Friday, 5 July 2013

Final Thoughts on Malawi

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for about three weeks now. I kept putting it off thinking I would eventually be inspired. But the words don’t seem to come naturally this time, and so I am fighting to put my thoughts into some sort of semblance of unity.
This may be the best I have to offer:

If you were to ask me the characteristic I value and respect the most in a person, I would answer: Honesty.
That’s not a rehearsed answer, but one that comes from a lot of experience – both good and bad.

However, as I got ready to leave Malawi, it occurred to me that a very close second is Generosity.
I love to give. And I respect people who give; Especially people who give out of their lack. In fact, I would say that sort of giving humbles me, and inspires me to give more.

I remember when I was maybe six or eight years old, I was out with my brother and my dad. We were in the mall and ran into the wife and grandmother of one of my dad’s friends. While my dad was making pleasantries, the grandma pulled out two, one dollar bills from her wallet and gave one to me and one to my brother. I remember being so excited.
And as we walked away, my dad said something that I have never forgotten. He said, “She gave those to you, not because you did anything special, but because she has come to realize that it is better to give than to receive.”

Hmmm, interesting practical lesson for a 6-8yrs old to learn. For a while, I thought she was a unique kind of person – someone born with a gift that few possessed. Perhaps that sort of awe prompted me to want to be “just like her when I grow up” because I couldn’t make out how giving could be any better than getting considering I’d just gotten a whole dollar and that made me very very happy!

But as I’ve grown to adulthood, I now realize I’ve had the privilege of being taught that lesson first hand on a very regular basis. My father is a very generous man. I admit, as a teenager, I used it to my advantage! If I wanted something, I knew who to go to ask for it. Not my mom! That’s for sure. She was too practical when it came to needs vs wants. I appreciate that in her now, as I am also very careful with what I buy for myself. (I always weigh the new purse against someone in Africa not having a meal, and often the purse stays on the rack - even if it’s a Value Village rack).

I have watched my father give without reserve for most of my life and now, as an adult, I can’t think of many qualities I consider to be of more importance in a person. The Apostle Paul talks a lot about giving. In 1 Corinthians 8, he writes: Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in His kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia.  They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.  For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will.
I desire to be that sort of person, and I recognize it’s a result of a lifetime watching my father give to others around us. Sometimes I wondered why he was going over the top, especially when the person didn’t do anything extraordinarily special in mind to warrant the gift in the first place.
But in some ways, that’s the best type of giving – the unexpected, over the top kind!

At the beginning of the Lord of Rings Trilogy, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo throws himself a birthday party. And as the custom of Hobbits dictates, he has a present for every person in attendance. I loved this idea, and started writing birthday cards to my closest friends on MY birthday – thanking them for what their friendship meant to me over the years. So, I’ve adapted it a bit over the years, to give to others when it might be customary for me to receive. And the more I give, the more I love giving!

I wish I could claim absolute humility in my giving. I wish I could say that I have learned to give without any sort of reward for myself. But in all honesty, I'm not sure that can ever be true. Take for instance the other day when I gave Waliko a new bike as my going away present. I had for many months been planning this surprise, and slowly been setting aside enough money to make sure I could get him the best “dirt road” bike offered in Malawi.
When it finally came time to give it to him, I thought I was going to jump out of my skin with excitement. His look of awe and confusion was a complete treasure for me. And I couldn’t stop talking…I just rambled and rambled with excitement. Finally Jenn, my housemate had to say, “Melissa, stop talking!”


The reward to me felt greater than the gift I was giving. I knew what a bicycle could offer to him, and I knew it was something he would never have bought for himself. And knowing all that, made me so over the moon excited! I am not sure how to give without that sort of enthusiasm attached, and if it’s considered selfish to love that feeling, well, then I do apologize.

Its in these moments that I realize why my dad is addicted to giving and why, so many years ago, the unknown grandma gave me a $1. It really truly is better to give than to receive; undeniably, incomparably

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Rebel Against Apostrophes

Any of you who have a blog, or are writers, or for that matter, have ever felt the need to write something, but just can’t seem to find the best way to start, welcome to my ramble!

I’ve been staring at the screen, blank and white, until, like looking at the sun, I close my eyes and still see bright spots behind my eye lids. I still can’t think of anything “catchy” to start with. I’ve said this a few times since being away that the longer one goes without speaking to someone, the harder it is to think of things to say. If you talk to a friend daily, you share the goings on of each day and consequently, you know almost everything they’re doing. However, if you don’t speak for a while, you feel that the little details don’t warrant being shared, because surely there is something exciting that’s happened. But frankly, I'm not….

Wait! I just remembered something! I can share with you about how I hit a mini bus today. Not with my hand, but with my car! Some might call that an “accident” or a “graze”… I simply call it, “oops!”

This morning, I was en route to my coworkers house before anyone should be awake on a Saturday. I was fetching her and her husband and another gentleman from their church and all the loot bags we had prepared for their visitation to the prison.
Likely, due to the fact that I don’t remember speaking about this before, the prison visitation is not something that turns the light bulb on in your mind, and you're thinking, What do loot bags for inmates look like?

Well, in this case, sadly, they were rather sparse. When my co-worker first told me they were taking a group from their church to do outreach ministry at the prison, she mentioned there were only 40inmates. I didn’t know much about this prison, except it was different than the regular, large, co-ed prison that most ministries/churches here in town associate with.
So, one day I packed up 40 loot bags that included sugar, salt, cookies, washing soap and body soap. I copied out some Chichewa Scripture that shares about God’s love for His children, and how He sent Jesus, not to condemn us for our sins, but to demonstrate that love toward us instead!
On the day last week that I was dropping off the loot bags at my coworkers house, she informed me that she had been misinformed. There were actually 261 inmates!

