Thursday, February 25, 2016

Living Conditions of Senior Missionaries--George's Post

A.   Living Conditions of Senior Missionaries

1.    Mission Housing

The Church goes to considerable lengths to ensure the housing for senior missionaries is comfortable, conveniently-located and safe.   Senior missionaries are not expected to live in the more Spartan units used by younger missionaries, or in apartments or residences lacking basic utilities, such as power, water and indoor plumbing, even if many members in the area tolerate, or are forced to live with, such inconveniences.    Since the vast majority of senior missionaries come from the United States, the Church recognizes the need to provide housing with amenities roughly equivalent to those senior missionaries might find if living in apartments in the United States; otherwise, fewer seniors would likely be willing to volunteer for missionary service.    Depending upon where one serves, arranging for adequate security may be the primary consideration in selecting suitable housing.   Some cities in Africa have well-deserved reputations for high crime rates, even for violent crime, so the housing stock available to senior couples in those areas may limited and suitable only if equipped with a mixture of state-of-the-art monitoring systems, on-site guards, high security fences, guard dogs, elaborate locks, and wrought-iron grilles serving as second doors, all intended to protect, to the extent feasible, residents from assault, theft, violence and burglary.    Usually, the most secure housing comes with modern amenities as well, so sometimes, in order to get the minimum basic level of security, the Church leases apartments nicer than they might otherwise target.   So, whatever hardships senior missionaries might otherwise be called upon to endure, sub-standard housing is usually not going to be one of them.  
Absent special circumstances, senior missionaries are housed in apartments or flats, frequently in guarded, and gated, complexes, those being the lowest cost alternative.   But, on occasion, the Church rents single-family residences, often nicer than apartments, with washers and dryers, manicured grounds, larger rooms, and nicer appliances.    In Blantyre, housing costs for missionaries are relatively inexpensive compared with similar costs in other parts of Africa and the world.   These rents are  dramatically higher than those our members would pay.    Many of our poor members rent their homes (often without power and water) for 10,000 to 30,000 MWK per month or $14.50 USD to $43.50 USD per month.
Moreover housing costs do not necessarily correlate with the housing’s quality or the level of its amenities.   Market conditions can vary dramatically, and landlords frequently rent space initially at bargain prices, with the anticipation of increasing rent at up to 10% per year.   Hidden costs can also include the imposition of city rates (for garbage pickup and other city services), garden fees, and on-site guard costs.      For a while, perhaps the nicest residence in Blantyre, originally leased for the Merrills, was a large single-family home, with three bedrooms, a study, and three bedrooms, on a large well-manicured parcel, featuring around the clock on-site security guards, together with a separate private security monitoring security, located in Nyambadwe, fairly close to the Ndirande Branch.   At the time of the initial lease, that property was one of the Church’s least expensive leased properties.    Several months after the Merrills returned to the United States, the Church moved the two sisters training missionaries in Blantyre into the Nyambadwe residence.   We moved them out of their apartment at Pacific Palms, not far from the Merrill’s residence, at the expiration of the original lease, because their landlord failed to install and maintain a water system sufficient to ensure, in the early morning and in the early evening hours (when the sisters were in the apartment), adequate water pressure to the second story apartments.
Slowly we have come to learn that the quality of the Church’s experience in leasing a residence or apartment is dependent, almost disproportionately so, upon the reliability and good will of the landlords.   Good landlords can make all the difference and compensate for slightly higher rates.    Something is always in need of repair or maintenance, the absence of hot water, a leaky faucet, a sticky lock, a winding trail of cockroaches, exposed when the kitchen light is suddenly switched on at night, the lack of water pressure or worse yet the loss of water, a broken hinge on a kitchen cabinet door.      Some landlords quickly dispatch repairmen to address the concerns, others are less cooperative or attentive, slow to return phone calls, and even slower to send out crews to assess damage and make repairs.   Since taking over the office duties, we have had dealings with six landlords—three Indian owned, family operated businesses; two Africans—one an expatriate living in Boston, but whose affairs are managed by a sister and a property agent in Limbe, the other living next to the apartment leased to the Church; and, the sixth a commercial property management company.   Our best experience has been with one the Indian families, and our worst experience with one of the other Indian families.    By and large, the Church has maintained cordial, and pleasant, relationships with the landlords; we suspect landlords like having the Church as a tenant, rents are paid on time, apartments are relinquished in good condition, and negotiations over rents and other landlord concessions are never too sharp.   Most leases are for one-year terms, with one or several extension options.   All leases have annual rent escalation clauses, usually at close to 10%.    Rents are normally denominated in U.S. dollars, but paid in the local currency, Malawi kwacha, insulating the landlords from the risk of wild swings in the currency exchange rates between the U.S. dollar and kwacha.  In November 2016, when we first arrived in Blantyre, the exchange rate was roughly 470 kwacha to the dollar; today it is hovering between 670 and 700 kwacha to the dollar.

