Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I never thought to mention that ...

There was a fight not long after church last week. We were busy decorating our Christmas tree as a family when one of the neighbor boys came to get Caleb because there was a fight going on. Caleb came back quickly to report that one of the boys was bleeding from a cut that he had received. I went out to find the boys were all sons of my gardener. One of them was bleeding from a deep cut just below his eyebrow. I later learned that the boys were arguing about a football (soccer) match and one head butted the other causing the cut.

A trip to the hospital resulted in eight stitches. We returned home with a bandaged boy and some pain medicine. The Malawi health system is notorious for not explaining to its patients anything related to their troubles. It is normal that patients leave the hospital with pills to take, some vague instructions and no idea of what the name of their illness is or any broader understanding of their condition. Based on my interactions with people, I don’t believe the normal school curriculum has much about health or the body in it. So, I usually take extra time when I have been to the hospital with someone to explain about their problems and why it is important they take their medicine and what the medicine does and does not do.

When we arrived home, I had Sete come in the house and I explained to him about his stitches. I explained what stitches are, that it is important to keep them clean, that the doctor said we could remove the bandage after two days and what the ibuprofen that he needed to take would do.

On Tuesday Sete returned to have the bandage removed. As I removed it and cleaned around the area, I began to explain again the need to keep it clean and that the swelling would go down. Suddenly Sete slumped forward into my arms. He had fainted. We grabbed a chair and had him sit for a while and drink something. As he returned to normal, I asked what had happened. He said that his heart had been racing. After a little more talking, we learned that he had been afraid. His heart was racing with fear that he would die. With all the explanation I had given him, I never thought to mention that he would not die! The rest of the family quickly assembled around him to show off scars of past stitches and give testimony to the fact that they are still alive (all of us but Faith have had stitches somewhere).

I am constantly amazed at the how we can take simple things like knowledge for granted. What many of us consider common knowledge is not understood by many in this world that have not had the benefit of a good education.

Have a great Christmas and while you’re at it, thank God for your education.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lookin for Fuel

Malawi has had a fuel shortage for a few weeks now. We had one earlier in the year, but it was nothing like the present. It is only recently that the government has come out to say that it is being caused by a shortage of foreign currency. I don’t understand the economics of it enough to explain the problem or the solution. Put simply, I believe that we are importing more than exporting to the point that we can’t pay for basic needs like fuel. The government has made various statements including one encouraging Malawians to not import “luxury items,” such as cars, during this time as it worsens the problem.

The practical side of the fuel shortage is that basic services are now being affected. The public transportation system is struggling to find fuel. People needing to travel to work are walking instead of driving and transportation of goods from one area to another is happening less. Today, lines of vehicles up to twenty cars long were lined up at all the fuel stations I passed with hope of a delivery arriving. No solid information, just rumors.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Turkey

Thanksgiving has been one of those holidays that we have celebrated sometimes while living overseas and at other times not.

For the last few years, we have tried to celebrate it in one way or another. Usually we have had chicken or ham, as turkeys can be hard to come by. This year will be different. A few weeks ago, one of our missionaries acquired some turkeys and has been feeding them in preparation for the holidays. One is ready this week. He’ll be on the table Saturday.

We call him Tom. He's free range, organic, fresh, and all that other stuff.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Being Thankful

A culture of entitlement makes it difficult to be thankful. I take what I have for granted, I believe that much of what I have I deserve or that it is my “right” to receive the things I have. Marketing gurus tell me that “I deserve a break,” because I have obviously been doing something difficult.

I was reminded the other day in a conversation about the uniqueness of our times. At no other time in history have as many people lived as comfortably and generally well off as the present. For most of history, the average person has lived much like the average person lives here in Malawi. Much of life is focused on survival. Obtaining and preparing food is a major feature of the day as well as acquiring water. Education, having more than two or three sets of clothes and durable shelter are considered luxuries.

I think that much of what we take for granted as “normal” is really not normal for much of the world, nor has it been normal in history. I think that our lack of exposure to the realities of the world or lack of reflection on these realities lull us into a false sense of normalcy. We don’t tend to be thankful for things we consider normal.

I don’t thank God for the glass of clean water I am drinking because I can access it from the convenience of my tap any time I want. I don’t thank God for my basic education because everyone I know has had the same opportunity. I am no longer thankful for my clothes because my closets are full to the point of needing to regularly sort and dispose of articles no longer being worn. My car is not a blessing because it consumes too much fuel and needs regular maintenance.

We need to practice the art of being thankful. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, why not take some time to deeply reflect on God’s goodness. Step back from your situation enough to get perspective on the many ways you have been blessed.

Thankful for family and opportunities to serve and a couple of hundred other things,


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What can you get for $1.38?

I am in the village of Chinseu, basically in the middle of nowhere. We arrived at the village after a 45 minute drive of ups and downs on a twisty dusty road better suited for one way traffic than two. Maneuvering through rocky parts of the road and concentrating on passing over narrow bridges built of stone or wood were included in the journey.