That’s a huge difference. We still aren’t sure where the mistake came from, but for the last week I’ve been looking to reorganize some of my funds in order to make sure that everyone at the prison got at least ONE gift (soap or sugar; sadly, not both). We did manage to learn that there were 15-20 HIV/Aids inmates and so I made them special bags of milk and ground nuts (full cream milk and protein). And, after some other donations from our coworkers, we realized we had put together 312 baggies!

So, this morning as I was heading to pick up my coworker and all the jumbos (bags) filled with gifts, I had to drive through a busy minibus loading intersection. And, as per usual on dusty dirt roads in the middle of market places, no rules apply. There is no stopping/loading zone; no right of way; not even general courtesy for those who need to go straight vs those who need to turn.
Personally, I think I’ve learned to navigate fairly well on Malawian roads. Perhaps in part to the fact that I actually love driving aggressively, and therefore have no problem mimicking the minibus drivers who are impulsive and impatient.

Today, no exception. There were three mini buses fully blocking my path and none seemed willing to move out of the way. They all thought the other guy would give me room to move, and held their ground. It is sometimes very very frustrating to be waiting upon a mini bus driver who is determined to fill his bus at the expense of those of us who are stuck behind, in our own car, or inside, as a passenger. I’ve waited sometimes 20minutes in a bus while we watched the man ‘strolling’ to the main road to jump aboard an already full to capacity bus.
When none of the three mini buses decided to move, I tried maneuvering between them. Suddenly, in front of me, was an oncoming car trying to do the same from the other direction. However, he had room to stop, whereas  I was already half way between two of the minibuses. Only problem, the third minibus I was behind, decided to stop and chat with the driver of the oncoming vehicle. Though I honked my horn at him, he only inched forward by releasing the brake.
I just kept right on his tail. That’s when the conductor from the mini bus to my left started slamming his hand on my car. When I finally looked over, I saw that I had clipped the front of the mini bus with my rear left side.
My reaction was pretty much like I described up above, “oops!”

I asked if the mini bus was okay, and the conductor said, “yes, yes, but your car…” and as soon as the mini bus reversed to give me space (see, I knew we could be reasonable) I said, “I'm not worried about my car! Thank you”, waved and drove away.

I arrived at my coworkers house having already forgotten that I just clipped a minibus and should look at the damage, and instead walked into a dining room overflowing with boxes and jumbos and soaps!  There was no adrenaline rush, or sweaty palms as I would expect if I hit a car in Canada. And honestly, there was also no remorse. Not that I wouldn’t have taken ownership and responsibility for hitting the minibus if there was damage. I would have. But the man said the bus was fine, so I took his word for it and carried on with my agenda – much like minibus drivers do whenever they hit something, or sadly someone.

We loaded up my car and I suddenly remembered the incident, but found no visible damage among the already present scratches and dents and rust of my old beater! Not that it would have affected my affection for the beast in any way.

When we were ready to leave however, my car was so weighed down that we bottomed out nearly five times just getting back to the main road that I'm sure the damage underneath my car is far worse than that visible damage to the body! I cannot wait to leave this car behind. I'd love to drive it off a cliff and watch it crash just for fun. It would give me so much delight!

Arriving at the prison, I was shocked to discover it was a juvenile institution! Oh.My.Goodness! YOUNG OFFENDERS!
What was the male equivalent to Talitha House called? Sj, Lori? Was it Fairburn?  I suddenly felt compassion and longing to work in this prison, and a sense of nostalgia all rolled up in one!

Part of me wishes I was staying to meet the young men inside, but I’ve made it clear that I wont go into any place to do ministry (hospital, prison etc) and hand out gifts because I’m not willing to perpetuate the stereotype associated with Azungu (that is, that all white people are rich and give freebies to the poor Africans).
Instead, for the time being, I am more than willing to fund the outreaches from behind the scenes because I know that my coworkers and her friends continue to do ministry to these places long after I am gone. They are building relationships with the inmates and the guards and they will be known over time for what they do, rather than what they give.

However, since having left the prison this morning, having gone to the market on my own to pick up a special order of diaper covers made for six year old children, having tutoring at a restaurant I thought served breakfast but ended up eating a sandwich and fries (chips) instead, I have thought many times about what could be done for those young men.

I hope that for most of you, the confession that I have considered, contemplated and am still weighing the options about returning to Malawi, will come as no surprise. Despite the challenges I have wrote about and complained about and even screamed about in my own quiet space, this experience has been more positive than not. And there is such a need! Everywhere you look, there is a need. There is something that can be improved and done better, or even started for that matter. And I dream of returning. With no specific goal in mind, just returning, immersing myself even further in a backwards culture that often evokes extreme exhaustion in me, I dream. But as soon as I start to seriously consider my dream, the reality of raising funds for another year overwhelms me and I consider how easy it would be to return home, get a job, blend in with the Jones’ (if I ever have), and no longer wrestle with the Western societal impression that I am a leech who fails to earn her own way in the world and expects others to fund all her outrageous humanitarian efforts.

And its on this teeter-totter I currently precariously balance.

Until next time…

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

April Blahs....Winter is A'Coming


I feel uninspired tonight. Not really sure what I'm going to write to you. I’ve just come home from a week’s holiday in a first world country, and the culture shock is worse this time around! The first time I came to Malawi, I was on an adventure. Each new thing I saw or experienced was part of the journey and was met with an open mind and excitement.

But now, I will be honest, getting on the plane Sunday morning to return to “home” in Lilongwe was not something I was eager to do. I prayed earnestly that the flight would be cancelled or I would miss my connection. And even though my first flight I nearly missed thanks to some airline staff who overslept their alarms, and my second flight I could have offered to be bumped had I learned they overbooked soon enough, I still ended up back in Malawi by noon on Sunday.

