by Brett & Susan | 29 August 2012 | Africa
A most important thing you must understand is, though Malawi is a special country in its own unique way, everything beautiful about this nation is in its people. If you have time, please read about our journey to see our sponsor child Gloria towards the end of our blog. She has blessed and changed our lives in a beautiful way. It was an honour to meet her, and show our love for her and her village. We left with the sense that we had taken more than we could ever give; a life changing experience.
The Republic of Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa formerly known as Nyasaland. Surrounding Malawi to the northwest is Zambia, in the northeast Tanzania, and Mozambique dominates to the east, south and west. Separating Malawi from Tanzania and Mozambique is Lake Malawi. Malawi has an estimated population of over 14 million people and is among the world's least-developed countries. Malawi has a low life expectancy of 50 years at birth and high infant mortality. People in Malawi live “hand to mouth”; living for today, it seems as though the future is not of immediate importance.
There is a high adult rate of HIV/AIDS, causing a burden on the labour force and government expenditures. Approximately 68,000 deaths a year from HIV/AIDS (2007), 250 new people are infected each day, and at least 70% of Malawi's hospital beds are occupied by HIV/AIDS patients.
Despite these facts and figures, what we saw and experienced from the warmth of the people, moved our heart deeply in a way we cannot simply put into words. Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”, and by spending time in this special nation, it stole a piece of our heart.
Stepping onto the soil of Malawi was much like stepping onto a magic carpet for an exciting unknown ride of a lifetime. The initial shock of luggage possibly being lost, leading to a pretend looking customs searching bags thoroughly with big knives and gloves, made the welcome rather animated.
Our welcome was bona fide when we met with our friend and host Diane Young. “We have petrol to come pick you up, Praise the Lord!” we must admit that we had never encountered petrol outages before so it seemed bizarre to us. Hearing the Kiwi accent amongst a sea of Chichewa speaking Africans, was like a shot in the arm with the adrenaline of home. It brought familiar warmth to our hearts we hadn’t felt since we left home for this wondrous world tour.
As we drove towards the Young Family home, we gazed outside our windows amused and bewildered by the scenes of dryness, cornfields desperate for harvest, earthy red brown dirt, people on the side of the road selling anything from fruit to potatoes to phone cards, and everywhere we looked, people were walking on the side of the road/highway. We stopped to buy mandarins and potatoes from the side of the road; a man asked us to take photographs of his children, and then asked for money afterwards.
As the watchman opened the big steel gate in the driveway of their home, Diane turned around to us and casually said, “Oh I forgot to mention that we haven’t had water for the past few days, we may get it back in a few days... here’s hoping. It happens here often, you get used to it!” No running water, no electricity or petrol outages; just another normal day in Malawi.
The Youngs have been living in Malawi as locals and faithfully serving as missionaries for over 13 years. Diane is the smiling, encouraging lead doctor at Lilongwe’s ABC Community Clinic, and Jim has faithfully built a ministry equipping local and remote village children’s pastors, to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to children in Malawi. Jim & Diane’s heart for African ministry is amazing; the instant you meet them, you catch a glimpse of their genuine love and care for people. Their three kids, Robert, Sarah & Michael are beautiful in heart and action; they have grown up as Malawi locals, but remain true Kiwis kids at heart. We were so blessed to have the honour of staying with them during our time in Lilongwe, we learnt so much about servanthood, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness during out time with them. We were so grateful they brought us to Lake Malawi for Brett’s birthday; it is a time we will remember and treasure.
At dusk on the night of arrival, Sarah took us for a walk through the local neighbourhood behind their home compound. It was like walking through a magic cupboard; as soon as you leave the church compound, it is straight into third world chaos. The kids would run around playing with whistles, old tyres, or just with each other in the rubbish littered dirt. The images we have captured photographically or by memory are unforgettable.
We watched a soccer game on the dirt field but we didn’t go too close because even Sarah was a bit afraid of too much interest in us, and possible confrontation for whatever reason. It was getting a bit late and it is not recommended that white people go out after dark, simply because they can be mistaken as a “wealthy white man target”.
