Teach them how to fish…09 July, 2020
Teach them how to fish…
By Eric Schansberg
Through Further Still Ministries, Southeast Christian Church, and Hope Alive Initiatives, Kurt and I had a great DC ministry trip to Malawi in mid-July 2019. This was our fourth trip to Africa—after Ghana in 2015 and 2016, and Burkina Faso in 2018, (If you send me a message and I input your email address, you’ll be able to access the photos I chose to put together in an album here.)
As always, our team is leading one module among many in the last half of a three-year HAI process to train church leaders. Broadly, the goal is to develop a vision and strategies for “ministry multiplication”: don’t just start something; prepare others to start in the future as well. More specifically, we’re training on discipleship and developing lay-leaders—while other experts provide training to start schools and other businesses, learn skills such as mechanics and video, operate medical and dental clinics, etc.
DC and HAI both emphasize empowerment and multiplication. We often describe it in light of a popular metaphor: don’t give a man a fish; teach him how to fish. But our goals are grander: we want to teach the man how to teach others to fish. In discipleship terms, we would point to the four generations of II Tim 2:2 (Paul, Timothy, faithful people, who can teach others). Addition is ok, but we’re aiming for multiplication which is far more powerful.
In broad terms, how did this trip compare to our others? First, it was a much larger group than we had in Ghana or BF—about 90 regulars and 110-120 overall (compared to 40-60 in previous years).
Second, we were in Lilongwe—as Ouagadougou in BF, a capital city of about one million people. We were southeast of the downtown area, in a “suburban” environment—more akin to our first trip to Ghana. But Malawi is a much poorer country, so these people had much less in terms of material resources and literacy/education.
(More on the economics: When paved, the roads were fine. But when not paved, they were really rough. Stores in-town were relatively modern, but then it degenerated as you moved from the city center. As a more vivid example, we bought skewered mice in the country that had been roasted and would be eaten by our hosts: 6-7 mice for 64 cents.)
Third, as with BF, English was not the dominant language. We used translators in BF for French (and other local languages), but we had a fluent French speaker (Marie) and a rusty French speaker (me) on our team. In Malawi, we only had access to the dominant language (Chichewa) through a handful of translators.
These three differences led to a substantially different (and more challenging) experience for our team. With so many people, the large group sessions were equivalent, but our small groups were larger than ideal.
With fewer resources, less education/literacy was limiting; many (leaders) did not own a Bible; and there is a stronger sense of a “subsistence” or “scarcity” mindset to be overcome. And I was left wondering if our usual approach was “enough”. Maybe follow-up efforts would be more valuable in this context—where the resources are fewer and the confidence that one can succeed is less.
With no knowledge of the local language, we were totally at the mercy of the translators (Ronald, Nelson, Akeem, Mtema, and Rex), who (fortunately) were excellent. We were given the impression that their English was far stronger, so we had not made efforts to translate our materials into Chichewa. Knowing what we know now, we would have tried to get that done beforehand. (And now, we’ll have much more work to do, after the fact). It was also far more difficult to form relationships with the people we were training. They were extremely friendly and enthusiastic. But until we got to the small group components on the 3rd day, we really weren’t getting to know anyone, except the translators.
Kurt and I want to take different people on each trip—particularly those who haven’t taken an international ministry trip in the past. We want them to see God move in radically different ways and empower them to go “further still”—to do a range of other things, from everyday life to international missions. And we want the locals to be inspired by laypeople doing ministry. This year, it was Keith and Matt. (Keith is in IT; Matt is in upper management.)
They were outstanding—working hard before and during the trip, adapting on the ground, and teaching really well. And we only brought two others with us this time. (We had teams of 6 and 5 in Ghana—and then 4 in BF.) Keith and Matt team-taught everything, which lowered the burden in some ways but increased it in other ways. (They even team-preached on Sunday!)
I knew Matt and Keith from our years together in the Sunday night Bible study as singles and then when they were in the Abundant Life Sunday School class. They have been friends since college. They were together on Matt’s 30th b-day in Paris, during their MBA program. Now, 20 years later, they were together in Malawi for his 50th!
The “DC” training was our usual. On Tuesday AM, Keith and Matt led off with “Identity in Christ”. And then, Kurt taught on Spiritual Warfare. On Wednesday, Keith and Matt led the group through Neil Anderson’s “Steps to Freedom in Christ” booklet. (On this, we covered less of the material and defined terms much more than usual. And for the first time, we finished with a ceremony to burn lists of sins that had been confessed.) On Thursday AM, Kurt and I taught on discipleship (mostly, 4 chairs and the funnels). On Friday AM, Keith and Matt taught on how to read the Bible effectively and I taught through Genesis 3. Kurt and I did some more on leadership and discipleship on Saturday AM.