Even though we had to do various things in preparation for today’s seminar, we first went to the resthouse. It is important to check into the resthouse early to reserve your room. On any trips like this into rural areas, I have learned to bring a number of items that often prove very helpful. These include some basic tools, a mosquito net, a travel pillow, a towel, flip flops, headlamp and a tent. There are different reasons that I carry each of them. The tent is because sometimes the room that you booked at the local resthouse two weeks earlier gets given to someone else passing through.

The resthouse we’re at has two room options. The first is $1.03 a night and the second is $1.38 a night. We are told the difference between the rooms is the thickness of the mattress on the beds. We take five small rooms. Three of the more expensive rooms are available as well as two with the thinner mattresses. After some shuffling around, I end up in one of the more expensive rooms. So, what do I get for my $1.38? I have a bed with a lumpy mattress through which I can feel the cross beams of the frame, questionable sheets that I am told have been washed, a locking door with key, a single window with burglar bars, a mosquito net with more holes than net, a light bulb and a slightly funky smell. I’m actually quite happy. It is better than I expected. The locking door, burglar bars, and light are all bonuses I wasn’t necessarily expecting. There is a single toilet and “bath” shared between eight rooms. The toilet is a hole in the ground with a concrete cover and the “bath” is a small concrete room with a bucket in the middle. It is clean compared to most I have been in and recently painted.

After confirming that we were in fact here, and were in fact going to spend the night, we wandered off to the venue for the seminar. There is a community hall that World Vision constructed. We can use it free of charge, but have to pay $6.90 for someone to clean the toilets. We find the hall in a bit of a state of chaos. Chairs and building materials are spread around. After some discussions, we are told they will begin cleaning at 5:00 in the morning and it will be ready be the time we arrive at 7:30 for set-up. This is the reason we go a day ahead of time to set-up for seminars. Communication can happen on the phone, but nothing replaces face to face communication here.

We are met by the pastor that is the chairman of the local Pastors Fraternal (a group of pastors that meet monthly to discuss issues and encourage one another). They are hosting us for the meeting. It has been their responsibility to publicize the seminar. We meet with another man that is responsible for supplying soft drinks and then we go to the restaurant that will be supplying the food for lunch. Many details of how much food needs to be prepared and how it will arrive at the venue are discussed. It is near dinner time, so we also order our meal ahead of time.
My meal tasted of mosquito repellant. I had applied it not long before eating my nsima (local staple food) and chicken by hand. It added a tangy chemical taste for the first few bites. The meal was by the light of a kerosene lantern. Returning to my room I quickly made a cocoon of my mosquito net to hide from the swarm of mosquitoes that call my room their home. I began to do some work on my computer, but found my thinking getting fuzzy and my eyes closing. Apart from some vague memories of people talking much too loud outside my room and a constant shifting because of the wood cross beams below my mattress I was awoken at 5:00 by a knock at the door and the announcement of “madzi” or “water” letting me know that there was some warm water waiting for me in the “bath room.”

We are told 200 church leaders should be coming this morning to learn about how to share with their Muslim neighbors. We’ll be happy if half that number arrive.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Justice and Injustice

When we hear the word justice we usually think of a legal system. We link it to the idea of fair treatment, but usually in the context of a court room or when we come in contact with the law (such as how a police officer treats us).

In recent years, justice has become a topic being discussed by many within the church (largely the church in the west). It typically seems to be younger (20’s, 30’s) Christians talking about it and raising it up as an issue for the church to engage in and address. Some have struggled to know what is being talked about because the “justice” being discussed does not seem to be the idea of “justice” that they have known. In order to understand what is being discussed we need to understand justice in broader terms than how one is treated within a system of law.

Justice can be simply defined as “moral rightness” (Wikipedia). To broaden things more, many within the church discussing “justice” are often referring to “social justice.” Social justice can be defined as “a society in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society rather than merely the administration of law (Wikipedia).” So, justice is achieved not only in the courts, but all levels of society. Equal rights and opportunities are spread throughout.

So, how does this broad idea of justice impact ones thinking about the role of the church in society and the world? Consider the following:

· Thousands of children die each minute of preventable diseases that we have the means to stop, but we don’t spend the money to do it.
· Millions in the world are dying of starvation while others are dying of gluttony.
· Millions have less to live on each day than others spend on a cup of coffee. Others have more individual wealth than whole countries.
· There are more people in slavery today than in the worst days of the pre-abolition slave trade.
· Millions live as refugees from wars. (the idea of this list from; The God I don’t Understand, Christopher J. H. Wright)
· More than a billion people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water.

When confronted with these kinds of issues, a broader definition of justice asks the question, “Is this right, is this fair, is this just?” The answer is “no, it’s not fair." The next question then is, “What should the church do about it?” The response is, “The church should engage in providing for the widow and orphan, defending the weak and being a voice for the voiceless.”