I wont say it was dread that filled me, but definitely a sense of frustration. I really do like living here, that is an honest admission. But the life that I’ve known for nearly 35yrs is so much more pleasant. I got to run a race with friends and then even ran around the neighborhood one morning – with no gawking stares or offhand comments. I didn’t feel like an anomaly nor did I get asked for money every time I stepped outside. I got to shop in a mall, which ironically, is one of my least favorite activities in Canada, but it was just so nice to be in a familiar setting where I could get everything I needed in one stop. The disparity was not forgotten; and my heart did yearn for a better life for those who have become good friends here in Malawi. But the escape was hugely appreciated.

The struggle I now find myself in is to look forward. I still have two months of work here in Malawi and I don’t even feel like I’ve accomplished much at all thus far. I need to really focus on finishing well. I don’t want to be lazy in the last couple of months, but man, my motivation is at an ultimate low. I know there is no sense in starting something new now, especially seeing as my goal has been to assist and never to create a role for myself that can not be filled when I leave. So, the question is now, how can I best exit? There are a bunch of unfinished projects I have on the go, and I’m tempted to pull back from the preschool work and just focus on finishing some of the behind the scenes things. But, by pulling back, I wont get to see the children nearly as much. And they are my favorites! I love the children.

So, as I wrestle with the battle of what to do, how much to do, and how to get everything accomplished, I am aware that May is just around the corner. We have less than two weeks until the “cold” season starts and one of the things we would like to do is give each child a sweater (jumper, jersey, hoodie, insert your own choice of word). And , like Christmas, in order to do that, we rely on donations. After Christmas, I organized our leftovers and have discovered that we have very little warm weather clothing to give away. We would need at least 400 sweaters of all sizes, and have, maybe 75, mostly for young girls (ages 3-6).

Earlier, in March, I employed a few moms to crochet hats for the winter so that we would have some to give away also. I had found donated yarn in some of our boxes and paid them a small amount for labor to make them for us. I was surprised that only two moms jumped on the opportunity, despite the fact that many said they could crochet/knit. They didn’t even have to supply the needles. But anyway, I ended up with only twenty hats, or so, but I'm not even sure I can purchase new ones.

 The great thing is, I can buy second hand sweaters for less than $3 each! Unless you are a “rich” Malawian, you don’t buy your clothes at shops. You buy them from street vendors or market stalls, or the front yard of a neighbor. These clothing items arrive in mass quantity on big trucks and are a variety of everything. Usually they are slightly used or perhaps cast offs that are flawed. The fact that they aren’t perfect isn’t an issue when you're cold. Especially when you have no other option.
$3 is nothing to us in Canada (American, Australia, insert your home country).
It buys a coffee, but not a latte. It buys a jar of peanut butter on sale, or a one way trip on some public transport.
How many times in one day can you choose to save $3?
And, would you be willing to give it to a child in Malawi who needs a sweater to keep warm this winter?

Think it over.
Personally, I'm doing all I can right now with my support money. Im stretching it as best I can. I often end up spending my personal budget on little things for the school or the children because I hate that there is such a need. I admit, I'm probably not being wise most of the time. I am probably spoiling the children and perpetuating the cycle of "freebies".
But I think its easier when the need isn’t staring you in the face each morning. You're welcome to criticize my actions. I definitely struggle with them myself.
But at the same time, if you could consider for a few minutes, what $3, $10, $18 might actually cost you…(nothing?) then could you consider GIVING it to a child in Malawi?
Lets worry about the bigger picture of western aid to Africa AFTER the children are warmly tucked into bed at night!

If you want a tax receipt, you can donate through PAOC, but I think your donation needs to be a bit more than $3 in order to get one. Otherwise, it would be simplest if you just emailed me the money (if you do online banking).
I promise, promise, promise, all the money will go toward buying sweaters. I wont even use your donations to cover the ridiculous surcharge I get to withdraw cash!
And I’m happy to take pictures if you want also. That way you can see the PRICELESS smile of a $3 sweater!


ETRANSFER - this email address:
Zikomo Kwambiri!!!!
ps - photo is of a blanket I made with donated material. also another project I have on the go for the winter!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Unprocessed Events of a Weekend Past

Long weekends are suppose to mean an extra long rest period. I had been looking forward to the March 3rd Martyr's Day Long Weekend since I went back to work in January. Not that I hadn't taken a few afternoons off here and there over the last two months, but I was looking forward to an extra morning of sleeping in and lazing in my p.j's.
I suppose you wont find it surprising then that at 6am on Monday morning I received a phone "flash" from a co-worker (meaning, whoever is calling you does not have money to pay for the call, so they "flash" you their number and expect you to call back), which I ignored, and at 7am, Florence texted me asking: What is our plan for today?
Isn't that how it often works with our best laid intentions to sleep in?

Now, let me back up a little, to late Saturday night.
Florence texted me in pain. She didn't elaborate, but her text sounded urgent. When I talked to her, she minimized the pain and discomfort and confessed she was sure it was psychological due to now knowing her neck was indeed fully fractured. She had just been wondering if the whole "surgery" process could be sped up some.

