Images by Scot Facer Proctor.
When you create a magazine, as we do every day, you are invited to meet fascinating people—those who produce movies, top the New York Times bestsellers’ list, head large companies. We often speak with those who are brimming with ideas, the folks who are fluent and charismatic. We meet the good, the virtuous, those who strive to make a difference.
No wonder so many people say to us, “I want your job.”
Yet, last year we met a woman who has never left my mind, imprinted there indelibly. She will never write a book or be well known or have the creature comforts that seem part and parcel of life to most of us. In fact, she will always wonder where her next meal is coming from and not one of us would knowingly choose to trade places with her. But she touched me. She touched me. I melted in her presence, and I want to tell you about her.
We had come to Malawi in a forgotten corner of southeast, sub-Saharan Africa to meet our daughter, Michaela, who was doing an internship there for the summer. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world, a fragile economy where people live on less than a dollar a day and 25% are considered extremely poor. For instance, a father might work as a security guard all month long for a salary of 27,000 kwacha. One kwacha is .0014 of a US dollar. You don’t escape that kind of poverty.
Unfortunately, things are getting worse in Malawi as the currency continues to slip.
Michaela had come back to work in Malawi because she couldn’t help herself. The people had entwined themselves deeply in her soul when she had served an LDS mission here 18 months earlier. Before she had left she carefully wrote 100 letters to her converts, her investigators, the people she had met in the church, telling each recipient why she loved them and how to stay in touch with her. She did not want to forget.
She hadn’t loved her mission because it was easy. She remembers rainy season flooding that found her picking her way through collapsed mud homes and across cholera-ridden streams that ran down the road. She had made a visit to a hospital where she found the patient she was looking for at the end of a long, dark hall where the bodies of the miserably sick were lying, groaning against walls.
She loved her mission because of the people whose friendly eyes peered straight into her.
Following Two Sister Missionaries
The day we met Regina Saka was a dream fulfilled for us. We had hung on our daughter’s letters home during her mission, and now we were in the very place she had described so vividly. Today, we were in Ndirande, a section of Blantyre, one of Malawi’s larger cities, following Michaela as she walked these unforgiving, dusty roads to see again the people to whom she had taught the gospel.
For most of them it was a surprise visit, and they burst with joyous laughter to see their missionary again.
This day, her mission companion from the time she had served in Ndirande, had flown from South Africa to join her in these visits. They made a funny, happy pair. Michaela is tall, but a thin wisp of a girl. Nonhlanhla Dlamini is less than five feet. Her name is pronounced with the clicking sounds of the Khosa and impossible for us as Americans to quite master, so we called her Notch.
So tall. So short. They are so different from each other, they make an unforgettable pair and as we follow them, they are laughing with the good camaraderie they shared when they were companions. They have continued that friendship over the Internet in the 18 months they have been home and the love is tangible between this odd couple.
It is as if Michaela is on her mission again, in the very place with her very companion. It is déjà vu. Only this time we as parents are following along behind these two, getting to experience for ourselves, like flies on the wall, what we had only read about in letters. How rich is this?
To our Western eyes, trained with material abundance, every glance brings surprise and a little dismay. Lining the road in Ndirande are small, somewhat rickety stands roofed with garbage bags or stained cardboard, plastic sheets or tin—all coated in grime. They sell dried fish or tomatoes or ground nuts to eke out a living. The homes we enter are the sparest of dwellings, made of mud or concrete.
Now, we are going to see Regina. They have told us much about her.
Off the road and behind a wall, we follow Michaela and Notch, around homes and down this hardened, dirt path, avoiding a rock here, a dip there, a forbidding rut, all made when some earlier water flooded after a downpour. The place is littered, particularly with clear blue plastic bags that have been there so long they are shredded in unlovely bits and seem to be growing from the ground itself. The litter has rooted itself there like a permanent feature.
These former missionaries don’t even notice as we call out to them to pose for pictures along the way. They turn, pull faces, giggle to have to stop their progress for a photo that my husband, Scot, can’t help but take to capture this scene.
We are moving toward a celebration, not something we expected, but the music becomes louder and the sound of happy voices is more distinct as we get close. It is a wedding that we have happened upon and Regina is there. It is someone’s happy, wedding day. Chairs are situated facing a stage where the bride and groom are being feted with music.
So much attention is focused on this new couple, you wouldn’t think the crowd would notice the two former missionaries as they arrive on the scene, but it is like magic, as if the music must pause for the moment and all eyes turn left to the rise where the missionaries have just arrived.
As Michaela and Notch come upon the scene, Regina turns her head, sees them and time almost stops for her, loved ones she never thought she’d see again. Is she seeing a vision? A yearning made real, the two young girls who came into her life and then disappeared? It takes but a second for her to realize that she is not dreaming and there before her are the missionaries she loved and thought she would never see again.
Tears brim in her eyes. She looks vibrant in a bright yellow dress, her fancy dress for the wedding, but now the wedding can hold her no longer. She jumps up, then limps our way on her crooked leg, with an ankle bent so far that it can barely support her.
