Strange moments in a poor country

Published 12:15 am Friday, November 9, 2012

You get some strange moments when a group of people from the richest country in the world hang out with people from the poorest country.

Like the moment our driver stopped en route at his native village, introducing us to his charming mother and fiance. His father is pastor of the local church. We asked to see it. A quaint building. Unfortunately, it had no roof.

I later heard one of our group complain: “It burns me up when I hear about these churches doing million dollar renovations when there are churches like these that don’t even have a roof.”

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We are in Malawi, the fourth poorest country in the world, as representatives of a year-and-a-half-old effort called Clean Water for Malawi. It’s a Jackson-based group started by Victor Smith. We have drilled 50 boreholes (water wells) in Malawi. We estimate each borehole saves five to 10 lives a year.

In one village, a chief told me 20 lives had been lost recently because their only source of water is a fetid, diseased hole in the ground. An American wouldn’t let his dog drink that water. But for poor Malawians, it is drink or die of thirst. You drink and take your chances.

As we traveled and worked with the Malawians, we naturally bonded. They weren’t abstract concepts but real live people with personalities, feelings, needs and lives. They were us, just in an infinitely poorer place. When you realize this, it is impossible not to get fervent about this mission.

English is the official language of Malawi, so the common language makes interpersonal bonding all the easier. Chichewa is the native tongue. Both languages are used commonly, although English is less common in the remote villages.

Malawians are polite, friendly, hard-working, clean-cut and self-sufficient. Every Malawian comes from a village in which they are surrounded by relatives. It is a built-in safety net. No matter what misfortune befalls a Malawian in the big city, he can always return to his village where he will be fed and taken care of.

A typical village may be 100 to 600 people. Most structures consist of homemade bricks and thatch roofs. Pigs, chickens and goats scamper around. Fruits are the main diet — bananas, casava, corn, mango, tomatoes, onions and papaya. Everything is shared.

The problem is the dry season which lasts seven months and sees almost no rain. If the Malawians could find a way to irrigate their crops during the dry season, they could have true food security.

I lost count of the people who told me of watching loved ones die of cholera after drinking wretched water from an open hole used by cattle and other animals.

I lost count hearing stories of young girls raped and infected by HIV while walking miles in the pre-dawn hours to fetch water.

The wild rapid advance of technology allows me to hop on a plane and bridge this huge economic gap in a matter of hours. Thus I come face to face with a real person, not different than me, with insurmountable problems of poverty.

Add to this our common Christianity. These are faithful believers in Jesus Christ. Our spiritual brothers and sisters in the body of the Holy Spirit. Turning away is unthinkable.

A typical rural Malawian makes $100 a year. It takes a Malawian 250 days to make what an American makes in a day.

Only five percent of Malawians have electricity. Yet everywhere I went, I saw smiling faces and happy, industrious people. What spirit.

Changing money was a trip. I changed $100 dollars and ended up with so many kwachas, I had no place to put them.

This huge gap in relative incomes means Clean Water for Malawi can make a huge difference. For $3,500 we can provide a village of 400 souls with clean water for the first time in their lives. It is transformative.

One night we went to see a showing of the Jesus film in a remote village outside of Mzuzu. The film is the result of an effort by Here’s Life Africa —- a southern organization dedicated to spreading Christianity in Africa.

It was a beautiful night — 70 degrees and a half moon. The insects and frogs were chirping wildly from the nearby jungle. The big movie screen showed an image from both sides as 750 villagers listened raptly to the film in their native language. Hundreds publicly came to Christ that night.

At several borehole dedications, I spoke to the villagers, trying to explain why people on the other side of the world would care. “Because we have been so blessed in Mississippi, we must be a blessing to others. Just as this village is grateful for the material gift of clean water, we are just as grateful to the village for giving us the spiritual gift of giving.”

The village children delighted in seeing their images on our smartphones. They would squeal with such delight it made my ears hurt. During one visit to an orphanage where we hope to drill four irrigation wells, I watched children joyfully play soccer with a ball made from wadded up pieces of trash held together by thin vines. They were children, no different than ours, just lacking even the most basic toys — a simple soccer ball.

Every night there were blackouts. Malawi has one main export — tobacco — and this year’s crop was a bust, so there is no hard currency to buy fuel for the power plant.

The corn crop was bad too — a drier than normal year. It’s been 10 years since Malawians starved, but there is worry that the government corn stockpile is not really there. Let’s pray this does not happen.

The people I saw were well-dressed and healthy. I didn’t see a single cigarette. The women wore beautiful colorful African wraps. The men wore typical American clothes — T-shirts and jeans.

Women everywhere carried huge loads balanced on their heads. There were dozens of tree species I had never seen before. In fact, the whole place had an unreal feel to it.

The landscape was gorgeous, reminding me of the Texas hill country, but infinitely more varied. Much of the land was deforested, leaving plenty of sunshine for the saplings to sprout new fuel each year. Talk about a green fuel source. Fortunately, the people left plenty of large trees for decoration, especially those that bore fruit.