The Old Woman
She is not at every village. Some villages are simply not blessed enough to have her.
But she is at some of the villages where you install wells. As the young, strong African men get the materials out of the truck and get to work, she comes out of nowhere and hobbles past them. As the oldest woman, she is, you see, the only woman in her village who can do as she pleases around the village men.
And what she wants to do today is talk to you. And she wants to talk first, before the men. So there she is, right in front of you, bowing deeply despite her painful knees and hips. Her face is as wrinkled as a dried apple, her eyes are so deep-set you can hardly see them, and she seems to be older than time. But as the village watches on, she pulls up her less than 5 foot frame, grasps your hands in both of hers, and starts to speak to you.
Her sounds and intonations are foreign to your ears. What is her language? How can you possibly know what she is saying? And what can you possibly say back to her? What do you do now?
She is swaying slightly as she talks. She is looking back and forth between the sky, out into the vast expanse of land, and you. Her voice rises and falls as she lists her children, and her children’s children, and her sisters and brothers and their children, who have died from bad water. She tells you where their water hole was before the cholera, and then where it was after the cholera. She never lets go of your hands as she alternately wails for her children and praises God for you and the great gift you are bringing. Your group’s only interpreter sees what is going on and edges closer, offering snippets of her story to you. Neither one of you dare take your eyes off of her, out of respect for her and the awe of her story. And you nod. And you nod again. And again. “She wants you to thank every Christian back in America,” your interpreter says near the end of her speech. “Tell her I will”, you say. “Tell her I will.”
And then your interpreter finishes: “She says she will pray for God to bless you richly, for you to live well and long, for you and your family to gratefully receive all of God’s blessings. Her hope is that you receive the love of Jesus Christ and all His best gifts all the days of your life. She says she will pray this for you today and each day until the last day of her life, when she will see God herself and thank Him for blessing you.”
And now, you really are speechless. She has finished. She still grasps your hands in hers as she peers with gratefulness into your face, and you, because you don’t know what else to do, bow to her in that age-old sign of respect. And as you bow, you know there is nothing you can ever do or say that could ever match the majesty of this woman.
Make no mistake – installing pumps into newly constructed shallow wells in Malawi, Africa is a rough and tumble thing to do. Get up with the 5 a.m. dawn, load pipes and pumps and tools on the truck and tie them down tight. If anyone mentions the lack of breakfast or a hot shower, throw ’em a granola bar and tell them to buck up. Hop in the pickup truck and roar down the road, most likely not paved. From time to time, your local guide will say “Stop!”, and you’ll jam on your brakes to pick up a man standing by, say, a tree on the side of the road. You thank God the man at the tree is wearing the familiar purple-logo shirt of Marion Medical Mission, because the thought crosses your mind that you are indeed picking up complete strangers who speak only Chichewa or Tumbuka – not languages you know – and you’re equipping them with hack saws and metal pipes in the back of your borrowed truck.
But soon your truck bed is full of African men, enjoying a rare car ride and eager to work. It’s close to 6:30 a.m., and time to get to the well sites. You don’t know exactly where the well sites are. Truth be told, you don’t even know where you are right now. But you do know this: you’ll spend the next 12 hours barreling deep into the rural African desert. You’ll see miles and miles of bent-over women and men, plowing by hand with wooden hoes and somehow coaxing corn to grow out of the sandy soil.
One of those African men who 10 minutes ago was a stranger is now your guide and navigator. Your life depends on his ability to find dirt roads that are nothing more than footpaths, dried creekbeds or muddy ruts, all the while guiding you so you avoid the hidden tree stumps that are the most common cause of flat tires here. He waves his hand respectfully to the left or the right to tell you where to turn. He knows the word “straight” and he uses it a lot. But you soon catch on that “straight” does not mean “straight ahead” to him. No, in this culture, “straight” is an encouraging word meaning to “continue in the way you are going”, and that might mean down, or up, or continue to twist in a certain direction. And so you do, bulldozing the truck through the uneven brush with men and materials rattling and jarring as you go.
The experience rivals, I suppose, hunting, fishing, bachelor parties, poker games and other oh-so-male activities. But it is so much more than that. You see, none of the people you will meet in the next 12 hours eats more than 1 meal a day. None have a toilet, or a shower, or even a faucet in their homes. None can get a drink of water that’s been protected from the sewage of agricultural life. But you, you healthy American, you are coming to meet them, to greet them, and to put the final touches on the well that will bring them, for the first time in their lives, clean drinking water. And as you do this, you will tell them that you are doing this on behalf of other American Christians who heard about their need for a well, and who gave some money to buy the final pieces that you are about to install.