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An enduring bond

A Minnesota congregation's forty-year relationship with a medical clinic in Malawi and the family that runs it.
By Warren R. Ross
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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Thomas Nyirongo was at boarding school in Rumphi, Malawi, when the phone call came from his father, telling him that the people of Unity Church–Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, would support him if he came to the United States for college. “Wow,” he recalls saying in response, “that’s so cool!”

Thomas arrived in St. Paul in January 2003 to be the guest of the West-Bevis family and is now a freshman at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. If his plans work out, Thomas will be following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Trywell Nyirongo, who arrived in St. Paul almost exactly forty years ago and also lived with a Unity Church family.

“My father talked to me about his stay in the United States and how he hoped I could do the same and then help him in his clinic,” says Thomas. “Even as a kid I thought of following in his footsteps. So I worked hard, and he helped me fill out the papers and everything. And after I graduated from high school, with my father helping to make the arrangements, I came here.”

His father’s story has an almost fairytale quality—the questing hero overcoming improbable odds with courage and persistence, helped by friends and supporters popping up along the way. It is also the story of a Unitarian Universalist congregation that, having reached out to help one young man, has now signed on to help another. In the intervening forty years, the congregation has been a steadfast supporter of the African clinic it indirectly helped to launch.

Here is how all this came about.

Before the 1961 merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Universalist Church of America’s Department of World Service had a program in East Africa dedicated to implementing its belief in “one humanity and one world.” During a site visit to Kenya in the early 1960s , the Rev. Dana Klotzle, director of what had become the Unitarian Universalist Department of World Service (later still to be merged into the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee), heard of an attempt to find high school opportunities in the United States for young people unable to get sufficient education at home. Klotzle relayed the request to the denomination’s ministers, asking that they help find families willing to host a student.

Altogether, forty-two students from eastern and southern Africa were thus enabled to come to the United States. They were offered not only housing but full board and a weekly allowance for clothing, school supplies, and personal needs. One of them was Trywell Nyirongo.

Nyirongo was in his late teens, having been born and brought up in a small village in the mountains of northern Malawi, a small country in southeast Africa. Determined to get a better education than was available at home, he had gone first to Tanzania, then to Uganda, winding up in Kenya, where he managed to get himself chosen as one of the students to go to the United States.

One of the ministers who responded to Klotzle’s appeal was the Rev. Arthur Foote of Unity Church in St. Paul. One Sunday morning he announced from the pulpit that he hoped one or more church families might agree to take an African student into their home for one year. In the congregation that morning were Whittier and Emily Day, two social workers with four children of their own. Emily Day is still an active member of the church, and she vividly remembers how her family gathered to decide whether they should volunteer.

“We were living in a very small suburb of Minneapolis,” Day recalls, “and the community was completely white. We didn’t think that our kids should be brought up thinking that all the people on earth were white, so we thought this was a real opportunity. Of course our children joined in the decision. We had to decide which was going to be Try’s room, how he was going to take his turn washing dishes—we had to talk all this stuff out.”

Nyirongo arrived in the fall of 1961 with the clothes on his back and a comb made out of nails. Enrolled in the public high school, his first challenge was to improve his English on top of the four African languages he already knew. But, Day says, he was unfazed: “He’s an amazing person. He just said, yes, this is what he was going to do: Learn English, finish high school, then get a college education and go to medical school” so that he could apply his healing skills back home.

“He was very conscientious about his school work,” recalls his “American sister,” Sarah Day, now a pediatrician in Richmond, Virginia. “Often he would get only four hours sleep a night because he was trying so hard to learn everything at once.” In fact, he did well enough to be able to graduate after only one year, even though, Sarah Day recalls, it was difficult for him to adjust to a totally different society.

On his first visit to an American grocery store, for instance, he was so overwhelmed by all the fruits and vegetables, the meat selections, and the twenty different kinds of breakfast cereal, that he said to Emily Day: “Maybe I should just go home.” Other cultural differences also tripped him up. He was especially taken aback when the first thing virtually everyone asked him was how old he was. It had never before mattered. The fact was he didn’t know; he thought he was either 18 or 19. The Day family simply assigned him an arbitrary birthday when they could have a celebration.

