The people of Malawi are hungry. Women come to our front and back door throughout the day. The young man who works for us comes and lets us know. “There is a woman looking for work.” We want to help, so we give them a coat to wash and pay them half a days’ wage. We first negotiate with our employee which of three little jobs we should give them, and how much money would help them without being too much. We save a job or two for him and his wife to do as a bonus. We have to explain to our employee that we know that even the coat washing s a job he can do, and we know that we are paying more than an just hourly wage for the job, so we don’t want him to be offended by what we give to them. He nods understanding. “People are hungry,” he says. There is green maize in the fields now, and people can start roasting it for food. But they are waiting for mature crops so that they can pound it into the doughy paste that forms the staple of their diet and really fills their stomaches. Bags of maize flour are the most expensive they have ever been in this area. The foreigners in the community are visited regularly. A woman comes to my office at work and kneels down with her baby asking for help with fees. My friends give 50 cents per person on Thursdays. One time, eighty people showed up. When the money ran out before the people had each received something, their eyes went wide that white people could run out of money too. Another friend, a Malawian nurse, kept extra bags of maize flour throughout the year so that she could give to those who ask. But she didn’t know that her storehouse roof had a leak. 150 kg of flour molded. Hundreds of extra empty tummies this hunger season.
We’re Christians, almost all of us. But we struggle knowing how to live out the teachings of Jesus and His followers. To give to everyone who asks. To share food so that nobody is hungry. To ensure that everyone works so that everyone can eat. There are not enough jobs. There is not enough food. And the foreigners with the connections to foreign donors and consistent salaries cannot understand the languages and cultural nuances enough to understand the stories that people are trying to tell us. We can give indiscriminately, but then as people flood to our doors, it we know that we are caught between being selfish and irresponsibly perpetuating cycles of poverty and dependence.
So we talk to the head of the Presbyterian church in our area. We talk to our closest national friends. We survey the foreigners. We meet with the head hospital chaplain. We discuss the details of storehouses and finance office. We learn that the chaplains have dozens of people coming asking for food daily, but they have the capacity to hear their stories and pray with the people. They can tell if dozens of people are coming from the same family, or if a single mother is all alone. They can add love and relationship into an encounter that risks being purely transactional. They can add soul where we just exchange guilt and pride. So we discuss plans and details. We can provide regular donations to the chaplains during the hunger season. The finance office can keep it in a separate account which the chaplains can use for areas of most need. We can direct people in need to those who can understand their needs and give from storehouses in culturally-responsible ways. We are no longer white saviors, flooded by petitions of people placing their hope in us. We become partners with existing systems, with our national counterparts being able to do more for establishing community hope and trust than we ever could.
Hunger season is still in full swing. The needs are overwhelming. But we’ve learned how to respond as a community of believers, each with their own role, instead of hiding in guilt or assuming savior complexes ourselves. The challenges are immense, but God is good.