Thursday, February 18, 2016

Strangers in a Strange Land--George's Post

A.   Strangers in a Strange Land

After fleeing from Egypt, Moses came to dwell in the land of Midian, and there he met the high priest Reuel and took one of his seven daughters, Zipporah, to wife.   While living there, Zipporah and Moses were blessed with their first son, whom they named “Gershom,” and Moses uttered what has since become one of his most famous statements:   “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”[1]   Doubtlessly, many who have lived abroad, far from the hearth and home of their fathers, have had the same sentiment—as they worked to feel at home in a culture so foreign to their native land.   Certainly, with time, we are getting more accustomed to life in Malawi—but whenever we feel as though we understand better Malawians, something occurs to remind us how we are surely “strangers” in a strange land, however much we may otherwise feel at home, and however much we may love being in Malawi.

1.    Returning from Lusaka

During the second week of February 2016, Carole and I had occasion to fly to Zambia for a week to attend a conference with the six other senior couples serving in the Zambia Lusaka Mission.   When we first arrived in the mission field, the Mission had 12 senior couples, seven in Zambia and five (including us) in Malawi.   Over the last 16 months, the ranks have shrunk, as couples have left and not been replaced.[2]   Though the Ericksons would like to replace us with a new couple, no one will be ready by the time we leave in mid-April, so our assignments will be shifted, at least temporarily, to the Blantyre Zone Leaders and the Birrells, the senior couple in Lilongwe, who will be asked to commute and spend part of each month in Blantyre.   We do not know how the office tasks will be divvied up, likely the matter is still under consideration.   It is not ideal to ask the Zone Leaders to do office work when they should be proselyting, and while the Birrells have the time, and certainly the skills, travelling back and forth, four to five hours each way, is a lot to ask of them.  
The February visit to Lusaka marked our first visit to Zambia since the second day of our mission, when we had a 24 hour layover in Lusaka to meet the Ericksons and receive our mission assignment to labor in Blantyre.   The week in Zambia was consumed with several days of conference, held in the Mission Home, and a couple of days down in Livingstone, Zambia, in the far south, on the border with Zimbabwe, and close to Botswana and Namibia, where the great Zambezi, Africa’s fourth largest river, falls off the high rocky plateau, cascading down a long horizontal crack in the earth’s plate, creating one of the modern natural wonders of the world—Victoria Falls.   The Ericksons had consented to our use of one of the Mission’s trucks, so we drove back and forth to Livingstone—a largely unexceptional trip across the Zambia landscape—a rather tedious six hours each way.   One day in Livingstone, we crossed the border, over into Botswana, to visit Chobe National Park, noted for having one of the world’s largest native populations of elephants.   Most of our travelling (including the day trip to Botswana) we shared with the Bodilys, welfare service missionaries, who will return to their home in Tempe, Arizona, in mid-March, just a month before we head home.[3]   We also had the opportunity of meeting the Groesbecks, the new mission office couple (who previously served as MLS missionaries in Mongolia) and the Hulls, from southern California, serving as MLS missionaries in Zambia’s Copperbelt, and renewing our acquaintance with the Salmons, Birrells and Ericksons.  Both Zambia and Botswana we found to enjoy an air of prosperity not present in Malawi—yet neither Carole nor I regretted in the least our assignment to Malawi.   Malawi, we find, was prefect for us.
On Sunday, February 14th, six days after our arrival in Zambia, we caught an 11:40 a.m. flight from Lusaka to Liwongwe, picked up our Toyota truck at the airport, and drove roughly five hours, often in heavy rain, to get back to Blantyre just before 7:00 p.m.   The drive had its moments—I was pulled over in Lilongwe for speeding, and later in the city limits of Ntcheu, was caught a second time in a speed trap; though in the latter case, I was just reprimanded and let off with a warning.   The police office, sensing my consternation, took pity on me—I wasn’t worried about the fine, but just annoyed.    
I, in particular, was anxious to be home, and looked forward to a couple of hours of peace and quiet before heading to bed.    Carole had tried to log into the Internet everywhere we could during the week out of Blantyre; but I have chosen to skip the drill, not wanting to be too frustrated with slow or bulky connections.   So I was ready to re-connect with the world, once back home.   We had left the key to the One Kufa Road residence in a hiding place, so that Chris Sitolo who lives in the boy quarters behind our residence could access the flat if something should arise in our absence.   During a prior trip to Lilongwe, Christopher was without power for three days, and we lost a freezer full of frozen goods, when the power cut off and Christopher couldn’t check the fuses in the fuse box in the cozy pantry off the kitchen.   Upon getting home, we were surprised to find the key missing from the hiding place, and then further disappointed to learn that Christopher was out of town, not likely to return until after 9:00 in the evening.   We assumed Christopher either had forgotten to return the key or left it in his pocket or in the boys quarters.
On Saturday, before leaving Zambia, we had received sad, and unexpected, news—Sister Maggie Banda, the District’s Relief Society President, had suddenly died.   The members in Blantyre were checking to see if we had, in the distribution center, burial clothes suitable for an endowed member of the Church.   Sister Banda’s death was both a shock—we had no idea she was sick—and a blow to the Church—she was such a faithful, and powerful, sister, and she will be hard to replace.   We didn’t know her as well as we might have, because she was a member of the Blantyre 1st Branch, but we had casually visited often in the Blantyre Chapel.   She was a secondary school teacher and obviously talented.   She spoke during the Sunday morning session of the last District Conference and was absolutely masterful, her remarks may have been the highlight of the conference.   She spoke without notes; it woutas almost as though she had the benefit of a teleprompter.  She had two daughters, but neither were members of the Church.      