What do you think about this broader definition of justice? Should the church be worried about these kinds of issues? If so, to what extent should the church engage? What about our own personal responsibility? If I know injustice is occurring, am I responsible to do something about it? If so, does geographical distance matter or is my knowledge of the problem sufficient cause to call me to responsibility?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Life's Events

One of the advantages of being a long-term missionary in the same country for a number of years is that you get to share in the lives of people, see them change and grow and participate in their major life events. A couple of weeks ago, I got to participate in the ordination of one of the younger leaders in the Africa Evangelical Church (AEC).

As I sat with the other pastors who had come for the event, my mind wandered back to my first hearing of the name Kondwani. I remember one of my missionaries talking about one of the youth in his church that had a lot of potential. He was encouraging him to go to Bible College. I remember not long after seeing his application for a scholarship. I remember the letter of recommendation from his local church and his track record of getting involved with his church. I remember various conversations with him in his last year of school as he talked about what he thought the church in Malawi should look and act like. I remember his graduation. I remember conversations about him possibly helping our Hope for AIDS program and when he first started working in it. I remember his wedding and Heidi and I being asked to lead in the procession to the reception. Faith was a flower girl. I remember receiving the news that Kondwani and Madalitso had a child. Now he was being ordained as a pastor. Cool.

The ceremony was like a regular Sunday service (hymns, prayers, sermon), but with some extra pieces. There was a formal time when the General Secretary of the AEC followed a program from a book that has outlines and wordings for such special occasions. Then there was the laying on of hands by the pastors that had gathered for the occasion (about ten) and prayer. A few of the pastors were asked to give words of advice. My two words were to remain humble and to be approachable (two problems areas that I see among some of the pastors I know). At the end Kondwani was given a white collar. The roots of the AEC are inter-tangled with the large Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) which uses white collars as well. The collars are used on special occasions like weddings and funerals.

After the service, food was served. I was taking advantage of all the people gathered to catch up with various people I don’t see often. It made me late to arrive for the food. As I approached the pastors’ table I found the last plate of food. I was happy to find a chicken leg and ate the rice and accompanying sauce. Most of the pastors were finishing and began to disperse. Then it arrived, the special plate; liver and goat lung. The pastor nearest me apologized that I had found the last plate and insisted that I be the first to help myself to the special pieces. I smiled and accepted a small piece of liver. He began to insist I take more, but the thought was quickly overtaken as spoons appeared from all around as the dispersed pastors quickly assembled again to take part.

While goat organs may not be my favorite food, the opportunity to participate in someone else’s life like this is well worth it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Seeing the world through another's eyes

Our view of life or our perspective has a huge impact on how we feel about life. It affects whether we are happy, satisfied, content or unsatisfied and anxious or worried. It is easy to get so focused and wrapped up in our own circumstances that we only see things from our point of view. Every once in a while we need a good reality check. Seeing life through someone else’s eyes can help put our perspective in check as we recognize that our worries and concerns look quite trivial when compared to others.

A couple of weeks ago I met Jameston. He is one of the students benefitting from a secondary school scholarship program that is part of our orphan care program in Nathenje. As we unpacked his story I became unsettled. I was reminded of the very basic problems that many Malawian struggle with daily and the impact that even a small amount of assistance can make. I know the tough realities of life here, especially life in the village, but each time it is personalized as I stare someone in the face telling me about their life I find myself trying to crawl into their shoes to see the world as they do. I am not sure if I would have the same positive perspective on life as Jameston if I was forced into similar circumstances.

Jameston’s father passed away in 2004. Since that time, he has been the main bread winner in his family. He tries to provide for his mom, and four other siblings as well as go to school. He works odd jobs such as helping others prepare their fields for planting, weeding, digging as well as harvesting. This seasonal work only helps for part of the year. The government assists one of his brothers with school fees, but an over stretched government is only able to help one child per family. In January of this year Jameston had to drop out of school because he could not find money enough to both assist the family and pay school fees. This is where our program came in. Jameston was happy as he told us that now that his school fees are covered and he has a uniform, shoes and notebooks his worries are much less. He just has to look for money to help the family eat.

It is humbling to talk to someone whose primary concerns are so basic and they are grateful for the difference a bit of assistance is making. I wonder if I would see the world as full of potential. When asked what he wants to do after school, Jameston responded, “I want to be a lawyer.”

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Stereotypes, Generalizations and other things to handle with care

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines Stereotype as:
something conforming to a fixed or general pattern ; especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment

I was surprised the other day to find one of my online Malawian friends making critical statements about an article. This particular friend does not usually react this way, even when his favorite football team is losing! On his Twitter feed he posted, “This article is full of lies … this is really disgusting.” He also repeated another friends’ comment, “Disgusting article, Malawians are not this irrational?!” I was wondering what was drawing all of the ire and followed his link. The article is from the British newspaper the Guardian, which I understand to be a reasonably reputable paper. It’s about Madonna and her attempt to adopt a second child from Malawi.

As I read the article, I was impressed by the leg work that the reporter had done. He had been to all the right places and spoken to all the right people. His work is not only to write the article, but to also produce a documentary on the ‘real story’ behind Madonna’s plans to adopt. I see his problem as twofold. For one, even though he had conversations with the right people, he didn’t seem to have the right cultural grid through which to interpret the information from his interviewees.

