The following blog starts where "Life Is Like A Malawian Chicken Bus" left off, and takes us from Zomba Malawi to the Border of Malawi and Mozambique. This was probably our most adventurous travel section of the trip, since very, very, very few people attempt this route through these too vacuums of infrastructure. What follows will take a while, so buckle up your seat and join us on a Peter Pan proportioned adventure.
At first light, we walked out of Zomba Theological College in Zomba, Malawi to embark on perhaps the most ambitious of our overland travels - an overland journey from Zomba, Malawi to Pemba, Mozambique, which we expected to take 3 days. With everything we own in two small day packs, we trekked the two miles to the local bus station, which is a minor ticketing nightmare. At this bus station, there are no offices, just a hundred or so men yelling names of cities at you until they think they’ve seen a flash of recognition on your face, at which point, they jump towards you, grab you by the arm and yell, “Liwonde?! Liwonde! Liwonde, here. Liwonde DIE-rect! Liwonde, Liwonde, Liwonde!!!”
It’s 5:30 in the morning and my brain feels like fly on flypaper, and so I make a rookie mistake – I opt for the big bus, instead of the mini-buses all around. The big bus offers the false hope of comfort, and false promise of “the first bus to Liwonde.” We grab seats on the bus, at which point I know I have my first clues that we’ve made a terrible decision, we’re near the front of a near empty bus, and EVERYONE knows that Malawi Chicken buses do not leave until there is no possible way of cramming another living soul (human or animal) onto the chariot. 10 months ago we boarded the same bus headed to a different town Lilongwe, and found ourselves standing in the aisle, belly to back, straddling baggage and goats, for a 6 hour ride.
Over two and a half hours, the 100 guys outside herd another 200 people onto this short school bus, filling every chair, and then double-filing the aisles with humanity and cheaper-than-the-post-office parcels.
It is going to be a long day and I’m already making bad decisions, for which I’m cussing mad – madder than a fat man who had to buy two tickets for a flight with no meal service.
Thankfully, I married a saint.
She just sits, breaths, let’s me lose my temper before slowly, clandestinely calming me down. She’s a genius.
Finally the bus starts rolling, and between the butt in my face and the stranger’s bag in my lap, I’m actually thankful.
A mere hour later, we drop at our first stop, Liwonde. You got that right, we waited almost 3 hours to make a 45 minute trip! T.I.A.
Now for the fun part. Getting off a bus with two bags, when the aisles are double file with bodies, and the floor is stacked with obstacles. I cannot even think of a clever visual to describe this scene. You know what the subway trains look like an hour before the Yankees play the Bo-sox, now imagine some poor tourists from Shrimp Boat, Mississippi stand smashed against the back wall of the train, nervously eyeing the stop map, each other, and their bags, sure that one of these Damn Yankees is going to rob them. Finally they reach their stop at 106th. It takes them a minute to realize they should already be moving to the doors, so they grab their crap-I-packed-too-much-crap bags, and try to swim to the door through the molasses of hostile Yankee and Sox fans, when the overhead announces that the doors are closing.
It was like that, but now imagine that due to the government shutdown, the subway is pulling double duty for the US Postal Service, and so is also fully loaded with packages. Now we’re getting close.
Being a bullheaded, large man, already angry at myself, I muscle my bag to my shoulder and just drive through the crowd, with far less tact than a “good cross cultural ambassador” should. Stepping off the bus, I’m bombarded with offers for taxis, minibuses, bicycle taxis, mangos, frittas, bananas, baskets, blankets, pick-up trucks, bag carriers, and a million other promotional flash-bang grenades.
Overwhelmed, I threw my bag onto my back, and spun around looking for my wife. Claire?! She wasn’t right behind me, which was far enough away to worry about the unpredictable departure of the bus. She was still tangled in the aisle, like an explorer in a human jungle.
Exhausted and infuriated, she finally stepped off the bus, with short exclamations of different words, all amounting to “No, I don’t want any! Leave me alone!” Somehow we cleared the crowd, with one last, overwhelmed, rude, “NO! Thank you.”
Recollecting ourselves, we tried to steel our nerves for the “hard part.” We walked towards the parked minibuses facing what we assumed to be the right direction. Even looking at a minibus with too much curiosity, will almost always draw more flash-bang assaults, as people yell scores of different cities and try to pull you to their vehicle.
Here in the middle of Malawi, we stand at a crossroads. We must choose between a minibus (a 90s Toyota minivan, packed with as many people as possible) or a pick-up truck. The drivers fight over which is more comfortable, cheaper, and faster, with the minibus driver seeming more legit, but the pick-up truck driver drawing us with the promise of “direct to the border.”
