A letter from Janet Guyer serving as regional facilitator for women and children’s ministries in English-speaking Africa, based in Malawi
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A few weeks ago I woke up on a plane flying along the east coast of Africa. Looking out the window, I saw a beautiful sunrise, as if God had taken a red-orange paintbrush and painted one broad streak across the horizon. It reminded me of the first time I came to Africa in 2001 for a meeting. Then I was going somewhere new and exciting. Now I was joyfully coming home to Malawi after taking personal leave to help my parents move out of their home of almost 20 years. Dad is now happily settled into the Assisted Living section of the same facility where Mom has been in the Skilled Nursing section for the past couple years. Ndiyamika.
Ndiyamika, ‘I am grateful.’ This is one of my favorite words in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi. The months since moving here have been about as challenging as any I have known. Seven months without a permanent home took a higher toll than I expected. But ndiyamika, I am writing to you from the office of my new home in Lilongwe. It’s a great house for welcoming friends and for being at home in. I also have new addition to the ‘family,’ a ginger cat named Ginger.
It took about seven months from the time I arrived to find this place. I had thought I had one lined up when I came, but that fell through. Ndiyamika for friends, Malawian, American, Korean, who took me in during these months and showed such hospitality and welcome while I was rootless.
And to the CCAP, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, ndiyamika kwambili (very much) for the warm welcome and the helping hand. The Nkhoma Synod, my host synod, has walked with me through months of house hunting and helped to process all the paperwork one needs to move to a new country.
In visiting the Blantyre and Livingstonia Synods of the CCAP here in Malawi as well as partner churches in Zambia and Zimbabwe and as far afield as Ethiopia, a country now back on my list, I have been touched by the warmth of people’s welcome and how excited many are, including me, at the possibilities of my new position, Facilitator for Women’s and Children’s Interests.
‘So what is it that a Facilitator for Women’s and Children’s Interests does?’ This question has been asked any number of times and the answer is still a bit of a long one. You may remember from the AIDS Consultant days that I would say generally it is a three-part job. The first part was to walk along with our African partners on behalf of you and the people in the PC(USA). The second was to provide technical support, and the third is to share with you what is happening here. Those three areas are still there. Now, however, instead of focusing on HIV and AIDS, I am focusing on the issues and challenges that face women and children in churches and in communities and how the church walks alongside the women and children. What my job looks like in one country could be very different from what I do in another. To a significant degree that is dependent on how the churches identify the needs in their local situation and what it is they want to do to address them. So for this first period of time I am building relationships and listening; listening to various people within the churches, especially the women and children and those who are interested in their welfare. The countries to which I have been assigned are basically English-speaking countries. I have a counterpart who is holding the same position and working in the French-speaking countries. Presbyterian mission co-worker Christi Boyd is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between the two of us we walk alongside partner churches in 10 countries.
Let me share with you a bit about Malawi, which is now home. In some ways Malawi is an amazing country for me because of all the countries I have visited in Africa it reminds me the most of the Thailand of my childhood. The vegetation and climate are very similar. The warmth and friendliness of the people is truly heartwarming. Malawi does style itself as the ‘warm heart of Africa,’ after all.
Perhaps another interesting way to look at Malawi is to look at two statistics. Economically, Malawi is in the bottom 10 percent globally. At the same time, happiness statistics (yes, there seem to be statistics for everything) put Malawi in the top 10 percent globally. I find the juxtaposition interesting. It is true what the old wisdom says about not needing money to be happy.
The church I partner with here is the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). It is divided into three strong synods and its membership comprises one-third the population of Malawi.
When I speak with the women leadership here in Malawi and ask what they see as the main issues facing women, consistently two items come up. One has to do with the lack of income and the other has to do with violence, including gender-based violence. The rates of domestic violence and abuse are at least twice what they are in the U.S. Why is this? Frankly, I don’t know. Some of it will have to do with cultural practices combined with it being such a patriarchal society, but certainly this is only a piece of the picture. Talking about matters having to do with sex or very personal matters is taboo and therefore a challenge for the church. However they are starting to address this in different ways. As with many issues the place to start is with identifying the problem as a problem and talking about it. Many departments within the churches are working to find the best way to address issues of gender inequality and violence and make a difference in the lives of the people.