Culture permeates every aspect of our lives whether we are conscious of it or not. Verbal communication, nonverbal communication, even the categories in which we think are all affected by culture. An action as simple as eye movement can communicate different meaning depending on your cultural grid. A pastor from Zambia once told about his experience as a boy confronting cultural differences. As a boy at home, when he did something wrong and his mother lectured him, she would tell him, “Don’t look at me when I am lecturing you.” When he went to town to the secondary school he had a foreign teacher who one day began lecturing him about something that he had done wrong. His natural reaction was to stare at the floor as he was being lectured. The teacher did not appreciate this and told him, “Look at me when I speak to you.” Nonverbal actions can be understood differently by two different people with two different cultural backgrounds. One culture interpreted looking away while being lectured as a sign of respect while the other interpreted it as disrespect. The reporter seems to have interpreted some things as truths that were probably not. Malawians can tell you what they think you want to hear so that you will be pleased. You have to be able to recognize when this is happening.

I believe the reporter’s second problem has to do with stereotyping or generalizing. As humans, we are always categorizing. We do it in order to make sense of our world and so that we know how to act. If I drive to a city that I have never been to before and a vehicle with flashing lights comes up behind me I know how to act. Even though I have never seen the specific vehicle before, I know from my pre-established categories that this is the police and my appropriate response is to pull off to the side of the road. We do this with people as well. As we interact with groups of people, we begin to develop categories or generalizations about them; nurses are nice, doctors are intelligent, construction workers are tough etc. The problem with these generalizations, if they are not well tested over time, is that they can be inaccurate and based on interactions with only a few. The other danger that can happen is that once someone establishes a category they get stuck with it. Any new information is ignored as it does not agree with the category. I know a man who has lived in Malawi his whole life. He told me that all Malawians are dishonest. When I told me that I knew some who I believed were honest, he told me that I simply did not know them well enough. In time, I would see the truth. That is a sad place to be. I believe that in the reporters interaction with a few he has made some broad generalizations or stereotypes that are inaccurate and this is what has drawn the reactions from my friend and others.

As missionaries, we have to constantly be on our guard to not develop unhealthy generalizations or stereotypes of the people we have come to serve. As I get to know people and they begin to ask me for things or money I can conclude that Malawians are only interested in knowing me because of what I have. I need to look deeper into the issue of the role of finances in relationships. If people stop coming to my Bible study I can conclude that Malawians are not committed. I may need to look deeper into conflicts that exist, the time of my study, the topic of my study or the way that I am teaching. If I see many men sitting under trees during the day, I may assume Malawians are lazy. I need to try to understand issues well and constantly review my categories.

If I hold onto negative categories too strongly, they can prevent me from developing relationships. I begin to see everyone I meet as part of a group rather than looking at them as individuals that may or may not fit the categories I have established. Luckily, God was able to look past the general truth that man stands condemned and offer to have a relationship with individuals. May we look past the categories we have established about people different from ourselves and develop relationships for the kingdom.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Elections! Elections!

As with many things in Malawi, the elections were filled with significant contrasts. The more traditional, uncomplicated world of majority rural Malawi contrasted with aspects of modernizing urban Malawi.

The stories below give a taste of the contrasting situation:

· Spilled ink disqualifies ballots – Eager voters spilled ink on ballots resulting in ten percent of ballots at one polling center to be null and void. Read story here

· Counting ballots by candle lightThe Daily Times midday elections special edition reported that polling staff at Kapeni primary school were counting ballots by candlelight last night. They were unable to get the supplied generator working and the batteries for the back-up flashlights did not work, so candles were purchased and the work continued.

· Wind blows away ballots in Lilongwe – In the capital city, the wind carried away a significant number of completed ballots. Electoral staff were only able to recover three-quarters of the ballots. Read story here

· Clear transparent plastic boxes used for holding ballots – Transparent elections!

· Two major websites posting results and giving election related information
Malawi Electoral Commission – official site of electoral body
African Elections Project – Organization focused on training for use of media as a tool for election coverage
· Internet based radio station focused on Malawi diaspora giving out results live over the internet
Listen to Radio Yako

· Flicker photo stream dedicated to elections – images
See photos here

· Two twitter accounts twittering election results and stories

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

At the house of gods

Missionaries often live at the cross roads of multiple communities. Our work puts us in contact with certain communities, our socio-economic status puts us in contact with others, and our children put us in contact with even more. In Malawi, because of our responsibilities, the majority of our time is spent with the missionary community and a community of better than average educated Malawians. By far, the majority of our time is spent in those two spheres.

Saturday evening, through a friend of our oldest son, we spent time with one of the groups that we have less contact with. Our kids are pretty eclectic in their choice of friends. Many nationalities and religions are represented. We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we received the invitation to come to dinner at 8:00. Most of Malawi is in bed by then. Caleb was sure things would start by 6:00, so we held off till 7:30 and ended up being the second family to arrive. The hosts are newer to Malawi and were holding a sort of house warming. Their house is decorated by an interesting array of diverse art and Hindu gods.

