Last Sunday after church Rev. Nkhata came and asked to speak with me. He touched my elbow and started with a small chuckle. He told me that a woman I have met in Mzuzu had a dream about me. She had called Rev. Nkata at 2:30am that morning. “Is Pastor Kara still around?” she asked. When she heard that I was she told him that in her dream I had planted a garden and was beginning to harvest but then I had left. She told Rev. Nkhata that I had gone back to America without finishing my garden and that I had to come back to finish. My garden had to be finished.
So I’ve been reflecting on this garden that I’ve planted here in Malawi. And I keep remembering Father, Nathan Price, from the The Poisonwood Bible and how his daughter, Leah, described his garden planted in the Congo,
“Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father thought to bring over seeds in his pocket: Kentucky Wonder beans, crookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. He planned to make a demonstration garden, from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence rising from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes.”
The first year here we scattered seeds here and there and prayed that some would fall on the fertile soil prepared by the pastors in the circuits we visited. We scattered seed and then left, trusting that the lay leaders and women and pastors would do the weeding and watering needed for them to flourish. And the blogs flowed that year from all that was new and wonderful and different, heart-warming and heart-breaking. Ours was a ministry of presence, teaching sometimes, encouraging as best we could, learning, offending, being forgiven and deciding to come back for more. We were welcomed into the life of our friends here, recognizing ourselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. And “our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes.”
But as Nathan planted his garden, Mama Bekwa Tataba watched it all, warned about the poisonwood plant and quietly re-sowed the garden into hills once Nathan stopped for the day. And I wonder how many warnings we have missed and how much work has been done in our wake. What have the pastors had to dig up and re-cultivate after we have left? How much work are our good intentions creating?
The first year of our mission passed in relative peace, good humor and blissful ignorance. We were not told when we made a mess of things, did not know when we offended. The culture and the people are warm, forgiving and value relationships so much more than a completed project. Persons quietly thanked us for our efforts and formed ridged garden plots behind us after we had made the way flat and uniform.
But after a deluge – the first rains of the rainy season – all of Nathan’s hard work is washed away,
“long after dinner we could still hear the Reverend out there beating the ground with his hoe, revising the earth. No one can say he does not learn his lesson, though it might take a deluge, and though he might never admit in this lifetime that it was not his own idea in the first place. Nevertheless, Our Father had been influenced by Africa. He was out there pushing his garden up into rectangular, flood-proof embankments, exactly the length and width of burial mounds.”
Garden or burial mounds? So many of our preconceived notions have had to be buried so that they can be reborn more relevant and appropriate to the culture in which we find ourselves. I have brought the seeds of gender equality only to see newly empowered women shunned by their husbands. I have stepped in with extra dollars only to see the need multiply. I have misjudged the depth of cultural roots and tried to plant my theology in the midst of it only to discover how difficult it is for them to grow side by side. I have planted and planted without knowledge of season, soil and rain.
And so this year the blogs are fewer, the clarity rare and each step feels so much more precarious. This year we are supposed to plant, and to harvest. We have jobs and roles and expectations. But my fear is that my garden is like Father’s, “the plants thrived and filled the fenced patch with bloom like a funeral parlor, but would not set fruit”. Policy drafts, foot washing, youth devotionals and baptisms – the blooms are so beautiful. And bring me such joy. But fruits? Flowers can’t fill an empty belly, their scent won’t pay school fees, and the beauty is no replacement for medicine.
Father discovered that without pollinators to match the seeds that he had brought, the blooms would bear no fruit. Leah offered,
“’I guess we should have brought some bees over in our pockets too.’
My father looked at me with a new face, strange and terrifying to me for what it lacked in confidence. It was as if a small, befuddled stranger were peering through the imposing mask of my father’s features. He looked at me like I was his spanking newborn baby and he did love me so, but feared the world would never be what any of us had hoped for.
‘Leah,’ he said, ‘you can’t bring the bees. You might as well bring the whole world over here with you, and there’s not room for it.’
I swallowed, ‘I know.’
We sat together looking through the crooked stick fence at the great variety of spurned blossoms in my father’s garden. I felt so many different things right then: elation at my father’s strange expression of tenderness, and despair for his defeat. We had worked so hard, and for what? I felt confusion and dread. I sensed that the sun was going down on many things I believe in.’”
My confidence is waning like Nathan’s and my temptation is the same as Leah’s – to bring the bees. To bring the books, bring the communion sets, bring the experts. But it doesn’t work to bring the whole world here. And there’s no need to do so. But I’m at the point where I feel confusion and dread. And I know that the sun is setting on many things that I believed in.
Just about a year ago we were getting Carter settled back into nursery school during our furlough at home. One of the parents asked us what we did and as soon as she heard we were missionaries her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh! I’m reading The Poisonwood Bible.” I smiled and restrained from shouting, “We’re not like that!”
I recalled the images of this stubborn and headstrong pastor planting his garden against all local wisdom, misusing the local language, and scaring people to death by demanding that they go down to the crocodile-infested waters to get baptized. We have tried so hard to listen, to learn the language and not to scare people.
But the longer I am here, the more I feel like that missionary. And I wonder if I have “been influenced by Africa” enough to plant a garden that can actually bear fruit? I suppose only time will tell. And at this point in our journey, I only have 60 days to work on this garden. But there is some hope, some solace in the fact that this woman in Mzuzu thinks I can do it. And maybe some day I will.
“To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.”
Orleanna Price, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
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