Jayne and Sam in Malawi!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Trying Times

Apologies – I know it has been a long time since my last blog entry – things continue to be challenging here. I have been ill over the last few weeks; like a lot of things in Malawi, being ill can be a complicated business! In fact a recent trip to Lilongwe to see a doctor turned into a major exercise – a colleague of mine had driven to Kasungu to collect me and to take me to a clinic; unfortunately on his arrival, we discovered that that all the petrol stations were out of diesel. We found out that one particular station in town did actually have diesel, but only because its pump was broken and nobody could get access to it! The station was in a state of chaos – a technician had been sent for, but staff had no idea when he would actually arrive. In the mean time, vehicles descended upon the station to wait and dozens of customers (with jerry cans), crowded around the pump, jostling for position. In the scorching temperatures, tempers became increasingly frayed. The situation desperately needed the organisational skills of a strong manager, but unfortunately, she seemed unable to take control of things. The whole thing was grim – but then human nature is grim at times. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the technician finally arrived, the pump was fixed and we eventually got our diesel. I made it to the clinic, but it had taken hours and by the time I finally saw a doctor I was in a pretty sorry state.

It certainly wasn’t good, but experiences such as this one do make us stronger; something positive always emerges from them. I had been diagnosed with Malaria by a local clinic and treated accordingly. Malaria is potentially fatal and when a foreigner contracts it, there is always cause for concern. My condition had actually improved over a few days, but I then suffered an unexpected relapse – hence the trip to Lilongwe. In fact it turned out that I didn’t have Malaria at all; I had an intestinal infection - probably as a result of drinking bad water. This infection gave me all the symptoms of Malaria – in a funny sort of way, I experienced Malaria without actually having it! I now really understand how bad it is though and this in turn is a good thing. It makes me better equipped to help others; it’s absolutely true that you can’t really understand a person's problem unless you have experienced that same problem yourself. Plus this particular situation has made me realise (if I had any lingering doubts before), just how straightforward life in the UK actually is and just how easy it is to take certain things for granted. It’s the old cliché I guess – that we don’t really understand the value of something until it’s no longer there for us.

For me, the business of shopping is a particularly good example of this. In the UK you can walk into the nearest shop and find shelves and shelves packed with goods. There is variety – there is choice. Things are clean and tidy. There are strict processes and procedures in place to ensure that food is safe. There is money in the tills and staff can give you your correct change. If you have a problem with your purchase, you can return it and get a refund – you are protected by consumer laws. Not so in a developing country like Malawi. I actually laugh when I remember how I used to criticise the Tesco supermarket chain; what would I give to see a Tesco store now? The answer is “a lot!” Invariably, it is the basic, things (or lack of them) that tend to cause the greatest frustrations here; simple things that we never really think about in the UK, represent considerable challenges. As I have written before, electricity and water supplies in Malawi are horribly unreliable and unpredictable - they fail constantly; this makes essential things like cooking and washing very difficult at times. When I get home each day, all I want to do is to sit down to read; more often than not, that reading takes by candlelight because the electricity has failed – AGAIN! Before I came here, the idea of reading by candlelight seemed like a romantic proposition! I can assure you that it isn’t – what it is, is a pain in the neck – literally! Visits to places such as the bank or the Post Office also tend to be complicated; service is slow and it’s often hard to understand the reasons for the ways in which they work. Travelling is also is a major challenge here; public transport is chaotic and uncomfortable and the driving skills of many of the drivers have to be seen to be believed. Night travel on public transport is not only chaotic and uncomfortable, it is seriously scary as well – reserved for those who have no choice or for those who want to experience what it means to have a death wish! I remember reading my Malawi Guide Book before I came here. The section dealing with travel had the following advice for visitors who were planning to journey at night – the advice was as follows - “don’t do it!” I now know how sound that advice is. As you’ve seen from above, even travelling by car has its problems; as I write this, the town of Kasungu is now without both diesel and petrol – the only supply at the moment is to be found on the black market.

Now that I’ve got that all off my chest - thank you so much for baring with me - let me stress the positive; I am now fully recovered and back at work. It has taken time to fully regain my strength though and for a while I was very weak; I was craving certain things and was unable to get them – Tesco, all is forgiven!

Talking of shops and as I’ve said before, here in Malawi, there is always a plus to cancel out the negative things that happen. In Kasungu, there is a noticeable lack of commercialism and this really is wonderfully refreshing. It is strange to be at the end of November and to have virtually no evidence in the shops that Christmas is fast approaching – no cards, no tinsel, no trees etc. In fact the only sign of Christmas is a solitary plastic Santa outside one of the shops here; he looks very lonely! In Malawi, approximately 80% of the population goes to church – I think we met the other 20% at the petrol station – and I am really looking forward to experiencing Christmas here. I hope that it will be an overwhelmingly spiritual time.

On the subject of the spiritual, I received an email from someone who accused me of using my blog site to bully and to threaten people into becoming Christians with my talk of death, judgement and separation from God. They were referring of course to my previous entry and it did make me stop and think. I was reminded of a passage in the Bible which speaks of talking to people about one’s Christian faith with gentleness (see 1 Peter 3:16). Gentleness is a wonderful thing, but I am struggling to reconcile it with the subjects of salvation and of facing God’s judgement; they just don’t seem to leave much room for it. After all, if we’re not saved, we’re lost and I’m not sure how the reality of that message can be conveyed gently. What I have come to know is that the stakes are very high – in fact, I can’t see how they can get any higher. For many people, death is a very frightening prospect; they find it frightening because it represents something so final. Yet Christians know that this is not the case - there is eternal life awaiting them beyond the grave – eternal life that was won for us by the death of Jesus on the cross. It was Jesus who spoke of two eternal worlds – Heaven and Hell. He taught us that Heaven is the true home of all God’s people - a place of perfect love and happiness – of lasting peace and complete satisfaction. Hell by comparison, is where God has withdrawn His presence and His love – it is a place of darkness and torment. Yet God does not send anyone to Hell, rather people go there by their own choice; by ignoring and/or rejecting Jesus as their one true saviour. This knowledge is of the utmost importance – in fact it is fair to say that it is life saving knowledge; sharing it with others is the responsibility of every Christian. This said, there is a wonderful expression ‘softly, softly, catchee monkey’ and I do take the point that the gentle approach has much to offer; for this reason (if you are a non-Christians reading this), I gently urge you to get a bible and to take the time to have a read. It really is extraordinary and wonderful.

As always, we thank you for your support, news, good wishes and prayers. God Bless

NEXT TIME - Lighthouse update, Malawi libraries, Chichewa lessons and mud!