Curiouser & Curiouser

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

(say it like “zalayka”)
(MCC people please read this, as there’s a bit for you guys in the seventh paragraph…Oy, I wrote a lot!)
On Saturday, I got to break out what little Swahili I know.  (Jambo, asante sana=Hello, thank you very much.)  Unfortunately, my Tigrina phrase (Bunda xebir= Shall we drink coffee?) was useless, as all the Ethiopians at the camp spoke Amharic, not Tigrina.  And I don’t even know what Burundians and Somalians speak!

Zalakia is one of those places that is going to stay with me forever.  It was originally built as a prison camp under the dictatorship of Malawi’s first president. (I don’t remember his name.)  Now, it is a refugee camp that is home to about 10,000 refugees from Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia. The refugees have three basic options.  They can return to their home country, move on to a different country, or be integrated into Malawi. The first really isn’t an option, and the second is very difficult to do. And the Malawian government doesn’t really do the third option very often (at all). The refugees are not allowed to work or run businesses outside of the camp, and if they try to do so, they may be kicked out of the country.  They are not even allowed outside of the camp without getting a pass.  Essentially, they are prisoners.

The first thing that you see coming into the camp is a smallish school on the left hand side of the road.  That school is for the entire camp.  Primary classes have 80-100 children in each class.  The secondary classes are little better.  From what I understand, the students learn French, English, Chichewa, science, agriculture, math, geography, social studies and so on.  All of the lessons (except Chichewa) are in English.

Entering into camp, you see small brick buildings that are covered over with plaster.  The roofs have a plastic sheet covered with a bit of grass thatching.  If you entered one of those buildings, you would probably enter into a small room, about 4-5 ft square. There might be two other rooms, probably the same size, but perhaps a little bit larger.  And that’s where a family would live.  The conditions are not good.

And this is where we did door to door evangelism.  I’ve never done door to door evangelism before, and if I do, I don’t think it will be like this again.  I was with two students and a girl named Gloria (more about her later).  We walked around the camp, and if we saw people, we asked them if we could talk to them about Jesus. (I think…it was in Swahili.)  We only spoke with 6 people, and four said yes.  The ones who said yes invited us into their homes.  But first, they had to borrow a bench or two from their neighbors so all of us could sit down.  Then, the students would open up their Bibles and read a verse and explain it.

It was difficult because neither the students nor myself knew the culture or the right thing to say.  Often, there was a good deal of awkward silence, and umming and ahhing.  Luckily, one student was born in Tanzania and seemed to know a decent amount of Swahili.  So only two of us were in the dark.  But by the third house, things finally got going.

A man invited us into his house, and we sat knee to knee with him and another man. (While his very pregnant wife sat on the floor.  Yeesh.)  The students went through their spiel, but it was fairly obvious that the man knew Jesus already.  It turned out that he was the pastor of a Pentacostal church within the camp. From there, we had an encouraging time reading the Bible together (he doesn’t have one) and praying.  We read the passage in Isaiah 61 where it speaks about God’s anointing to proclaim the good news to the poor, and to bind up the brokenhearted. I think he was trying to communicate that that was his mission there.  He also sends greetings to my home church. (So hello to Manchester Community Church from a Congolese pentecostal pastor in a Malawian refugee camp!)

The last man we spoke to had many questions about the difference between Mohammed and Buddha and Christ, and how to keep your faith strong and unshaken.  I didn’t understand much more than that, because the conversation was all in Swahili. The day ended up with an open air service.  Lots of singing and dancing, and a message from one of the students.  The translation was into Swahili and not English, so again, I’ve no idea what was said.  But all in all, it was a good day, and I won’t be soon forgetting it!


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