Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
December 11, 2016
This time seems surreal to me. It’s strange to be far from home when I feel like the world is collapsing. I feel like I’m living in a Star Wars movie where the Empire Strikes Back, but it’s not over yet. There’s another sequel. The release date is yet to be announced. Stay tuned. Bad things are happening. The colors have turned to black and grey. Gandalf has fallen into the pit and I don’t know yet if he gets out. I can’t shake the feeling of doom. Am I depressed or living in denial? I don’t even know anymore. I cling to small successes and try to stay focused. I remind myself I’m not a quitter.
The pediatric ward is across a courtyard from my office. This yard is a large square plot surrounded by long one-story brick buildings and walkways. Clotheslines cover the area where they hang the hospital laundry. Every day, on the other side of the hanging blankets and sheets, I hear wailing. It signals that another child has died. It starts out low and then builds. The women and men, but mostly women, move through the walkways accompanying the body, wailing in procession. It haunts me. I never get used to it. It happens every day at least once, sometimes more. When it starts, I feel a sickness in my gut and I murmur, “Oh, no.” I never see or hear anyone around me acknowledge it. It’s just that common.
In the past month, two families, friends from my community at home have lost children. It’s shocking and horrible and I feel suspended with grief for them. I listen to the women wailing and want to join in. But I’m not part of them. I stand aside and watch them pass, bow my head with respect, feel my heart break some more, don’t know what to do. I feel like I should be home grieving with my community. My words seem small and meaningless. I think, “Oh, God, not again. Not again.” But yes, again.
Who knows why we are put on this earth and what our purpose is? We all have near-misses and I wonder, why was I spared? What purpose? And when that happens I feel I have a bigger responsibility to make good use of the time I have been given. I shouldn’t waste the gift.
This past week there was a faculty meeting in Lilongwe. I mentioned before we have two campuses and the students go back and forth for different semesters and clinical experiences. These campuses are a five hour drive apart. The faculty remains at their own respective campus but convene for meetings and seminars at unspecified intervals. I’m always surprised at the short notice given for these meetings as they involve rearranging classes, which seems no-big-deal to those faculty accustomed to such practices. To me it is bizarre. Last week we received a notice that we were all to convene in Lilongwe to elect a new dean and heads of departments. This happens every two years. We had one week notice about this, and though arranging transport can be done rather quickly, I didn’t see how I could miss the lectures I had planned or the mid-term exam I was giving. But that was the expectation, so I scrambled to combine topics and arrange for student time in the skills lab. I managed to fit in the mid-term exam the morning of our departure and figured I could do some grading on the bus. That was wishful thinking (something I am doing a lot of these days).
The bus that carried the fifteen of us to the capitol city was clearly a donation from the UK. It was something like the local number 9 from 1974 on a route from Piccadilly to Paddington. The driver’s seat was in a cage with the coin tray under the protective glass facing the door. I counted, and there were seats for 75 passengers. It was apparently the only transport available that would fit the fifteen of us. The windshield was huge and offered a full view of the road and surroundings. The cord that you’d pull to signal the driver you want to get off at the next stop was defunct, but hanging, near the luggage rack over the seats. This bus was not meant for long journeys but I actually found it comfortable enough, especially since we all had our own row of seats.
I stayed with a fellow volunteer at the housing for KCN faculty in Lilongwe and got to the meeting Wednesday morning ready for some theater. I know the argument could be made that this could be done more efficiently; we could have had some webinar set up somehow, but that’s not how it’s done here. I’m not one to support unnecessary meetings, but I love to watch how it works. I love the greetings, I love the outfits, I love the speeches and the passion. I love that it’s all done in person. I just love the humanity of it all. I think there were fifty of us in a huge room, sitting around a table that formed a square. Greetings were done, opening prayers offered, discussion of agenda, apologies shared for starting late, and the protocol for electing a new dean began. Not coming from an academia lifestyle, I had never seen this done before and don’t know if it is customary in our systems, it may vary between institutions, but I liked hearing what they had to say and just see how the politics of it all works. Being volunteers on a contract, we were not allowed to actually cast a vote, which made our attendance at the meeting a bit ornamental, but I liked being part of the club. I feel more connected. There were some of us heading back to Blantyre the same day as we had lectures to give on Thursday morning, so twelve of us boarded the bus home around four p.m.
When we were about an hour from Blantyre I was getting dozy and laid my head down on my bag on the seat next to me. I started falling asleep when I heard what I thought was a gunshot, then smashing glass and screaming. I jerked my head up, saw the window across from me was smashed, just as the window behind it smashed and more glass came flying through the bus. The midwives in the seats near those windows covered their heads and scrambled to the other side of the bus as the driver managed to get the bus off the road. I had no idea what happened. I really thought someone shot at us. I was laying low across the seat in case another window went. There was glass everywhere and rain was coming in the huge holes in two of the windows. We all did a check to make sure everyone was ok, which they were. Thank God the glass was the kind that shattered in small round pieces and not sharp shards.
It turns out we were sideswiped by a big lorry and the side mirror hit the two windows. A matter of a few more inches in our lane and we all would have been toast. I was shaking. There was a lot of Chichewa flying around and it took a while before someone translated to me what was going on. We had to turn around and go back several miles to the road block where there were police to file the report. When we got there we found the truck that hit us was stopped there. He was afraid to stop at the scene as there is a custom of “instant justice” and he wanted to be near the police. It took a long time to get the police record done, but we were safe and huddled together wrapped in chitenjes at the back of the bus where the glass that was continuing to fly around wouldn’t hit us. We got home late, shaken up but all safe. The driver was amazing. He never lost control of the bus and that could have easily happened. We could have flipped.
I wasn’t at my prime for my lecture on Thursday. I explained the event to the students and told them I was tired; they were curious as they’d seen the bus with the smashed windows in the parking lot and wondered what happened.
So anyway, it was a close call. I walked around all day Thursday grateful that were were spared a worse fate. We checked in with each other. There were a lot of “Praise Jesuses” uttered. I felt like my work isn’t done. It wasn’t my time.
I keep hoping against hope that this farce of an election result will get turned around and I’ll have a country I can be proud of. Getting snips of news and not know how reliable it is frustrates me but also allows me to cling to shreds of hope that it may turn around. The university closes for two weeks over the holidays and we are leaving on Thursday for Johannesburg where we’ll rent a car and travel for the break. The next three days will be busy with lectures and clinical exams, and then we’ll have the privilege of travel and adventure which are denied to so many. I am well aware of how many blessings I have been given.
It’s so strange to be away right now. Part of me wants to stick my head in the African soil and pretend this isn’t happening and part of me wants to go home to fight. I find myself wondering what that means. What kind of fight will this entail? What are we really willing to risk? The Syrians didn’t want to leave their country. What if we are begging foreigners to take us in? Am I over reacting? I’m starting to wonder in a new way what it’s like to have to leave all you know and love behind.
I am praying for my friends who are suffering the ultimate loss. I am imagining Maiysha, Isis, Zeb, and Gabe being rocked in the arms of angels. I pray for all the parents here who lose children every day. I pray that the craziness that has descended on our country is a transient aberration and that justice ultimately prevails. I believe it will eventually, but hope we can afford the cost.
Next Sunday we’ll be in Drakensberg in a cabin in the mountains on the border of Lesotho. From there we go to Durban where Ghandi first landed and lived. We’ll be in Cape Town for Christmas and hope we can get out to Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned. I want inspiration. I’m feeling a little lost. And scared. Something about the mass we went to today gave me a sense of peace, however. I don’t know why, but I felt it, so I’ll hold it.
Love to all,