As I am quickly, and at times painfully, discovering, Malawi is very much a morning culture. Because the sun sets so early, between 6 and 7 all year long, and rises around 6 every morning, people begin their days very early. It is just so much more difficult to get things done at night, particularly since only 10% of Malawians have access to electricity. Sunday was no exception, as we rose bright and early for, what is for many Malawians, the most important day of the week. Trudi, Liz, Jordan and I left the farm early and drove to the outskirts of Zomba to pick up Wellings Mwalabu and his son Isaac. Mwalabu, or madala as Liz and the rest of the VIP staff affectionately call him, which means “big man” in his native Chichewa, is a remarkable man. Mwalabu was born into extreme poverty in Sakata, the very region that VIP now operates in. Mwalabu worked his way up from his humble origins to work for the University of Malawi, the Malawian Department of Agriculture and various aid organizations before finding a home as VIP Project Coordinator. He is truly indispensable to VIP and we owe a great deal of our success to his wisdom and experience.
Our group of 6 arrived at the quaint Matawale CCAP church near the Chimpeni School on the outskirts of Zomba and met up with Sydney Chikelema, of Kalupe village. Sydney has been involved with VIP since our very beginning. As VIP began to establish a presence in the Sakata region, in 2009-10, Liz began to notice the same 11 or 12 year old boy showing up at every VIP event. It was Sydney. Liz eventually called him over to her and began to get to know him. What she learned of Sydney’s life was heartbreaking, and it was only after speaking with him that Liz truly began to understand the meaning of the word “vulnerable.” Sydney lost both his parents at a very early age and grew up with an uncle and his beloved little sister Judith. And while he protected his sister every single day, he didn’t have anyone protecting him. His uncle would come home at night, drunk, and take out all his frustrations by beating Sydney. Liz wanted to take Sydney out of this horrible situation, and Mwalabu even agreed to mentor him and look after him, but Sydney refused to leave Judith. Then two years ago, Judith passed away from HIV/AIDs, the same disease that Liz thinks took Sydney’s mother. Sydney was devastated. He was now truly alone. But not for long. Liz saw so much in this young man. So much hope and resiliency, so much love and tenderness in his care for Judith. She became the mother figure in his life and gave him the love and support that he needed then more than ever. VIP and Liz stepped up and provided a bursary for Sydney to attend a secondary school. He just recently finished his last exam and is waiting for his results to see if he will be able to attend University.
As the service began, I felt Sydney’s kindness immediately. He sat next to me and translated every song and sermon so that I could be a part of what was going on. It was such a small gesture, but he did it without me even asking him, and it immediately gave me a sense of his heart and his empathy for other people. Liz had told me several times that church in Malawi was nothing like church in the United States, but I still wasn’t fully prepared. For four hours various men’s, women’s, children’s and mixed choirs sang and danced in between sermons delivered by Mwalabu and the church leaders. And then the congregation held a collection to pay for the salary of a night watchman who guards the church property and the house of the local pastor. I was amazed at how people who had so little were so willing to give money for the good of the community, literally singing and dancing as they tossed their kwacha into the offering dish.
After the service ended, we drove Mwalabu home, while Sydney and Isaac joined the four of us for a hike we had planned on Zomba plateau. We picked up chips, Mandasi (basically a ball of fried dough, a delicacy in every culture) and sodas and headed for the plateau. As Liz skillfully drove the Landcruiser over incredibly steep, unpaved roads as we climbed higher and higher up the plateau, we had an incredibly interesting conversation on the roots of poverty in Malawi, and on how the form of Imperialism in a given colony impacted that country after it gained independence. Well, at least interesting to a history teacher who distinctly remembers assigning that very question to his class for their third semester essay last year…
Finally, and perhaps thankfully for our readers, we ran out of road and parked by a village built on the slopes of the plateau. As we got out of the car and started our hike we were joined by an army of children who were so excited and intrigued to see Azungu (white people) in their village. These children may go weeks without seeing any white people and for them we were an exotic spectacle, making them giggle with our broken Chichewa. They ran after us as Sydney and I raced each other up a hill and howled with laughter as they pantomimed taking our pictures with bricks. As we weaved our way up the trail I snuck a few of the children next to me cherry cough drops, because I didn’t have nearly enough for the dozens of kids accompanying us. The kids took them surreptitiously and sucked them down like candy, which, to be fair, is exactly what I do with cherry cough drops too. When I was able to stop laughing at the antics of the kids I was able to admire the rugged beauty of the plateau. Zomba plateau is incredible, a proud 6000 foot tall granite sentinel, watching over the valley and the villages below. As we got higher we could look down into the valley, all the way to Lake Chilma, the second largest lake in Malawi, though far smaller and less famous than the gorgeous Lake Malawi, one of the wonders of all of Africa.
Far too soon night began to fall and it was time to head back. We waved goodbye to the children and began the treacherous drive back down the mountainside. And as we drove through the smoky night air to drop off Sydney and Isaac I thought how much richer my life had just become because of the wonderful new friends I had made that day.