Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why Africa and Why Malawi--George's Post

I.  Introduction--C.  Why Africa and Why Malawi

For many Westerners, Africa has two faces:  the Africa of safari brochures:  the Serengeti—acacia trees standing in silhouette against the big skies, warm red sunsets, great plains stretching from horizon to horizon, endless herds of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, kudus, slowly migrating north to south, south to north, in search of water and grass; Masai warriors, villages, clusters of round thatched huts, shamans, chants and dancing.  Then there is the Africa of poverty and grief:  tribal hatreds and violence—Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu; brutal dictators; uncontrolled or uncontrollable bands of militia, patrolling the countryside with machine guns and machetes, committing unspeakable acts of violence, often against the most vulnerable—children and women; droughts, famines, floods, widespread misery—orphans, babies with distended stomachs, flies covering round baby heads; sprawling refugee camps, on the edge of nowhere; epidemics of cholera, malaria, HIV, and Ebola; international peace keeping teams; the famous cover page photos featured on Time Magazines of poverty, misery, grief, violence, and pillage.  Nice place to visit as a tourist, if at the right time and right place, far away from the trouble spots, in controlled environments, catering to well-heeled tourists.  But a miserable place to live, only suitable for peace keepers; doctors, nurses and other medical specialists, on temporary assignment; foreign diplomats, living in secure compounds and working out of air-conditioned, well-guarded embassies and consulates; missionaries, NGO workers, Peace Core volunteers.  For most, it is hard to imagine why anyone else would go to Africa to live or, if they did, why they would stay very long in that largely forgotten and benighted continent.  Obviously, this is an uninformed, typically myopic view of a continent largely untouched and unknown by Westerners. 
Yet it is still a fair question as to why Carole and I wanted to serve in Africa and how it was that we ended up in Malawi—one of the smallest, poorest and least known countries on the continent.  In short, the answer is Carole.  About 12 years ago Carole and I visited Kenya and Tanzania, because our youngest daughter, Catherine, then in her early 20s, had spent a semester during her junior year of college, studying and doing survey research in a small village of fifty huts high on the southern flank of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  After flying into Nairobi and meeting up with Catherine, we spent close to two weeks on safari, touring three game parks (two in Kenya, one in Tanzania), before finishing up with a visit to Catherine’s home village in Tanzania.  Our safari experience was thrilling, Carole and I have both said it was one of the two trips we hoped to do later in life together with all of our adult children and their spouses, if we could ever pull it off. 
But it wasn’t the safari, fun as it was, that spoke to Carole’s soul.  Carole responded instinctively to the incredible vibrancy of African life:  the colorful chitenge (long cotton wraps) the African women wear; women carrying children strapped on their backs and balancing upon their heads, in ways unimaginable to us, bundles of kindling, drums of water, sacks of maize meal and pigeon peas, and virtually anything that can be balanced; the chaos, swirling dust, incessant activity of local markets with milling crowds, chickens in cages, hanging slabs of meat, small fruit and vegetable stands, children under foot, mini buses; everything and everyone bathed in the warmth and glow of the late afternoon African sun.  The highways, most unpaved, red, and dusty, choked with people—the elderly, men and women, children, young adults, peddlers taking wares to market—most walking, alone, in pairs, or small clusters, occasionally men on bikes, sometimes with women or toddlers perched behind—an endless stream of humanity, slowing moving, flowing off into the distance, stepping from time to time to the side, as they move off quietly to their villages and distant homes. 
Almost instantly, without conscious effort, Carole felt an undefinable connection with those Africans.   We didn’t become friend with Africans during our short visit, so it is hard to claim there was a real kinship with them.  Yet even now, all these years later, Carole and I carry vivid images of those earlier scenes.  The Africans we met were friendly, open, and welcoming.  If there was hostility or “attitude” toward whites or Westerners, neither of us was aware of it.  And that experience imprinted in Carole a desire to return to Africa as a missionary, when the time came for us to serve. 
Like Carole, I was drawn to Africa as well, but not with the same passion.  My attitude was colored no doubt by a sentiment I have shared often, over the years, with young men and women considering mission calls.  There are many places where one can serve, the Church needing faithful hard-working missionaries to serve in cities and countries throughout the world—from Memphis to London, Tokyo to Seattle, Provo to Toronto.  From a worldly perspective, different worlds, vastly different cultures, different appeals.  What matters most is not where one serves, but how one serves.  Bringing the gospel to souls in Africa, or helping those in need in a poor country, is surely in the eyes of the Almighty no more noble or valuable that doing the same in Nashville or Anchorage.  The world may consider one opportunity to serve more valuable or intrinsically appealing than the other, but I have no doubts but what the Lord views it quite differently.  For as we are told in Samuel, the Lord “seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”  1 Samuel 16:7.  Hence, I was inclined to submit our mission papers to the Church without expressing a preference and without trying to elicit support from a missionary president who needed senior couples and was ready to lobby for us.  I was prepared to let the Church leaders decide where we should go without guidance from us, other than answering honestly the questions put to us in the mission application. 
Of course, that is the process used to assign the younger missionaries, they being called to serve by Church authorities, as they feel prompted and not in response to the missionaries’ preferences.   Members everywhere believe that these callings are inspired.  Missionaries are called to labor in specific areas for reasons known to the Lord, even though we may not know why the callings are extended.   The sentiment is frequently expressed that the missionary is called where he or she is uniquely prepared to touch someone with his/her testimony or has some skill or talent that can be uniquely tapped.  I was prepared to let the process run its course, without guidance from us, trusting in the Lord.  Even though the Church is open to getting input from senior couples (indeed, of course, that’s precisely the reason for posting specific callings throughout the world, for which senior couples may apply), lobbying for a specific calling seemed to me to be “unseemly” and out of line with what we think of the “right” way to be called to serve in the Church—i.e., through the inspiration of the authorized leaders.    
Though Carole and I may have differed in how much we wanted to influence where we might be called, we shared a common vision of the type of mission we wanted.  Years ago we listened to Dave and Marilyn Uffens, good friends and long-time members of our home Ward in the Seattle area, report about their mission to Durban South Africa.  They spoke of doing each day at least one thing they found good or meaningful.  We wanted to replicate that experience.  Our aim was to have a personal hands-on mission, working directly with members or those in need.  We did not want to work in an office or to have administrative work.
In early 2014, after returning from our year in Paris, Carole made a list of all the Africa countries where English was at least one of the primary languages; then we scratched off the list those having huge populations, not wanting to work in congested urban areas.   I hoped to be assigned somewhere beautiful, but didn’t have any way of knowing how to screen the list for that factor.  In the end, the list was pared down to a handful of southeast African countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.[1]  A random, or depending upon one’s faith an inspired, factor then came into play.  In Paris, we met Joe and Holly Andrus, a couple of roughly our age and background, where Joe was working a tax attorney for a quasi-public entity addressing trade imbalance issues for the European Union.  Formerly from Boston, they knew President Erickson, recently called to serve as the Mission President in the Zambia Lusaka Mission, and offered to contact him on our behalf if we had interest in serving in either Zambia or Malawi.  So by the time our application for a mission was submitted we were able to indicate to the Mission Department that we had written to President Erickson expressing an interest in serve in that mission if he could use another senior couple. 
After getting our calls, and before leaving for Africa, Carole and I routinely spot checked the blogs of the senior missionaries working the Zambia Lusaka Mission.  Of the two countries covered by the Mission, Malawi seemed to me to be the ideal place to go—it had the third largest lake in Africa; just south of the equator, it had great weather, was sited in part on the world famous Rift Valley, had a relatively manageable population of 17 million (compared to Nigeria with its staggering population of 175 million), many of whom lived in small villages and throughout the countryside; and it was called the “warm heart of Africa,” an appealing, if sappy, marketing-driven slogan.  The Church in Malawi is small, but growing, with two centers of strength—Blantyre in the south, and Lilongwe in the central district.  I could not imagine serving in a part of the world more different than northern Germany where I served as a young man in the late 1960s.[2]

