Thanks to those who have commented and sent personal messages on Leaving Season Part #1. Yes, leaving season is difficult. I think we’ve done fine with it, all the more for knowing others support us. The sadness is multifaceted and I’d like to point to some other, perhaps more theological, angles today.
We experience the departure of the doctor and his family, of the Glissmans*, and Paul and Helen personally. But the fact that each of these leavings will not have a parallel arrival is also troubling. There are good reasons why there are fewer expatriates in Malawi. In each of these cases a good reason applies but upon closer examination, I’m not sure that they are totally valid.
With the doctor there is a pretty clear logic at play. As long as the Malawian government can rely on other countries to provide medical staff, including doctors, to the Malawian people, it won’t. The German government and the other sponsors of various medical interventions are alleviating the government of something it should do. To get the Malawian government to step up and actually provide medical care for its citizens, doctors like our friend need to go home.
This is true except for two important details. First, training doctors takes consistent funding of specialized education over at least 5 years. The Malawian government has not demonstrated that it can make those kinds of plans even when faced with cataclysmic consequences. The power sector is one example. Less than 11% of the country has access to electricity and of the minority that do there are regular blackouts all year long. Electricity generation takes a long time to plan and execute, and the Malawian government has done neither. To think that it could produce a functioning medical system within even five years is unreasonable.
Which brings us to the second problem. People will die. They will die of preventable diseases. They will die from causes largely eradicated in the Western world. People will die because a government cannot or does not provide medical care. This is unconscionable. The poorest people in the world should not have to pay the price for their government’s inability and unwillingness to provide a basic service. By removing a German doctor, the government will not act any differently, but people will die.
With Volker Glissman there is a similar but slightly different logic at work. Glissman, another German but commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (don’t ask; it’s complicated), has been the Executive Director of Theological Education by Extension (Malawi) for 8 years. Rightfully, the Board put in place Martin Kalimbe, a Malawian, as the Assistant Director with clear intent of succession. Kalimbe did succeed Glissman and is now the Executive Director.
To be clear, this is all good both theoretically and particularly. Training up a Malawian successor is not just good for Malawi but it is good for TEEM. Kalimbe has many gifts that Glissman does not. Transitions are always tough, but Kalimbe is navigating it well. Kalimbe has my full confidence.
The issue lies in the fact that neither Glissman nor Kalimbe have all of the required skills and gifts to do the job. Among other things, Glissman is a good administrator. The staff appreciated his meticulousness; international donors depended on him for transparency and accountability. His Chichewa however is horrible and he is not from here and so is not plugged into all of the social networks. Kalimbe on the other hand is not as gifted at administration (although he does have those gifts just not to the same degree) but is very plugged into the social networks here. When Glissman was ED and Kalimbe AD they were a team because their gifts and skills complimented each other. Now, without Glissman, there is an imbalance.
It is presumptuous of the West to assume that we have all of the gifts needed in Africa. This is what leads to colonialism and imperialism—the idea that we bring all that is good to the uncivilized and teach them how it is done. It is also presumptuous, however, to assume that Africa or the West have all of the gifts required to do the ministry God is doing at that time and that place. TEEM needed the West, Glissman, and Malawi, Kalimbe, because their gifts complimented each other. Now, without one of them, there is an imbalance and TEEM is weaker for it. Canadians recognize that our ministries, our universities, and our medical services are all strengthened because of the diversity brought about through immigration and the contribution of those born in other countries. The alternative to presuming that we have all the gifts is not to assume we have none of the gifts; the alternative to controlling everything is not total abdication.
And finally, Paul and Helen Jones who are leaving Malawi after a long time here. They are not performing a critical function like the doctor. What they do is very important to many people’s lives, but they are not involved in life and death in the same way as a doctor. Nor have they trained up successors. Over their years here they have trained up many, many staff, some who work with them and some who have gone on to do other things. In development lingo there are some buzzwords, “capacity building” being one of them. Paul and Helen have been “capacity builders” but they haven’t trained successors.
What Malawi loses when they go home is a living link between two different parts of the world. Paul and Helen have been here for so long they know the rhythms of life. They get invited to weddings and baptisms and family meals. They remember the advent of multi-party democracy and have seen the successes and failures of a country that they love. Further, they have imparted this knowledge to others who haven’t spent the time to soak in Malawi as much as they have. I’ve been here just over a year. I get Malawi better than most white folks in the world but no where near as much as Paul and Helen. When they go, Malawi loses people who chose to make it their home in every sense of that word. It is hard to put a price tag on that but it is a very poignant loss.
Leaving season is sad for us but it should also be for Malawi.
*Technically the Glissmans have not left Malawi. He has left as the ED of TEEM and is in a transition year before he takes up his new posting in South Africa.