Wednesday, 1 April 2015

15 Years Ago Today

Malawi clouds,
the first thing I noticed and loved
Fifteen years ago today, eight Americans landed at Chileka International Airport, in Blantyre, Malawi. Three adults, two teenage boys, and three girls stumbled into the hot airport, stood in line at immigration, and stood around the baggage conveyor belt in hopes of seeing any of their twenty-seven suitcases (27!). We piled up the carry-on backpacks and this exhausted and sick eight-year-old lay on top of them while we waited and waited for our suitcases to show up.

On the tarmac in South Africa
Eric Sythoff, the American picking us up, bought us girls Fanta Orange, my first taste of Malawi's favorite drink. I couldn't finish it and I felt bad. Eventually we gave up on the suitcases and drove to the guesthouse. I think I took a nap. I'm not sure if we had figured out the mosquito net by that time. But by that evening (or perhaps the next morning), I had racked up ten mosquito bites on my face.

Dad kissing the ground at Chileka
That evening we were treated to dinner at the Chinese restaurant by the Sythoffs and Fred and Grace Holland. Grandpa Fred offered each of us kids the choice of a twisty metal fish from Israel or a silver dollar. You probably already know what this practical girl chose.

I fell asleep at the table and Mom walked back to the guest house with Sharon and me. I slept under a mosquito net for the first time. And there you have it--my first day of twelve years' worth of days in Malawi, an experience I wouldn't change for the world.

And now some more pictures from our first year.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Legacy of Being Loved

Today is three years from the day my Grandma died. My memories of her are colored warm by the last years of her life when my Grandpa loved and cared for her as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's claimed her. I don't have a whole lot of memories of her before Alzheimer's, and they are boxed into the short periods of time we lived in the US.

I remember her playing with my hair when I was really little. I remember her stories of her and her younger twin sisters, Marion and Marie, getting in trouble for eating hard candy that got stuck in their throats and had to be swallowed with bread. I remember being on Grandma's team in Up the River, Down the River. She would say things like, "this 5 of Clubs protects the King of Clubs," as she decided how many tricks we should bid for. Years later, I would replay her words in my head and finally understand what she meant. Years later, I would be on her team again, and this time I would explain to her what we should bid, because she no longer could.

But when I remember Grandma, the first thing that comes to my mind is Grandpa's love for her. For four years, she had to live in a nursing home a couple miles from their house. Grandpa visited her every day. He brought her a breakfast bowl of fruit, sliced and arranged symmetrically to look like a flower. He would watch her favorite TV show (the Young and the Useless, as he would call it) with her. Then he would eat lunch with her, encouraging her to finish her meal. Day in and day out, he visited her, as her recognition and ability to communicate faded.

I am so blessed by this legacy of love.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Fairview Avenue

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Fairview Avenue Brethren in Christ church. This is one of my home churches and has had a massive impact on my life. Back in the 90s (or 80s? I'm not sure), my dad met FABIC's senior pastor, John Fickett, who later, in 1996, asked Dad to be an associate pastor at FABIC. After serving in Guatemala, Dad had been an associate pastor at a Mennonite church, had started a church-plant in New Jersey (which didn't take off), and was currently studying at a seminary in Virginia. (Yes, we've moved houses a lot.) So we moved again, to south-central Pennsylvania, to join the Brethren in Christ denomination and the FABIC family.

We got to live right beside the church and become a part of this wonderful church family. My first memory of FABIC, as a 5-year-old, was on our move-in day, when many people came to help us. We learned to know some wonderful people, including the Fickett family, the Long family, and we now attended the same church as our Sanfilippo cousins!

To this day, I remember the Ten Commandments because of Sunday School classes with Miss Tracey! I loved her as a teacher, but I must say, I was a bit of a know-it-all brat (Seth and Evi can attest to this!). I'm sorry Miss Tracey!

