Africa Pilgrimage Update #12

I like to be in control.

I like to know what’s going to happen, when it will happen, and who will make it happen.  And, most of all, I like it to happen the way that I think it should happen.

I’m not necessarily proud of all of that, but it’s the truth.  And, to be honest, it’s not a particularly admirable or helpful trait in one who seeks to characterize himself, at least occasionally, as a “pilgrim”.  Remember, pilgrims are those who are willing to step outside of themselves in order to encounter God and experience the richness and presence of the Holy.  “Stepping outside of myself”and “being in control of the entire situation” are in many cases mutually exclusive.

I learned something about that the hard way last weekend.

Our sister congregation is in a town called Ntaja in Southern Malawi.  While it’s not necessarily “the bush”, it is a fair distance from most of the other partnership congregations and it is in a much less wealthy and developed part of the country.  Because our visits there require a fair amount of moving around over the countryside, I generally prefer (OK, let’s be honest – I insist) on driving myself there and back.  I do so because there are not many vehicles available to the church in Ntaja, and there are fewer that are big enough to hold a group AND safe enough to drive.

So when our itinerary came together, I began casting around for possible solutions.  I can often borrow a car from a friend here, but unfortunately that one has no engine at the moment.  Our friends at the Naminga’dzi Farm Training Center heard about my quest and offered to rent me one of their vehicles.  I liked this idea because it would put a little money in their pockets and give me a chance to return it with a little more petrol in the tank.  There were some initial snafus, but hey – this is Africa.  That stuff happens.  I got the keys, we loaded our team, and drove northeast to Ntaja Trading Centre.  The vehicle ran like a dream and we got there just around dark.  The next day we used it as I’d anticipated – driving ourselves and some Malawian colleagues around town and to various events – saving everyone a lot of time and a lot more steps.

As a point of reference, let me invite you to join me on a drive down Main Street in Ntaja.  Notice all of the Nissan Dealerships and Advance Auto Parts franchises…

Saturday afternoon, however, that plan – and my control of the situation – evaporated in a heartbeat.  We were on our way to greet our friends at the Naperi Prayer House when I hit a small bump in the road that led to tremendous vibration throughout the vehicle.  It was loud, it was shaky, and frankly it was a little frightening.  I was able to stop the vehicle, and we all suspected it was a blow-out.  I dreaded this because I had already noticed that while the truck came with seatbelts and about eight ounces of diesel in the tank, it had only 1/2 of a jack and no spare tire.  The good news was that it was NOT a flat tire.  The bad news was that flat tires are about the only automotive repair I’m qualified to do.

Our situation attracted quite a crowd by the roadside!

Yep, that’s me, checking on the situation. You know, because I am so knowledgeable about cars and such…

I nursed the vehicle to the side of the road and, not surprisingly, a crowd gathered.  Obviously, no one in our truck could have seen what had happened.  However, several bicyclists and pedestrians who noticed our difficulty turned around and told us that they’d seen the front driver’s wheel tilting and shimmying like crazy.

At first, I was filled with panic and a little anger.  What in the world was I supposed to do now? How was I supposed to proceed with the program? Would I be able to get our team back to Blantyre safely? How could I fix this thing?

The answer, of course, is that I could not fix anything.  But while I was having an existential crisis there on the side of the Muluzi Highway, my hosts and friends were doing something gracious and hospitable.  They were talking to the folks who had seen what happened.  They conferred and agreed that Maxwell, a member of Mbenjere CCAP, was a fine and trustworthy mechanic who should be consulted.

I transferred our team into my friend Fletcher’s small car, and I gingerly (and slowly) drove a couple of the elders over to the church where Maxwell had gone for choir rehearsal.  He came out with a big smile and said “All right, let’s go to my place and have a look!”  We limped a few kilometers over to his house, and the first thing he did was pull out his nicest chair and set it in the shade for me.  He changed into a jumpsuit and crawled under the truck.  As he did so, I was frantically trying to get control of the situation.  I did this by (ever so helpfully) calling the folks who had rented me the vehicle and letting them know that I was none too happy.  I called my friend Davies – who was preparing to travel outside the country – and asked him to help me generate some plan of action.  And, stressed out, I waited.

