An Explanation of the Silence

My Heart in Africa

Well friends, I feel like I own an apology to you for my absence. Perhaps you may not have noticed I seemed to have dropped off the face of technology world for the last few weeks, but I have. It dawned on me yesterday that Christmas is literally just around the weekend’s corner, and I have, for the most part, no idea what you are doing for the holidays.

School let out in Canada yesterday and I had absolutely no awareness that the world could have ended either! December 21st was a “doom day”? No idea! I have lived in a Malawian bubble for the last two weeks. Frantically making Christmas presents for nearly 400children; adjusting to new housemates; and all the while, trying my best to remain kind, calm and compassionate in the face of some annoying relationship developments.

So, my apologies to you for the silence. And what is more, as Christmas draws near, I am increasingly missing home and routines and traditions, and so hearing from each of you would be a very special gift this season. But you wouldn’t know that I relish an email or a fb message from you because I haven’t been around to say so!

Let me start by telling you about our Christmas parties. On December 7th, we hosted the Christmas party for the preschool children. 62 registered students came, along with their moms/caregivers as well as some younger siblings. Everyone received a meal of rice, chicken and cooked cabbage. It was delicious.
Contrary to any Christmas party I’ve had in the schools back home, the staff are responsible for cooking as well as the program for the day and the clean up afterwards. Brilliant plan on the head teachers part to a) put the moms to work in helping cook; b) to not hand out presents until the clean up had been completed, thus ensuring the mom’s got involved in that too!
Here is a picture of me getting in on the action:

We had several of the older students practicing a rendition of the Christmas story in the weeks leading up to the party. They dressed up in play clothes that we had on hand (albeit they were not the correct costumes; but no one was judging) and they proceeded to act out the Christmas story for their moms and siblings. Talk about chaotic! There wasn’t enough room for all the moms to sit inside and watch so there were some peaking in through every window available. The other children felt they should be part of the drama also, and jumped up and down throughout whenever they felt like entering. The children had not learned their lines so they constantly had to be running back to the teacher in the wings to be given their cue. It was adorable and perfect and messy – just like the
 first real Christmas story!                                     

After all the food and singing and games and clean up, the presents were distributed. Every year, Children of Blessings tries to give each child a new outfit, some hygiene supplies and some toys as well. This year, we had a smaller stock of donated gifts, but a larger number of children sponsored through Child Care Plus. This enabled us to buy clothing and toothbrushes for the students who are sponsored, and then Sara-Jane (my amazing friend from Ottawa) organized her coworkers and students from her high school to donate enough money that we were able to purchase necessary clothing and hygiene items for most of the non-sponsored children.

My main responsibility was to put the bags together, which was increasingly stressful with each new party we hosted.

December 10-14th saw one party each day, averaging 50children per party. Most of these children I had never met, so their names did not mean much to me. I had to research their age, gender and often their relative size as well, in time to make sure their bag was filled with properly fitting clothing and appropriate toys.
All of our documentation is hand written on paper.
There is no electronic database (until now) to access information about the clientele.

Additionally, names are phonetically spelled, so often there is no one correct way to spell a name. I would sometimes be making two or three bags for the same child without knowing it because of the variance of spelling.
Also, age is not important enough to actually calculate accurately.
I have children who, depending on which list I look at, range in age from 2-7. Sometimes its because their parent has listed their age by the year they were born and that over time has not been converted properly; or because the math skills are not strong enough to do the calculation accurately either. Never mind that the size of the child has nothing to do with the age of the child. I have eleven year olds who are smaller than the six year olds, but mentally as young as a three years old. The task of making these bags and ensuring that everything was properly suited was daunting.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I especially loved Tuesday when 54 of MY children came. For the months of October and November I was part of two outreach clinics on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Their Christmas party was held together on the same day, so I was able to make up the presents for the children I was familiar with. Though this was one of our busiest days, it was also my favorite. Each bag was packed with love. Each item of clothing chosen with intention and a silent prayer of blessing prayed over. It’s not as if I was less caring toward all the other children who came on different days; but I had relationship with these ones, and it meant so much more to me to make sure their bags were perfect!

I spent the whole week in a tiny office space – actually taking away all the office space from one of our administrators. Thank goodness she is a kind woman because daily she would have to navigate between me, the boxes, the clothing and the Christmas bags just to get in and out of her computer work area. I was constantly taking over whatever extra space there was in the office and I am sure my huffing, puffing, grunting and groaning were not conducive to her regular work environment.

By the week’s end I was so grateful for the weekend that all I did on Friday night was rest. I barely had energy to move to make dinner. But Saturday morning I woke with the realization and determination to “push through” as we still had two parties to go and 85+bags to complete.
We had, by late in the previous week, completely run out of boys clothing. Despite all the donations that came pouring in the last few weeks of programming, the majority were girls outfits. I cleaned out the second hand store of anything suitable for a boy and was down to mere nothings by the time the last bag was finished.

The last two parties were for our older students: boarding school children and our spec ed teenagers who are not able to be integrated in regular school programs. This gave me a sense of relief as I thought maybe we would have enough clothing for them. But when I checked the store room on Friday, I realized that our mens clothing was as scarce as our boys. We had hundreds (literally) of donated XL tshirts, but nothing that would fit an adolescent boy or young man.