Stereotypically, it is impossible to know who is telling the true and who is giving you the “Ol’ Okey Doke” to get you in their vehicle and down the road before taking your money and changing plans. Claire and I try to weigh our options and the two drivers and talk through all that we know about this rarely-attempted journey from the internet. We know that at some point, we will need to hitch a ride on a pick-up truck to the border, so we bite the bullet and opt for the “direct” truck, so long as we can sit inside the cab. The driver agrees, and we take up our seats, as we once again wait for enough passengers to depart. Our new mode of transport is a mid-80s Datsun pick-up truck, the sides read, “4x4” though I wouldn’t bet a borrowed nickel on it.
We have found a ride to the border in my granddaddy’s old farm truck, and we’re seated in the front, so all in all we’re feeling pretty good. While we wait for more passengers, we buy a Coke, and my wife feels generous so she buys one for the driver and an old lady in the bed of the truck. Sometimes it helps to butter up your driver.
The truck does not move until it is loaded with close to 18 people, 3 50kg bags of maize, 2 goats, 2 bicycles, several giant pots, sugar cane, 40 chickens, and a stringer of fresh fish under the windshield wiper.
There are people seated inside, in the bed, and on the roof. When we do finally get moving, the driver lets the truck roll down a small hill before popping the clutch to jumpstart the motor in second. You know you’re in the old if you know what this means, and you know you’re from the country if you had friends who’s cars would only start with a screwdriver and hill.
The road we’ve selected is paved, which is a perk. Unfortunately, it winds up into the hills, continually forcing the driver to downshift in a futile fight to keep the ol’ diesel humming. Despite downshifting to second, we still stall out on the steepest portion of the incline, and I think, “It’s going to be a pain to push-start this bad boy on this hill.”
Our driver reaches behind our seat, and pulls out a 5L oil can, which he passes to the conductor in the bed of the truck who pours its contents into the fuel tank using a Coke bottle as a funnel. Then the driver depresses the clutch, and as the fully loaded truck rolls backwards down the winding hill. I hold my breath as we start o accelerate asswards, thankful that at least I’m not on the roof, then he slides it into reverse and pops the clutch, “WAH-LAH.” Now I have seen people start vehicles in all kinds of crazy, dangerous, and stupid ways, but I’ve never even heard of something like that
We ride like this for a few hours, stopping every 15-30 minutes to drop a customer or pick-up a customer. Every 45 minutes traffic officers stop us to scour at Claire and my passports while laughing with our driver about these two hitchhiking foreigners and asking for bribes, before finally allow us to proceed. Just a little old fashioned, “make the gringo sweat.”
After 2 hours we pull off the road in a big village, and the driver of the “direct” truck explains that we need to get a new vehicle from here. We can either wait hopefully here for a new pickup truck going to the closest border, which probably won’t happen because the road is so bad, or we can continue north on this road to the busier, more official border 100Km out of our way. My blood boils like a water pan on top a radiator.
We opt for the second option, and are promptly ushered to a new pick-up truck conducted by a friend of a friend of our original driver, who doesn’t seem to understand why I’m so frustrated about him saying the bus is “direct.” Cross-culturally, neither of us understands the other at all, and in the 100 degree heat of a Malawian day that started way too early, neither of us is particularly interested in translating the other’s messages or in giving one another the benefit of the doubt.
Though I know this cross-cultural “hot spot,” at this point in my journeys, “I don’t have time for this B.S.” I don’t trust this guy, I feel taken advantage of, I feel lied to, I feel like he’s charging me too much. I’m sure he’s a conman, and I’m really upset that Claire bought this jerk a Coke.
But then again, T.I.A. What can you do?
With only one option, we jump the next pick-up truck and negotiate to ride in the cab to the next, busier border. Another 2 hours, scores of stops, and a landscape as beautiful as the pictures from the Mars Rover, the truck stops. We gather from our truck driver, who speaks no English, but stares at us with eyes that say, “What are you waiting for, get out of the truck?” We’ve arrived at Mandimba Border Post, so we grab our bags only to be bombarded by 30 teenage boys with bicycles, each offering to pedal you the 7km across the border. It is an impossible scenario after a brutal long morning. We just want to walk to immigration and exit the country but each teenager keeps putting his bicycle in front of you trying to force you onto it. The bicycles surround you like Secret Service men during an assassination attempt.
While trying not to get hit in the crotch by a bike, and trying to to stop moving, we take the chance to change some money, but being stupid and road weary, I cannot remember the exchange rate. We get HOSED on the rate – I pray they used their unjust profit wisely, and that the Lord Jesus has mercy on them for their “unjust scales.”
