Friday, January 19, 2018

Christmas in Africa

(Note: This may seem like an oddly-timed post, but I had it written just before John got sick. I will write all about our current situation when it's over. For now, check Facebook for updates.)

The Beautiful--and Only--Christmas Tree in Town
(at the local shopping center)
Christmas could have come and gone and, without a calendar, I don’t think I would have noticed. We planned ahead and brought a few Lego sets and superhero t-shirts, as well as plenty of made-in-China stocking stuffers, but it wasn’t enough to make the holiday. You don’t realize how much of that Christmasy feel comes from marketing and media until you get away from it for a season. The trees and lights and cinnamon smells that overwhelm every outing after Halloween in the U.S. are simply not here. And the abundance of Christmas songs that I know by heart and look forward to each year were only to be heard in my own head as I tried to make our house feel like chilly December with baking and holiday craft projects. 

I sent the boys to the storage closet to fetch the tree we brought from Texas in one of our trunks. They were gone a long time before Andy returned frustrated, holding the entire three-foot fir in one hand, asking where in the world the rest of it could have been lost to in such a short time. I laughed and told him, unfortunately, that was the whole tree. By the time we finished giggling, they had the whole thing decorated and, after plugging the lights into a 220V outlet, had to undo the whole fried mess and do it again. In the end, it looked nice on our coffee table.

My love language is not gifts, and neither is John’s, so we were more than happy to schedule a safari as our official Christmas present to one another instead of exchanging presents. We also justified the expense in two other ways: a proper celebration of Andy’s November birthday and a reason to leave the country for a few nights as required by the rules of our particular visa. Otherwise, we would have to pull the kids out of school and spend the money on travel to a possibly-seedy hotel on the other side of the border, which seemed a waste to us. This was better. So, the gallery of exotic animals I have been posting on social media doubles as our 2017 Christmas pictures. I hope you enjoyed them.

Next year we hope to report stories of lives that have been changed for the better because you sent us here. For now, we need to allow our lives to be changed by this culture and these people so that we can be useful and long term in our ministry. Having experienced our first major holiday in Malawi has given us an increased understanding of the people, and it has shown us that there are certainly things they may already be doing better than us, albeit unintentionally. It was hard to spend Christmas away from family and snow and shopping and such. But sometimes those things can overshadow the fact that Christmas really is about celebrating the birth of Jesus. It doesn't seem to be from pious dedication that Malawi doesn’t relegate Christmas to manmade, sparkly consumer goods, but for lack of resources. However, it was surprisingly refreshing to experience. Through the peace and quiet of December I was reminded that I’m not in Africa to serve myself or my family--or even to serve the Malawians--but to serve Him. My love language happens to be acts of service, so I thought it especially gracious of God to serve me with that lesson at a time when His Son deserves all the gifts. And, isn’t that just like Him?

We hope you had a merry Christmas and we certainly appreciate each and every message of holiday cheer you sent our way.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Two Months and Still Smiling

Now that we’ve been in Malawi for over two months, I thought you might like to hear the story of how we got here.

We lived in a small town in Texas, where John was the director of a non-profit rec center like the YMCA, and I was homeschooling our boys. Our house was attached to the facility, so we literally lived at work. It could be a bit invasive at times, but it was also a blessing in many ways, the greatest of which were the friendships that developed through seeing the same people every day and spending unscheduled time with them. The result was a weekly Bible study group that became our church. 

Because our group was small and had no ties to any of the locally established churches, when John and I shared our desire to return to the foreign mission field, we couldn’t imagine what the mission would be or where the support would come from. The group joined us in prayer and even committed to considerable financial support, but nobody could have anticipated what God did next or how quickly He did it.

