In Malawi, I often don’t know what day of the week it is and I’d normally be hard pressed to say what month it is, but its November, birthday time, not the best time if you want to avoid the spiraling numbers. Dawn is just breaking, its about 5am and I’m rolling out of bed, wondering if there’ll be any water for a shower, it’s too late for God to intervene, so I just hope. Sometimes there’s a dribble, sometimes none, sometimes cold, but TIA and I’m at 1450m above sea level, and the pressure is off and feeling OK. Wash teeth from a bottle, spray on factor 30, not forgetting the bit on my head, put on my 4 year old clothes and boots and I’m ready. Porridge, tea, and maybe a bit of bread. It’s now well before 6 and I’m ready.
Now we have a 250 mile trip, North to Karonga on the Tanzanian border. Because of my age I get to drive the 8 year old Mitsubishi pick up, instead of a 12 year old ex Irish Army Nissan, with seats for nine, the fuel consumption of a tank and comfort to match, but it was free and it certainly works. Comfort was never a prerequisite of my coming to Malawi, and driving there compares favorably to driving a Ford tractor, mowing small fields in West Roscommon, avoiding rocks and drains and trying to avoid the panic of getting meadow cut on a dry day in the 60’s, all the while getting paid one pound an acre.
So I am behind the wheel of a 4×4 loaded with workers front and back and headed off into the total unknown of Malawian bush to install pumps in remote villages. Chances are I’ll return, but when, I don’t know. I do know it will be hot, very hot, up to 45 degrees as it happened, but not humid, I won’t burn, I have great help, but driving conditions could be anything. I have two bottles of coke, two bottles of water and bananas. There’s a chance of nsima, beans and pumpkin leaves. What more does a body need? Oh! Why was I driving because, the police had William’s driving license again (no reversing lights this time) and Harisen pulled the short straw, and had the Nissan. I should be thinking; what age do you think you are, or what are you doing here or many more fairly logical questions, but I do realize that if I declare diminished capacity, then I’m OK. Mad people escape the inquisition of the sensible, reasonable, logical and calculating.
Anyway the trip to Karonga was breath taking, like mountain top, panoramic views of the lake, twisting roads with hundreds of feet of sheer drop either side, wow landscapes, sometimes lakeside communities, boys selling mice on a stick, and then another wonderful community called Every Home for Christ. They brought us to villages never meant to be accessed by mechanized transport, up some tricky tracks with dodgy bridges, to get out and walk places, dried river bed roads, to people who just hadn’t seen white people or red hair or blue eyes or people 64 years old, to people who sang and danced and prayed when they got their well. We went on and on, through valleys with no vegetation, mud huts and hidden lives, over bare rock and scary ledges, always seeing the beauty of the mountains of Tanzania looming closer. What a day, what an experience, there is a God, who left the beauty of a landscape but maybe someone needs to remind him about the people; maybe He sent us!!, Maybe that was a plan but if that’s it, it wasn’t much of a plan!
So why return, time after time, to this, at least, unusual existence?Well, there is certainly something to be said for bringing clean drinking water to remote Malawian villages crippled by waterborne diseases, like cholera and typhoid and maybe the biggest child killer diarrhea as well as water related diseases like malaria. It is almost unbelievable that so many lives are saved by something, so simple, as a pump and well that costs one euro to give a person clean water.
Water is the big picture, but we get to do so many others, less dramatic things, like irrigation, seeds, seedlings, education and generally meeting the needs of the people we serve. We say its inspiration, education and challenge and my God how all of these work. I feel inspiration is seriously under rated, but without it there’s nothing. I refuse to be a delivery boy of aid. Go there, give out the goodies and never be seen again, does nothing, achieves nothing and is a total waste of time: of course it may do a lot for a donor’s ego, but ego was never part of our plan. (If we ever had a plan!)
But it is more personal than that. There is so much to be learned from amazing women and so much to be gained from working with people on the most perilous edge of humanity. The whole process of teaching and learning is exhilarating and uplifting, but sometimes it’s annoying, exasperating, devastating, but never bland or boring.
I go there because I know I can help. I go to be with Malawian people themselves. Journeying with amazingly warm hearted, cheerful, hard-working people in their villages, feeling their pain, providing opportunities, coming up with new ideas and sometimes also being told Ah no John, when they feel something just wouldn’t work, meeting and spending time with them, on their terms, in their homes and with their families, sharing meals with them, even though its always that awful nsima!. There are volumes of life-lessons to be learned: patience, perseverance, hope, gratitude, dignity, joy, simplicity, hospitality and humour. They are the salt of the earth, Gods own people, but that doesn’t protect them from a rant, from me, now and again.
And then of course there are the miracles, sacramental moments and awe.
There’s three acres of rock hard ground in Luwinga. On Aug 1 2009 a group of Irish students, from Blackrock College teamed up with our building crew to begin digging foundations for a pump factory. It looked like the impossible. Everything was carried and mixed by hand. But, still by November 6, the 4000 sq foot building was opened by the Irish Ambassador to Malawi.
At Easter 2008, ten DIT students, arrived in the remote rural village of Luvuwu, by the time they left 2 weeks later a 3 classroom school was ready for occupation. Like the story of the loaves and fishes, the community spirit of generosity was unleashed.
Like a volunteer sitting on the ground with a group of 4 year olds writing their figures with little sticks, or paper aeroplanes or bubbles or snakes and ladders or music or reading, wonder and awe at the Lord’s presence.
Like Jen clapping as she reads a new page of a 6 year old’s book.
Like being asked to hold and name, an hour old baby girl, in the birthing centre.
Like looking at Binna’s seedlings, budding and grafting; a whole miracle in itself considering that he suffered a serious mental health problem, went to SJOG services and is now (and always was) a genius with plants.
And then there’s a whole range of people finding their feet and voice, beginning to realize their potential, having received the slightest of a jump start.
Malawi is not all pretty, there’s corruption, abuse, aids, infertile soil, lack of education all mixed up with culture and tradition, but on the upside there’s inspirational and endearing women who with a little help can rescue it from all its ills. Maybe that’s another good reason to be there.
Imagine driving a truck loaded with pipes, pumps parts and workers over rocky rutted roads, through a treeless barren, bone dry landscape. Imagine what it feels like to hike with villagers up and down hills, passing their little houses, over parched earth to reach well site. Of course you’re wrecked, hot, dirty, with your brains and ass rattled like never before, but you are certainly alive.
The intensity of the experience, the work, the concentration, the heat and the exhaustion is pushing you to the limit. But then you dance and sing and laugh with women celebrating the first clean water they have ever had in their village. And you watch the magical scene of children rushing to cup their hands under the sparkling liquid spurting from the pump and it’s impossible to leave that village without a complete replenishment of your physical and spiritual energies.
So, simply put, I go to help, but I also go to be lifted, to feed my soul, whatever that is, with work, sometimes laughter and tears, but with a purpose. The experience is a clear reminder that we are indeed all one, all part of the same creation, all put here to help and love one other. It transcends language, culture, religion and skin color, awakening the spirit of each of us.
We eventually worked till dark and then had to negotiate our way through a still, black countryside, without roads, road signs, electric lights or guides. It looked bad when we got stuck in a deep hole of sand in a river bed. Then there was the relief of suddenly finding the tar road. The drive to Mzuzu was still and calm and the sky of stars was another beauty to behold.
Home just after midnight: bed, sleep and then ponder the next potentially glorious day.
When I ask Br Aidan what his day was like, he always answers every day is a good day, and in Malawi it certainly is.