We pass through Malawian Immigration, return to the 30 teenagers with bicycles, now joined by two men in their twenties with motorcycles, all offering us rides across the border. Claire feels most safe on a bicycle, so we strap our 40lb backpacks on tight, and hope onto the back of two bikes, which promptly take off. The two young men are skillful and strong, well used to chauffeuring people across the border, but still they labor up the hills. Claire is apologizing like her bag is a direct insult to their mothers, and I’m thinking that $2.50 is a pretty good price for the ride.
After 10 minutes, we pull up to a metal gate marking the beginning of Mozambique and Portuguese speaking territory. The gate appeared faster than I appeared, much closer than 7km, and our bicyclists explain that we must go through Mozambican customs before they can take us the rest of the way.
Hey is only 2PM, and we've already taken 1 bus, 2 pick-ups, and 2 bicycles. We feel lied to and robbed, but atleast we're at the border. Welcome to Mozambique! Our third country in 2 weeks. Now we just have to actually have to get to a legitimate town. How hard can that be? Stay tuned to find out in the next blog.
We have left the African continent.
We are now riding out long layover in a very comfortable Dubai International Airport complete with air conditioning and Krispy Kreme donuts. Since we have a few more hours before our next flight and free WiFi, I thought I’d catch you up.
I’ll try to keep to the abridged version in hopes of avoiding Moby-Dick-like verbosity, though I hope that version will be available by the time I reach NYC, and might one day grow into a Don Miller-esque memoir.
After posting the last blog update from Kampala, Uganda, Claire and I packed up our bags to catch our overnight bus. As we closed up our temporary office and prepared to leave the hotel/restaurant, the receptionist asked concernedly, “You’re leaving now?”
“Yes, we’re going to catch our bus.”
“Your bus is now?”
“Yes our bus leaves at 10, so we want to get there early.”
“It’s 10 now.”
“@##(*). No it’s 10 til 9 now.”
“Now it’s coming to 10.”
We throw our bags together. Run down the 5 flights of stairs, past the security guards and out into a surprisingly empty street. From there we run down a block, hang a quick right into the alley, and run up 200 more stairs in one of the shadiest urban areas we’ve seen. I’m hoping our speed will dissuade anyone from attempting a robbery in this near perfect location – it’s narrow, secluded, dimly lit, lots of hiding places, lots of obstacles, and stairs to slow everyone down. I keep Claire in front of me, and talk the whole way encouraging her and pretending that everything will be fine, as I panic that we’ve already missed our bus.
As we reach the top of the steps, we see 2 buses still idling, “O Praise Jesus!” We run towards them with our tickets in hand, Home Alone style. At the bus, a female police officer frisks Claire and a male one frisks me, while wanding our bags. They let us on the bus and we take the last two available seats on our Nile Transport Coach. I’m in the very front seat, a few feet from the glass windshield and inches from the bus driver. Claire is 2 rows behind me. My heart is still pounding with adrenaline and embarrassment, amplified by the hundreds of local eyes staring at these two crazy Gringos, storming onto the bus well after boarding time. Thankfully, Claire and I have seats on the good side of the bus – the side that only has two seats as opposed to three, still I’m 6’2”, a buck eighty, and the guy next to me is just as big. We overlap like pictures in a collage as we search for positions, if not conducive, then at least not prohibitive of sleep.
I trade Claire a pair of headphones for a pair of Melatonin sleeping pills, and then I start up conversation with the driver and my neighbor. The driver weaves stories with broken English, with much the same skill he uses to weave this less than brand new bus through Kampala’s crowded streets. Kampala is like all of New York City was forcibly relocated to Detroit using cheap Chinese motorcycles, and the only pre-computer buses that survived the EMP apocalypse.
8 hours of head nodding sleep, readjustments, stranger snuggles, and inexplicable stops in the middle of nowhere, and we pull into a Wild Wild West Ugandan town, Arua. Now for the fun part, we need to somehow find a car going north to South Sudan. We’ve heard it’s possible, though rarely attempted by tourists, because well there are no tourist attractions in South Sudan except live landmine fields, a government that forbids photography, and dwarf-sized pineapples – not small pineapples, but pineapples the size of small humans.
I ask my neighbor, who confirms that it is possible, but recommends taking a different bus further into nowhere, before hitchhiking. Not what I want to hear.
