Planning the Unplanned Plans

Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Chipoka, Central Region, Malawi
For the past two weeks, our internet connection has been very limited in a lot of ways. We do have an internet provider, but while they were updating some of their infrastructure we were forced to wait patiently and use our cellphone data (which is more expensive overall) for the time being. That means we have been taking photos, but not posting them; getting ideas for blogs, but not being able to finalize them. Today seems to be a good day and the internet is up and working again. That may change tomorrow.

I finally remembered to take a photo of our congregation during Sabbath services . It's nice to be able to see each others' faces so we can better get to know one another. That's one reason why I enjoy social media and sharing photos of places and people. I know there are some who don't or won't have the chance to travel and see the world. I have the chance to help some see what I see and experience a little of what I experience. Of course it won't be the same as actually being here, but at least it gives someone the idea of what it must be like.

The Feast of Tabernacles is always a delight! Even when there are difficulties that happen during the Feast, we still know that we are there to worship God and do His will. We know that we still live in the world and that the Feast pictures a future time when this world will be changed. Last week we set out on a trip to Chipoka which is near Salima. The purpose of the trip was to see a possible location for the Feast of Tabernacles this coming year. No sites have been finalized as we are waiting for some final details to be worked out . A bonus of visiting a few places in the area is that we finally got a chance to see Lake Malawi. We had heard about it, seen photos on the internet, and even been very close on previous visits to the Salima area. It is a vast lake and we only saw a few parts of it. The water was not as clear and blue as we had anticipated. During the rainy season the rivers that run into the lake fill it with the red sandy soil that makes up Malawi. We are told that the clear blue of the lake will return during the drier season. Don't worry. We will return to see that.

As we work on getting to know as many of our brethren as possible outside of Sabbath services, we do sometimes get the chance to have people over for a visit or meet up with them somewhere. We had a chance to visit with one of the young adults in the congregation. Memory, or Chiku as she is often called, came over to visit us at our house one evening. We had a delightful conversation about what it's like as a young adult living in Malawi . Life for everyone is different. Chiku was raised by her grandparents, a couple who have known the truth of God for more than 50 years. She talks fondly about them and how they continue to influence who she is as a person and how she lives her life. One interesting conversation we had with Chiku involved meal times. We had prepared dinner to share with her when she arrived. The meal began around 6:30pm (as I recall). She was surprised that we were eating so early! Her usual dinner time is somewhere around 10pm. She has her tea and coffee around 6:30. I'm still not sure if that is true for all Malawians or if that's just Chiku, but I don't think I'm ready to start eating dinner at bedtime.

Last week, the office manager for LifeNets was busy with some examinations so I sort of filled in while he was away. I arrived early to the office and sat at his desk, going over the books a few times, and seeing how the construction of the building was progressing. Several building committee meetings also occurred during my stay at the office . It's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes stuff that happens while planning and executing construction. Hopefully the new church hall will be finished soon, but until then, progress can be seen weekly. I must say, I'm not too fond of trying to manage an office, although there weren't too many things that I was required to be in charge of. Mostly I worked on writing sermons, scheduling accommodations for future visitors, visiting with the people who are in and out of the office, and learning a little more about operations on the ground. I think it was a good experience, but I will probably leave it to the professionals in the future.

The congregation (of course including Lena and I) has been anticipating the arrival of Brennan and Michala Hilgen. They are a young couple who decided they wanted to save up and go somewhere away from home to serve in the Church for a year. This was, of course, shortly after getting married. Some people joke that they are on an extended honeymoon, but they came to work and to serve . We are glad that they have finally arrived and can help in serving the people here in Malawi alongside us. Michala has been to Malawi twice before and remembers many of the faces. They, too, remember her and her family. However, this trip is a first for Brennan. Lena and I picked them up from the airport in Lilongwe less than two weeks ago, but it already feels like they have been here for a month or two. We have been here for nearly two months ourselves and it feels like longer since we have already done so much and been so many places. It may sound strange to many, but we are glad to be living with roommates again. While we do enjoy time without people, we also enjoy having other people around. Most of our married life, Lena and I have lived with roommates. It's just normal for us.

On their first Sabbath, we didn't take it easy on the Hilgens. Our morning started earlier than it might usually have. We all got up early, prepped the coffee and tea, went over notes, got ourselves ready, and then headed out in the van to pick up the Rashid and Elia families . The plan was to reach services early to set everything up and practice special music. We did manage to arrive to the building in plenty of time, but the keys to the storage room didn't arrive till later. It worked out fine because we had forgotten a few items at our house and had to head back to grab them. One item was a stack of paper copies of the congregational survey which needed to be filled out that day since the deadline was the following day. Between ride sharing, setup, special music practice, church services, surveys, a greeting from the entire congregation, and rides home for some, it made for a long day. After all was said and done, we had the chance to meet up with the Kachali family. Julius and Patricia Kachali had come down from Mzuzu in the northern region to visit their children and grandchildren, and to meet us. It was nice to sit and talk with them, listen to their stories, and enjoy a meal together.

