When I reflected on my time spent in Tanzania and Malawi the things that seemed to initially surface in my thoughts revolved around just how different life is in Africa as compared to life here in Canada. I first became aware of this on a University course in Ghana 14 years ago and I was reminded of it again on this trip.
Predominantly a rural people, Malawians are generally traditionalist, and practice non-violence. While there are ethnic and tribal distinctions, no significant tensions exist between the tribal groups and Malawi has had a history of peace within it’s borders. Child Mortality in Malawi is 10% and there are more than a million orphans, the majority of whose parents died of AIDS. The Malawi government estimates that 14% of the population are HIV positive, though unofficial estimates based on private hospital entries estimate an infection rate of closer to 30%. Life expectancy for a person in Malawi is around 43 years old. Millions of people in rural areas lack access to clean drinking water.
These were facts about Malawi that I had read before I decided to volunteer with Marion Medical Mission to install shallow wells and before stepping foot onto Malawi soil. Even though this knowledge, along with my previous experience in West Africa somewhat prepared me for what I would experience in East Africa, I still had moments in which I had a difficult time letting go of my North American upbringing and expectations, in order to ‘embrace’, or rather simply ‘accept’, and some days ‘merely tolerate’ aspects of life in Africa.
For example, ‘time’ operates differently in Africa. Buses arrive when they arrive, and bus trips take as long as they take…..they may include breakdowns….and unscheduled but necessary stops. Church services last as long as it takes for all the choirs to sing their songs, for all of the speaker s to say what needs to be said, until all of the necessary announcements are made and offerings are taken. Church is not over until all of this has been done and as those of us with watches noted, this often would take 2 and sometimes up to 4 hours. In Malawi, events begin when people arrive, and are often postponed due to a funeral. In general, there is an inherent flexibility built into any scheduled event and a designated time is well….somewhat arbitrary. This is not surprising given that, apart from not owning wrist watches or house clocks, people in the villages perform their daily tasks around a more functional timeline that is dictated by available sunlight. Between sunrise and sunset, a mere 12 hours of light is available in which to accomplish the bulk of the day’s routine tasks of collecting firewood, fetching water, preparing two daily meals, caring for children, tending to one’s crops and animals….and for some children, attending school. The reliance of a family to provide for their own basic needs requires the manpower of each family member and the majority of daylight hours. Life for many people in Malawi, is subsistence living that remains relatively unaffected by stock market crashes and electrical outages but that presents it’s own challenges, especially when clean water is not unavailable, when crops fail, or when family members become sick.
I became very aware of how much of a contrast my life is in Canada. My day is guided by my watch which I check at regular intervals. I don’t have to invest the time nor the labour intensive effort required for subsistence living. Instead, I rely on others to provide me with the many things that are beyond my ability to acquire on my own….I rely on the electric company to ensure that the lights come on when I need them….that the microwave will cook my food at the press of a button…..and that the washing machine will wash my clothes. I rely on my local grocery store to supply me with a wide selection of foods and I rely on the gas station to have the fuel I need for my car, even if I don’t like the price that I have to pay. And, I have come to expect that an endless supply of clean water will flow from my water taps.
Yes, life in Canada is different than life in Malawi…..I was reminded of this everyday as we would drive to the villages to install the wells. I had to remember to get in the opposite side of the truck to drive, had to shift with my left hand instead of my right and most importantly, I had to remember to drive on the opposite side of the road. Our Toyota land cruiser would typically take a route starting on a paved road (or ‘the tarmac’ as it was called) onto a dirt road and from there ‘off road’ entirely, sometimes relying heavily on 4-wheel drive to get us ….across small rivers….through fields….up and down very steep banks…. and finally to the general vicinity of the village in which we were seeking. Along the way we would encounter people (often women and children) walking with a bundle of firewood, water or food balancing on top of their heads…..we would pass people on bicycles, balancing an extra person or a load of some sort on the back….we would see a variety of animals and always slowed down for goats and pigs, who could never be trusted to NOT dart out into the road. And sometimes we would even encounter other vehicles….often trucks with a load of human cargo…a taxi of sorts that would pick up and drop people off and which always had room for ‘one more’. When we arrived in the general vicinity of a village, our field officer, who lived in the region would seek out the assistance of someone more local to direct us to the specific village. In a landscape dotted with villages, it was necessary to be guided by a local if one had any hope of arriving at the ‘target’ village.
We would eventually arrive at the desired village…..never arriving early nor late…. because the villagers were not expecting us at a certain time, but more typically expected that we would be arriving on a certain day, give or take a day or two… When our truck arrived, it was often met with the same reception….. some one would announce our arrival to others in the village, one or two of the women would make a loud, high pitched noise created by moving their tongue rapidly from one side of their mouth to the other. This sound served as a call to gather people as well as a type of ‘applause’ made in response to something favourable that was said or done. As we would unload the needed parts and pipes from the back of the truck, villagers would start to gather…..the elders and leaders of the village would often come to shake our hands and greet us, while others were eager to help carry the materials. Some people, especially the young children, kept their distance and just watched….astounded and slightly frightened by the novelty of our light coloured skin, hair and eyes. We would then follow one another down a path, either a long or short distance until we eventually arrived at the well site.
The installation of a well in a village was, without a doubt, an event to celebrate. Nearly every village leader or chief, in thanking us, spoke of how happy they were to know that now the villagers would no longer get sick from the water and that the women and children would no longer have to make long and arduous trips to the old water source. One chief indicated that he had been waiting for a well since 1974 when his village was first promised one by another NGO and that he was happy to still be alive to see the day when his village finally received a well.
Typically while the well was being installed, the women of the village would sing and dance and would invite me to join them, which I did – and what I lacked in skill and rhythm, I tried to make up for, in enthusiasm. As part of this volunteer project, I had the privilege of being present during the final stage of the shallow well process – when the final pipe and a basic T-handle pump was installed to make the well operational – when in actuality much of the work had been previously done in the weeks prior to my arrival.
So, I was there for the best part – to witness the joy on the faces of the villagers when the first streams of water flowed from the well. I was surprised by how overcome with emotion I would get each and every time I witnessed this. It really never got ‘old’. I felt blessed to be a part of something that was bigger than me….bigger than Marion Medical….but something that grew out of a love for God…Christians 10,000 miles away uniting with villagers in Malawi (most of whom were Christians themselves) in an effort to take care of all of God’s people as we are called to do. Each shallow well had the words ‘Glory to God’ inscribed in the top slab, both in English and in the tribal language. This was to serve as a reminder of Christ’s love for all of his people.
As I reflected I read from Revelations: “There was a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne” and they worshiped God singing “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” The image of all of us standing around the well came to mind. I stood amongst people who spoke a different language, who looked very different from me….whose daily life and reality showed little resemblance to mine ….in yet we were united as children of god….and perhaps even as saints ourselves.
I like to think that as Saints we are united. Regardless of what time, geography and circumstance we live in……regardless of the different hardships that we may face and the variety of things that may be beyond our control, whether it be access to clean water, fluctuating stock markets, relational difficulties, war or illness….We are united in our belief that there is a God who is in control, who loves us and who calls us to love one another….and it is that belief that not only unites us but challenges us to be a person through whom the light of God shines everyday.