And this, my friends, is where my emotional breakdown hit its lowest point. After striving and struggling through the weekend; shopping first thing Monday morning and then packing bags all day Monday and Tuesday to make sure I did the best that I could to give each child a gift of some kind, I was greeted by mothers and their children, demanding more. Shocked at what I thought I must be misunderstanding, I called for one of my coworkers to come translate. She seemed incredibly embarrassed to have to tell me that the children had been sent to me to tell me they hadn’t received what they expected and wanted me to find them something else!
I was nearly in tears.
First, how could I give them what I did not have? We had no more clothing that would fit them; or be suitable to what they were wanting!
Second, how could they be that demanding? Did I need to show them the store room so they would know how bare it was? Did they really want three XL tshirts instead of the two I had already offered to them? What more were they looking for? And where were these demands founded?
Have we created such a dependency that they are not appreciative of getting what we are able to give. What have we enabled within them by always giving things for free? Do they not realize that our ministry is completely dependent upon donations also?

I was upset! I know that there are some families who are absolutely beyond grateful for COBT. I know that there are moms who can not say thank you enough. And I had to remind myself that it was for these people I have come; for those ones that I have chosen to quit my job, leave my family, my friends and my life and come build relationship with.

I have not come to be abused and used; taken for granted and advantage of. I am not here to dole out charity as though there is an unlimited supply.
I completely recognize that we in N. America DO have more. And I fully believe we have a responsibility to share and give and be generous; and even sometimes at our own expense.
But I am also a proponent of helping those who help themselves. And freebies in the face of insolence drive me to the point of frustration and hurt! And I’ll admit, ANGER also!

By Tuesday’s end I found myself broken. Add these emotions to the fact that I’d worked long and hard for ten days and tired myself out extensively, and you have on your hands one mentally, emotionally and physically drained woman. Now, couple that with the fact that I also am facing a new living arrangement (adjusting to my housemates leaving for America and a new housemate moving in); and an ongoing drama of being pursued by a man who does not know me any better than he does you, and I find myself on the verge of being ready to throw in the towel.

I don’t want to leave. I really don’t. But I'm telling you, my experiences in the last two weeks have brought out all the ugliness within me. The ill-natured attitudes and the unkind thoughts are nearly bursting to be verbalized and put into action.

I have battled against the attention of my taxi driver for the last two weeks and this week it came to a head when I found myself being proposed to! It took a lot of effort and prayer to politely word my decline to his offer of marriage, but when he realized I was not in mutual agreement with his feelings, he became irrational. He insisted that his love for me was real and firmly believed that if he could convince me of this, then I would change my mind. I tried explaining to him that I understood he had feelings towards me, and I was not denying that his feelings were real. But what I was trying to get him to understand is that I did not reciprocate those feelings. It became a regurgitated conversation for the next four days. Whether in person or on the phone, it was never ceasing.
 And this is where I finally just gave up trying to be nice. There is a cultural gap and a language barrier that has disabled me from being able to properly say what I want to say, or have him understand why I am not inclined to be his wife. The only way I have managed (and barely managed at that) to ward him off for the last three days is to blatantly ignore his calls and send one text per day reminding him I’m not interested, for every ten he sends me confessing his love and reminding me he is waiting.
I am annoyed at being objectified. And his pursuit of me based on the color of my skin has evoked feelings of loneliness in me that I have tried for the last three years to move past! (where is that towel gone?)

Please friend, I don’t want you to think I'm cruel. I just would like to share with you what I'm facing and the exhaustion I feel in the midst of it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not concerned for my physical safety at this time. My guard is incredibly protective of me and I have shared with him the concern over the taxi driver. I'm covering my bases.
 But what I have come to realize is that no matter how long I am here, and no matter how comfortable I feel in this culture, I will always remain the Mzungu – the white woman. And I will continue to be an anomaly. And therefore the thought I once had - that with enough time I would blend into Malawian culture - has bowed to a need for higher discretion.
As a result, I will from now on, require the use of a car on the weekends.
I had resisted this endeavor from the beginning, more so for budget concerns than anything else, but also because I was happy taking the mini bus and being a part of the public transportation sector of society. Riding the mini bus has some downfalls, but for the most part, it has been a fantastic way to integrate into Lilongwe life!
However, on the weekends, when I need to do errands, it is very hard to do without a car. First, the mini buses do not always take me in proximity to where I need to go; second, if they do go where I need to shop, I often have to take several to get to the various places; and third, it is not feasible to be on a mini bus with more than one or two bags in hand (trust me, I’ve tried); nor is it really that harmless either. The more parcels a white person carries in public, the more rich they appear and the more of a target they become.

We all know I'm not rich. But, here, I represent rich. And frankly, I am not really keen on making myself a target just to make a point or to prove myself. I hate the fact that driving a car will increase my status in the eyes of those around me, but my safety and comfort have become two issues I'm not willing to put at risk right now.

And that my friends, is my “happy” summary for today!

I'm sorry it sounds so bleak and despairing, but I don’t want you to be alarmed. I am doing okay. I am making the choice to push through and go deeper. Perhaps this is all for a greater purpose. If anything, I am more eager to pour into the lives of those who respect me and treat me as a real friend. I recognize that those who have never asked me for money are people I want to surround myself with and pour into.
Most of these people are my coworkers, and yesterday we had a staff Christmas party at the Lake.
I’ll include a few pictures of our day together so that you can see my new friends and trust me when I say that all is good. All is well.
If God be for us, who can be against us?

Christmas Yabwino to you all!!!! Enjoy celebrating the birth of our Savior wherever you are!

Originally posted to My Heart in Africa