Friday, November 27, 2015

How Dangerous Is It For Missionaries to Live and Work in Malawi--George's Post


1.    How Dangerous is it for Missionaries to live and work in Malawi?

Some may wonder how dangerous it is to live in Blantyre.   This question could, of course, be split into two parts: how dangerous is it for missionaries (the full-time elders and sisters and senior couples) to live and work in Blantyre; and how dangerous for Malawians.   At least for now, and for my present purpose, I have no visibility on the second question, so I will confine myself to addressing the first one.  
As many of you may know, some cities in Africa are notorious for their high crime rates, thefts and violent assaults.   Johannesburg, South Africa’s capital, by all accounts is surprisingly dangerous—carjackings, purse snatching, violent muggings, thefts, assaults, and murders are all too common.   Senior missionaries living in Johannesburg, even in decent parts of town, need to be constantly vigilant.   Crimes against property and persons are directed against all racial and ethnic groups.   Missionaries are not exempt.
At least by reputation, Malawi is a far safer place to live and work than most countries in Africa, even for Westerners who are natural targets for certain types of property crimes   I don’t have trouble believing that may be case--after talking with Malawians and other senior missionaries, who have worked in South Africa and other African countries.  With some research, I could probably pull up some comparative crime statistics that might prove that point.   But my objective is not to document this short discussion with statistics.  I am not sure what the statistics might prove any way; they won’t paint for you the picture I wish to convey.  
What I want to share is how Carole and I view our experience here, even if our observations might not be complete or objectively accurate.   What is probably of most interest to you is the level of anxiety that we have about our safety--- how much or how little we worry about using cash machines or getting money from the bank in the central district in Blantyre; walking in the townships; coming home late at night; driving on the roads; and, being home in the evenings, when the doors are locked and windows closed.    Certainly the fact that we believe we are on the Lord’s errand, and our safety is in part in His Hands colors all of our feelings.   We are not however blind to the possibility that “something bad” might happen, nor do we think the Lord will protect us from our own folly.[1]
If danger is measured by the extent of the security precautions taken by property owners to protect themselves against theft and assault, Blantyre must be a very dangerous place.   Upon first arriving in Blantyre, one is almost overwhelmed by the presence of roving security teams, the numbers of local security companies, wrought iron bars on doors and windows, and surrounding brick security fences topped with broken glass or rolls of barbwire.   Homes in more affluent areas of town often have 24-hour security guards, guard dogs, and elaborate electrical security systems, monitored constantly, with teams of security guards ready to be instantly dispatched if the alarms are triggered.   They also have paired sets of exterior doors—one wood door with at least two separate key locks, coupled with an wrought iron door with another set of locks.   The home security setups are designed to deter all but the most determined of burglars.   Short of one taking a heavy duty slug hammer and welding gun to the doors, it is hard to imagine an intruder being able to break through the exterior doors if securely locked. 
During our stay in Malawi, we have not witnessed, nor heard about, an armed attack on a home, so it is hard for us to know whether all of the security precautions are really warranted.   However, given the money expended on these measures, and the fact that similar systems are found everywhere in the nicer neighborhoods, prior experience must have caused home owners to be extremely nervous about their safety.  Once we are in the house, and have locked up the doors, we never worry about our security.  
You might be curious as to whether we feel more or less secure having on-site guards on the property.   The answer is a bit more complicated than you might expect.   Davey is our regular day-time guard/gardener.[2]He has cared for, looked after, and protected senior couples for ten years, and sometime in the past, joined the Church, and attends regularly the Blantyre 2nd Branch.[3]   It is impossible not to be taken by Davey—he is attentive, good natured and always willing to help out if asked.   We don’t have a lot of extra assignments for him, but when we do have something out-of-the-ordinary he is ready to pitch in and help.   Davey is usually with us from 6:00 in the morning, until 6:00 in the evening, Monday through Saturday.   He spends most of his time tending to the grounds (they are kept immaculately).   Once or two a week, Davey washes our truck, and he needs to be around to open and close the security gates, for us and for the occasional guests.   We are confident in Davey’s loyalty and know he has our best interests in mind.   We have no doubts but what he would do what he could to ensure our safety if anything were to happen during his shifts.   Of course, day time thefts and assaults are rare, and we never give much thought to security during the day-light hours.  