We fought off the ants and mosquitoes as we went in for an early night; the next morning was an early 6am start so we could join Jim for his ministry plans that day. We left the house super early. Gathering with Pastor Jim's workers, we prayed together before we left and jumped into the back of the truck, with all the mosquitoes. Potential Malaria threat? Possible. Getting bitten? Highly likely. Potentially getting Malaria from a bite... Most uncertain (even with Anti-Malaria pills). Sitting in the back of the truck for an hour and a half for the exhilarating bumpy ride, we got completely covered in the African red earthy dirt. It was coming up through the back of the truck like powdered sugar, dusting everything in the back with a red dirt coating. Our skin and pants had a new slight orange glow, tinted by the African goodness. It was a quick way to get a fake tan.
If we were to share the number of stories from Malawi, we could write a novel. So here are some favourite memories and observations we would love to share about this amazing place...
• Malawians have super posture and balance – Women would carry large loads on their head (potatoes, tomatoes, buckets of water), have a baby tied to their back with fabric, and often carry something else with their arms in front or on their sides.
• Men would carry large loads of homemade charcoal, wood, pigs, goats, or even broken bicycles, on the back of their bicycles.
• We were continually blown away at the number of layers people wear in the heat; in temperatures reaching late 30’s, they would wear long sleeves, pants and jackets.
• The quality and presentation of their shops are unlike no other – only the photographs can illustrate to you what a furniture shop and coffin shop looks like in Malawi. Fancy malls, fancy anything – does not exist, it seems as though development stopped in the 1950s.
• Shops selling food are limited in provisions/stock; please understand we are being generous in our statement.
• Leg cover is crucial, a tangy (wrap cloth) is an essential piece providing modesty and dignity. Sexual suggestiveness is mainly focused on the legs; showing upper body and breasts for women in Africa are not tagged as sexually immodest like in western society. Men wear trousers for respect – they have an unspoken belief that only boys wear shorts.
• Their homes may be literal mud shacks, but Malawians keep their homes with pride, sweeping and keeping them tidy.
• Malawians really respect authority, like in the olden days with the western world – doctors, leaders, authorities, hierarchy. They are respectful people and they give honour freely.
• Women are always sitting on the ground. Men are often lazing around. Women do most of the hard work.
• Children in villages run after our car when we drive past, they wave, they smile, and they stare. As white foreigners, we are just as interesting to them as they are to us. If we wave to them, they always wave back. It was nice for them we wave at them, and nice for us that they wave back!
• Lake Malawi was a lovely relaxing time with the Youngs, meeting an African Rasta who made us a wood piece with B&S and Malawi 2012 engraved into it also made it special.
• Most fond photographic memory moment – boy with the brick in the sand drooling while he imitated the sound of a car pushing it along. He had all he needed, him and his toy in their own world. Simplicity, plus creative imagination, can change the world.
• Most memorable encounters – Meeting and cuddling Malawian babies. They are the most beautiful, smiley babies we have ever met. Little wee Enoch, who we met at the local orphanage, stole our hearts. If it weren't for the strict Malawian laws for adoption and we weren't traveling around the world... we most likely would have taken him home with us.
Our visit to Mikolongwe started with a bumpy half an hour drive to the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city. The dirt roads got bumpier, narrower, and less travelled as we went deeper into the village areas of Malawi. It was an unforgettable experience. The locals waved and smiled, kids would run after our 4x4; we undeservedly felt like royalty in a grand chariot.
World Vision is an amazing organisation which develops programmes to help children in poverty through the sponsorship and support of willing generous people. They have developed programme models to empower locals to be entrepreneurs and become self sufficient with income generation.
We learnt that for their project in Mikolongwe, they have empowered local farmers to become self sufficient. It is an all day affair for a farmer; early in the morning around 4am, they bike 9km of rickety dirt roads with 20 litres of milk strapped to the back of their bike; companies buy the milk for commercial sales. Obviously they also have to milk the cows by hand. A project planned for 15 years of support, skills and knowledge have been passed onto the locals to become a self sufficient community. A cow may be given to a farmer by World Vision to get the cycle going. The cow can also be artificially inseminated so that the farmer can grow his herd and be more productive producing milk for income generation.
The moment, for the reason we chose to visit Malawi, came so quickly that we didn’t have time to process the scenario. It is hard to describe in words the emotions felt, or relay the scenes that we saw before us. The whole setting felt like a show reel movie. An old run down but tidy principal’s office, hundreds of African children surrounding you as you walk into the grounds of the school, children peering in the window to catch a glimpse of the interesting foreigners, staring at you with intrigue and curiosity. The doorframe of the principal’s office drew an invisible line between the foreign visitors led in by a group of adults, and the hordes of children pushing each other to get the best peek. The atmosphere was alight with buzzing excitement, heightened anticipation, and surreal interest as our audience had all eyes on us.
