Tag Archives: Malawi

of blindness and dishwater (a reflection on lent and privilege)

Do you ever have something that you notice, sort of make a mental note of, and then move on with life, not exactly forgetting, but not really understanding either?

down a dirt road in the DR...

For example: I distinctly remember being in the Dominican Republic where I had been working for the summer with a mission organization called Students International. One of my friends, also working with SI, was from a village a few hours from where we were there in Jarabacoa and so one weekend we went for a visit, to stay with her family.

Their house was spotless, despite the dirt floors and lack of what, growing up in suburbia, I would have considered essential modern conveniences. Like hot water, or even a shower that worked by turning on the knob, rather than filling a bucket overhead. The family’s hospitality was warm and inviting, and it was a fantastic weekend all the way around. But randomly, one thing stuck in my head—the washing of the dishes. The family’s house was really more like part of a compound of extended family, each house surrounding a sort of outdoor common area, where the ‘kitchen’ was. That was where the washing up of the dishes happened as well.

What I noticed was, rather than fill up a large tub with soapy water and proceed to clean, the women in the family, for they were the ones washing the dishes, cleaned each dish individually, using a small amount of water and then rinsing it, using that water to wash the next dish. I noticed it because it was so different from the only way I had ever experienced hand-washing dishes—either at my paternal grandmother’s house in Mexico, or at my maternal grandparents’ summer cottage (does that sound pretentious? If you saw the ‘cottage’ which is beautiful, but built in 1900, it is a bit less so than you might imagine) in Upstate New York—which began with the filling up of, typically two big tubs, one with soapy water and one with rinse water. My cousins and I always tried to get to be the ‘rinser’ because that was clearly the easiest job, when compared with washing or drying.

Malawian women cooking 'nseema'

A few years after that trip to the Dominican Republic I had the opportunity to be in Malawi, in Africa, as a photographer with another group of short term missionaries who were visiting various sites working with AIDS orphans as well as micro-finance and development projects.

On one of those days in Malawi we were at an ‘after school center’ which was more like a concrete slab with a roof over it—a definite improvement over the alternative of open air and dirt floor. As we were singing and playing with the kids, I watched the women (yes, again women) who were cooking the lunch—nseema, a corn porridge type meal that is common in Malawi. I also noticed that, again, as they were cleaning up, there was no large tub, but each dish was washed individually, using the water to wash the next dish.

I’m embarrassed to say that there was part of me that thought that they clearly did not know how to wash dishes. Everyone knows that you have to fill up a big soapy tub, to really get them clean…right? Thus thought the girl who grew up with a dishwasher, the machine kind, in the house…

It was not that I was pondering this issue of the dishes in my day to day life, but somehow both experiences stuck with me and sort of just sat there, somewhere lodged in my memory. Like a seed, dormant, waiting for the right set of conditions in which to germinate.

It was not until a few years later, as I was spending more and more time in my grandmother’s house in Baja, and as that summer had been a particularly dry one, with frequent water outages, that it occurred to me what was going on.

On that particular day we had been without water for a few days, and so the little that I did have, I was trying to conserve. I couldn’t wait any longer though to wash the dirty dishes in the sink, so I began with just a bit of water, in each dish, using it to then wash the next dish. Perhaps it was something in the act of that ritual that triggered it, but all of a sudden I had an epiphany, of sorts, as though finding the last piece of a puzzle that you’ve been working on for a long time. So that is why they washed the dishes the way they do…

The thing is, growing up, my limited hand-washing dish washing experiences had been in places of plenty, of abundance. No one had to carry the water we used—we just turned on the tap. No one had to light a fire to heat it—we just turned on the tap. There was no wondering if there would be enough water to last until we could get more—we just turned on the tap.

That ability to turn on the tap, of course, makes it so easy to use as much water as we please—something I’ve come to call the ‘ease of waste.’

But, even more than that, the ability to turn on the tap is what kept me blind to the reality of my friends there in the Dominican Republic, and of those women in that village in Malawi.

It’s not that running water is bad. Or that washing dishes in the two tub manner is inherently evil. What I find troubling is the way that my own privilege could have kept me from seeing—and not only that, it actually determined what I was able to see. The lens through which I viewed the world led me to assume that this other way was not simply different, but was, in fact, inferior. Ouch.

That, it seems to me, is the danger of such privilege. The underlying assumption that someone else is not just different, but is wrong, without a deeper understanding of why that difference exists. Were it not for my own experience of ‘drought’ it’s likely that I would have continued on in my blindness.

We are, as it happens, approaching the season of Lent. Lent, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (often spoken of as 40 days in duration), is a season of preparation—a preparation that is typically seen as involving some form of self-denial. This can take the form of giving up chocolate, or sugar, or alcohol or some other chosen ‘vice’ or ‘indulgence’ as a way of dedicating oneself to God. Many are critical of the practice—seen as an excuse to go on a diet, or a denial of that which is pleasurable simply for denial’s sake.

