“Can you hear that,” asks Joanna Morrison (BMus 89) as she holds the phone away from her ear. Across 13000 km of fibre optic cable comes the distinctive sound of African voices raised in song, as a truckload of pastoral students rumble home after a day of evangelizing.
The sound of joy is just one of the things that Morrison is thankful for, after seven years in the heat, dust and poverty of Malawi.
Her journey to Africa began in university when she joined her parents the summer after first year to set up a malnutrition clinic in Zaire. “I lost my heart to Africa,” she says, and on her return took to wearing African clothing, learned to drive and attended missions’ conferences to learn more.
Getting back took 15 years. In the meantime, Joanna met and married David Morrison, and they settled down in Canada working as camp directors and raising three children. It wasn’t until David, traveling to Mozambique in 2002, was struck by the plight of the poor and abandoned, and felt called to serve in Malawi with Iris Ministries.
The first year was a trial, though. “It was so hot,” Joanna remembers, “you couldn’t lean against the walls, and the bugs were so thick you’d sweep and sweep the floors and still not get rid of them.”
But in the last seven years, they’ve turned seven hectares of barren soil into an Eden that provides for hundreds of people -- orphans, student pastors, full time staff and people in need from surrounding villages. Thanks to three bore holes, each with 20,000 litre water capacity, they’ve cultivated large gardens of maize, beans, spinach, tomatoes, and fruit trees. About 15 km from base, two more hectares of maize has been planted, and they expect to add seven more hectares soon. Last year, they added a tilapia fish farm to their prodigious output.
“Food security in southern Malawi is a real problem,” Joanna says, with the 2010 season, in particular, a disaster. “Listen to that,” she says holding the phone away from her again so I can hear the wind, whooshing hot and dry. Since there is no irrigation program in the country, farmers depend on the rains; last year’s drought caused complete crop failure in 13 districts, with theirs, Nsanje, suffering the worst.
The Iris compound, though, is an oasis thanks to farming methods that replenish the soil – leaving stalks in the field create a blanket, no ploughing to retain moisture, planting to minimize soil compaction, and composting.
Because instructing native Africans to care for themselves is part of their mandate, David regularly holds workshops for local farmers. Last year, Kevin Sitati, a local Malawian, was sent to Florida to train in aquaculture, and the fish farm he manages now harvests two types of tilapia. This will eventually supplement their monthly feeding program that tries to reach 3000 of the areas’ most vulnerable families – widows with orphaned grandchildren, the elderly, crippled, blind and those suffering with AIDs.
The deprivation in Malawi, combined with AIDs deaths, has left about half a million orphans. The Morrisons have taken personal responsibility for 54 of them, providing homes on the base with trained Malawian house parents. “The children have become so transformed, from the love and care they receive,” Joanna says, “they are like a field of sunflowers turning their faces towards the warmth of the sun. It is miraculous, and stunning.”
But she also admits there are days when “being mummy to 54, finding clothes, handing out toothbrushes, searching for shoes, disciplining, and even playing, becomes a bit much.”
Fortunately, she doesn’t go it alone – there are house parents, and teachers at the primary school, which was built to educate children on the base, plus 15 from the community. In future, they hope to have room for 200 children in the school. Her own three children – Patrick, Daniel and Kalina – are home schooled.
The other schooling is for pastoral students -- young men and women who, often arriving with nothing, are given living basics, as well as support for their families. These pastoral students end up mimicing the Iris model, Joanna says, and after graduation, “tend to increase their sphere of orphan care.”
While she rejoices in seeing “this wasted land come alive,” Joanna admits to moments of discouragement: “There is no end to the suffering, the constancy of pain, and the seeming inability of many single women to get beyond daily food requirements. I could do wound care full time, and still not address the need. You can build a house for one widow, and have 20 more lining up asking where is theirs.”
What keeps her going, besides prayer, is remembering the Iris mission focus “on the person in front of you at the time, trusting they have the greatest need, and not focusing on the others you can’t help.”
The financing alone – of 80 full time employees, 10 missionaries and hundreds of people dependent on material support – is a test of faith. “We let the needs be known,” Joanna says, “then wait on God” – plus the army of family, friends and churches “back home” who give freely of their money, time and skills.
Although giving is always a good thing, Joanna’s advice is to be “intentional,” and think carefully about how money is being used, and whether it’s encouraging Africans to take ownership of the solutions.
“Millions have been spent in Africa over the past century with little long-term effect, and there is a great danger in continuing this to make ourselves feel better,” she says. “Thankfully, the funnel goes both ways. Africa has much to offer the west, including our churches, and when we come home to visit we aim to bring the wealth of life here with us.”
One surprise for Joanna is what Africa has taught her about music, something she thought she’d left behind at university. “I never really thought about it until now, but music is integral to community life here. Every significant event is accompanied by singing. When I need to explain a concept to the children, I will make up a song in Chichewa on the spot. Children sing all day while they go about their activities. It’s something I miss very much when I am away.”