“She stared at me like a long-lost friend and snared my heart with her smile.”
She was one among thousands of children I saw during my first visit to Malawi in November 2006. I’m guessing she was six or seven years old then. We’d been ushered into an empty mud-brick building. Within minutes the room was jammed from side to side and front to back with children. Some sat on the dirt floor, their legs sticking out like toothpicks. Others folded themselves into a squatting position, hugging their bony knees to their chin. We Canadians stood at the front of the room, our backs pressed up against the wall. Then they began to sing for us. That’s when I saw her. She stared at me like a long-lost friend and snared my heart with her smile. The top of her head was crowned with a bright turquoise kerchief. I started taking pictures and, as I pointed my camera around the room, I felt her eyes following me. Every time I looked her way, her grin grew wider. I finally took her picture. But I failed to ask her name.
Now, 11 years later, I am back in Malawi with her picture nestled between the pages of my Bible. Part of me is hoping to find her, or at least find someone who knows her. I’d like to know her name. I’d like to hear her story. I want to learn that she has survived and finished school; that she knows Jesus. Part of me is afraid. I’m afraid of discovering a story that would mangle my heart. The odds were stacked against her when I first saw her. The chances of her becoming a victim of gender-based violence were chilling. The prevalence of HIV-AIDS was staggering then and continues to be so. As a young Malawian girl, she faced enormous cultural and practical barriers when it came to education. Her future, according to the statistics, was bleak.
This visit is an unexpected gift. I never dreamt I’d be back. Our five short days are filled from early morning to evening with bumpy, dusty trips into the countryside to visit what our hosts call community.
As we approach each community, a choir comes out to meet us on the road, then turns to lead us into the village. Malawian singing is like none I have ever heard. The harmonies reach out and hug you. The rhythms wiggle their way into your joints and call you to join in the dance. Malawians can’t sing without dancing or dance without singing. They infect you with their joy.
Eleven years ago, the things I saw broke my heart. I’d witnessed poverty in other parts of the world, but the human suffering I encountered here shook me to my core. This time, what I see makes my heart burst. I witness transformation and hope. I meet survivors of gender-based violence who are healing in a community that listens to their voices and brings their perpetrators to justice. I meet child survivors of sexual abuse, some as young as four years old, who are being tenderly and lovingly cared for in community. I meet men and women living with HIV-AIDS who are not just surviving but thriving due to the medical, spiritual and relational support they have found in community.
These people are living in conditions in which most of us would struggle to survive for a night or two, let alone a life. They have very little and this is the hunger season, when supplies of maize and other staples are running low. But in each community we are invited to share a meal of stewed green vegetables, chicken and nsima—a staple food made from maize flour and water.
Don’t get me wrong: there is still more than enough suffering to mess me up.
On our last day we visit Mgona again, the slum area that undid me 11 years ago. Here we meet a teenager named Patricia. She is lying on a woven mat on the cement floor of her room. Patricia has AIDS. She acknowledges our presence with a slight flicker of her eyelids. Martha and Tandisa are in a similar state when we visit them in their rooms. Workers from Somebody Cares, the ministry hosting us, visit these and others like them here in Mgona on a regular basis. They bring food and medicine. They advocate and offer practical assistance. They are bringing Jesus into this house of misery.
Our last stop of the last day is Mtandile. We’ve come here to meet a child-led household. Harriet leads the household I visit. She is 12 years old. She and her three siblings, Brenda (9), Grace (8), and Gift (7) sit in a tight semicircle on the floor. The support worker who is with us tells us their story. Both of their parents had HIV-AIDS and died three years ago. This means that at the age of nine, Harriet became a mother to her three siblings. There are 15 child-led households in this village alone and another 15 in Mgona, where we have just come from. I think of my four children. I’m asked to offer some words of encouragement to these little giants, and I fight to control my emotions. All the words I’ve reached for in the past desert me. These children have reduced me to a child. So I speak to them, child to child.
My visit is ending, and I have not met my smiling Malawian friend. I knew the odds were long. But I’m going to hang on to the hope that she’s OK. And I’m going to keep her picture in my Bible. It will remind me to pray for Malawi … and to always ask for a name.
This editorial appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.