Monday, October 8, 2012

Meet the Parents

We were invited by a former student now on attachment at our welding workshop to accompany him to visit his family. We’ve known this student since we have been here and so we were pleased and honored by the invitation to meet his parents. Something we have learned here is the importance of offering a gift when visiting someone’s home. Accordingly, we prepared our gifts – cooking oil, sugar, sweet potatoes, bananas and a live chicken. The last gift presented the biggest challenge as you have to carry chickens upside down by their legs. Any self-respecting woman here is capable of this and I am proud to say that I managed the hand-over rather gracefully.

The day before our intended journey, the student shared with me that he had made arrangements for us to meet with his village’s small church community in order to give an ‘input’. I could almost hear my heartbeat accelerate. You would think I would be accustomed by now to last-minute speeches and presentations but both my natural disposition and American training prefer at least a week to prepare anything like a public presentation. After discussion with Spencer, though, we agreed that we should be flexible and go with the flow. So the next morning, we set off with our gifts (agitated chicken in the truck bed) and a general idea of what our talk would be.

The student’s family lives near Mt. Mulanje, an enormous and majestic mountain about two and a half hours from our home. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the drive and the chance to chat with our student and his friend who came along for the day. Our first stop upon arrival was at the student’s home where we were ushered inside the house and introduced one by one to all the members of the family and the small church community leader. After meeting everyone, we decided to drive out to a nearby Comboni parish to greet the parish priest, a friend of our student. We didn’t find the priest at home, but with typical Malawian hospitality we were invited to come inside to rest and have a drink.

From there, we went on to tour the church and then we walked on to the home of our student’s aunt, the matron of the Catholic hospital in the same compound as the church. Although, not expecting us, she invited us in and served us lunch. After the impromptu lunch, we returned to the parish in hopes of finding the priest. We didn’t find him but instead found lunch waiting for us. At this point we were late for returning to lunch with our student’s family so he communicated our regrets and we headed back to his home.

We arrived back at his home to be welcomed with a delicious second lunch and the small church community eager for our input. In a last minute twist, we were told that we should give a reflection on the reading they had picked for the day. Fortunately, what we had planned to share was easily adapted to the reading about going out ‘In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ With the translation help of our student and our own broken Chichewa, we managed to give an appropriate reflection on the meaning and implications of the Trinity and then sat back to enjoy the rest of their prayer service. This particular community lives out too far for a priest to come weekly and so instead they lead their own services on Sundays.

When it came time to say good-bye, we were again escorted back into the house where each member of the family thanked us for coming. Then to our surprise, they brought out gifts to present to us: a large bucket of peas, about 15 kilos of rice and a goat! Luckily, it didn’t fall to me to carry the goat to the truck. At the end of the day, we headed home with happy hearts, some of our student’s relatives whom we dropped in town and a very vocal goat who I regretfully report turned out to be quite tasty.

What's in a name?

A question that we get often when we tell someone Seth’s name is “What does that mean?” Conveniently, we are able to explain its biblical origins which satisfies the inquirers (Seth is the third son of Adam and Eve, interpreted by some to be Abel resurrected and so is a foreshadowing of Christ).

From what we have experienced, much significance is placed on the meaning of a name. Often parents will choose the name of the child based on how they feel about the arrival of the baby. For example, we have met many people named, Madalitso, meaning ‘blessings’ and Mphatso, meaning ‘gift’. Similarly, we know two young men named, Yamikani, which means ‘to praise [God]’. We have also had a few students (both boys and a girl) named Chimwemwe, or ‘happiness’. Currently, we have a student named Wonderful and another student on attachment named Precious. On the other hand, a family might choose a name such as Mavuto which means ‘problems’ to reflect troubles they were experiencing during the time of the birth.

I also find surnames or last names interesting. Many surnames show the tribe of a person. Banda, for instance, a very common name and even the last name of our current president is the Chewa tribe. Mbewe or Chisale, however, is from the Lomwe tribe. Other surnames may just be taken from common words. We have one student now, named Nyemba, ‘beans’, and another named Chimanga, ‘maize’. We also had a remarkably tall student, now graduated, who appropriately carried the name, Phiri, or ‘mountain’.