Sunday morning I woke up and immediately texted her to find out how her night was. She was completely fine and no longer in panic mode. That was great, but having already contacted the doctor who got us the updated x rays, I now knew that the surgeon in Blantyre we were suppose to be seeing, saw her case as extremely urgent and serious. He wanted her to come to Blantyre by ambulance asap!
When I told Florence this, she cringed. Her idea had been taking a car to Blantyre. Because she was able to move and had been mobile for a month already, the idea of being confined to a back board and unable to attend to simple movements or needs, was daunting and discouraging. The drive to Blantyre, though only 300km, is at least a four hour drive...if lucky. The maximum speed is 80km and at every town that you pass through, the speed limit drops to 50km. There are pot holes, rumble strips, bikers, goats, walkers, cattle and police stops at random. A four hour drive is generous.
Anyway, I spoke directly with her and her family. I explained the doctors position on the situation (as I had somehow become the correspondent between the surgeon, the private clinic who did her xrays, and Florence), and strongly suggested we err on the side of caution and take an ambulance.
I had some money to offer toward the cost and thought it would be wisest to proceed immediately.

I contacted the ambulance company (private service) and was quoted a price of nearly $1000 for the drive to Blantyre. Suddenly, I didn't feel so competent! $1000! I did not have THAT much to offer. I felt horrible. I felt I had let her down. I felt like a pea. I hated to have to call and tell her the cost. And when I did, she was immediatly against taking the ambulance.
The day continued in this whaffing, oscilating manner. I will spare you the continued dialogue between myself, the clinic and Florence, because it felt like it went on forever and ever.

I did manage to discover that the first man's quote was way over priced and in reality, it would only be about $500. However, that was still too much for Florence to consider being spent on her behalf and she downright refused.
We had attempted to contact the surgeon directly and clarify his understanding of the situation. He was under the impression because the x rays had been sent to him from a private clinic, that Florence would be a private hospital patient.
I had to explain to him that she would not be coming to his private hospital...but she would be a patient at the public government hospital where he also worked. In explaining this, I also explained that paying for a private ambulance was not feasible.
So, we were back to waiting. Waiting to hear what the surgeon suggested, waiting for a chance to possibly get a second opinion. Florence, proving to be much more patient than I, left things Sunday night by telling me to relax and trust God. She said we would wait to hear from the surgeon before making a decision.

Thus, when I got a wake up text Monday morning asking me what we were going to do, I was a little bit annoyed at having been woken up! Truthfully, I had figured that because it was a long weekend, we wouldn't hear from the surgeon until Tuesday and we would have to make plans to go to Blantyre later in the week.
But, by 7am Monday morning, Florence had decided she wanted to get on with it, and drive to Blantyre TODAY!
Suddenly my relaxing day was replaced by a frantic morning of packing, arrangement making with steadfast prayers that she would be safe in my car! The responsibility of driving a patient with a broken neck on the Malawian highway was not something I took lightly. I constantly had to remind myself that God had brought her safe thus far, He was not going to let her down now!
This whole experience has already brought to mind so many questions for God, but at this moment I needed a bit more understanding.
Was my willingness to drive, and Florence's steadfast assurance that God would protect, foolishness, or just an overwhelming strong faith!?
I wanted to believe it was a strong faith, but I wondered at the same time, was $500 really that much money to spend in order to be more safe?
I realize that there is a country full of people that have to make these decisions in faith because they have no way to financially support the other option.
But had God put me in Florence's life and allowed so many people to give toward her needs, in order that we opt to drive to Blantyre instead of taking an ambulance?

Unable to sway Florence's determination, I chose to err on the side of FAITH and completely abandon all fears of the potential dangers and trust that God would be with us.
Our agreed departure time was 10am, so I had a couple of hours to find myself a place to stay in Blantyre. I know no one there. And the one missionary family that Matt (my guru) knows was actuallly facing a crisis of thier own. The husband had been diagnosed with one of the most dangerous stages of Malaria earlier in the weekend, so of course staying with them was not an option.
Still not having heard from the surgeon or from anyone taking pity on me for accommodations, I set out to pick up Florence. I was a few minutes late and felt bad that I was running behind schedule. But no worry was necessary. We didn’t leave until 11:30 – perfectly on-African-time!

The drive felt long; it took us five hours – which is remarkably good time – but seemed to be forever. It was hot, and then it poured rain. We were stopped by the police twice, just because. Florence in the front seat with her neck collar helped the cause as the police didn’t bother us for much more than a quick “hello” and registration check.
But by the time we got to the hospital just before 5pm, I was wasted. I had heard by then that there was a lovely lady willing to let me stay at her place, but until Florence was checked in as a patient, I wasn’t willing to go anywhere.

I’d like to paint a lovely picture of myself at this point. One that depicts me drawing from the well of reserved patience and kindness and being overwhelmingly supportive. But truth is, that would be a bold face lie!
I was so beyond patient by this time that the government hospital system nearly did me in.
It took one and a half hours for us to be registered.
Absolutely NO ONE was willing to help….
Each person we asked for assistance passed us off to another line, who passed us off to someone else because they were on break, or it was shift change. Finally they told Florence to sit against a wall and wait. Well, that was stupid…we hadn’t even given our names yet. So who were we waiting for? It was completely obvious that the staff were not willing to work unless it was literally staring them in the face, so sitting off in a corner was not going to get us any help.
Internally I struggled with pushing for the kind of care I expect at home and practicing African patience. I have watched the azungu in this country demand a lot in name of “proper” care. I’ve watched them bully their way to get preferential treatment and to belittle those around them who are not willing to speak up for themselves. My biggest concern was Florence, and I knew she needed to be seen by a doctor. But I also knew that any movement I made at all while in the hospital would be observed by everyone. I was the only mzungu there.
And I did not want to be a stereotypical pushy and rude and arrogant white person!

After an hour of waiting in numerous places, with no further assistance than those who had just walked in, I decided to just stand in line. Even though I was pretty sure that it wasn’t the line we were supposed to be in, I thought if we could at least get our names on a “list” we would eventually see a doctor.
And once Florence was registered, it took less than twenty minutes for her to have a bed in the ward.
I couldn’t believe it!
If only I had ignored all the original instructions we were given and just stood in this line from the beginning. No one would have ever known I was impatient at all!!!!!