Groggy from unsatisfied sleeping pills, we grab our bags and step off the bus to the usual clamor of taxi drivers, motorbike taxi drivers, and general onlookers, each yelling for your attention and bargaining for your business. I shirk their offers and look for someone less eager to make a buck, but likely knowledgeable about the place. I spot a security guard and I swallow my pride to ask for directions. He knows the place for cars leaving for Yei, South Sudan. He walks us over to the place and finds several cars waiting for extra passengers to defer the cost of gas.
Broke, we ask for the cheapest way possible, which still costs more Ugandan Shillings than we currently possess, but there is a black market operator willing to change a few more USDollars for a small fee. Up Cripple Creek without a paddle, we agree, and purchase two seats in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser 4x4 – a surprisingly nice ride that makes me very optimistic about our chances of reaching Yei, no matter how bad the roads might be.
After a few hours waiting for a full carload of passengers and talking to an awesome Kenyan Refugee Specialist, we load up like military personnel and start off down the road. Ugandan roads are about like Zambian roads, simultaneously in a state of decay and resurfacing, and so we make it easily to the border in a few hours.
I’m not sure what to expect at a very rural border post for the newest country on the globe, but our Kenyan friend, Nicholas, makes this trip very 10 weeks and offers to help us navigate. An interview, a lot of paperwork, a couple hundred dollars, and an hour later, we emerge from immigration, legal visitors of the Republic of South Sudan.
While filling out the paperwork for our visa, we hear several very load bangs and a lot of yelling at the border, which everyone present realistically worries is violent. The blood drains from my wife’s face, as she looks to me for instruction. I look to the armed immigration officers, who look anxiously over the compound walls. No one starts running, and the noise dies away.
It was just a truck with no breaks barreling down the hill. Whew. Wait what?!
Finally we load back into our Land Cruiser, without completing two of our usual border tasks – changing money and buying a SIM card for our phone. Penniless, we bump down the road towards Yei.
The roads in South Sudan are the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure how to explain them to Americans. Remember playing Oregon Trail on your first computer, and pretending you were settlers rattling west in your suspension-less wagon, forging rivers, borrowing oxen to rescue your cart from mud bogs, and trying not to flip in the ruts left by other wagons – it’s something like that. For the military servants, our trip down these roads in the back of a military personal mover is much like I imagine you experienced traversing roads in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, France, and Germany in a deuce and a half.
The whole time I kept thinking about this one time I went fishing with my uncles. We ambitiously attempted a 30-mile trip in “choppy” seas so rough that by the time we arrived at our fishing grounds, every cold beverage in the cooler had exploded from slamming against one another and the sides of the cooler. I felt like one of those cans as we bounced down the road.
To make it all more adventurous, the whole 5 hour long road was one giant truck graveyard. Within the first 10 miles on South Sudanese soil, we probably passed 35 trucks half-entombed in the greedy red clay. Several laid on their sides, surrounded by their contents. We crept through their ruins like refugees pass through recent battlegrounds, looking but trying not to make eye contact, so as to feel less guilty when we do not stop to help. Claire, ever the nice one, feels pity for the stranded drivers. I on the other hand rage at them for attempting to pass these roads during the rainy season with overloaded, ancient trucks - dumb decisions now hindering the rest of us.
After 3 or 4 hours, we come to a complete halt in a line of technicals. Two trucks are stuck on an incline, completely blocking the road in both directions. Each is overloaded even for paved roads and each is buried to the axels. We’re going to be here for a while.
At the same time, my body begins a fever-induced shutdown. I’m crashing hard. Claire’s steaming because this is not how she wanted me to spend my 29th birthday.
I try to sleep, startling every time I hear one of the trucks fire and attempt to free itself from it’s sticky shackles.
In the end, one of the trucks manages to move a few feet. Not enough to free itself, but barely enough to allow passenger cars to pass.
We’re back in business.
Another 3 hours of bouncing and we reach Yei, South Sudan. Still penniless and clueless, our Kenyan friend takes pity on us and pays for 2 motorbike taxis to drive us to our lodging. We pray the Lord repays his generosity.
I take a cold shower and am crazy with a fever, while Claire bums a phone from a local to call our contacts. Our friends at Reconcile International immediately invite us to sup with them.
Two hours later, we are sitting around a feast of South Sudanese delicacies (imagine Ethiopian food mixed with Southern African cuisine) with some of the most persistent, resilient saints in the world.
For the next week we spend as much time as possible with the staff and Board of Governors for RECONCILE International – the Resource Center For Civic Leadership. RECONCILE is an indigenous organization founded by the Sudan Council of Churches 10 years ago, when Sudan was a single country to address the endless civil war and to promote peace and reconciliation. RECONCILE has worked to both end conflict and prevent conflict by negotiating with warlords, government dictators, and common citizens. S. Sudan has been at war longer than most people in the country have been alive. Violence is more normal than food. Retained life is more surprising than young deaths. We simply cannot imagine the effect this has at every single level of society. RECONCILE can.
