Thursday, July 23, 2015

Getting Perspective--Visits from Family and Friends--George's Post

A.   Getting Perspective--Visits from Family and Friends

Senior missionaries are permitted to have family and friends visit them in the mission field.  This privilege is not generally extended to the younger elders and sisters.  Perhaps the thinking behind the policy difference is that senior missionaries are more mature, set in their ways, and less likely to become distracted or home sick than the younger missionaries.  Another possibility is the Mormon Church recognizes that such a concession is simply needed to induce more seniors to apply for and accept mission calls.  In like fashion, there are no limitations on the number or nature of the communications that senior missionaries can have with their family.  They are free to email, call or skype family and friends whenever they wish.  In contrast the younger missionaries are limited to two family calls per year (one at Christmas and the other on Mother’s Day), and to emailing their family and friends once a week, for an hour or so, on their preparation days.[1]  But whatever the reasons, the policy difference allows senior missionaries to stay more connected to family and home while away from home.  This is a great blessing to their children and families, who have the opportunity to experience, vicariously through their parents, the life of a missionary.  Carole and I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest shown by our grandchildren in our African adventure.  Even the very young understand that we are in Africa, across the ocean, far away from their homes.  Who knows what kinds of images that conjures up in their little minds, likely pictures with exotic animals, birds, thatched roofed huts, small villages, great plains, medicine men, and warriors.  Oddly enough, some of those images are not too far off the mark.
Our first visitor to Malawi, close to nine months into our mission, was Tomicah Tillemann, our daughter Sarah’s husband, and father to five of our grandchildren.  Tomicah has been a great addition to our family, and I was a bit surprised to be reminded that he has been part of the clan for over 12 years.  Tomicah attended a UN sponsored conference (held about once every 8 years) focusing on financing projects in developing countries, held this time in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, and he was able, after the conference, to tack on a side trip to Malawi before returning to Washington, D.C.  Fortuantely, Ethiopian Air has a fairly convenient flight from Ethiopia to Blantyre.[2]  Being with him for the better part of five days was rejuvenating for us and also served as an opportunity to get a new perspective on our experience in Malawi.  By mere coincidence, Tomicah was the first family member with whom we visited during 2013, our year in Paris.  In the early winter of 2013, he had meetings in Budapest and that was all the excuse Carole and I needed to catch a cheap Ryan Air flight from Paris to Budapest, allowing us to visit Hungary with someone who really knew the lay of the land.  Tomicah’s maternal grandparents were both from Budapest, his grandmother, together with part of the family, escaped Hungary just at the beginning of the Nazi occupation, while his grandfather survived several years of the Nazi occupation before emigrating to Canada and later to the United States.  Apart from this family tie, Tomicah and two of his siblings have served Mormon missions in Hungary. 
We could not help but be intrigued by the stark differences between our short stay in Budapest and Tomicah’s equally short sojourn with us in Blantyre.  When in Budapest with Tomicah, we had a private tour of the Hungarian Parliament Buildings, spent an evening at the Hungarian Opera, toured the world famous Budapest baths, and had an early Sunday morning private audience with the US ambassador to Hungary.  We were hosted by long-time family friends of the Tillemann family, whose ties with the family go back to Annette’s (Tomicah’s mother) childhood summer excursions to the fashionable Balaton Lake in Hungary, spending a lovely afternoon in their apartment flat in a Budapest suburban, and later enjoying their company over a wonderful dinner at a traditional Hungarian restaurant.  Tomicah’s visit in Malawi offered a radically different experience.  The cultural sites of the Parliament Buildings and the royal palace were replaced by a quick 24 hour trip to the Liwonde National Park, one of the seven national parks in Malawi-- with its impressive herds of hippos and elephants, coupled with flotillas of indolent crocodiles; the clusters of local grazers—warthogs, impalas, water bucks and kudus; and the rare sighting of some of the more reclusive animals--mongooses, porcupines, and skunks.  The Hungarian restaurants, opera house, bathhouses, elegant neighborhoods would give way to the colorful African markets, neighborhood vegetable stands, offroad stands offering sugarcane and mice, crowded, active townships, kids chanting “azungus,” adults nodding and returning our greetings, and an arid climb up into the modest neighborhoods of red brick homes high up on the flanks of Mount Soche.  In lieu of visiting with life long Hungarian friends or the US ambassador, Tomicah was exposed to our “new” church friends: a tour of the Chikapa’s newly finished home in Chimakunda; a visit to the Tsegula’s family compound; quick greetings with the Phiris, Malungas, Tchongwes, Lucy Tembo, Lyford Ngwira, the Bandas, Annie Tella, Brother Sangala, Sister Mwale, Brother Muntheli.  The day ended with a visit to the home of Brother and Sister Ngwira, new members, living in Kampala.  Sister Ngwira is an attorney and also works with an NGO, which focuses among other things on protecting prisoner rights, a difficult civil rights issue in a country where little money is available for public services, much less to safeguard the rights of the underprivileged and those on the edge of society.  After a long day on foot, Tomicah, Carole and I came home exhausted, footsore and dusty.
Carole and I have, for several months, been encouraging the District Presidency to schedule regular monthly activities for the young adults to enhance interaction and togetherness among the youth in the District.  Our suggestion was that the District sponsor a fireside one month, then followed by a social—in short, something spiritual, something social.  There is no doubt but what the youth are the key to the Mormon Church’s ultimate growth in Malawi.  While we thought the District Presidency was generally receptive to the idea—at least in some form—as yet nothing has been worked out.   Knowing of Tomicah’s unusual background,[3] we offered Tomicah up as a potential speaker without his counsel or approval, suggesting to President Matale, the second counselor in the District Presidency, that Tomicah might speak at a young adult fireside on the one Sunday he would be with us.  Shortly before Tomicah's arrival we learned that he would be asked to speak, but there really wasn't much time for advance publicity.  Consequently, we sought to dampen Tomicah’s expectations, saying that he should be prepared to speak in front of a small group of five or ten.  Much to our surprise, a crowd of close to fifty turned up, many of them from the Zingwangwa Branch.  Most had come directly from their earlier church meetings, not having had time for lunch or a mid-day break, making their attendance quite amazing.  Tomicah did a marvelous job connecting with the Malawian youth, a daunting task given the relatively limited nature of their exposure to the Western world and its political life. 
Visiting with Tomicah brought the expected benefits—an opportunity to reconnect with family, and to catch up on the family news, without worrying about how good the skype or phone connections might be.[4]   Sarah and the kids now don’t seem quite so far away.  We got reports on how Eli is doing in school, the friends he is making, his improvement on the swim team, getting along with Thomas, incorporating younger brother Lincoln more into their play.  Eli is a master of origami, creating fantastic creations, complex and intricate.  We are all curious as to what Eli will do when he gets older—will his interests in science and dinosaurs continue to burn bright.  Thomas is still Eli’s best bud, fiercely loyal, always up for an adventure; doing great in school, beloved by his teacher, inclusive of others, sensitive to those more in the shadows, a popular classmate.  Like Eli, he is getting more comfortable in the pool, even managing a dive in the deep end, something unthinkable just a few weeks ago.  Lincoln is positive, curious, anxious to be a part of his older brothers’ play, starting to bond with Mim, but usually exhausted by late afternoon.   He can be a handful in the evenings before bed, melt downs often the order of the day, and then he is beyond reason.  Mim continues to run the household, more than holds her own with her brothers; indeed, often her brothers quail in the face of her tantrums and wrath.   She now has the idea with potting training, and is quite proud of herself.  Yet she also has a sweat side, and speaks to her father, as the lone daughter in an otherwise big family of boys often does.  Though still small for her age, she knows just how to preen for the camera.  Fortunately Isaiah is the perfect baby—apart from his teeth, a constant threat to a nursing mother—happy, quick to smile, generally content, even in the face of the family’s commotion.  Sarah marches on, keeping everything together, despite Tomicah’s busy schedule and frequent trips.  This summer the community pool has been a great blessing, entertaining everyone, a great break with D.C.’s hot muggy weather, and even swim team has had its moments—creating a sense of community.
Perhaps one of the unexpected benefits of Tomicah’s trip, especially for Carole, is a break from the routine of being constantly tied at the hip with me.  One of the great advantages of serving as senior missionaries is the opportunity of working side by side with a spouse.  But it is also one of the great challenges of the mission as well.  Especially now that Carole and I are the only senior missionaries left in Blantyre.  When we arrived, we had both Reynolds and Merrills, no more than ten minutes away, to mix things up. 
Tomicah brought with him a carry case, with his laptop and papers, a suitcase for his clothes, together two other large suitcases crammed with Jordan almonds, jelly-bellies, mint paddies, circus peanuts, almond rocha, ballpoint pens, chocolate chips, and cans of crystal light—items not easily found  in Malawi.  Sarah was anxious to assemble for us a care package—and Tomicah was anointed as the mule for transporting the goods.  The mails are unreliable and courier services are expensive and often not much more reliable.  Some of our missionaries, much to their dismay, have waited months for packages from home—Christmas packages arriving in May and June or, in some cases, not showing up at all.  Naturally we loved the treats; the Jordan almonds, one of my favorites, were exhausted in a couple of days.  But more importantly Tomicah brought an inquisitive mind.  He was excited to be in Malawi and curious about everything.  It reminded me of how we felt when first here.  Everything was strange and unfamiliar, and we spent much of our first months trying to figure things out.  The longer we stay, the more comfortable we are—and sometimes, but not always, that means that we start taking things for granted even if we don’t understand them any better.  On occasion, there is a great temptation to be complacent and to stop looking carefully at our experience.

