Ongs in Malawi



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AEC Central Region Youth Camp 2013

Posted on April 28, 2013 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (1)

"Banja La Mulungu - Kukhala ndi kuchita." This was the theme of the AEC Central Region Youth Camp for this year. In Chichewa, it means “Family of God – To be and to do.” Along with the other camp co-organisers/speakers - Luke (SIM Missionary with Sports Friends) and Fostance (departing AEC National Youth Coordinator) - we wanted to explore with the youth the idea of ‘being the Church.’ But without using the word “church” because most people often associated it with being ‘a building that Christians go to worship God.’ It misses the relational aspect of church as being ‘God’s people,’ whereas, 'the family’ emphasis relationships and responsibility to one another. As part of the morning Bible talks, we looked at the topics: ‘Adopted into God’s family’, ‘Living as God’s Family’, ‘The mission of God’s Family’ and ‘Persevering in God’s Family.’ 

This youth camp was held in Nanjoka, a rural village in Salima. Normally, it would take approximately 4.5hrs drive to get there from Blantyre (where home is), but on the way up, we (Fostance, Chisoni – the new AEC Youth Coordinator – and me) did a slight detour to stop by a town to buy cheaper tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes and other food supplies for the camp. But it became a very long detour as we ended up driving all the way up to Lilongwe (the other capital city of Malawi) and then back down to Salima. We left Blantyre at 10am and didn’t get to Salima until 5:30pm!!

There were about 210 youths who came to the youth camp from about 10 AEC churches in the Central region of Malawi. It was a mix of ‘village’ youth from the Salima region and the ‘urban’ youth from Lilongwe. On the first night of the camp, heavy rains came, despite not having rained there for about 2 months. The rains completely drenched the boys in the early hours of the morning as they were sleeping inside a temporary grass-thatched shelter, especially made a day before the youth camp! But, they showed great attitude and did not complain and accepted it as part of the camp experience. Fostance and Chisoni were able to find a vacant house nearby and rent it for the boys to stay in for the rest of the camp. Running a youth camp here in Malawi is by far very different to the ones I have organised back in Sydney. You can only plan so much here and the rest you have to literally leave it in God’s hands! There is no such thing as registration so you cannot be sure of the numbers coming. You just have to go with the flow, and trust God with the outcome!

Besides the Bible talks in the morning, we also had other sessions looking at practical aspects such as:

- Sports outreach

- Discipleship groups

- Understanding HIV/AIDS

- Education and career development

- Question and Answer time (Panel)

The Q&A time gave the youth an opportunity to ask any burning questions that they had. Boy, were there a lot of questions! We, on the Panel Panel knew from the start that we would not have enough time to answer all the questions, and so we selected the questions that we felt were typical of the set and for which we could answer adequately.

Some of the questions ranged from:

- What are the grounds for divorce?

- Can I go out with an unbeliever? 

- Does God send terrible diseases like HIV/AIDS to punish people?

- Can I wear a skirt above my knees? or can girls wear trousers?

- What kind of things should I look for in a future marriage partner?

Each one of these questions are worthy of a blog entry themselvs, but the one that grabbed my attention was on divorce. This came as abit of a surprise to me as I didn’t think divorce would be an issue here in Malawi given the strong emphasis on the family and community orientation in African culture than the Western culture. So if this was the case, why would the youth be asking this considering that many of them would not even be married yet (if any at all)? So I probed abit deeper to find out why this might be the case when I got back from the camp. What I discovered was that my assumption was incorrect and that in Malawi, the divorce rate is in fact increasing! According to one study, estimates of divorce in rural Malawi is as high as between 40-65%. The study also suggests that women use divorce mainly as a strategy to reduce their own risk of HIV infection.  Given that Malawi is one of the African countries hardest hit by the HIV/AID pandemic (with a current prevalence rate at about 11%), I can understand why the women would use divorce as a preventative measure from getting HIV from their infected husbands. So if this was what the youths had in mind when they asked about the grounds for divorce, I can understand why they would ask that. Maybe some of them have parents who have been divorced for that reason? Or maybe for the rural girls it might be a reality that they wilI soon face in the future? I don’t really know for sure, but it has certainly caused me to think more deeply about this issue, and about the social impact of HIV/AIDS especialy on the youth in relation to their families. This is one of many issues facing the youth here, and any ministry to them must not only be solid theologically but must be culturally and socially relevant speaking into their situations, and equipping/empowering them to face these issues.

On lighter note... a Malawian youth camp would be incomplete without singing! This was one of the highlights for me. Each church choir was given opportunity to sing the songs that they have been practicing before youth camp, and they all sang so beautifully during the sessions! They also sang and danced to music pumped through loud speakers late into the night! God has certainly blessed the Malawian youths with the gift of singing!

Another highlight for me was watching the fabulous 'Drama/Talent show' presented by the teams. What I observed that was common in all the skits presented was the prominent role that 'Abusa' (Pastors) played in lives of the people here. The youth were fantastic in their acting and displayed a great sense of humour in the way that they comically 'send-up' their Abusa. They protrayed the Abusa as either the solver of all problems or the cause of them! He is protrayed as the hero who exorcises the 'demons' liberating the youth from their bondage to drunkeness and smoking; or as the counsellor who solves all marriage crises. There is so much one can learn about Malawian youth culture simply by watching the dramas they put on.

I have to admit, Youth camp was hard work! By the end of each day, we were all physically, mentally and emotional exhausted. But it was definitely worth it as it was a really special time for the youth. Youth camps are a great platform for ministry to the youth here. As I look back on my on faith journey, many of my ‘mountain top’ experiences have been at youth camps. I can remember to this day the people I went with, the themes we explored, and the commitments that we made along the way. These in a way are like the spiritual milestones of my own growth, and have shaped me as the person that I am today. I hope that the youth camps here will have the same spiritual effect for the Malawian youth as they have been for me growing up. Please continue to pray for all the youth who went to this youth camp that the Gospel will bear fruit in their lives and that they will 'be' and 'do' as God's people in their communities. 

Come August,  we will be venturing into Njsanje, the heartland of the AEC to run our second youth camp. This time we will be expecting over 800 youth to turn up!



my big cry

Posted on April 22, 2013 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (3)

We have been blessed with a lovely ‘home’ church (Bangwe AEC Church) which we’ve been going to since we arrived in Malawi. We are slowly making connections with people there. Pete preaches sometimes and the English Sunday School I do in the back of our car has just been made ‘official’ by the church elders. People know us and we are feeling more and more like we belong there.

(Sunday school in the back of our car at our Malawian home church - Bangwe AEC)

But for the past 2 months, we have been visiting the different AEC churches in Blantyre in order to meet and encourage the youth and children’s leaders with whom we’ll be working. We have been doing this every 2nd week. These are village churches where most of the women do not speak English. The men, however, speak English as they go out to work. It was during these times, that I really felt out of place.

Some days visiting a new church brings me so much encouragement. Encouragement from seeing brothers and sisters in Christ with so little yet so content and joyful in the Lord. But yet there are days like yesterday when I tried unsuccessfully to hold back silent tears as I sat in the midst of a foreign culture listening to a foreign language as everyone eyed me with suspicion.

I’ve visited many churches as a visitor in an English setting, been to Mandarin speaking services where I could understand little (my parents spoke Cantonese). But this was nothing like that. In the English and Mandarin settings, I knew the social cues and understood the culture. I didn’t stand out in appearance and quietly blended in though I may have felt new and stupid inside.

So yesterday (Sunday), we visited a new church. As usual, as soon as we arrived, Pete was taken into the fold of the pastor and elders as they sat together before the service to pray. Pete chatted easily with the pastor in English, the pastor introduced me to his wife who didn’t speak any English. I greeted her politely in Chichewa. So for the next half an hour, I stood around by myself like an idiot and awkwardly greeted some women as they trickled in. It is amazing how difficult it is to make small talk in another language…

A good conversation went something like this:

Me: Mwazuka bwanji? (How did you sleep?)

Woman: Ndazuka bwino, kaya inu? (I slept well, and you?)

Me: Ndazuka bwinonso. Zikomo. (I also slept well, thank you)

Woman: Zikomo. (Thank you)

*awkward silence*

Me: Ndine Jo (I am Jo).

*woman nods and smiles. Silence*

Me: Timachokera ku Australia (We come from Australia)

*more nodding, smiling, and silence*

Me: Timagwira ntchito ku SIM. (We work with SIM)

*nod, smile, more awkward silence, I nod, she nods, then woman politely walks away*

To avoid looking and feeling more stupid. I pretended to busy myself with the kids, saying random things to them that really didn’t need to be said: “Be careful with that rock” (we are surrounded by rocks here) “Caya, what are you doing?” (obviously just sitting on a rock, mum)…

I was relieved when finally I heard singing coming from inside the church, signalling the start of the service. I herded the kids together and we headed inside to find a place to sit. Pete remained outside with the pastors, who would make their grand entrance after the opening song.

Should I sit near the front near where Pete is sitting with the pastors? Do they expect me to sit with them? Is it appropriate to sit at the back where I can make an unnoticeable exit should Caya throw a tantrum? Where are the women sitting (some churches, like ours, the men and women sit on different sides)?

All the while, I was running through in my head the words I needed to introduced myself in Chichewa in case I am given a moment to do so.

At this point, I shed a few quiet tears.  It was all a bit too much. Not just this once, but after many many weeks of this same routine.

The service began and we sung one of the Chichewa choruses (without printed words) and as usual I stood, clapped, swayed, and mouthed along appropriately. This was followed by a few songs from the hymn book. I liked this part, Chichewa is phonetic so I could actually read along and feel for a minute that I belonged, even if I had no idea what I was singing. (Once I forgot my hymn book, and Pete was sitting too far to share his, I felt so dumb that I just stood there and cried.) Then came the Bible reading, I tried to read along in my Chichewa Bible, except they read so fast I got lost after the first few words. Then it was the Lords prayer, and despite having printed it out and stuck it on our toilet wall, I’ve only managed to learn the first 4 lines off by heart and even then I could only say it slooooowly.

(Sunday School at the church we visited)

For the rest of the service, I settled comfortably into feeling stupid, standing when everyone else stood and sitting when they sat. Looking intently at whoever was speaking in order to pick out words that I could understand.

Teaghan, Lucas, and Caya ran in and out of the seats, digging dirt. When they wandered too far (or too close to the front) I would whisper/hiss as loudly/softly as I could through my teeth: “cooome baaack!!”. I offered them the first instalment of snacks from my bag (I usually pack 2-3 instalments in little ziplock bags, starting with popcorn then puffs – both locally available, then sweet biscuits – a luxury for most here – in case of emergency. Usually Caya would throw a tantrum because she wants the biscuits and none of the entrée I’d packed, so I’d relent and let her eat the biscuits just to keep her quiet, all the while guiltily feeling the eyes of local kids watching her in envy). Lucas began to annoy his sisters, who then began protesting loudly. Uh oh, kids are getting restless. We allow the kids to each bring ONE small toy to church along with some paper and pencils. We explained to them that the other kids don’t have toys. These don’t usually last long in a 2-3 hour service. But thank God they like digging dirt. Yesterday I brought plastic spoons, I was so proud of my ingenious idea inspired by childhood memories of mum giving us film canisters and spoons to dig sand with at the park. That worked well, until Lucas got frustrated and burst into tears because all the boys wanted to borrow his spoon.

Then I caught enough words to understand that the kids were going out for Sunday School. So, under the watchful eyes of everyone who were curious about the now standing foreigners, we quickly stood up and followed the kids outside. Teaghan and Lucas sat on the fringe. We mainly just watched as we had no idea what was happening. We heard “Abalahamu” (Abraham), so they must’ve been telling the story of Abraham. Then all of a sudden, the kids jumped off the veranda we were sitting on, and ran out onto the field. Teaghan and Lucas didn’t know what to do and the teacher did not try to include them, so I told them “RUN!” Teaghan looked at me, we smiled, shrugged, and off she ran! What a good sport. She ran after the kids and Lucas followed. Then the other kids were standing around holding hands in a circle, I didn’t know what they were playing but told Teaghan and Lucas to join in anyway. They were standing outside the circle, waiting to be included, but no one opened up to let them in. Eventually, Teaghan - with her growing confidence - pushed her way in for herself and little bro. Bless her! During this time, Caya was happily running in and out of church playing with the other 1-2 year olds. Once I peeked inside church and found her lying on a pew ‘chatting’ with another little girl. All is well as long as she wasn’t screaming or dancing at the front as she did once at our own church.

