Grateful

On November 21, this blog turned one!  It’s crazy to think that I’ve been sharing my story for a year already.  With the time zone differences and when I got the notification, it was also already Thanksgiving Day here.  It seemed appropriate to make this blog about the things I am grateful for in Malawi.  The intention was to write it the day of the anniversary, but life happens and here we are one week later, oh well!

One of the things I am grateful for here is the pace of life.  There’s no real need to rush here.  Things move at a slower pace and that’s ok.  Yes, there is somewhat of a schedule that I need to keep with things like school and church, but really outside of those two things time is pretty wide open.  There is enough to do, but it can get done in the timing of my choosing.  What I like about this pace is that it gives me time to reflect.

Reflection has been a significant part of my experience here the past four months and I know it will continue to be for the rest of this year and hopefully beyond.  The two significant forms of reflection I’ve practiced have been journaling and prayer.  I started consistently journaling on day 20 of being in Malawi, and I’ve completed about 110 entries so far.  This routine includes an entry for each day where I look back on the significant parts and then a second section where I write a prayer down.  I’m so grateful that I’ve had the time and opportunity to build the figurative muscles I needed to sustain this practice and that through building these muscles, I will be able to carry on this practice at home even when the pace of life speeds up.  The other consistent prayer that I now practice daily is at meal times.  My roommates and I sit down for every meal together and we take turns praying.  This gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what we are grateful for at regular intervals throughout the day.

Meals and food in general are the next things I am grateful for here in Malawi.  When I was getting ready to come to Malawi food and cooking were two of my biggest concerns.  I didn’t have a great idea of what kind of food would be available and I definitely didn’t have confidence in my cooking skills.  I’m happy to say my cooking skills and confidence have greatly improved and the food available is more than sufficient for our needs.  Necessity really is the best teacher and we enjoy every meal here.  Through that skill development and the fact that there are very few unhealthy choices available in Nkhoma, the part of Malawi I’m living in, there has also been a happy consequence that has developed.  I have lost over 40 pounds in the four months I’ve been here.  I am beyond grateful for that.  I feel so much better, I have so much more energy and I feel so much more confidence about myself.

The last thing, and perhaps the most significant thing I am grateful for are the relationships that are developing here.  Of course, I am grateful for my roommates, and I’ve written a lot about that already.  I’m also so grateful for the teachers at school.  I would say in the last month or so, we’ve really started to understand each other and have become friends.  We have Bible study together, we share meals together and we’ve been able to have honest conversations with each other.  It’s been a real privilege to go deeper with them.  The next group of people I am grateful to develop relationships with here are the other ex-pats who are here for a significant amount of time.  They have been so kind in welcoming us, giving advice on how to navigate life here, and again, just getting to know each other on a deeper level.  The last group is the kids.  Honestly, they make everyday so special.  Whether it’s walking into school in the morning, leaving in the afternoon or just walking to the market, there is a guarantee you will hear at least once, but more likely 10+ times something along the lines of “Hello, Teacher Amy!!!” yelled at the top of their lungs, and almost always followed up with one of the best hugs you’ve ever received.  Being a teacher here in Nkhoma is like being a celebrity and I just feel so loved and appreciated by the kids every single day.

A slower pace of life, time for reflection, a healthier lifestyle and significant relationships have all contributed to an amazing four months here in Malawi so far.  None of this would be possible or matter without God at the center of all of it.  I am so very grateful that God called me here and that he has made this time so significant and meaningful.  I am a little over 1/3 of the way through my time here, but I know the things I am learning, changing, developing about myself and the relationships that I am building are going to have impacts that will last the rest of my life.  I have so much to be grateful for.

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Celebrated Well

One of the things I considered when deciding to come to Malawi was all of the important things I would miss out on in the lives of the people who matter most to me.  I knew I would miss milestones like graduations, births, celebrations, and even more common things like reading bedtime stories to my God son and just spending quality time with friends and family.  I knew it would be difficult to miss all of that, but I also knew the Lord was calling me here.  What I didn’t spend a lot of time considering was what it would be like to be in Malawi celebrating significant days in my own life.

