We are discovering that Malawians have a very different concept of distances than we have, and often places are a lot further than they give us to understand. “You’re nearly there” seems to be the standard reply whenever you ask “How far is it to the trading centre?” – when in reality you may still have 30km to go!
This caught Ruth out on her recent trip with her CFCM colleagues to conduct training and visit Bible Clubs in a rural location beyond Ntaja, with the end result that Ruth knew she would run out of petrol if she made another journey to the only place that had a guest house. So Ruth had her first experience of a night “in the village”, staying in the tiny mud-brick house of the school teacher who faithfully runs Bible clubs for children and who had organized the seminar so that others could be equipped to reach out to the children of this strongly Muslim area. The poverty and simplicity of the lives of this man and his family made their hospitality all the more remarkable and humbling.
The mud-brick grass-roofed house was approximately 3mx4m, divided into two rooms, and normally sleeps 3 adults and 3 children – and the family chickens! There was no electricity or running water; the “bathroom” was some distance from the house and constructed with reed walls about 1.5m high; the kitchen was the front doorstep; and the only pieces of furniture were 2 plastic chairs (possibly borrowed for the occasion) and a little wooden stool. Everyone slept on reed mats on the mud floor – but when our emergency arose, they kindly asked around and borrowed from the local headmaster a mattress for the “azungu” (white person). This month is pleasantly warm during the day, but very cold at night, and they insisted on Ruth having their best blanket (a mixed blessing, as it turned out to have “occupants”!).
The evening meal was rice, the staple crop in this area of Malawi, and a paste made from ground-nuts for protein. They ate by candlelight since it is dark by 6pm. Ruth was struck by the quietness of the countryside, and the stunning beauty of such a starry sky. After one last trip up the garden path to use the “facilities”, all were in bed by 8pm since there’s not much else to do at night.
The family was up before 5.30am – the wife to go and get water from the well, and the school master to go and buy chickens for the training seminar lunch. It was at this time that Ruth realized the family chickens had been in the house with them all night – they were suddenly all at the door, a few feet from Ruth’s head, asking to get out! The eldest son, aged about 7, was sweeping the front of the house – they kept everything so clean and tidy. After his mother heated water for washing and cooking, everyone had a turn in the bathroom with a clean bucket of warm water to bathe in. Meanwhile the grandmother returned from the fields with a load of freshly dug sweet potatoes for breakfast (for the visitors’ breakfast, that is – the family ate the left-over rice from the previous evening).
While the sweet potatoes cooked, the chickens for lunch were slaughtered (thankfully out of Ruth’s sight) and dunked in a basin of hot water for plucking. Elevate, dressed in her best dress for the seminar, helpfully got stuck in! Those who know Ruth well will not be surprised that she did not help, and may be slightly surprised that she still sat there and watched – at a safe distance!
This was not the night Ruth had been expecting, but it turned out to be an unscheduled insight into how 90% of Malawians live. Even in Blantyre we are enjoying relative luxury, and take so much for granted. It was a powerful lesson to those of us who have so much and cling on to it, from those who have so little but who are still willing to share what they have and show hospitality.
1 Peter 4:9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling