When the rain came today I was so excited. It had been seven days since the last rain, a sign that wet season was waning. The maize already climbs above my head, ensuring a good harvest either way, but as someone who grew up in the desert, I already missed the daily rains. About fifty meters down the dirt road toward the village, however, that joy at a nice rain turned into a bit of dread. We cautiously followed the minibus ahead of us, taking note where it hit the puddles deepest. The uncomfortable slipping and gliding sideways and backwards on the road introduced just enough discomfort to quicken our prayers. Then came the turn-off in the road. We watched the minibus ahead of us stall in the mud and we didn’t even try. We parked just off the main road, asked a local to watch our car, and began the final trek to the village on foot. I have worn brown shoes all season, but today that wasn’t enough. The mud, a sticky clay, caked to our feet layer after layer. It was good resistance training, but no fun in my long skirt. Halfway there and half of us gave, took off our shoes, and simply waded through the mud and water. We arrived at the village with mud stuck thick from soles to ankles, even squishing up between our toes. We rinsed off at the house of the pastor’s wife when we arrived, not an easy task.
But we barely touched the threshold, barely contemplated putting back on those shoes, when we were up again, going to see the village demonstration garden. The elders in this village had trouble getting food, especially in the season between planting and harvest. In the past, they begged food from other villagers, and most of the community simply waited for them to die. Now, they led their community with year-around vegetable gardens, which not only provided nutritious food right outside the houses, but also provided a source of income when there was excess. They didn’t have a watering can so they carried borehole water in a bucket and sprinkled it on the plants by the bowlful in dry season. They also layered straw under the vegetable plants to retain moisture. We made our way to the front of the village and sat down. The slightly drier mud on my bare feet matched the feet of five dozen elderly women who came out to greet us. There were ninety-five in this village group, starting at 65 and going up to 92, working together for health and hope. Each of them planted a new tree this season, and they gathered up the plastic litter from around the village and brought it to us in big bags to show us. They could use the bags of rubbish as seats or mattresses in the future to help ease their aches, and the plastics wouldn’t leach into the environment. They stood up and clapped out a song. “Your grandma prays, why don’t you?” They chanted. Elders in this community now had a place of honor. They help support themselves and started to teach the younger generation. They used fabric and yarn and old maize bags to create crafts to teach children their alphabet. They care for goats donated to the community, and whenever one gives offspring, they pass it on to another member of the group. The added protein from the milk helps both young and old alike. As we began the program, the chief preached a sermon from Matthew 5. “Some people think chiefs don’t pray” he said, and then proceded to talk about the salt of the earth. How appropriate for this program where we will be giving a bit of maize to each elder community member, and a bit of salt, something they can’t produce locally for themselves, but “useful for making everything tasty” as the chief said. He went on to talk about a city on a hill, which cannot be hidden, and I wondered whether this village would serve as a beacon of light and hope for others.
Hunger season was difficult this year, especially in this village. “But we didn’t go to beg” the group chairperson said. Gifts of maize flour distributed at critical times this season preserved strength and life, it was acknowledged. Today a bit over 100 kg of maize was given as well as an extra goat and about $30 cash which could be a transformative amount for some of these projects, equal to a month’s wages for a young healthy person. But the bigger intervention could be found in the organization and empowerment of these grandmas. These elder people who were considered a drain on society now have programs and projects of their own. They plant trees their grandchildren will enjoy and teach them how to keep their village clean, how to cultivate gardens year-around. It’s a new beginning, a young group of older people. They are still learning to do for themselves things that outsiders used to provide. But it is such a blessing to see. When Jesus said that loving widows was a sign of his followers, I wonder if he pictured thriving communities like this? What a better way to give, rather than handing out little bits at a time to beggars at the door? To build capacity and sustainability and dignity within communities. I can’t help thinking how much stronger this village will be now that their elders are standing in their proper place of influence.
We begin the trek back to the car. It is astounding how the mud from hours ago is already converted to soil and sand. Most of it at least. But there is still enough to cake my feet as I walk. I’m surrounded by beautiful mountains, so different from our Nkhoma peak even though it is just a couple miles down the road. It’s a nice perspective, a fresh hope. I think about how Greg and I can begin to partner with this community, and others like it. Maybe I can help with community health, maybe Greg can bring some teachings. The program is appropriately named Alinafe Communities of Hope – it means God with us. And today we saw just a beginning of that hope. We pray that we’ll be up to the task to trudge through the difficulty, so that we can be part of lasting change instead of quick drive-by fixes.