I'm supposed to be speaking with the Sunday School teachers to get an idea of what they are doing and to encourage them, but none of them spoke English and my Chichewa is not good enough to have such an in-depth conversation. Perhaps that is the reason why God has given me the ability to pick up Chichewa a little bit quicker than Pete... though it is still not enough at this stage. I think if God had asked me first, I would've chosen English speaking Malawian women at churches over having an edge over Pete in speaking Chichewa.

Finally, the blessed sight of people filing out of church! In Malawi, when church finishes, everyone lines up to shake hands. But this time, by the time I got there, the hand-shaking was already over. I felt like I had disrespected the culture by not shaking hands. *sigh* Oh well, I was just glad that church was over for another week.

That afternoon, I napped for hours and that evening, I had a big cry on Pete.

Maybe this is the ‘9-month blues’. Maybe I’m just tired of being different. Maybe I just want to feel like I belong somewhere. I don't want to go home yet. I just want to feel like I belong here.


Kids Bible Club

Posted on February 12, 2013 at 12:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Chinamen eat people.

So that's what we were confronted with as we opened our gate 30 mins before our very first monthly Kalabu ya Ana ya Baibulo (Kids Bible Club) was due to begin. Kids had begun to arrive, but we were surprised to see that after coming in and waiting around for a few minutes, a few had gotten up and left. Dickson then explained to us that some in Malawi believe that Chinese folk eat people. Great. We were discouraged but trusted that God would bring others to the KBC.

Together with Dickson, we prayed for the KBC that God would use it for his glory.

At 2:05pm, we made a start with the 10 or so kids that God had brought to our place so far, but slowly more and more joined us, until our yard was filled with 60+ kids...  most looking a little unsure about these Chinemen standing before them. Slowly, those who were a bit uncertain (that we would eat them??) began to relax, especially as we began speaking in Chichewa. With God’s enabling, we introduced ourselves and nervously told our over-rehearsed story in Chichewa of when our Creator called the world into being. 

We had spent the previous week working hard with our language teacher Fannie as she assisted us in writing the story of Creation, translating a song, working out instructions for craft and games, and any other words we may need, such as “khalani” (please sit), “wokoza!” (good!), “munene nane” (you say it with me), and “tidzaonana mwezi wamawa” (see you next month). We were stretched in our language learning but thankful for the opportunity to grow in our knowledge of the local language.

Part of the challenge of running the KBC was that we wanted it to be one day replicable for the locals. After all, our job is to do ourselves out of a job by training local Christians to reach and teach their own. This meant that we needed to use methods and materials that are easily available to Christians here, so instead of using felt pictures to tell the story, glue sticks and scissors for craft, we used a blackboard, chalk, and pictures drawn on the back of old cardboard. For craft, we made bees out of used egg cartons, pre-cut newspaper, and elastics.

Overall, we had an awesome time hanging out with the kids, teaching them the Word of God, and also learning so much from them in return. Next month, the Kid’s Bible Club will be held 2 weeks before Easter. We will be teaching about the Fall linked with the story of the cross. Would you pray with us that God would bring to our place kids who need to hear about the saving work of Christ and also that we’ll communicate well the message of God’s amazing grace for us in sending Jesus.

6-month blues?

Posted on January 20, 2013 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (4)

On Friday, we celebrated our 6 month anniversary in Malawi.

Wow how time has flown. On the one hand it feels like we have been here forever, on the other hand, it feels like we only just arrived yesterday!

They say 6 months is when you hit the '6-month-blues'. When the frustration of language hits you and you hit the peak of homesickness.