Did it feel like meeting a blind date for the first time? Not really. Was the anticipation like going for an interview for a job you really want? Not quite. Did it feel like you were putting your heart out there on the table to tell a loved one you care for them? Almost. Was it an experience where it felt like you were stepping into the deep end of a pool for the first time and learning something new? Yes. Our hearts and minds opened, and grew a million fold as we jumped in with awe and wonder.
At the age of six, Gloria’s photograph was placed inside a World Vision sponsorship card. I believe that sponsorship card was made just for me. While volunteering at Parachute Music festival as a compeer in 2004, I was listening to a speaker share about his experience sponsoring a child in an impoverished third world nation. He shared about how we are blessed to be a blessing, and how sponsoring a child can change their life and the life of their community. Sponsoring a child has changed my life.
I had no intention of sponsoring a child at that stage, but when they were passing the sponsorship cards around for people to see the children, I knew it was meant to be. I saw the beautiful photograph of the lovely innocent six year old Gloria, and fell in love. Signing up as a Hope sponsor meant that I could show love to someone on the other side of the world from me. I had no idea that one day I could meet this love of mine in person, and that it would change my life.
When Brett and I got married, we decided to continue sponsoring Gloria. When we started saving for our world trip, we dreamed about the idea of meeting her in person. When dreams become reality, you have to pinch yourself sometimes!
Inside the principal’s office, we had a briefing about our visit and were welcomed over and over. During all the commotion, in walks a shy, tall, slim, beautiful 14 year old Gloria. She was very different to the baby six year old in the initial photograph when I first “met” her; she was now a lovely young lady, eight years later.
Her classmates were hooting and cheering as we walked into her classroom to view their lessons, Gloria was very shy with her slight smile showing us around, she is not one to desire being centre of attention. We drove back to her village from her school and as we entered into their village, we were welcomed with dancing and singing from the people in her village. It was a time of celebration for them, despite us not wanting any fuss about our arrival. All her important friends and family lined up and walked past shaking our hands with both hands, while bowing. We were very humbled by this as we felt just like Gloria – not desiring to be in the centre of attention. All of a sudden, we were both very shy and dumbstruck by the whole procession; we were learning the heart of true gratitude and honour, something we will carry for the rest of our lives.
Speeches were shared by the World Vision project manager, the village chief (which happened to be a woman), Gloria’s parents, by us, and Gloria’s grandparents. The village women had prepared a very special meal for us to share in their mud house (built by Gloria’s father); it was so delicious, we knew it was made with a heart of love, hospitality and gratitude. Rice in Malawi is also expensive, so we knew this had to be a special occasion for us to be feasting on chicken, vegetables, rice and delicious homemade Malawian tomato sauce. It is one of the best meals we have ever enjoyed, the reasons why are obvious.
The village teenage boys brought out their homemade goatskin drums and started an African party beat, the village women all gathered in a circle around the boys and swayed and danced in a way only Africans can. Malawians can dance! And oh can they sing together in harmony! In a nation stricken with such poverty, we were blessed by their positive spirits, their hearts of gratitude, and their immense hospitality. We learnt that love shown through actions crosses all cultural and language boundaries. The love of Jesus is expressed by people who carry a love for Him, and shown by the actions of those who are genuinely kind in heart. Being generous is an international language of love, how we are generous greatly defines our character.
Saying goodbye was a sad time. We hoped with all our heart that Gloria liked our small gifts of a bracelet and stationery. We hoped that she could understand the card we wrote to her in English (with a NZ sheep on the front). We hoped that her parents liked our humble gifts of oil, rice, sugar, biscuits, soda, flour etc; we understood that the best gifts in Malawi were life giving ones suitable for needs, not wants. But above all, we hoped that our time with Gloria and her village was one that brought glory to God. Our hope is that it was an experience that blessed everyone involved, and one that everyone can cherish forever... we most definitely will.
Malawi, Zi komo gwam bili. Thank you very much for teaching us, and inspiring us in love and life, and to love in life. You have taught us how to glow from the inside out. For now, ta bita, we are going, but we will be back again to say Mulibwangi to your beautiful people. Keep being and sharing the beautiful warm heart of Africa with your shining bright eyes, and smiles that show a deep joy within that so many in our world have never experienced. We love you. God bless Malawi!
With all our hearts,
Brett & Susan