The reception area where we sat for an hour and a half was a very nice clean hall. It was spacious, with many benches (not individual chairs) and about seven private triage rooms for the incoming patients to be assessed.
It gave the illusion that the hospital was in better condition than the government hospital here in Lilongwe.
Florence even commented on how nice it was.
However, sadly, as is the case I have found all too often, that what is on the outside is not necessarily a true reflection of what is on the inside.
The moment we walked out of the main reception area and headed to the orthopedic ward, a whole new image was painted.
And our spirits fell.
The hallways were blue painted cement with fading directions. The floor was nothing more than a concrete slab. The door to Ward 5B opened and the putrid smell of body odor immediately filled our noses. There were about six to eight private-ish rooms along the corridor, each filled with three or four patients. These might have been the rooms one could pay extra to stay in. At the end of the hall, another set of swinging doors opened to the massive hall of madness and mattresses.
Nearly fifty beds lined the walls and created a center aisle down the middle of the room. Women on each bed, some care givers attending to them. Few with blankets, most just lying on the plastic covered foam mattress. Those who were not able to get a bed frame, were laying on their mattress on the floor, in between the beds of others. Those with IVs had the bags hung by a nail in the wall and sat idly under their drip.
This room smelt even worse. The body odor was masked by the smell of dirty bodies, feces and vomit.
In government hospitals nothing but services are free. There is no food provided and one must bring their own bedding and personal hygeine items.
Not one medical person could be seen. No nurses, no reception desk. Nothing to show us where we might need to go or who we should talk to. Unable to be patient any longer, I walked around through the rooms looking for someone who was wearing a disposable white apron. I found no one, and was greeted by so many stares of indignation and curiosity that I actually felt uncomfortable. I walked back to the bench where Florence and her sister were waiting, took one look at their faces, and cringed.
Was I really going to have to leave them in this place, Lord?

Florence’s first comment was a recognition of being duped by the front reception, but before I could apologize, she immediately told me not to even think twice about leaving them there. She was going to be seen by a doctor, get the medical attention she needed and it was all going to be okay.
Ah, to glean from that sort of attitude!

A few minutes later, nurses appeared and a few more minutes later, she had a bed. Thankfully she wasn’t in the big open hall that greeted us, but in behind, in a semi private room with only seven other patients. The doors could be closed ensuring that at least some of the noise from the other fifty women would not keep her awake at night.
As her sister and I brought the luggage from the car, I was overwhelmed with emotion. The conditions of this hospital were deplorable. If a Canadian hospital looked even twice as good, it would be shut down and condemned. I couldn’t imagine myself staying in such a place and it broke my heart to consider that no one in our country would ever be grateful to have a bed in those conditions.
How is it that such a place exists? And how is it that one country can attend to its citizens with such pompous care that they continually demand better standards, while another country in the world neglects its own mothers and fathers and children? This is so much more than an issue of money, or resources or human rights violation.
And until I can process this further, its where I'm ending today.
I welcome your thoughts, your opinions and even your challenges to my words. I need to process and am willing to dialogue if you have some ideas to share (if you dare!)

Friday, 1 March 2013

What THANK YOU really looks like

Ephesians 5:20 says, 20 And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Until today, I always struggled with this concept, merely in remembering to give thanks for the small things. Thank God for my job, or a place to call home or a meal to eat. Thank Him for simple pleasures and for small surprises. Thank Him for the things we tend to overlook and forget or take for granted.
Slow down enough, and give Him thanks, for everything.
But today, I learned an AMAZING lesson in giving thanks.
So HUGE indeed that I must share it with you!

My friend Florence, the one who lost her sister in a car accident in January, and also dislocated one of her vertebra  in that same accident was released from the hospital after a month ago after spending only three weeks in traction.
My boss, Kathy, encouraged me to have her x rays looked at by one of the orthopedic surgeons from Blantyre (another Malawian city, five hours south of Lilongwe) because she thought three weeks was a premature release.
It took a couple of weeks for me to obtain the x rays and meet with the doctor, as his visits to Lilongwe are on a rotation of once every five weeks. When he did see the xrays, he was immediately concerned that she was no longer in traction and that she wanted to travel back to Zimbabwe soon, which is her home country where most of her family reside as well as her sister, Everjoy’s children have now been moved there.

This doctor (John) referred us to another surgeon in Blantyre, who casually responded to our request by suggesting we visit him one Tuesday as this was his day to see patients (and not schedule surgery). However, he mentioned he might refer her for an MRI and that it is a costly expense. He warned us to be prepared financially.
So, given that information, I decided that I would rather pay for Florence to have recent and better quality x rays from a private clinic than to risk taking her poor originals and needing an MRI.

We went to the clinic this morning, and had an “appointment” of sorts. We still ended up waiting an hour to see the
 x ray technician. When he first looked at the x rays that were coming out, he was hugely alarmed. He pointed out immediately that there was a fracture and a bone piece had been dislodged.
Confused, I went to the car to get the old x rays. There had been no sign of a fracture on those ones. Just a dislocation from what the doctors at the hospital had first told Florence.

So, in comparing the x rays, I discovered a MAJOR blunder. The original x rays were a terrible quality x ray. We knew that from the start. But what we didn’t realize is that because of the poor quality of the picture, the fracture was completely unnoticeable. Imagine! For eight weeks now, Florence has been living with a fractured vertebra because her original
x rays were too poor of quality to even see that part of her neck. It was all just a blur of bone and mass in the picture.
While I was examining the old x rays another doctor walked by (probably wondering why I was playing with the x ray light and photos) and so I had to explain myself. He took one look at the pictures and was alarmed.
“Why is she walking? How is she moving? Does she have a neck collar? She should not be moving at all!”

