I stood inside a small house made of dirt bricks and a thatched roof which was actually more the size of a large walk-in closet. I had traveled almost 10,000 miles with my dearest friend and others to Malawi, Africa. It was my third trip to this beautiful country and I was happy to be back. Something about Africa just warms my heart and soul – from the moment I exit the plane and my foot steps on the ground – my heart just feels at home and is at peace. I honestly can’t explain it. On this particular trip my friend, Georgia, and I were a part of group who partnered with Somebody Cares (a non-governmental organization) who supports the villages and other communities in and around Lilongwe, Malawi.
The plan was that Georgia and I would spend time with children and their caretakers wherever we went. Most of the children are at-risk and rely on other adults for their survival. This is mainly due to Malawi’s national prevalence of HIV infection among adults (15–49 years). It is the leading cause of death which leaves the majority of children as orphans and vulnerable in many ways. We planned to bring food and other provisions but also desired to find a way (through the language and cultural barriers) to let them know they are special and important. We packed crayons, paper and other supplies to share with the children in the hopes they would enjoy it and help to bridge a connection in such a short amount of time. How would this happen? We didn’t know.
Well, let’s just say the first day didn’t go as planned. We were dropped off in the village by our van driver who would pick us up towards the end of the day. As the van drove off we quickly realized (with the exception of the food) we left all of our supply bins on the van! We just looked at each other and then watched the van drive far away into the distance until it finally disappeared. After the initial panic gripped us, we took a deep breath, laughed and said “well, I guess God had other plans for today”. On to Plan B…
The first part of the morning was all about the children – my favorite part. The room was filled with beautiful, curious faces that were eager to find out who we were and why we were there. We communicated through our translator, Mary, and then sang songs and played games together. When the children left to eat we spent time with the Gogos (grandmothers) and other caretakers. It was my turn to share something with them – but what? I had nothing planned and my mind was blank. Georgia whispered in my ear that she would go outside and begin to pray. It brought me comfort because I didn’t know what would happen next. I stood by the window next to Mary and looked at the many faces of elderly women staring back at me.
I wanted to share something personal but worried it wouldn’t translate well into their everyday lives. A thought finally popped in my head and I just went with it. I shared a story of when I was young – somewhere between 11 – 12 years old. It was around the time I realized that my parents were not happy in their marriage. My father would come home eat dinner and then leave again OR he just didn’t come home for dinner at all. Why? We didn’t know or question it. It’s just the way it was. By the time I turned 11 or 12 I started to figure it out. During the summer I would stay up late watching TV because I didn’t have to wake up early the next day for school. So I loved watching the late night movies on network television until 1-2am.
My mom, brother and sister would be fast asleep and I was awake. As an introvert I LOVED sitting alone in the living room in the quiet dark only with the light of the television. One night as I was watching TV I heard a sound. It was the sound of the doorknob moving – at first I was startled but then I realized it was my dad. He had come home and was very drunk. I peeked around the corner and could see him trying to open the side kitchen door, but he couldn’t see me. It was clear he needed help opening the door but in a split second I decided I wasn’t going to help him. I was angry with him. He was rarely around and there were many times we needed him – especially me. He was off at the bar drinking instead of spending time with his family or protecting my from my mother’s anger. So why should I let him in? If he wanted to be out all night – then I was going to help him by not letting him in.
So I turned off the TV and walked quietly in the dark through the house securing every lock. My dad went to the front door and tried to open it but he couldn’t do it. He started to bang on the door so I went and closed all the bedroom doors in the hopes my family wouldn’t hear him. He surprised me and started to knock on my brother’s window to try to wake him up so I quickly went in his room and began to pat his back when he began to stir – I whispered to him everything was okay and to go back to sleep. I then did the same to my sister when he knocked on our bedroom window.
I went quietly to every window in the house and made sure they were locked. There was only one window that I couldn’t secure so I found a large knife and placed in the track. It only allowed the window to open 2 inches wide so I knew there was no way he could climb in. I heard him make several more attempts to enter the house, and then it went quiet. I couldn’t see outside but after a period of time realized he stopped trying to gain access. I felt satisfied and went to bed.
As I laid in bed I thought about what had just happened. Was I wrong for what I did? I didn’t care. I was angry at my father for constantly choosing to be away from us. Even when he was home there was nothing but constant yelling and fighting between my parents. Many times we would be woken up to my parents yelling at each other when he came home late after drinking. It wasn’t right or fair. There weren’t many things I could control in my life, but locking him out of the house was one. It made me feel good to know my brother and sister would sleep through the night, and also my way of getting even with my dad even if he didn’t know it.
I shared with this group of women how much I was afraid and I was hurt by my father’s actions, and how much I wish he were different. I also shared that when I was thirteen I discovered I had another father (one I couldn’t see) that comforted me and loved me in ways I never thought possible. That when my father on earth treated me badly and let me down – this one never did.
When I finished my story I offered to pray for anyone who wanted it or needed it. So many women came forward one by one with tears in their eyes. As they too had fathers, or husbands who drank too much. They had also been let down and hurt physically, sexually or emotionally. They too felt their home life was out of control. Some of these women contracted HIV from their husbands who were not faithful to them. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories, but in those moments we were one. We saw into each other’s hearts and recognized each other’s pain and knew we were not alone.
As much as I hope I brought encouragement into their lives – I can tell you they did so much more to me. These strong, courageous women who have lived much longer on this earth than me – care for many children who have lost their parents for HIV/AIDS. Many of these women have physical challenges and financial challenges not to mention the challenge of caring for many children at the same time. These women are my heroes and I let them know it.
I am a broken person. Some days it feels impossible to overcome my past and my abuse. I can tell you I’ve discovered when I chose to give to others is when my healing comes. When I choose to look outside myself and my circumstances and pour out when I don’t think I have anything to give – is when God pours his love, mercy and strength into me. I’ve experienced it time and time again. Why would God choose to send me – this little girl who suffered great abuse and neglect and sees herself at times as worthless and unable – to the far ends of the earth? What do I have to offer? Nothing but my heart and my story. In the end it always seems to be enough.