I confess, I love Africa. I have no idea why this affection attached itself to Africa and not, say, the Amazon basin or Alaska or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But I have been interested in Africa since I was old enough to know what Africa is. Four years ago my wife Sharon and I accompanied a group from our church, Belmont United Methodist in Hillsboro Village, to Zimbabwe, where we worked at an orphanage and at Africa University.
It was a great trip, but one thing irritated me: people kept telling me that it was "The trip of a lifetime."
"No it isn't," I'd say. "I'm going back to Africa a lot of times."
So this June was Africa trip number two. When I stepped off the Air Malawi flight onto the tarmac in the capital city of Lilongwe, it hit my senses all at once: the washed-out but beautiful clear blue of the sky, the smells of unfamiliar flowers and wood smoke in the air, the intense colors of the women's skirts.
Twenty-four hours on a succession of planes had brought us from our beds in Nashville to a place where a great deal of the population still lives in huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Three weeks in off-the-beaten-track Africa seemed like an ideal way to get out of the rhythms of daily routine.
Malawi is a small, very poor, landlocked country in central Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. The life expectancy is 38 years, the HIV infection rate is about 25 percent, and per capita income shows Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Our group of Nashvillians had been invited by the United Methodist Church of Malawi to participate in the first Volunteers in Mission trip to that country.
There were 22 of us on this trip, again most from Nashville's Belmont United Methodist. Volunteers in Mission (VIM) is a program of the United Methodist Church that sends short-term volunteers all over the world to meet and work side-by-side with hosts from local, usually Third World, countries.
The leader and organizer of this trip was the Rev. Herb Mather, who has traveled there numerous times and, as he puts it, "The people of Malawi touched my heart."
It's easy to see that the feeling is mutual. Because of the affection with which Herb is held among Malawian Methodists, we were met at the airport by a group of Malawi church members who grabbed our bags, hugged us in welcome, and quickly formed a circle in the parking lot to sing to us, their loud clear voices lifting into the crisp air. (It is near the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and highs are in the 60s and lows in the 40s.) We spent the next day, Sunday, as honored guests in various rural churches, and then our 22 member team divided into three work groups, and the eight-member team Sharon and I were assigned to travel north to the town of Mzuzu.
More than a tourist
To travel by road in Malawi is to encounter periodic roadblocks staffed by boy-soldiers casually handling automatic weapons and languidly sweeping their eyes over each person in the vehicle. Why in the world it is necessary to have roadblocks every few miles is a mystery that even the Malawians with us couldn't really explain, but I never got used to seeing M-16s in the hands of young bored men.
The 300 miles from Lilongwe to Mzuzu passed through an arid land swathed in red dust, the kind of dust that creates a fine grit on your clothes, your face, your cameraeverything. Goats scamper out of the road as our bus rolls along, and seldom are we out of sight of people walking along the road, residents of villages off in the nearby bush.
David Jarvis, a Nashville physician and one of our team members, never got over how the electric wires that parallel the indifferently maintained two-lane highway pass right by village after village. On this road after dark there was the occasional glow of a kerosene lamp from inside a hut or people sitting around a fire outside. But electricity seems a far away dream for many people, even if the wires pass by within sight of the hut doorway.
Our nominal task for our days of work here is to repair a run-down parsonage occupied by the Methodist minister assigned to this area, the Rev. Copeland C. M. Nkhata and his family. This is, of course, ridiculous. There are plenty of Malawians who know perfectly well how to repair a porch ceiling, paint a house, or replace a hot water heater. We brought with us some money to buy supplies and two of our team members, Ray and Ruth Randolph, own and maintain real estate, so they have some relevant expertise, but basically the work is an excuse for usAmericans and Malawiansto work on a common task side-by-side, to get to know each other, and to have a sense of mutual accomplishment as our time together goes on.
Here's why I love VIM trips: the ability to see another society as something other than a tourist. You don't stop being an outsider, but neither are you only staying in hotels and eating in restaurants, interacting only with people who are paid to put up with you. We were frequently in the homes of Malawians, enjoying their hospitality, playing with their children, sitting around talking.
The dictator doctor from Meharry
Malawian who know the history of their country know of Nashville because the single figure who looms largest in Malawian post-colonial history is Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a Malawian who was educated in the United States and who received a medical degree from Nashville's Meharry Medical College in 1937.
Malawi was the former British colony of Nyasaland, and Banda ruled from independence in 1966 until the self-styled "president-for-life" was forced into an election and defeated in 1994.
Life under Banda turned into death under Banda for many of his political opponents. As Alexandra Fuller says in her memoir of growing up in Africa, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, "People who disagree with His Excellency, the President for Life and 'Chief of Chiefs', are frequently found to be the victims of car crashes (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets); or dead in their bed of heart attacks (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets); or the recipients of some not-quite-fresh seafood (their bodies mysteriously riddled with bullets)."
From a Meharry point of view, not exactly a distinguished alumnus.
Since Banda died in the mid-1990s, Malawi has struggled to move beyond his shadow. There have been a few elections and a couple of new presidents. The public dress codesunder Banda, women were forbidden by law to wear slacks, shorts, or short skirts, men were forbidden to have long hairare gone from the law books, but it is still unusual to see a woman wearing anything but a chitenja, a long piece of colorful cloth, wrapped around the hips and hanging to mid-calf length.
But I noticed within about a block of each other in one of the cities two billboards depicting modern, young Malawian women. In one case the product advertised was a cell phone service, the other was a credit cardmodern products being used by the woman of today. And both of the women on the billboards were wearing slacks. It is a measure of the distance Malawi has to travel that women wearing slacks is seen as a major symbol of the modern world.