By 9:00, well over a hundred adults were there, along with a dozen or so kids. We found we knew many of the guests from doing business around town. Many of them own their businesses or are the heads of the local division of an international company. The appetizers were plentiful and really good, many of Indian derivation. Dinner, a Mongolian stir-fry, was served around 10:30.

Conversation rotated around business, other social events of the weekend, politics and the upcoming elections (May 19). Our own conversations were more in depth with those we already know and at times brushed on spiritual issues as discussions about our occupation naturally lead in that direction. A different sort of opportunity to be a bit of salt and light in a community often overlooked by mission.

Friday, May 1, 2009

How Important is Your Word?

Lead headline of The Nation newspaper reads “CAMA (Consumers Association of Malawi) to Sue ESCOM (Electrical Supply Corporation of Malawi) for False Slogan.”

CAMA is suing ESCOM for fraud alleging that their slogan “Power All Day, Every Day” is deceptive as consumers continually experience blackouts. CAMA wrote a letter to ESCOM giving ESCOM seven days to remove their slogan from structures, billboards, cars, building and advertising. When they did not receive a response, they chose to sue ESCOM. CAMA claims that the slogan “is evidently false, misleading and, does not conform to rules of decency and truth” and that it contravenes the Consumer Protection Law sections 43 and 44. CAMA claims that ESCOM is creating unnecessary expectations both to current and perspective consumers about services which are below standard and inconsistent with the advertisement.

In the largest city in Malawi, which is also the commercial capital of the country, we experience black outs on average of twice a week. They are usually at around 6:00 in the evening and go for about two hours. Some days they last for half a day, but not too often. There was a joke going around a while back that suggested that ESCOM trade slogans with the local Siku Transport Service whose slogan is “Here Tonight, There Tomorrow.”

I was surprised when I was driving this morning and saw this headline on one of the local papers. Someone is actually taking them to task over the issue!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Annual Church Council

I’ve spent the last couple of days at Ndamera, a small dot on the map at the southernmost tip of Malawi. To get there you have to travel south from Blantyre for about an hour and half on tar road and then another three hours or so on dirt. This was the location for the Africa Evangelical Church’s Annual Church Council meeting for 2009. It changes location each year to different areas so that different churches can host the event and so that no one church has to regularly bear the burden of hosting and providing for so many people.

The local church building was not big enough to handle the meeting or to house so many people. So, the local primary school, which is on holiday now, became the venue. Just over 100 delegates and pastors from many of the AEC churches throughout Malawi came together to discuss issues related to the denomination. I attend this meeting every year as one of the missionaries that works with the AEC and as the head of the mission that started the AEC many years ago and continues to work closely with them.

Like most things in life attending the meeting has its positives and not so positives. I’ll start with the positives:
- Goat and rice or nsima (just found out the other day that goat is the most eaten meat in the world!)
- Fellowship with friends – mostly pastors and evangelists that I only see a couple of times a year.
- Being part of the life and development of the church
- Cultural insights gained from tea time conversations
- Learning more about how local context so affects the types of problems the church faces. There is constant struggle with basic issues like providing for the pastors and constructing basic church buildings.
- Being part of a community. There is a certain sense of togetherness, even in the disagreements, that I think sometimes is missing in our individual focused societies.
- To bed at 8:30

The not so positives:
- Goat and rice or nsima for all meals (except breakfast of course!)
- Camping on concrete floors
- Sitting on hard wood desks for 8 hours a day
- Pit toilets
- The balancing act required to successfully bathe from a bucket in a small wet space without getting your clothes, towel and other things completely soaked.
- Being asked, “When will you have funds to help buy roofing sheets for our church 10 or so times.”
- Getting up at 4:30

The meeting has a function of defining and working out issues for the denomination as a whole. Reports are also given. The head of the church, treasurer, church department heads and local leaders all give reports. This often takes a full day of the meetings. I also give a report. The reports have a role of informing the delegates of what is going on as well as giving an opportunity for delegates to make suggestions about problems identified in the reports. There are also questions that are asked. It is sometimes a public calling of leaders into account.

This year the main agenda of the meeting was to discuss the “Handbook of Rules.” This is a booklet that defines how the denomination functions and sets out guidelines for practice. I often chuckle at the name. Western society has so grated against rules and structures in recent years that I am sure the mentioning of a “Handbook of Rules” to many in western society churches would make the hair on their necks stand up. It doesn’t seem to be an issue for the church here. The Handbook is seen as defining the community. It gives guidelines for how the community should function as well as an identity - our ways of doing things identify us and differentiate us from other groups.

In the discussions, I was pleased to see one particular change. The Handbook had a general statement to say that Christians should not be involved in witchcraft or traditional practices. This will be expanded to specifically name some of the practices that are prevalent in society. It will probably be a long list as each tribe has their own practices, but I am happy to see the church take what will hopefully be a stronger stand on these issues.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

When Death Enters Your House

Following a death, Sena tradition requires that cleansing take place. This practice, known as kupita kufa: that is ‘taking the death out’ or ‘widow cleansing’ is still widely practiced. If cleansing does not take place, it is believed that people can catch death from the widow or others that were close to the deceased. Death can be transferred through using items that belonged to the deceased or by allowing the widow to even wash her hands in your house.

