I had a glimpse of heaven yesterday. It was a Medical Ward team event for Christmas – a celebration of community, common purpose in healing, and advent. It was an idea sparked during tea time, reminiscent of the last hospital party over five years ago. The energetic IT guy who manages our Noncommunicable Disease clinic said he would arrange everything, bright smile on his face. He thought we should go to the lake. Wouldn’t that increase morale? The charge nurse echoed that so many staff had worked on the ward for years, even decades, and had never glimpsed Lake Malawi. She could manage all the food, she said, even though she was simultaneously planning a huge program for the patients the following week, as well as managing the ward. The visiting nurse from Samaritan’s Purse, the one who loved being with us so much that she extended her time at her own expense, jumped in and asked each staff member if they were coming. “Picture this, everyone together in the water, passing a ball back and forth, laughing in the sunshine.” It was rainy season and I imagined a cloudy, cold day at best, but I was going to come along any way. They told me that all the seats in the bus they rented were full. How many would actually come at the 5:00 leave-time?
Twenty-seven of us piled into the bus that morning. There were 32 seats, officially, but the boom box and charcoal and barbeque pit were filling up a couple of them. It was so packed right up against the doors that people hopped in and out of windows as we stopped on the way for bathroom breaks and picking up vegetables. Olivia payed music from her phone and everyone seemed energetic, even the nurse who worked the entire night shift, rushed home for a change of clothes, and jumped in with us. At least six of the hospital cleaners and patient attendants with us had never seen the beach before. When we rounded the corner and saw the lake for the first time, I pointed it out to the woman in front of me. Her eyes remained glued to the body of water thereafter. We rolled up to the beach resort, our charge nurse negotiated a good deal for it. We had the place all to ourselves – beach cabanas, a hammock in the shade, warm sand, and water rolling into waves with nobody else in site. It was bright and warm even at 10 am when we arrived. We rushed into the water, the foreigners first, then the nurses and nursing students, and eventually everybody. I didn’t think I would go in at all, but it was so fun to enjoy the waves, sit out for a bit, and then come back in again.
It was incredible seeing people at the water for the first time. They started at the ankles, then sat down in the shallows, then trudged in waist-deep, splashing. One woman didn’t bring any extra cloth, probably didn’t plan to get in, but the weather and mood was so nice, she just took off her dress and went in with only her slip. I think some of the younger set didn’t know what to do as she joyfully and toplessly enjoyed the water. We offered her an extra shirt and then she was able to comfortably participate in group pictures, beaming. We even threw a frisbee back and forth for a while. A woman who couldn’t swim, who had never seen waves or a frisbee before, was laughing and tossing the disc back and forth with a white girl who could barely speak her language. We had endless drinks – about 6 sodas and waters per person. I thought it was excessive, but it was actually fun to grab whatever you wanted to drink at any time. The nurses and cleaners made sure there was no shortage of food, either – sausages and barbeque chicken and local chicken boiled in vegetables. It was probably more meat than some ate in a month. A celebration worthy of Christmas.
Nursing students splashed around with nurses who had worked at the hospital 20 years and foreign medical students who had arrived the week before. I wondered what an outsider would have thought of our group, black and white enjoying the waves together, medical professionals and cleaning staff eating side by side. There were still some boundaries – those who couldn’t speak Chicehwa and those who couldn’t speak English. But the boombox was so over-powering that half the time nobody could hear each other. That’s how to party in Malawi. Everyone smiling, spontaneously bursting into dance, taking selfies all the while. It was a perfect day – warm but not oppressive, water refreshing but not frigid, no agenda except relaxing and eating and playing. This team that worked together under stressful, even critical conditions, that operated under authority structures official and unofficial, a group separated by skills, resources, and opportunity – enjoyed rest and nature and fellowship together with so much of that baggage stripped away. It was a day which convinced me I was about as close as I might ever be to heaven on this earth.