Category Archives: environment

Reverse Culture Shock: why?

In America everyone wants to know things. We take pride in education. In discovering. Coming up with the next bright idea. We strive to be individual. To be important.

I remember being frustrated when I began college, because it seemed that conversations, instead of being about community and relationships, were often about sounding intelligent and knowing just one more thing than the other people in the room. I was confused during some social experiences because I thought we were all there to create community. There were moments when I just felt stupid. I couldn’t add any intelligent comment to the conversation so I just sat there. It was confusing because high school seemed to be a place where people were discovering who they were socially and the goal was not to be the smartest one in the room, but rather to be the most-liked person. Social settings were about laughing, having fun and fitting in.

Now, being back home I found myself surrounded by some conversations where one person would just try to be the one who was right. Who had the correct information? Who would win the debate? Again I had the experience of going from a place where community is what is central, to a place where knowledge and the individual is what life is built around.

I do not need to strain to listen to a different accent or attempt to learn new cultural norms, but rather I am now trying to remember how life is in America. I am trying to do my best at accepting and stepping in. There is no doubt that this will continue to challenge me. And I wonder if I will feel like I can ever completely fit back in.

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Garden Update: Between the Rows

Rain means that crops grow. It has been a joy to watch the seedlings emerge from the ground, reach towards the sky and double or triple in size over days and weeks. I have spent time weeding and searching for caterpillars or snails that strive to taste the vegetables first. I have contemplated why the peppers and asparagus are so few and far between and if they will even make it to maturity in the time we are here. Each day I try to take a walk in the garden, looking closely for flowers or seedpods, checking the few pepper sprouts to see if they are still growing, and plucking some weeds out of the dirt.

It’s amazing what happens when water drenches dry, seemingly empty soil. From first glance, it looked like dirt. However, as soon as the rains began to fall, all sorts of growth happened. Those seeds that had dried through the hot season came popping up everywhere. We found various tree sprouts unfurling ubiquitously, along with tomato, bonegwa (Malawian green, eaten like spinach), grass, sweet potato, winter squash, beans, and a number of other plants of which I do not know the name.

Something occurs as seasons change. Those seeds needed their dry spell, when all the moisture was drawn out of them. They waited, dry, in a pause until the time of plenty. Growth only happened in the right conditions. Is our life not the same? Scripture speaks of this in Ecclesiastes 3, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…”

This is the time for us to be here, in Malawi. It is the time when God is opening my eyes to things I would never have seen otherwise. Never had I really seen a time when the earth grows as it is growing here now. There are many lessons that God is teaching me.

Are you in a dry season? Be encouraged. There is a time for everything.

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To Be of Use

To Be of Use

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shadows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the clack sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward.

Who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with the people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

by Marge Piercy


As the year meanders closer to Christmastime and to the New Year…I always spend a bit of time reflecting on my life as well as the life surrounding me. I wonder if God had really used me, if I had been a help in the world around me. When I was in college, I wrote a vision statement, which was part of my training to become a teacher. Then, while at Whitworth I read a book which I was given as part of the Murdock program. The authors wrote about Living Life on Purpose rather than just going through the motions not quite sure why. It connected with the very fabric of who I am. I want to know the reasons for why things are done a certain way. It’s important to know what compels. During my first year teaching, I struggled because I saw things and experienced things that were not compelling. There were so many obstacles that I questioned why I was teaching. God led me back to that vision statement I had written and revised each year for the previous four years. He led me to whittle it down to one sentence. So that I would be compelled. Again.

This poem resonates with me now, especially in Malawi, and particularly now, as the rain has just begun to fall. This is the time for planting. Even for most who live in the city of Lilongwe, they have gardens near, or far off in the villages of their birth. They go back each year and plant. By hand, and hoe, they dig deep, laying out rows across the red earth. Their hands and feet get muddy with the ground beneath them and their backs are covered in sweat from the hard work. Everywhere I look, I see people with purpose, who do this physical labor each year. They are providing food for their families and neighbors alike. This is a communal culture, which means that when someone is without, people share. Oftentimes people arrive at our gate in need of something, a bottle, some beans, a shovel… The Masina’s give. And we are learning better what it means to give. So when the planting begins, it is not just for me, it is for my community. Today, I actually planted a garden with Mr. Masina! He taught me how to make beds for the vegetables to reside in, lay the fertilizer, scatter the seeds, lightly cover them with soil, and add water. My hands and feet actually got red with dirt and my fingernails filled up with mud. I was happy to offer myself as a student, to learn from him how to jump into the work of my hands.

