Friday, November 21, 2008

Bye Bye Notes

This blog is coming to a close. Here are some final notes that I thought I should share with all my lovely readership.

Thanks to all my family and friends for reading and supporting me during my time here in Malawi. Also thanks to all you other people whom I don't know but have taken the time to read my posts, and comment on them. Through your heartfelt contributions I have had a better idea of which of my inner musings are 'cool', 'offensive' or (quote): 'bull****'. Lord knows I love all you random folks out there taking the time out of your busy schedules to herd my errant thoughts into such perspicuous categories; I'm sure your intentions are pure and that I'm the better for it (thanks blogosphere!). Oh well, perhaps I did I ask for it just by being pretentious enough to billboard my thoughts in the information highway (next time I'll just do an email ring). I'm new to this whole blog thing. Anyway, I apologize sincerely to the sensible mob of bloggers protecting the integrity of all Malawi related bloggings. As I seem to have unwittingly joined their ranks I apologize sincerely for any 'generalizing', 'offensive' or 'uninformed' statements about the Malawian people whom I have come to love dearly and am always endeavoring to understand better. I don't think I've done them wrong on these pages (I still say thing I'm mostly guilty of is just a great deal of navel-gazing, but hey, what are philosophy majors for?), but if I have, please forgive me oh vanguards of Blogdom.

A note about generalizing: I know there is such a thing as difference between individuals. I just know it. It's a thing that I know. It's a fairly self-evident truth. I got told the same story that you did when you were four about how 'people are like snowflakes, no one is the same' and you know what? I still believe it. I know God didn't create us as androids (though being an android would be totally cool). But there's also something called 'culture' and it's kind of hard to ignore especially when you're trying to explain to someone for the hundredth time what a therapist is and why a perfectly successful and by all accounts 'normal' person would ever need one. I know there are depressed Malawians, neurotic Malawians, suicidal Malawians, etc. but after 6 months of meeting a lot of folks around here I really do believe that there just aren't as dang many of them (per capita) and that maybe, just maybe it ain't a coincidence. I'm not trying to dehumanize Malawians. I'm just trying to extract some spiritual medicine for all of us who sometimes catch ourselves feeling unfulfilled and lost in our American "cult of the individual". I know Malawians aren't God's chosen people that they have their own problems but I also think we can learn a thing or two about life from their culture so please, if you want to read and comment just try to roll with that big picture in mind. Thanks y'all.

(end rant)

Anyway I'll do another post from Lilongwe for sure. I've been so encouraged by all of you who have read and commented on my posts and even those of you who have taken the time to email me in response. I have felt as if you all have been here with me and I hope your interest in my experiences will translate into interest in Malawi and Africa as a whole. Malawi has been good to me, a home full of welcoming people whom I will miss most of all. I haven't said goodbye just yet, but it's just around the corner.

Thanks guys. I can't wait to see you all again.

Mua Mission

I traveled to Mua Mission this past weekend, a large Catholic Parish about 40 kilometers to the south of Salima. The KuNgoni Cultural Center at Mua is one of the coolest things I've seen in Malawi. It was established by Father Boucher (pronounced 'Boo-Shay') back in the late '60s as a project that would 'inculturate' the gospel. I actually got a chance to interview Father Boucher for a good two hours (!) about his work in Malawi and the process of incarnational ministry to the people groups of Malawi including most prominently the Ngoni (an offshoot of the well-known Zulu nation) and the Chewa. The mission is a grand encampment of nice buildings and attractive gardens all lushly decorated with art and carvings. The center is a school for Malawian artists to practice and develop their skills in the making of their own traditional art.

Boucher cleared up a lot of questions I had regarding traditional Chewa culture. Under the influence of more conservative missionaries from several of the more conservative denominations (the most prominent one starts with a 'P' and rhymes with 'Shmesbyterian') many Christians have turned from the traditional ways and are now following a more Western mode of worship. Mua mission is an interesting contrast. The cultural dances called 'gule wamkulu' are still upheld as valuable and Father Boucher, the main priest has actually been a member of their secret society for thirty-five years! Sometimes people have told me that the members of these ceremonies promote witchcraft and erroneous cultural beliefs that conflict with Biblical teaching.

