Sunday, 12 October 2014

My Time in Malawi

Two months ago, immediately upon our return to Africa from Canada, I had the privilege of going to Malawi for 6 days.  While I wish Diane could have been there with me (she went back to the Hub in South Africa), I was blessed to travel with George, the founder and CEO of Hands at Work.  I knew it would be a unique opportunity for me to be in an intimate environment with George and to be able to spend some quality time with him.  The man pours out wisdom and discernment and I was eager for some of that to flow down to me in our time together.

Visiting Malawi was very much an exposure trip for me but one of the other reasons I was sent by Hands was to meet with a lawyer we were hoping could assist us with our legal registration, among other things.  Unfortunately, I left the meeting with the lawyer utterly convinced that he knew as much about the law as I did and, in some cases, perhaps even less (which is a scary thought!). Though it was discouraging, it was yet another reminder of the challenges we face here on the ground and how, by virtue of my background, I am in a unique position to help serve Hands at Work and guide it through this process (as unqualified as I may feel to do so!).

Although the visit with the lawyer was a huge disappointment, the rest of my time in Malawi definitely was not.  Though my time there was short, I managed to visit 3 of the 4 communities (Maonde, Mngwere and Mcheneka) that Hands currently supports.  Being able to step foot in each of those communities, to see the unique environment that each offers, allows me to better understand the situations and challenges on the ground.  The privilege of meeting the Care Workers, of holding the tiny little hands of our children, gives me something to carry in my heart back with me to the Hub.  All of this, in some intangible way, provides me with an ability to serve all that is happening in Malawi much more effectively in my role as project support.  It also does wonders in helping me reconnect with what I am here for.

My time in Malawi was eye-opening.  It is extremely underdeveloped, as you would expect one of the poorest countries in the world to be, and extremely rural, particularly in Dedza (the region where our communities are located).  In spite of this or, perhaps, because of this, there was something about being there that was so peaceful. There is a certain serenity in the environment that I can’t quite describe.  I don’t know whether it was the cool weather (which is always a blessing in Africa!), the small mountains that separated the vast expanse of open fields, or the smiling faces of people we’d pass on the road, but there was just something so beautiful about Malawi.

This is the beauty I'm talking about!
Us on our two-hour hike to church in Mngwere

On our visit into the community of Maonde, we visited the home of a single mother of 3 children.  She barely spoke any English but, through members of our Service Centre staff translating, we heard her story – her story of daily struggle to fend for herself, her children and her siblings; her story of feeling alone, unvalued and unloved.  In many ways, no translation was needed.  The expression of hopelessness and rejection on her face and in her voice did more than any collection of words could.

I’ve written it here many times before but home visits are the foundation of what we do.  They often present a window, however small, into the reality of an individual’s life.  There’s something about a home visit that is so raw and intense.  On this visit, I listened to the story of a woman who has endured so much pain in her life and, in my inability to relate to her world of brokenness, words failed me.  How do I respond?  How can I genuinely communicate any message of hope when I’ve never walked a mile in her shoes?  How can I pretend that I empathize with her when I know I will return home to a vastly different life?  I sat there silent, struggling through the internal conflict.

George, however, was anything but conflicted in how to respond.  He sat beside the woman, speaking in a tone so soft that I could barely hear the words coming from his mouth.  “He loves you and He knows you by name,” was repeated over and over as George stared straight into her eyes.  We only had time to visit one home in the entire community of Maonde and God brought us to that home.  I looked around at the people surrounding me – a white South African, a Canadian, an American, an Australian and several Malawians.  A rag-tag collection of individuals from all over the world brought together at that specific moment in time for no other reason than to be with this woman and to visit her in her home.  George made sure she understood that.  George made sure she recognized that this was Her Father letting her know that she was not alone. 

We could have brought her food.  We could have helped sweep her floor.  We could have tried to fix her roof.  Would it have mattered, though?  Perhaps for that day or the next.  Perhaps even longer.  Perhaps not.  I can’t say with absolute certainty that the message brought by George, by all who were there, made a difference in her life at that moment.  Some of you may read this and simply answer, “Probably not.”  But I refuse to undermine the power of hope and of the power in the message that ‘you are known, that you matter and that you are loved’. 

George sitting next to the woman we visited

Even if the message had not been delivered to her clearly that day, or if she had not accepted it as truth in her life, I know that it hit home with the Care Workers we were with.  And, ultimately, it will be their responsibility to make that message real and tangible for her.  This is why we say everything we do is on the back of our Care Workers and why we choose to invest so heavily in them.  We believe that they are the only ones who can truly effect change in their community.

The challenge in this was not lost on me during our visit to Mcheneka.  On that visit, we were accompanied by a church team from San Francisco.  We began our time by playing games with the children that were introduced and taught by the Care Workers.  The kids all participated and had fun but it was remarkable to see the way not only the children, but the Care Workers, responded to the games that were then introduced and taught by the American team.

(Side note … It was incredible to observe the differences in the African games versus the American games.  All of the African games were inclusive, i.e., participation by everyone was encouraged all throughout the game and there were no winners or losers.  All of the American games, on the other hand, promoted competition and involved some form of elimination process to determine a winner.  Insert social commentary here!)

Playing games with the Care Workers and children in Mcheneka

In each game we played, it seemed the Care Workers were actually having more fun than the children themselves. No longer were they there to facilitate games for the children and encourage their participation.  They were in it to win it!  And, in that, they reverted almost to a child-like state, doing anything to remain in the game even if it meant the exclusion or the rough handling of the children they are meant to serve.  While it was endearing to see the innocence and child-like nature of these grown men and women come out, it also spoke to something deeper.

In the poor, broken communities we work in, entire generations of people grow up without ever knowing what it is like to be a child.  Instead of playing with friends and doing homework, their days are filled with collecting water and firewood.  Instead of growing up under the love and care of a mother and father, they are forced into a parent-like role for their younger siblings at a very young age.  There was never any time for them to be “just a kid”.  Their circumstances would not allow for it.  Instead, their entire life had been about survival.  Fast forward 20-40 years and we have individuals that carry with them deep wounds.  They have a heart to care for children and for their communities but often don’t know how to do it.

As I watched the Care Workers in Mcheneka, my heart was filled with joy as they laughed and played like children.  At the same time, my heart sank when I imagined the brokenness of their own childhood and how it has shaped them today.  Through all of this, I hold on to hope.  Hope that relationship groups will create a forum for Care Workers to find unity amongst each other and peace within themselves.  Hope that Care Workers would come to understand God’s love for them in a real and meaningful way, like it did (hopefully) for the woman we visited.  Hope that this love will flow naturally from these Care Workers to our children.  And finally, hope that this living out of God’s love has the power to transform an entire generation of children from feeling rejected, alone and unloved by this world.

- Byron

Little ones appearing out of the trees!
Melissa and Sara with some of the kids in Maonde
Mngwere, the Life Centre with the best view!
Mngwere Life Centre
Bicycle taxis!
Irish potato fries off the side of the road
Me with Royie, our Service Centre Coordinator, and his wife, Violet

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