Maxwell – a.k.a. “The Service Department” – diagnoses my problem.

After 25 minutes or so, Maxwell called me over and invited me to take a look.  “You have a bad bush,” he said.  “You see there? The bush is gone.  We have to put a new one in.”

This is a bushing. You can buy them in the States for $25 or $30. Oddly enough, a “bush”, or bushing, is housed in the part of the steering assembly that is called the control arm.  Control arm?  There’s not too much irony here, is there?

“Ah, great googly-moogly,” I thought to myself.  “It’s Saturday at 4 pm.  Where in the world am I going to get a bushing for a Nissan Patrol in Ntaja?”  I eyed Maxwell hopefully.  “Is there any chance you happen to have a bushing for a Nissan Patrol?”

He laughed and laughed and said, “Ah, no.  We must go see the shoemaker.  It will be fine.”

Of course.  Because what else would you do when you need a bushing for a Nissan Patrol but go to the village shoemaker?  And yet, because I was fresh out of answers, I said, “Sure.  Let’s go.”  Maxwell said, “Because I have removed the control arm where the bushing is, I will drive.”  I looked a little shocked and said, “Are you supposed to drive without a control arm?” and he smiled and said, “Ah, no, not really.  But I can.  It’s ok.”


We drove a few more kilometers and discovered an ancient man sitting on a porch putting a new sole on an old shoe. Maxwell went to him and showed him the control arm and the worn out bushing and came back to me and said, “It’s ok. He can do this.”

I said, “So what do we do? When should we come back?”  Maxwell laughed.  “Come back? No.  We will remain here.  He will do.”

The “Parts Department” at Saturday’s auto repair shop…

And this aged Muslim shoemaker who speaks a language I cannot understand and who probably cannot read or write in any language took a walk around the side of this building an walked up to an ancient Caterpillar tractor tire.  He cut a large hunk of rubber from that tire and returned to the porch, where he spent the next half hour shaping into, well, a bushing.  He made a cylinder, and then he began to carve a hole on the inside – stopping every 30 seconds or so to change knives or to sharpen his current implement.  At one point I asked Maxwell, “But how will he know what size to make it?”  Maxwell exploded with laughter.  “He knows! He can do this.”

The tool box.


…and sharpening…

…and pounding..

…and trimming.

The finished product housed in the control arm.

When he had gotten the rubber close to the right shape, he began to pound it into the control arm, and then put the center core in place.  Finally, he trimmed the edges and presented it to me as though it were a DaVinci masterpiece (which, upon reflection, he had every right to do!).  I hadn’t noticed, but Maxwell had changed back into his jumpsuit and and jacked the car up right there in the shoemaker’s yard.  He reinstalled the control arm with the new “bushing” and said, “It’s ok.  We can go.  But first, you have to pay this man.  He is asking 4,000 Malawi Kwacha for this (that comes out to about $5.06).  I was incredulous and said, “But it has to be more!”  The man shook his head, and finally I was able to give him MK5,000 ($6.33).  We drove back to the church, and I asked Maxwell for his bill.  He refused.  I finally pressed MK5000 into his hand and said that it was his problem now – he could give it to the blind man who was begging by the road or put it into the Sunday collection or buy his family a case of Coke.

Another satisfied customer!

Maxwell, the best mechanic in Ntaja!

The next day, we visited the church, we went to dinner at a friend’s house, and we attended Bible Study without incident.  On Monday we were not only able to drive unimpeded to Blantyre, but we took a few hours to explore the Liwonde National Park as well.  All on a “bush” that was made from a “useless” tire that we’d have shredded long ago in the USA.

I learned something that day about the creativity and resourcefulness of my Malawian friends, and about the inadequacy of my own world view.  I am always learning something of grace and hospitality and trust and community when I am in Malawi, and this episode demonstrates that indeed this old dog can learn some new tricks.  I am filled with gratitude and wonder which, unlike my desire for control, are characteristics that are extremely well-suited for pilgrims! Thanks be to God!