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.
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.
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.
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!