[1] In my experience, non-members are frequently shocked by the apparent harshness of the rules limiting contact with family and friends.  The rules are however in place for good reasons.  The Mormon Church has learned, after having missionaries in the field for close to 200 years, that the single-mindedness required by missionary work is undercut if young missionaries have too much flexibility in communicating with those at home.  Family distractions can prove to be a substantial impediment to doing missionary work.
[2] For those outside of Africa, it is easy to forget Africa's scale.  Though Ethiopia is separated from Malawi by just two countries—Kenya and Tanzania—the trip is over 2,500 miles.  Few airlines fly into Blantyre, but as chance would have it, Ethiopia Air is one of them, with a regular flight from Addis Ababa to Blantyre, with only a brief layover in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.  It is hard to believe there is enough business between the two countries to warrant regular flights.
[3] Of course, few people in the United States can claim to have worked for both Vice President Biden and former First Lady, former senator, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  We were unsure about how many of our wonderful local members would know these famous Americans, but were confident Tomicah, given his broad experience and comfort in speaking publicly, could shape a message of general interest to what may have been for him one of his most unusual audiences.
[4][4] Nothing is quite as frustrating as a cranky phone or skype connection, especially after waiting so long to talk to family.  Either you can’t hear them talking, or they you, or the picture frames freeze, leaving your kids or grandchildren still as a tableau, or jerking forward a few frames at a time, without voice or with distorted voices.  Often we opt to turn off the video feed in hopes of having a better audio connection.  You try to a while and then everyone is so frustrated and out-of-sorts that it’s better just terminating the call in hopes of a better connection next time around.  But every now and then, the connection is good, which is such a relief and gives rise to the hope that next time will be good as well.