April 11, 2005
We were expecting another visit to a partner church, but what we experienced was one of the most memorable days of our lives.
The day started very early. We got up at 4:45 a.m. and were on the road before 5:30 a.m. Life in Malawi begins early, and even at that hour the roads were teeming with people. There were women in brightly colored traditional garb carrying buckets of water from bore holes and streams to their homes. Others balanced baskets of vegetables on their way to market. We saw bicycles with large cages on the back filled with live chickens and children with huge bundles of wood or sugar cane on their heads. As the sun rose, Chiradzulu Mountain came into view, the top obscured by wispy clouds.
Out of the seven hours we spent in the car, less than one hour was spent on paved roads. The dirt road that we traveled from Limbe to Migowi was the worst I have ever been on in my life (and since we have been here, we have driven on some pretty bad roads!). To say that it was deeply rutted and had massive potholes does not even begin to describe the pockmarked, packed dirt pathway that Dan had to navigate through the countryside.
We passed dozens of quintessential African villages complete with goats, chickens, stray dogs, and straw roofed huts. Because of the drought, most of the crops were drying up, but we saw some crop diversity in the area. Fields of millet, sunflowers, groundnuts (peanuts), pigeon peas, cassava and sweet potatoes were abundant along with the ubiquitous maize. The tobacco had been harvested and was drying in makeshift thatched roof sheds or being weighed and packed in readiness for auction.
Mr. Harry Mandiwa served as our navigator, and we never would have made it to Migowi or home without his expert advice, “bear right at this fork in the road,” or “it’s not much further after we enter the Pulumbo region.” He guided us right to the home of an elder, where we were given bread and tea for a late breakfast.
By 9:00 a.m. we were at the Migowi CCAP church. We were ushered into the manse and met with the pastor, session clerk and Mvano representative. Before church, we stopped at the “rest rooms.” Now, this may be what my daughters call “TMI,” or too much information, but many people have asked us what toilets are like out in the bush. This one was fairly typical, it was a small brick hut, with two doorways. One was covered with an old grain sack. Inside you find a wooden cover with a handle covering a hole in the ground. This is why you never travel in rural Africa without your own supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
We entered the vestry of the church and had prayers and worship preparation with the elders. Dan was told that he would be doing baptism, communion and preaching. By the time we got into the church, the 4 choirs were in full swing. The sanctuary was packed. There must have been almost 100 children sitting on the floor in front of the wooden benches that served as pews.
The Celebration of Worship started with hymns, prayers and a children’s chat. Then the choirs each did an anthem or two. Then the pastor whispered to Dan, “we are now going to go and lay the cornerstone for our new church building.” So the entire congregation followed the clergy and elders outside. We had briefly looked at the site for the new church as we came in, but now we realized that the foundations of the new structure had been laid, and the first levels of brick were being put into place.
Prayers and blessings were offered, and Dan was given the honor of placing a large fieldstone into the brick foundation. He and Abusa Kuombola, together, in an act of true partnership, offered prayers and dedicated the new building to God’s Kingdom and use. I moved around and took pictures, since I was the only one in attendance with a camera. It was a very special ceremony.
Then everyone filed back into the church, and after a few more hymns and the Apostles’ Creed, the families bringing their children for baptism were asked to come forward. People clutching newborns or towing toddlers kept coming and coming. The entire front of the church was filled. As one young mother approached the chancel, the Session Clerk told her to stop nursing her infant so that it could be baptized. A single mother struggled with twin boys, so a Mvano stepped in to help her. Dan baptized 36 children! Most of them were mesmerized by the feel of the cool water on their heads, but a few took one look at his azungu (white) face and screamed in terror. He managed to complete each baptism with grace and dignity, however. It was a once in a lifetime event for the children, parents and minister!
The Celebration of Worship continued with more singing. Then four members of the congregation, who had been suspended from membership and disciplined, were welcomed back into the congregation. I have never seen this in America, but in churches here, if someone acts in an un-Christian manner (is caught stealing or has a child out of wedlock, for instance), they are disciplined. After a period of time they are called before the congregation, as these three women and man were, and are forgiven for their transgressions. They are given new membership cards and are reinstated as fully participating members of the church and are welcomed back by the congregation. What an example of grace!
After pastoral prayers and scripture readings, Dan delivered his sermon with Mr. Mandiwa translating. Malawians seem to love the more relaxed, personal American style of preaching. They are used to more formal presentations of the Gospel.
Every man, woman and child came forward to drop a coin or bill into the offering plate. Then, after final hymns and prayers, the children left the sanctuary and the Sacrament of Holy Communion began. To share the Lord’s supper with brothers and sisters in Christ in such a beautiful setting, beneath the huge rock mountains and beside the flat savannah, was something we will never forget. We were the only white people in attendance, the only Westerners, we did not speak the language that was used, but we certainly felt one in Christ with the members of Migowi CCAP.
After the Celebration of Worship we were taken to an elder’s home for a delicious traditional meal of Nsima, chicken stew, cooked greens, rice, fresh tomato sauce, French fries, and a medley of fresh fruit. After several formal goodbye speeches, we were thanked for coming and were presented with a beautiful live rooster as a gift from the congregation. (It’s legs were tied and it sat quietly in the back of our truck on the way home. We later gave it to Mr. Mandiwa as a thank you gift for his help.)
As we got into the truck, the people of Migowi broke into song, and we left with the sound of their music in our ears and hearts.We decided to take a different route home. The dirt road was little more than a cow path. It could not accommodate a car and bike at the same time, but the scenery was spectacular. The road skirted one end of the magnificent Mt. Mulanje. Steep, sheer rock surfaces jetted into the azure, cloud studded sky. The late afternoon sun created gleaming granite surfaces and lit up the straw roofs of the villages nestled on the foothills below. (Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this part of the trip – the batteries on my camera died, and for the first time this year, I had no back ups.) Then Mr. Mandiwa guided us East and the landscape changed dramatically as the topography flattened into dried out grass and farm lands. Red and yellow bishops flitted from the bushes to the tree tops. Occasional patches of orange and pink wildflowers bloomed beside boulders, but most of the crops were withered in the fields. The drought has ravaged even the Mulanje region, which normally receives the most rainfall in the country. As the sun sank behind the Medina mountains and we approached Blantyre (13 hours after we left), we tried to reflect on one of the most remarkable days we have spent in Malawi. This country and its people continue to surprise and amaze us, and we are grateful for each day that we have been given here in the “Warm Heart of Africa.”