We drove home after dark as has happened on several occasions now . The more night driving I do, the less I enjoy it, but the less it scares me. It's not like driving on well lit highways where pedestrians are forbidden and people are polite with their use of high beams. The highways and side roads in Malawi are always shared with cyclists, families, small children, dogs, chickens, motorcycles, ox carts, and the like no matter what time of day it is and no matter the weather. I don't think I'll ever get used to that.

The follow day, we had the pleasure of visiting Jeremiah Kampazangula Phiri and his family at their home. Jeremiah is a teacher. His two children have dreams of journalism and brain surgery. The family sat and visited with us for quite some time before taking us on a tour of their house which included the kitchen. This is where we learned how to prepare nsima. We supplemented the main course with cooked pumpkin leaf which Memory and I collected from plants found in the maize fields surrounding their home. The food, as usual here, was delicious and filling . Plus we learned some new skills, and about property and schooling in Malawi.

To prepare for our upcoming trip to Chipata, Zambia to spend some time with Filius Jere and the congregation there, we had to head to the local INTERPOL (International Police) office. That is, if we want to be able to legally drive the Bongo across the border without being accused of stealing it. We got a signed document for the trip that states that the vehicle is ours and we are able to drive it into Zambia. When we actually cross the border, we will need to present this document as well as pay a small fee. Overall, it will be cheaper than flying, especially considering there are four of us. Another hurdle that has to be crossed before traveling internationally is procuring visas. We would like to get long-term multiple entry visas to Zambia in order to save money and time in the near future if and when we are able to return. There is an option for a three year visa, but we were told that we must apply online for such a document . Zambia has a very well thought out online visa application system, however there was no option for the three year visa. That means we are going to attempt to obtain our visas at the border tomorrow as we pass into the country. If anything, we can get short term visas and then try again later for the long term ones.

There are surprises around every corner as we venture through our life and work in this beautiful African country. Sometimes people show up at services or meet us on the street and want to come pray with us even though they know nothing about us or what we teach or believe. Recently, one of our members received a call from a man from Nkhotakota, a small area north of Salima along the lake shore. The man, Alex, had mentioned that he and about 30 other people had been meeting together on the Sabbath for a little while now. They had heard about the United Church of God from a friend and decided to give us a call. The group was hoping to come join us for Sabbath services recently, but were in need of funds for transportation . The difficulty is, the funds aren't there to provide transportation from such a distance to people we have never met. The decision was made, instead, to schedule a visit to meet Alex and the group of worshipers who have looked to him for guidance.

The four of us planned a last minute trip to Nkhotakota with Haiton to meet them where they are and hopefully answer any questions that they might have. The trip was delightful for the most part. We left early in the morning, picked Haiton up along the road to Salima, and enjoyed the beauty of rice and cassava fields, views of the lake and a rather large lagoon, and all the greenery that covers Malawi when the rains are plentiful. We stopped for lunch in Nkhotakota proper at the home of one of Haiton's sons. Lucky and his family fed us well on rice, nsima, and fish. Again, we were not disappointed at all with the food we were fed.

Our visit with Alex Banda and his friend Jeremiah Phiri went well overall . We had planned to meet up at 2, but they didn't show until 3. Alex said once he saw us waiting, he had gone to get others. It was a difficult day to meet since it was a market day and everyone was busy shopping and preparing their homes, or selling their own goods trying to make a living. Plus cell phone service is nearly non existent in the little trading center where we met. We managed to sit under a tree in the parking lot of the local primary school. We left the two men with a few answers, a handful of literature, and hopefully some guidance in seeking God's truth. We can pray and stay in contact, continue to answer questions, and, hopefully in the future, come for a visit when more of the group can meet together.

The drive to Nkhotakota took around four hours to complete. On the drive home, we decided that it might be fun and entertaining to head through the local nature reserve, the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. This particular forest, filled with rolling hills of trees and shrubs, supposedly has a lot of elephants. We did see some evidence of elephants along the unpaved road that runs through the lower half of the forest, but not a single elephant. Guinea fowl, doves, and a single lizard (which perched for a half hour on our windshield) were the only wildlife we saw as the sun set behind the surrounding hills. We passed through the forest, headed to Kasungu to fill the van up, and then drove Haiton home to Dowa. Once again, it was a long day of driving that ended well after sunset.
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