After helping to negotiate the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, RECONCILE worked hard to educate South Sudanese regarding the agreement, and to prepare them for the Referendum, which would determine if Southern Sudan would secede or remain within Sudan. This was a huge task, since no one in South Sudan had voted for anything or anyone in living memory, and was compounded by the immense size of Southern Sudan, the more than 100 distinct ethnic groups, and the utter lack of infrastructure.
Now that South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, RECONCILE is trying to train politicians how to be politicians, and citizens to be citizens. RECONCILE has trained the Ministers of Parliament from 9 of 10 states, educating them about their responsibilities, accountability, and fighting corruption. Again none of these wo/men have ever been in Parliament before, nor lived in a democratic state.
During our visit, we helped celebrate RECONCILE’s 10 Year Anniversary, always listening hard and asking questions. Why did these men and women hold on to hope in hopeless situations? What made them think they could make a difference? How do people forgive their family’s murderers? How do people find strength to break generations of violence and renounce revenge? Where is South Sudan going?
While in South Sudan, we were countlessly warned about security threats including active rebel groups and an even more active government security apparatus. More than once, my wife looked over at me, “Are we going to get out of here? Are we going to be ok? I just want to get out of here.”
My wife is a brilliantly brave woman, but this was a legitimately scary place; but God is doing some cool things here especially through the non-violent witness of Jesus-followers, who bless those who curse them, love those who threaten them, and forgive unforgiveable perpetrators because of the power of Jesus in them.
We are so thankful for all our hosts at RECONCILE including, Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mathers of the PCUSA.
From Yei, South Sudan we again took a Toyota Land Cruiser to the capital city, Juba, before flying to Dubai in route to Kathmandu, Nepal. Broke again, we're sleeping in the airport to avoid the oil-ex prices for hotel rooms in this booming town.
Bye Bye Africa, Hello Asia.
So it is 8PM in Kampala, Uganda and we have exactly 1 hour before we report for our next 8 hour bus right to Arua, Uganda, and on from there to South Sudan.
It has been an action packed, emotionally wrenching journey over the last few weeks.
Since our last blog left off, we took another chicken bus, then hitchiked in 2 pick up trucks to a middle of nowhere Mozambican border, where we jumped on bicycles for th 4 miles of "no man's land" into Mozambique. Once in Mozambique we dealt with our hardest infrastructure shortages. We took a 8 hour bus ride to the nearest town, arrive just after dark to a town with no map and the name of two hotels.
Mozambicans speak Portugese, we are Americans, which means that we only speak one language. So I broke in to Spanish and tried to find a hotel, but there was no room at the inn. We went from place to place, til finally we went back to a hotel and asked for help, at which point an very kind man walked us around for an hour to no less than 5 hotels, til finally he begged a woman to put beds in a closet for us to sleep for a few hours before our train ride the next morning.
We crashed for a few hours after a supper of beef jerky, an apple, and some bread. The next morning we reported to the bus station at 4AM for 14 hour train ride to another town. It was awesome. The train was actually nice and really cheap compared to everything else in Moz.
In Nampula, we again hunted for hotel. Not easy in Moz, especially with a guidebook, ridiculously out of date for only a few years. Still we found a place, shared a plate of rice and slept hard before waking to find another bus for 12 hours to our final destination, Pemba, Mozambique.
We woke up the next morning at 4 and walked to the bus station, well it wasn't the right bus station, so using a hand-drawn map we walked to the other bus station. After being stopped by cops who wanted a bribe, we finally made it to the station, to late to catch a big bus, so once again we crammed into a early 90s mini-van with 27 other people. I'm not exaggerating. 27. Minibuses were not made for 6ft tall Americans. I'm just glad, that I haven't put on weight.
Unfortunately the van didn't get us there, it dropped us onto another pick-up truck which finally drove us all the way to the beach. We made a b-line for a backpackers lodge and enjoyed hot showers, the beach, fresh seafood, cold drinks, and internet.
We spent the next week exploring Iris Ministries, an incredible ministry in Mozambique founded 20 years ago by an American couple. They are an ambitious, charismatic, whollistic ministry that does everything from run a school, an orphanage, a daily feeding program, plant thousands of churches, do daily evangelism, daily discipleship. Not a perfect model, but certainly a model motivated by Jesus-driven love.
