The Warm Heart of Africa

A Letter from Cheryl Barnes, serving in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe

March 2020

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Dear friends,

When I stepped off the plane and onto the land of Malawi five days before Christmas, I said to myself, “I finally made it.” After months of planning, packing, and preparation, I have arrived at the place of my calling. It was a trip that took almost 36 hours, flying across two continents and three time zones before arriving in the motherland.

I was greeted at the airport by the Rev. Jeremy Garbat-Welch, a PC(USA) mission co-worker working with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), and the Deputy Secretary of the CCAP, Rev. Edward Tembo. I was exhausted, yet excited, to at last arrive in Malawi.

Both Reverends escorted me to the Airbnb, at Madidi Lodge, which would be my new home for the next six weeks and also my first introduction to the beautiful people of Malawi. The drive to the lodge took us on narrow paved and unpaved roads, filled with large potholes. We rode past newly planted fields of maize and busy markets with sellers of goods sitting under makeshift structures. We passed men on bicycle taxis transporting passengers and vendors standing in the center of the roadway offering vegetables and live chickens or items of clothing for purchase. There were women in colorful chitenge fabric skirts tied at the waist, with infants tightly secured with the same fabric to their backs. Some were expertly balancing large plastic baskets on their heads, while children, some of them barefoot, ran alongside them. It was a lot to take in, and in my weary state, I found the startling contrast between the sheer beauty of the countryside and the profound poverty of the people overwhelming.

We arrived at Madidi Lodge in less than an hour. Madidi Lodge is located in a very busy area of Lilongwe. I was given the key to a modest one-bedroom suite with a small kitchenette. It was a quaint space and I was thrilled to finally be able to relax and have a hot shower. My first night’s sleep in Malawi came easily as I settled under a mosquito net. I gave thanks for the safe journey and for being able to stretch out my legs and elevate my swollen feet.

The next few weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year seemed like a blur as I struggled with jet lag while trying to adjust to the Malawi heat. It was also the beginning of the rainy season, which brought frequent daily downpours. The church leaders of the CCAP and our partners were on holiday vacation, so I found myself somewhat isolated. I relied on the Malawian employees at the lodge for daily food and company. One employee, a young woman named Colletta, accompanied me to look at suitable houses for rent as I began my search for permanent accommodations. Another young woman, Bessia, a friend of the Garbat-Welchs, sent me various listings, which allowed me to compare rentals.

Very few things promote empathic thinking towards others more than being an outsider in a foreign country. When considering the Matthew 25 initiative, we seldom pause and reflect on our own privilege in the reading of the text. In essence, our privilege allows us to be either the “sheep” when we are at our best, or the “goats” when we are at our worst. We have the choice to do something good or to look away. Most have never imagined being a member of the third group in the text, the “ones in need.”

I have discovered that you don’t have to be poor to be the vulnerable one in any society. It seems that the Malawians know this intuitively. I didn’t need to come to Malawi to understand this but in my first few weeks, I learned this humbling lesson. Although I come from a place of privilege, at the onset, I was vulnerable and in need. I was the stranger who received hospitality, I needed to eat and was served food. I felt groundless, and the Malawians responded benevolently. They welcomed me, fed me, made space for me, and invited me to join in the celebration of a Christmas dinner.

Recognizing that some would find despair in one of the poorest countries in the world, I have found joy. The joy of the rainy season which ensures a harvest from the field and the joy of seeing mothers carrying their babies securely and lovingly on their backs. The joy of finding a place to live in a foreign land and the joy of being in community with people who own very little and yet offer what they have.

This is Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa,” and I finally made it to my new home. There is so much that is unknown, yet still, there is so much to be thankful for. If the way be clear, in the coming months I will travel to visit the primary schools in all three CCAP synods in Malawi: Blantyre, Nkhoma and Livingstonia.

I continue to be immensely grateful for your prayers and financial support. I am encouraged and strengthened by them. Zikomo (thank you). If you are not yet doing so, please consider making a financial gift of support as I begin my work with the CCAP to improve the quality of education for the children of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Peace and blessings,

Rev. Cheryl Barnes

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