I looked over my letters home to my wife and kids during my time in Malawi to pull my thoughts together, so that when you come to this website, you’ll have some sense of why we go to Malawi (and why you might want to consider serving), and what we saw and did. At work or with friends, I might not have a lot of time to discuss my experience, and might encapsulate those three weeks as “I helped Malawians install and dedicate water wells in rural villages”. But it was three weeks of hard work, challenges, discouragement and exhilaration, and a flood of new experiences. In my letters, I gave my family a “top 20” of things I hoped to never forget about my time in Malawi – here are a few of my impressions:
- I took part in the installation and dedication of around 75 shallow wells in rural northern Malawi villages. Sun-up to sundown, six days a week, we drove pickups filled with “downhole parts” – the PVC and steel makings of the pumps into the wells constructed in the participating villages. We were led by a Malawian field officer and assisted by trained maintenance workers who lived in the area we were serving.
- A well might serve anywhere from 50 to 500 people. The villagers are an active part in every stage of well construction – digging the well, making the bricks that line the well, making the concrete apron and slab, installing the pump and maintaining the well and pump in working order. They pay an annual maintenance fee to keep a stock of replacement parts. This is no free ride, but a cooperative work between US Christians and the people of that village that will save lives and make people healthier.
- I liked the way that when you looked around the crowd at a well site, it was easy to pick out the village leaders – they were the oldest people. Respect is shown in Malawi to the wisdom that comes with age.
- Driving a stick shift on the wrong side of the car is not a big deal if you never learned how to drive a stick shift on the “right” side of the car.
- With the right vehicle (and we had the right vehicles) you can drive a lot of places you never thought you could, but watch out for holes, stumps and sand.
- There aren’t very many cars on the rural roads, so people walk on the road, making night-time driving a hazard to be avoided if possible. I got a lot more familiar with my car’s horn.
- When traveling to the rural wellsites, you can pay as little as around 90 cents for a bed at a guest house (candle included!)
- In rural Malawi’s restaurants and guest houses, you might see menus but they serve no purpose; you’ll be served whatever is ready when you order; you can expect to order chicken and rice, but be served nsima and “tin fish” (sardines)!
Malawi IS different. No doubt about it. The sights, the smells, the food, the daily routines of life are not what I’ve become accustomed to at home in Winter Springs, FL (near Orlando). The people are different too – while all humanity has so much in common, I didn’t blend seamlessly into the fabric of Malawi culture – there are different cares, habits, and definitions of normality for rural Malawians that we Americans have no experience with. We look different, dress different and expect different things.
These differences can have an exotic excitement at first for the traveler, but “travelers” can maintain a distance…a separate identity. We came – on behalf of Marion Medical Mission – to roll our sleeves up and stand alongside our Malawian brothers and sisters, and there could be no distance.
But there was a bridge for us – in Christ. “In Christ there is no east or west…” the hymn goes, and through the power of Christ’s love for all of us, regardless of where we come from, I felt a bond for my Malawian hosts and friends that surpasses my cultural bond with many of my American neighbors. My neighbor and I might share a fence line, send our kids to the same school, chat about sports or cars, and be there for each other in a pinch, but with my Malawian sisters and brothers, in spite of our many differences in culture and habit, we can share all that Family offers. I felt it in my first stay in Malawi in 1986, as a college-age Youth in Mission to a remote mission station in the care of Dr. and Mrs. Overtoun Mazunda and their family, and have carried that bond with me ever since. I felt it on every one of my days on my return in 2003 with Marion Medical Mission – at a church service, while the style of worship may not be what I am used to, we worshiped gratefully together, both blessed by the pastor’s spiritual gifts; while the food was different, we could fellowship together and be the recipients of hospitality that spoke clearly to the One who would have us show kindness to a stranger; while we sometimes could not understand each others’ speech and had to rely on interpreters, the messages of love and hopeful obedience to God needed no translation.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians instructs us to
“…let the peace of Christ keep you in the tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the word of Christ – the Message – have the run of the house. Let every detail in your lives – words, actions, whatever – be done in the name of the Master Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way (Colossians 3:15-17, “The Message” translation)
That’s why we reach out, whether to a next door neighbor or a new friend from the other side of the world. That’s why I went to Malawi. I don’t know there’s anything we did for folks in Malawi that they couldn’t have done for themselves – in fact, there’s a lot I did I could have done better (I didn’t have much prior experience driving a stick shift, my grasp of the Timbuka language was spotty, I missed my family to the point of distraction for the first half of the trip) – but that wasn’t my calling. God wanted to put me “in step with” the people of Malawi. I could be there, encourage them, but more importantly, I needed their guidance and encouragement.
Given the tough challenges that a typical Malawian family must have to confront, their faithfulness in living out the gospel is staggering. AIDS is systematically devastating families throughout the country – so many families had lost one, two or more of their number to the disease; often, a mother and father of young children both died, leaving their remaining families to take in the orphaned children. The food, clothing and school fees place a crippling burden on the families’ finances. In a land without “safety nets”, and in many places, no functioning cash economy, choices often need to be made. Several of our field officers and maintenance men support not only their children but their brothers’ and sisters’ kids – one young man lost his brother to AIDS during our trip, and was confronting the prospect of caring for his brother’s 2 children on top of his 3 children. It is a difficult, wrenching prospect, and our Malawian friends were handling it with faith, hope and love.
I also learned from my team-mates, most of whom had traveled to Malawi previously for Marion Medical Mission, and who’ve made a life-time commitment to being “in step with” the people of Malawi. Marion Medical Mission is the kind of grass-roots organization that demonstrates the impact a small, non-“professional”, but thoroughly dedicated group can have with the Lord’s help. These folks all take time from their regular jobs not just to be here, but throughout the year to plan projects, make improvements to the well designs, raise money and publicize the needs of Malawi’s people. They’ve brought an enthusiasm, a dedication and innovative problem-solving approach to bear on all the thorny issues of Malawian life – health care, education and agriculture. It was a pleasure and an honor to come along with them.