After 5 weeks of egg and chips for breakfast (standard breakfast in Malawian motels!) it was good to be back to muesli and fruit juice yesterday morning! We returned to our home in Blantyre on Monday evening after 5 weeks of living out of a suitcase and moving from one motel to another. The biggest shock has been the weather. Our last stop was Dwangwa, by the lake-shore, where we enjoyed temperatures in the high 20s, with the accompanying mosquito bites. But we have returned to Blantyre’s cold season – 17 degrees which seems very chilly now we are fully acclimatised to Malawi weather. So we have put on a few extra layers of clothing– but we are glad to escape the mosquitoes.
Since our last blog, we completed our most northerly training at Karonga, and then at Matiki ZEC situated on a huge sugar plantation at Dwangwa. The by then familiar pattern was to arrive a few days early, and spend those days visiting the nearby churches and prayer-houses who had been invited to the training, to brief the pastors, to encourage the people to attend, and to check necessary preparations were under way. We became increasingly aware of the challenges for people in the Northern region. The ZEC churches are few and far between, and although the desire was there – sometimes the money for transport was not – and many could not make the distance to the centre for training.
However, those who did attend Myles’s 2-day “Preach the Word” course for preachers and teachers, and Ruth’s 1-day Sunday School teacher training, seemed to have really benefited from the coaching: “We never knew this is what it meant to preach” said one elder. We trust and pray that they will put into practice what they learnt, and certainly the pastors appeared keen to continue coaching their preachers in the use of the tools that had been learned.
Myles was particularly impressed by the potential of the women at his seminar, many of whom were primary or middle school teachers by profession. They generally turned out in greater numbers than the men, appeared very committed, and often appeared better equipped to learn – even continuing to take notes while breast feeding a hungry toddler. He was also grateful to the pastors and church planters who so openly described the opportunities and challenges of their task, especially when many of the pastors are from a southern, Chewa culture but are working where there can be as many as 20 local languages/cultures. Certainly a first for Myles in his 20+ years of church ministry was being invited by one pastor to lead his church through the bible’s teaching on polygamy – still a real practical church issue in the north.
However, it was not all work and between Karonga and Dwangwa we once again stopped for a rest day and had a relaxing couple of nights at Butterfly Space in Nkata Bay where we considerably raised the average age of the residents at this trendy backpacker’s lodge! Myles considers this port a Malawi version of Oban: hemmed in on all sides by steep hills, a major fishing port, a ferry port sending small boats along the coast where there are no roads, and a major stopping point for the famous Ilala before it heads off to the island of Likomo off the coast of Mozambique. It also gave Myles his ‘Time Team’ fix as he puzzled out from his history books where the original 1870’s buildings of the African Lakes Corporation buildings would be located – the company that did so much to open up Malawi for mission, trade and exploitation.
We can now look back and say that it has been of huge benefit to spend this time in the north and get to know people and places that have hitherto just been names to us. The welcome and hospitality of people who have very little has been humbling. On one afternoon (thankfully it was exceptional) we were given a total of three ‘main meals’. First of all it was nsima and relish at the pastor’s house we were visiting; 2 hours later an old college friend of our travel companion, Gift, insisted on treating us to chicken and chips at a nearby restaurant; and 2 hours later, returning to base and dropping the host pastor back to his home, his wife was ready with more nsima and relish for us! We did not need any motel food that night! At another church, we insisted we could not stay for lunch because we had many miles to travel that day – so instead of cooking the chicken for themselves, they gave us the live chicken to take with us!
We were fascinated by the difference in the countryside and agriculture as we travelled. In the mountains, tobacco is about the only thing that grows well, and the thatched shacks where they dry the tobacco leaves and big bundles at the roadside awaiting transportation were a frequent sight. North of Karonga, the flat land by the lake-shore is a major rice producing area, and we thought we had stepped back to Bible times, as we watched the rice being threshed by banging it against a rock. We drove through rubber plantations, and it was our first time to see trees with little cups attached to catch the sap – we’ve only ever seen that on TV. And staying on the massive sugar plantation (with its own airport) , with its advanced irrigation system, and huge mechanized factory, we were amazed to learn that the planting and harvesting (of maybe 90 square km) is still done purely by hand! The whole place smelled of molasses (which are regularly sprayed on the extensive dirt road network to create a firmer surface for the heavy machinery) and sounded like an airport (from the turbine at the sugar factory) so it was quite a contrast to sleepy Livingstonia in our last post!
All in all we travelled a total of 3821km on our tour, and been blessed by safe travel (only one puncture at Livingstonia) and security (despite Myles leaving the keys on the outside of the lodge door one night). However, we truly recognise that, while we might be the people “on the ground” all of this has only been possible because of you, our partners in ministry. Some of you gave financially to make all this travel possible, others gave to provide the 246 subsidised bibles we distributed, and we know that many of you have been praying for us daily and sending us messages of encouragement.
Even more, we recognise that we are not in any way the heroes in all this.The real heroes are the many courageous and faithful pastors, church planters, church leaders, members, youth and children who we have met, taught, learned from, and had fellowship with. People determined – despite all the challenges – to become ever better equipped; that Christ might revive their church as a force for the Gospel in a culture assailed by false teaching from within and outside the Christian Church; that Malawi might flourish spiritually as well as economically and become the bountiful garden that Christ – the ultimate hero – would have it be.
North Malawi: we will be back!