We had hoped to get back to Blantyre for the funeral, but thought it unlikely because burials are usually held within a couple of days of death—generally speaking, bodies are not embalmed, nor do most funeral homes have cold storage capacity.   When we got back to Blantyre on Sunday evening, and couldn’t find the house key, Carole called Christopher.    We were not surprised to hear he was out of town attending Sister Banda’s funeral—if possible, most families opt to bury the deceased in the home village, wherever it may be, as long as they can find a way to bear the expense of transporting the body and can work out transport for the funeral party.   Members go to extraordinary lengths to support one and another when there is a death—attending the deceased’s funeral is considered vitally important, a sign of respect and gesture of comfort. Carole had a poor phone connection with Christopher and thought he must be in a truck or mini-bus returning to Blantyre.   Carole understood Christopher to say he was in Thyolo, a neighboring District,  and would be home within an hour or so.   When a Malawian says an hour or so, it invariably means two to three hours—culturally they do not like to pass along “bad” or “unwelcome” news, so there is a propensity to shade the truth.  So we assumed Christopher won’t resurface until 9:00 or so.   To kill time, Carole and I decided to have dinner at the Protea, one of the two major western-styled hotels, in Blantyre.   Though the Protea is the City’s nicest hotel, normally it is not a problem to get a table without a reservation, even at the last moment; but this happened to be Valentine’s night, one of the hotel’s busiest evenings of the year.   So rather than eating, we found comfortable overstuffed chairs in Protea’s lobby, and settled down to read for a couple of hours waiting for Christopher to get back.   It wasn’t the most suitable location as couple after couple had to squeeze by us to enter into Protea’s restaurant for their Valentine celebration.
About 9:00 we returned to the residence, yet Christopher had not yet arrived.   Finally, after waiting another 30 minutes, I called him again to get an update.   He told me that he was with the returning funeral party, and they have just crossed the Shire River, close to Zalewa, roughly another hour out of Blantyre.   Zalewa is in the opposite direction from Thyolo, so somehow the initial message had gotten garbled.   But in event, it was unlikely that we would see Christopher until well after 10:00.   I asked him to call when he was in town, so that I could pick him up, rather than losing another hour or so as he tried to get home from wherever he was dropped off.    
I am not, and never have been, a night person.   This comes as no surprise to those who know me best—generally I go to bed early and cherish my private time in the evening.   So waiting for Christopher’s return, and dealing with the uncertainty of the schedule, especially after what had already been a long, trying day of travel, were frustrating.   I admit to being very cranky, and knew I needed to exercise extra dose of patience to keep what was already a trying experience from getting worse.    By and large, I have been blessed with far more patience on my mission than before, but occasionally, the limits of my patience have been tested—and this was one of those times.  
But, as I have come to understand better what actually transpired, I have felt extremely sheepish.   About 1:00 on Saturday afternoon, two open flatbed trucks, filled with a funeral party of over 30—roughly 20 members and 10 friends and family—left Blantyre for an 11 hour drive to Nzimba, a small town in the Northern Region of Malawi, arriving there just short of mid-night.    As is common, there are no accommodations for funeral parties—everyone either stays up all night or finds a spare patch of open space, close to the family’s home, in the hopes of catching a few hours of sleep.   The funeral itself was held at 10:00 in the morning, conducted by Christopher, and the Blantyre funeral parties were back on the road by 1:00 in the afternoon.    The flatbed had no canopy, leaving the group exposed to the elements, so the travelers, other than the few in the truck cab, were cold and wet, only light jackets and chitenge for shelter, by the time they returned to Blantyre.
When the flatbed truck, on which Christopher was riding, got back to town, we met it at the Puma Gas Station, across from Blantyre’s main Postal Office, and then drove four sisters to the Blantyre Chapel, and Christopher and Jonathan Nkhoma back to our residence.   It was too late for the sisters to go to their homes in Ndirande—Ndirande is dangerous at night—so they decided to sleep on the Church grounds, where there was a night guard and the car gate locked.   So for the second consecutive night, these sisters were in the open, sleeping on the ground.   No one I know of in the United States would ever do what these wonderful members do or tolerate the conditions that they routinely tolerate.   Here I was grumpy for lack of a few hours of sleep, when I knew that shortly I would be in a comfortable apartment and a comfortable bed.

[1] See Exo. 2: 22.
[2] Perhaps, there has been a general reduction in the number of senior missionaries in the field, or perhaps the Church is finding it difficult to convince couples to come to Africa, as many may be wary of the challenges of working in third world countries, half way around the globe from their homes.   The vast majority of senior couples come from the United States.  
[3] During their 18 months of mission service, the Bodilys have participated in welfare service projects in Zambia and Malawi—overseeing the operation of previously drilled bore holes for local drinking water; delivering maturation kits to women; providing new mothers with baby breathing instruction; distributing maize meal, pigeon peas, relish, cooking oil and salt to flood victim in the Lower Shire region in the Chikwawa District in Malawi—both the Reynolds and we had a chance to help with that project.   They have had some notable successes, but they have, as they freely admit, met with their share of frustrations dealing with local officials, domestic partners, uncooperative aid recipients.   There is nothing easy about providing aid to developing countries in Southeast Africa.  The Bodilys, parents to nine children, and grandparents to 36, are understandably anxious to get back to see their extended family—in a few cases, new babies they have yet to see and hold.