As we approached the 6 month mark, we prepared for the worst and so far it has been ok. My theory is that when you are a family with kids, the homesick blues hits you earlier, as I remember feeling very down at around 3 months. As a parent, on top of being culturally overwhelmed and trying to adjust to a new country yourself, you also bear the weight of shouldering the emotions of your children as they too find their place in a new land whilst at the same time grieving all that they left behind, yet lacking the understanding to make sense of it all. I would have to say that has been the hardest thing since arriving in Malawi, but we continue to be amazed at how God has given our kids a love for Malawi and nurtured their blossoming confidence to operate in their new surroundings.

A lot has happened in the past 6 months. God has been our rock and has carried us through so much. He has enabled us to get a grasp of a new language. He has sustained us when we have been sick. He has protected us when Pete was in hospital. He has helped Caya learn to walk and talk. He has given Teaghan and Lucas the courage and confidence to make new friends. He has given us strength to get our home set up. He has blessed us with 6 pets plus fish. The new-to-the-country fog is starting to lift at the foot of our Malawian mountain.

Now that we are settled into our new home and finding places to buy things, I'm beginnig to see that the sacrifice of leaving Australia has not so much been material but relational. God has blessed us with every material thing we need here as well as given us contentment where we're lacking. But the distance between us and friends and family back home will always be felt.

The hardest thing has been taking the kids away from their grandparents. It has been heartbreaking to watch them miss Grammy, Grandma & Grandpa with all their hearts, particularly for Teaghan who sobbed and sobbed at the airport as she farewelled her beloved Grammy who she misses having tea parties with.

6 months on and we're starting to miss being there for friends. We miss being there for birthdays, pregnancies, births, engagements, weddings, crisis, dramas, etc. While we were in Australia, we deinifitely took for granted the ease with which we could communicate with friends to be a listening ear during times of trouble or share a simple hug during times of joy.

With time, we know it wil get easier.

With time, we know we will make new friends.

New friends will never replace old friends but will sure distract us from missing them.

But for now, we feel the distance.

For now, we thank God for email, Skype, and Facebook :)

~ Jo

Us on our first day in Malawi

Us on our 6-month anniversary in Malawi 

Back on the shelf?

Posted on October 18, 2012 at 1:40 PM Comments comments (2)

When we left Australia, I told God that I was ready to hand back this 'cake thing'. I thanked Him for lending me this wonderful gift if only for a little while. Here you go, God, you can put it back on the shelf now. See you in ten years.

You see, I had never planned on starting a cake business. God made it happen and God made it successful.

So with plans to serve in Africa, I naively thought what use would cake decorating be in AFRICA??

In my mind the door was closed, or almost. So just in case, I brought along my cake stuff, and enough equipment to run a small workshop.

We have only been here 3 months, and so far I have already made two cakes. Four people have enquired about ordering cakes, three of which are not part of the missionary community. More have expressed an interest in learning how to make cakes, and I am making cupcakes for the school PTA Christmas Concert with one Malawian mum already offering to help and learn.

WHOA GOD! where are you taking this? I thought I gave it back!!

Back on the shelf. or so I thought.



On one hand I was quite happy to be rid of the title of 'The Cake Lady'. On the other hand, it gives me great joy to bless others with cake. 

Ok, so God might want me to use this to bless other missionaries, the expat community, and the few Malawians who can afford to buy decorated cakes. To use cakes as a way of connecting with people. Is that what you want, God?

Last week, we learnt from our language teacher that cake is a rare treat for most Malawians. The average Malawian's diet consists mainly of maize, dried fish, and veggies. Ingredients needed for a cake - butter, flour, eggs, milk, and sugar costs way more than they can afford. On top of that, they do not have the equipment to make and bake a cake.

And to think that all those times when I had given left over cake and cupcakes to the carpenters, guards, and neighbourhood kids without a second thought. It is truly humbling to think that my left-overs were a rare treat for them. Blessing others with cake has just taken on a whole new meaning here in Africa!

But still I wonder, what do you want me to do with this 'cake thing', Lord?

You gave it to me for a reason, now I'm beginning to think that perhaps my time making cakes in Australia was just the beginning....

Our carpenters enjoying the first batch of cupcakes from my new oven


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