Cleansing is done by an appointed person sleeping with the widow or another designated person a certain number of times in a prescribed way. If this is not done, people are not safe and they could begin to become sick and die. Those who refuse to participate in this are shut out from the community. They are troublesome because they are putting others at risk and aren’t allowing the items of the deceased to be inherited by others because they are considered unclean.

The pressure to participate is enormous. In the context of poverty, the possibility of being shut out of the village community is scary. The village is a safety net. If I have need of something, I can borrow it from my neighbor and in a few weeks time, they will borrow something from me. Everyone helps one another. If I am cut off, I have no one to rely on when needs come my way.

A pastor friend of mine, whose first wife died about five years ago, refused to participate in this. Up to this day, when he goes down to his village area his family refuses to eat with him. Pastor Stazio refused to allow his mother to participate when his father died and his relatives were upset because his father’s belongings could not be distributed. It is not easy to refuse.

Agnus Stazio, the wife of late pastor Stazio, has had a couple of hard weeks since his death. First there was pressure from family to participate in cleansing. She refused and left for Muona, the place where Pastor Stazio was serving. Talk about difficult pressure when you are just mourning the loss of your spouse. She heard that a relative was coming to persuade her to reconsider so she came to Blantyre three days ago. She has now learned that another relative took on the responsibility for the death when she refused and so has been released from the pressure to partake.

She is now worried about her survival. Her daughter, Yankho and son, Prince Jr. are both still young. Yankho only started school recently. Agnus is unlike the other widows of pastors in the church. They are all older and have grown children assisting them. She is not yet thirty.

She met with me and the head of the church today to ask for some financial assistance to start a small business. She plans to return to Muona where she and Prince had planted rice before he died. The rice is harvested in June. Prince’s sister is also there. She had been living with them going to school and needs to finish the year there so she can take her exams. After the school year ends, Agnus will probably return to her home village area of Tengani. She wants to start a business selling clothes from Tanzania.

Death is harsh anywhere, but I think that it is harder here where most don’t have the luxury of life insurance policies or a social security system that will help cushion them along till they have had enough time to get back on their feet. You either get back on your feet, of you don’t survive.

  • Pray for Agnus, Yankho and Prince Jr. as they continue to cope with the loss of Prince.
  • I’ll be in the far south of Malawi this week at the Africa Evangelical Church’s Annual Church Council. Pray that the church would make a specific statement about the practice of kupita kufa as they review the church’s book of policies which is used throughout the denomination.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Today I met Damales

I was introduced to Damales today. She is just two years old, was wearing a green dress and wasn’t too sure about this big white guy taking an interest in her. Her story is not uncommon. A couple of years ago, her dad passed away and eventually her mom remarried. When her mom began to get sick the new husband ran away and left them alone living near their grandmother. Last month her Mom died and now her and her four siblings are left with their blind grandmother. Her oldest sibling is a brother who is in eighth grade. This is what has become known as an ‘orphan headed household’. The fact that a category has been established tells you something about its frequency.

Our kids are off school this week. Caleb traveled with me as I escorted a visitor about an hour south of Blantyre to one of our three Orphan Care programs. This was my first time to visit the program at Phingo that opened last year. I had been to the area to preach before and had been there a lot in 2002 -2003 when we ran a large food relief program in the area.

The Orphan care program runs a preschool for children under five, assists orphans in the community with practical needs and scholarships a group of secondary school students. Today we visited the preschool and two homes in the community.

I was really pleased with the project. Gerald Chisale, the Orphan Care Coordinator, really works with the communities that we go into to ensure there is ownership and involvement. Both the building where the preschool meets and the kitchen where the children’s food is cooked were built by the community. The community is also involved in indicating which orphans are most in need. Gerald used to work a similar job with a different organization but was not permitted to express his faith so he joined us a few years ago.

At the preschool we watched as children recited numbers, letters and songs. They went outside to play follow the leaders and a game similar to duck, duck goose called hyena and goat. The children made a circle while holding hands. The one designated as the goat stayed inside the circle and the one designated as the hyena stayed outside the circle or fence. The goat then had to choose a spot to duck under a pair of arms and run around the outside of the circle and back in before the hyena could catch them. After some games, the kids had their meal of vitamin fortified porridge.

As we walked in the village to visit the homes I asked Caleb what he thought of Damales and her family. He said that it would be really difficult to lose both of your parents. He reflected on the fact that he is about the same age as the boy who now has responsibility for his three sisters and grandmother. “It would be really hard” he said. “Beyond that, the boy said that he is number one in his class at school,” pretty significant considering the circumstances.

