One doesn’t have to travel very far outside of the capital before the roads run out. Lilongwe probably looks like many medium sized African cities, with hand-painted store signs, walled-off properties, grocery stores, billboards, and many more people milling about on the streets than we usually see in the U.S. But drive to the outskirts of town, and concrete and asphalt give way to reddish dirt roads, the tires of cars and bikes kicking up great clouds when it’s the dry season, and creating muddy ruts, I imagine, during the rainy season. All things near the roads, including plants, buildings, and people, get a coat of red./caption]
These red dirt roads criss-cross the country, seemingly at random. Our minibus would be driving over hills with scrub brush and a smattering of trees. We would slow down, and somehow our driver would know to turn onto what looked more to me like a trail. At times our bus would slow to a crawl, the driver’s head out the window, calculating how to navigate the dried ravines that had just made our road a little more treacherous. In my mind, I would calculate how to dive from my window seat should we start to tip over.
As our bus traversed the Malawi hills, there was scant wildlife to be seen. I saw some birds here and there. Some boys in a field with a hatchet were probably digging up a mouse’s burrow, I was told. This was confirmed when one of the boys proudly held up his prey for me to photograph. And what we did see, occasionally, were people, sometimes in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Sometimes it would be two women walking down the road, huge buckets balanced on their heads. I would wonder how long they had been walking. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a man in a field, just sitting. About every ten minutes we’d come across a collection of huts./caption]
They were mud huts with thatched roofs. They were primitive. There were no power lines to the huts. And there was a realization that these were people’s homes. This was the world they knew. This was their life.
Our minibus, like the van in Little Miss Sunshine, became a central character on our exploratory trip. As is so often the case when one can’t live immersed in another culture for at least a few weeks, the windows of that bus became our view of Malawi. But then Malawi would burst in, as you’ll see.
The goal of our trip, I realize I haven’t yet explained, was to find our next missions focus. Thirteen of us made the journey, each with a specific reason for being there. I was there to document. The needs we found were many, so the question we asked was, where can our money and our teams do the most and most lasting good over the next few years? The United Methodist Church is a fledgling church in Malawi, but we do have a handful of good folks on the ground./caption]
Our host was a District Superintendent named Daniel. Daniel would take us to the villages to see the needs first-hand. On our way to the first village on the first day, he said, “We’re going to pick up the local pastor, maybe his wife. They’ll go with us.” So I wasn’t surprised when we pulled off to the side of the road at a small town. But I was surprised when more than a few people started piling in. Turns out, it was the local pastor, his wife, and lots of church lay-leaders, and sometimes their family members, who were all coming along. We shifted, squeezed, and stacked. I turns out our minibus, which I thought was like a 15 passenger van, seated over 30.
And then the singing started. Glorious, energetic, loud, clapping singing. This is what I meant when I said Malawi would burst into our bus. In Malawi, if you’re a Christian, you sing. I never heard a song repeated, and if the bus was moving, they were singing. It was a joyous, moving party, the sounds of which brought children running from their huts to see what on earth could possibly be passing by. A different group joined us the second day, and they brought two drums with them. It felt like turning the amps up to 11. I was a little embarrassed by our lack of reciprocation, though on the final day we “treated” them to renditions of I’ll Fly Away, Amazing Grace, and All in All./caption]
But the focus of our trip was not the view from a window. Our focus was the wonderful people of Malawi. After traversing the countryside for a couple of hours on that first morning, we came to a village. A girl was sifting flour on the ground as we pulled in. A man directed us to park in front of a mud brick building, and before we could all get out, we were surrounded by the villagers. They were delighted to see us, to shake our hands, to welcome us in broken English./caption]
The first order of business was to inspect the reason for our visit. The people of this village had to walk a quarter mile or so down a hill to a low spot, where a small pond of standing water provided them with water. It also provided them with cholera and dysentery. Here is where they washed their clothes, and where the women would fill buckets to carry drinking water back to the village. We learned that a deep well could fix all of this, could keep their children from getting sick. For $8000, we could fix this.
After a trek back up the hill, we all had a church service together. We gathered in the Methodist church building we had parked next to, and had a wonderful time of singing, praying, and hearing from our leaders. The children (like children I remember from Haiti) were remarkably well behaved, much more so than a similar crowd of kids in America would be.
I don’t know which of our team members brought the soccer balls (Tammy, I think?) but it was a stroke of genius. At every village we visited, we would present gifts to the local pastor, his wife, the tribal chief, and other important village dignitaries. The pastors would get a Hawaiian shirt, always a huge hit. Julie, one of team members, brought some home made necklaces. But the real fun came from the soccer balls./caption]
They were packed uninflated, and then each village also got pumps to keep their balls in playing condition. Keep in mind, the World Cup had just completed its first African run, so the sport was even more on everyone’s minds. After worshiping together, we moved to the dirt clearing next to the church. Homemade goals made from tall, skinny logs lashed together showed that this was already a soccer field, but now they had some real soccer balls to use. Arrogant American goalies dared the Malawians to try and score on them. The gauntlet was thrown down. Because I am a Patriot who loves my fellow countrymen, I shall not reveal the score./caption]
The people of Malawi proved to be warm, hospitable people. I cannot imagine the hardships they endure. I won’t give a detailed account of the rest of our trip (though more photos follow), save to say that each place we visited, from other villages to an orphanage, had unique challenges, as well as unique opportunities. Digging wells seems like a no-brainer. But we also saw a real need to help meet the intellectual and spiritual needs of Malawians. The illiteracy rate is extremely high. We can build a school. We can provide a motorcycle to a pastor who oversees 5 churches that are each 20km from the next. We can do so much./caption]
I’m really proud of our team that went, and all that they brought to the table. And I’m really proud of our church. We want to be wise in how we spend our money. We want to know that it will be accounted for. And we want to send our people, not just our dollars. We’re looking forward to making a major investment in Malawi. The needs there are truly staggering, and there’s no pretense that we’re going to change the economic plight of an impoverished nation. But we can change as many lives as we can. Time and again in the scriptures, you see that the early church considered generosity to the poor to be one of the hallmarks of a true Christian. Christ’s love compels us, indeed.