Despite my own lack of thought or planning in this area, God blessed me with two roommates who put a lot of thought and planning in to celebrating me.  I recently had my 35th birthday, and Pauline and Leo were incredibly creative, thoughtful and caring in organizing the celebration.  They put so much love into every aspect of their plan.  Apparently celebrating early is very un-German, but the girls were willing to make an exception for the American.  The plan started with going the night before my birthday to our friend’s house to watch the Bears game, my favorite football team.  They originally intended to surprise me with this, but a couple of weeks ahead of time I made the suggestion myself.  This was the only surprise I ruined thankfully.  Even then, I was still surprised when there were birthday decorations and a pie there when we arrived.  Also, the Bears had an incredible game that night so that was another gift in and of itself.

bday 3

The celebration continued that night on the way home when I was given my first gift.  It was a collaboration by Pauline and Leo along with our friend Isabel.  I was given a personalized journal with Bible verses and inside jokes throughout and it had a hand-sewn cover.  It was beautiful and thoughtful, and I absolutely loved it.  At midnight, when we were officially allowed to celebrate by German standards, I came into the living room which they had decorated with balloons, candles and paper 35’s.  There was music and dancing and it was so much fun.  Things only got better as the day progressed.

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The next morning, I awoke to the smell of bacon, which is a huge and rare treat here in Malawi.  They actually planned every meal to be special that day with foods we normally don’t have here, like grilled cheese and homemade pizza.  Again, examples of their planning and forethought to be able to have these things on hand.  I was just so blown away!

In the afternoon, something unplanned but very special occurred.  About 20 kids from school showed up at our house.  It was the sweetest thing.  They brought with them snacks that they had purchased themselves to share and sang happy birthday.  I was incredibly touched by their thoughtfulness and kindness.

When the children left, I thought we would continue with a relaxing afternoon, but it turned out the biggest surprise was still to come.  Pauline and Leo had planned a scavenger hunt that took us all throughout Nkhoma.  The clues were so amazing!  They were personalized and so incredibly creative.  I can only imagine how much time and thought went into this.  This was inspired by how much I love puzzles and riddles.  The whole thing was absolutely over the top.  The scavenger hunt ended with me being blindfolded and lead to a spot with an incredible view and a sunset picnic of homemade chocolate banana bread and Fanta.  Anyone who knows me, knows how special sunsets are to me.

There was still one final surprise, and it was so very sweet.  Pauline and Leo each had their parents record a birthday message for me.  People I haven’t even met in person sent me birthday love from across the world.  This made it easy to see where they learned how to be so thoughtful and how to love and celebrate others so well.

I felt special, celebrated and loved the entire day.  I may be missing a lot of special things in the lives of the people I love at home, but I am so thankful to God for putting these two young women in my life who I get to share this year with.  Not just because of how well they celebrated me, but because of who they are inside.  They are smart, strong, creative, thoughtful, dedicated and loving.  They both are shining examples of God’s love and I am grateful that I get to learn alongside them and from them on a daily basis.

Throw Yourself

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I Just over a year ago, I decided at a woman’s retreat that I would be going to Malawi for a year regardless of if my leave of absence was approved or denied.  It was a big decision and an important one.  It was definitely one of the biggest steps of faith I had taken in my life.  Up to that point, I knew I was supposed to go and I knew I wanted to go, but I also knew there was always still this little bit of room left for doubt that maybe something would change and I wouldn’t go.  The decision to go no matter what brought with it a sense of freedom I hadn’t really experienced before.

Pretty close to the time I made my decision to go no matter what, I found this quote:

“The only way that we can live is if we grow.  The only way that we can grow is if we change.  The only way we can change is if we learn.  The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.  And the only way we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.  Do it.  Throw yourself.”

-C. Joybell C.

I’ve spent too much of my life doing what was easy instead of what would challenge me.  I’ve spent too much of my life being content with the path of least resistance instead of looking for the path that though it may have been more difficult was the one I was supposed to be on.  I’ve spent too much of my life being afraid of trying and possibly failing so I just didn’t try.

This adventure has changed all of that.  Every part of this adventure has exposed me a little bit more.  It’s shown me parts of myself I didn’t know existed.  It’s highlighted both fears and strengths I didn’t know I possessed.  It’s revealed to me things I value more than I realized and shown me that I placed too much value on other things that really aren’t that important.

By being exposed in these ways, I’ve learned so much.  The biggest and most reoccurring lesson I’ve learned has been about love.  I have felt God’s love for me so abundantly, and that has in turn taught me how much he cares for each and every one of us.  I’ve seen how God’s love can make a difference in every situation.

Through this, there has been so much change in me.  Learning about God’s love has inspired me to change.  I have changed the way I love people.  I try to love people the way I know God loves them.  I try to love with grace, kindness, patience and abundance.  I fail every day, but I also make progress every day.