As we prepared to leave Phingo I felt both good and bad. I felt good that there was a group of volunteers that are looking after Damales and her family. I felt good knowing that they have some food, school uniforms are being made for the kids and Damales and one of her sisters attend the preschool. People are looking out for them. At the same time I felt bad knowing that there are many other areas in Malawi that aren’t as fortunate. We’ve been planning on starting Orphan Care in a fourth location this year, but we’re not sure we’ve got the funds to do it. Pray with us.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Big Sunday

Spent the majority of my day in the township of Naocha at the local Africa Evangelical Church. I was asked to preach at their Big Sunday. I don’t know the history of Big Sunday, but have been to a lot of them. It is practiced throughout the country by many denominations. Big Sunday is a way of raising money – usually for a specific purpose. Today they were raising money for the electricity to be reconnected to the church and for some work to be done on the Pastor’s house.

Big Sunday takes place after the normal Sunday program and can take on many forms. Sometimes it is as simple as a set of special offerings. Sometimes it is as elaborate as a mock wedding where people celebrate by throwing money at a pretend couple – usually two small children from the Sunday school. It may consist of various singing groups being involved in activities to raise money. Food is almost always involved – the women of the church prepare food at home and it is then sold by the plate after the service. It may include a raffle for items ranging from bubble gum and balloons to cell phones. Today it was a mixture.

Money was collected to begin the program. Tickets for a raffle began to sell. Today the items included plastic bowls, an iron, a set of glasses and pitcher, a carafe and two cell phones. The cell phones, the iron and the pitcher and glasses were the items of excitement.

The youth choir was called to the front to sing. They had to pay some money to begin. As they sang, the audience could approach the MC with money and suggest all kinds of things. One can pay to change the song, to add members of the audience to the choir, to make people sit down, just about anything that you can think. I was quickly required to join the youth choir. Caleb soon joined me. I was about to pay to sit down when someone added more money and I had to stay. I was saved a couple of minutes later when someone came in and paid for everyone to stop and go eat.

Lunch was paid for by the plate. About a dollar would buy you some rice and a choice of beef or egg. For extra money you could buy cokes or French fries or some special meat that was being grilled outside.

After lunch everyone came back in and singing continued with the women’s group and youth choir again. Then there were some competitions. Which geographical area of members could give the most money? Caleb and Benjamin entered a competition to consume a bun and coke the fastest, but didn’t even come close. Then came the raffle draw and the end of the program. We left Naocha around three o’clock.

In all, the church raised 52,000 Kwacha or about $370 dollars. This was a real success considering that an average week’s offering might be about a fifth of that.
Random Cultural Remark – Technology and culture often go through a period of adjustment as new technology is integrated into a culture. The unwritten cultural rules (tacit culture) and etiquette of cell phone usage are still being worked through in Malawi. Since I was to be preaching today, I was standing at the front with the Pastor as he was leading a hymn. His phone obviously began to ring (left mine in the car) and he promptly left the pulpit to take the call. I was left standing at the front alone. For those of you who know me well – you know I enjoy singing, but I am probably the last person in the church that you want leading the music. Luckily, much to my relief, he returned before the hymn finished.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Thoughts from SIM Global Leaders Gathering

Ryan’s summarized notes, conclusions and reflections from the recent - SIM Global Leaders Gathering

- SIM is struggling to continue to respond to the times. Over the past couple of decades, SIM has changed significantly and is continuing to change. Mergers with numbers of other missions, a major mission wide review and the more recent opening of avenues for missionaries from nontraditional sending locations to join into the work of SIM is continuing to push the mission’s thinking and challenge the existing mission structures. While it is a struggle, it is better than stagnation.

- While changes in recent years have opened more opportunities for those from non-western nations to join SIM, more needs to be done to help bring a true sense of belonging and ownership. Genuine listening and realistic workable solutions need to be sought. The issues are complex and cultural perspectives play a significant part in the working through of these issues.

- Diversity is one of the core values of SIM. This should lead in the direction of continuing to diversify the membership of SIM. A question of how much simultaneous change an organization can cope with needs to be dealt with. While diversity brings a richness of perspective and beauty it can also increase the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. Too much focus on making an overly diverse organization function could distract from the main mission.

- We run the risk of focusing too much on the “go” command of the Great Commission, which can focus on activity; rather than focusing on the “come and follow” command to the disciples, which focuses on our relationship to the Savior. (Rev Zac Niringiye)

- The changing world context requires a new global missiology. The old wine skins will not suite the new wine. New wine skins are required from new wineskin makers. The new wineskin makers need to rely on the skills of the old wineskin makers. (Pastor Oscar Muriu)

- There is a constant struggle to find leaders (the workshop on Leadership: opportunities and approaches to development, r
etention and succession/transition ) looked like it was the most well attended, showing a felt need among the leaders of the mission.