Our experience with the night guards has been disappointing.   We have very limited contact with them.   Initially, we thought we could learn their names, but the rotation is so frequent that we can’t keep track of them.   At least from our perspective, the life of a night guard must be a miserable existence.   They have very little to occupy their time.   Usually we are back to the residence between 5:00 and 6:30, and if we go out in the evening, our visits are pretty short, and usually we are not out late.   So apart from opening the security gates, once or twice an evening, we place no demands upon their services.   Their assignment is merely to stand and watch.   We assume they are expected to stay awake throughout the night, but whether or not they do so we have no idea.   Sound carries easily from the guard station, next to the security gates, to the house, so we frequently hear them talking among themselves, sometimes late at night or early in the mornings.   Occasionally, we wish they would be quieter, but it’s not a big deal, so we don’t complain.   Malawians are cold blooded, when compared to most Westerners, fair more sensitive to cold than we are.   In the evenings, even when it is mild (certainly by Seattle standards), the guards will be bundled up in heavy coats, hats and scarves, an image we find quite comical.      
Without a personal relationship with the night guards, we don’t have a feel for their loyalty—and, at the end of the day (really in this case, night), loyalty is the most critical element.   It is likely that most thefts are “inside” jobs—not necessarily that the guards themselves commit the crimes, but they are somehow connected with those who actually do the thefts.   They pass along information and don’t interfere when the thefts occur.   Of course, if we were awake at the time, we could trigger the security alarm, and hopefully within minutes a crew of security personnel would show up.   The last thing we want to do is test the reliability of the security system.  
The only time I suffer from any case of nerves is when we come home late at night, pulling into the driveway, waiting for the guards to respond to our honk and open the gates.   Were someone to pull in behind us, blocking a possible retreat, we are vulnerable until the gate is opened.   With that in mind, Elder Reynolds advised us, months ago before he left, not to pull into the entrance way, until the gates was being opened.   Generally, I remember to heed his good counsel. 
Unlike the younger missionaries and members, Carole and I are rarely on foot at night, or left to wait for mini-buses to get a ride home.   Dusk is about 6:00 p.m. in the early evening, and it is quite dark within an hour.[4]   For the most part, one doesn’t need to worry as long as other foot traffic is around.    The level of concern escalates however as the evening wanes, and the traffic on the streets thins out.   Within the last two months, there have been two muggings, one very violent, which occurred at the top of the road, where mini-buses congregate, leading down into the M’banyani market.[5]   Both attacks were around 8:00 in the evening, at basically the same intersection, when there was virtually no traffic on the road.   Elders Slade and Chawaguta were the first to be accosted.   The muggers took their house keys, backpacks, wallets, scriptures, and phones, and one struck Elder Chawaguta with the flat side of a panga (the Malawian version of a machete), leaving a nasty bruise.   It was later determined that his arm had been broken.   Curiously they also took the elders “nametags,” an odd thing to snatch, with no value.    The next day a Church member visited a nearby field, where muggers sometimes toss unwanted items, and was able to retrieve the discharged scriptures and house keys.  
Oliver Niyonzima, a member of the Blantyre 2nd Branch, was the second victim, assaulted a week or so later, at basically the same spot, and close to the same time at night.   Oliver was not as fortunate as the young elders.   After stealing his money, identity cards and watch, one of the assailants slashed his face with a panga knife, leaving a terrible gash running from the brow above his right eye across his nose to the other side of his face.   A second thug, using a hammer, smashed him in the left cheek, doing considerable damage to his teeth.   Oliver did not resist, when asked to turn over his valuables, but did fight back when the muggers started to pull him off the road, away from the mini-bus station, down into a nearby ravine; as any of us would have been, he was fearful that they would take his life if they got him off the road.    What is not clear was why this assault became so violent.   Perhaps, it is because Oliver is a Rwandan immigrant working in Malawi (working as a nurse at Queens), or perhaps because he resisted when they started pulling him off the street.