But I wonder, and I’m pondering, as I consider Lent this year, if there might not be another way to approach this season. Might Lent, instead of simply being a time to ‘give up’ something, be a time to enter into something more deeply? Might there be a way to allow Lent to help open our eyes, to shed light on the blindness that a life of privilege can bring?

Might Lent offer an opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to stop filling those tubs of water all the way full…?

(She ponders, as she types it out on her MacBook Pro…)

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Madzuca Bwangi

Muli Bwangi! More specifically, madzuca bwangi (which means good morning, or literally, how are you waking up), to which you reply dazuca bwino, caen (I am waking up good, how about you?). I have also added some other words to my vocabulary…bongono “a little” (helpful when you are being served unidentifiable food!), gogongola “beautiful” (good to use when taking pictures of people), and momaconda “I like very much” (good when people ask you how you are finding Malawi.) In case you ever find yourself here, I just want you to be prepared…

We have been without wifi for a while which is why I have not written. Over the weekend we were out in the bush. A funny story along those lines…
We did a play for a Sunday school in Ntchisi, at the CCAP church (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian) there which is becoming a sister church with St. Andrews. Our story was about the anointing of David as king. It is told in the book of 1 Samuel, if you want to look it up, but basically Samuel, a prophet, goes to Jesse, the father of David, to anoint the next king because God has told him the king will come from one of Jesse’s sons. Jesse brings his 7 strong, big, powerful sons before Samuel, and each time God tells Samuel, this is not the one. Finally Samuel asks if there are any other sons. Yes, there is David, but he is out tending the sheep. Well, after the story is over we were quizzing the children, which is their custom, and the question was asked where David was. One of the children raised his hand and said “out in the bush, with the wild animals.” Somehow David out with the giraffes was a different image than I had in Sunday school! The end of the story? David is anointed as the next king and the moral is that God does not look on the outward appearance (strong, powerful…white, American…?) but on the heart.

The reason that we were in the bush for the weekend was to go visit the village of Nthondo, where the 600+ children are that St. Andrews people sponsor through World Vision. I got to meet my mom’s two sponsored children! Khokho is an orphan and came with the woman who cares for him. They walked over an hour to come to meet me. Rita came with her mother and father, and they live more than a three hour walk from where we met them!! It was really incredible to see the children gathered there, each one holding up a sign with the name of their sponsor on it. The World Vision sponsorship money goes for providing clean water, health education, food security, HIV/AIDS prevention and support/treatment (often the treatment in such a remote location is through herbal remedies that they have easy access to—garlic, aloe vera, ginger and other plant substances). I am really impressed with World Vision’s attempts to bring relief to the community as a whole, yet in a way that empowers the community and does not create dependence.

One of the things we have learned since being here is how much money comes into the countries through NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) but how little of that money actually gets to the people in need. The common phrase is that the NGO’s have nice cars and nice buildings…and that somehow the money never trickles all the way down. The three organizations that we have visited with, Ministry of Hope (the Crisis Nursery and orphan centers), World Vision and Opportunity International (a microfinance institution that makes small loans to the poor so that they can start their own businesses—more on that in a minute!) seem to be examples of the money actually making it all the way to help those in need.

There are two other things that I cannot neglect when talking about our weekend—the Mbolebole Motel and the singing…

The Mbolebole is where we stayed so that we could be closer to Ntchisi and Nthondo. From Lilongwe (our base for the trip) it is about a hour (paved) drive to the Mbolebole and from there it is about another hour over BUMPY dirt roads to Ntchisi and another 45 minutes over BUMPY roads to Nthondo. How does one describe the Mbolebole without experiencing it? Don’t be deceived by the advertisements of “a fan in every room” or “hot water.” Yes, there was hot water at the Mbolebole, which I enjoyed our first morning there as the Mbolebole alarm clock (a rooster) woke me up at 5:30AM. Some who were later had cold water, and those who were even later had no water, as the amount that was in the tank (like a pila in Guasmo, Ecuador!) had run out and it would not refill again until that evening. I guess the rooster was not so bad after all. We did have flush toilets, which was more than I was expecting, but there were no seats. We did have a fan in our room, but it was a European plug (two round prongs) and the sockets here are British (three rectangular plugs). So, the first night we went fanless, humid and breezeless air trapped in the cobalt blue mosquito nights tucked tightly in around the mattress (though mine had large holes in it which makes one wonder about its effectiveness…). Silly Americans, for giving up so easily. I asked one of the workers at the motel if he could help us with our fan. He saw the problematic plug so he went to get a British plug power strip, which he could wedge the European plug into (good to know) but then the power strip would not plug in as the top prong of the socket was blocked. So, in an ingenious move that was reminiscent of things I saw the summer I lived in the Dominican Republic, he pulled the plug off the end of the wire, split the wires, and stuck them directly into the socket—sure enough, fresh air!