I have grown more in this experience than I have in any other thing I have done in my life.  Knowing and understanding how God loves affects every aspect of my life.  I’ve grown in my desire to serve people better because I love them.  I’ve grown in my ability to communicate better because I love the people I am interacting with.  I’ve grown in my ability to love myself because I now understand how much God loves me.

I still don’t know with 100% clarity where all of this will take me. What I do know is that God is doing a work in me.  I know that I want to go where he is leading, wherever that is and whatever it requires of me.  I want to continue to throw myself out there so that I can be exposed, learn, change and grow all for the glory of God.

Reflections From the Mountain

I climbed a mountain yesterday!  It was incredibly challenging and also quite amazing.  This was actually the third time I’ve climbed at least part of Mt. Nkhoma.  The two other times I had no intention of finishing.  This time was very different.  In fact, I am very different.  The changes I’ve made in my life greatly impacted the way I approached the mountain.  Really, the growth I’ve experienced through this faith adventure has changed how I am approaching all of life’s challenges.

Myself, my two roommates Pauline and Leonie, and my friend Joel started our trip around 8:30 in the morning.  Thankfully it was a cool day and there was even a little bit of drizzle.  That was a huge blessing as it’s been getting hotter and hotter every day.  I was the unofficial leader since I was the only one who’d done even part of the mountain before.  I was fairly confident I could get us to where we needed to be, but thankfully there was a young Malawian boy who started walking with us.  He was later joined by his two younger sisters who are actually students at Ebenezer where I am teaching this year.  It turned out to be very beneficial to have them along even though I think the six-year-old could have climbed the mountain twice in the time it took me to do it.  That was growth for me to be ok with that though.  In the past I may have been embarrassed by that and been upset with myself.  This time, I decided early on to be ok with whatever pace I needed to set.  Finishing was the goal, it wasn’t about keeping up with anyone else.

group mt

The reality is I couldn’t have kept up with everyone even if I’d been trying to.  I pushed myself, but I also kept things in a realistic perspective.  Joel is six years younger than me, my roommates are half my age and they are all in much better shape than I am.  The three Malawians are young kids who didn’t think twice about climbing the mountain, it’s in their blood.  I consciously stayed focused on what I knew I needed to do, I took breaks when I needed to and I didn’t let the abilities of the others frustrate me about my own.  In the past I would have felt inadequate and beat myself up over such situations.  Through this experience, I was able to be gentle and show myself grace.  My best was good enough.

It was also really helpful that we all wanted to do this together.  There were times when the group would go ahead of me, but they were great about waiting for me at reasonable intervals.  There were other times when someone would stay back with me and keep my pace.  All of that was very much appreciated.  Everyone was encouraging towards one another and we genuinely celebrated small victories all along the way.  No one got tunnel vision, it was as much about the experience of climbing the mountain as it was about making it to the peak.  It can be so easy to focus solely on the end results in life, but the lessons are learned on the path.  Whether it’s the path to failure or the path to success you really do learn the most on your way there.

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Another big change for me that this hike reflected was my ability to communicate in a healthier way.  In the past I would internalize my frustrations, whether they were with myself or someone else.  I would eventually explode or it would come out in rude snippy comments.  This approach wasn’t effective or fair to the people in my life.  There were many times throughout the hike that this could have been my reaction.  Through the work I’m doing on myself with God’s help, I’ve learned to be more self-reflective and to recognize when and why I am getting upset.  Now, instead of holding things in I am able to talk about things in a calm and productive way.  The work I’ve done helped me both on the hike and in my daily life.

In my preparation for Malawi and in my time here, I really have learned a lot of lessons.  I think on some level I was aware of the progress I’d made, but the hike up the mountain yesterday served as a mirror to really reflect on the growth that has happened within me.  I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am and what I am able to do.  Not in a complacent way as though there is no room for growth, but rather in a realistic, gentle and grace filled way.  I think this kind of approach allows me to see myself the way God sees me and has helped me to love myself better.  It’s also really important for me to remember that there will be lessons along the way.  It’s not about seeing where everyone else is and trying to catch up and keep up with them.  If I try to do that, I am convinced I will miss out on the lessons God has for me along the path that is life.  Finally, my ability to communicate in a healthier way is something I believe will impact me and every relationship I have for the rest of my life.  It has been such a key skill to grow in and I see the impact of it all around me.  Whether it comes into play during difficult and challenging situations, when I’m trying to help a friend or even in the best of times, being able to communicate in a healthy way is absolutely paramount.  I’m so thankful to God for this time in Malawi that allows me to grow, learn and reflect.  I believe that wherever my path leads, or anyone’s path for that matter, God will continue to teach and show new things.  We just need to pay attention and be willing to learn.

