I realized as I was talking with friends tonight about our time in Malawi that there are so many stories from that life that have shaped who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do, and I have not shared too many of them. They felt personal and overwhelming sometimes. And the fact that we are not going back to Malawi, but rather to South Sudan made me decide not to share much about the “previous” life. But tonight I remembered some of the reasons why we are continuing on this path, and since we have had a lot of questions like, “Why Africa, don’t we have problems here?” I decided it was time to share.
While we were in Malawi we became dear friends with the pastors that we worked with and their families. There were a few of the wives that I particularly got to know and love, and they were a buffer for me in this new, crazy culture that I had no experience with. They helped me communicate, understand when to speak and when to accept, and know what my role was expected to be in most situations. Though my Chichewa was almost nonexistent (save for a few songs and greetings) and their English was rough at best, we made a friendship of sorts.
One of these women had a baby while we were there. I had walked alongside her as she had bleeding and problems in the pregnancy. I learned how the Malawians viewed such problems, and took issue with the solutions enough times to step in and take her to a real doctor. But overall it seemed like things were going well. When the baby was born 5 weeks early, we worried, but relaxed as he seemed to be tiny but healthy.
When we spent Superbowl Sunday at a friend’s house and stayed up to watch the game live, eat chili, and drink soda at 3 am, we were already awake when the call came to us that the baby had died. No explanation. Oh, and the mom was hemorrhaging – which was apparently a totally separate issue.
As we left our kids with our missionary friends and went to the hospital we were in shock. We had no idea what had happened, we just knew (because we were told) that I needed to help the women in the family collect the baby and bury him and Shawn needed to be with the father. The mom was not able to leave because she was recovering from sever blood loss, and the father was not allowed to come because it was not culturally appropriate. We were told that because the baby was only 5 days old, the father (or any male) would not attend the funeral. In fact, there would not even be a coffin because they did not make them for babies that young because so many died.
We arrived, I checked on the mom, and then we gathered this tiny little bundle in our arms and filled three vehicles with women from the family to go to find a place to bury him. When we got to the cemetery, my role was to talk with the guard, persuade him to find us a plot, and then pay him. (Later I realized that this really was culturally appropriate as the “boss” of the father, though not an absolute. At any rate, it was a few thousand kwacha as long as we did most of the digging, and I consider it one of those times that even if I got taken advantage of, it was ok.) The guard started the grave, then the women took turns finishing it.
The thing you remember at times like that are strange. There was line of ants going by. You know, one of those long lines that you don’t want to step in the middle of because you will be swarmed and bitten. We carefully avoided it. I noticed that the women had many kitenges, or the pretty cloth wraps that they tied around their waists and used for everything from tying babies to their backs to laying on the ground for a rest in the shade. I also had one on that day, since we had come from our friend’s superbowl party and I was not feeling as appropriately dressed as I wanted to be. The sky was blue and the the guards were standing back respectfully, yet not having a lot of emotion. Actually, the whole scene was emotionless – not at all what you expect from an African funeral. But then again, this was just a baby.
The grave was dug about 3-4 feet deep, then another foot or two under the solid ground so that the body could be placed in a cave like area where animals could not dig it up easily. The women started taking off the extra kitenges they had worn and handed them to the person holding the baby. It became clear to me that they were wrapping this tiny little body in a soft bundle of bright, beautiful cloth. The contradiction was absurd to me in my state of shock. I also took mine off and realized that my last minute grab of this cloth was a gift from God, as the women rewarded me with sad smiles. Then the grandmother herself climbed in and placed her grandson into the hole. I had to keep reminding myself that this was her grandson, a real baby boy, a child. The whole scene was too much for me to process. After a few handful of dirt were thrown in and I was asked to pray (which I had to do in English, and was thankful that most people could not understand because I have never felt more at a loss for words) the guards came and finished filling it in.
Grandma cried for the first time at that point. It was a silent cry, but as I reached out and held her hand tears came freely for both of us. We walked back to the cars and went to the hospital. The women were abnormally silent, and it grated on my nerves. I had never gone anywhere in Malawi with a group of women where there was silence! There were songs for every occasion – weddings, engagements, birthdays, special feasts, bible studies – even riding in a car together! Yet there was no song for his baby and his family, no outpouring of grief. In some ways I longed for the typical wails and ululations that one expected from this culture.
A few days later the mother still had not been released because her paperwork had gotten lost. The parents had been told that the reason for their baby’s death was that while the mother was in surgery the nurses had tried to feed the child. He had thrown up and was left by himself and suffocated. That’s what we were told. The truth is, everything in these situations becomes so blurry and the communication is so bad that we may never know what really happened. We don’t even know what surgery the mother had, since her paperwork was lost – though to my knowledge she has not had another child. Now the hospital would not release her, and she was stuck in a room with 7 other mothers who were in various stages of labor and delivery. She had text me earlier in the day to say that her eyes were swollen shut from grief, even though she “knew” she should not be so upset because he “became late” – it happened all the time.
I didn’t often use my status as a white person to my advantage in Malawi – we usually attracted enough attention wherever we went without trying. However that day I marched into the office, demanded her charts (which they suddenly and miraculously found-though they were not complete), threw some money on the table, got a “paid in full receipt,” and took her home. This was torture. This was unthinkable to me in my western mind. Yet this was not the only baby that “became late” while I was there. And this was not the last time I dealt with corrupt people in places of influence, or the hopelessness of the common people who accepted that this was their plight.
My experience may be different from other people’s in Africa – even in Malawi. We were basically on our own there – learning in the day by day and making a lot of mistakes in the process. I have realized that our experiences were often different from other missionaries. That was one of the the biggest draws we had to World Harvest Mission and their amazing team mentality, because we didn’t want to do this alone again. But whether it is different or not, it is still real – it is still my experience. And it is a very tangible, raw thing that made my heart African. It is one of those things that made me know I had to be there. South Sudan is very different from Malawi in many ways. However, there is a saying I have heard ex-pats all over the continent say: “This is Africa.” Some things are the same all over. Read my teammates blogs (on the side of this page) or the Myhre’s blog about being doctors in Uganda. The things that people on this continent face, accept as normal, and deal with each day are things that should shock us.
I have been given much indeed. If you are reading this, then you have too – even if (like me) you do not always feel that way. We have been blessed in ways that really make no sense to me when I compare it to so many people in other countries. And this is just one of my answers to “Why Africa.”