Aside from meeting Khokho and Rita, the most incredible part of the weekend was the singing. Imagine being on Broadway to see the Lion King. Imagine being in the front row when all of a sudden the entire cast bursts into song. That volume and beauty of singing is what greeted us when we arrived in Nthondo on Friday and continued at every stop along our journey. In church on Sunday the service began with each of the various choirs—there were about 6-8 of them, singing. I felt either like I was in a movie soundtrack, or in heaven, or perhaps a bit of both! After church we had a picnic at the manse (the pastor’s house) of the usual—seema, Chinese (which is what they call greens), rice, a tomato sauce, and various meat (I have become a temporary vegetarian!). After having lunch we went back into the church for a choir festival in which each of the choirs shared a song. At one point all the women from one of the mother’s choirs asked our women to join them singing and dancing, which we did, to their enjoyment or humor, I am not sure which! We do have video tape of the experience, which I may have to destroy!

It is time to go down for breakfast before our last day working with the kids. For now, tionanna (see you later).

Muli Bwangi from Malawi!

Muli Bwangi from Malawi!

Muli Bwangi is the standard greeting, and means ‘how are you?’ Your answer, just in case anyone ever asks you, is ‘dili bwino, caen?” which means ‘I am good, and you?’

After traveling for about 36 hours (and stopping in London and Johannesburg) we arrived in Malawi Monday afternoon.  Needless to say, Monday was mostly a rest day!

Tuesday morning (after a great night’s sleep due to pure exhaustion!) we met in the lobby of our hotel, the Capital Hotel, to be picked up by Ministry of Hope. Just a side note, the Capital Hotel is very nice with friendly staff and it reminds me somewhat of the hotel in Hotel Rwanda…it is sort of an interesting contrast to the surrounding area… Anyway, back to Ministry of Hope, which we were introduced to by its new director, Tony Bell. He and his wife moved here about a year ago from none other than New Jersey! When one of our group asked Tony what he missed about the US? You guessed it, Dunkin Donuts coffee!! (I knew I liked him.)

Ministry of Hope is an organization that is working in the communities/villages around Lilongwe (the capital, where we are staying) with the children and specifically orphans. On Tuesday we helped out in their crisis nursery, which is for babies who have been orphaned mostly because the mother has died during childbirth or of AIDS and the father is either also dead or cannot care for the infant. Some of the babies in the nursery do have families that will take the children back once they have been weaned, but many are without any family.

On Wednesday (today–we are 9 hours ahead of California) we spent the day working at one of the Ministry of Hope centers in the town of Mponela, about an hour’s drive (on good roads). Along the way we drove through many communities and saw a surprising number of coffin makers…apparently there is quite a market for coffins here. One of them was called “Energy Coffins”–seems like an interesting name. We also drove past the Blessings Bottlestore and the Slow But Sure Grocery.

Once we arrived at the center we began playing with the children. Let’s just say, the digital cameras and the video camera were a big hit! The children (and adults, for that matter) love to see their picture and request it after every picture is taken (good thing I have an extra battery!).

Other impressions…the vegetation is quite lush. I was surprised. I guess I thought (incorrectly) that all of Africa was dry and dusty.  The people are friendly.

I made friends with the women cooks for the center (they make lunch each day for the children—it may be the only meal they receive each day) who taught me how to make ‘seema’ which is sort of like Cream of Wheat but made with a corn meal flour. They also call it porridge, which I guess is a residual from the British colonial influence. The ladies laughed at how I stirred the seema (it was in a huge pot on an open fire, and stirred with something that resembled a large wooden oar) and taught me how to say “I am stirring seema” (sorry, I can’t remember that one…).

We made it to malawi! (and go Bruins!)

We left the St. Andrews church parking lot at 4:30PM on Saturday for the drive up to LAX to begin the journey…we arrived to our hotel (The Capitol, quite nice and even set-up with a fitness center so I can at least attempt to continue my marathon training on the treadmill…) at about 2PM on Monday…it was quite a journey, and I am feeling rather jet lagged, but am trying to put off sleep until it is at least a somewhat reasonable bed time.

The air feels very tropical here. It reminds me of the DR or of Hawaii–even those same orange blossomed trees (I don’t know my flora) that are so beautiful in Hawaii. It is pouring rain outside…and even though I own multiple rain coats in Southern California I did not make room for said rain coats in my luggage, so we will see how it goes. The area that we drove through to get from the airport to the hotel (about 30 minutes) was green and quite lush. I am surprised at the tropical-ness of it.

That’s all for now, hopefully there will be more interesting strories once we start our stuff tomorrow..oh yeah, and I want to test which way the water goes down the drain–isn’t it different in the Southern Hemisphere? Yes, these are the things that intrigue me!