The damage to Oliver’s face was so extensive that Carole did not recognize him, three days later on Sunday after the three-hour block, when we saw Oliver and President Tchongwe in front of the Blantyre meetinghouse.     His right eye was closed from swelling, the gash across the face, though sutured with what much have been 30 plus stitches, was red and raw, and the left side of the face was badly bruised.   Oliver and President Tchongwe then came back to our residence, so we could sort out some financial matters, and we got the report about the assault.   Head wounds bleed profusely, and we can imagine how much blood Oliver must have lost and how traumatic attack must have been.   He easily could have been in shock.    After the assault, Oliver was taken in a mini-bus to the police station to file a report,[6] and then on to Queens to bind up his wounds.   Oliver was at Queens as a patient for three days as they tended to his care.  Oliver has been working in Malawi for the last five years, first in Lilongwe and more recently in Blantyre.   He is trained as a nurse, and says he also attended law school in Rwanda, before leaving for Malawi.   Oliver speaks several languages, French the native language in Rwanda, English which he picked up during school, and Chichewa, which he has had to learn in Malawi so that he could get work.   Though jobs are scare in Malawi, nursing positions are to be found, even for immigrants, because of the lack of qualified nurses in the country.   He is obviously bright, energetic, and forward-looking; and, though he speaks English, we sometimes have difficulty understanding him.   Part of the problem may be that his history is convoluted, and it is hard to follow all of the twists and turns—his school history, moving between countries, how he joined the Church.   He has shared with us some of the events of his childhood in Rwanda, and hearing those horrific experiences was painful for us, reminding one of the terrible inhumanity that occasionally occurs in the world.[7]  
Have these events given us pause?     They have certainly led us to be more concerned about the safety of our young missionaries, who are out and about in the late evenings, waiting for mini-buses to get them home, after finishing up their evening appointments.    Recently, the Mission revised their daily schedule, bringing it more in line with the daily schedules observed in other African countries.   Now they leave their apartments later in the mornings, and stay out later in the evenings, allowing them more time to contact and teach complete families.    Malawi and Zambia are just two of the handful of countries in southeast Africa that have young sister missionaries, as security and safety issues are uppermost in the minds of the Area Office Presidency, working out of South Africa.   We have also recently visited with several members and local leaders about safety, getting their recommendations as to the schedules the local missionaries should keep.   And Carole has communicated this input to President and Sister Erickson, who in turn have counseled with the Blantyre Zone Leaders.
While the recent events remind us of the potential risks, they have not caused us to reassess the prudence of what we are doing, or caused either of us to be more concerned or nervous.     As you might imagine, it took us several weeks to get comfortable being in Blantyre and walking around in the townships, everything being strange and a tad unsettling.    Invariably Carole and I are the only “azungu” in the communities, attracting considerable attention, certainly by the children, but also by the adults.    Seeing our nametags, and my “priesthood attire,” virtually everyone recognizes us a “church” folks, frequently calling me “Elder,” “Father,” or “Pastor” and Carole as “Sister,” “amayi” (Chichewa for “mother”), or “mommy.”     It is almost impossible to convey the level of “respect” they so liberally bestow upon us—partly because we are “azungu,” partly because we are from a church, and party because of our age.  Without exaggeration, I firmly believe that we would be welcomed at any home we might choose to visit—they are so welcoming, kind and generous.   Under those circumstances, it is hard to feel as though we are ever in any danger whatsoever—at least as long as we are in crowds.   Of course, we are not naïve—there will be some who see the same three characteristics—whiteness, church affiliation and age—as precisely the reasons for mugging us if they have a chance.   But they are, however, in a very small minority, and their hostile designs will be kept in check as long as others are around.
