This past Saturday evening, as I entered our church tent for prayer there was a young girl, maybe 15 or 16 years old, sitting alone among the chairs. She sat alone quietly, head down trying to keep her eyes from connecting with anyone. As is the custom here in Malawi (and many parts of Africa), I walked around greeting those who were there with a handshake and smile saying, “Mwaswera bwanji?” (Translated “How are you this afternoon?”) This young girl barely had the courage to look at me as she extended her small hand to mine. I looked at her and realized she had severe burn scars across her face and was obviously developmentally disabled. Her clothes were old and unwashed but her eyes open and her smile, ever so slight, broke my heart into pieces. I watched her kneel and pray with all her heart and later, I watched her leave.
The next morning, when I arrived early to teach a class, she entered quietly, a bit late, as she’s not one of my students, but I didn’t say anything as she gingerly took the same seat she had at prayer the day before with her eyes downcast. Her clothes were the same ones she had worn on Saturday and her hands were wound tightly together. I struggled to pull my eyes away from her and teach the students in the class.
I saw her – I knew her story most likely went something like countless ones I had heard before. She had probably been burned in a senseless accident or as punishment or out of plain cruelty. She had such a look of shame in her eyes I knew that it was likely she was or was being abused in some way wherever she was living – but where could someone like her go? Before I knew it, she slipped away after service and I made a mental note to find out more about her so we could find a way to help her.
Later that morning, as service ended and I was saying goodbye to some ladies, I picked up a painfully small baby boy from his young mother’s arms. His smile was contagious and I cuddled him; he wasn’t at all put off by my obvious foreigner status, being “Muzungu” (a white person). Many children in the poorer areas, where many of our church members come from, aren’t accustomed to interacting with a “Muzungu” so when this baby smiled I had to cuddle him. I asked how old he was and was told he was 5 months old; holding him I knew he was underweight. He was too small, too hungry; we have to find a way to get some nourishment to help him.
I saw him and his mother (she’s only 16 years old); I already knew that the “husband” had disallowed his new wife to attend a weekend encounter retreat with us. He told her if she went to the retreat, he would leave her so she stayed home. I know the likely outcome, without an intervention by God, will be heartache when at some point in time he beats her and leaves her for another woman.
When we finally returned home after a long weekend and I had a moment, I stepped out for a prayer walk. The sun was bright and a cool breeze was blowing and I thought it was a perfect afternoon to walk and pray. My mind wasn’t far from the young girl and her baby and as I prayed, I came upon another young mother with a baby on her back. She was standing on a corner, looking as if she was getting off a bus that usually passes by there; she had a very large bundle of sugarcane that she was lifting to her head. She was trembling as she lifted the bundle and no one passing by helped her so I did my best to help steady her load and tie a blanket around her to secure the baby. Of course I couldn’t tie the blanket as well as she could but she gave me a bit of instruction. I stumbled but finally got it, apologizing to her in Chichewa (the local language) that I wasn’t much help and she said, “Osadandaula.” Translated, “Don’t worry.” Knowing the language gives me immediate entrance but it also allows me to hear what people are saying and I heard the comments and snickers of the passers-by as the “Muzungu” helped this lady. It was obvious the “Muzungu” wasn’t at all able to tie the blanket well. I apologized again to her, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed her too much, as I handed her an umbrella she had been carrying and her sizeable purse. Again, her voice quietly said, “Osadandaula” and we both went our way.
I saw her and her baby and wondered about her story – I knew hers was like millions of other women on the continent. She likely had a small business or went to her field to cut sugarcane to sell. No one went with her to help her so she put her baby on her back and went to get her sugar cane alone. It may be she faced a beating if she didn’t go and my heart broke for her as I continued to walk and pray.
In this world of great pain and need, what can be done to bring meaningful change? On the African continent alone, there are hundreds of millions of stories like these; it feels like an impossible situation. I am assaulted daily with feelings of despair when I see hungry children, abused women, and hopelessness in the eyes of the vulnerable.
Are we exempt from doing anything because whatever we do won’t be enough to touch vast swaths of the population?
I’m drawn to think of my daughter who was premature and abandoned as an infant. She was left in a small hospital and then rescued by a local organization working with children in crisis. When we saw her, she was 7 lbs. and 3 months old, we fell in love with her and she came home. 9 years later, I can’t imagine life without our “bonus” baby who came 15 years after our last biological child was born.
Our daughter, just a little number among the 1,000,000+ orphans in Malawi (click here for more information), had been left in a strange house among many other children in the same situation: alone in this world. It may not appear that rescuing her made much of an impact on the population of orphans in the nation – but it made a difference to her (and us). Her life has been radically changed and she has hope for a future – and our lives are immeasurably richer. You can see that this is deeply personal to me.
I wonder if everyone, everywhere opened their eyes and really saw those around them and did the little bit that they could, what would the impact be? Perhaps it’s impossible to change the whole world and solve every problem, but for those few whose lives are touched – it would be worth every effort.
Today, I’m looking for someone whose life I can touch; no matter how small it may be – it’s time for a change.
James 1:26,27 MSG “Anyone who sets himself up as ‘religious’ by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.”