Boucher, however, explained to me that the gule wamkulu is more like a drama with many different characters that, through acting, serve to outline the moral and social structure of the tribe and what it means to be a good Chewa. Naturally, the morality falls into the lines of "Honor father and mother", "Serve your community", "don't have sex before marriage" and all those good values. Boucher told me that many of the values fall in line with Biblical teachings and they certainly don't condone witchcraft (which is seen by the Chewa as a severance with the community). "Why should this ceremony be rejected?" He asked. He went on to say that the way they teach, say to not use bad language is to have a character who always uses bad language, so in a sense one commits the sin dramatically to show the consequences. It's comedic (dramaturgy anyone?). Father Boucher also told me that the gule wamkulu is not an inherently Christian thing. There is no Christ character (there is Mary, however) There are many Christians involved in it (like Boucher himself) but it is not in essence 'Christian'. With the prevalence of churches taking over the mainstream the members have been pressured to treat and organize the society more like a church (sometimes calling it the Church of Aaron since Aaron was the one who fashioned the Golden Calf, likewise the gule wamkulu use pictures to teach people. "But wasn't God displeased with that?" I asked. "Yes but they don't pay attention to little details like that"), but in effect it remains a ritual for moral instruction. Boucher, being a Catholic priest went on to say that a Christian member of the gule wamkulu would ideally grow up and begin to question some of the values that it teaches, cross-checking them against the teaching of Jesus, saying "well this one is in line, this one not so much" and adjust one's behavior accordingly, but to rid a culture of their entire moral grounding and start afresh is to impoverish them greatly. "Let them grow into a good Chewa and then they will grow into a good Christian". He used the example of that the gule wamkulu might teach someone to love their neighbor just like the Bible does but it does not teach loving one's enemy. That's something that only the call of Jesus can effect in someone's life. Just like we as kids had morality taught to us by TV shows like "Arthur", "Sesame Street" so does the gule wamkulu teach young Chewa. But it goes further than just an infantile level. The gule wamkulu is a complex series of characters and plays more artistic than simple didacticism (one might describe it as sacramental) and, here's the coolest part, it's always changing. Father Boucher told me how the dramas evolve and react to the historical events and cultural change that has happened in Malawi. They have plays that have reacted and commented on the three presidential regimes that Malawi has had, they've reacted to the presence of the whites, etc. all based around the goal of how to act in the world. As the world changes so does the gule wamkulu revolving around the central themes that make up Chewa values. I guess I thought of such rituals as static and set in stone and by contrast that the enlightened age of technology and science was the dynamic one. Boucher was quick to point out that their ritual is not 'fossilized' but always moving around a core set of values and principles.

It makes me think of the popularity of the American film scene. Maybe we look to films to inform our existence in the same way. It's relegated to the 'artistic' scene (which in our day and age means 'extra' or 'ignorable' when compared to the all-important priesthood of science) but its popularity bespeaks our desire for information through drama. Of course, the morals transmitted through this medium are hardly anything to structure a society around. I've often seen Malawians be openly disgusted when they see our impressive special effects that seem to have no purpose. "Lies" they call them. In the gule wamkulu people dress up like cows and other characters but it's for a purpose, to send a message through visuals. What would it be like if we could use our capabilities for special effects as visual/artistic tools in order to communicate messages through symbol instead of continuing in the recent trend of recreating reality or rendering unreality believable? We often confine 'theme' and 'message' to the realm of the writers but what if images could be used to communicate meaning? These days special effects maintain a more Protestant placement: to clothe and decorate the inferred abstract meaning found in the script (Think Blade Runner versus Children of Men). But what if directors could take a cue from the Catholic side and actually construct 'semiotic meaning' through visual cues? It's surprising to me that more popular films haven't employed this tactic. Yes, yes there are plenty of brilliant (yet nigh unwatchable) arthouse movies that do it but there aren't really any mainline films that have effectively channeled special effects technology out of the realm of 'making possible the impossible' and into the realm of meaning. I think The Fountain may be one exception. Another good example is the comic book Watchmen which is currently being made into a film. Wanna see what modern semiotic storytelling can be? Read Watchmen. The film version looks like it's interested in preserving much of the imagery of the comic which (if it's good) could begin to propel special effects out of 'realism' and into a more meaningful style of semiotic imagery (I always said comics would save the entertainment industry) BUT I DIGRESS (as usual).

