As I write this there are less than 3 weeks left before I depart for Monze - a small town in the south of Zambia.
I know the routine – this being my 7th visit. I will arrive at the airport hoping that my bags don't exceed the weight limit, that I am not carrying anything that infringes the current rules for air travel and that I have sufficient papers to satisfy the check-in staff.
For most of my trips I have travelled with Kenya Airways – a very good airline, very comfortable with excellent service. However, the main drawback is that, in both directions, I have night flights and a stop at Nairobi Airport. 7 hours waiting in Nairobi Airport for a midnight flight on the return trip is not my favourite occupation. This year I will be travelling with British Airways who fly direct to Lusaka and on the return trip I will be able to enjoy the spectacle of hundreds of miles of the Sahara Desert. For me the view from the plane is a delight which combines the beauty of God's world with the ingenuity of the people he created. I have never quite understood why most people seem to find a video more interesting than the sight of snow on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
My flight leaves at 7pm, just after sunset on the Equinox. As I go through the 12 hour night (here and at all points on my journey), I move into a very different world and immediately my days start getting longer once more. I will be greeted by the sun as I arrive just after 6 am (6 hours) local time. Temperatures at the moment in Zambia reach 30 centigrade most days and there is rarely any cloud cover.
No trip is quite the same. This year, for the first time since 2004, I will not be working full-time at Monze Mission Hospital. In fact I intend spending most of my time on projects away from the hospital. Usually accommodation and transport are arranged by the hospital. This might happen this year, but as yet nothing has been arranged. (Monze is more than 100 miles from Lusaka!)
There is something comforting about knowing where you are working, what you will be doing, and where you are staying. I am reminded about a spiritual book I once read that described the difference between swimming and floating. Most of us are happier swimming! However, if you relax and allow yourself to float you become one with the sea in a way you will never know if you keep swimming! It is the difference between doing and being or talking and listening. This year I am going to be doing a lot of floating!
I am reminded that my visits to Monze are about relationship. I am sure that we all know that relationships can be the most difficult things to deal with. They bring the most pain but are also most life giving. Last Sunday a visiting priest who lives in Tanzania gave some 'homework' that included reading John's gospel on the vine and the branches where Jesus talks about our relationship with him as that of the vine and the branches. He also talks of us as his friends and implores us to love one another. I feel very blessed that at this stage of my life God has lead me to this place. In Zambia I experience a closer connection with Christ than anywhere else. I feel that I am approaching that branch that God wants me to be.
Life seems much simpler when we are busy, whether it be following set prayers and devotions or working from nine till five. It becomes more complicated when we sit in silence to hear what our loving Lord is asking of us or when we have no set routine but are available to respond to the needs of those around us.
Developing relationships is dangerous and sometimes painful. This is particularly true where there are huge gaps in the way of life. When I return this year I know that at least three of my friends will no longer be there to greet me. Henry managed a project for Charles about 10 miles East of Monze. He was studying conservation farming and had made lots of progress with the vegetable garden and maize production. Unfortunately he died just before Christmas last year. Mrs. Tembo lent me her key last year so that I could take a short cut from my flat to the hospital. She was in charge of domestic science at the Homecraft Young People's project. She also died in the past few months. Raquel escaped from Zimbabwe with her brothers and sisters last year after suffering terrible ordeals. One of the children died on the journey and her sister died in Monze hospital a couple of months later while I was working there. Unfortunately Raquel died of malaria a couple of months ago at the age of 14 or 15. Mike is the only surviving member of that family and he lives with Jennipher his aunt.
When I have shown pictures of people from Monze some have commented that they look healthy and well nourished. I doubt whether any of the three people mentioned above, who might well be some of those seen, would have died if they had the food and facilities we enjoy. Poverty is not easy to see but because of it life expectancy in Zambia is less than 40 years. Please pray for the souls of these, my friends, and pray for changes that will prevent so many lives being prematurely cut short in the poorest parts of the world like Zambia.
So how will I spend my time in Africa this year? I have no doubt that I will eventually find myself in Monze - quite possibly I will be met by friends in Lusaka. Someone will help me find accommodation and by the time I settle for the night I will have been greeted by many good friends.
I hope that I will be close to the town centre. This allows my friends to visit and share a coffee and a chat. In fact I spend very little time alone in Monze. If I am not working formally each day I expect the visits to be even more frequent. Believe it or not, this has always been my main business in Monze – to make friends and develop relationships. This year I should have less distractions!
My visitors come from various areas of my life. I have hospital colleagues, there are many who have become friends through the church, I have now been involved in several Hands Around the World projects and maintain contact with these people, who I have met over the past six years. Then there are people I meet around the hospital or in town and some have become close friends. Zambians are very friendly people and it is not unusual to greet people you don't know and to get into conversation. A short walk down the 'High Street' is usually punctuated by many “hallo Mr. Chris s” and even more “How are you s”.