We learned so many Bible lessons through Kathy Long's faithful service in the Children in Worship time. I remember 'quiet prayer' times that were important to an introvert. We also learned how to cross our legs properly when wearing a dress :) I know that I learned so much more in Children and Worship, but I think those things are so much a part of who I am that it's hard to be specific!

I learned so much from Pastor John's sermons, too, and from the children's time. I remember Pastor John always emphasised that we didn't have to be adults to believe in Jesus or to be witnesses.

But after several years, God was reminding Mom and Dad about their missionary call, and the church mission was asking them to consider moving to Malawi. Pastor John blessed Dad and our family to consider this option, and when Mom and Dad visited Malawi to check it out, Shannon and Michelle Benshoff blessed us by looking after us kids for 10 days. On March 30, 2000, we were sent out by the church, in a beautiful service of love and praise for God.

Before Malawi, on our way, in Malawi
After Dad's being the youth pastor and ministering at FABIC, we became ministered to by the FABIC congregation. Through letters, Christmas cards (we loved reading each name), packages, etc., we were loved and supported. In the early days, we received monthly packages of sermon cassette tapes. Each week we listened to a tape of a service several months old. We got to hear who was singing in worship and learn the new songs (this is difficult to do without a powerpoint and words!) my Aunt Diane's laugh :) and Pastor John's nourishing sermons.

Those sermons, like Children in Worship lessons, have become so much a part of me that it's hard to express the impact they've had on my life. Some that stand out to me are a 2007 sermon on God's will--that in the Bible we find an emphasis, not on finding God's will, but on DOING His will, and that His will is written in His Word. A sermon on Paul's teachings on marriage and the importance of 'not reading each other's mail' and telling your partner what they are supposed to be doing. A communion service and the symbol of the communion table stretching way beyond our church to other Brethren in Christ folks, evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics. A sermon about having our orientation focused on others, not ourselves, otherwise known as having our switch turned on 'others.' When my siblings and I talk about what kept us grounded as children, Pastor John's sermons are a major part of that.

Eighteen months into our life in Malawi, my mom fell off a bridge and broke her back. She was med-evacuated to South Africa, where she received surgery and then rehabilitation as she learned to adapt to life in a wheelchair. Even though they were thousands of miles away, FABIC supported us by sending Pastor John for a week-long pastoral visit with many gifts for us children and delicious chocolate chip cookies from Michelle Benshoff.

Then we came 'home' to the US for a couple months a few years later. Not only did the folks at FABIC stock our kitchen to overflowing, they gathered furniture for us, not once, but twice.

So Happy 75th, FABIC. Keep your vision on Jesus.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Be Thou My Battle-Shield

Be Thou My Vision is a beautiful hymn that has touched me many times. But singing it in church today, I was struck for the first time by the third verse.
Doodles. Don't judge, I didn't get to finish the grenade.

Be thou my battle-shield, sword for my fight.
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight.
Thou my soul's shelter, thou my high tower.
Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Today, for the first time, I envisioned this song as the prayer of someone in a physical battle. I can picture saints praying for God to be their shield and defender (first line). I can picture saints being bullied, humiliated, or shamed (second line) and praying for God to be their dignity and delight. I can picture saints with battered bodies praying for God to shelter their soul (third line). Finally, I can picture saints and sinners building high towers to protect ourselves without bothering to pray that God would be our high tower.

"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Romans 12:19

"Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Psalm 20:7

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


(Stateside family). This picture was taken a couple weeks ago and is unrelated
to this blog except that my family is fantastic, and it generally reflects my
happy mood.
Today I turned 23. Nothing really special happened. I went to work. I went to church. I came home and watched the Modern Family premiere. Nothing special.

And yet, today has been a blast. I'm not going to claim that I have the best family in the world or anything, but I know beyond a doubt that I was born into the best family for me.

Today started great because I woke up hearing a happy-birthday text from my aunt! And I was so excited that I got up anyway, even though my alarm hadn't gone off.