It also raises questions about our gospel. Why do Church people freak out when we see stuff like this? All this ceremony and the wild costumes tend to confuse us bookish Protestants, but for the Catholic, someone presumably used to a more visual and artistic view of the liturgy it is seen as an opportunity. What Boucher and his colleagues have done is 'inculturate' the Catholic liturgy into Chewa society using more tangible means, images and music. Just as the language is translated so are the images and the traditions of the people brought into continuity using art and music. No, it's not syncretism. It's like putting culture and the gospel into the same world, like Santa Claus showing up in "Narnia" (So is Chris Rice's "What if Cartoons got Saved?" song is more progressive than we think? Heavens forbid!).

As cool as Mua was, I gotta shout out to my homies: CCAP, I love you guys. I grew up in a conservative church too. Stick with it, really. You're doing great things for the Kingdom. But hey, maybe we could learn from stuff like this. Maybe taking this stuff could help us take a break from our abstracted minds and exercise our senses through more tangible ways of experiencing truth.


Mr. Nkhosi, a contracted employee in the World Relief Office died Friday-before-last of AIDS. He was a regular presence in the office and a friend. My first day on the job was also his and I've known him for as long as I've been here.

I was in Monkey Bay when I got the call that he had died. By the time it came through I was already missing the funeral for which I was really depressed. It's so typical that the white guy would miss a friend's funeral because he was swimming at Cape Maclear. I know there was nothing I could do at that point, but I still feel awful about it.

The whole episode has helped me to comprehend how incomprehensible the problem of AIDS is. It can kill quickly and slowly (due to whatever it is that is taking advantage of a lack of immunities) and doesn't leave you much time for anything, sometimes not even grief. Sometimes Malawi can feel like a warzone. There are multiple funerals every weekend and at least one is someone who is connected to your family in some way. Grief here is a controlled emotion. There's a time for it, and there's a time to get on with life and there's a hard line in-between. I've heard Malawians accuse Americans of being too sentimental and emotional. They're right, grief is different for us just like the rest of life. I can't really help it though.

Mr. Nkhosi was a good friend and a good man. He left behind a wife and three children. Since meeting and praying with her I can report that she's going through a lot of grief at the moment. We have supported her financially for the expenses of the funeral and then some but she has a hard life ahead of her. She needs prayer and financial support.
As for me, this was an all-too-personal contact with the AIDS crisis. Numbers don't do it justice. The pandemic is very personal for me now. Sometimes it's hard to understand why it exists at all but I know God knows because God knows Nkhosi and Nkhosi knew him. God is with every one of the victims and we should be too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Latter Days

I'm back. It's been a while, I know...but, I'm back.

My parents and sister came for a visit a couple of weeks ago. It was great. We took a trip to the south see game and then moved up to Salima to visit my projects. I think they got a great cross-section of life here and it was a wonderful way to introduce them to the development world.

My internship is nearing its close. I've only got about 5 1/2 weeks left which feels like a really short amount of time. My project isn't going so well and I actually don't expect it to finish very well either. Maybe miracles still happen though. The youth I'm with aren't very motivated and the leadership of the church has gotten in the way of things more than they know. It's an interesting balance to strike, authority vs. domination. I believe in authority but when it stifles actual growth then it needs to be changed up a little. Basically, I'm not very hopeful about the project but I'm thankful to God for my time here. It's been a real blessing.

Gerald Phiri, the new youth coordinator is here! He's a really intelligent, thoughtful and pro active guy and I'm happy that he'll be my replacement. I'm now kind of like a temp who has overstayed his welcome. My presence is more of a novelty. Karissa Hernden is the office's new intern from America. She'll be working in 'permaculture' which sounds a bit like a special hair treatment shampoo but is actually a way of encouraging small farming to supply the basic nutritional needs that the populace can't get from maize. The new villages that World Relief is targeting has actually already started such projects, an encouraging sign, so Karissa and Gerald (who has also worked for a permaculture project) will be encouraging these developments. I hope things will turn out better for them than my own attempt at making life better here. Nowadays I feel like I'm just existing.

In other news, I've been reading heavy amounts of Walker Percy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The first wrote uncompromising treatises on the fall of man, the second, uncompromising treatises on what to do about it. A dangerous combination. HNGR has brought me into contact with a great deal of suffering, but it has also exposed me to the naked drear of everyday life. There's just not a lot going on here in Salima and days pass with a sluggish uneventfulness I have never before experienced, or rather, have had the money to avoid for most of my life. Percy highlights the human desire to escape the humming dreariness of present time through science and art.