We received a long and very detailed email from a missionary couple in Africa who had been involved in well drilling for twelve years. We met them at a missionary event in Colorado almost a decade ago. The email told us it was time for them to move back to the States, and they would like for us to consider taking over their jobs in Malawi. They explained that they had everything in place for us to step into a furnished house and to assume a non-governmental organization that had taken years to establish. They told us about the great need in Africa and said they believed, based on our stateside ministry, that we were just the people to pick up their baton. It might have seemed abrupt, except for our prayers targeting that exact subject. We called a dear friend and mentor to get some feedback. He said it couldn’t hurt to check it out and offered to pay for the survey trip. Before long, we had left the kids in Colorado with John’s family and were on a plane to Africa.

After spending several days touring the country and getting an education from the missionaries and some of the locals, we felt the need to pray about our further, long-term involvement. We were willing to come but knew it would take a miracle to get us here. We weren’t part of a church and had no prospects for long term support. After getting positive responses from our kids, we began to pray specifically about support. A couple of days after returning to Texas, we used our limited knowledge of the situation in Malawi to publish a video on GoFundMe. We knew it was a long shot, and we even had some church leaders tell us it was crazy and would never happen. Ironically, the money started trickling in.

At the time, I was facilitating paint parties like Painting with a Twist at the rec center. Because I had so many other irons in the fire, I had been looking for a replacement. One of the homeschool moms, who also happens to be an art teacher, mentioned to me that she was interested. I invited her to a party, she loved it, and voilĂ , she was suddenly the new facilitator. At the same time her husband was getting to know John through the homeschool PE program. He told John how much he appreciated the way he made it more about the kids’ inherent value as children of God and less about their athletic abilities. Little did we know this couple was part of a church that had been praying for missionaries to support. They saw our video and showed it to their church leaders, who then asked to meet us. We went to church there and were immediately at home. Five weeks later, the church committed to sending us to Malawi as full-time missionaries. Yes, I said five weeks. Amazing, isn’t it?

In defense of the naysayers, this really was a miraculously unorthodox fundraising campaign. We’ve never felt more confirmed about a calling, and we don’t want to rush into anything, so we and our supporters have agreed to consider the first year as a time to learn the language and culture of our new home—a time to lay a firm and lasting foundation. We're expecting great things over the coming months and years. Thanks so much for being a part of it.  

If you want to see the video we originally posted on GoFundMe, you can watch it here. This should catch you up to speed. Also, find us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter to see what we see as we learn the ropes and settle in to our new home. We post photos almost daily, and sometimes more. We love reading your feedback. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017


In our last post, I wrote that our P.O. box is in the name of Wellspring Ministries. That was a mistake. It's actually in the name of the previous executive director, but we plan to submit our names this week. In short, the proper mailing address is: John and Samantha Jewell, P.O. Box 31615, Lilongwe 3, Malawi, AFRICA. 

Mail in Malawi

Thank you for keeping up with us through social media as we settle in to our new home halfway around the world. It’s so encouraging to receive your messages and to read your comments. It’s good to be remembered. 

Some of you have asked for our mailing address, and you’re probably wondering why it’s taking so long to get an answer. The mail system here is quite different than we’re used to, and we want to be sure we give you the right information. We don’t have a mailbox at our house, and I haven’t seen a mailman. Instead we have a post office and a post office box. The address is: John and Samantha Jewell, P.O. Box 31615, Lilongwe 3, Malawi, AFRICA. (The black and white squares in the photo are the actual boxes.) 

I hope you didn’t just jot that down and quit reading, because there are a few things you should know. First of all, please don’t bother paying for priority mail or insurance, because, no matter what they tell you at the U.S. post office, they cannot guarantee anything once it leaves the country. And, it may not get to its final destination when they tell you it should. We experienced this firsthand living in Brazil. Also, please don’t mail anything of monetary value, as the packages may be searched and items removed. (I know what you’re thinking; I was raised with the same rights and protections, but we are living in a place now where it’s legal for the police to pull us over for no other reason than to check our documents. It’s different here.) Make sure everything is clearly printed, and don’t forget to write “Africa”, even though you think it should be obvious. Before we left the States, several people asked us when we were moving to Maui, and when I lived in Austria, I received some very late mail that had made a pit stop in Australia. Not everyone is a geography whiz—myself included.