After a week, we flew to Burundi via South Africa (a 4 hour flight, a 24 hour layover, and a 6hr flight). There we spent a week learning from Maison Shalom, a community ministry that started as an orphanage but has worked hard to reunite children with family, extended family, or friends of family so that the children retain a support network. They also strengthen the community through micro-finance, community building, a school, farm education, and a huge hospital. Like Iris, Maison Shalom started with one person doing one thing for a few people and grew as new challenges arose. Burundi, less well known than Rwanda, suffered a violent genocidal civil war that lasted over a decade, and Momma Maggie as the founder of Maison Shalom is called, is a spiritual hero that tirelessly worked for peace and healing in this trauma stricken country.
From Burundi, we took a winding 1.5 lane road through the mountains to Rwanda. This road was something legendary, curving every few hundred feet. So much so that people were motion sick by the time we reached the border. The whole trip took us 7 hours from Bujumbura, Burundi to Kigali, Rwanda.
In Rwanda, we paid our respects to the genocide victims, praying for forgiveness for American compliciticy. 1 million people in 100 days hacked to death by machetes in my life time, only 20 years ago. Rwanda has grown and changed enormously in 20 years, with sky scrapers and shopping malls, beatuifully roads and huge coffee and banana plantations. In that sense 20 years is a long time. At the same time 20 years is a very short time. Child survivors are only now in university, forming families, and searching for destroyed identities. Teenage perpitrators/victims are not yet 40.
Thankfully we got to meet with the Presbyterian Church of Rwanda and several pastors we providentially met in Zambia. One such pastor escorted us around and answered hundreds of questions about how Rwanda's history affects the church and how the church affects Rwanda's future. It was fascinating, but brutal. Human sin and brokeness and the brokeness we unleash on this world is horrific. The Christian Gospel is almost unintelligibly good in the face of evil this stark and persistent. Praise be to the God and Father of Jesus who has not given up on the world, even when we are hell bent on destroying our neighbors, ourselves, and our world.
Today we grabbed a bus from Kigali, Rwanda to Kampala, Uganda, a 11 hour trip with very little paved road, lots of rain, and (once again) very leaky windows (thank God for rain coats inside buses). In less than an hour we'll leave Kampala for another long bus ride, followed by a hitch hike into South Sudan. We appreciate your prayers.
We hope to ell you all about this more and more in the future. We are learning amazing things, which I hope to share with you all soon. In the meantime know that the world is more complex than we understand, the depth of our brokeness is deaper than we ever allowed ourselves to realize, and God's love is more devoted, creative, prodigal, wreckless, and inexplicable but much, much better than we ever dare to hope is possible.
We returned from Gweru to Harare, on Saturday September 14, and on Sunday at 6AM we boarded the only bus going to Malawi, a “chicken bus.” The name is apropos because the buses almost always carry a cargo of chickens underneath the seats, and because people are stuffed on the bus as crowded as chickens. These buses have been packed with as many hobbit-sized seats as possible, such that all seated passengers overlap like cards fanned out for a magic trick. Still, just to maximize profit, the conductors then fill the aisles with standing passengers for the 12 hour three-country trip from Harare, Zimbabwe to Blantyre, Malawi. Thank Jesus we had seats. The other crazy thing about “chicken buses” is that all luggage is on the bus with you, either under seats, between legs, overhead, or in the aisle – just imagine a fire inspector’s nightmare and then double the number of obstacles and half the size of the bus.
The bus ride was hot and slow but listening to an audiobook version of Moby Dick, certainly helped pass the time. After a while, we crossed into the Western arm of Mozambique’s Y-shape, and I began to feel like cattle, sorted, identified, graded, and branded with a stamp just to cross some imaginary line drawn 130 years ago. It gets old being tracked and hearded.
Still we were making it, and still held out hope of reaching Zomba, Malawi, an hour and a half away from Blantyre, Malawi in time for a late supper.
Then the bus broke down.
Smack dab in the middle of the nothingness of Mozambique, on a road that is only 30% paved, our 20-year-old bus overheated, and all the drinking water on the bus couldn’t fill the radiator enough to cool her down. Sweet.
The conductor of the bus climbed back on and calmly stated, “Our bus has broken down. They are looking at it now to see if it will work or if we’ll just sleep here.”
A collective sigh went up from the bus like a caravan of tractor trailers releasing their air-breaks at the same time. Though everyone on a chicken bus knows there is a good chance of a breakdown, all of us are betting the long shot. This time it failed.
So, my wife made eye contact with another woman, and said, “And now, we pray.”