"Both art and science are ways of knowing and as such are the greatest pleasures of which man is capable (Aristotle, Aquinas). So great, in fact, that the ordinary pursuits of life are spoiled by contrast and so the artist must go to heroic lengths to render life intolerable outside his art. What Einstein said of science might be said of art: I went into science to escape the intolerable dreariness of everyday life."

If science and art are the ways in which we abstract ourselves and 'orbit' the earth, then what are the methods in which we numb the inevitable reentry? What goes up must come down and anyone who has ever felt the odd inexplicable depression of everyday existence in America knows this. Everyone's method is different. We escape the present hour through art, science, technology, work, sex, romance, drugs, travel, philosophy, theology, political action, political apathy, money, food and drink, music, film, television, the internet, exercise, playing sports, watching sports etc. (and the interesting thing about science is that the scientist has the option of staying orbital for longer periods of time since our society understands the world scientifically rather than artistically/mythically. Still, at some point the scientist, even the concrete, 'applied' social scientist must come home to his wife or mother who doesn't give a care about, 'cultural norms' or 'social stuctures' but just wants him to fix the @&#% sink). How many times do I turn on my iPod or open a book or watch a film to escape the present? Far too much. HNGR has confronted me with what it really is to live 'in the fullness of time'. Malawians do it, or at least have a better concept of it. They seem to content themselves with things that drive me up the wall; like having the same conversation 100 times a day. "Hi, how are you? Where are you going? How do you compare Malawi with America?" Same string of questions every time. It's so maddeningly ordinary. But what is it about this present life that drives me to feel that I must exit it? Why do I feel so good reading and writing papers about, say the semiotic nature of man's existence and so bad when I have to clean my room, do laundry or slog through more broken Chichewa with my host-family?

Percy nails me to the wall when he says: "The problem...How do you go about living in the world when you are not working at your art, yet still find yourself having to get through a Wednesday afternoon?" It's such a relevant question for HNGR. Living with the poor involves spending a lot of uneventful time. This is HNGR's greatest torture and, I think, it's greatest formative experience. One is left so alone with oneself, and as a result I found myself subject to all kinds of odd behavior, e.g. I developed the special ability to consume an entire season of LOST in roughly half a week, just keeping it constantly playing in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen as I 'worked' on assignments. I also did it by doing my assignments. I have had all of my readings completed since September. There are more and less productive kinds of 'reentry', more or less socially acceptable methods, but they all accomplish the same end: removing oneself from the clear and present reality of one's own trudging existence.

The poor, by contrast, have fewer options for achieving an abstract orbit and thus find little trouble in reentering the world (though TV is quickly gaining popularity here, people don't lose themselves in it so much even though it is constantly turned on. It is more like a background for ordinary existence and the programs on it are not constructed fantasy worlds, but rather raw footage of just talk shows. Even when watching films, they just fast-forward to the action scenes). But orbit is not just distraction, it's abstraction, something we rational westerners are never safe from no matter how concrete or practical we may be. Language learning, anthropology, sociology etc. even in the interest of practical application increase our orbits of rational exaltation and thus, increase the pain of reentry into the simplicity of humming present time which has no use for such intellectual god-men. The poor miss out on the fruits of a good life, (entertainment, education), and for the first time I really think they may be the better for it. I haven't met a single depressed Malawian. There is no suicide here. Why? Certainly life is more difficult and, thus one would think that people would have more incentive to exit it. What if the difference is that they know who they are so fully that they don't even have to ask the question? Perhaps this is why there has been such an explosion of Christianity here in Africa. Perhaps a person who doesn't feel the need to ask existential questions like "Who am I? What am I doing here? What is life? What does it mean to exist?" may be more receptive to the actual answer. I don't think you have to be poor to be able to live like this, but I think I know what Jesus meant when he mentioned how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Percy acknowledges one of the only writers that he believes to have accomplished full life before God: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer's treatise on existence was in Newsletter 5 and it had a very profound effect on me. Being a disciple in our day and age involves the individual re-structuring his reality to make him nothing more than a creature before God, a reality that overrides even one's intellectual capabilities. Basically, we do not look for evidence Christ in the world, for that would be to start with the observable scientific/semiotic world as a more basic reality, but we are too look through Christ at the world. It's so painful to live like this, constantly under that self-destructing reality, but I feel that I must if I am to be a true Christian. It's not an easy call. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bonhoeffer lived this out and didn't get past 39 before he was killed by the powers and principalities of the world. I'm frightened by the prospect of being a disciple, but I know that it is the only meaningful road.

