Rags and Riches in the Bush
Written by Heidi & Rolland Baker
16 MAY 2002, BANGULA, MALAWI
Again I am racing for time. Malawi does not permit night landings in the bush, and I have only minutes before official last light. I just left Blantyre and am sinking down toward southern Malawi’s sea level plateau, an area stricken by both floods and drought this past year. I can only stay a few days with our pastors there, and I want to get to Bangula tonight. We fight against a strong headwind, marked by low streaks of smoke from cooking fires scattered across the darkening land. The marshes of the Shire River pass below, filled with crocodiles that have eaten many hungry villagers who were desperately searching for edible water plants.
The little town of Bangula appears, and then the dirt runway. It looks great after we had it cleared of tall weeds last week. No one has landed here since I last flew in almost two years ago. We touch down in the hazy twilight and send up a huge cloud of blowing dust. Off in the grass I shut down and immediately hundreds of children come running toward us. Our missionary Pam Bryan appears with a truck, and then pastors press in also, laughing and excitedly hugging Steve, Gordon, Surpresa and me as we climb out of our plane. Somehow in the dark we unload our gear and sound equipment with lots of shouting and jumping all around. This is such a major event.
We get to Pam’s rented house just by the runway. It’s old, plain and bare, and in need of much repair. You brush your teeth under a faucet in the dirt courtyard and take cold bucket baths. There’s a squat toilet in the back. But it’s a real brick house, not a mud hut, and it’s wonderful by local standards.
Under the trees in the yard we talk, pray and worship with our leading pastors into the night. How shall we face the needs of the people? They have been hungry for months. We ask the pastors to spend the night seeking wisdom for buying and distributing food with the limited resources we brought. All our answers come only from Jesus. We can only get what we need from Him. And so the pastors pray and intercede, intensely, with shouts and tears. May Jesus be King and have His way, and may every demonic hold on the people be broken.
In the morning in bright sunlight under a blue sky and brilliant clouds we head for our mud church in Bangula to preach and worship. The people come out singing and dancing to greet us. Local children pose for me barefoot in the dirt. All gather around the church in a circle to pray for the ground, the territory and the people. Our “Iris Partners in Harvest Church” sign is posted over the church door, African-style. Inside we worship with joy and excitement, and I ask everyone to greet all of you reading this newsletter. The people are filled with faith and fervor, so miraculous in this time of hunger and suffering.
In the afternoon we drive further south to the even more desperate town of Nsanje, an hour away over a very rough dirt road. On the way we pass through Bangula’s dusty, almost empty downtown, stop at a store and meet a family of beggars, including an old blind man and two blind ladies. Pam helps them a bit and soon we are traveling along the river and past a busy canoe crossing on the Mozambique border. Here also the water is filled with crocodiles and hippos, but everyone carries their baskets, bicycles and whatever they need in these small, unstable canoes anyway. The children here are wretchedly poor, but resilient, and eagerly respond to the Gospel.
Along the road we see fields of scorched millet, picked clean by birds. At one time cotton plantations covered the area, but the economy has withered to almost nothing. River water from distant Lake Malawi fills marshes in certain places, but right nearby severe drought prevails. Sudden flash floods have washed away repeated plantings, leaving only drought again. Half of Malawi has run out of food, and next year’s shortfall is predicted to be even worse. In their hunger children do not go to school, the sick do not recover, mothers cannot nurse their babies, and people resort to eating leaves, worms and roots.
In hot, dusty Nsanje our country church group finds shelter under trees and we enjoy our cathedral against the backdrop of Africa’s magnificent, wide-open wildness. On the ground an old man in rags claps along with us, singing and bowing his head in prayer, committing himself to the only Savior, God and King. Children come forward to pray and find Jesus, and adults are on their knees before Him.
After the meeting we go to see Pastor Nsapi’s house. I have noticed this pastor with a weathered face and missing teeth many times before. He always wears the same worn coat, shirt and tie, however hot it is, and he is our faithful leader in this area. But I didn’t know until today that five of his seven children have died of hunger and disease in the last thirty days. With no doctors around he could not even get a diagnosis for them. So what did he do? He has taken in twelve orphans — and the old man who was worshiping on the ground during church. And we are going to see the stick hut he is building for them all.
We start hiking the few hundred yards to his clearing. Our surroundings are magnificent, but now the famine, cactus and dry ground are not impersonal. They are a battleground of spiritual warfare. They have touched our family painfully. How shall we undo what Satan has done? Here is one pastor’s answer. We come to his little mud and thatch hut where the ladies are cooking the maize we bought for everyone at church. And Pastor Nsapi lines up with his twelve new children in front of the stick frame of their new home. He had no clothes or food for these children when he took them in, but he did what Jesus asked him to do. And now we as the Body of Christ are able to help him.
We press on to another village for a sunset service out on the dirt between mud huts. In the dim light children gather around us in all their poverty, ready and willing to receive the love of Jesus. We end up worshiping and calling on our God for His comfort and company late into the night under the stars. Those without desire for Him are still poor, but here the poor have become rich.
The next day after Sunday worship we had to fly back to Mozambique, but I left Gordon behind to help Pam and our Malawian leadership commission with the process of buying, distributing and storing food with the money we had wired to Blantyre. I have been back to Malawi since, and the process is going quite well. For a few months there will be some food available for purchase, and we must store as much as possible for the extreme needs ahead.
Great hunger is spreading across much of northern Mozambique as well, especially in Tete Province. There is no commodities exchange or way of buffering supply and demand when weather varies and crops fail. In many ways Mozambique is still at the bottom of the world’s statistics. Average life expectancy is now under 40. The country has 180,000 AIDS orphans. The government spends only $2 a person per year on public health.
We see all this as a massive opportunity to learn to love as Jesus does. We have an outlet for our pure and simple devotion to Him, an open door to His heart. We don’t want to shrink back and throw away our faith; rather, we are desperate to overcome by sharing in His righteousness, peace and joy. Jesus, we want you, and must have you — and everything that only comes from your heart and hands…
Remember our children’s centers and our Bible school in Maputo, and our 3-4,000 churches in all ten provinces of Mozambique. Our schedule of bush conferences for the rest of the year is intense. Your extreme sensitivity, generosity and participation with us in so many ways is the love of Jesus poured out through His Body. May you be overjoyed to serve the King!
Much love in Him,