Come. Walk with me. I have friends I'd like you to know....
He doesn't know how old he is. I don't know what to do with that. He doesn't
celebrate a birthday. He lives in a world I do not understand. His name is Nala.
He and his wife have four children, teenager to toddler. They have taken in five
orphans. Five. He works as a guard...sometimes. He raises maize. He eats two
meals of Nsima each day. That is all. The house he shares with his wife and
nine children would very nearly fit inside my bedroom. His roof is leaking. What
do I do with that? What is there for me to learn here? I wonder....
I see the baby first. He sits on a straw mat playing with an old can and a wire.
He is perfect. His is a cherubic face with a look of fortitude and resolution. Soon
I am given the opportunity to hold him. Are babies all alike...everywhere? He
strokes my hair. He puts his fingers in my mouth. Just...like...my...babies. Just
like. And a world of differences dissolves in that moment.
His mother is Susan. She is 22 years old. Her mother, a widow, is away at the
time of our visit. We learn that Susan's husband is helping support the family.
He is a brickmason. Susan's sister is also married. She is 16. She laughs shyly
at our surprise. I ask James if this is common. "Oh no, he says. This is a very
recent thing." It is not a good thing either. Many of these young marriages are
ending in divorce. When we ask how we can pray for them, Susan says, "Pray
that my husband will continue to love me and not leave me." My heart hurts.
"What do you do for fun?" It is a simple question. It is a logical question if you
are speaking to an American teenager. Matt is 17. So is the Matt who is part of
our team. Both were born in November, though not on the same day. Our Matt
loves to play the guitar. He is part of a band, and teaches guitar. He looks
forward to getting home for the 4th so he can "blow things up". So I ask the Matt
who lives in Kauma, "What do you do for fun?" "I am a businessman. I do not
have time for fun."
Matt buys maize wholesale and sells it in the market. He does this to help care
for his widowed sister, her two children, and the two orphans she has taken in.
Like Nala, she doesn't know how old she is. The whole time we are talking, she
turns away from James and looks down. I ask him about this. Is it because she
is a woman? a widow? Is she just shy? Certain conventions govern how an
unmarried woman is to speak to a man. He says if we were in a more rural
village, she would sit several yards distant from him and they would keep their
backs turned to one another. Also, he says women who are uneducated are
embarassed and tend to look down. I see this young woman already so
burdened by responsibility and loss. I would like to give her the gift of carefree
youth...for a week...for a day. It is not to be.
I smell the cakes before we walk through an opening in a thatched fence to find
a little girl holding a lime. We know something is different here. Maria's sons
and daughters with their families live in the several houses within this compound.
We find Maria on baking day. Every other day she and her granddaugher bake
1,500 maize cakes to sell in the market. I ask about the components of the cakes:
maize, baking powder, milk, eggs... I tell them we make this at home. Cornbread.
I tell them we eat it with beans. We have seen beans in the market. But, I do not
bake my cornbread muffins in tin cans that have been cut in half. I do not stand
outside stoking a charcoal fire in the heat of the day to bake them. I do not tell
We sense this family is doing better than most. Maria's husband works as a
guard, like Nala, and the maize cakes sell for about a nickel a piece. What does
this buy them? They eat a third meal. Tea and scones for breakfast in addition
to their two meals of Nsima. This is wealth. I look at this woman who is so
industrious and I wonder, does she ever dream of anything else? Would she like
to travel? Would she like chocolate? What does she know of the outside world.
I feel defensive of her. I want to offer her these things. Then I wonder, Is she
happy? Is this enough? Could I learn from her to find joy wherever I am? Who
is to say that she does not know far more about happiness than I do? I am
challenged. I am provoked. I have far more questions than answers.
One last stop. At this home, we are invited inside. In the corner is a treadle
sewing machine like the one my grandmother used when I was a very little girl.
Again, I presume that this indicates a person of means. Why? We are
encouraged to sit in the chairs while Dorothy takes her place on the floor.
Though we all rise to offer her our seat, she will have none of it. We are her
guests and hospitality holds a very high value in this culture. Dorothy has the
saddest eyes I have ever seen. Despair. That is the word Kyle uses later to
describe the atmosphere in that place. Dorothy has lost her husband and her
only child. She is raising her two grandchildren as well as two orphans. Oh, and
she has a death sentence. She is HIV positive. The government provides
medication for her, but she can't afford to eat the nutritious foods she has been
told are essential for her health. She worries about dying and leaving these
children alone. Her 17 year old grandson is working and going to college. It is
he who uses the sewing machine to do clothing repairs for people in the village.
If anyone has ever needed hope, Dorothy needs hope. Kyle asks Dorothy if she
knows about Jesus. This begins a beautiful unfolding of the story of how Jesus
loves her and wants to be with her and that she is NOT alone. She says that she
would very much like to know Jesus and that she wants to be with him...now...and
forever. We pray with her and for her. I am reminded of when Jesus visits with
Zaccheus in his home. Zaccheus is forever changed by the experience of
meeting Jesus. Jesus characterizes it like this in the Luke account, "Today
salvation has come to this house..." This is how it feels when we walk away.
Dorothy's circumstances are still very dire. But Dorothy has hope. Salvation
Later in the week we have the privilege of presenting her with a Bible in
Chechewa. She holds it like precious treasure. And I think of my Bible. And I
know I will never see it in quite the same way.
There is a richness to each of the persons we have met on our walk today that I
am truthfully unable to convey. I wish you could hear their voices...the cadence,
the timbre, the tone. I wish you could see how quickly a fussing baby sooths
when its mother ties it on her back. I wish you could see the little children
keeping the fire. I wish you could hear the laughter and the giggles and the
cries of "Nzungu!!" (white person) as we pass. I wish, just once, you could look
into the warm, soft eyes of a Malawian as he grips your hand and continues to
hold it while talking with you. I wish you could have three or four beautiful
children wrapping their arms around your waist all at the same time....
*I hope Nicholas Sparks would not mind that I borrowed his title. It seemed so very
appropriate. I have taken a great many walks in my life, but none more memorable
*Originally published 7 July 2009 after a life changing trip to Malawi.