- Many SIM countries are working on reviewing their strategies. Many are working to reach unreached peoples. Leadership needs are many. Asia related work is growing quickly and in new ways (BAM, establishing new fields) Creativity is evident throughout the mission from both the sending and receiving sides.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Loss of a Friend

March 27, 2009

I’ve been in Kenya this week outside of Nairobi at a conference center called Brackenhurst. It is a nice center with the ability to accommodate large groups. SIM has called together all of its top leaders for a Global Leaders Gathering. We have spent the week listening to speakers, most of them Africans talking about missions in and from Africa with implications for an organization like SIM. It has been good to listen, interact with other SIM leaders and reflect on the issues that have been raised. SIM as an organization has been working hard to flex with the changing realities of a global church that is shifting from the traditional center of Europe and North America to the continents of Africa, Asia and South America. These changes have implication on the way that we do missions as well as the places that missionaries are coming from. What will the next couple of decades in missions look like? It is hard to say, but it will be diverse, creative and much different than missions has looked during the last 150 years.

I received a phone call yesterday morning to say that Pastor Prince Stazio had died. Heidi and I had been to the hospital to visit him again the day before we left to come here. He had been diagnosed with hepatitis which had attacked his liver. He was in good spirits, especially considering his condition. The doctors had not given a good diagnosis, but thought he might live a few more months. I did not know it would be the last time that I would see him this side of heaven. He was released from the hospital on Wednesday and proceeded to his family’s village about four hours south of Blantyre. He died that evening.

I am not sure when the funeral will be, but it will probably be today or tomorrow. It is a tragedy that a young man like Prince should die of a preventable disease. In the West, we vaccinate against hepatitis. I understand the vaccine is available in Malawi, the systems are just impotent to deliver it to everyone. It doesn’t seem fair.

Prince was a good friend. I think that I have eaten in his house more than any other Malawian family. Any time that I went to see him or preach in his church he always had a meal to share. He was one of the most active pastors that I knew. He seemed to never stop moving. If he was pushing the church building project, he was all over town making sure people were following through on their commitments to supply materials. Or he was in the mud with the other volunteers molding bricks. He will be missed.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Typical Atypical Day

One of the adventures and annoyances of living in Africa is the randomness of daily life. If you thrive on change, and get an adrenaline rush from the adventure of never being sure what will happen next you can thrive. If you like predictability and a sense of control of your day and schedule it can wear you down. I fall somewhere in the middle. When people arrive new here I often recommend that they do not schedule out their whole day as random interruptions and things beyond their control will take up the rest of their time. If you schedule out your whole day, you will only frustrate yourself.

Yesterday I had plans to spend the first part of the morning in town on some errands and then the rest of the day writing some documents and e-mails following up meetings from Monday and Tuesday. As I was getting ready to leave I learned that I had a visitor. A local politician had come to see me. He was at the deadline for paying his fees to have his name put on the ballot. He gave a lengthy explanation on how and why he was running (it seems politicians the world over have difficulty summarizing) and finished by asking if I had about a thousand dollars to lend him so that he could enter his name into the election.

I began by expressing my appreciation for his running for office and explained that I felt that Christians should have a voice in the running of their countries. I also cautioned him that politics is a complicated business and it is easy to compromise ones faith and beliefs if they are not careful. Politicians receive pressure from all sides about all sorts of things. I went on to explain that our organization has a policy that we do not involve ourselves in politics. We are neutral. His response was that this could be done privately and no one would have to know about it. I explained that I could not compromise in that way (didn’t I just talk about compromise??). By the time I was done with the long explanations I was late for getting to the hospital.

As I left home I was warned that it was now outside of visiting hours and I might not be able to see the pastor that I wanted to see. I’ve been to the central hospital enough times that I knew I would manage to get in. I entered through the main entrance and headed for the wards. I was met by a security guard. Rather than tell me it was outside of visiting hours he desired to escort me to wherever it was that I was going. I quickly found Pastor Stazio.

He has been sick for a couple of months now. I only learned of it about a week ago when the head of the church had been alerted by one of the church elders that Stazio was very sick. After about a week Stazio finally made it to Blantyre. He is just a shadow of the man he was. While I am frustrated by the length of time that people often wait to seek medical treatment here, it is at the same time understandable. The medical system is overstretched, under resourced and diagnosis often results in people’s symptoms being treated rather than the root of their problem. Pastor Stazio had been to a hospital about a month ago and they had found nothing. He knew he had a problem, but the ones that should have been able to diagnose it failed. It can cause you to lose faith in a system. When he arrived in Blantyre, we sent him to the main hospital with hope that he would be admitted. He was given a basic examination and told to return in nine days for a scan of his abdomen. I was unimpressed. One of our docs was in town and she felt that the nine days was too long. The next morning she was able to communicate with a doctor friend who works at the central hospital to get him taken care of sooner. So, he was admitted the next day and should have a scan and diagnosis by the end of tomorrow. As with so many things here, relationships are key to getting things done.
By the time I left the hospital it was into the afternoon as I headed for our internet service provider. The next forty minutes was spent discussing the details of internet service and the new system being set-up and its implications as well as negotiating pricing for the service. Almost everything that can be bought is negotiable.

By the time I got home it was nearly dinner time. I managed a couple of e-mails before we ate and then was greeted by a seven hour power outage after dinner. So, I didn’t get to the paperwork that I originally intended. Frustrated? A little bit. Surprised? Not really.