“AFRICA IS AT BEST UNPREDICTABLE” - ED BJURSTROM
Oversight and accountability are critical for the efficacy of meeting CompassioNow’s goals. After all, the last thing we want is for the money our donors provide to be wasted and put to use in ways other than what we intend. Consequently, board members regularly travel to Africa to check on clinics and to carry over supplies. Without fail, good stories always come out of these trips -- whether it is opportunities to minister in an airport, or traveling in a wheelchair to facilitate the transport of said donated chair, or flies, mosquitos, and unusual food.
The trip Ed and Wendy Bjurstrom took to Malawi in 2015 to deliver funds and medical supplies, to present bicycle ambulances, and to check in on the newly supported Passion Center for Children Community Health Network was no different.
After lengthy flights across the Atlantic and equally lengthy layovers, Ed and Wendy were relieved to touch ground in Blantyre, Malawi. Several hours more in a car jouncing over the poorly paved roads of Malawi made Ed and Wendy exceptionally grateful to arrive at their accommodations. Wrote Ed in his travel diary, “We finally arrived at our accommodation, the mountain top ‘cabin’ which missionary groups typically use while visiting the Passion Center. We were staying at the main house which has 8 single beds and two couches that could serve as beds. The air is cool in the day and cold at night, which helps keep the mosquitoes down. It’s a somewhat quaint location with fabulous views in every direction. There is no hot water, except what Mr. Dyson puts in a thermos for our morning tea. So, showers are quick and invigorating. However, the four-star feature that has sold Wendy on these accommodations is the flush toilets, American style. As a result, there have been little complaints. I myself am happy to have running water and pillow soft toilet paper. After all, it’s the little things that count. Our first night in Malawi we struggled with jet lag. Waking and sleeping till the wee hours. Finally, we got up bright and early at 6:30 am with the neighbor’s rooster heralding the morning. All in all, it was a comparatively good night’s sleep (thank you Lord!).”
But the morning brought its own share of problems. According to Ed, “We dealt with the accepted cold shower routine with dancing and hooting and hollering which is a very invigorating way to start the day, and mirrored the excitement of the neighbor’s rooster. About halfway through the cold shower routine, it seems that the power cut out. Wendy was caught short with having washed her hair, but no way to blow-dry it. We enjoyed our first breakfast in Africa cooked by Mr. Dyson. We asked him how long the power would be out and his confident reply was ‘maybe 15 minutes.’ This proved to be a lesson in the elasticity of African time.”
On the way to the Passion Center for Children, Ed and Wendy noticed many people carrying extraordinarily heavy loads of wood on their backs, down the mountain toward the city of Zomba. Explained Ed, “Especially in the mountain areas where there are still trees, the people cut the trees and transport the wood down the mountain to fuel cook fires in the city of Zomba. Cutting the wood is hard work, but carrying it down the mountain is a back-breaking effort. Women with great bundles of cut wood on their heads trudging down the mountain for miles is hard to witness. Many were old women and looked obviously worn out.” Later in the trip, Ed contemplated further what he had seen. “It was hard to see the poverty and the challenges that people face every day in Malawi,” he wrote in his diary. “To see old women who are worn out standing beside a load of wood that they are trying to carry down the mountain. They stand, not because they are tired from carrying this load on their head, they stand because they are in pain and are hoping for relief and deliverance. Then there are the young ones, still ambitious and eager, not understanding that with each step under the heavy load of wood, they are walking themselves into an early grave. I have wondered many times ‘what is the pay off?’ How much do they get for walking the miles from the mountain to the city with a backbreaking load of wood? Do they earn a day’s wage? Do they make enough money to eat for 2 days or a week? Only to do it again and again and again until they can no longer physically endure even one more trip up and down.”