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It’s Not His Plan

This has been a shitty week.  Sorry if that offends you, but it’s the truth.  I’ve been having health issues for over a week, my mother was admitted to the hospital, and I found out that my Great Aunt passed away last night.  On top of all of that, I’ve been struggling with finding my place and purpose here in Malawi.  Any one of those things would have been tough enough to deal with on their own, but you put them all together in the span of a few days and I was emotionally and physically done.  I was angry at God and I didn’t understand why any of this, let alone all of it was happening.

I didn’t want to pray, journal or read the Bible.  That all felt too personal, and I was still too mad.  But I also didn’t want to stay feeling the way I did.  So, instead of the personal stuff, I turned on worship music while simultaneously trying to numb myself with a game on my phone.  Of course, the music cracked my heart of stone almost immediately.  Songs that reminded me of God’s peace, healing, love and how he is a good father.  Songs like “Even If” by Mercy Me that talk about how even if God doesn’t do exactly what we want or expect that He still needs to be our hope alone.  It was convicting and humbling and got me thinking.

It’s so easy to take our anger out on those that are close to us when life gets hard.  I think this is in large part because they are accessible and we know they won’t leave.  This is even more so the case with God.  When life gets hard, he doesn’t run and hide; he draws closer and he never leaves us.  It’s even easier to blame God because we think he could have changed any of these circumstances if he wanted to.  People say things like “this is all a part of God’s plan” or “he just really needed (insert name) as an angel sooner.”  I’m sorry, but I’m calling B.S. on all of that on God’s behalf.

Death, pain, sickness any and all suffering was not God’s plan.  He created a perfect world for us where we could live in communion with him and have relationship.  Sin entered the world and that was not God’s plan.  Cancer was not God’s plan.  War was not God’s plan.  Rape was not God’s plan.  Mental illness was not God’s plan.  Insert any other problem our world has and it was not God’s plan.

What is God’s plan is that he sent Jesus to die for our sins.  It didn’t make the world a perfect place yet, but it gives us the opportunity to again have that communion with God.  He has adopted us as his children and we are his heirs.  Sin is still a reality and therefore bad things happen to us and around us all of the time.  What is in God’s plan and what we need to remember is as it says in Romans 8:28 “…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  So, there are going to be terrible things that happen, things that are impossible to understand or explain, things that hurt more than we feel like we can handle at the time, but it will work out in the end.  It may not work out the way we imagined, but God has a plan and it will work out for our good.

I know this doesn’t erase the pain or confusion of all the bad things that happen in our world, but I hope it at least brings a little bit of comfort and hope.  I know it did for me.

aunt alyce

I will miss you Aunt Alyce.

Yes, No Maybe So

Communication is an interesting thing.  The dictionary definition is an imparting or exchanging of information, by speaking, writing or using some other medium.  If I were to define it, I would add with the goal of being understood; because to me without understanding, what is the point?  It is useless to exchange information that can not be understood by the other party isn’t it?  It may seem obvious that communication would be a challenge of living in a foreign country, but the challenge goes far beyond just the words that are being exchanged.  There are so many levels to consider besides just the language itself.  There are cultural norms, tone, eye contact, body language and so much more.  It’s not always or even usually about the words you are saying, but more so how you are saying it.  Communication for me, has been one of the biggest challenges of living in Malawi.

Here’s an example of when we can use the exact same words, but mean something different.  In the U.S., when we say “You’re welcome” it is typically in response to someone saying thank you.  In Malawi, “You are welcome”, is a very typical greeting.  When I first arrived, this always threw me off a bit.  In my head I would think “I didn’t say thank you?”, but eventually I adjusted and there was no more confusion.

Confusion is a big deal to me, I really don’t like it.  Sometimes I feel like there is a perpetual two-year-old in my head constantly asking WHY?, and I am continually trying to clear up the confusion.  Clearing up the confusion can be extremely exhausting when 99% of the people around you don’t have the same native language as you.  It’s important to note I said native language.  The fact is, the majority of the people I interact with on a regular basis actually do speak English, it’s just that it’s their second language.  This often creates a gap in understanding.  I find myself frequently having to think of a different way to say the same thing or having to listen very carefully to what people are trying to say.  We are typically able to come to an understanding, but it’s not always efficient.