So people started praying as several men exited the bus to do what men are fond of doing, staring at an engine looking for something obviously out of place, and then mentioning obscure engine components and MacGuyver like fixes for them, when the problem is less obvious. Of the 10 men looking at the engine, the most qualified to help fix it was a first year Congolese electrician apprentice, who traveled with a tool kit in his bag but knew nothing of automotive mechanics nor English.
After another 10 minutes the engine still sizzled and stank like a deep fried opossum. Someone yelled a name from the front, and a White Zimbabwean from the back of the bus grabbed her things and headed out. Her husband had come to the rescue. Before anyone realized what was happening and tried to pay their way into this emergency escape pod, she was gone.
Then panic set in, as another passenger announced that the Mozambican border closed in 50 minutes, at which point we would definitely spend the night in Mozambique in our mobile roost. People hollered about the bus operators and the company and the hope for another bus to pick us and all kinds of other things in one of the hundred languages spoken on our bus.
We all settled into resignation as we planned our sleeping positions.
In a miraculous act of kindness, a passing truck driver stopped and donated his own 20L emergency container of water, which successfully cooled the engine/transmission couple enough for our bus to crawl towards the border. We arrived minutes before closing (8PM), relieved, exhausted, and still uncertain about the next leg of our journey, another 2 hour drive from the border to the big city of Blantyre, and another hour and a half from there to our friends in Zomba, Malawi.
So we did what any experienced traveler in Africa would do, we bought a telephone SIM card, a coke, and looked for a vehicle headed for Blantyre. After 15 minutes we saw a passenger car arrive and pick someone from our bus, we rushed them like Indulgence salespeople, and paid our way into an already full car to the Promised Land. We rode in the back seat of a small Toyota hatchback, 4 adults,1 baby, and all our luggage. Traveling cramped like that always makes me pity the refuge-seekers crossing the American desert borders or the Pacific Ocean packed into boxcars and homemade boats like feathers in a down pillow.
At 10:35PM on Sunday, September 15, we pulled into Blantyre, Malawi with no possible way to continue our travels to Zomba and without the name of a single backpacker’s lodge in Blantyre. Miracle of miracles, the Malawian woman next to us kindly suggested a place next to the bus station as if she herself had once been a foreigner in need of kindness. Doogle’s Backpacker’s lodge as it turned out was an outstanding little lodge with hot water and a twin bed big enough for two. So after a few cold drinks and hot showers, we cuddled up to dream about chickens, thankful we were not sleeping on a bus in Mozambique.
On Monday, September 16 at 6AM, we boarded another chicken bus headed for our two-day respite with PCUSA Mission friends in Zomba, Malawi. I used the 2 hours waiting to depart to partake in my favorite old-man habit, reading local newspapers.
In Zomba, we met up with our good friends, Tim and Rachel Stone and their two awesome boys Graeme and Aidan. We ate guacamole like gringos, built a treehouse, played Settlers of Catan, and talked like old friends for a few days. Tim and I have a similar do-it-yourself, redneck ingenuity streak that lends itself to improvised house projects accompanied by challenging theological and Bible conversations punctuated by sports discussions.
These two are a breath of fresh air and a lucid window into Malawian ministry, PCUSA mission, religious academics, and the growing world of HER-meneutics. We can’t wait to hangout with them again.
Wednesday morning, at 5AM, we quietly walked out their front door at first light, to embark on one of the most ambitious of our overland adventures, a 3-day trek from Zomba, Malawi to Pemba, Mozambique through the logistical wasteland of Northern Mozambique.
As promised, Internet has been a sparse commodity, and as it turns out, so has quiet time for writing something more polished than my journal entries and bullet point lists of observations. With a week or less in each of the inspiring places we visit, face time with hosts is a premium. When not directly asking questions, I love to pretend I’m a news reporter watching closely at the actions, culture, and mission of the people I visit, the people they serve, and the community that sees it all. Though I’m no monk, spending time around one’s spiritual heroes drives me to prayer, to long conversations with Jesus about what I’m seeing and the questions that linger. When we retreat to our room, we like to spend time sleeping, unwinding, and reading about the ministries and countries we’re visiting. I’ve come to love reading, not as a replacement for conversation but as a catalyst. Without reading, I rarely know the right questions to ask let alone how to interpret the answers I receive. So we spend a lot of time reading history, social analysis, and the writings of our hosts and their countries.
To catch you up on our travels so far.
After leaving Kitwe on September 6, we took the 6AM bus to the capital city, Lusaka. We actually almost missed the bus because we overslept our two alarm clocks after packing until 3AM. In Lusaka, we recovered our passports and freshly pressed visas from the Indian Embassy, Praise Jesus, and proceeded to our favorite lodging place in Lusaka, Justo Mwale Theological College University. We spent our last night in Zambia eating pizza and watching Zambian soccer with other PCUSA Mission Co-workers, Keri and Joel Dewander discussing our highs and lows and laughing at all of it.
