Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Saturday I got a call at 6 a.m. from the General Secretary of the Synod, asking what my schedule was for the day. I said I had a meeting at 10 a.m., but could reschedule it if there were something that he needed me to do. There was. He needed me to stand for him at a rally for Students Christian Organization of Malawi (SCOM). This is an organization working in secondary schools, colleges and universities, much like Campus Crusade or InterVarsity in the States. The Blantyre zone was holding a Big Walk and rally. Walks of this kind are popular here for raising funds or raising awareness of programs, in this case awareness. The group was walking from the downtown of Blantyre out to the soccer field near the stadium, handing out literature about the organization as they went and then holding a rally at the soccer field. My job was to be the guest of honor, sit on the platform and receive the students and then give a speech at the end of the ceremony. I could do that. So I rescheduled my meeting and prepared a speech for the rally.
The GS offered his son to accompany me, since he was planning on attending the rally himself. Peter is a university student and a delightful young man. He called me at 9 and said that the group was ready to start their walk and suggested that we join them so I would get a feel for the folks and the event. I could drive behind the walkers in my car as he walked with them. So off we went to join them in route. There were about 200 students who were singing praise choruses and handing out fliers with information about the group as they went. The spirit was enthusiastic and the pace rapid. It took them less than an hour to make the 5 kilometer trip through town to the stadium soccer field.
Now, Malawi is a mixture of casual and formal. There is always an element of the formal, influenced by the strong British ties of the past. This means that there are formal speeches at every gathering, even a small dinner in one’s home. There are protocols to be observed in greeting people, in private conversations and especially in public settings. There is a formal program for every event, from welcome dinners to student rallies. SCOM is no exception. So I knew that as Guest of Honor (one of the formal elements of official gatherings), I would be called upon to observe all protocols. I prepared accordingly, gathering a list of the other honored representatives at the rally, so I knew who to greet and who to acknowledge in my opening salutations.
A platform had been erected at one end of the soccer field and the students gathered around it, sitting on the ground as the “dignitaries” sat in chairs on the platform. The only disadvantage to this arrangement was the wind. A cold wind had come up during the morning and was blowing gales across the soccer field. Everyone was shivering. Before the proceedings began, I was escorted off the platform to meet with the media and give an interview for the local television station. This was a bigger event than I had imagined. This was also the only time during the morning when I was close to being warm. We were sheltered by the platform.
All opening remarks and greetings were directed to the guest of honor and the other distinguished persons gathered – chair of the event, members of the Board of Trustees, patrons and friends of SCOM. That is a rather humbling experience for someone from a casual Western country where such formalities are not the norm. The program included the welcome, songs, poems, and skits by the students from various schools, and then the speeches. Mine came last and was intended to encourage the students to continue with SCOM and in Christian growth. I selected Micah 6:8 as a focus; “He has shown you, oh man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” It seemed to fit the occasion and the group responded well. Truthfully, it was fun to be with students again.
Once I was finished speaking, there were the obligatory thanks and a closing prayer. Then I was escorted off the platform, greeting the students as I left the field. I would have thought that they would rush to get out of the cold wind but that was not the case. They were enjoying one another’s company. They gathered in small groups, chatting and singing. As we made our way in the car to the exit, they are just getting warmed up to the fellowship. Peter told me it was another hour before everyone left. It was as much about the fellowship with one another, from 15 different schools, as it was about raising community awareness. I was delighted to be a part of it, if even in a “guest of honor” capacity.