As soon as I showered and packed my lunch for work, I skyped Mom and Dad for an hour until I had to go work. Sharon made me breakfast sausage and eggs (which, funny story, both of us had bought for me the night before; oh well, now we have sausage for breakfast on Sharon's birthday).

On my way to work, I had a string of great podcasts to listen to. I made my way through two interviews, one with the Turkish president (did you know that Turkey's taken in 2 million Syrians and the West has taken only 130,000; that is, if President Erdogan has his facts straight) and one with the Tunisian president (the only leader I've ever heard to claim "We're not very diverse; we're very homogeneous," in a day and age when every Joe and his mama claim they have a very diverse country, college, company, or whatever. Interesting stuff.

At my first client's, I got to see a family album. And show him how to make a Starbucks via latte. Between clients, I got a long birthday call from my sister Sara, who is in Zambia. My second client gave me lots of hugs. The kind of hugs that make you nearly fall over when you're bending over her wheelchair. On my way to my third client, I heard a recording of my cousin's music class singing me happy birthday (how awesome is that?!). Then I had a lovely phone call with my Grandpa before visiting my third client.

At home, I found a package from my besties in Malawi; it was supposed to be late but it was right on time! I roasted chicken and made mashed potatoes while skyping Sara, whose internet had suddenly started working really well. Even though we'd talked earlier, we still had so much to say that two hours wasn't enough. Sharon came home early to make and eat supper with me. She had bought a yummy cake and decided to put candles in it so that Sara )over skype) and she could sing as I blew them out.

After dinner I dropped Sharon off for work on my way to youth group (which I've started helping out with). I got to see my newly-crawling niece, bro and sister there, as well as the awesome youth. Youth group was great for several reasons, including an interpretation of predestination I hadn't heard before and discussion time about God's glory with the girls.

Also I got these cookies from Steven and Rachel. Can someone say a cookie in my lunch bag for a month?! Which reminds me of other presents. Let's just say I'm now the queen of gift cards and can't wait to go shopping.

And after all these blessings, I still get to celebrate on the weekend. God is good.

PS Seems like I either blog about all sad things for months or all happy things for months. I guess I'm in the happy-post mood now.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Today Was a Good Day

I'm going to try to keep this blog post simple. If I don't, I'll end up saving it to drafts and never completing it, as I've done many times in the last couple months.

Today was a good day. The only low point was waking up at 6 am to skype my bestie and finding that her internet was still too spotty to skype. Thanks a lot, Skyband.

But today was a good day because when I went to work with one of my nursing home clients, there was a lady playing hymns on the piano in the dining room. I got to sing along to some favorites. I realised that with the nature of my job and caring for the least of these, and when I have the right attitude, I'm worshiping God through my work.

Today was good because one of the nursing home residents (not my client) was punching the air in victory when the TV played an NFL spokesperson's remarks on domestic violence. "I got knocked down every day," she told me. It was the first time I'd talked to her, though I always see her across the room on Bingo Mondays. That sparked a conversation where I got to hear about her sons and she assured me that she loved my client and would never let anyone hurt her. "And if anyone gives you any trouble during Bingo, you tell them to talk to [me], sweetheart. I won't let them mess with you." What a precious woman.

Today was good because during the company picnic I got to meet some more people who work at NHS' residences for people with IDD (mental challenges). I work in the Supported Living department, where we pretty much work on our own with mostly-independent people with IDD, and in the "OBRA" department, with those who are very dependent and living in nursing homes. So it was great to meet these coworkers.

Today was good because I got to talk Nigerian politics with Nigerian coworkers and American politics with a Haitian coworker. Yes, I talked to a couple Americans as well :)

Today was good because I drove on Harrisburg's Front St the whole way from Fort Hunter to Harvey Taylor. So pretty. I love it.
the Susquehanna river as seen from Fort Hunter mansion
Today was good because I had my first shift at Target (as a second part-time job), and it was surprisingly great. I know it's just my first day, but I was impressed with the camaraderie of the employees (erm, "team members") and it was fun interacting with customers as I learned the ropes of cashiering. I also found out that one of my old Subway customers works here. Nice to see friendly faces.

