On Christmas Day, 2016, a group of five young adults and I embarked on an African adventure that was over two years in the making. Carly, Katie, Joe, Rachael, David and I are pleased to be in Malawi for nearly two weeks embracing (and being embraced by) the gift that is the partnership between the churches of Pittsburgh Presbytery (Presbyterian Church USA) and Blantyre Synod (Church of Central Africa: Presbyterian). Here is part of our story.
We left Ntaja on the afternoon of 4 January, and drove to Liwonde, the site of one of Malawi’s National Parks. On property adjacent to the park, my old friends Sam and Lonnie Ncozana have opened up the Kutchire Lodge. This proved to be a wonderful jumping-off point for a day of fun and adventure after the formalities and responsibilities of the previous week.
Sam and Lonnie Ncozana
We stayed overnight (the girls were given the “treehouse” lodging, while the guys had a safari chalet to share. Each of these was essentially open air – that is to say, there are fine screens as well as mosquito nets, but no glass. It was a little frightening for the team, at times, to fall asleep with the sounds of the African forest all around us – but it was a delightful experience we’ll not soon forget.
The Treehouse at Kutchire. The blue is the mosquito netting and the lumps inside it are some of my favorite people in the world.
On January 5 we had a brief boat safari as well as a jeep drive through parts of the Liwonde National Park, and it was a real thrill for all of us. Seeing so many animals in the wild – from tiny Malachite Kingfishers to elephants and hippos – was simply marvelous.
The Malachite Kingfisher – my favorite bird. For the first time, I saw a pair together!
Have you ever seen a hippo jump? Look closely – none of this one’s legs are touching the ground as he races into the Shire River.
January 6 we spent on the shores of Lake Malawi, engaged in a retreat/day of reflection. We might or might not have expanded the definition of “reflection” to include hiring a local gentleman to take us out to an island a mile or so offshore where we were free to admire amazing birdlife, see the beautiful Lake Malawi cichlids (fish), and take a swim in the lake.
Heading toward “Bird Island” for a swim!
I’ve asked each of the young people to offer a reflection for this issue of the blog. There was no assignment other than simply writing a few sentences saying something about their experience. I am so proud of the way that each of them has wrestled with trying to see things from a variety of perspectives and has tried to enter so deeply and fully into this experience. I am eager to see what they might say six months from now!
From Joe: With so many new sights and sounds, traveling to a new place can be easily overwhelming. Myself, I’ve always wanted to see the world. I have always been interested in the languages, cultures, foods, and different lifestyles of the world. My time in Malawi has been a perfect way of feeding that interest, as well as helping it grow into a passion. The people of Malawi have been nothing but kind, courteous, and lovable. For instance, we stayed with a man named Davies, whom loaned us his vehicle without question. So many good people have opened their homes and their hearts to us. Something interesting about Malawi is that nobody expects you to even attempt to speak to them in their language. I don’t know all of them, but I do know a few small phrases in Chichewa that will make any Malawian happy. Asking them how they are doing is a great way to get a smile and and unexpected giggle out of someone. As for the food we have been blessed to feast nightly, and it never disappoints. Being able to experience the different aspects of life in Malawi has been very eye-opening to me, as I had no idea the highs and lows of a country that is sometimes ranked as the poorest in the world. I love Malawi and I love the people of this country. It makes me happy to say that I feel like they love me just as much.
David with Gift, one of the Youth Leaders at Mbenjere
From David: Where do I start? There is always so much to talk about to keep this short. We have traveled all around Malawi to places like Blantyre, Mulanje, and Ntaja. We have seen people with so much and people with so little. We have seen people taking care of few children and some taking care of 20. There are so many struggles people go through here and the list just doesn’t stop. But what I’ve noticed is that the people are happy. People still possess so much joy when there is such a lack of “stuff”. People here have made sure we have something to eat before themselves, or even their children. It is hard to experience when you are in the moment, but when you look back on it later in the day it starts to make sense. They are the hosts and we are the visitors. They make sure we have more than enough food, more than enough water, more than enough of anything. They give us everything to make us happy and that makes them a blessing. Anyone can give up $5 when they have $500, but they will give you $5 when that is all they have. God, bless them all, and everyone here in Malawi.
The girls and Mrs. Tongwe, their “mom”.
From Katie: In the days leading up to our trip to Ntaja, I was very nervous about everything that could possibly happen upon our arrival there. The drive up Saturday was quite a challenge between the fear of the unknown and being extremely tired. In addition, it was long, hot, and uncomfortable. I rode in a minibus with some of our hosts along with David and Joe. I was frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t drive up all together and didn’t understand why we needed to be picked up in Blantyre anyway. When we got to Ntaja, I realized they came out of hospitality and excitement. Although I was annoyed, I came to see that it is just part of the culture. When we got to the manse, we were greeted by our host families and waited two hours for a meal during a blackout. After eating, we were taken to our host “homes”. I was thankful that Carly, Rachael, and I were all in the same house – we had a small room of our own with a single bed and two bunks. The first night was very difficult for us as we tried to navigate the small space and endure the heat. I thought that these four days would be the longest ones of my life. As we got to know the host families, we were more and more comfortable with our situation, and it got better and better. We enjoyed long conversations with our “brother” and the neighbors. When we gave our gifts, we could easily sense how something so simple meant so much – and they were all hung up when we got home. We received chitenges and were taught how to wrap them. I never thought I would be sad to leave. Our “mother”, Mrs. Tongwe, said that she just waited for us to get back every day. On Thursday afternoon, I cried while saying ‘goodbye’. The family meant a lot to me and based on the 3 messages I have already received from Mrs. Tongwe, I think we meant a lot to them as well.
The folks from Ntaja waving as we depart.
From Rachael: Our first few days in Malawi I felt like we were just going with the flow. We would wake up and do so many things, shake a ton of hands, and always be hours late. But when we got to Ntaja, that changed. The first night there was overwhelming – the power was out and it was very hot. At one point I was sure that there was no way I would make it through the next four days. But as the days went on, we found ourselves waiting and sitting more and more in between our planned activities. We took advantage of the “down time” we had to build friendships – even while we were walking in some difficult places. Those were the moments that made saying goodbye to our sister church so hard.
From Carly: Since I want to be a teacher it was interesting (and a little difficult) to see this classroom. I loved seeing how well-trained these first or second grade students were, and how much they were engaged in their learning. It was hard for me to see more than 100 students in a classroom, each of them sitting on the floor and none of them having their own books. I could never imagine teaching like that. One of the young women we met, Jean, gave me some thoughtful gifts, so I thought it was only right to give her my Jerusalem Cross necklace in return. I could tell how much she enjoyed it as she clutched it. That made me feel so happy.
Carly and Jean