One such project is based in Livingstonia Synod (in the north). Through its Livingstonia Synod AIDS Programme (LISAP) it is focusing on the issue of early marriage. Recently I read that half of all women in Malawi are married by the time they are 18. Too many are pulled out of school to be married off before they are 15. The reality of just how prevalent this is came home to me in a personal way yesterday. In interviewing a new guard for my house, I learned that he has a 15-year-old daughter who failed the 8th grade. She now has a baby and a 35-year-old husband. The good news is that Malawi has recently passed a law prohibiting marriage before the age of 18. LISAP has a project addressing early marriage. It works to raise awareness of the dangers of early marriage and to train and support community members who are anxious to stop the practice. It is the community members who are aware of what is happening in their areas and work to prevent early marriage or to get the young people, predominantly girls, who have been married out of the marriages and back to school. Over 400 young people, mostly girls, are now back in school thanks to these interventions.
Late last year I wrote an article on child marriage for the journal Unbound. Here is a link if you are interested in more information: http://justiceunbound.org/carousel/why-child-marriage-subsists-and-why-it-shouldnt
In Blantyre Synod (in southern Malawi), the Women’s Department runs the Chigodi Women’s Center. Here the leaders of the Women’s Guilds (similar to the Women’s Associations or Presbyterian Women in the U.S.) are given leadership training through a wide variety of workshops and training events. Each year a very comprehensive program is run for a group of about 20 women, mostly young women, who are taught business skills, production skills such as cooking and sewing, life skills and Bible studies. The program is designed in such a way to help the women’s spiritual growth along with the other skills. It has an underlying message that God loves and values them, a message of hope and empowerment especially for those who have faced difficult times at home. By giving women skills they will be more able to find work. They hopefully will continue to develop their sense of self-worth through successfully becoming entrepreneurial and creating small businesses to help support themselves and their families. They also share what they have learned with friends and neighbors, thus passing on what they have learned.
These past two weeks I was in Zambia training partners from both Zambia and Zimbabwe in HIV and AIDS. We are working toward creating training teams within the CCAP churches in both countries. It was the first of two trainings EMPACT (Empowering Pastors to Act) Africa organized to help the churches launch programs to name and stop stigma against people living with or affected by the HIV virus. This program is similar to ones we worked on in South Africa and Lesotho. These eight packed days with the Christian AIDS Bureau of Southern Africa—CABSA—were about the basics concerning HIV and AIDS and exploring the Christian response. (This was the first time CABSA had invited me to be one of their trainers, a thrill for me!) The end of June and again in July I’ll be leading the second training that will focus specifically on stigma. Although this project focuses on HIV and AIDS, stigma and discrimination are issues that people have to address in many areas of life, including the everyday lives of women and children.
- For Nkhoma Synod, my hosts, as they are facing some challenging times.
- For the church in Sudan, especially for safety and release of two South Sudanese pastors and their families: Pastor Yat Michael and Pastor Peter Yen Reith, who are on trial in Khartoum. More information can be found from following this link to a PC(USA) prayer request: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/site_media/media/uploads/worldmission/pdfs/may_21_hearing__call_to_prayer_for_sudanese_pastors.pdf. Although the Prayer request mentions a trial in May, I believe it has been postponed until early June.
- For the Chikondano Committee of the CCAP in Zimbabwe. This committee gives oversight to children’s and AIDS work in the church. At this time the committee is in a time of discerning what God is calling them to next.
- For me… from the end of June through October or November I will be doing a good bit of traveling. Please pray for wisdom and safety.
And finally, ndiyamika kwambili to all of you for your interest, your thoughts, your prayers, your support and for those notes that wing their way across the Internet from time to time. Sometimes when I think about all the challenges the churches here face, especially the women and children, I just take a deep breath and wonder what the future will bring and how God will use me… will use us… on this journey. It is an exciting kind of wondering, knowing that God is faithful and I am working with a wonderful group of people. There is an Africa proverb that describes it well. “When you go alone you can go fast but when you go together you can go far.” Please join me and our brothers and sisters here in Africa through your continued prayers, your correspondence, and your financial gifts. Let’s be willing to travel far, seeing where God will take us.
Rev. Janet Guyer
Facilitator for Women’s and Children’s Interests
email: Janet.Guyer@pcusa.org (work)
CALL to ACTION: for Presbyterian Pastors Imprisoned in Sudan
Reverend Yat Michael and Reverend Peter Yen Face Death Penalty
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 156
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