The situation at Passion Center for Children was much more uplifting. Ed and Wendy spent time helping to restock the medicine supplies with the 90 pounds of items they had carried over. They presented the first of many bicycle ambulances donated by CompassioNow, which will be used to transport sick patients to the clinic and potentially on to the local hospital if need be. They toured the new bathrooms being built at Mungunzi Primary School, which had been washed away in recent flooding. CompassioNow had donated funds for the rebuilding of these latrines because the lack of private and sanitary bathrooms was keeping many students, particularly girls, from attending school. Ed and Wendy delivered backpacks filled with stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, and other supplies the Community Health Network volunteers would need during their visits to patients in nearby villages.
After a full day, Ed and Wendy returned to their cabin at the top of the mountain only to discover that Mr. Dyson’s “15 minutes” had now turned into 12 hours. Writes Ed, “Mr. Dyson had faithfully cooked our dinner on an impromptu charcoal fire. In the end, we had a romantic candle lit dinner with our headlamps on, which was delicious. He sure knows how to cook vegetables! We were weary from the day’s activities and jet-lag, so we went to bed early after dinner, probably by 7:30 pm. We made sure to leave the lights ‘on’ so we would know if the power came back in the night. While we were somewhat inconvenienced by the lack of power, we still gave thanks for running water, though cold, and flush toilets.”
However, during the night, the water did an inexplicable switch and by morning, the only water running was from the hot water tap in the sink. No toilet, no shower, and still no hot water. Says Ed, “The next morning, I practiced my ‘African Bathing’ skills with a bucket I borrowed from Mr. Dyson’s kitchen. I ‘enjoyed’ another hooting and hollering cold water African bath.” He also shaved using a headlamp as the power remained off.
After another charcoal fire prepared breakfast, the Bjurstroms headed off to meet with a specific community serviced by the Community Health Network. Throughout a several hour ceremony of singing, dancing, and speech-making (often with very little translation), Ed and Wendy gleaned some important information about the impact of the Community Health Network around Zomba. The head chief of many of the tribes in the area spoke at length about how he felt. Ed recorded this, “One of the most important things that was mentioned is that trust has been built in the community. The head chief agreed that this work is important for the health of his people. Previously he had not been aware of the extent of AIDS in the villages in his area until the Community Health Network came to help. He commented that people are no longer dying in silence and admitted that he himself had been hesitant at first and did not support the work of the CHN because he didn’t understand. He commented that now he can see the consistency of their work and their dedication to caring for people. They are making a difference in his villages and he apologized for being resistant when they first started. Now he’s a big supporter and is very thankful for the work of the CHN, and the pain killers such as Tylenol and Ibuprofen they are able to provide for the sick. There were many other speeches made and lots of singing and dancing. We also formally presented a bicycle ambulance to the group. This bicycle ambulance will be a great blessing to the area and help them bring people who are too sick to travel to the hospital or clinics.”
Following these festivities, the Bjurstroms traveled to some of the surrounding areas to see child-headed households, including the home of two sisters aged 14 and 16. Much of their home had been destroyed in the recent flooding and CompassioNow was helping fund repairs to the home.
But the thought of returning to the powerless, waterless cabin that evening was looming and so Ed and Wendy opted for a nearby hotel instead. There they were able to recharge their phones and cameras, take hot baths, and find a limited amount of internet so as to communicate with the team back in the States. The next day, they boarded a plane for their next destination.
We may joke about the conditions in rural parts of Africa where water is tempermental, where internet and power are scarce, where language is a barrier, and the way of doing things is entirely different. And yet, traveling to Africa is always thought-provoking. Ed summarized the trip with this musing, “The sobering fact is that once the poor are able to be taken to a government hospital, they usually wait 4 days to see a doctor!!! In the meantime, there are usually no pain medicines, malaria medicines, IV’s or anything to be given them by the nurses. The government hospital rarely even has Tylenol in stock. This is a fact that we have not been able to begin to comprehend. We are so blessed here in the USA.” And yet, it is seeing these things with one’s own eyes that truly impacts one’s heart. And CompassioNow is in the business of helping the world’s least served. Said Wendy, “The trip to Malawi was an amazing experience. We are always encouraged by all the wonderful work being done by the people on the ground. And we find such joy in meeting with and working with the women and children and families being helped. There is HOPE for Africa!”