Frank (far left) and Noel (right) explaining to Village Frank (middle) why we can't take the doves with us.

As I reflect on my time in Malawi, one of the things that stands out to me most is the generosity of its people. I have been very blessed, I know. Particularly in the last few months, friends, family and even strangers have given generously to help me help others here in Africa. The outpouring of support was incredibly moving to me, and continues to be as people send notes of encouragement. I often felt unworthy of the kindness, but I reasoned with myself that at least I would be able to give so much to others over the next year. I was unprepared, though, for the generosity of the poor.

On multiple occasions in Malawi, I was presented with gifts from people who did not have much to give. We visited some of the same areas over the few weeks and I had seen a woman named Ruth about five different times. The first three times Ruth was wearing the same outfit. This is common since most people only have a few outfits. The fourth time though, she was wearing something different. I commented that it was very pretty, which made her smile. The fifth time I saw Ruth, she was wearing that same outfit as the first three times. This time, she approached me with a big smile on her face and a bag in her hand. She said, “I have something for you,” and proceeded to give me her handmade dress. I tried to refuse, but she so pleased when I tried it on and it fit properly and she insisted I keep it.

Another woman, named Alpha, is the wife of a pastor we worked with in Lunzu. She cooked a delicious meal of rice, fish, chicken, tomatos and beans and gave each person on our team a gift of thanks. I received beautiful African fabric which many of the women use as a covering for their skirts or as a scarf. Several of the village people we visited gave us thobwa (a local drink made of maize) and bread.

In Shire Valley, the people walked for many miles to attend our meeting. One man said he and his 5 year old son had walked 18 miles. When we finished speaking, they began playing music, dancing and setting up a table for offerings. Some people brought maize, rice, beans, bananas, even money. I assumed this was to benefit the church, and it wasn’t until they handed it to me that I realized that was all for US. Here are people who lived in mud huts with no running water or electricity, few possessions and every reason to hoard their belongings, and they were generously giving whatever they could to thank us for our time. To refuse to accept it would have been considered incredibly rude though, so we packed it in the car and prepared to leave. I heard a noise in the back as we were pulling away and upon investigation, discovered two live doves in the bag. Our translator, Frank, took the doves out and handed them over to Valley Frank (our appointed name for him to keep all the Franks straight…who knew Frank would be a common Malawian name??) He explained why we couldn’t take them with us: “The airlines are funny these days. They won’t let them pack the doves in their bags.” It was comical.

Several other similar stories follow. It is a wonder I was able to fit it all in my bags. It often seems that those who have the least share the most. I learned from these people that it doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have; you can always show your appreciation. God says we should give “not out of regret or a sense of duty,” but rather we should “give cheerfully.” I have to admit, my yearly drop-offs to Catholic Charities are usually no more than closet cleaning, and I sometimes donate money out of obligation rather than purely a desire to help another person. Yet, I have so much more in comparison to most Malawians, who are happy to freely give of their belongings. Many people in the Western world have all the material things they could ever want, but many still are not happy. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5, those who serve the Lord “seem to possess nothing, but they really have everything.” So the question remains: who is really richer? At any rate, I know I will not forget the kindness of those I encountered in Malawi, and as my generous professor, Dr. Neidermeyer, said “just pay it forward.”

Gift of maize

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