Today was good because Friday and Saturday are free cereal day in the Target breakroom, so I got a bowl of cinnamon toast cereal! What a deal! Sharon and I only buy the cheapest box of cereal on the shelf, which always seems to be Bran Flakes, or Corn Flakes if I'm lucky. And I can still remember when cereal in Malawi was an expensive luxury imported from South Africa. So yeah, free cereal is special.

Today was good because I had great stuff to listen to during all my driving. The Council on Foreign Relations put out another podcast (the third day in a row!). This is one of my new favorite podcasts. Today it was an interview with Senator Carl Levitt on Ukraine and Islamic State. Interesting stuff. Also, I caught Word FM when it was playing great Christian music.

Today was good because I got home from work early enough to see Sharon before she headed off to Waynesboro to cheer on my Aunt Diane's first half-marathon tomorrow (yay!).

Today is good because I'm looking forward to skyping my bestie tomorrow morning. As long as Skyband cooperates.

So yeah, today was good.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

50 Things I Love about Malawi

Fifty years ago today, Malawi gained independence from Britain.  Fifty years! That's something to celebrate. So here are fifty things I love about Malawi.
  1. Scenery--mountains, lakes, plateaus, valleys, Malawi has it all, and it's beautiful
  2. Greenery--with a rainy season from November to April, the country is usually bursting with green
  3. Baobabs
  4. Blue gum trees--they grow fast and tall, harvested just 7 years after planting.
  5. Mt. Mulanje--3000 metres (10,000 feet).  It's a Miller favorite pastime to climb Mulanje over a weekend. Just isolated enough so you can feel alone and sometimes get a cabin to yourself, but civilized enough to have discernible paths and rustic cabins.
  6. Lake Malawi--I didn't always appreciate it because we lived so close, it's the number one tourist destination and home to the delicious chambo fish.
  7. Friendliness of the people--there's a reason Malawi is nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa"
  8. Bike taxis. If the town is flat enough, just hop on the rack over a bike's rear wheel, and your taxi rider will maneuver through the sand and around potholes to get you safely, quickly, and cheaply to your destination.
  9. Roadside chip stands--where you can pick up a bag of delicious greasy chips with chip-oil-drizzled cabbage on the side and fried chicken pieces, too (even the chicken head if you want!)
  10. Nsima--the thick, tasteless, porridge-like-but-solid mass that is a staple food to Malawians. Best eaten with salty Chinese cabbage and beef stew.
  11. Malawian tea and the beautiful tea estates its grown on. Of course, it should be served in enormous yellow tin mugs with several tablespoons of Illovo sugar and milk.
  12. Avocadoes cut in long, banana-length slices with salt on top.
  13. Fresh milk straight from the farm--it came with bits of grass still floating around on the top, and we had to pasteurise it, but it was cheaper than the cheapest bag milk, whose freshness was always questionable
  14. Long-life milk--which was also great, because you could buy a couple litres of milk at a time in the city and always have it on hand
  15. Perfect climate--cool/cold winters and reasonably warm/hot summers
  16. Sugarcane--yummy.
  17. Monitor lizards--and that distinctive rustle of dirt and leaves that tells you there's one in the garden
  18. Hippos and hippo snorts--which we could hear because we lived along the Shire River
  19. Elephants--African elephants, with their huge ears.
  20. English signs--how could you resist the "Everybody Complains Hardware Shop"?
  21. Watching tourists--and guessing where they come from. Our favorites were probably the Afrikaans men in their short shorts, safari shirts, and socks with sandals.
  22. Vegetable markets--where you were never really sure if you were being ripped off and where you were thoroughly ashamed you never learned more Yawo or Chewa.
  23. Chitenje shops--walls of colorful 2-metre-long material to wrap around a woman's waist on top of a skirt or dress.
  24. The Nation and The Daily Times and their long-worded, flowery writing.
  25. The Flames, Malawi's national football team. We once tied Cote D'voire.
