Thursday, November 8, 2012
When God puts you to work, you go
Recently, I left my wife and three children and traveled to the other side of the world. My destination was Malawi, the “warm heart of Africa,” the fourth poorest country in the world.
Traveling with me were four other “do-gooders” - David Beard of Jackson, Bill Boykin of Greenville, Bridgett Kellum-Moore of Rankin County and McCall Aldridge of Winona.
We are part of a homegrown organization called “Clean Water for Malawi,” based in Jackson, a brainchild of Jackson’s Victor Smith -- St. Victor as I call him -- a man who has been a missionary visionary and started a huge Jackson mission effort in Honduras.
Honduras was not enough for Victor. He kept going all the way to Malawi, dragging me and many others with him. I wish God and Victor had called me to a closer place - Haiti would have been fine.
But life does not always turn out as you wish or expect. I certainly never expected to become a missionary do-gooder. Back in high school I was the one my youth group prayed for. I guess it worked.
It’s 30 hours one way including layovers - one hour to Atlanta, eight hours to Amsterdam, eight hours to Nairobi, and three hours to Lilongwe.
Malawi - the middle of nowhere. Sounds taxing but my 30 hours on the plane will be luxurious compared to 30 hours in a typical Malawian village. Dinner, a book, a few movies, some sleep, a few hours walking around downtown Amsterdam, some more sleep and you’re there.
When Victor told me about drilling water wells in Malawi, I was intrigued. A few thousand dollars could radically change the lives of an entire village. It was doable.
I gave some money and helped advertise the project. One day, Victor called and asked if I’d like to come to a meeting and get a progress report.
I arrived at the meeting and was ushered into the conference room where everybody was seated, waiting for me. A stack of official looking papers was sitting on the table in front of my seat. “Articles of Incorporation” was the heading. Victor Smith, president; Wyatt Emmerich, vice president. As I later learned, this was typical Victor Smith operating procedure. “God laid this on your heart,” he loved to tell me with a smile.
Malawi is the size of Mississippi. It has 16 million people, 85 percent live in small rural villages. Ten million of these people lack clean water. They drink from putrid, infected mud puddles and often die from cholera, dysentery and a host of infectious diseases.
Women walk an average of three hours a day fetching this nasty water. With a modern drill, pure clean water is abundantly available only 50 feet down, but it may as well be on the surface of Mars to these villagers, many of whom are Aids-orphaned children.
One water well saves 10 lives a year. Over 10 years, that’s 100 lives - $35 a life. Clean water for Malawi has drilled 50 wells in our brief one-year history. Soon we’ll be drilling two wells a week. We need to drill 50 wells a week for 10 years to bring fresh water to all 10 million Malawians who need it. This is accomplishable.
Imagine if the poorest state in the United States brought clean water to the poorest country in the world. What an inspiration that would be. If every church, every civic club, and every affluent person built one well apiece, it could be done.
In preparation for my trip, I read two books. One is called “Toxic Charity.” It’s a critical assessment of affluent missionary work in Third World countries. It accuses wealthy do-gooders of destroying self-reliance and initiative in Third World countries by doing for them what they should do for themselves.
The other book is “Kisses from Katie.” It’s the story of a teenage girl from Nashville who felt a calling from God and devoted her life to helping the children in a slum in Uganda. It is a call to action to follow God’s teaching to love others as much as one loves oneself.
I have thought much about these two books and two views. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. When God decides to put you to work, to work you go. One friend said, “So with clean water they’ll just have more babies which will lead to even more overpopulation.” My answer was straightforward: “We’re just getting them clean water. I’ll let God take it from there.”
Malawi is a beautiful country in southeast Africa. It sits on a huge 4,000-foot mountain plateau which makes for an ideal climate. It will be late spring in Malawi with highs of 86 and lows of 64. The best time to go is in our summer and their winter. Highs are in the 70s and it never rains.
Malawi is a peaceful, democratic country with 85 percent Christians and 15 percent Muslims, and an assortment of local deities. The entire eastern side of the country is bordered by a crystal clear fresh water lake.
I won’t be swimming in it though. Swimmers have a 50-50 chance of contracting schistosomiasis - a small worm that uses lake snails and humans as its life cycle hosts. The worms bore into the skin, causing a rash. Two weeks later the worms migrate to the lungs, causing high fever and a terrible cough. Then they go to the liver and bladder, where they use urine to propagate.
Then there’s malaria. Malawi is its epicenter. Not to mention cholera, yellow fever, dengue fever, hepatitis A and B, and a whole host of other diseases. About 10 percent of the population has AIDS. My mosquito net is ready.
It is amazing to me that our little organization and four more like us - are the only ones doing this in Malawi. The World Health Organization and United Nations suspended efforts years ago, too much corruption. The money never made it through the layers of bureaucracy.
Not so for us. We are under the radar and have zero contact with the government. Using a rich network of missionaries, civic groups such as Rotary, and personal contacts, we have made it happen. We use Malawians to man our drill crews.
We will be monitoring the drilling activity, inspecting wells, working with the local Rotary clubs to identify new well sites, meeting new employees, and networking with other groups such as Here’s Life Africa and the Landirini Trust. We will open our second office in Mzuzu in the north. Documentation is our watchword and we photograph all our wells. I will be bringing six handheld battery-operated Garmin GPS devices; so we can gather latitude-longitude coordinates for each well for a Google map with satellite imagery. And so on.
It’s an exciting project. You can learn more by going to cleanwaterformalawi.org. You can be a part of it. Mississippi can make this happen. Get your Sunday school class to drill a well. Come with me next time and see your generosity saving lives.
I’m reminded of the story of the little boy walking along the beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up by a weird combination of weather and tides. The boy was carefully picking up starfish and placing them back in the water. An older man shouted out, “You’ll never save them all They’re too many.” The boy calmly continued and said, “I know. But I’ve saved this one, and this one, and this one...”
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