Report From Malawi – 6 January 2017

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

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.

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!

The Malachite Kingfisher – my favorite bird. For the first time, I saw a pair together!

9elephant

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.

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!

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!

9joegreetingFrom 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

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 their "mom".

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.

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.

9classroomFrom 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

Carly and Jean

South Sudan Partnership 2015 #7

Each year I spend a couple of weeks in late April or early May working like a dog. I am lifting, shoveling, digging, shifting, smoothing, raking, pruning… I am doing the work of a gardener, planting seeds and preparing my beds for a season of productivity, growth, and nutrition. And each year, I find myself at the middle or end of May and the beginning of June and I’m, well, stopped.

The garden isn’t finished, of course. That won’t happen until a couple of weeks into October at the earliest. But there comes a time when the work of preparation ends and the work of nurturing, of waiting, of anticipating, and of cultivating begins.

In a few hours, we’ll get on a plane and fly for five hours to Dubai, UAE. Not long after that, we’ll get on another plane and spend fifteen hours winging our way towards Washington, DC, where we’ll unearth my old Toyota and head for Pittsburgh. Our time in South Sudan has come to an end.

If you were to ask me what we’ve done, the first thing I’d do is point you to the six prior entries in this narrative. But the reality is that each of these only provides a description of how we’ve spent our time. In reality, what we’ve done is the work of the gardener. We can’t stand here now and point to a school or a church that’s been built because of the work of our hands; there were no rallies or crusades. Just as my garden doesn’t look all that fruitful on Memorial Day, there is not much apparent in South Sudan or ourselves that is different now as compared with eleven days ago.

But of course, planting seeds is a significant and prophetic act. Even when the nature of the landscape has not significantly been altered, the reality of that place has changed as the seed lies latent in the soil. And so it is when the seed lies latent in the soul. There is change, growth, pushing, stretching, breaking, climbing and…eventually, Lord willing, a harvest.

Since returning from the Team Building, Trauma and Healing retreat in Yei, here are some of the ways that we have been worked over by the Gardener who called us to this place:

Sharing a meal with some of our PCUSA Mission Co-Workers

Sharing a meal with some of our PCUSA Mission Co-Workers

  • We have met with a team of church leaders from the Nuba Mountains, a region in Sudan that is facing daily atrocities at the hands of the Sudanese government. Some have termed this “genocide” – and it surely seems like the Christians and others in that area have been targeted for destruction. You can learn more about this situation by clicking here or here.
  • We re-engaged the churches of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church by participating in worship. On Sunday January 25, five of us were privileged to preach in congregations, and Pastor Gary accompanied our friend Pastor Thomas into the women’s prison, where he had a deeply moving experience.
  • We have shared space here at the Guest House with our colleagues from the PC (USA) Mission Agency. A small team of leaders from our denominational headquarters and the denomination’s Washington Office is in this region and it has been a blessing to share our experiences with them.
  • We have been humbled to spend time with seven of our church’s Mission Co-Workers. Normally, these pastors, educators, development specialists, and evangelists are scattered throughout the nation, but because of the tense situation throughout the country these days, they are all concentrated here in the capital. We were thrilled when they accepted our invitation to dine together and share a some of their heart with us.

    Sharing a meal with some of our PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers

    Sharing a meal with some of our PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers

  • For a few hours, we were just tourists. We visited the markets, lunched along the Nile, and explored the city. Particularly moving was the opportunity to visit the monument to Dr, John Garang, the man who is most deeply associated with the independence of South Sudan. As I have said, when visiting another place, it’s always a good idea to learn about the person whose face is on the money, and here, that person is John Garang.

As we prepare to get on the plane, I’m ready to tell you that we feel a little like my garden must feel in mid-May: torn up, plowed under, turned around…and ready. We have been given this experience. We carry seeds that as yet have not borne much, but we trust that the work of this trip does not end when we get on the plane.

This is the view from Jebel Jesu ("The Mountain of Jesus"), the church in which I preached on Sunday.  As far as you can see there are dwellings - none of which, I was told, existed five years ago.  This speaks to the explosion of this region since independence in 2011.

This is the view from Jebel Jesu (“The Mountain of Jesus”), the church in which I preached on Sunday. As far as you can see there are dwellings – none of which, I was told, existed five years ago. This speaks to the explosion of this region since independence in 2011.

Pray with us, and pray for us. Pray for seeds sown in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we’ve come in contact these days. Pray for those who live in fear and uncertainty, and for those whose days are shaped by the horror of what one human being can do to another. And pray for those people anywhere and everywhere who would seek to live in a way that reflects the Lord’s intentions of peace, wholeness, and prosperity for all of God’s people.

The past two Sundays I have preached from Isaiah, and pointed to the ancient prophecies of healing and redemption. I’ll close this narrative of tilling, toil, plowing and seed-planting by offering his words. Just as the seed packet bears an image of the fruit that is to come in due time, so these words from scripture describe the end for which God has destined his creation.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine—

the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy

the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

from all faces;

he will remove his people’s disgrace

from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;

we trusted in him, and he saved us.

This is the Lord, we trusted in him;

let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)

 

Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

Jebel Jesu, the worship site where I preached on 25 January.

Jebel Jesu, the worship site where I preached on 25 January.

At the Garang memorial.

At the Garang memorial.

Lunch along the Nile River.

Lunch along the Nile River.

We were joined along the Nile by this little fellow, a Malachite Kingfisher (my favorite bird!).

We were joined along the Nile by this little fellow, a Malachite Kingfisher (my favorite bird!).

We were presented with lovely gifts by the Women's Desk at a farewell banquet on Sunday evening.

We were presented with lovely gifts by the Women’s Desk at a farewell banquet on Sunday evening.

The banner presented to Pittsburgh Presbytery by the women of SSPEC details the Fruits of the Spirit.  May we nurture those in our lives and in our world.

The banner presented to Pittsburgh Presbytery by the women of SSPEC details the Fruits of the Spirit. May we nurture those in our lives and in our world.