  26. Eating fresh guavas with the yellow skin.
  27. Traffic police--the highways have many police checks, sometimes every 20 miles or so. Chatty or serious, it was usually a pleasure. Except when they fined you for going 52 in a 50 kpm zone, or when they stopped me in town after I stalled to make sure I had a license and ask "What's wrong with you?"
  28. The flag, and the fact everyone hated when Bingu changed it on a whim, and how Joyce almost immediately reversed it to the original after Bingu died. Now that Peter, Bingu's brother, is in, we'll have to see if he'll leave it.
  29. Peace.  I'm so proud that Malawi has never had a war; it just goes against the culture.  Instead, Malawi has received immigrants and refugees from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda, Congo, etc., escaping their countries' conflicts.
  30. Free 30-day visitor visas--when you have to pay $100 to enter Zambia, and $75 for Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Malawi seems so welcoming
  31. The Independence Arch on the highway leading into Blantyre.
  32. Carlsberg advertisments, "Probably the Best Beer in the World." Such a classic.
  33. British colonial influence on English, which has mixed me up so that I use half metric, half English and mix British and American spellings
  34. SOBO squash, watered down until it's orange-flavored water
  35. SOBO ginger ale--even though they stopped making it years ago, it's a consolation that Malawi once had the world's best ginger ale
  36. The small size of the country.
  37. Joyce Banda--regardless of her politics, she was the second female president in Africa. That's just too cool.
  38. Third-world problems, like poor electricity and water or having no fuel in town for weeks. (I realise that it's terrible for the economy, but I do appreciate that I learned to live with it.) It makes life more interesting and exotic, especially if it's not your responsibility to keep the car topped up. And then it's cool when your dad is already friends with the petrol station attendants, who sometimes send texts to alert him when a tanker is coming to town.
  39. Being in the racial minority. Maybe it's wrong, but I grew up where being different was the norm, where my skin was a statement of my history, and it was strange to finally look like a native when I moved back to the US.
  40. Expats and the instant bond we form. Whether they're from Chile, Nigeria, Japan, Australia, or the Netherlands, we're all in the same boat as foreigners.
  41. Minibuses--your comparatively cheap, exciting, and quick transport option. 
  42. Astor peanut butter, never tasted its equal
  43. British colonial architecture
  44. Blantyre--my best friends, the hills, the smog, the Mudi river, the market, city centre, everything.
  45. Mangochi--Mom and Dad, the home church we were involved in, the several Muslim calls to prayer we could hear from our house (nobody could sing it like our favorite meuzzin), the shaded main street, the bicycles crowding out the cars, etc., etc.
  46. The new bridge over the Shire River and the old clock tower at its base, along with memories of the old single-lane bridge, where you'd have to back-up if you reached the middle of the bridge and found another car coming towards you.
  47. Concrete floors--nothing quite like solid floors and brick houses after creaking around in American houses that feel like they're made of plastic.
  48. Freedom, where politics aren't violent and people generally have freedom of speech and religion.
  49. The mix of Chewa and English people use, which can only happen when a fair portion of the population is bilingual. Most Americans wouldn't have another language to mix English with and most Sudanese weren't comfortable enough with English to mix it with Arabic.
  50. The people, of course.  Our neighbor who admonished me to drive defensively and sent me tea when I was in Sudan.  The vegetable-man who brought vegetables each week because Mom can't get to the market.  The driving instructors at my driving school.  Our gardener of nearly 13 years and nightwatchman of nearly 11 years.  And many many others.
Lake Malawi
Tea estates below Mt Mulanje
Mangochi, as seen from a nearby hill. You can see the Japanese bridge on the left.