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.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mission Trip

We just got through with a big missions week. A team came from Switzerland to help build a church building for an Anglican parish in the nearby village of Chipoka. I was able to participate for a few days, but missed out on most of it because I had to help facilitate a youth training. The team was a mish-mash of people, young and old from different parts of Switzerland and Germany. I quickly discovered that Swiss short-term missions are pretty much the same as American ones, just with a different language. There were the little devotional times, squeamish diets, a tight a schedule to keep and lots of bonding throughout. It was really interesting to see the disconnect between short-term missions and long-term development. When the bus left after the closing ceremonies, I’m sure it was a cathartic moment for the team, but for me it was just kind of like “well, back to the office.” What surprised me most was how good the time was for me and the staff. As a long-term intern I am quickly becoming callous to the more everyday evidences of poverty and suffering. It was good for me to see people exclaim at how beautiful the children are and express outward sorrow at their swollen bellies. It helped me refocus on the truth of things here. Just because suffering is commonplace here doesn’t lessen how horrible it is. This was able to shine through all of the fakeness and typically western structure. Though missions trips tend to insulate their participants, to the third-party (myself) I was actually able to see it all, the reality of their experience as well as the insulation and pick out the good bits and bad bits. For many of the participants this was their first vision of Africa. One girl was a high-schooler and it was her first time outside Europe. She was giddily in love with Africa. “First timer” I remember thinking. At first I wanted to tell her the truth of the matter, to play the righteous kill joy and tell her that if she only knew how fake her experience was as related to the real one, she wouldn’t want anything to do with Africa, but then I realized how similar I was when I first came to Africa, all starry eyed, looking through the rosy lenses provided by the sheltered missionary community. I believe that God gave me those rosy lenses at a time when I was immature and impressionistic, feeding me with soft food. Even after realizing that I hadn’t gotten the full picture, I was still helplessly drawn to Africa after such an overwhelming experience. I realized as I watched her that this mission trip reality is not false, just heavily filtered. I am pleased to report that the things that I remember enjoying when I first came, the warmth of the people, the simplicity of the lifestyle and the charismatic attitude do remain parts of my experience here. Now that I’m experiencing the realities that temper those experiences, (communication barriers, constant dirtiness, hunger, illness, want), I can now see that these are not the whole of the situation, but still they remain. Sometimes the bad stuff can overshadow the good, and that’s when it’s nice to hang out with some na├»ve, sheltered whites and remember what drew me here in the first place. Now, though it all comes with a pang of sorrow having seen both sides of the issue.

I don’t think the Swiss could see it, but I could sense a peculiar aura surrounding the big travel bus that World Relief had rented for them. The metal juggernaut would sit parked at the building site all day, and whenever one of the team members felt overwhelmed or tired they could retreat to the bus and relax in relative glass-filtered quiet. I first sensed the strangeness of it when I was walking to the bus to get a water bottle and Raja, a retarded youth who had all but glued himself to me for the entire week followed me as he usually did talking pleasant nonsense. I continued as I always did, smiling and nodding, shaking his hand when he offered it every other minute until we reached the bus. I walked up the steps and then turned back and noticed that Raja had stopped just outside the door, staring up at me blankly. I could see that even his hazy mind had a sense that this was a different space from the rest of the site. He stood there working out whether or not to board behind me. He eventually caught the cold stare of one of the World Relief employees and made the right call. It didn’t stop him from standing outside, staring through at the window glass, trying to talk to me. Up until that point bus was comfortable for me, a space away from the chaos of the building site where, even if the people weren’t from my country, they understood my position here and wouldn’t ask me for money or to take me back to America with them. Raja turned it all around for me, though. After that point I couldn’t stay on the bus for more than a few minutes without going back outside to sit down and chat with the workers and smile and nod with Raja. It even affected Maria, the German high-schooler, and she started spending more of her free time off the bus and even learned a few words of Chichewa. When we would board the bus to drive back to Salima, I could feel the eyes of the people staring at us as we rolled away and I couldn’t help but think, “why can’t they come?” By now, I’ve been approached by a few pastors asking if we need any mission work in the U.S. “Absolutely” I always say, adamantly. Then, in typically direct Malawian fashion, they ask me how and when they can come. “ can’t” I never say, but know that it is the truth of the matter. I see now that what too often makes a missionary is not faith, but money. Many Malawians can’t afford to take a trip to their own capitol city, much less go on a mission trip, but they have the same desire to. Do we honestly think that all Africans want is to be ministered to all the time? They sure appreciate it, probably more than we do, but they also desire to go out into the world, see strange places and talk to strange people coming back and saying things like “The people were so welcoming…so thankful y’know? We really learned a lot.” Maybe heaven will just be one big mission trip with a really huge bus that everyone can come on. A place where we can all be together without any economic divisions or empty stomachs to distract us from enjoying one another. More importantly, Jesus, the Mediator will be there, and I have a feeling he’ll pull that cool trick he did on Pentecost with the fire and the different languages, bringing us together using our God-given diversity. Can’t wait.