Alarmed at what was being discovered, the other doctors all congregated around the pictures, throwing out their ideas of emergency, ambulance, surgery! Poor Florence, sat there listening, not being allowed to look at the pictures because standing would require her to make movements that she was suddenly no longer permitted to make.
I felt terrible for her. I had brought her here to get new x rays, praying that the pictures would show she was healing fantastic, and instead, she is told that because of the negligence and primitive machinery of the original government hospital, she is in serious condition with a fracture and a poorly healing dislocation.

There wasn’t much I could think of to reassure her. I asked the doctors who were all chatting amongst themselves to at least explain the situation to us, but immediately they all suggested they weren’t the specialist and resisted giving us an sort of diagnosis. Fair enough, but the fact that they were all sharing their panicked suggestions with each other in front of us (Florence especially) was hugely discomforting.

When they finally all left to go work out what was to be done next, I turned to Florence and in a timid manner asked her how she was feeling. If I were in her shoes, I would have been angry and scared. I would have been so mad at the original hospital for their failure to diagnose correctly and the obvious mistake of discharging me without even taking new x rays. I would have been scared at the prospect of having emergency surgery and being bed ridden for a few more months in a foreign country. I was trying to prep myself for a similar response from Florence and mentally placing myself in to the best supporting role.
Instead, both Florence’s response, and her sisters (who had accompanied us), immediately were:” This is such a testimony for God. Let us give Him thanks. If we had not come with you today, we would not know this news. We would have been blind to what was really happening and Florence would have been in serious risk.”

As I picked my jaw up off the ground, I processed what I had just heard. Both, unquestionably accepted the situation of potential surgery and the severity of her fracture by thanking God that it had been discovered.  IMAGINE THAT!
IMAGINE not being angry at the injustice and negligence of professional doctors!

IMAGINE not wanting vengeance or justice or even considering suing the hospital!

IMAGINE praising God that you’ve discovered your neck has been broken for eight weeks without you knowing!

IMAGINE THANKING HIM for revealing this truth to you!

I was shocked.

AND HUMBLED of course.
All my inclinations went right out the door and I too just accepted their patience and praise and thanked God for showing us that her situation is much more serious than we originally thought.
How could I get mad and angry when she was not reacting in such a way? Who was I to suggest that she allow all these negative feelings to overwhelm her and take over her calmness and peace?

And as we sat there for another two hours, waiting to hear back from the doctor in Blantyre (John) about the immediate course of action, all I could do was apologize for the length of time it was taking and the fact that she had been restricted to her chair and was not permitted by anyone to get up and move around. I felt so bad that all we could do was just wait, and again, their patience and their calm came over me as well and seeing as I could do nothing to speed up the response of the doctor, I too reconciled myself to wait.

And, while I was waiting, I decided to give thanks to God!

May each of you choose to do the same today!



Dr. John finally returned the email with instructions. He is sending the xrays to the specialist he had first contacted regarding Florence’s case and we will wait for his first appointment to go see him. I will be taking her as soon as we can make that happen – provided he approves her to ride in a car for five hours on pot holed roads.
The alternative, she will be put on a back board and transported by ambulance to Blantyre, or she will have surgery here at a private clinic that works in conjunction with Dr. John.
Perhaps we can persuade someone from Blantyre to come here and do the surgery…I'm not sure. But we will wait and see. In the meantime, Florence is at home, resting and moving minimally, and of course, giving thanks!

While on the subject of THANKS: I just want to thank all of you who have given towards my ministry here, and especially those who have given lately. The extra funds I have received will undoubtedly go towards the medical costs Florence now faces as the surgery at a private clinic will not be free, nor cheap. Travel to and from Blantyre will also be an additional cost to my budget, so I just want to thank you for listening to God’s prompting to give as He has prepared for these costs in advance, and has given me peace that He is in control! I give Him thanks with ease for His continued provision!

In Christ,


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Day In, Day Out

Well my friends, you are in luck. Given that I have fully cleaned out my inbox and have responded to all my emails, and yet I still don’t hate my keyboard, I thought it best I take some time to send an update.

Let me go get a snack to help me focus!
Yummm, apple (pink lady) and natural peanut butter.
I can live anywhere if these two items are accessible!
So, where did we leave off? I feel like its been a long time since I wrote. I should have a lot say, but I'm just trying to think of what actually there is to share….