[1] Most of the west African countries dropped off the list either because they were too populated or because there were former French colonies, where French was the primary non-native language.
[2] Carole and I talked about the possibility of our going to Germany, Austria or the German speaking part of Switzerland as senior missionaries.  And though it would have been a wonderful opportunity for me to refresh my German, and to get back in touch with a people and culture I had grown to love, I thought it would be a bad idea for us as a couple, because we would be unevenly yoked.  I wanted Carole to have a good mission experience.  So we opted for an English speaking country, where we could both communicate with the members, and hopefully do something good for them rather than spending 18 months trying to learn the language.  I had been blessed once in learning German as a young man, but after our recent experience in France, neither Carole nor I had much confidence, this late in life, in our ability to master a new language.
Photos Related to I. Introduction--C.  Why Africa and Why Malawi:

Since Carole is the one most responsible for getting us to Malawi, below are some of photos of my intrepid wife working as a missionary in Blantyre.  Carole has been the perfect companion, upbeat, positive, energetic, always game for an adventure, and supportive. 

The first week of our mission, Carole went with the sister missionaries, Sisters Rasband and Komiha, and sisters from the Zingwangwa Branch to make a compassionate visit to Sister Mkandawire (front and center with the white cap).
Carole doing what she does so well--teaching the sisters (in this case, Sister Nthenda) about primary.
Many sisters might be at their wits' end when this photo was taken.  We had gone to the local Blantyre market to pick up a few vegetables, only to be stuck in a torrential rain.  But, as you can see, Carole is in her element, excited to be out and about, not too worried about getting drenched.  Actually she should have been more concerned than she was.
Ahh.  Not a picture of Carole, but of something near and dear to her heart.  Sarah and Tomicah gifted this little zebra to us the summer before our mission.  At the time we were waiting for our call--not knowing whether it would be Africa or elsewhere.  It was a reminder to be patient.  We have since designated this the "reverence zebra," which is used when Carole works with the primary kids in the Zingwangwa and Blantyre Second Branches. 
More props for primary sharing time.  These spatulas are used to lead the music--the kids really respond to these.
Carole with Brother Mkochi (left) and Brother Magombo (right).   We have justed visited Brother Magombo who lives high up on Mount Soche, for us a 40 to 50 minute walk.  Brother Magombo is a great inspiration, the oldest member of the branch at 77, but spry, positive and ever faithful.  Borther Mkochi, a family favorite, is now working in Zambia.  We hope to get him back.
Carole with the other members of our Zingwangwa District--from left to right--Sisters Browning and Griffus, Elders Hiltbrand and Ngendbanka, and the old man of the District.

Now Sister Griffus in back in the States and Elder Hiltbrand is in Lusaka.
 Carole helping with a humanitarian project, in a village in Chikwawa District. 
At the time, Carole is surrounded by close to 100 kids, women and men, waiting for the distribution the bags of maize meal, pigeon peas, and relish.  It was a very long day, but a rewarding one.