame by Westerner standards.[7]
We have not encountered the hostility or reluctance of less active members so prevalent in the United States.  Whenever we track someone down to visit, whatever their attitude toward the Church or level of activity, they are willing to meet with us.  With very rare exceptions, they are open to visiting with us when we drop, and are home at the time of scheduled appointments, ready to meet and chat about the Church.  They don’t try to avoid us or make appointments knowing they don’t intend to keep them.  The few occasions when that has occurred stand out—actually we can count them on one hand.  For whatever reason, they are not plagued by the embarrassment felt by less active members back home.  Perhaps it is because this is fundamentally a God-fearing country, and people are loathe to show disrespect to ministers of God—which, I am sure, is the way we are commonly perceived.  Perhaps it is because less active members here are so new to the Church, they don’t think of themselves as “less active,” or worry about how that might be perceived by others.[8]  They may even see themselves as still active in the Church and still converted to the gospel.  In any event, they are very welcoming to us—one of the phrases we often hear, when being greeted in their homes, is “you are most welcome,” said with a very distinctive cadence.   We do not feel the rejection and outright hostility many senior missionaries experience when trying to touch base with less actives in local branches and wards.  Hence, it is easy to go back to their homes, knowing you will be welcomed.   Back home, every home teacher or visiting teacher knows the sinking feeling that comes with being rebuffed or brushed off or intentionally avoided.  For the most part, senior couples working here are spared those unpleasantries.  We know it would be much harder serving in the same capacity were we in the United States or the countries of Western Europe.
The most common advice bestowed upon senior missionaries is that they must grow to love the members with whom they labor.  “You have to love the people, and if you do they will sense it and respond to you.”  I certainly admired many Germans and came to love German culture during the two years spent as a young missionary in northern Germany in the late 1960s.  The extent to which I grew to love them, or was able to demonstrate that love, is much harder to assess.  So few Germans had interest in the Church, and so few spent any real time visiting with us, that I hardly got to know any Germans intimately.  My contacts with them, but for a couple who became friends, were limited and transitory.  Certainly our experience in Malawi is far different.  For one thing, unlike the young missionaries, we are rooted in one area, all 18 months being stationed in Blantyre.  No transfer every two months to another area to break up the routine and rhythm of our service.  But far more importantly is the fact that Malawians are so open and friendly.  Many of the members in Zingwangwa, and now more recently in Blantyre Second Branch, have become fast friends.  And while I can’t say that I understand what they are thinking, what motivates them or even how exactly they view the Church, I have certainly come to love them—I think precisely in the way missionaries are expected to love those they serve.  I find it naturally to embrace them, share expressions of concern, and be happy when they are happy.  The first lesson Carole and I have shared with members is from 1 Cor. 12—a lesson about spiritual gifts and Church unity.  It is about caring for members, rejoicing when they rejoice, and feeling sorrow when they mourn.  It has been an easy lesson to give and an easy one to learn. 
Much of what we are asked and expected to do is rewarding.  Attending Church, watching new Malawian members, seeing their commitment in the face of opposition, are all highlights, reminding us how the gospel molds and changes lives, both of the young and the old.  We enjoy participating in district and zone conferences with younger missionaries, seeing their leadership, observing their spiritual maturity.   Many of the young men and women give inspired talks and lessons, speaking with a confidence belying their years and experience.  When asked to join them for lessons to investigators, we marvel at their wisdom, though young, largely inexperienced, and sometimes downright silly.  They give shape to the spiritual promise that the weak of the world will carry forward the gospel’s message.  “To prepare the weak for those things which are coming on the earth, and for the Lord’s errand in the day when the weak shall confound the wise, and the little one become a strong nation, and two shall put their tens of thousands to flight.  And by the weak things of the earth the Lord shall thresh the nations by the power of his Spirit.”  D&C 133: 58-59.  One would be hard pressed to find a finer group of young people anywhere, with good values, committed to doing good, trying hard to be faithful and obedient.    