One’s vision and purpose, to be valid, does not need to be to save the world, it can simply be to provide and serve.

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Bugs, Birds and Lizards

Our new home comes with critters. This I knew before, but each new day my curious eyes search the grounds to seek out new animals. On our second night here, we saw the first gecko in the living room! Joy. I love geckos, both because they are fun little creatures and they eat bugs. I’m fine with bugs outside but when they’re inside, creeping into the corners of our bedroom, my discomfort level rises. The fact that this house wasn’t really lived in for three years means that plenty of insects have made it inside into the nooks and crannies everywhere. Geckos, welcome! There are plenty of moths too. All different shapes and sizes. The nice thing about them is that they are harmless, and are attracted to the light so we can always see them. At first, the light thumping noise against the windows irked me, but almost immediately, I knew that it was the harmless moths. Their day-time counterparts, the butterflies, come during the day which is always a treat. I much prefer them to pollinate the flowers than the buzzing bees. Then there are the spiders, some of which look scary, but aren’t at all and then there are the ones that look scary and are scary. They do catch the bugs you don’t want, so it’s a mixed bag. At first, the cockroaches really bothered me, but after smashing 2-3 each day, I have come to manage the heebie-jeebies that used to come on so strong. The ones I hate, are the ones that bite, mosquitoes and fleas. Why there are fleas inside, I have no idea. There hasn’t been anything inside that would attract them for three years. Of course, there is the mosquito, or in Chichewa, udzudzu “ood-zood-zoo”. Not only do they make you uncomfortable, but also the fear of malaria comes with them. Now, there are fewer of these buggars in the city, than the country. Nevertheless, there are enough so that at least one somehow gets into the house each evening. I’m not sure if it sneaks inside in the morning, then hides during the day finally to reveal itself after darkness has come. All I know is that when I find one buzzing in my ear I am determined to clap it in a death trap. When darkness does come, crickets emerge. I can hear their sweet chirp as they navigate through the yard outside our window. In the early morning comes the sound of the chickens mingled with chirps and caws from the wild birds that come for a visit in the trees. They also take turns in the birdbath that rests in the front yard. I have seen them yelling loudly at one another between trees, their long green tail feathers following them. There are many different birds, small ones that tend to hang out in the tree near the birdbath, and larger ones that choose the taller trees far above the ground. The unwanted crows turn up now and again, only to be chased away by mother hens, who will do anything to protect their chicks. I know for sure that alligator lizards enjoy scampering beneath the low bushes that line the house; I have seen them freeze for a push-up and then dart away. One more lizard dazzles me but I do not know its name. It’s a bit larger, perhaps ten or twelve inches long from nose to tail, and it has a shimmery blue-green throat that it proudly parades. It lives in the tree in the front that attracts bees, so I wonder if they eat the bees. I am confident that both my curiosity and intrigue with help me live with all of these critters.

Fly

 

Wasp

 

 

Moth in the daytime?

 

 

 

 

Sink spider...I found it one morning.

 

Good Morning Rooster

 

 

Butterfly

 

 

Birdbath waiting for the birds..

 

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Cultural Differences: Grocery Shopping

Never has grocery shopping been so stressful.