Worldwide people feel appreciated if you use their name and likewise may feel hurt if their name has been forgotten. A person’s name is an essential part of his or her identity. And so, I think the Malawians are right to ask the meaning of a name because there is a lot in a name.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

To Be Called

Here in Malawi there’s a more recent custom of asking a foreigner—most likely from Europe or the U.S.—to name a newborn child. We presume this comes from the desire of the Malawian parents to create a strong bond between the child and a foreign friend of the family who may be able to assist in supporting that child as he/she grows. It is not unusual for families to have met someone through various missionary groups or non-profit organizations who they later ask to assist them with paying for the child’s school fees, for example.

This concept struck a chord with me—we recently have heard the news that some Malawian acquaintances of ours have a newborn baby girl whose name comes from the Scots Gaels language (I think it is similar to Maura, but it sounded like it may have a “k” sound at the end; Mauragh in Scots Gaels?). This immediately made sense, since the mother has been associated with a missionary group from Scotland who came to do some work in Malawi and she has even been to the UK to see the group up there.

The strong bond formed from naming someone, however, is not only made tangible through the incredible opportunity of being asked to give someone’s child the name by which they will be known. Merely acknowledging a person by their given name is often a powerful event that we often take for granted. When I happen to meet a former student on the streets of Blantyre, it brings so much more joy to the student’s face if I am able to recall his/her name. It feels good to hear someone call us by name; it is an acknowledgement of our existence and tells us in even the smallest of ways that I am memorable.

In a decade of ministry I’ve tried to remember names as best as possible. At one parish, the children going through our various ministries exceeded 700, however, and the addition of guardians and volunteers caused the number to probably exceed 2000. I, of course, was unable to remember everyone’s name, but it is surprising just how many one can recall when you decide to make an effort. I fear that in my various ministries in Elkhart, Notre Dame, Peoria, Safety Harbor, and now Lunzu I have met so many people that I would do a terrible job of remembering names at a high school reunion. Some people hold jobs where perhaps a half-dozen people at most are new every year, but as anyone in ministry or teaching can attest—there is a revolving door of new faces and names every single year.

It still impresses me, then, when my parents mention a former teacher or school counselor they’ve recently run into and who at the sight of my parents’ are able to recall my name. Being a good student may have helped make me a bit more memorable than others, but nonetheless, I can remember my elementary school principal—Mr. Stajkowski, or Mr. S as most of us called him—standing outside even on the snowy days to greet as many students by name as he could. I remember him knowing just about everyone, from the newest arrival to the perennial retained, from the handicapped students to those accomplished in sports, from the student being dropped off in the latest brand name clothes to the kid coming from the trailer park wearing the same outfit as the day before. And looking back, it seems the students at that school had a remarkably high sense of self-esteem.

So if you run into someone whose name you know today—an acquaintance, a member from your church, even a worker with a name tag—greet them by their name. Even if there’s seemingly no reaction, I bet you bring a little sense of importance to them that they wouldn’t otherwise have felt. And if you don’t recall the person’s name, ask them it at least shows you care enough to know.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life for Christ

We recently had the chance to go to the ordination of a Comboni friend of ours, Harold Gomanjira. We travelled 2 ½ hours to his home parish near Mulanje mountain where his family, friends, and almost all the Combonis from our province had gathered for the celebration. The four hour Mass seemed to pass quickly. In true Malawian form, the service was filled with singing, clapping, and dancing. Spence captured on video the priests, Harold’s parents, and some Malawian sisters congratulating him after the Bishop and priests had laid hands on him which we have posted to share with you. I was touched by the beauty of the role the parents play in the ordination. Harold’s parents presented him to the Bishop at the beginning of the rite and following his ordaination, he blessed his parents after first blessing the Bishop and the priests. For me, this captured the essence of what we are called to as parents. God gives us the incredible gift of children and we, as parents, then have the opportunity of offering our children back to God (expressed in many different ways). And then in turn, we are twice blessed by how our children serve God.
We hope you enjoy the video. Congratulations Father Harold!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Getting Fat

Yesterday I saw a Comboni temporary deacon soon to be ordained a priest (Malawian by nationality) that I hadn’t seen in a long time. One of the first things that he said to me was, “You are getting fat!” Feeling quite pleased myself, I thanked him and we continued chatting. Two things struck me as funny as I reflected on his comment later: one that a man would tell a woman (still rather recently post pregnancy) that she is getting fat and two that I was genuinely glad to hear it. I took it as a sign that I now feel comfortable in this culture.