Despite the ad for the credit card almost no stores in Malawi actually accept credit cards. To get a cash advance using a credit card is possible, but requires dropping the card off at one of the few banks in a city in the morning and then returning later, or the next day, to see if the money has become available. If Malawi isn't at the end of the worldwide economic grid, you can at least see the end from here.
Which isn't to say that there is no commerce. Even in the most rural outpost, there are cinderblock or brick stores, and the streets of the cities and the roadways between cities are dotted with open air markets selling produce, clothing, household goods and electronics. And Coca-Cola. God bless the folks in Atlanta, Coke is everywhere, and tastes especially good after a day riding down dusty roads in a hot bus.
But sometimes the modern world seems far away. One day we were holding a gathering for neighborhood children at the pastor's house in Mzuzu. A member of our group had brought a roll of stickers with Mickey Mouse on them in anticipation of such an occasion and along with snacks and drinks, we gave out little toys and these Mickey Mouse stickers. These were children ranging from about four to 11 or 12, and while they clearly enjoyed getting the stickers, it was equally clear they had no idea who Mickey Mouse was.
Television broadcasting came to Malawi for the first time in 1999.
"I'm not from here"
Malawi's tourist slogan touts it as "The warm heart of Africa." We were certainly made to feel welcome wherever we went. We were objects of curiosity because of our skin colornot many white people venture around the market stalls, hardware and grocery stores in Mzuzu, so we got accustomed to drawing stares everywhere we went. It was just curious attentionwe felt no hostility or unfriendliness in the stares, and it was kind of fun to have groups of children running alongside our bus yelling "mazungu," the local Chichewa language term for white people. As a white American, it was a useful reminder of what it feels like to be so obviously an outsider.
One day Sharon went with some other women to the open air produce market and went up to a table with little stacks of tomatoes. She began picking out which tomatoes she wanted to buy, and the women working the produce stand began exchanging glances. It turned out the tomatoes are priced by the stack, and Sharon was mixing up the system by picking tomatoes from different stacks. Finally, the produce stand workers began to laugh, and one of the women with Sharon explained that she was foiling the whole pricing arrangement at the produce stand. Embarrassed, Sharon offered a classic explanation: "I'm not from here," she said, extremely needlessly, to the women at the tomato stand.
Sharon's willingness to tackle the produce market resulted in some wonderful vegetable soup that night, prepared over the charcoal grill in the kitchen of the pastor's house, which, despite being a middle-class Malawian home, had no stove or refrigerator.
And later that night, we were seated in the living room of the parsonage discussing the day and what we had done and seen, Daisy, one of the local women who had helped with the dinner, said that it seemed like a dream to her that she would be in the kitchen working side-by-side with a white lady. The simple act of preparing dinner had been deeply meaningful in a way that we Americans didn't really understand.
We didn't spend all our time working. We took two side trips, one to the old mission town of Livingstonia, where we saw a thriving Presbyterian school that trains young Africans for careers in practical fields such as brickmaking, carpentry, and auto repair.
And we made a trip to the Vwaza National Park, where we saw hippos, elephants, and other animals. For the trip to Vwaza, we took as many of our Malawian friends as the bus would hold, packed a big picnic lunch for everybody and made a day of it.
We were surprised when several Malawians said this was the first time they had been to the park, or even seen an elephant. They live in a country with national parks brimming with wildlife, yet the average Malawian is too busy trying to eke out a living (and lacking in transportation) to actually go see the breathtaking sights in their own country.
On the way back, Bright Gondwe, one of the Malawins who worked alongside us at the parsonage all week, leaned over and told Jim Strickland, one of our team members, "I will always remember this day."
I want to always remember, too. I want to remember the incredible, awe-inspiring beauty we saw: the white sand beaches of Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world; the plunging escarpment from the mountains of Livingstonia into the southern Rift Valley, the place where we can all call home, because that's where human life began; the darkness of the African sky, with the stars of the Southern Cross hanging above the horizon.
And I don't want to forget the smiles and heartfelt hugs from people who were strangers, yet who welcomed us as family. I want to remember the thousand small kindnesses and the hospitality offered by people who by Western standards have little, yet cheerfully offer all they have.
Those contrasts: the beauty of the land and the poverty of most people; the lack of material goods and the warmth of the welcome, are what I remember most about Africa.
Zambia and the Cape
When the mission part of our trip was finished, we had two other stops: a lodge at game park in Zambia, where we were memorably awakened at 2 a.m. by the crunching and stomping of a hippo outside our bamboo hut; and Cape Town, South Africa.
Race was clearly a more nuanced matter in Cape Town than in Malawi. There, being white seemed to subtly put up a wall between us and non-whites, a not-surprising artifact of apartheid. The inn we had booked on the internet in Cape Town was in a white neighborhood, and we were constantly being warned to be wary of street crime. This is in marked contrast to Malawi, where we always felt safe and the only whites we saw for days were our traveling companions from Nashville.
Still, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with the Atlantic Ocean gleaming and the breathtaking Table Mountain dominating the skyline. We took a day tour of the Cape Peninsula, where we visited the Cape of Good Hope, took a ferry to a seal island, and stopped at a beach where we were close enough to penguins to walk up and touch them.
All of this was tourist Africa, not worse or better, but a different sort of thing from Malawi.
I'm already smiling remembering it all.
But this was not the trip of a lifetime; I'm already looking forward to going back.