I wrote this a few months ago and in the hum and drum of the break combined with a semi-sabbatical from social media, it didn’t get posted. Now, we got word today that other friends are heading home to Australia. As well, the plans that the Executive Director for TEEM had to move on to South Africa didn’t pan out exactly as planned. Like much of international moving there were visa complications and so his departure from Malawi is delayed. He is no longer the ED of TEEM but is here. Still, I think my general observations hold:
It is leaving season. The school year is winding down, so some expatriates are getting ready to leave Malawi for good. Friends of ours, a doctor and his family, are returning to Germany with the hopes of moving to Tanzania next. The Executive Director for TEEM is moving on to South Africa with his family to do similar work as he does here in Malawi. A long term missionary couple, more colleagues than friends but part of the missionary community, head home to Canada.
When we lived in Princeton, NJ we got used to leaving season. It was always painful at the end of the school year to say good bye to friends. Vivian and I did it seven times there; Birdboy and Wild Child did it three times. In those cases there were two good reasons for people to leave: 1) the adult student had graduated so there was nothing left in Princeton, and 2) they were moving on to something else in their life. It seemed natural, good even, to leave because one thing had come to a close and another thing was starting.
I’m not sure we can say the same here. The doctor is leaving because working here has become too difficult. As a surgeon he has exacting standards. He has to because he holds people’s lives in his hands. He finds that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to hold to his standards here in Malawi. Despite many efforts to improve the situation, he cannot honestly say that the work environment has changed for the better. He leaves out of frustration.
And what the family goes to is not known. They had previously served in Tanzania and had a very positive experience there. The hope is that they will get back there, but funding and working out the situation has proven difficult. For the interim, they will return to Germany, a country that doesn’t feel much like home despite holding German passports. They go into the unknown.
The situation is a bit different for the Glissman family. Volker, the Executive Director of TEEM for the past eight years, has done a good job. Volker’s hard work means that TEEM is as stable an organization as you will find here in Malawi. He leaves TEEM in good shape.
This worries some. Can the good thing continue without Volker? The new ED is Rev. Fr. Martin Kalimbe who has been the deputy for a number of years, getting ready for this day. He has many gifts, but transitions are always hard and this one especially so. Volker is not Malawian and Kalimbe is. What if part of Volker’s success stems from his perspective as a foreigner? In what ways will Kalimbe need to change his own leadership style and what uniquely Malawian traits does he need to draw on? These are hard questions to answer.
The final couple, Paul and Helen Jones, have been mainstays of the expatriate community in Malawi for over two decades. They know everyone and how to get things done. Their presence here means that other organizations, like Villages in Partnership, can do the good work that they do. But, at some point, everyone needs to go home. They could retire here in Malawi, but what of their family, their grand children and children? While fit and capable now, who would look after them in later years? They’ve invested over 20 years of their lives here and raised their kids here, but now they need to return “home”—a place they haven’t lived for decades.
No one can replace Paul and Helen because they have unique gifts and personalities. But even more, it is not clear that there is anyone coming from Canada, or anywhere else, to replace them. Long term expatriates are leaving, and organizations in North America and Europe aren’t sending replacements. The surgeon moving back to Germany could easily get work in Germany, yet he is having difficulty finding funding to work in Tanzania. We hear nostalgic stories all the time, “Oh do you remember those people or those people from Scotland or the Netherlands? They were here for 10 or 15 years but ….” At the moment we are the only missionary staff living on the Blantyre Synod campus, a place where there used to be up to half a dozen families like ours.
In a few short weeks Malawi will lose a doctor who served four years but would have stayed, an Executive Director who managed an institution of higher learning for eight years, and a couple who have dedicated 22 years of their lives to helping poor Malawians. Not one of these people will be replaced by another expatriate.
On a personal level this season is hard. Our children have become good friends with the doctor’s family; our two families went on a weekend away together and had a great time. And working for Volker at TEEM has been great because he loves Malawi but brings a European perspective that I can identify with. The missionary community is dwindling, lifers like Paul and Helen are getting replaced by young people coming for a couple of months. As well intentioned as they are, it isn’t the same.
Soon I will post some more theoretical reflections about why leaving season is not good for Malawi. For today, it is enough to know that we are losing friends and colleagues, and the community isn’t getting replaced.