Africa Pilgrimage Update #8

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

The 2019 Youth Pilgrimage to Malawi took a turn to the southeast today as we headed into the Mulanje region of the country. Nearly 25% of the cultivated land in this small nation is owned or controlled by large farming operations of one sort or another.  These are often referred to as “estates”.  There are tobacco estates, coffee estates, and especially here in the shadow of the Mulanje Massif, tea estates.  We drove through kilometer after kilometer of well-manicured bright greentea bushes, and we found ourselves as the guests of the people at the Namingomba Estate.  One of our key partnership members is a staff worker there, and she arranged for us to be shown around the tea “factory”.  Here, during the peak season, between 50 and 60 tons of tea are processed daily.  That’s 100,000 – 120,000 pounds of tea each and every day.  We are in the midst of the dry season in Malawi, which the tea growers called “the lean season”. Therefore, we didn’t see much processing get done because they had already finished processing yesterday’s harvest prior to our arrival.  However,  we were given a fascinating tour of the facility and saw the equipment necessary for each step in the process, including withering, fermenting, chopping, refining, drying, and packaging to name a few.  The ancient building scared a few of our members upon entry, but we soon learned to be confident going up and down the various ladders and stairwells.

Mount Mulanje is one of the most striking images in this country – a huge massif rising from the plains.

A tea plantation in the shadow of the mountain.

Arriving at the Namingomba Tea Estate

Today’s tea, ready to be sampled.

Volunteers, hard at work for the cause of good tea!

Although most of the day’s production was finished by the time we arrived, we did see the last few stages of winnowing and chopping and packaging the harvest.

If you think that this is a lot of tea…

…get load of this. Each of these bags contains around 120 pounds of loose tea.

We were surprised to be taken from the tea factory to a facility on the same grounds that processes macadamia nuts.  Malawi is encouraging people to grow this valuable crop as an export in order to help replace the loss of income caused by a slumping tobacco market worldwide.  Whereas the tea factory was, well, a little “rustic” or “homey”, the macadamia operation is spic and span.  We removed all jewelry, donned lab coats and special shoes, walked across anti-bacterial mats and entered a clean zone.  We saw automated shellers and sorters, and were fascinated at the deft handling of each individual nut by the staff on the conveyor belts.  Again, we walked through the steps ranging from washing the exterior shells to packaging up the finished product.  This experience gave our group some great opportunity to think about the nature of commerce, wages, land use, and more… we didn’t finish talking about it, and we’re surely not done thinking about it.

Hudson modeling the visitor’s garb…

…joined by fashionistas Jessica and Holiness!

The macadamia sorting line.

From there we enjoyed a delicious meal at the Kara O’Mula restaurant, and then we headed off to the Mulanje Mission Hospital.  Here we met the Medical Director and another doctor, who were gracious enough to give us an impromptu tour of this facility.  It was amazing, and it was encouraging! We heard about hospital initiatives involving spraying the homes in villages around the region that has reduced the malarial cases dramatically.  We saw children’s wards that were described as “too big” because they are so rarely full.  We met with dedicated staff and saw amazing equipment like solar “trees” that make up for occasional blackouts so that life-giving oxygen and other medical necessities are able to flow unimpeded.  This visit was truly a highlight of our time here, and we were thrilled to present to the staff a gift of $500 (representing $100 from each of the 5 congregations) to be used for medical care in a way that seemed fitting to the staff.

Dr, Peter showing our group the layout of MMH.

The tour continues.

Rayna presenting our gift to Dr. Arie, the Medical Director.

A wonderful surprise was running into my old friend Keith Lipato, the Principal of the Mulanje Mission Hospital School of Nursing. He was riding by on his motorbike and recognized me and we had the chance to embrace briefly.

One of the doctors mentioned that he is participating in a race called the Porter’s Race – it is a grueling challenge up and down Mount Mulanje designed to raise money for worthy causes.  His name is Peter Schwellnus, and he’s a South African who trained at Mulanje and has come back because of his love for Malawi.  We’d be thrilled if you visited his fundraising page to learn more about Peter, this race, and his passion for the people of Mulanje Mission Hospital.  Take a moment and click here to support this cause.

I read a book recently that really resonated with me.  It is called Factfulness  (click here to learn more about this book)  and it’s written by a Swede named Hans Rosling.  In it, he argues that the world is actually getting much better for many of the people who are close to the margins.  He makes a huge distinction between those who earn $1/day and those who earn $2/day, for instance, and points to the ways that life is quantifiably better for those who experience even a very modest bump in income and security.  I recalled that because the Mulanje Mission Hospital I saw today is a much-improved place to work, heal, and serve than that which I found on my first visit there in 1995.  Not only that, but the roads over which I drove today are remarkably better than they were even 18 months ago.  Malawi is still a difficult place to be sure, but the signs of hope and growth are real.

