During the summer of 1997 I spent two months in Africa, and it was two of the best months of my life, and since going I’ll never be quite the same again. I’d like to share a bit about what I experienced, although these web pages will never be as good as actually being there yourself. I haven’t finished these pages yet – perhaps I never will. But here’s an attempt at writing about what happened. (I’ve also put a whole stack of photos online as well).
I was in a team of seven, five of whom are at Warwick University, myself who has just graduated and the team leader who graduated a few years ago. We were sent out by REAP to work with a church in the town of Nsanje in the very south of Malawi, to renovate some buildings and to work in the local churches.
Starting the project
We went out at the end of July, going via Amsterdam and Nairobi and ending up at Blantyre. We were picked up by Paul Miles, another ex-Warwick student, who is now a missionary in Mozambique, and Rod Hein and Rogers (more about them later), and were taken back to the home of Wik and Sue, who are missionaries in Blantyre.
As we were driven there in the back of a Toyota pickup, we gazed out of the windows at the surroundings. I was hit by how different everything was from back home. This was the first time I’d been outside the UK, so I’d never seen anything quite like this before except on the TV. The countryside was really beautiful in an sparse, arid kind of way, which contrasted with the poverty we could see in the people living along the road.
After we’d spent the night at Wik and Sue’s we were driven the 150km down to Nsanje. The roads started off nice enough, although once we were out of Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city, the roads soon deteriorated, and we soon left the last tarmac we’d see for six weeks, to drive the rest of the way on mud tracks.
We stopped a few times on the way, to pick up things such as bread and drinks. While we were stationary, children would come up to the van and wave stinking dried fish in our faces, hoping we would buy some. Other children would simply wave their hands in our faces and shout ‘Give me money!’. None of it seemed quite real, – it was as if we were sealed in a glass box looking out on a different world.
When we arrived at the mission house in Nsanje, we were immediately whisked off to a local church building from which we had to remove the tin roof so that it could be transferred to another church, 70km away. Many of the local children gathered to watch these strange asungus (white people) clambering about on the roof of the church. To begin with the children were very shy, and would run away if we went anywhere near them, but after a while we managed to gain their trust enough for them to come and play games with us.
Thrown in at the deep end
That night after dinner, Rod Hein told us what we’d be doing the next day. “Simon and James will be going to a village up the mountains. James will preach on Saturday night and Simon will preach on Sunday morning.”
The next day, while the others continued taking the roof off the church, I was stressing about having to preach. I’d never even spoken in front of more than about ten people before, never mind preaching to a whole church of African’s, using an interpreter!
In the afternoon we set off on the long trek up the mountain. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon when the pickup pulled over at the side of the dirt track and we climbed out, the sun still high in the sky beating down on us as we slung our rucksacks on our backs and set off across the African bush towards the mountains.
Our guide and Pastor Kennedy, our translator, strode off in front of us along a small beaten track. The vegetation was sparse and the ground was dusty, and it looked like a long way to the mountain.
We passed a village where women were busily pumping water. Kennedy and our guide exchanged greetings with them before we hurred on across the bush, following a seemingly mazelike set of tracks, all identical, and yet the guide always knew which way to go.
With only a little water each, Simon and I tried not to get too thirsty, a difficult task when you’re walking across the middle of Africa. We crossed a couple of streams, although we didn’t have to worry about getting wet as they were both stone dry and just as dusty as the rest of the land.
Then, after about an hour we suddenly came to the edge of the mountain. The change was astounding, as we left a dry plain scattered with small bushes as low wide trees, to enter a rugged landscape covered with dense green foliage and tall green trees and palms. There was a stream nearby, and the sight of the clear water rushing over the rocky stream bed made us start to feel refreshed already.
At one point as we walked along a narrow path on the mountainside there was a gap in the trees, and we could see the stream fifty feet below us in a lush green vally, gushing over little waterfalls. Futher away we cold see the brown plain of the Shire valley stretching away into the distance, where we had trekked earlier. Around us in the trees we could hear the sound of birds calling to each other and the never ending hum of crickets in the undergrowth.
The path started to get more difficult from this point, as it became steeper and we sometimes had to clamber up a metre or two of rocks to reach the path again. The path kept swapping from side to side of the stream, so we had to keep skipping across stepping stones in the stream, taking care to watch which stones our guide stepped on to avoid falling in.