Now that all that’s out of the way, please accept our gratitude for your encouragement and for expressing interest in sending us mail. Don’t shy away from it because it doesn’t sound foolproof. The fact is, we’ve talked to other missionaries who say they receive mail all the time with no problem. We would love to get letters, photos, and any other small items you want to send. We’re very thankful for modern technology that allows us to receive communication of any kind from you. Missionaries used to leave home without hope of correspondence from their loved ones. We remember that when we start to feel sorry for ourselves for not having electricity or internet. 

P.S. If you're not into snail mail, just keep posting online. We'll take it any way we can get it.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Avoiding Malaria

Each day we meet Ben for lunch at school and each day we meet someone new. This week we met a lady who may have just saved our lives. She’s from New Zealand, and she’s the only doctor at the school clinic.

As one of our new friends was leaving us at the lunch pavilion, she introduced us to a woman sitting at the adjacent table. The timing was such that the woman was in mid chew, but that didn’t stop her from extending her hand to introduce herself. She continued with her sandwich throughout our conversation as if her meal was a necessity rather than an event. She was very cordial and articulate, with a lovely accent I still can’t distinguish from South Africa. She was obviously a person with a mission and no time for trivialities. We told her we had just arrived, and John jested that he hopes we don’t have to see her again any time soon. She smiled just enough to let us know she appreciated the humor, then answered with, “Well, take care of yourselves. Don’t go out at night and certainly don’t drive at night. The greatest cause of death in this country is traffic accidents. The next is malaria. You would be an absolute IDIOT to not take antimalarials.” 

We were slightly taken aback and looked at each other. I asked, “Is that something you can take every day? Isn’t that an antibiotic? Is that a good idea to take an antibiotic every day?” 

“Of course, it’s fine. I’m scared to death of malaria and I’ve taken doxycycline every day for fourteen years to avoid it. You would be stupid not to. I see people in my clinic all the time on the edge of death because they’re not taking antimalarials. If you’re not immune, you really should be taking them every day—especially your children. You would be crazy not to at least give it to your kids.”

Idiot, stupid, and crazy. She got my attention. “How can we know if we’re immune?” I asked. 

“Unless you grew up here, you’re not immune. It takes time to develop an immunity and that’s why children under five often die of it. The locals get sick but not like you will if you get it. It’s a killer—very dangerous. It’s listed as the highest level of risk on the U.S. health department travel advisory. They should have told you. The U.S. embassy makes their people sign a waiver if they refuse antimalarials.”

We continued our conversation as she finished her sandwich, threw away her trash, brushed her hands off, and briskly led us to the busy clinic next door. We chatted on the way. I asked her if she likes it here. She said sometimes and the other days she remembers she has a calling. She wrote two prescriptions—one for Ben because he’s younger and one for the rest of us. She then prayed for us and sent us to the pharmacy on site.

We believe this was a divine encounter. Ben has surely accumulated enough mosquito bites already to qualify him for clinical testing on the ratio of malarial to non-malarial mosquitos in the area. I would love to tell you I don’t worry, but I do. I have lost sleep over the fact that, not only is he attractive to mosquitos, but he’s also allergic. We discovered that fact in Texas when his ears swelled up like red play dough from bites he incurred while playing in the yard. 

God is truly amazing in His ability to answer our prayers in ways we could never think to ask. I do hope we don’t have to see that wonderful lady any time soon, and I know better than to trust in medicine. I am, however, so grateful for the peace of mind that allowed me to sleep through the night last night, believing we are a little more protected from a life-threatening illness that runs rampant during the rainy season that is just around the corner.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Things We've Learned This Week

As you may know, we’ve dedicated the first year of our stay in Malawi to settling in and learning how to thrive in this culture. Absorbing the differences between Malawi and the United States within the first week of our stay has been a bit like taking a drink from a fire hose. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but some things we’ve observed that you might find interesting.