*Theological post script which can be skipped without getting behind on any news of real value:

My thoughts have lately been on the meaning of discipleship and how hard it is. I feel like God has been showing me the seriousness of his call to discipleship. David Cotten's recent death has made me think more and more about suffering and death and how I always somehow count myself as exempt from those inevitable realities. That kid was a soldier to the end and I hope I can be like him on the day that my trials come. The problem is that I'm pretty bad at overcoming my trials here which inevitably come in small ways: not feeling irritated when someone calls to me from across the street to give them money, keeping my head when I'm engaged in yet another conversation that I don't understand, staying present when I miss home so very much. I doubt the strength of my faith at this juncture, to endure the things that the disciples endured and to keep my eyes completely on Jesus as Bonhoeffer did. In truth I feel rather feckless, always floating off into my own world and forgetting God. Hopelessness might be a good way of describing my feelings right now. I never expected to do anything of real value here, just that I might be a bit more capable of facing life. Now I feel less capable and unsure of where my heart is. Do I love Jesus? Or do I love some vague idea of 'Jesusness' having to do with cathedrals and candles and warm feelings? Do I love him enough to follow his commands and take comfort only in his coming? To be honest I feel like Lot's wife, constantly looking back to 'that city' which can be anything, whatever floats my existential boat at the moment: home, nostalgia, movies, music, even religious enthusiasm whatever causes me to float away from the present moment. I can't stay here, I can't stay in the present, I'm always looking away to the future, the past, or whatever unattainable horizon feels like it's worth longing for. Percy says that he's seen men live and die in this longing. I don't want to be like that (or more, I wouldn't mind being like that since it numbs the pain of the present moment, but I know that this is not what Jesus calls me to be). I just need Jesus more than ever to lead me along like a little kid because even in the midst of prayer and Bible reading, I feel so terribly prodigal. Percy continues to describe me better than I can myself:

Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Miss Prouty? For a drink? For both? For a party? For youth? For the good times? For dear good drinking and fighting comrades? For football game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes again the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and the winter sun striking down into a brickyard and on clapboard walls rounded off at the edges by blistered paint...Desire has a smell. Of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle.

-from Love in the Ruins

Does God's mercy extend to the ghostly Western man, of dual mind and yearning heart whose home is everywhere and nowhere? Who dwells not in the embodied world (as Christ did!), but in the odd mist of consciousness who constantly ventures out on temporary escapades to find solace in food, alcohol, methamphetamines, airports, nostalgia for the past, hope for the future, Picasso cubism, therapy, Yoga, behavioral science, reality shows, indie music, classical music...etc. etc. Does Jesus enter into that strange liminal space in order to save us too? Is anything that I feel genuine, or just a sedative for the true horror, that I am a negative space, a self-sucking nought whose longings are only a-chasing after the wind, never to be fulfilled? Is this the barrier to true discipleship that I need to break down? Can a disciple live in longing? I've been reading a lot of theology that basically says 'no, Jesus came so that you'd get off your can and do something in the world instead of all this self-fulfillment garbage.' Lord knows I need that, but I don't think I can shake the longing so easily. Neither did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, apparently even in the physical immediacy of his cell in Tegel.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I?
This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Frannie's Pictures

My parents are here! Here are some pics Frannie wanted to send back to CJHS.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chitipa pictures

Here are some pictures from my trip to Chitipa this past week. Enjoy bearded Alex while you can. He will be shaved soon.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


If that last entry sounded self-righteous (primarily around the first half), it may be because it was. I'm still sorting things out here and I'm in a pretty vulnerable, impressionistic state. I'm still a naive white. Two months in Africa with some readings on the shortcomings of western missions doesn't change that. As for missionaries: I'm still coming to grips with what has been a tainted history, but in the midst of it all I must never ever criticize those who have given their lives to do the Lord's work. Times change and with it comes new light shed on the missionary project, but can't we look at it as being perfected rather than torn down? Oh Lord, why do my own misgivings continue to manifest themselves as criticism of others? As if tearing down other people will make me feel better about me, soothe my own fears and hide my own faults. Forgive me.