On Saturday, September 7, we arrived at the bus station around 9AM to buy tickets for the bus to Harare, which would not leave until 1PM. After 3 hours of waiting, the bus arrived, and thanks to an angel selling potato chips we managed to buy the first available tickets and secure our spot on the “nicest” bus going to Harare.
We arrived in Harare an hour after midnight to the legendary, convicting, and humbling hospitality of Reverend and Mrs. Boloma of the Church of Central Africa Presbtyerian (CCAP). Even at 1:30AM and with a weeks old baby in the family, there was a warm meal waiting for us and hot water for bathing. Both of which put me right to bed and well prepared me for the following day, when I had the astounding privilege of preaching and serving Holy Communion to a CCAP congregation outside Harare. Having outgrown our appointed classroom, we fulfilled a prophecy spoken over me by worshipping under the open sky. In MAPC fashion, I wore a suit and a full white collar, and in my own fashion I took full advantage of the open space and a translator I knew to be a dynamic preacher, pacing and preaching with a pocket Bible instead of a manuscript, begging for decisions. It was awesome, though wool suits, collars, and black robes work much better in 15th century Geneva than 21st century Zimbabwe.
Over the next few days we transitioned into our TEEZ Training roles to help CCAP adopt and adapt the TEEZ model for discipleship in the Zimbabwean context. We first spent two days at Rock Haven, where we conducted a training last year with Rebecca Jones, and it was awesome to see some of our former students again. It was wonderful, though taxing to cram a 4-day course into a 1.5-day course, but we managed.
From there the original plan was to lead another, similar training 4 hours away in Zimbabwe’s 4th largest city, Gweru. To get there we took a double decker bus – no really a legitimate double decker bus. It was not just called a “luxury” coach, it was legitimately luxury, like flying Emirates Air, with fruit trays, complimentary drinks, air conditioning, and movies.
We arrived to Gweru midday and preceded directly to the local CCAP congregation (and manse), which provided us a whole afternoon to converse with locals about Gweru, the Church, and what it means to follow Jesus in Zimbabwe. I loved just sitting and talking for long stretches of time. Claire spent the afternoon with the women of the church, whom the pastor’s wife vehemently called, “the Church.” Women are “the Church,” men just visit.
Unfortunately, neither the training nor a student ever materialized in Gweru, but fortunately, it provided lots of time to talk to locals and walk around Gweru trying to track the history of the place and the social/political changes the people have seen. Gweru is bigger than every city in Zambia except the capital, and yet is only the 4th biggest in Zimbabwe. One can definitely feel the mixed blessings and curses of prolonged colonialism in Zimbabwe, with the residual infrastructure.
Our whole time in Zimbabwe was punctuated by fabulous hosts. I heard hundreds of times before arriving in Africa, that African hospitality would put us to shame, and it does. Our CCAP hosts embodied Paul’s words to honor one another more than yourself. From their generous hand with food, to giving up beds and bedrooms, to arranging our travel, to asking us to preach they surely set the model for hosting.
Among my favorite lessons/observations/practices:
1. The largest churches in the Synod do not stay the largest churches for long, because a church of 500 is sub-divided into three new congregations, such that the original congregation plants new congregations. Congregations plant congregations to reach new people in new geographic areas and to maintain intimacy in congregations.
2. To aid in this process, congregations often train their own “evangelists,” who preach and lead these new congregations until a seminary trained evangelist or pastor can be appointed to the new congregation.
3. At every annual presbytery meeting, each congregation must present an annual audit, jointly conducted by presbytery representatives and congregation leaders. The annual audit reports on changes in membership, baptisms, giving, buildings, leadership, spiritual growth, new leaders, discipline problems, and new challenges. These audits are prescribed with the main goal of congratulating congregations on their successes and encouraging them in their challenges. I love the total idea of the system, especially when presbyteries are composed of fewer than 20 churches, allowing for earnest conversations about pastors’ and congregations’ successes and failures. The whole system reminded me of United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon’s infamous Dashboard. For what it’s worth, I’d gladly submit to such, and wonder at people’s fear of audits.
4. Congregations don’t need buildings to be churches.
5. Preaching should be a congregational responsibility, not just a paid pastoral one, though coordination is crucial to make sure our interactions with Scripture don’t become a mile wide and an inch deep.
6. The relationships between pulpits and politics are complex at best, dangerous at worst, but necessarily regardless.
Thank you to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Harare Synod for teaching us so much.