Our day ended by driving to the base of Mount Mulanje and settling into a very crowded Likhubula Youth Centre.  There are at least two groups of young men from Scotland on a “Boy’s Brigade” service learning trip who are staying here now – so many that we have to eat in shifts. We completed the day with what may be our best evening discussion/devotion of the trip.  We are grateful for your prayers!

Africa Pilgrimage Update #7

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  The longest single time period that I’ll be away from Crafton Heights involves a visit to Africa – a place that has long been a source of renewal and inspiration for me.  You can learn more about the relationship between Pittsburgh Presbytery and our partners in Malawi and South Sudan by visiting the Partnership Website.

Our time at Lake Malawi came to a close earlier than any of our pilgrims might have chosen, but we left the Mangochi region grateful for the opportunity to have been with the youth of those churches and to have seen just a sliver of the natural beauty of that area.  We boarded our bus early for a long ride south to the Zomba District, where we spent several hours on the grounds of the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre.  Here, we met with the Director of the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, my friend Lindirabe Mazinyane.

The BSHDC is a wide-reaching arm of the church that coordinates and leads efforts in, well, development and health. Under the auspices of this agency, the CCAP is able to facilitate programs relating to such things as orphan care, disaster relief, community development, health care, and more.  Some of these efforts are led primarily or exclusively by the BSHDC, whilst others are coordinated in conjunction with other national and international partners, such as the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the ACT Alliance.  Lindirabe was the one who sent us the list of disaster relief supplies that we carried from our friends in Pittsburgh to Malawi.

Preston welcomes us to the farm and explains its relationship to the BSHDC.

Lilndirabe SAID she was going to tell us about the BSHDC, but in fact she gave us a mini workshop in leadership development and the importance of strategic planning!

One of the most impressive ideas that the BSHDC has put forth is the Naming’azi Farm Training Centre.  This facility, encompassing many acres, is at once a demonstration farm indicating some best practices for rural Malawians, an income generator for the other work of the BSHDC, and a classroom/laboratory in which local farmers may come to receive training in fish farming, composting, soil conservation, irrigation, and more.  It is one of the best ideas going, and I was eager to introduce the team of pilgrims to some of what is here.  We once again recalled the words of Pope Benedict that we’ve used to describe a pilgrimage: “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”  Surely the Farm is one place that has shone in Malawi.

And so we tramped through rice paddies and tomato fields, past fish ponds and pig sties, and arrived at an area near the edge of the farm where we planted about 30 – 40 pine seedlings.  Malawi has suffered greatly because of the deforestation of the hillsides, and this is a symbolic effort to reverse that.  The trees that we planted will keep topsoil in place, provide some shade, soak up some carbon dioxide, and perhaps eventually serve as timber for building or making matchsticks.  It was an honor to participate in this event.

Fields of tomatoes are being irrigated and ripening at Naming’azi Farm.

The fish ponds, which we were told are growing chambo that will be sold at the market.

Greta and T.K. are saving the planet one tree at a time…

Kemp showing us how the planting gets done.

Even the leadership of the partnership can get our hands dirty! Here I am with Dr. Lanjesi, the chair of the Malawian team.

Sampling the honey from the Farm’s beekeepers.

When one of our team left something in the “big” suitcase, there was only one way to retrieve it. Some of our Malawian friends found this photo of me to be hysterical.

Meanwhile, Danielle thinks she’s pretty funny taking a selfie with her seat mate on the bus. I was just resting my eyes for a minute…

We had a very  late lunch (4:30 pm!) at the Ku Chawe Inn, an incredibly well-appointed hotel on the top of the Zomba Plateau, and then we got back into the bus for a ride to Blantyre that seemed longer than it actually was.  We were greeted here by one of the founders of the Partnership, my old and dear friend the Rev. Dr. Silas Ncozana.  Silas was the General Secretary of Blantyre Synod when the partnership was conceived and formed, and his fingerprints are all over the fruit that this partnership has produced over the years.  For an hour or two, he told us stories of his youth and his ministry, and he charged us to continue to grow as disciples who are seeking the good of the world.  It was a deep and rich conversation that filled me with immense joy.

Silas Ncozana addresses our group of pilgrims.

The end of a delightful and important day.