Last Tuesday we set off on our most recent aid trip, this time to an area on the east side of the Shire River where the road had just been declared open by the roads authority. It turned out that “open” was a loose term! It ended up a gruelling, kidney jolting, 3 hr/60 km drive from where we left the tarmac at Kanjedza on the M1 to our destination at the little settlement of Muona, and its Zambesi Evangelical Church.
I travelled with Rose Chirwa (ZM Project Officer), Simon Chikwana (Malawi Director) and Duncan Chitsulo (a leader in the ZEC Southern Region). However on the trip out Duncan and Simon were an hour ahead of us, so Rose and I were on our own 😦
Why not have a look at the village on Google Maps here and zoom out to look at our route. Just don’t be fooled by the thick yellow line marking the S150 into thinking we are talking ‘road’. Even at its best it is a narrow dirt track, and after the floods it turned out that every bridge had been washed away from when we crossed the Shire. So progress meant fording rocky dry riverbeds or fast flowing streams coming down off the mountains to join the Shire.
A rough road and tight schedule left little time for photography but the shot at the top of this post gives some indication of what we were up against. This ‘moon scape’ is a broad river bed that I was later told was completely new after the floods. The threatening thunder clouds over the mountains did not bode well for our return trip!
We also had to contend with roads that just disappeared in front of your eyes where earlier in the year storm rains had cut four or five feet deep fissures ready to make a fool of an unsuspecting ‘azungu’ in a 4×4. Several times I was very glad of Rose’s sharp eyesight when she shouted “Not that way Myles!” 😉
Perhaps we should have taken note of the fact that the only other traffic on the road were big giant Land Cruisers with air-conditioned NGO workers smiling down at us because the biggest challenge was yet to come. At the next river crossing we found that the river bed had been widened to several 100 meters and (I was later told) its rock saturated flood waters had swept away a thriving village just where we were crossing.
We were thankful for the welcoming committee of local young men who – for a fee – walked us through the boulder field and across the only fording point where the water crept up to their knees. I was relieved when we crossed and eventually got to our destination.
The people of Muona gave us a great welcome and eagerly crowded into the church building to be swiftly given their gifts of maize, beans, salt and soap in what has become a well oiled process for us now.
However I have discovered that my greatest pleasure is to step back a little – when time allows – and take time to play with the children, talk with the villagers, and watch how normal things go on. We certainly learn a lot about the culture we are now part of, and the stalwart faith of so many in the face of such adversity. And we hope that in this way we can also show that we azungu are nothing very special; just fellow humans on the same challenging journey through life, and representing a multitude of faithful ZM supporters back in the UK who – as all disciples are called to – want to show their practical love to their neighbour in their time of need.
But the day was not over and as darkness fell we said our quick goodbyes and headed back along the dirt road in the pitch black. Rain had fallen on the higher ground and after only a few hours of rain we got just a taste of the terror our friends here must have felt during the floods as the river levels rose and tried to cut off our return home. I was thankful this time to be able to follow Simon’s tail lights even when his trustworthy judgement temporarily failed him and he tried to launch us off a broken bridge into a deep gully 🙂
And of course the biggest of the rivers was still to be crossed, and had risen another few feet due to the afternoon rains. As we stopped to talk with our guides – now wading through fast flowing waters coming well up their thighs – we realised we had forgotten to bring the spanner to manually set Simon’s older truck to four-wheel drive! But, never one to be detered, a quick bit of ‘Simon Chichewa charm’ brought the desired loan of a wheel wrench and we were off. And I must say I was very grateful of my afternoon’s off-road 4×4 training in Surrey as we plunged into the water and the bow wave swept up over the headlights!
Only an hour or so later and we were back at Kanjedza trading centre and the tarmac, standing by our faithful old Nissan trucks with bottles of coke and a handful of dry bread. Between the shared stories of near misses we were all quietly thanking God for our safety and for his bountiful provision through the supporters of ZM to the people of Muona.
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We have intentionally not posted too much about our various trips to distribute gifts to the people impacted by the floods. We did not want to get repetitive and boring and the trips have been well covered in the various ZM flood relief bulletins (contact the York office via the ZM website if you want to sign up to receive them). It is probably enough to say that it has been a challenging, tiring, but rewarding time for Ruth and me. However it is also a time that has really helped us to understand the challenges and strengths of this country, and grafted us into the ZM team here in Malawi through our common physical effort. It has certainly also brought us face-to-face with the realities of life for the majority of this country in a way that the agenda driven and carefully framed pictures on our TV screens never can.