1. January 24th Visit to Liwonde
On Sunday, January 24, 2016, Carole and I travelled with President Matale, the Blantyre District President, and President Banda, Blantyre 1st Branch’s new Branch President, to Liwonde, to oversee the distribution of a large load of maize flour, beans and relish bags to the suffering members in the Liwonde Group. The Church hired a flatbed truck to transport over thirty 50 kg bags of maize flour and three 50 kg bags of beans, while we carried the bags of relish in the back of the Mission’s Toyota truck. President Matale accompanied the truck driver and his workers on the way to Liwonde, both to show them the way to the Church building and to ensure that nothing untoward happened to the supplies while in transit, leaving from the One Kufa Road residence at about 6:20 in the morning, while President Banda, Carole and I left Blantyre 20 minutes later. Shortly before Machinga (30 minutes or so outside of Liwonde), we finally caught up with the flatbed truck, thereafter travelling in tandem with the flatbed the balance of the way into Liwonde.
Twenty minutes before we received a call from President Matale, warning of a police speed trap outside of Zhoma, and while the news are welcome, it was too late—we had already been pulled over for driving 64 in a 60 kilometer speed zone, and fined 5,000 kwacha, the standard fine for all speeding violations, regardless of the speed of the offender. Our Malawi members are horrified by these fines, the fines being among the highest charged by the police for traffic, vehicle equipment or document-related violations. But, by and large, Westerners care little about the fines, as they simply represent a cost—and for us, a relatively small one--of driving in Malawi. It doesn’t matter how many tickets one gets—there is no effect on driving privileges or insurance costs—nor does the cost of the ticket vary depending upon the speed of the offender. The same flat 5,000 kwacha fine is imposed whether one is driving 4 or 50 kilometers over the posted speed limit. Thus, for most, it’s not worth the effort to avoid the speed traps or to expend too much mental energy worrying about a ticket. What of course matters is driving carefully, especially when passing through small market towns, to avoid a collision with a goat or dog or, far worse, sideswiping a bicyclist with a heavy and wide charcoal load, or colliding with one of the hundreds of pedestrians walking along the roads. President Banda, who was riding with us, was surprised to learn that speeding tickets in the United States are far more problematic—the size of the fine dependent upon the excess speed; and the risk of losing one’s license or being socking with an nasty increase insurance premiums.
Our little caravan pulled into the Liwonde Chapel at close to 9:00 in the morning. The Chapel was built several years ago on leased land, next to a decent size home, currently used to house the Group Leaders’ offices, restrooms, and several classrooms. The Chapel is little more than a large open hall, with a concrete floor, no permanent pews, and an open wood-framed roof, a slightly raised dais on one end, and three small classrooms, with mounted blackboards, on the other, sized to accommodate 150 to 180 members for a Sacrament meeting, with ceiling fans to cut the mid-summer heat. Windows along the two sides admitting light keep the space from feeling like a huge cavern. Though utterly functional, and stark in appearance, the hall would be an ideal model for a new meetinghouse for either the Zingwangwa or Ndirande Branches, when the Church finally can find a suitable site for those branches. It was not too expensive to build and the construction time was relatively short, two advantages not to ignore, especially in a region of the world where the Church’s growth calls for ever-increasing numbers of meetinghouses. And while the worship space is basic, our local members would find it more than adequate for their purposes, a great improvement over the overcrowded homes in which they currently meet.
All three members of the Liwonde Group leadership were present when we arrived, along with 10 or so additional members. By the time the Sacrament Meeting started at 9:30, our ranks had swelled to roughly 50 to 60 attendees, including adults, young adults, children and infants and the four visitors from Blantyre. This was in stark contrast to our first visit to Liwonde, some 11 months before, in the midst of the early winter storms of 2015, when we met with only six to eight local members, most members cut off from Liwonde because the local flooding from the winter storm have left the outlying villages isolated, temporary islands bordering the Shire River.
Carole and I, along with President Matale, were asked to speak during Sacrament Meeting. Aaron Benjamin, the Group Leader’s son, and a recent returned missionary from the Uganda Kampala Mission, translated our remarks into Chichewa, since the congregation consisted primarily of villagers, few of whom had much, if any, proficiency with English. The village schools, while teaching English, struggle, because most teachers themselves have little facility with the language. Often it is hard to get much rhythm when speaking through a translator—the speaker must develop just the right cadence and pace—otherwise the translator struggles trying to keep up with lengthy sentences or is left dealing with short choppy phrases, with little context/ Carole shared with the congregation the lesson on spiritual gifts and Church unity we used when first visiting the Zingwangwa members, taken from the text of 1 Corinthians 12, while I talked about when the House of Israel, during its 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, after fleeing from Egyptian bondage, were beset by poisonous fiery serpents. Those bitten could find healing only if they have the faith to gaze upon the brazen serpent that Moses was instructed to hold up.
Sacrament meeting was followed by an hour of Sunday School, the lesson given by Aaron Benjamin, in one of the classrooms in the house adjacent to the meeting hall, so packed with members that extra chairs had to be scrounged to accommodate all who wanted to attend. It was clear that the attendance was out of the norm, hardly a surprise given the circumstances, since Aaron allocated a portion of the time to allow those in attendance to introduce themselves to one another.
Following Sunday School, the group was dismissed to assemble outside, gathering under the awning over the walkway between the meetinghouse and the adjoining home, sheltering them from the heat of the mid-day sun. There they left as the welfare items were distributed. One Blantyre member, before the trip, had warned us about the risk of things getting out of hand. Apparently, Malawi has a history of nasty, sometimes violent, incidences when refugee goods are distributed, as unruly crowds jostle, shove and push to lay claim to a share of the available goods. But, to their credit, the local group leadership had everything firmly in hand. Prior to our arrival, they have prepared a detailed list of the families getting welfare assistance, itemizing their share of the maize meal, beans and relish. So for the better part of three hours, family after family were called forward, as local leaders carefully doled out their share of meal, beans and relish; and, thereafter each family claimed a small patch on the grounds to stash their share, as each awaited the final disposition of all the welfare items that had been brought.
The distribution went quite smoothly the first time through the list, but when the local leaders realized there were excess items remaining after the first deliveries had been made, the process virtually ground to a halt. Slowly, local leaders re-calculated how the excess was to be distributed so that each received his or her fair share. Everyone would have been exhausted without the welcome shade of the covered walkway. But mothers, with infants and small children, sat patiently under the walkway, waiting their turn, watching carefully the distribution.
 Brother Benjamin is the Liwonde group leader, who presides at the regular Sunday meetings, absent the presence of a more senior presiding authority from either the Blantyre 1st Branch, the District or the Mission. The Blantyre Zone Leaders try to visit the Liwonde Group at least once a month for support, sometimes accompanied by a Branch or District leader.