 

We rode in the church bus first to the U.S. Embassy to register, and then to two different stores. I had brought plastic bags to reuse. I have a deep conviction to care for the earth. I do this in different ways. One of the most basic is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Since I don’t yet know whether or not recycling exists in Africa (so far it seems that it doesn’t other than reusing glass bottles), I have done what I can to reduce and reuse. Upon arriving at the first store, our friend who had accompanied us said that I didn’t need to bring the bags because the store provides bags. I then explained that I had brought them to reuse them because it is better for the environment. He understood what I was saying and was happy to hear it. However, he went on to tell me that the store employees might be offended if I brought bags that were from a competing store. This made logical sense and so I asked if fabric bags were acceptable, for future visits. He said that would be fine. I was slightly disappointed anyway but shrugged it off. We went in without the bags. Our friend ran an errand of his own and the driver of the bus came along with us. It was busy. Of course there were items that have different names and such, so that was slightly anxiety producing. It was a challenge to find the things on our list and not appear like the typical well-to-do person that buys more than they need or will use. I also had the feeling that, since I wasn’t sure when we would have another chance to visit a store that was fully stocked like this one, I should get the items on our list if they had them. A few differences between the stores here and the ones in America mainly have to do with cleanliness. This particular one was like a warehouse though. In general, Lilongwe is a little bit dusty. I’ve noticed a reddish dust everywhere, as the dirt is that same color. In addition to the sanitation bit, there are many highly preserved items that can go without refrigeration, which are so for the obvious reason that people might not have access to refrigeration. The photographer in me wanted to take some snaps (photos) but that would be a bit too much like a tourist, so I refrained. In the future, I might muster the courage to do so, but not now. We checked out, transitioned purchases to the bus, and then went ahead to the next store. The bags: so I did have some plastic bags that were from this store, so I grabbed a few to take. The driver stopped me, explaining once again that the store would have bags. Again, I explained that I like to reuse plastic bags. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand what I was saying and our friend was still on his errand so he couldn’t translate. The driver persisted, not letting me take the bags out of the bus, so with much anguish and even more disappointment, I relented and took deep breaths to calm down as I walked, empty-handed toward the store and toward David who was waiting for me in front. Now, I know this may seem like a small thing, but when adapting to a different country, the small things are what push me over the edge. I’m already uncomfortable because of how different things are, then the seemingly little behaviors that I do and have done ever since I could, for example, bring my own bags when I shop for food, when these get taken away, I have a hard time coping.

 

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Very Welcome to Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa

As we walked down the stairs that led from the airplane to the tarmac, the warm Malawian sun hit our faces and the breeze swept through our hair. This is a warm time of the year here, so the fleeces that had been with us for our air-conditioned journey thus far were removed promptly. I was planning to change into a skirt and more appropriate attire so that when we met our church I would feel less like an outsider. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference. I felt so very welcome as soon as we met our church family here. After we made it across the landing strip, the group of travelers formed a blob and made our way to the passport check. I noticed that in just the few years since I had come, they had built rectangular boxes where the employees checking passports were located (This used to be a desk and a chair). Our eyes searched over and around the blob of people surrounding us, for a familiar face. Finally, as we neared the boxes, we could see through the glass encasement that Vasco and a group of elders stood waiting to meet us. My smile remained fixed on my face as we continued through. We were met with smiles, handshakes, hugs, and all of my anxieties quickly melted away. We were home.

These men helped us with our luggage and moved us quickly through the next checkpoint. Then we met the Women’s Guild. They were singing a welcome song that filled up the airport entrance. I felt humbled and safe with them, quite unworthy of the blessing of both their presence and beautiful song. We shook more hands and met more smiling people. From there, we entered a car and our luggage was carried to a minibus to be carried to the next destination. After we had our seatbelts on and were settled, we found out there would be a reception at the church with more women and some men to greet us. We also found out that the house was not ready for us, that the church was finishing up some repairs, so, for the duration, we would be staying at a hotel near the church.

When we arrived at the church, they greeted us with more singing and we all entered to the band playing music. The service included greetings from various elders mingled with more song, and prayer. This welcome reception lasted just over an hour. Afterwards, we were taken to manse number one, where we were served dinner together with many members and elders from the church. The food was delicious and I was pretty hungry by this time. During dinner, I talked some, but I was having a difficult time trying to think, after the thirty-two hours of traveling. Noticing that the sun was lowering in the sky, one of the elders made known it was time to travel to the hotel where we would be sleeping. As we entered the hotel reception area, I was humbled once again. I was beginning to expect that the generosity and kindness of this day would continue as we learn to live in this community…

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