Regina struggles up the stairs as the missionaries run to her and the three fall on each other with embraces. She makes the higher-pitched, distinctive sound of the deaf as she exclaims her glee—now her longing fulfilled, to see these two again. Tears stream. The longing sounds are repeated again. “Oh, oh, oh.” Her missionaries have come home. How could one ever ask for more?
She cries and hugs the missionaries, cries and hugs them again as if she couldn’t hold on hard enough.
We have never seen a scene of purer love or a person more able to express that love than Regina. She is so full of light that her yellow dress becomes her. Her light is brighter than the dress.
She abandons the party to invite us into her home.
It has a fairly spacious, but spare main room. The floors are concrete, the white plastered walls have a paint job that grew old long ago and large splotches have peeled off. Her walls are barren except for a little poster in the kitchen that says “God First,” and a framed photo of her mother, another of her sister, and then in a prominent place so you can see it just as you enter the door—a framed photo of our daughter—one of her few precious possessions.
What a leap of friendship there is across continents and oceans between Michaela and Regina that she would put this picture here. It is a sight that she sees when she awakes in the morning and when she greets visitors at noon. Love knows no artificial boundaries of time and space.
As we surround her in her living room, we notice the corrugated tin roof. Michaela tells us how difficult it is to talk to her when the rain rat a tat tats on this ceiling like a hundred men with hammers.
I am totally taken by Regina. Her face is a picture of grace and light. The Spirit is moving me to see her as she really is. I could weep at the connection I feel to this woman whose life has been such a rocky road, but who has transcended it with a spirit that I can only call magnificent.
We try to converse with Regina, but it is difficult for us to understand her words. African accents make our American ears strain a bit anyway, but her speech is unclear and garbled to us. Her words are a tangle, taken from her by a childhood illness which gave her multiple disabilities. Was she 15 when this happened? I can’t quite tell, though I strain to understand.
Was she a stunning Malawian girl, glinted by happiness, able to run and dance and sing, the sun drumming in her hair, when illness struck?
Something, some thief of a disease, stole away her capacities when she was a child, robbing her of hearing, speech and straight, sturdy legs for walking.
We ask her how she is feeing these days and she painfully leaves the room to bring us an x-ray which we can’t quite read or discern. It seems however that something is very wrong, but we don’t know what it is. We sympathize with her and wish we could do more.
She put her head on my shoulder. She felt our concern. We try to send our love and compassion back to her by opening up our souls and letting the light flow through.
We ask her how she became converted to the church and when she was baptized. This was before our daughter was a missionary in the area. Again, she slowly dragged herself from the room and brought back her written testimony.
We wanted to stop her. We didn’t mean for our questions to cause her another trip from the room, but this was important to her. She brought in a much-folded and revered piece of paper. Michaela read it aloud for us. It explained that when she was 15 years old, her legs became what she called “paralyzed”. The day she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she was so happy.
Then she wrote that she wanted to tell people who have legs that work who don’t praise God, that they are wasting their time.
“I want to encourage those who are able to walk to attend church and show love to God.”
Never have I heard a more eloquent testimony, the words unwritten and unspoken, but her whole soul groaning out her love of Jesus Christ. She who could have every reason to complain of her lot in life, sat there as radiant as an angel, his love written on countenance, and suddenly for all of us it was as if the veil was rent from our own hearts and preoccupied minds.
I know all felt what I felt. It was as if for these moments I could taste and breathe in the sweetness of God’s effulgent love for this daughter of His. We were alive in this love. The pure love that she radiated toward us as she held our hands and nuzzled against our shoulders was a reflection of the love she was bathed in from her Father. She swam in a pool of divine affection, was lit by His care, stabilized, rooted and founded by His knowing her.
“Know ye not that you have just met one of my radiant ones,” the Lord seemed to say to us. Do you have eyes to see beyond the disguise of poverty, incomprehensible speech, and lurching walk? Oh we did because the Spirit taught us.
She rocked away on her legs as thin as spindles one more time to get a hymnbook. She is the chorister in her branch, a job of which she is very proud. She wanted us all to sing together “There is Sunshine in my Soul Today.”
We must have sounded like a motley chorus, but we are sure the angels joined us that day. She wanted a blessing and Scot gave her one. She felt each word she could hardly hear. We recorded it, transcribed it, and gave her a copy the next day. She clutched it to her chest like it meant the world to her.
It is the Malawian custom to walk visitors to your home back to their car to make it a lingering goodbye. Since we had purposely parked our car so far away from the bumpy, rutted roads of her neighborhood, we protested that she mustn’t do it. She insisted.
So despite her condition, with crooked legs, she walked us up the rocky, uncertain hill where even our footing was unsure. It was growing dark by now, but she walked unafraid, with head held high, past the rough-looking men and boys. She leaned on her crutch and smiled all the way.
“We have just walked on holy ground,” Scot said. “We have just walked on the holiest ground.”