2.    Pamodzi Project in Sunny Side

Our first apartment, where we stayed for the five months, from November 2014 through March 2015, was in a modern, upscale six building apartment complex in Sunny Side, owned by the Pamodzi Settlement Trust, five minutes from downtown Blantyre, and five minutes from the Blantyre Chapel.   Apartment No. 5 was on the ground level, each building had two units (one up, one down), our building one removed from the parking lot, shielding us from the noise and commotion of the local traffic, no car lights flashing into our windows, no noise from starting engines, or interruptions from boisterous late night guests.    At the time, the Church leased a second apartment (Apartment No. 3), this one upstairs, with full western exposure, in the adjacent building, bordering the project’s parking lot, occupied, when we arrived, by the pair of sister missionaries assigned to the Zingwangwa branch.   The two apartments had identical floor plans, though flipped in layout.   Each apartment featured a spacious living room/dining room combo, separate kitchen, two bedrooms, and two bathrooms, with a utility room, with a wash basin, off the outside vestibule, all rooms oversized by Malawi standards.   Surprisingly the apartments were furnished, most come unfurnished--heavy-looking overstuffed wing chair, love seat, and sofa; small coffee table; wood dining table with six matching chairs; two beds frames with box springs and foam mattresses; flanked by small side tables.   
Our apartment was newly leased by the Church and, anticipating our arrival, the Reynolds, the office couple in Blantyre, had been conscientious in equipping the kitchen, Sister Reynolds herself a committed cook, so Carole had at hand most everything she needed for basic cooking and setting a table for six.  The double bed in the master, and the two single beds in the second bedroom, were outfitted with mosquito nets, something Elder Reynolds rigged up, and the kitchen had a water filter system of the type the Church uses in all of its living units in Malawi.   Tap water is suitable for washing and cleaning, but not for drinking.    All vegetables and fruits, before being consumed, must be cleansed with “Jik,” a bleach based cleaning product to kill germs.    Several rooms—the master and living space—had built-in air-conditioning units, cutting the heat, making sleeping comfortable.   The only drawback, from an utilitarian perspective, was the apartment did not have either a washer or dryer, so during our five month stay we would each week bundle up our laundry and take it to either the Reynolds or Merrills for washing.   Aesthetically, being a downstairs’ apartment, Apartment No. 5 felt like a dungeon, dark, gloomy, and damp, with a musty smell, even in the middle of the day, though it had the benefit of being private.   Carole never gave rein to her nesting instinct while we were in the Pamodzi Project, knowing we would relocate to the One Kufa Road residence, close to the Blantyre Chapel, in mid-March, when the Reynolds returned to the United States.   So Apartment No. 5, though pleasant enough, never felt homey, just somewhere to leave our bags, spend the evenings, and cook meals.   For several weeks, after moving into Apartment No. 5, I had hot water for showers, but none for bathes.   Since a soaking bath is one of my peculiar indulgences, I missed the privacy of lingering in a hot bat in the evenings, allowing me to decompress and feel human again.   When finally a repairman appeared, the only problem was that the labelling on the hot and cold water faucets to the bathtub had been inadvertently reversed.      
The project had guards at the gate both day and night; two of them were elderly brothers, each in their 70s, the others young men, working under the umbrella of the elderly brothers.   It doesn’t take long to form attachments, when someone helps you every day, with good cheer and politeness, rendering basic services--washing the truck, opening the gates, picking up the garbage bins, helping to carry suitcases and grocery bags.
It was comforting to have the sister missionaries in Apartment No. 3.   But we did not see them nearly as often or as much as one might otherwise expect, certainly not every day.   The Pamodzi Project was not conveniently located for them: they had a five to ten minute walk to the Blantyre Market, where they could pick up a mini-bus headed to Zingwangwa, where they needed a second transfer to get into their area.   So each day, roughly an hour was consumed just reaching their area, and another hour when returning, after a day out proselyting.   We would give the sisters rides to Church on Sunday morning, and to District Meeting on Tuesday morning, since we were going to those meetings anyway, and sometimes on Saturday morning for missionary correlation meetings.   On Monday morning, when we went to do our weekly shopping, we would also take them to Shoprite, where we would usually bump into the Merrills and the other sister missionaries.   But apart from that, they did not look to us for “cab” service.   Though often in the evenings, we would come across them walking home, and of course would give them a lift.
Their proximity did, however, allow us to get to know the sisters, better than we might otherwise have, if they had lived further away.   The first sister missionaries we met were Sisters Komiha and Rasband, later Sisters Dlamini, Griffus and Browning, and finally Sisters Zoehner, Thueson and Solomone.   All have now finished their missions and returned to their homes in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the United States, apart from Sisters Zoehner, Thueson and Solomone, who are now serving Zambia.   When first briefed by President Erickson, he cautioned us against “mothering” the missionaries, as he expected them to learn self-reliance and independence, so Carole and I have always tried to be helpful and attentive, while not allowing too much familiarity or permitting too much dependence upon us, for either emotional support or help with chores.
When the lease on Apartment No. 3 expired, we moved the sister missionaries out of that apartment into Apartment No. 5, opting for greater privacy, and to be spared the infernal afternoon heat of the westward facing upstairs Apartment No. 3.   Today, elders are in Apartment No. 5, as the sister missionaries have been moved out of Zingwangwa, now working with the Blantyre First Branch, and have been relocated to the Namiwawa Apartment, half way between downtown Blantyre and Chilomini.