When someone asks me why I wanted to go to Malawi, I usually answer, “I don’t know!” I mean, I really don’t know why I wanted to go on this mission trip. I remember hearing Tom Logan speak at our church 10-15 years ago & deciding then I wanted to be part of one of his trips, but WHY? I didn’t want to go just in order to see African animals. I wasn’t expecting high adventure. I’m not even sure I had a clear idea of what was expected from me when we left this September. I just felt that I had to go and be a part of this Marion Medical Mission team.
As I began preparing, and especially as the time drew near, it seemed as if every action and every word took on special meaning or was focused just on this trip. I even saw an advertisement in a magazine that read, “From what we GET, we can make a living, but from what we GIVE, we make a life,” – and here I was, getting ready to give something more than I had ever given before.
During our training, we were told things like, “Listen and then listen again.” “Keep your eyes, ears, and heart open to possibilities.” “What you DO speaks so much louder than what you SAY.” All of that was true, but probably the most meaningful words I heard were, “Leave your footprint and fingerprint on people’s lives.”
It was not easy. In many ways, life in Malawi was like being on a different planet or going through a time warp. We frequently had no electricity or running water. Stores, as we know them in America, were non-existent. The common mode of transportation was either by foot or bicycle. Most of the houses in the village had thatching for a roof.
In the United States, we’ve used the term “living off the land” for generations to indicate that people were able to raise their own food and be self-sufficient, but in Malawi that phrase takes on a completely different meaning. People have to literally destroy their land, causing deforestation, depletion of their resources, and a decline in their animal population, in order to get food for a day, create shelter for their families, or provide any income. Yet, these people are gentle, kind-hearted, loving, and generous of spirit.
My daily routine consisted of getting up each morning around 5:00, eating breakfast – ½ of which my partner and I saved to give to our workers – and then heading out to meet the Installation Supervisors, load the pipes, pumps, & tools for the day. Many mornings, we were already hot, thirsty & dirty by 6:30. But for the next 12 hours, we were either driving or walking or installing wells.
We discovered that phrases such as “short walk” or “long walk” or even words like “steep” were all relative terms, varying greatly in meaning from one culture to another. People almost constantly surrounded us when we stopped and the language barrier could be overwhelming. There were so many times we wished we could communicate with the people, but our only common language was one of smiles and dances. By the middle of the afternoon, it was difficult to remember that it was not “all about you” as you slogged down a path or over a field – hot, tired, and filthy – to yet one more village! Still, this was the first time THESE people had seen us; the first time THEY had received the gift of fresh, clean, safe water and they deserved the best I had to offer.
That was when I remembered how my mother taught me to build up my endurance if I had a difficult task ahead of me. She had me swim 10 more strokes for this person in my family or take 10 more steps for that person in my family. So, given the distances I had to cover, I would take 20 steps for my husband, and then 20 more steps for each one of our children. I would take extra steps and breathe in the beauty of my surroundings for my brother, who died at age 17 and never had the opportunity to experience something this magnificent. I would remember the faces of my congregation as I walked up another steep climb and draw on their strength and prayers at that time.
Most importantly, that was when I asked myself “Where have I seen God today?” or “Where will I see God now?” and that was usually when I received some of my most precious memories – upon entering a village, I would hear a brand new song or hear a different harmony this village had added; I would learn a new dance; I would play with a child whose smile or solemn eyes captured my heart; I would see yet one more breathtaking sight; or I would meet a gracious and dignified head couple who, following the dedication of their well, took my hands and in perfect English said, “Let’s go home!” as they led me back to their village. The people, their smiles & their joy were absolutely infectious and they seemed to seep into my skin.
Since I’ve returned, many people now ask what was most difficult emotionally or how has this experience changed me? I find that much of what we do and how we spend our time in America, except as it relates to building good relationships with others, now seems irrelevant. I also have much less tolerance for how many of us treat each other. There is simply no justification for bad behavior or for assuming a feeling of superiority or entitlement.
With regard to Malawi, I realize that providing clean water is only the first step. Adequate food and education – especially for girls – must follow and become a higher priority. Jobs and real options for the future must become more available. I ask myself “What level of responsibility am I willing to assume now?” The task is daunting and there are so many people, it seems hopeless. Yet, in a 3-year period, Marion Medical Mission reduced the threat of cholera from an entire region in the north, so progress is being made.
In one village, a woman greeted us, clasped our hands and said, tearfully, “We thought God had forgotten about us!” After we installed and dedicated her well, she hugged me and said, “Don’t forget us.” I don’t know that I left my footprint or fingerprint on her life, but she certainly did on mine! So, as I’ve turned that initial question of “Why I wanted to go” over and over in my mind, I’ve finally decided it’s because I yearned to know the power of the divine in each of our lives. I wanted to be connected to that, to something greater than myself. I wanted to keep my eyes, ears, and heart open to possibilities and listen and then listen again to what these people had to share with me. At almost every village we heard, “Madzi ndi moyo – Water is life!” and where there is life, there is hope.