For starters, when I originally left Canada last September, my plan had been to be a part of two missions outreaches in the course of the year I was gone. However, as some of you might remember from an earlier post, in November, I changed my plans and decided to stay here in Malawi for the duration of my time abroad (this trip at least). Had the original plan still been in place, I would have packed up my bags this Friday past and left Lilongwe – and would have been arriving today at Hands at Work for intake starting tomorrow.
Several times since making the decision, especially when tough times hit, Matt Janes – the missions guru who keeps in touch with me regularly – has asked if I'm regretting my decision.
And each time I tell him that despite the difficulties and the struggles and the unpleasantries of  life here in Malawi, I don’t find it to be any more than what I might have faced in Canada. Yes, I have had different experiences and learned many new lessons, but I definitely remember having tough times in Canada too, feeling discouraged, feeling annoyed and frustrated.
I love it here in Malawi, and am enjoying my time here for sure. I do not regret my decision to stay. I do hope that some day I will get the chance to be part of Hands at Work in some manner, because it too sounds like a great ministry. But for the time being, I am still passionate about what I do here with Children of Blessing Trust.
And, each time I meet a new person who inevitably asks me why I am here, I get to share with them about the special children I work with and the programs we offer for their development. And though it seems, to everyone I share with, that there is so much work to be done, I feel that it is I who am learning the most.
When a school like the one I spend most of my time volunteering at, has so few resources and supplies, it forces one to become creative and inventive. It also teaches to be grateful for every little thing we do have and the new donations that come in.
This past week I was thanking God for having had a photocopier accessible in my former places of work and asking forgiveness for being impatient when the toner runs out and I have to wait for someone to change it. Haha! Here, we don’t have a photocopier and have to go next door to the shop that offers the service. We pay 15MK per copy (pennies, literally) but half the time there is a reason why it doesn’t work: no toner – and no money to buy another one; no paper – and the boss had to run to the shops to get some; or no electricity.
I was also appreciating coloring books. How often do we toss away a half used coloring book that has been found on a shelf, buried in the back under a stack of other unused books? Well, here, we don’t have coloring books. I mean, I'm sure they sell them somewhere in the country, but when we only have enough funds to pay the teachers, our school budget doesn’t allow for buying extras like coloring pages. Thankfully, at Christmas, I uncovered hundreds of photocopied coloring pages that had been donated, and even better, they are one sided. That means I can write out the lessons for the children to do (tracing and copying their ABCs and 123s) on one side, and then they can turn it over and color the picture on the other. Resourceful eh???
Only trouble is, that with two growing programs using them every day, my foot high stack is down to less than a cm :-(

In other news, my car is working alright now that it is fixed. Of course the quoted price of fixing it wasn’t as accurate as I’d hoped, but I'm happy that the car is now working well and running well. I filled the tank last week and am hoping to stretch it for a month (I live 10km from work)! It is a beautiful white piece of tin, but I have become very affectionate of it. Unfortunately, it is not a VW as I would have LOVED, but I figured I shouldn’t be too picky.
It is definitely amazing the sort of hang ups and preferences you let go of when you are faced with the fact that to have such an item is a pure luxury in and of itself.

I would like to say that I have become extremely humble by living here in Africa, but I highly doubt I’ve mastered the meekness and humility of character that Christ would emulate. I am still annoyed when I go to the market and the guys try to charge me “azungu”  prices because they don’t realize I actually know what I can get it for. And in my annoyance, I often, well, lets face it, we all know I have a voice…..
I know that in the past I have usually used a unique experience as the basis for my blog post, but I am finding that the longer I stay here, the less shocking the experiences are. I'm not saying that less things are happening to me; I'm simply suggesting that what I once thought so strange and foreign is now very common. I laugh sometimes when I think of all the pictures I took when I first arrived. I carried my camera everywhere. Now, I often forget it, or have to remind myself to take it out and snap a quick shot of the children at school.
Anyway, I will leave you with a quick update about Florence (Everjoy’s sister) and then sign off!
I had gone to see Florence in the hospital three times after the accident. She was in a room of eight women, and out her door on the balcony were more beds. In the hallway, there were other patients; but not in beds because there was no room for them. It was a bleak place.
After the first visit, I made muffins for the ladies in her room just incase some of them didn’t get regular visits, and would have continued if she hadn't got discharged earlier than anticipated....

Florence’s traction consisted of two pins, screwed into her head, attached to a metal bar which attached to her bed. The bar was weighted in place by a string that was attached to some bricks, which hung over the edge of her bed. There was about one foot of space between her and the next bed beside her, and maybe four feet between her and the bed she was facing. Because they had her facing the wall though, she didn’t have the luxury of looking into the faces of the people she “bunked” with. I can imagine how boring and bleak it would be to stare at a pictureless wall for 21days.

Every time I was there though, she had someone visiting. Her two aunties from Zimbabwe had come to care for her and they all took turns around the clock.
She was released two weeks ago, which in itself was a miracle. The doctors had told her four – six weeks, but she was well enough to leave after three. I was a bit na├»ve in believing she was back to her old self, when in reality, her release from the hospital merely meant she could lay on her own bed with her head in a neck collar now instead. Her movements were slow and strained and limited. BUT, praise God, she has full movement!
Another amazing miracle is that the doctor had told her that when the screws come out, there is likely to be a lot of bleeding from her head and she would have to be monitored. But she did not bleed at all. My friends, I am telling you, your prayers are being heard. She is being healed! God is working in her. When I visited this Wednesday past, her brother called and wanted to pray for her over the phone. She asked me to join her and when he prayed I could feel the Spirit of God descend on her room.
What a privilege to be a part of this journey with her. We had a really nice visit. I stayed for over an hour and got to know her much more.

Please continue to pray for Florence and her recovery. I will keep you posted.
I leave you now in the hands of our loving Father. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, may you know His love is not extinguishable and that HE IS faithful, even when we get frustrated and fed up with waiting (hmm, you would think that was said from personal experience or something
 The preschool children at their centers
Joyce with one of our albino children, Prince

 A full fuel tank - every missionaries dream!
 More centers with the preschoolers - fine motor work!
 Rain during rainy season - though, this is once it had subsided!
Hard at work concentrating on coloring! Well, Lexa at least...Enock is a bit of a trouble maker!

Friday, 11 January 2013

An Experience I Had Hoped to NOT Have

Hi friends,
Welcome to 2013! Chaka Chabwino!
It has been a busy two and a half weeks since Christmas and I am living proof of the statement, “I need a vacation after my vacation.” Along with fighting a bit of the stomach flu, that is precisely the reason I have chosen to not return to work until Monday instead of pushing myself to go in this morning.

