We left the fabulous Wendels Lodge in Llongwe by car and drove 2+ hours through arid countryside and then over a large mountain pass to Mua Mission. Here one can buy artistic wood carvings which are of the highest quality in Malawi. There was not a huge selection but still plenty to get a view of the type of art available. There was an interesting museum for Kw 600 entry fee ( $4) which an enthusiastic guide opened fir us. He led us through its 3 rooms which were filled with descriptions of the country’s history starting with the Catholic priest who started the White Fathers, an order so named not because of skin color but because they wore white robes in order to blend in with the Muslims of the time who otherwise would have discriminated against them. One room was dedicated to tribal rituals of the area for burial and coming of age. A final room displayed hundreds of masks hanging from a display looking like a baobab tree. Each mask had a special purpose and some were quite explicit! After lunch under a thatched roof, we were let into the mission church which was stiflingly hot but held lovely wooden carvings of the stations of the cross, a Madonna and child, Christ on the cross, Christ risen and perhaps Moses – all tenderly carved. The ceiling held large interlocking circles of reeds – a dramatic effect though I do not know the symbolism – and the expansive feel of the yellow interior which could hold maybe 700 a 800 was uplifting.
We returned to our cars to find our drivers had been fishing while we were away and had hung 6 fresh fish from the passenger rearview mirrors where they remained for the rest of our journey to Blantyre.
We arrived in Blantyre around 5:00 to find a bustling urban setting crowded with people going here and there among more developed markets and stores on paved roads, a few even of 4 lanes. We moved into Assemblies of God guest house which we have taken over at a very reasonable price for the remainder of our stay. After a quick shop at the ShopRite which had a rather nice selection of foods other than salad fixings, we made our own spaghetti dinner.
7 of us traveled by car about 30 minutes East of Llongwe to Mvera, a small village where local people have established an AIDS Support Organization (ASO) to handle the needs of the many HIV+ children in the area. Two young men from the village have taken the lead providing organization and support in many ways to the orphans and their caregivers who are taken for ARV meds to Baylor Medical Clinic twice a month thanks to a grant through GAIA from Abbott Labs. We were joyously greeted by the women, men and children of the village who sang and danced us into the Presbyterian church. A very old and worn awning was hung by the military people, interestingly, from an adjacent army base to cover the entrance to the church for us. We Americans were seated in the front of the red dirt floored church on plastic chairs while the villagers faced us as a congregation. The 21 HIV+ children supported by GAIA sat at the head of the left side and their caregivers at the head of the right. The head of the group thanked us profusely for our support while the head of our local office, a wise and capable woman, translated. Bill, the GAIA president, also commended the local villagers for taking such initiative, helping each other and insuring that their infected children get the care they need. He also strongly encouraged all to be tested and for the pregnant women to take the necessary medications before childbirth to reduce the chance of mother-to-child transmission. The caregivers, in turn, appealed to us passionately for support to help them provide the proper nutrition for their children, most or all of whom suffer from insufficient nutrition which adversely impacts their ability to properly digest the ARVs. After assuring them we would attempt to do whatever we can for them, they sang and danced us out where we took pictures and thrilled the children as well as many of the women by showing them their pictures on our camera screens – many had never seen themselves in a photograph before. They were respectful and grateful we had come.
We went to the home of one of the women in the village who is HIV+ who had inadvertently infected her daughter by giving her own transfused blood before testing had been available. She told us her story and how she is coping raising her daughter and 3 sons (not infected) with the help of her mother who seemed to be a very strong woman. Her husband died, probably of AIDS. Despite her situation she said she is hopeful for her future and her daughter’s – what amazing strength of soul.
After a standing packed lunch on the roadside – leftovers from which we handed to a family selling dried fish on the side of the road, we drove to the Kawala neighborhood in Llongwe. This is a desperately poor area of the city where a community based organization (CBO) has been formed called Mphatso, which means “gift” in Chichewa. A group of 40 caregivers has organized itself into a support group for 200 orphans – 178 of whom are HIV+. They carry out various income generating activities (IGAs) to raise money to support the children, and GAIA provides secondary school fees for 17 of them. They had put a GAIA sign up over the doorway of their rented hut and again we were sung and danced in. This time we were crammed into a small hut maybe 15X30 – the 7 Americans, 15 caregivers and 50 children. Again we were thanked with care. Bill especially encouraged the children to work hard to do whatever they could to successfully complete their studies. They would like to develop more IGAs and asked for our support with that as well as anything we might do in helping pay the rent for this hut which the caregivers currently pay from their own funds and they appealed even for basics like blankets. Again, we explained that our ability to help relies on the donations we receive and we said we would try. The exit was again with song and dance and much ado about having pictures taken with their interest in seeing themselves.
Their needs are unimaginably immense. These children and their caregivers have less than anything we would consider as the most basic necessities and yet they carry on as best they can.
Two hours from Johannesburg, the sun is setting across a clouded sky below as I look west toward America well beyond the horizon I can see… same sunset, not the same place as usual. Thanks to miles, I am in business class, a splurge which happened to work this time since I booked well ahead. It seems so incongruous to be so pampered flying above this continent called home by so many who live a life where having even a notion of sitting in the seat in which I find myself will never be within reach. It is not simply a matter of being able to afford this, it is that so many will never even know that such a thing exists as flying such a distance with all the food and drink you want available for the asking and while watching the movie of your choice or seeing where you are floating along on a map. We live in such different worlds and yet not. I am grateful beyond words for all the blessings I have in this life and yearn to make some sense of the whole scheme of things before I am done. Hopefully in the process of seeing and learning, I will be able to use whatever talents or resources I have to help some of those who could just as easily have been me and my family but for the miracle of having been born one place and not the other. It is troubling in the deepest way, and I pray for wisdom, insight and courage for all of humanity to come to a better understanding of how to share the abundance we have across the nations and to care for ourselves, all of us, and our planet.
Great encouragement for me was spending time with my Danish son equivalent, his lovely and brilliant South African wife and their beyond adorable British daughter in the suburbs of London on the way – what a treat for the self-appointed American mother and now grandmother by them!
A night in the airport hotel in Johannesburg and then meeting up with fellow GAIA travelers on our way to Malawi tomorrow morning.
Love and gratitude to family and friends near and far!
For three years I have been trying to get to Malawi to be able to see firsthand the work that Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) is doing and finally I have made it. A group of ten of us has come to spend 2 weeks, starting with 3 days in Llongwe and then driving to Limbe in the south for the reminder of the time. Three planes arrived at the same time at the small Llongwe airport which has only one baggage conveyor belt which resulted in a mosh pit equivalent as 3 planeloads of people jammed together trying to collect their many bags from the one small conveyor – you just had to laugh. We met up with one of senior staffers whom I had met before in San Francisco a couple of years ago – a wonderful woman who had arranged for cars to transport us on the 30 minute ride to our lodge. On a well built road we passed small brick day schools, the site under construction of Madonna’s planned boarding school for 500 Malawian girls, vast empty spaces, dirt roads, an uncompleted fertilizer factory and many local people. There were people everywhere selling bananas, corn, mangos, a stick a yard long with roasted field mice, and more. Many walked, some with large bundles on their heads, and there were many on bikes carrying firewood or friends bumming along on the back.
We are staying these 3 nights in a wonderful place, Wendell’s Lodge which is lovely, clean, has wifi and the owners are friendly and fabulous cooks. This is a great place to get a good rest before heading south to more simple accommodations.
Off to bed to rest up before 3+ hours of driving tomorrow to Ludzi.
Preparing for first trip to Malawi with Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) – stay tuned…