How to describe returning to Malawi and Embangweni after an absence of three years? How to convey the multitude of emotions racing through mind and heart as the so-familiar and yet nearly forgotten landscape passes by? How to even begin to describe the day-to-day events surrounding — sometimes almost overwhelming — the Marion Medical Mission team #2? Anything said may seem exotic and overblown to one who has never been to Embangweni; familiar and understated to one who has.
I returned to Embangweni in October, 2000 with the Marion Medical Mission team. My previous stay there was in 1997, when I spent three months working at the Embangweni School for the Hard-of-Hearing as a speech therapist. This trip was only for three weeks — too short! I was constantly told that by my friends on the school faculty — “Mama, you need to extend your stay.” “Mama, next time you must stay six months.” “Mama, come for a year.” I feel fairly confident that the next step would be to build me a house so I could stay forever! But in 2000, only 3 weeks and some of that must be spent away from the school expanding my horizons just a bit.
Somehow this trip is wanting to be remembered as a series of images, rather than as a cohesive whole story. Images of sight, of sounds, of touch.
Driving “home” from Lilongwe airport, I remember almost hanging out the car window, hungry for the sight of Malawi. Smoke lying over the landscape…a few trees in flower…the first glimpse of a village huddled in the red dirt…people walking everywhere…babies being carried on backs of mothers or older sister…people waving at us when they realize we are msungu…goats crossing the road at risk of life…women carrying loads of water or grain on their heads. Finally the turn off at Jenda. The dirt road is in pretty good shape for the first few kilometers, then deteriorates…bumps…ruts…dodge the pothole…drive on either side because there is no oncoming traffic…villages and people…kids waving…poverty on every hand…some still-full maize bins…at last Embangweni!
We are home! But the mango trees have been cut down to make room for the power lines. How sad, destruction to further “progress”. Unload at our house…joyful discovery that Peter will be our cook…who will sleep where…too late to go down to the hospital or deaf school…after the long flight all anyone wants to do is sleep.
Monday begins the series of all-the-same-but-different days. Our team members will go in eight different directions — some to work on shallow wells, some to the hospital, myself to the school. We begin each day at hospital chapel…friends to greet (the choir now using “western” hugs!)…hymns in Chitumbuka…separation of the sexes on either side of the aisle…standing to greet old and new friends “monire mose”…at last the joyful walk down to deaf school. Jocelyn and other team members are with me that first day, so I can’t throw decorum to the winds and run….
At school, all is familiar, but so many changes! A new classroom block…new chapel building under construction…new hostel just beginning. Mr. Mtonga is not here. He is getting ready to go to England for a year’s study and we hope to see him before he leaves. Mr. Chirambo and Mr. Mwale are also gone — both working in other regions…I am sorry not to see them. Who will pour my tea if Mr. Chirambo is not there?! New staff…twice as many students as in 1997…morning chapel/assembly being held in Preschool room 2 instead of the staff room…the kids are wearing snappy blue and white uniforms…hearing aids still squeal…smallest kids eye the new white folks while older ones obviously remember Mama Jocelyn…and the best of all, sign language is being used to help interpret the chapel service! Can I get through this without breaking down in tears? I surely can’t sing with all this joy and amazement clogging my throat…one child signs the hymn…another comes up to sign a simple prayer…a staff member uses sign while another gives the sermon…all the kids can sign and sing “Jesus Loves Me”…house mamas and the two gardeners are also learning to sign and fingerspell…children who once sat silently and blankly now insist that Jocelyn lead them in “head and shoulders, knees and toes”…race to carry my bags to class…ask in sign “where is dada with the video?”…the oldest 3 classes are leaning English…handbell choir practices twice weekly and now plays on occasion at Sunday worship in Embangweni — to the amazement and delight of the rest of the congregation. The older boys are learning tinsmithing and woodworking; the girls have treadle sewing machines and are making clothes and learning to knit. The overwhelming feeling at the school is optimism…pride…love…laughter…teachers enjoying what they do (has Mr. Ndole ever not had a smile on his face?!)…eagerness to learn still more, to prove to the outside world that these hearing-impaired children can indeed learn and become productive citizens. No matter they are sleeping 2 or 3 to a bed or that clothes worn outside of class are mostly rags. The children are glad to be here. Matron Maggie tells me that parents ask her “what do you do?” because children home for holiday tend to cry to go back to school. She makes sure that they have three meals and two snacks daily because “children who are hungry can’t learn”.
Outside of the school, I at last have a chance to drive into the bush with the shallow wells team. I thought I had seen poverty, but now realize that Embangweni is practically prosperous compared to some of these villages. There is no way to describe it; no way to express how you feel when a village breaks into songs of joy when water first flows from a new well or when they give you gifts of food –which you know is literally coming out of their own mouths. We were given chickens, bananas, tomatoes, greens, beans, a papaya. But the gift that touched me most was the single egg carefully handed over. This was truly the “widow’s mite” and to be on the receiving end is humbling indeed. Could I do it? Much as I want to say “yes”, I know that I am probably not capable of giving to that extent. My faith is lacking, obviously. No longer any problem for me to find shortcoming to confess to the Father — in Embangweni I come face-to-face with practical Christianity and do not fare well against it.
So much else to remember! Tea or dinner with Malawian friends…walking home with them in the dark — stars too many to even conceive — …children waiting until you cross their path so they can say “good morning” or “give me sweets”…adults taking your hand as you walk together…good-natured laughter when your small supply of Chitumbuka words runs out…sounds of maize pounding…drums late at night…roosters early in the morning…red dust covering everything…taste of smoke in mid-day tea at school…thump, thump of well handles…straining to hear a truck motor long after dark when a team member is out …Embangweni gets into the heart of all who visit. No one, it appears, ever visits just once. As we tell our friends when we leave, “we leave little bits of ourselves lying all around Embangweni. Don’t bother to pick them up. We’ll return one day soon and get them.”