The rest of the time (Thursday/Friday afternoons; most of Saturday) was four small group discussions. In terms of material, we use DC material/questions on leadership, unity/conflict/fellowship, marriage, and stewardship. The plan is always to model an effective small group with avid participation, facilitating more than teaching, striving to empower rather than teach at folks. As the week continued, we let the translators control more—to model empowerment and to make things more efficient (without as much translation).
The small groups seemed revolutionary for them. It didn’t seem as if they had ever done anything like it. And it showed in their inability to observe, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. I’d guess that most of the communication was simply in sermons, with all of the attendant limits of that approach.
The cultural aspects of the discussions were not as “interesting/unique” as previous years. They didn’t have big trouble with leave/cleave or significant issues church discipline, compared to some wild stories we had heard before. Inside the church (although apparently not in the World), there was modest trouble with fathers sacrificially loving their wives and being involved with children. Inside the church, there was little trouble with laziness and the usual problems with temptations for financial debt.
The most interesting “cultural” problem/discussion was in Genesis 3 where many had heard teaching (probably from Branhamites!) that the “fruit” eaten by Eve was sex with the serpent. Although there’s certainly an application to sexual temptation from that narrative, it’s incoherent as an interpretation for many reasons. Again, this takes us back to troubles with interpretation vs. application.
More broadly, the tribal-cultural influences seemed to be much less of a factor. (Maybe this is a side benefit of a more-heavily “Christian country”.) And the Muslim influence was far more limited in Malawi. There was a prominent mosque downtown and it used loudspeakers to do regular prayers. (One morning was incredibly loud, from miles away. I’m guessing the neighbors complained!)
As before (and often in the American church), we saw trouble with providing definitions to common “spiritual” terms. Sometimes, this works well enough: we “know” what unity and stewardship mean and can operate without formal definitions. Other times, the lack of definition leads to a lack of specificity—and sloppy thinking which leads to various errors. So, we worked on that as well—working to define particular terms and the importance of understanding the terms one is using.
The biggest problem we encountered was the limited skill in reading, using, and applying the Bible. When we would read a passage, the norm was to provide generic answers—sometimes related; sometimes not—to the passage itself. Drawing specific observations or inferences from the text was akin to pulling teeth, especially early-on. But it got much better as the week continued. All we could figure was that this skill had not been developed because of lower literacy, fewer Bibles, and an emphasis on preaching.
Aside from the training
Before the training, we “recovered” on Sunday afternoon/evening (sleep going there was very difficult on the plane, given the time changes—and our time in airports and daylight when we would have normally slept). On Monday, we 1.) visited two schools Ronald was overseeing: a rural, three-room school with 250 kids, where the government could not build (near Dowa) and a grades 1-5 school he’s building in the city (near the church which is near Ngwenya Hill); 2.) had pizza (salami that was advertised as pepperoni and another that included corn); 3.) went to the market we bargained and picked up souvenirs for the fam. For example, I got a nativity set and a trivet made from fabric and bottle caps for Tonia.
The rural school was about an hour away from the city—and a moving, memorable and impressive experience/story. It began through Ronald’s connection with the relative of a church member. They talked to five local tribal leaders who agreed to provide land for a church and a school. He built the church and then the school. It’s operating for free now, but getting ready to transition to modest payments that will support the two teachers. In a word, it’s a rough start that will grow, but the private sector is providing something valuable that the government cannot do, with its limited resources.
For the school he’s building in town, we got to see Ronald’s entrepreneurial skills in finding the capital (buying and selling land) and organizing the construction and operations of the school to make money and provide a valuable service. Ronald is adept theologically and a very effective preacher. But it was interesting that he had gotten better-trained pastors to work with/under him—a testament to their humility and his skills, vision, work ethic, passion, and enthusiasm.
At the rural school, the kids poured out to greet us excitedly. When we left, they sang Kum-ba-ya and “we will never forget you”. On the latter, I think they had it backwards: we will never forget them!
After the training on Saturday, we went to Ronald’s house for dinner. We had met his wife Zion at lunch. And we had worked with oldest son Paul a bunch (as our primary driver) and got to talk with second-oldest Evans quite a bit. But we got to meet most of the rest of his family (two daughters were out of the country to do training) and enjoyed a lovely meal (with Fanta and fruit for dessert).
We were able to attend worship on Sunday. It was a big crowd, given the conference. Worship featured singing, dancing, and a youth / young adult choir. Matt and Keith co-preached– using a teaching style and a number of Biblical examples– on how God could use anyone, even if they thought they were too young, too old, uneducated, or had sinned too much. (It was cool that today’s sermon at SE had some of the same elements: don’t believe denigrating thoughts/words about your life and “flip the script” through Jesus.) And they talked about how God could use Malawi, even though it seems small in worldly terms. Then, Ronald stood up and preached– using a demonstrative preaching style– to reiterate the same message!