Although in America, a woman might react with horror at being told that she has gained weight, here it is received as a compliment. The difference resides in the disparate realities of these two places. In America, we assume everyone has enough to eat and so food issues revolve more around overeating. Contrarily, in Malawi, because of poverty and problems with food security, overeating is an uncommon luxury. If you see a person looking very thin, the first thoughts to come to mind are that the person must be suffering either from hunger or some kind of disease. To be chubby and full-figured shows affluence and is taken as a sign of success and well-being. In noticing my weight gain, my Comboni friend was flattering me.

Here’s to getting fat and no longer taking food for granted!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Market

Every week, usually on Sundays after church, I venture down to our local market at Lunzu Trading Centre and purchase our weekly supply of produce. The market—teeming with activity on each of its market days of Sunday and Thursday—is always alive with vendors calling out their products to shoppers as they go by. I’ve always enjoyed this time as a chance to interact with the people and to practice my Chichewa.

Gradually, over the weeks, I have come to realize that the social organism that is the Lunzu market, is an entirely other species than the supermarkets, local grocers, and even farmers’ markets we have back home in the U.S. Saying this, I am not just referring to the reality that as you walk in the hot sun, through a maze of wooden pole stalls, while everyone is speaking a Bantu language it is nearly impossible to confuse your situation from being in an air-conditioned, neatly aisled, modern supermarket or even a tented, ordered, farmer’s market with signs and prices easily seen by the unassisted eye. While the Lunzu market is not necessarily chaotic, and there is an order to it all—certain vendors of certain products placed in different locations—there is a fundamental element to it that is not easily grasped by those uninitiated in its ways.

Initially, I would bargain with the vendors over the price of everything. Quickly I realized the price was much more negotiable the more you were willing to buy. Then, after awhile I realized the great benefit of becoming a consistent customer of one vendor. Rewards of “bonuses” (extra produce being thrown in with your purchase), a greater willingness to bargain, or even offering products at a former price when the market price had risen are all ways of enticing customers into remaining faithful to their suppliers. And the suppliers value their customers—even to the point that last week two old ladies were arguing over whose customer I was, because the one I had been recently buying from was gone one week and I bought from her neighbor.

While all of this adds up to a very different approach to the economy of produce distribution, the real factor separating it from the way we do things back home is the relational aspect of it all. Occasionally, I stop to greet a person I see every week, converse casually about how our families are, and then notice they don’t really have anything I want or need. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sucker for buying just anything for the sake of feeling sorry for someone and there have been times I’ve greeted someone and then bought nothing. But the difference between here and Publix is that you hesitate to do it. Or at least you hesitate to do it frequently to someone who has gotten used to a certain amount of income coming from you each week.

Many economists have written articles these past few years with the basic message of the recession having resulted from our having lost any semblance of a face to face economy that prevents an overemphasis on the bottom dollar. Nowadays, when I go to the market, it’s less about finding the best price and buying exactly what’s on my list. Rather, it’s about seeing what my friends have brought to offer to me for the upcoming week’s meals.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Malawian Mourning

We stayed the night at the Comboni Provincial house in Lilongwe and it happened that our stay coincided with their neighbors experiencing a great tragedy. The family, including the adult children, had been gathered together and unexpectedly the mother collapsed and died. We arrived after the family and friends had already begun mourning. Throughout the entire evening you could hear singing, crying, and wailing. The most heart-wringing, however, was the adult son crying out in anguish, “Amai, Amai!” meaning, “Mother, Mother!” The sounds of grieving continued as we settled down for sleep that night. We awoke the next morning to hear the crying and singing unabated as the family, their friends, and community had held an all night vigil to lament the loss of their mother.
I saw their mourning as an incredibly beautiful healing process. Loosing someone you love opens a great wound in your heart. To gather with loved ones and share the pain together not only recognizes that it is ok to feel that pain but it also becomes a cathartic release. As a Westerner I have neither openly grieved in this way, nor am I sure I would be able to do so easily. This Malawian family, however, has opened my eyes to the value of unabashed communal grieving as an important and natural healing process.