Ashleigh was here for two weeks, having arrived on December 27th. We spent the two weeks being tourists and relaxing. A lot of sitting at home, watching tv, eating way too much and overall, for me at least, just vegging!
We went to a resort for two days at New Years and enjoyed buffet dinners of American style food, and lounging by the pool side. I got incredibly sun stroked and sun burnt the first day, which meant I didn’t bother indulging to the same degree the next day at all. I simply sat in a covered area and enjoyed the view of Lake Malawi!

A few days later we were picked up by our tour company for our Safari in Zambia. Definitely by far the most amazing experience I’ve had yet in Africa. Primarily, because of the Giraffes and the Leopard! We saw just about every kind of African wildlife possible – except the rhino as they have left the area – and a whole bunch of very colorful birds.
Every time I saw a giraffe, I squealed with delight. I had my camera set on “continuous” shutter so I have about ten of the exact same pictures of every animal. If I piece them together, they would make a quick film – like the elephants trunk full of grass curling into its mouth, or the family of giraffes walking out of my frame one slow step at a time.
I wont bore you with all these photos, but I have posted a whole bunch that you can look at here:

I had a small problem at the border getting back into Malawi. We were with a team of American university students who had told the immigration officer that they did not need the regular allotted 30day visa to enter Malawi. I however, did. So when I got to the counter, I mentioned to her that I needed the 30days which then meant she inspected my passport closer! Now, we had been told that the border guards were really strict about Yellow Fever Immunization Certification and we had scrambled around Thursday before the trip trying to get the inoculation done. The agent didn’t even ask one of us for the card. Instead, she gave me a hard time about renewing my visa again and would not let me through to join the group. I was the one who held us up!
The tour guide stepped in, and managed to get my passport stamped and extended. However, he neglected to tell me until we were driving away, that he had lied through his teeth to the agent in order to get her to sign it. Great, just what I wanted!!!  All to just avoid giving her the money she was hinting at wanting in order to grant me my perfectly acceptable and legal entrance! BAH!
Anyway, friends, I want to get to the part that is actually the most important of the last two and a half weeks. My hairdresser – Everjoy – has become a very close friend of mine in the last month.  The first day I met her, she offered me her car for to use whenever I needed one.  Her family had two, so either I could borrow the car she brought to work each day, and use it during work hours, or we could make arrangements to use the other for the weekends. In fact, it was her car that we used to drive to the Lake for New Years.
But not only that, I’ve enjoyed getting to know her. She took me under her wing, like a long time family friend. I met her children and her Auntie and she told me about her life. The day we ran around town TRYING to get our Yellow Fever Cards, she gave me a hard time for not coming to her first. Apparently she knows someone who knows someone….
She said to me, “MELISSA, when you need something, you need to ask ME! I can help you. I know people!”
To be cared for like that reminds me of my friends back home. People who look out for you and help you out because of the relationship you have with them – not because they want money from you.

And so, it grieves me to share that on Tuesday, Everjoy was killed in a car accident. The shock in writing those words still takes my breath away. It seems so surreal. I can still hear her chastising me for not calling upon her first when I needed help! Her name seriously described her. She was EVER-JOYFUL!
She had been driving early in the morning with her sister and co-worker to pick up some extra work. She’d planned to have a vacation starting this Sunday and was eager to make some extra money. There was a child running across the road trying to get to school, and she swerved to avoid hitting them. The car rolled, sending the coworker flying out the back window and her sister who was the passenger broke her neck. Everjoy was killed instantly.

Death is pretty common here in Malawi. The infant mortality rate is 83%. The life expectancy for an adult is only around 50yrs old. Death is not unfamiliar to most people. But it is to me. Its not something I encounter regularly. In fact, it may be once a year that I attend a funeral. It is not something I ever thought I would be doing here in Malawi. ESPECIALLY for someone who I would call a friend.

The funeral is actually going to be in Zimbabwe as that is where Everjoy is from. Her body is being transported there today. Her family will be escorting her. Her grandmother, her aunt, her three children (ages: 11, 8, 2), and her husband.  One of her cousins will stay here though to keep her sister, Florence, company. Her sister is in the public hospital here, in traction, unable to move. Thankfully, she can FEEL her limbs. She can’t move them yet, but the fact that she has feeling throughout her body gives hope that she will recover and be able to move as her neck continues to heal.
I am hoping to have a chance to visit her .
What can I offer? Not a whole lot, let me tell you. Florence, is in her early 20s and was actually here in Malawi to visit over the holidays. She still lives in Zimbabwe and would have been going home on Sunday with Everjoy. She doesn’t know anyone here and now all of her family, save for her cousin Ellen, is returning to Zim for her sister’s funeral.
There is very little I realize that I can offer at all.
Except for maybe hope. Hope for WHAT? Well that is not the hope I'm referring to.
Hope in WHO – now that is the hope I am speaking of.
See, the way I see it, we are all made in God’s image. We are all His children. And in Him, we have worth. We are valuable simply because He has made us. And when circumstances dictate an inability to offer tangible help, (do I KNOW that Florence will ever walk again? No. Can I bring her sister back? No. Can I take away her hurt and pain? Definitely not), the only thing that I know I can give is the love of Christ.
Florence is loved by God. She is precious in His sight. And that alone compels me to just be available. I have some ideas of how I might be able to help her pass the time, or ease the family’s financial needs right now. But most of all, I just want Florence to know that she is not forgotten. She has not been abandoned by God or His love.
I hope to share with her a smile, a warm hand squeeze, a prayer and maybe some of my time, just so she realizes that she is so very very valuable to our Heavenly Father.

What else can I possibly do?

Friends, I have no eloquent words to finish this post. I feel I should close with something that draws all my ramblings to a nice clean conclusion, tied up with a pretty bow.
But not today.
Today I just sign off. 

 In Christ,
Your friend,
On assignment in Africa,