March 11 - A day from Ekwendeni

A day from Ekwendeni

            I waken to the smell of smoke from burning wood. Helen’s boiler has been lit. There will be hot water.

            All five of us are to be collected at 8a.m. to visit a LISAP project in a place called Camwe (Livinstonia Synod Aids Project). There are too many of us and so I ride in the rear of the Pickup along with ‘Charity’ who works for LISAP.

            It is raining. The Pickup leaks, even although (mercifully) the rear is covered. Ever concerned for the comfort of visitors, they stop and conjure a mattress from somewhere.

            We travel along a track akin, I suppose, to a very rough forest drive. It continues to rain and parts of the road turn to mud and quagmire and become increasingly difficult to pass. Our driver, a lovely Christian lad called Petros, is an excellent driver who uses the ‘four wheel drive’ to great effect. He negotiates chasms which I think need to be bridged and rescues the vehicle from seas of mud that hippos would hesitate to wallow in. There are times when I am sure we are about to tip over. Mentally, I formulate an exit strategy from the sealed rear of a rolled Pickup.

            There are advantages in facing out the rear window whilst travelling. I am repeatedly astonished at what we have just driven through, and blissfully unaware of what we are approaching. I ponder in my mind a children’s address about being grateful for what has been and trusting the ‘divine driver’ for what lies ahead.

            During the 90 minute journey, I chat to Charity, and struggle all the time to find a comfortable position. She tells me of her work and her family. Like me, she has three boys. We speak of our love for our children; and our concerns – parents the world over.

Charity’s husband is a farmer. They recently stopped growing tobacco, because they felt it was a crop that did harm. They now grow beans. It has been a good move, since the price of tobacco has fallen.

            After leaving the track and negotiating something that is not much bigger than a rough path, we arrive at our first stop. It is a community based child care project catering for a large number of AIDS orphans. The term ‘orphan’ refers to the many who have literally been orphaned, but includes those who are being cared for by single parents or grandchildren who cannot meet their basic needs. It also includes those children who find their families have been enlarged by child relatives who have been orphaned. If you have six children and suddenly add four who are destitute then resources are overstretched. Currently LISAP support 2,400 such orphans. The emphasis is on keeping them within the community, since distant orphanages are not always what they should be.

            In a small classroom, there must be at least 70 such children of nursery age. I struggle not to weep. So many vulnerable children in one place, whose lives have been overtaken by tragedy before they are even of an age to comprehend what is happening. Many of these children will be HIV positive.

            They are singing with gusto as we enter. They sing the alphabet for us, and then a song with the months of the year. They are led by trained volunteers from within the community. As a former teacher, I am deeply impressed by the gifts of these volunteers for engaging with the children, despite the near total lack of resources.

            A nearby room contains a similar number of slightly older children. There are sums on a chalk board. The local chief speaks to us about how the roof leaks in heavy rain. I look through the window where it is pouring in stair-rods. I would hate to see ‘heavy’ rain.

            The rain eases, and outside volunteers prepare porridge over an open fire. All the children are provided with a meal. Elsewhere, a meal of porridge is provided by the charity ‘Mary’s Meals’, recognising that children don’t learn much if they have no food in their stomachs.

            We pile back into the Pickup. I resume my place on the mattress, next to Charity. We are surrounded by smiling, waving, singing, shouting children.

            So many orphans. So much need.

            The best thing? They all look very happy.

They chase us for about a mile as we drive off.

            Our next port of call is a Herbal Garden created and tended by a support group of those living with HIV/AIDS. There are no fewer than seven such groups. The herbs include Aloe Vera, pineapple plant, ginger and sundry others. They are all perceived to have medicinal properties. Those who are living with HIV/AIDS often fall prey to secondary illness, and these plants provide an alternative to unaffordable medicine.

            Our own Gerald has been bitten. It is the end of the rainy season and so the mosquitoes are sabre toothed. They pull up his sleeve and immediately Aloe Vera paste is added, straight from the plant.

            Then, on to a piggery, run by the same support group. Each support group runs a piggery and a herb garden. They support themselves, even as they are supported.

            Lunch is cooked for us out in the open. ‘Sima’ – a dough made from maize flour – chicken with egg and small fish (heads, tails, eyes, the lot!)

            On to the church building where we are welcomed by the chiefs and hear reports from various groups. As we leave, the minister takes my hand, ‘Pastor,’ he says, ‘can you help me, I have a problem with my Session Clerk. He has swearing.’ I am perplexed at the prospect of being called upon to admonish a stranger for the use of bad language. However, when Kevin’s shirt is removed, it is clear that the problem is ‘swelling’. I call upon Annie McDonald, who, as a nurse, confirms what the man has already been told at the hospital. The growth is too near the spine to be easily removed. We from the West do not have the answers to all problems.

            The journey home to Helen’s is even more challenging, as the rain has rendered part of the track close to impassable. We pass a similar Pickup to ours being dug out the ditch. I remind myself that LISAP workers face such conditions throughout the rainy season. This is Malawi.


            The church in Malawi is not seamlessly perfect, any more than the church in Scotland is the hopelessly flawed. We each have weaknesses and strengths. However, I am profoundly challenged by the vision, determination and self-sacrifice exemplified by so many, both Malawian and missionary, as they serve Christ in a place of such poverty and suffering. Of course, one of the most prominent in Ekwendeni, and someone who is held in the highest regard by the Malawians, is our own Helen Scott. Barely a day goes by without Helen being visited by those in need of support and guidance. Her quiet, steady influence in school, church and community is remarkable.

            Do our lives so reflect the same love of Christ, so that we would serve here in Scotland with such self-sacrifice? Do those around us, recognising that love, come to us for support? Is the quality of my Christian life as telling as it should be?

            Yours thoughtfully

            Martin Thomson

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