Well, I do have some ideas about what I might spend some of my time doing this year.
I go to Monze under the auspices of Hands Around the World (HATW) – a small charity based in the Forest and of which I am now also a trustee - so, not surprisingly, I will spend some time helping with the management of these projects. Last year a team from HATW helped with the building of a small school for orphaned children (there are reputed to be about 1 million orphaned children in Zambia out of a total population of about 12 million.) One of my tasks is to ensure that the school continues to find funds to pay teachers and maintain the buildings. A few years ago a vocational skills centre was established – again with help from HATW volunteers. My job here is to help with its development and to monitor recent work to put in electricity and collect water. There is also a project just north of Lusaka designed to teach farming and other skills. The death of the manager last year and other changes mean that the project needs some support and help in moving it forward. So I will probably spend a few days there (perhaps linked with renewing my work permit).
I have my own personal projects with friends of mine. Charles, who runs a project to support some elderly and disabled people, tells me that this year he has had a good crop of maize (almost the first since I met him in 2004). I have been supporting him with his accounts – and finding a few donors to build wells, buy oxen etc. I am also encouraging him to experiment with conservation farming.
Most of you will have heard much about my friend Jennipher. Jennipher is very busy with an ever expanding set of HIV/AIDS support groups. Despite having had AIDS for many years now, Jennipher is tireless in supporting others. She was appointed as a care giver last year (a voluntary position!) and was asked to monitor all the AIDS patients within a 30 kilometre radius of her house in Pemba (a small town about 30 km south of Monze). She tells me that her 'patch' has now been extended and she can't manage over 100 km on her bike! The distances in Zambia are vast. Last year I went to the north of the country and heard of a woman in the final stages of pregnancy who had been brought the 30 km to the Health Centre on a bike. She then have another 180 km to travel by car across dirt roads to the nearest hospital. (unfortunately, but not surprisingly, she didn't survive.) Jennipher will have many jobs for me to do!
Last year I met Soloman Phiri who works for Monze Diocese which is also a CAFOD partner. He runs various projects for the Diocese including providing solar powered pumps and boreholes to supply water to remote villages. No doubt we will meet up again and I might have time to produce the small office system that he wanted last year.
I will also meet up with Shatis Vlahakis the manager of Lwengu School and Edward Chaambwa the head of Monze Basic who I have come to know over the years. The schools are very different but both men have great vision and provide excellent education according to their resources.
Then of course I will spend some time with those who I have come to know through the church. I have been a member of St. Veronica's Small Christian Community for at least three years – which is quite a privilege. We meet on Sundays to pray and reflect on the gospel for the next week, Simon chairs the meetings. He is a builder and lives to the west of the town, on the far side of Monze market. The Community also talk about projects at the church and try to support each other.
I will meet with Fr. Maambo, Fr. Kenan (who visited Cheltenham in 2007 and is now Parish Priest at the Cathedral Church of the Sacred Heart) and Fr. Sebastian (Vicar General) to talk about the Education fund, the Christmas cards and any other projects being supported by St. Gregory's parishioners. I will try to go out with Patrick to see the well that we helped build last year and meet with Sr. Catherine to find out more about the pre-school and AIDS support work done at Our Lady of the Wayside church. I also hope to meet some (or all) of the children whose education we are supporting – their photos can be seen on the Monze noticeboard as you go into the Old Priory.
There is also the Community School of St. Vincent that has a link with Christchurch School in Cheltenham. Tabo Meheritona is the School Manager and I hope to be able to spend some time helping him and his staff to make good use of a laptop donated a year or two back.
Another friend of mine Justina Yamba will retiring as Manager Administration soon. Last year she was telling me that there is a growing problem with women presenting themselves to the hospital with the results of attempted abortions. We discussed this last year and I was able to arrange for some booklets from the LIFE organisation to be sent to her. She is now hoping to set up the first pro- life organisation in Zambia dedicated to provide positive support for those tempted to seek abortion.
Oh! and I suspect that Monze Mission Hospital will also find me a job or two! Especially since I am relying on them to say why I need to extend my work permit!
So although I might start by floating, I will not be idle and I am in danger of driving the speedboat before I leave!
I hope that these ramblings give you a glimpse of the richness of my life because of the relationships I have developed in Monze. It was intended that I played host to a small group of people this year. The idea being to introduce them to the projects (particularly HATW) and the people of Monze and their lives. It won't happen this year, but I hope that the opportunity will be present again next year. Please let me know if you might be interested.
With my love and prayers