As we continued in our trek up the mountain, we’d pass groups of people coming down the mountain. ‘Mulibwanje’ they said and shook our hands, as we smiled back, unable to communicate. Women were walking along the path with baskets of bananas, papaus and casava root on their heads, and with babies in a blanket on their backs.
Every so often we’d come across a clearing with a village in it – usually a collection of five or six mud houses with grass roofs, although occasionally there would be a brick house with a tin roof. Sometimes we’d march on past, sometimes we’d stop to shake hands with the men, and feel out of place again.
After another hour or so I was starting to feel quite tired. I was almost out of water, but it didn’t look like we were any nearer to the top of the mountain. I kept telling myself that maybe it would be the next village, but time and again, instead of stopping at a village we’d just carry on past it. By this time we had left the stream, so there was no chance of getting any more water. Even if we had been able to refill our bottles, it would have been an hour before the purification tablets had done their work.
I started to walk slower, as I was running out of energy. Kennedy dropped back too, but the others carried on ahead of us. We were walking along a path between walls of grass that was about seven or eight feet tall. On the ground I could see some banana skins. I’d never liked bananas before, but I really wished that I had some to eat then. As we emerged from the grass onto a road I sat down on the ground, unable to walk a step further.
Simon gave me about half a packet of Lucozade sweets and prayed for me, and then I was able to carry on. We walked along an road for about half an hour – unmetalled of course. We wouldn’t see another metalled road for six weeks – when we returned to Blantyre to start travelling. Where we were, on the road, we were in Malawi. If we stepped off the road to the right, we would be in Mozambique. Eventually we left the road and walked down a few hundred yards into the village. There were about five or ten houses there, scattered around the valley.
It had taken three and a half hours, but we had finally reached the village. We were taken into a pitch black mud hut along with some other African guys, who sang a song and then prayed very loudly in their language for a minute or two. Then we were led back out again, and Simon and I sat on little wooden chairs in front of the house for an hour or so, ‘being men’, while the women and children were busy cooking.
Kennedy our translator eventually took us inside, where we were given tea to drink (the most sugary tea I’d every tasted) and bananas to eat, after which we were transferred to another hut where we were given dinner – chicken and nsima (thick white stuff made from maize flour). We talked to Kennedy for a while, and then it was time to preach.
We walked outside the hut where we found the church had gathered and were singing, dancing, clapping and playing shakers and a drum, in what would have been pitch dark had it not been for the bonfire in the middle.
After a while, we realised that everyone was getting down on their knees. Kennedy turned to us and said “Now it is time to pray” – so we copied everyone else. Various prayers were said in Chichewa, and then everyone got up again. We again copied them, not wanting to look out of place or to offend them. After the worshipping was over, the pastor got up and started speaking. We had no idea what was going on, until Kennedy turned to us and said “You will now preach”. Uh oh!
I stood up and switched on my maglite to read my notes. I blurted out a few sentences, and Kennedy translated. I don’t think I said anything life changing. But at least it was dark so I couldn’t see who I was talking to.
After the service we were taken back into the house where we had eaten dinner. We set out our sleeping bags at one side of the room and proceeded to try to go to sleep. We found this quite difficult though, as the whole church decided to carry on singing and playing their drum right outside out house until about four in the morning. Fortunately, in my first year at University my hall had been right next to the Students’ Union, so I was quite used to the noise. Simon had more difficulty dropping off. We later discovered that they were in fact showing us that they appreciated us being there and were trying to be nice!
The next day, after we had been up for a while, Pastor Kennedy came in and told us it was time to bathe. Simon went first. Then it was my turn. I picked up my wash kit and followed Kennedy outside. He showed me to a small grass walled enclosure which we had seen them building the previous day. I went in, and there was a bucket of warm water and a rounded stone sitting there. The whole area smelt rather worryingly of public toilets. I didn’t quite know what I was expected to do, so I washed my face, splashed the water a bit to make it sound as if I was doing something and then returned to the hut after five minutes or so.
Breakfast was nsima porridge. This tasted pretty much the same as the nsima we had had the previous day – except that it was runny instead of thick. Then it was back outside to preach.
This time the church was meeting under a canopy made from branches. We sat on chairs at one side of the canopy, while everyone else sat on the floor under it. After much dancing and singing and suchlike, it was again time to preach. We stood up, and realised that the canopy was just a tad lower than our eyes. So we preached over the canopy while the church sat under it. At least the translator could see under it.
To be continued… (one day, perhaps?)