1. Water is limited. It takes a long time for it to go through a ceramic filter for drinking, so it’s important to remember to keep the filter reservoir full at all times. In the shower, it’s best to put a bucket under the runoff to later use in the garden. Only flush the toilet when it’s necessary. Electricity is water generated so during the dry season, there isn’t much of it, which brings us to my next point. 

2. Electricity is unreliable. We have already spent seventeen hours at one time without it, and it goes off unannounced every day for hours at a time. To get electricity in your home, you pay at a kiosk in the local market. They give you a receipt with a code, which you then punch into an electrical unit inside your home. It’s prepaid, so when all your units are used up, the electricity goes out until you buy more. We have to think strategically when we have power and remember to charge our electronic devices, and (because the well pump is electric) to wash dishes and take showers during that time as well. Ben and I were in the grocery store when the lights went out. The funny thing is, people kept right on shopping.

3. The Internet is spotty and there is seldom a very strong signal. We’re learning to make notes regarding what we need to do when we have a signal. In order to use the Internet, we also need electricity at the same time, because that powers the router. We have survived almost three full days without internet, so I’m here to tell you it’s possible. 

4. Mosquitos carry malaria and are worst between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning and evening. If we’re out at those times, we use repellent. We sleep under mosquito nets and close the closet doors at night, because they seem to like to hide out in there waiting for nightfall. A new ritual for us is checking the rooms by flashlight for mosquitos at bedtime. For this reason, I realize I will probably not paint the walls any colors other than white to keep mosquitos as visible as possible. 

5. There is no trash, but three different types of discards: the burn bucket, the non-burn bucket, and the compost. I had considered myself somewhat of an expert on compost, but this is the first time I have ever composted cooked foods. It seems to work, as there is an enormous crow the size of a chicken who picks through the pile each morning for his breakfast, leaving nothing behind that will upset the balance of the fertilizer. While we’re on the subject of waste, public restrooms are few and far between, so we (especially me, being a girl) have to plan ahead for bathroom usage. While women here seem perfectly comfortable squatting on the side of the road, I am not. I try not to drink much at least an hour before we leave the house—something I never gave much thought to in the States. 

6. Security is a bit different here. We have so many keys to the house that we build in an extra twenty minutes to lock all the locks each time we leave. To give you an idea, I just counted over fifty keys in our possession. There are more, but you get the point. We lock the rooms in the house, then lock the doors to the house, then the bars on the doors, then the gate to the yard. It takes some time. On top of that, we have a concrete wall around the house with razor wire on top and three vicious German Shepherds and a part time gate guard. Is it all necessary? I don’t know. We just got here. I guess we’ll see.  

7. Money handling is going to take some getting used to. Malawi uses the Kwacha, and the exchange rate is about 720 to 1 U.S. dollar. The largest bill they make is worth 2,000 Kwacha. To put that in perspective, if our rent is $1,000 per month, and we pay for three months in advance, which is how it's done here, using the least possible amount of individual bills, we still need to carry 1,080 bills to the landlord. While many places accept credit cards, the electricity and internet have to be working for them to function, so it’s no guarantee. We walk around constantly with an enormous roll of bills. 

8. Everyone expects communication to be different from culture to culture, but it can seem invasive if you’re not prepared, and even, apparently, if you are. Personal space is much less than we are used to in the States. If you try to leave a space between you and the person in front of you in line, someone will step into it. People show up to your house unannounced and you are expected to invite them in-and feed them if it’s mealtime. The official language of Malawi is English, but Chichewa is the most-spoken tribal language, and we intend to learn it well. In English Malawians confuse Ls and Rs, so the landlord’s initial inspection on our house included “lust” in the bathroom. As you can imagine, I was less than comfortable signing that. 