Another issue of efficiency and one of the biggest confusions has been when people don’t actually mean what they are saying.  It is very normal in Malawian culture to be agreeable and say yes to everything.  This happens even when the person has no intention of doing what they are saying yes to or if they don’t want you to do what you are asking about.  It’s not that they are intentionally deceiving you or trying to make life difficult, in fact it’s the opposite.  They say what they think you want to hear to try and make you more comfortable.  My most common experience with this is when I ask a question like “should I do this?”  A typical response would be yes, followed by three reasons why I should not do it.  At first, I always walked away wondering what just happened and more confused about what to do than when I started.  It’s so common though that I’m getting much better at navigating and understanding what people mean more so than just what they are saying.

Not every part of communicating in Malawi is a challenge however.  You always hear about how so much of communication is non verbal.  You don’t realize how true this is until you are in a room full of people speaking a language you have very little understanding of.  Some of my favorite instances of communication have happened in the staff room at the school where I am volunteering.  It is very common for the local staff to speak Chichewa there in the morning, I often observe and pick up what I can.  The women like to tease each other and it becomes obvious through tone, body language and facial expressions who is teasing and who is being teased.  I am usually able to get the gist of what is happening and laugh along even though I don’t understand the actual words.

Though so much of communication here is a challenge, it is also such an opportunity for growth.  I’ve already learned some Chichewa and some German and I look forward to learning more in the next ten months.  Beyond actually learning new languages though, this is a chance to learn to understand people better.  This environment requires me to pay so much more attention.  It requires me to look more closely at what people mean more so than just the words they are saying.  Just like God looks at our hearts, being here in Malawi gives me the opportunity to do the same.  The love of God can be communicated regardless of the languages that are spoken.  Being here this year is a gift from God and I will continue to work through the challenges in order to experience and share the love of Christ on an even deeper level than I have before.

Above and Beyond

Isn’t it amazing how God knows us better than we even know ourselves?  And how we can ask for one thing we really think we want, but then God goes above and beyond what we even thought to ask for.  This has been my experience all through out this journey.  God knows me, he loves me and he wants to give me better things than I even know that I need.

I’ve lived by myself the majority of the last seven years, and that’s exactly how I liked it.  The space was my own, the schedule was my own, there were no expectations on me.  If I wanted to cook I cooked, if I wanted to eat out I ate out.  If there was a t.v. show I wanted to watch I watched it. I saw people when I wanted to see people and I was alone when I wanted to be alone.  I was accountable to no one but myself.

I’ve known all along that I would have two German roommates in Malawi, in fact for the majority of the time I thought there would be three of us in one room.  Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case, but I was ready for that challenge.  I looked at this as the potential to be like the college experience I never had.  I started at a junior college, transferred to Cal State Fullerton and was a commuter.  At that time it was about finishing, not about enjoying the experience. I knew living with strangers wouldn’t be easy for this introvert, but I wanted to take this as another opportunity to stretch and grow.

I found out about a week or so before they came that they were two 18 years old girls.  I knew they would be younger, but I had no idea they would be that young, literally just graduated from high school.  I am old enough to be their mother.  This did not seem to be an ideal situation to me, but there was little I could do about it, so I was left only to trust that this too was part of God’s plan.  My prayer all along had been that I would at least be able to tolerate whoever I had to live with.

God answered my prayers above and beyond what I asked for.  Not only can I tolerate Pauline and Leonie, I love them.  They have strengths where I lack, they are extremely mature for their age, they are good natured, funny and we just all balance each other out so well.  We can joke and tease with the best of them, there has definitely already been some mom jokes, and I can’t help but laugh at the way they say some things with their German accents, but we are also so encouraging and caring towards one another.  We’ve learned and grown so much together and it hasn’t even been a week yet.  It’s obvious that God chose us for each other.  Of course there will be challenges over the next eleven months, but I am confident that we will get through them together.

I’m thankful for the challenges I spoke about in my last blog, because through that loneliness I’m now so grateful for this new connection.  If I hadn’t gone through that dark place, I don’t know that I would be able to appreciate the light I now have.  The Bible talks about how the storms of life will come, and that if we build our foundation on the rock of Jesus Christ we will be able to weather those storms.  I’ve come through the storm of loneliness stronger and full of trust in God unlike I’ve ever had before.  I’m so happy and grateful to God for all that he’s done, is doing and will continue to do.  He is a good God who knows us better than we know ourselves, loves us deeply and wants to take care of us.

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