Learning the Dance
Ten months ago, we adopted a little village dog and took over the contract for a night guard. Together, those two had been protecting for our rental house long before we saw it and decided to move in. I wrote about his experience from the perspective of us moving into their territory and the life adjustments they must have as if Dancing With Elephants. At that time, Greg and I worked hard to impress upon our big German Shepherds not to hurt the little dog, or the guard for that matter. It is interesting to watch the dogs now. The little mutt has learned the rules of being an indoor dog and loves staying inside on rainy days. He has taken to nipping at the shoulder of Hatchi, the smaller of our other two, as if he is trying to work up his way in the pecking order. He seems to know he has no chance of being top dog, Bear is by far the biggest and doesn’t have the patience to put up with pestering, but Hatchi just ignores the little one as he nips and jumps and bumps in an attempt to assert his place in the pack. Since the newcomer pays no attention to the balls that Hatchi loves, nothing upsets our stoic dog’s calm. It is fun to see the little one learn to act more like a dog, playing with toys, no longer flinching to touch, and to starting to show affection. It makes me wonder what he will be like in months and years to come.
I wish it were the same with the guard. Although we never wanted a night guard, things started out pretty well with Mr. Lighton. When he wasn’t opening the gate for us, he helped with watering and sweeping. He had good skills in woodwork and bricklaying, so he helped with a number of additional projects as we fixed up the house and got settled. But little by little, we noticed things missing from around the house – a drill, a hammer, some charcoal. It was usually days when others were around, like the plumber and the exterminator, so we couldn’t attribute the missing items to a certain person. But then things started missing from inside the house – our iron, our flashlight, a $100 bill. That’s when things were incredibly difficult for us, we’d never been in a situation where things systematically went missing from rooms nobody but us should have been in. We called in our top cultural brokers. Our former employee-turned-businessman and friend Ishmael stayed with us for hours that first night, the night we knew for sure that the bill was missing from one day to the next. He helped us figure out our options, how to address the issue without accusing anyone, leaving room for grace and understanding. The day the flashlight went missing, we asked both our gardener and our guard to take some days off work until it was found.
That’s when we called in our pastor friends. They came and stayed with us for a night, serving as translators and authority figures as the gardener and the guard shared their differing stories and seeking to find a solution. In the end, after a lot of assistance from others and prayer, we dismissed the guard. We gave him an extra month’s pay as severance, and explained to him that he was fired according to the consequences for stealing in his contract. Our gardener continued to work for us, understanding that he would be held responsible for anything missing in the future.
That was two months ago. Today, the guard’s wife knocked on our gate. My Chichewa isn’t great, and she speaks no English, but she is patient and I have a simple translation app on my phone which helps get most points across. She is hungry, she says. I know she has two small children and that this job was the only source of income for her family. I explain that we terminated her husband’s contract because he was stealing from us and not protecting our property. She says that she never knew that and never saw the items I listed one by one. She tells me that her husband has returned to his own village, a minibus ride of 4 hours, and that she has no money to travel there to discuss with him. I know that she goes to church, one of the biggest in the country. I also know that she has considerable connections with the Gule Wamkulu, an animistic secret society in Malawi. So I ask if her church can help her with food this hunger season. I ask if her family or her village or her community can help. I expected that she would say that nobody else could help her, and while I find that unlikely, I stand in no position to assess the truth of that myself. I tell her that I her what she is saying, I understand that she is trying to care for the children and I understand that she must be in a difficult position. We print out the guard’s contract and I read through it with her, highlighting the clauses about loss of property and severance. We calculate out the months that he worked and the severance that he received. I ask if she has questions, and we slowly work through the answers together. Of course this is not the answer that she wants, hearing that her husband no longer works for us and that he has received his entire salary and severance already. I apologize that the contract is in English and encourage her to find a friend to read through it with her to see if she has any other questions. Then I take a break. We ask her to wait while Greg and I go for a walk together to talk for a bout ten minutes. We discuss the situation; we discuss justice; we discuss mercy; we discuss potential miscommunications or dependency outcomes from any next step that we take. We decide to give this woman one final gift. Greg and I both had the same number in our minds. It’s not a large amount, but enough to feed her family for a week and pay for transport to go find her husband.
I write up the situation on a final piece of paper, and hand it to her in an envelope with the money. This is a gift, I tell her, and this is the last gift we will give. The job is finished, the salary is finished, the severance is finished, and there won’t be more gifts. She confirms that there is no more job or severance, and says she understands. She isn’t happy, but she understands. We pray together then, me in English and her quietly in Chichewa. Surely neither of us feel great about the interaction, but we part peacefully. She will have a harder time these next few days and weeks as she tries to care for her family. Greg and I don’t take that lightly, we will carry it on our shoulders and in our hearts. We may feel like monsters, crushing this young family underfoot.
We might have preferred to be unconditional benefactors, savior/enablers for at least one local family. Greg and I had to take a stand in this case, and it has been and continues to feel awful. We are thankful for our close friends who helped us through this time, teaching us how to manage contracts and how to extend grace and how to draw lines, and translating or brokering for us throughout. And we continue to pray God can redeem this, that He can help the couple rely on Him instead of trusting in foreigners and stealing as a way of life. We pray that they will turn to their church during this time and connect with a community of true believers and find that it is God who provides for them. We pray that they will turn away from Gule Wamkulu, the witchcraft that the group represents, and other things that might have enticed them on a path toward destruction. If nothing else, this situation reminds us to pray continually. We welcome others to pray with us, to pray for that family, to pray for us.
These are the monstrous parts of being a missionary, ugly and unsettling, fumbling in a dance from a culture not our own. Though we may miss our steps, we pray God can help us minimize harm and bring redemption.