About one-fourth of those present were women (as we had in BF and Salaga). Not all of them were literate, but many were very impressive with their interactions.
Two fascinating things from an exercise where they paired up and then talked about their identities. First, they selflessly shared about each other instead of their own. Second, all of them mentioned something food. I guess that’s a lot more important in a setting where food is not plentiful!
The church building was certainly sufficient but rudimentary by our standards (and those we had seen in Ghana and BF): packed dirt for floor and stairs (people who traveled to the conference slept on tarps); incomplete or missing windows and doors; green lawn chairs and benches for seats. (We had to borrow two chairs from a neighbor to do “4 chairs” with four different chairs!)
In contrast, the airport in Lilongwe was probably the best we’ve encountered in Africa—small but clean, modern, and well-run.
It seemed like there was less spiritual warfare in BF and Malawi (compared to Ghana), but there was still plenty. For example, Matt’s son has struggled with anxiety and it was under control until 9 AM local time on Sunday (3 AM in Louisville), just before he was going to preach!
The Malawians danced a bit more than the BF’ers but not nearly as much as the Ghanaians. (The friendliest little girl, Gloria, was a notable and memorable exception!) Worship was inspiring—each morning and then on Sunday. As in BF, they used a young adult choir. But Malawi was the first place where we’ve heard the frequent use of harmony. Even the kids at the rural school used it to serenade us!
The Malawi women dressed as we had seen in other countries. But the Malawi men dressed well and conservatively—very little color. (Tonia had warned me that my colorful Ghanaian garb would be out of place.) The Malawians were less distracted and more attentive—likely a benefit of fewer technological and earthly distractions.
There hasn’t been any terrorist activity in Malawi, so we had no worries there, aside from the modest concerns of traveling outside the U.S. On Friday, there were protests, but those were expected to be little or no concern. We took precautions in our travel and it turned out to be nothing.
Keith and Matt didn’t need much if any encouragement to go on the trip, but Matt got some anyway: visiting someone with a fish tank, they had fish from Lake Malawi!
Travel was easy this time: no delays/hassles with airplanes. The weather was beautiful: sunny or partly cloudy with highs near 80 and lows in the upper 50s. But it was very dry. (They have a wet season and it does get 100-degree hot in their summer.) No significant trouble with illness, thankfully. With such a small team, that could have been a big problem!
In a setting with so little English, it was strange to see most of the advertising in English. I don’t understand that but my best explanations are 1.) using English might attract wealthier people; 2.) using English might be taken as a signal of quality; and 3.) perhaps the locals understood what was sold, so English had more value-added in terms of providing info.
“Cakes Lodge” was terrific—the best lodging we’ve had in Africa, by a nose over Bob and Bonnie’s compound in Ghana. It was lovely and practical—quite comfy with fans (not needed), hot water, good beds, and even a one-channel TV (mostly BBC with their focus on Trump’s “racist” tweets). We got to meet the owner who is a Purdue grad! (His wife went to Valpo.) He bought us a cake for Friday evening—a nice touch.
Cakes’ food was really good. Breakfast and dinner at Cakes was excellent. In the AM, we had our choices among eggs or veggie omelette, a sausage, potatoes, toast, “Jungle Oats”, bananas, and oranges. Dinner was chicken or beef most evenings, but we got a decent T-bone one night and fish (“chambo”: tilapia, we were told) another night—along with greens and a starch.
Chrispin and sometimes Petey were our cooks. It occurred to me that a place like that needs to provide physical security and confidence in the food. This place had both in spades—a walled compound in a seemingly safe city and Chrispin’s professionalism and friendliness were especially impressive.
Lunch was at the house neighboring the church—again, a variety of meats, veggies, and starches. Their favorite starch is tsima—a thick corn porridge that they use to pick up the other food. (We were warned that we might not have forks, but that wasn’t the case!) Lunch is, by far, their largest meal. It’s not clear that they eat (much?) for breakfast and dinner sounded like leftovers at most. Our hosts were chowing down at lunch, since it was their primary meal. It was funny that their hospitality was so inefficient: we ate first but they ate far more, resulting in a long break between the start and end of lunch!
The mosquitoes were only a minor issue again—in general and in particular, with the preventative measures we take. (This is the first time that our lodging has had mosquito nets. We used them, but I’m not sure they were necessary.)
After most of the evening debrief sessions, we played games when we weren’t having to do a lot of prep—mostly Splendor, but also some Star Realms and Quixx.
One of the funniest little things was that Ronald gave us all titles. We were the “international delegates” in the “international delegation”. Francis was “the missionary”; Kurt was “the senior minister”; I was “the professor”; and Keith and Matt were the “ministers”.