9. Driving. Wow! It seems crazy, but I’m sure we’ll get used to it. Of course, because Malawi was a British colony, they drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. The lines on the road seem to be more of a suggestion than a rule. The police can stop you at any time for any reason. If your documents are not in order, they will fine you on the spot—and sometimes, I hear, for whatever other reason they choose. We have been stopped and the officer was perfectly cordial and simply checked the stickers on the windshield, asking what we were doing in the country. Night time driving involves a bit more expertise, as many cars don’t have headlights and there are people and animals crossing the road. We plan to avoid that as much as possible. 

10. And last, but not least, is something John and I have both noticed and appreciate very much. The people seem very modest (other than the occasional necessary bathroom usage on the side of the road) and there is no visible pornography. As the mother of three boys, I am always aware of inappropriate images of women. I have only seen two suggestive advertisements, and those would be considered tame according to American standards. 

So, that's what we've learned this week. I'm sure you can appreciate why we're taking the first twelve months to learn how to live in Malawi. This is going to be an adventure.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Day 1

(Note: This is from my personal journal entry at the end of our first day here. We're just now able to publish due to internet and electricity shortages.)

John and I woke up at 2:30 this morning and by 3:00 had decided it was no use trying to sleep any longer. We attempted to unpack our bags and to find places for our things without waking anyone or disrupting the place that our hosts will call home for one more week. I’m pretty sure we failed. By 4:00am Andy and Ben had joined us and, with heavy eyes, were playing a very labored game of chess on our bed with the board we had just dug out of a trunk. Soon after they started, the electricity went out, but we kept working with the use of battery powered lanterns. By the time Jonah woke up, so did the sun, and everyone was hungry. I scrambled some eggs and cooked them on a gas stove, made toast in a second pan, and hand poured boiling water through the coffee maker, all the while reminding the kids—and myself—to keep the fridge door closed to conserve what was left of the cold. 

We all ventured out on our own to the cell phone and grocery stores. Our hosts had other plans, as they are leaving the country in a matter of days and are as busy leaving as we are arriving. John did well his first time driving, and even stayed on the left side of the road—for the most part. I kept shrieking when I saw what appeared to be cars without drivers careening towards us, only to remember that the driver sits on the right side here. (Sleep deprivation can make you jumpy.) It was hot and dry and dusty, and I found myself thankful for the stainless steel water bottles we brought that keep the water inside cold even when the outside became too hot to touch. The air conditioning only worked when John’s foot was on the gas, so we went with windows down, then up, then down, then up again. 

We walked into the cell phone store only to turn around and walk right out again when it became apparent that we were far too tired to make any decisions. We went for groceries, but every time we stopped walking to look at something, Ben sat down on the floor. I offered to let him sit in the cart, but realized he would fill it up and we wouldn’t be able to put any groceries in it. We only got a few things anyway before we all wanted to join Ben on the floor, so we knew it was time to go home. We napped, which is a no no when you’re trying to overcome jet lag. Luckily, we woke up in time to suffer through a few more hours before it was bed time, which set us on the right track to exchanging our nights for days. We got ready for bed by lantern light, searching luggage for pajamas and toothbrushes, untying and arranging mosquito nets, and turning on battery powered fans. Then, lanterns out at 8:00. The electricity came back on at 11:00. I know that because we accidentally left our light switch in the on position. It wasn’t hard to get back to sleep.

Well into the night we were awakened by the sound of machetes scraping the road. We’re told those are the neighborhood watchmen. They drag their blades along the cement to let everyone know they’re on the job. I’m pretty sure they pay them not to rob their houses, but they have machetes, so we'll gladly join in. Sweet dreams. We didn’t see each other until 5:00am, which is when the sun came up and the street on the other side of our concrete wall came to life. Birds, dogs, church bells, and chants could be heard all around. The brighter the sun got, the louder they all crescendoed, until you could hear the sound of cars and all the noises mellowed into each other and the day was officially underway. Another day with so much to learn...