Before we left for Malawi, on separate occasions, I was warned that I probably wouldn’t be allowed into some of the real aspects of Malawian life. I expected that there would be certain situations that would be inappropriate for a Mzungu (white person). When I first met with Rev. Zembeni, the resident minister at Lingadzi, he assured me that my friend’s warnings would be true. I would only go with him on visitations when it was proper for me to be present. In some ways I was appreciative of the way in which I was to be sheltered. I was thankful for the warnings from those back home and for the protection of Rev. Zembeni. But I was also anxious to see what Malawians were really like—To eat their food, cry their tears and celebrate their smiles. I wanted to shatter the we/they paradigm that we impose on ourselves because we are different and, after two months, I still do. But by the end of this last week I found myself wanting to crawl back into the sanctuary of ignorance. I am exhausted.
I found out Saturday that I would be preaching for a week straight the following week. The church holds, what they call, morning prayer services every day. The service is an hour long and the liturgy is much looser than what happens on Sunday. We would call it a contemporary service. Oh, and did I mention it starts at 5 a.m.? Thirty to Fifty people gather EVERY morning to worship, pray and hear a twenty-minute sermon before work. And, though the sight of black and dark blues broken by vibrant yellows and reds is breath taking, I would have been more than happy to avoid assimilating into this part of Malawian life. This week I learned that the streets are often busier at 4:50 in the morning then they are at 3:00 in the afternoon and that, even though it can be pushing triple digits before noon, it is quite cold before seven. Each day as I walked, shouts of “Madzuka Bwanji” and “good morning pastor” from faint figures in the dark shook my groggy soul and jump-started my sleeping mind.
At the prayer service on Monday I was informed that a family member of one of our elders had passed away and that the funeral was that day. In a few hours we would be leaving on the church bus. The bus seats maybe thirty people, but most of the time Hailey and I ride around in it on our own…as if we needed something else to draw attention to us. However this time, the bus was full. I was quickly reminded of why I used to enjoy youth group bus trips; nothing brings people together like hours packed tightly together on a bus. I got to know people, had them point out different areas and villages and we joked about the sweltering heat. At least, on this bus, I didn’t have to pace the aisles late at night looking for hormone filled kids seeking to spark the flame of a weeklong romance.
Malawians are a people who know how to mourn. Funerals are usually held at the house of the deceased (unless there is a request to be at the church) with the service taking place in the yard. Residents of a bereaved house set branches in the road to alert all who pass. Sometimes there is a plate in the driveway where those that come by can drop a few kwacha to support the hurting family. The casket sits open in the living room for a few hours and different groups take turns paying respect by walking in, praying and singing a song or two. Family and close friends (usually just women and children) stay inside and sit on the floor with the casket during the entire process (Hailey had the joy of being one of these women at the funeral we went to on Thursday—sitting inches from the casket the entire time). The service itself is not too different from what I am used to. Stories are told, hymns are sung and a sermon is preached. I was most fascinated by what happened after the service; the entire congregation made a procession to the burial grounds, where another service was held. I found out this is the norm. Some people walk and others drive slowly in cars with their emergency lights on. More weeping and crying. The casket is laid in a pre-dug hole and cement is poured on top. While it is being poured another sermon is preached. Then, after it hardens a bit, all of the men take turns filling the hole with dirt. Red dust fills the air and more songs are sung. Family members again pay respect by placing flowers on the mound covering the body of the deceased. I was reminded of the closure I felt when I placed my grandfather’s ashes into the wall; only here it seemed like everyone got to participate in placing the person in their final resting place. The entire process; from the mourning in the living room, to the grieving in the service, walking the body down the road and watching it covered in cement and dirt helped to acknowledge that this person is really gone. It really was extremely sad, but beautiful at the same time.
The emotional rollercoaster continued on Wednesday. We were taken to the Malungundi Youth Camp, a property owned by the Nkhoma Synod, to join in on a morning session of a weeklong conference about goal setting and decision making. We toured the facilities, had lunch (Nsima!) and then drove a mile or two to visit the Malungundi School for the Blind. I plan to return. These children were remarkable. Often cast out by their families and villages because of their disability, society gives them little chance to succeed. Yet this place gives them hope, integrates them into a ‘regular’ school for part of the day and prepares them for a future life. It has graduates in university, no small feat considering there are only 3,000 spots a year for college students in the entire country (14 million people). The 28 students live near campus in dorms built in 1972 that are in dire need of renovation. And because the government only gives them 400 dollars a month for supplies and teacher’s salaries, they eat and wear whatever is given to them by local churches. (Check out a video of Christopher on his braille type writer below)
On Saturday we participated in what the Malawians call a “Moki Wedding.” We had been to weddings here before, but this one was different. It was a renewal of vows with a twist. Often families will celebrate an anniversary with a fundraising dinner. This family, the Kajawas, was celebrating 25 years of marriage. Rather than going on a trip (some do that as well), they threw a huge party to raise funds for the Scripture Union—an organization that focuses on Bible study and fellowship. Throughout the night I was reminded of how cheerful Malawians are when they give. People danced forward and gave. I leaned over to Hailey and joked about how the locals were ‘making it rain.’ There were many styles. Some would pull one bill from their purse at a time and others would throw out a pile all at once. I was a fan of the guy who held his stack in one hand and, with his other, shuffled bills off one by one. People would change out larger bills to get smaller ones just to have a chance to dance again and throw money on the floor. We were tired by 10:15, so we were given a ride home. I’m not even sure when the party ended.
When we got home Saturday night I plopped down and tried to reflect on all that had happened during the week. I couldn’t, it was too much. I stood in the shower, let the water cleanse my tired body and smiled. This is life in Malawi.