Everyone was tired as we piled into the Landcruiser for our drive to the Blantyre Airport on Wednesday morning for the team’s flight to South Africa. Liz always packs a lot into the friendship trips and our team was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. The last minute change of plans hadn’t helped the team get any more rest either. The original plan had called for the team to spend Tuesday night in Blantyre after leaving Liwonde National Park, so that they could get a full night’s rest and make their leisurely way to the airport after a late breakfast. However, the team hadn’t been satisfied with the idea of leaving Malawi like this, departing quietly like strangers in the night. At our last meeting before heading out on safari the team had asked that the plan be changed. They wanted to return to Zomba on Tuesday night so that they could take the VIP Malawian staff out to a “Thank You” dinner and give them all tokens of their gratitude and friendship. This was the first time that a friendship team had ever asked to do this, and knowing how hard the Malawian VIP staff works to make every friendship trip a success, Liz immediately agreed to the change and told the team how much the staff would appreciate it. And so we had met the staff at N’amangazi Farm on Tuesday night, and after giving a giving a short thank you speech and personalized gift bag to every VIP Senior staff member and our three translators, we headed off together one last time for a dinner under the stars.
We met at a restaurant called Dominoes, located right next to the sprawling grounds of the Presidential Palace, which had served as the primary residence of Malawi’s leader, until the capital was moved to Lilongwe. Dominoes had prepared a large buffet for us on the lawn where they usually held wedding receptions, with traditional Malawian stalwart’s chicken, rice and of course, nsima. For those of us whose stomachs were feeling homesick the chef had even prepared some Malawian attempts at personal pizzas. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling Sydney to try the pizza before sampling it myself, and I’m afraid that the Malawian version of it has turned him off pizza for good. Notwithstanding the pizza, we shared a wonderful last night together, laughing, telling stories, and making plans for the next time we met. One of the more interesting conversations involved the bizarre foods that are particular to Malawi and the West. On the main road connecting Zomba to Blantyre the team had seen several young boys selling mice on a stick. They couldn’t resist asking some of our Malawian staff if they had ever tried mice. While several members of the staff should their heads in disgust, most of the staff admitted, some with particular relish, that they had eaten, and indeed enjoyed, mice. Mwalabu even gave us all a detailed description (which I will spare you from here) of how the mice were caught and prepared. As we sat there shaking our heads at the strange things Malawians eat, Mwalabu compared it to westerners eating mussels. To Malawians mussels are disgusting, slimy bottom feeders that most would never consider eating. While I love mussels I knew he had a point, and couldn’t really understand why fish eggs and snails are considered delicacies by many westerners while mice are considered an uncivilized meal.
These musings on the ethnocentricity of the human palate were briefly reawakened as our Landcruiser passed by another group of boys selling mice the next morning, prompting a wave of laughter from the team. Casting aside my thoughts on the previous evening, I looked around at each of the members as we shared our last few moments together. Every one of them had their own story, their own reasons for coming to Malawi with VIP. My eyes first locked upon Randa Nelson sitting across from me in the Landcruiser. Randa was Liz’s sister in law and had been involved with VIP from its earliest days traveling to Malawi twice before this to work on VIP projects. A former board member, Randa was an incredibly active supporter of VIP, continuously recruiting people to make the trip to Malawi, knowing that once they did, they would never be able to forget it. One of her recruits was sitting in the Landcruiser with us, Sydney Gantzer. Sydney and Randa were old friends and Randa had always talked about Malawi and VIP to Sydney. Sydney’s husband Ken tragically passed away from cancer two years ago leading Sydney to become involved in Relay For Life and other fundraisers in an effort to find a cure to that dreaded disease. In the time we spent together Sydney seemed dedicated to three things: her children, finding a cure for cancer, and keeping alive Ken’s memory. Sydney had brought over shirts for the entire team and the Malawian staff emblazoned with “Ken’s Krew” on the front and a bible verse on the back. Sydney handed them all out to us and we wore them proudly as we worked, carrying on Ken’s memory and spreading the kindness and goodwill that he embodied. Randa and Sydney would not be traveling immediately back to the U.S. but would be heading to Victoria Falls for several days, to see one of the great wonders of the natural world.
Then there was the team from Chicago, led by Susan Zidlicky. Susan described herself to me upon meeting as a “stay at home mom,” but she could have also accurately described herself as “professional mission trip participant.” She has traveled to over 40 countries, many in sub-Saharan Africa, working on development projects and getting to know new people and experience new cultures. Throughout the trip she told us of her travels in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia. But her breadth of experience did not desensitize her to the incredible need, nor the incredible spirit, that she found in the people of Malawi. Next to Susan sat Jennie and Jim Garst. The Garsts were the polar opposite of Susan as far as their experience in developing countries went. When Jennie had first received the email from her church advertising the trip to Malawi she had immediately erased it, snorting “Yeah right, I’m not going to Malawi.” But something inside of both Jennie and Jim was calling them to step outside of their comfort zone, to try new things, and they could not ignore it. There had been a lot to get used to in coming to Malawi, first and foremost the bugs and spiders which Jennie constantly battled with the help of (and I kid you not) an insecticide called “Doom.” But they had both done an incredible job on the trip, bonding with the people they met and overcoming the huge culture shock of life in Malawi. The trip would not have been the same without their humor, kindness and intelligence. Finally, next to me sat my roommate Tom. We had bonded a great deal in our week together, often times staying up late into the night to talk, earning us the nickname “Chatty Cathy’s” from Susan, who could hear our voices through the paper thin walls. I would then stay up far later as Tom’s snores echoed inside my eardrums like cannon fire, more than once chasing me from the room to sleep in the hallway on the floor. Despite the snores, I learned so much from Tom and was glad that he was my roommate. With a PhD in Chemistry, Tom had recently created a new company, selling BioChar for use with fertilizers to heal and replenish depleted soils. Tom had come to Malawi, in part, to understand how he could use BioChar to help deeply impoverished countries like Malawi attain food security, as part of his company’s social welfare and philanthropic component.
I was grateful for the company and fellowship of all of them and was sad to see them go. As we reached the security gates we hugged and said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch when we returned to our lives in America. After watching them disappear into the crowd waiting for the flight to South Africa, Liz, Jordan and I made our way to the airport café to wait. Coming in on the same plane that the team would be departing on, were Stephen and Terra Heinzel-Nelson, Liz’s husband and daughter. After a quick lunch we were in time to see Stephen and Terra coming through the security gate, where they were promptly tackled by Jordan and Liz. A short while later, I found myself in the front cab of a VIP pickup truck with Kondwani, heading back to Zomba. I decided to go back with the luggage, so that the recently reunited family could spend the drive back together. We met up back at the farm, where after a quick dinner we all headed to bed, so that Stephen and Terra could get a full night’s rest after their long trip, and so that we could begin new adventures in the morning.