Lest some of you may think we are hopelessly naïve, let me share some of the principles of prudence we generally follow to stay safe.   It is the Malawian custom to escort a guest part way back to their vehicle after a visit.   Though not wanting to inconvenience our members, we always welcome this gesture, both to be respectful of their tradition, but also for the additional security it provides and  to tag us as “friends” of someone in the neighborhood.      We avoid being out late at night, except in those neighborhoods where we are obviously recognized because of countless visits to members.    Even then, we do not linger, but are mindful of our surroundings, avoiding dark and secluded places.    If it is after dark, we try to walk only on the main roads where there is lots of foot traffic.   Crowds are key to security.   We would never walk into a deserted market place in the night or take shortcuts across what appear to be empty fields, far away from homes and neighborhoods.    When making evening visits, we leave the truck as close as reasonably possible to our destination.    Occasionally, we pick up Church money from our local bank to take back to our residence.   The money is immediately placed in the office safety for safeguarding.    When we do this, after getting the money, we never make interim stops to take care of other business, but instead go directly home.   We are on guard to see if anyone follows us from the bank or pays unduly attention to us while we are in the bank.   We kept to the main roads while driving home, and watch to make sure no vehicle is following us.  
Without question, however, there is one area where safety is a paramount concern—driving a vehicle in Malawi is nerve-wrecking, and one needs to be constantly on guard.   The paved roads have ragged edges and are often pock-marked with deep holes.   Other drivers, especially mini-bus drivers, do not observe the same rules of courtesy as are routinely observed in the United States.   Mini-bus drivers assume they are always entitled to the right of way, expecting others to anticipate their erratic driving, and to get out of the way.   Rarely, if ever, do other drivers drive defensively.   It is not uncommon, for example, for oncoming vehicles to keep coming when traffic is blocked to one lane, without ever thinking that the other opposite lane of traffic should have a turn.    Stopped vehicles wishing to turn at a T-junction usually pull so far into the intersection that others could not possibly turn into their street.   Owing to the terrible maintenance of their vehicles, break-downs are common—there is not a time when Carole and I go out, but what we see stalled vehicles, often many, broken down in the middle of the roads.   Malawians do not use reflective warning signals or flashing lights to signal a break-down (even when the break-down is at night), but instead put out a series of broken branches in the lane where the break-down happened.[8]   This practice is not a huge problem during daylight, but a serious safety concern at night.  
Another traffic risk is the ever present flow of human traffic along the sides of the roads.   Day or night, indeed virtually any time at all, people are walking along the roads, since the roads are used both for vehicle traffic and human traffic.   The main path from one village to the next is the main road.   Westerners will have difficulty appreciating the sheer volume of people moving this way—school kids, mothers with babies in chitenge slings, workers, and the elderly are all on the move.   For reasons we can’t understand, Blantyre does not have the bike traffic one finds in the rural villages—instead, most people walk to save the mini-bus fares.   Vehicles have the right of way, but there are so many people on the fringes that it requires one to be very attentive.   Having the right of way won’t spare a life, or won’t make the pain of an accident go away, if those walking are inattentive or casual or stray too close to the road’s edge.  Another risk is the deep concrete trenches on either side of the road in Blantyre, used to drain off the storm water.   These trenches, which are close to the road’s edge, are usually a foot or so wide and two to three feet deep.   It does not take much imagination to conjure up the image of what happens to a vehicle if it strays off the road and runs into the drain trenches.   The extent of the vehicle damage—together the accompanying injuries and loss of life--is horrendous.    It is certainly a weekly, and sometimes almost daily, occurrence to see a truck or passenger vehicles off the side of the road, smashed into the drainage trench, with fractured window shields, crumpled front ends, and mangled body frames.  
