Ongs in Malawi



my big cry

Posted on April 22, 2013 at 5:45 PM

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.


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Reply stephen
3:03 PM on April 23, 2013 
Jo, this is superbly written, and catches so clearly what church here feels like at times for me. It's a big challenge when Sunday mornings feel like such a chore/hard task, and when church is a muddle of incomprehensible songs/words that drag on for hours! All I can say is that when I let my mind wander I do find God in some different ways - although I guess you never have the freedom to relax like that with the 3 balls of energy bouncing around! You're a star for the hard work you do with the family and the slow graft that learning another language is. Blessings,
Reply Claudia
2:27 PM on May 2, 2013 
Jo, I don't know how I got to your blog ... probably via FB ... surely thanks to our Lord!
Thank you for your honesty in sharing your feelings; it isn't easy! I've been there and I know I will be there soon again. So it is good to know (be reminded) that you are not the only one feeling the need to belong when there seam to be no hope. I don't know how many back home would understand but those who are/have been out on the fields do.
Thank you for a good reminder and encouragement. Will be praying for you.
Be blessed in all you do!
Reply amy
7:25 AM on May 12, 2013 
Jo... i can really feel the heartache in this post. Even though I have never experienced church in another culture like this, I can feel what you feel through the way you wrote and through small experiences of feeling out of place. It IS difficult feeling like the lost one. I will be praying for you this week.