Look in the dictionary under “adorable” and surely you will see a picture of the nursery school at Embangweni, Malawi! Look up “smile” and there will be a photo of the Head Boy at the School for the Hard of Hearing. Flip to “happiness” and expect to see three graduates of the deaf school and their “Mama Kalo” meeting unexpectedly near the mission church. The synonym for “poverty” may well be listed as Malawi (see also: “joy” “faith” “giving”). The fall of 2007 marked the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Embangweni, Malawi. In a total of eight trips – five of them with Marion Medical Mission – I have come to know and love many of the people in and around the mission station. Surely the novelty has worn off by now and arriving at Embangweni is truly like coming home, but every trip brings unique moments of pleasure, pain and sometimes insight.
That nursery school, for example. While I have known about it for a decade, I had never paid a visit until 2007. At the suggestion of Dr. Martha Sommers, I took some small bears made by my home church’s Vacation Bible School for the children at the school. It was a morning to remember! Picture it: a run-down room in a run-down house measuring perhaps 10 feet by 12 feet. On the concrete floor are spread a number of bamboo mats and on the mats sit 45 children ages 2 to 4 years. The room has one window; the walls are empty except for a bit of dirty, peeling paint. Two teachers – each with a baby on her back – are in charge and run the class with an enthusiasm that would put Richard Simmons to shame. I arrive just in time for opening ceremonies.
Those 45 mites stand and recite a prayer (in English!) followed by the Lord’s Prayer (also in English). Then they say the alphabet at the top of their lungs and repeat “A is for apple, B is for boy…” The teachers apologize because they have only gotten this bit down as far as D. Some dancing follows and then I hand out the bears. Every single child waits patiently and tells me “thank you”. Next come “introductions”. Each child stands to say “My name is_____. I am ___ years old. I live in ____. My father’s name is _____. My mother’s name is ____. I am a boy/girl.” Teacher says “Good work, ____” and the class responds clap clap clap, clap clap clap,”keep it up!” I think I’m in love. What a job these two women are doing in a situation so difficult, so discouraging. The only teaching aids they have are two plastic cups, one red and one green, for color work and a piece of construction paper on which are pasted a paper square, triangle and circle. They ask me to bring some picture books of Bible stories the next time I come so they can teach the children about God at an early age. If this day was any indication, the children are already being taught.
Then there is the Head Boy, who is in Standard 8 at the School for the Hard of Hearing. He has little or no hearing and his speech leaves much to be desired, but he is one of the happiest people I know! At my good-bye dinner, he and the Head Girl were present along with teachers and others from the mission station. I suspect it was not a comfortable place for them to be, but his grin was never failing. Perhaps he was there to eliminate the need for electricity because that smile truly lights up the room. When it came time for a toast and all stood to clink Coke and Fanta bottles, he tore around the table to touch bottles with me and the grin got even broader. Speech? Who needs it? He and I have worked on speech together for 10 years with precious little success but that evening it really didn’t matter.
We are more than teacher and student, we are friends and fellow Christians.
My two favorite words in Malawi are “Mama Kalo” and when I hear them being called from a distance, chances are some of “my kids” are close by. This year it was three young men who are graduates of the Embangweni School for the Hard of Hearing now attending Robert Laws Secondary School. We communicate in a polyglot of spoken English, a little Chitumbuka, signed English and signed Chitumbuka which must seem confusing but actually works for us. They have been taking exams and are on break – we are delighted to meet each other. Levi reminds me that he doesn’t know the people with me (fellow MMM team members) and I do introductions with finger spelling. Frank asks (as he always has, just to make certain he knows) for names to be repeated. Shadrach just stands and smiles but it is obvious he is taking it all in. In 10 years, this pattern has been repeated many times. We understand each other despite the differences of color and culture.
Malawi is a place of deep and unrelenting poverty. The sheer magnitude of it is overwhelming.
Imagine driving all day, all week for that matter, across this country and not leaving poverty behind. Mile after mile after mile the scene is repeated of mud or mud brick huts, narrow trails winding off into the bush, women walking with a bucket or other load on their heads and one or two or three small children by the hand, goats and chickens searching for some bite in the dry land, the smoke of cooking fires covering everything. One never, ever gets used to the constant needs and contrast to the western world of plenty. The need for food, for water, for clothing, for medical care, for decent schooling is never-ending. Even in a good harvest year food is hardly plentiful. Even where a shallow well has been installed, a drink of water means someone will walk to the well and carry that precious liquid home in a bucket. Clothing is likely to be second-hand bought in the market and will be worn until it literally falls apart; there may not be the luxury of a second or third set of clothes. Medical care may not be available because hospitals or health centers are too far away to get to when the patient must be carried on someone’s back, on a bicycle or in an ox cart. And yet in many ways Malawi is a place of joy and faith and giving. Our friends meet us with never-failing smiles. They pray with us and for us in church, around tables, at well sites. They give out of poverty gifts of chickens and chitengi, goats and ground nuts, fellowship and faith. They gently tease us about not caring for sima and for not putting enough sugar in our tea. We tell them they only like sima so they can play with their food and “tea” is only an excuse to eat sugar. What a joy it is to be in an environment so familiar and comfortable that we can jest back and forth! What a joy to be in a place where the Christian faith is spoken of openly and often. How blessed we are to be reminded often that the widow’s mite is not just an old parable but is alive and well in Malawi.
Whether this is one’s first trip to Malawi or the twentieth, the place will take hold and leave a mark on the heart. We warn first-time volunteers that they will never be the same after a trip with MMM.
As I have so often in the past ten years, I heard the magic phrase from first year volunteers at the final dinner: “Next time I come…” Was I surprised? Not at all. The shallow wells program has a way of doing that to people. It is not simply a mission trip to “do something for” the Malawians but also is a trip that “does something to” those who go. Something deep inside changes when one not only sees but really experiences the poverty and joy of Malawi and comes to understand that the three words on each shallow well top slab are to be taken very seriously: Uchindami kwa Chiuta Glory be to God.