One of the most startling aspects of being here is how I respond to being out and about in the townships.  Nothing is quite as cathartic as walking through the townships, greeting young boys and girls, the elderly, indeed almost everyone we pass, and visiting with members in their homes, hearing conversion stories, sharing thoughts about the restored gospel.  If a week goes by without many visits, I get cranky and out of sorts, not the attitude a missionary should have.  It is as though my spirit is fed through mingling with the Malawians, and hungers when I am hedged in by too many administrative tasks.  Fortunately for me, Carole is more than game for visiting, never complaining about the dust, the uneven footing, the heat (it can be brutally hot at mid-day), and the thirst.  We try to stay hydrated (but doing that has its own challenges in a world without public toilets), and to cover up, wearing a hat to keep from getting burned at the crown of my head.  When the weather looks threatening, we throw umbrellas into the truck, or carry them in a small satchel, thrown over my shoulder, but in the end there is only so much one can reasonably do.  But these little inconveniences are only that—mild inconveniences.  I thrive on being out and don’t worry too much about the little nagging problems.        

[1] See “XI.  Have We Done Any Good?”
[2]Often when we chat with other senior missionaries about the climate in Malawi, praising its perfect weather, comparisons to San Diego’s weather invariably come up.   For Americans, San Diego is used as the litmus test for determining how good the weather may be in another corner of the world.  Since Carole was raised in San Diego, and her parents remained there for many years before finally moving to Salt Lake City for the last ten years of their life, our family had many trips to Carole’s California home.  Yet as nice as San Diego’s weather is, I find Malawi’s every bit as pleasant, if nothing else it lacks the marine layer of San Diego responsible for the early morning mists flowing into the bay and creeping up the canyons before they burn off later in the day. 
[3] So far we have only identified oleanders, poinsettias, and frangipani.  When questioned, Malawians do not seem to the names of many of the flowering plants.  Perhaps they know the names in Chichewa, not English, and see little point in sharing the local names with us.
[4] There are lots of stories of police using these improvised roadblocks to shake down mini-bus drivers, expecting small bribes to allow them to resume their trips without further delays.  It is also likely that, at any given point in time, most mini-bus drivers, and their vehicles, are in violation of some road safety regulation or lack all of the necessary documents for lawfully transporting passengers.  The mini-bus drivers are notorious for skimping, not having any money, running out of gas frequently, because they are so cheap.  Police probably can find some kind of legal violation anytime they wish.  Interestingly, when mini-buses are pulled over, the passengers sit passively in the mini-buses, waiting for the matter to be resolved, because they have already paid the fares for their rides, so getting up and taking off on their own doesn’t make money sense.   They can’t afford to pay twice for the same ride.  The only time we have seen a traffic police presence in Blantyre is at these provisional roadblocks, which can be erected anywhere, and at any time, even in the midst of heavy traffic. 
[5] There is another aspect to being late.  The more status an individual has, the later he or she appears at any scheduled appointment or meeting.  Having others wait is another way of reminding others of one’s importance.  This can be, and has been, a problem in the Church.  There is an account, which I don’t think is apocryphal, of a stake president showing up five or ten minutes late for a regional conference, only to find the presiding general authority already sitting on the stand, ready to start the meeting.    After the meeting he was remanded, told in no-uncertain terms not to do that again.
We witnessed another example of this phenomenon when the Church, through its District’s Public Affairs group, sponsored a get together at the Blantyre Building for the Blantyre mayor, district councilmen, and some of the local chiefs and their representatives.  The senior most member to attend was the deputy mayor.  Though he was one of the first to arrive, he stayed in the car with his driver until everyone else had appeared and then made his appearance.
[6] As best we can tell, tribal life, as it still exists in the villages, is highly structured, chiefs, subchiefs, village group headmen.  Some tribal groups however are organized on matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, lines.
[7] Most of you will not believe what I am about to say.  In Blantyre, even the dogs in the townships are surprisingly passive and non-aggressive.  Go figure.  So far there has been only one time when we encountered a surly dog when visiting member homes, and even then a small gang of kids quickly drove him off.   Almost all of the dogs in the townships are of the same breed—which we assume is a mongrel--short haired, slender body frame, mid-height, brown, pointed nose.  Many of the dogs appear underfed.  The exceptions are guard dogs for the larger estates and they, as you might imagine, look frightening.  We are told, but have not separately witnessed, that Malawians have an irrational fear of dogs.