The dangers of driving are almost exponentially magnified at night, so much so that I have several times foresworn driving in the night hours.    On top of the perils that already exist are these additional risks:   many vehicles do not have working headlights, but that does not keep them off the roads; many on-coming vehicles fail or forget to reduce their high beams; it is virtually impossible to see many of the Malawians walking along the roads, especially if they are dressed in dark clothes; bikes with heavy loads, some quite wide, are often on the side of the roads;[9] the lines of broken branches to signal vehicle break downs are inadequate to give enough early warning; there are virtually no overhead lights to illuminate the roads; and, the risks of passing slow-moving traffic are almost impossible to express.   Many slow-moving trucks, mini-buses, and buses clog the main arterials in the early evening hours.    Faster-moving cars and vehicles quickly back up behind them, creating mini-road jams, as each vehicle in turn looks for an opportunity to pass.   Some drivers are far more aggressive than others.   I have witnessed drivers pass four to six vehicles, sometimes including long-haul trucks, when they could not possibly have seen far enough down the road to know whether they would have enough clearance.   Each time one overhauls a slow-moving vehicle is risky:  there is the risk of meeting head-on a vehicle without headlights; of side-swiping a passenger or biker who has strayed too close to the road’s edge; of over-estimating the run one has to slide back into the right lane of traffic before meeting the on-coming vehicles; of hitting an unseen pothole or catching the ragged edge of the pavement, throwing the vehicle of line or causing a loss of control.   While our Toyota truck is a decent vehicle, it is not blessed with the best acceleration, further complicating passing other vehicles.  
I should, and do know, better than to drive at night.   Yet I have found myself on the road late on several occasions, driving back from Lilongwe to Blantyre.   The most recent occasion was when Carole and I accompanied President Matale to visit five member families participating in NuSkin’s SAFI program,[10] which is located outside of Mponela, two hours north of Lilongwe by car.   On Tuesday morning. November 24th, we left Blantyre shortly after 6:00, arriving at SAFI’s campus just before noon.   I had thought we could get back on the road before 3:00 in the afternoon, but we didn’t leave SAFI until a little after 5:00.   All of us had brought some extras, anticipating the need to overnight in Lilongwe, if we got stuck longer at SAFI than first anticipated.   We should have done just that, but I was impatient, and decided to push through, hoping to get to Blantyre by at least 10:30.    We were able to keep to that timeline, but at the expense, I am afraid, of frightening both President Matale and Carole more than I should have.   For the first couple of hours out of Lilongwe, the traffic was quite heavy, requiring lots of “passing” maneuvers; after 9:00, I found the traffic had tailed off and the balance of the trip was fairly easy.   It was a moonlit night, so the visibility is a bit better than normal.   But for them, whenever I passed one of the slow-moving vehicles, all they experienced as a gunning of the engine, a rush of acceleration, overhauling another car—closer than one would like, and driving into the darkness.    Even so, I think I have learned my lesson—no more night driving.


[1] One of our favorite scriptures is found in D&C 84: 88:  “And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face.   I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”   See also the disucsison under “_________________________.”
[2] Working for the security company is not a bad job—Davey has job security, a steady, if modest, income, and a pleasant place to work.   We make few demands upon his time, and he controls his schedule and work pace.   The job is not demanding, apart from the long-hours, and Davey spends much of his day visited with other guards, friends and acquaintances, who drop by, and the women, who for some reason are always on the street.   Right now the biggest drawback is that Davey’s wife and son live in a village, off the Chikwawa Road, roughly an hour drive from Blantyre.   Some Sundays Davey gets home, some Sundays not.   Davey and his wife must find this arrangement less than ideal, but similar family separations are common in Malawi, with the husband working anyway somewhere (often in South Africa), and the wife left in Blantyre or in a village to live with her family.
 
[3] Many of the guards are members of the Church.   The security company with the contract for most of the missionary-occupied apartments is owned by Gabriel Chinomwe, a long-time member, returned missionary, and recently called Second Counselor in the District Presidency.  Gabriel has, over the years, hired family members, as well as Church members, to work as guards.   Also some guards have joined the Church through their association with senior missionaries and their guests.
[4] Malawi is at about 12 degrees south of the equator, so there is not nearly as much fluctuations in the length of the days between winter and summer, as we experience in Seattle, which is at about the 48 degree north of the equator.
[5] We do not work in M’Banyani and rarely are in that area.
[6] Given the extensiveness of his injuries, he must have fought to be coherent when reporting the assault.
[7]
[9] Especially problematic are the men transporting wide bags of charcoal on the back of bikes.   These loads are usually five to six feet wide, with the result that they take up more of the road that one might otherwise expect of a biker.
[10] The acronmyn “SAFI” stands for the School of Agriculture for Family Independence.