That was by no means the hardest hurdle. At the time, there were no people of color in all of Richfield, a town of about 40,000. “I remember you could always pick him out of the 2,500 other students at school events like a pep rally or assembly,” says Sarah Day. “One day, walking home with Try, a ‘friend’ said she wished he had a sign on his back so people would know he was from Africa, and not an African American. It made me realize, in a very small way, how difficult his life had to be.” She also recalls that he couldn’t get a haircut in Richfield, so that her mother had to take him to a barbershop out of town. “But he was always pleasant and smiling and good-natured, and never discussed his troubles with us. He made himself stay and tried to accept it all.”

Nyirongo not only stuck it out, he was amazingly adaptable. Sarah Day, who was a freshman when he was a senior, recalls that though he had never seen American football or baseball, once he was shown how the games were played, he not only immediately caught on but was good enough to make the Richfield High football team.

After his year in high school, it was time for Trywell Nyirongo to go home, but he was determined to go on to college, and the Day family strongly supported his decision. “He was now one of our children,” Emily Day explains, “and we wanted to help him fulfill his dream to pursue his education so that he could go back and be useful.”

According to the Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs, the current co-minister of Unity Church, fifty families in the congregation pledged to contribute $15 each per month to make Nyirongo’s dream possible. Even so, it wasn’t easy for him to get accepted at any four-year college. “He was so African,” Day says, “but we got him a scholarship at Waldorf, a small junior college in Iowa. He went there for two years and then got accepted at Hiram College in Ohio, where he graduated with an AB.” During the summers he worked as a camp counselor in northern Minnesota to help pay his way.

Next he wanted to go to medical school. “Even Arthur [Foote] said there’s no hope of that,” Day recalls. “At the time the chances of getting accepted in medical schools were only about one in ten, even for Americans. But you didn’t fool around with Trywell. He was going to get his MD.”

And so he did. But not in the United States.

The school he got into was in Shiraz, Iran. “He knew nothing about it,” Day says, “but that never bothered Trywell a bit.” Had he known more, he might not have wanted to go. The faculty spoke English and treated him fairly well, but the students, she says, “didn’t think much of Christians and even less of Africans. Also, he couldn’t stand the isolation.” In fact, he faced more than isolation. For instance, he had to wash his own bed linen; as an African he was not permitted to get his sheets washed with the other students’ laundry.

Tough and resilient as he was, he stuck it out only for a year. Then he got himself accepted at the university in Ghent, Belgium. He was treated better there, but he had to learn Flemish! There were some people in the church, Day says, who thought that this was getting ridiculous. But others still had faith in him. Under the leadership of her late husband, a group of people in the church and others in the community pledged to pay him $10 a month for as long as he continued his medical education. In Ghent he earned his long-desired medical degree and then went on to Antwerp to take a postgraduate course in tropical medicine.

Sarah Day can’t recall whether she was inspired by Nyirongo’s example, but she, too, wanted to go to medical school. (Her two brothers also wound up as physicians.) She went to Mount Holyoke, finished pre-med courses at the University of Minnesota, but then was rejected by all ten medical schools she applied to.

Unwilling to give up, she “decided to pack my bags and go over to Belgium where Try was. He didn’t really change my mind to study medicine, but he helped me find out how to do it.” She lived in Antwerp while he was in Ghent, but they saw each other fairly frequently. The curse of racism, however, had followed him to Europe. “Sometimes when we would try to go to a restaurant the doorman would reject us,” Day says. “I remember one time Try actually spoke up and said, ‘We know what you are doing.’ But usually he was jolly, and always helpful. He really seemed like my big brother.”

His motivation to go back to Malawi to serve his people never flagged. Having finished his courses in Antwerp, there was one credential he was still determined to achieve: a license to practice in the United States, so he returned to complete his residency at a St. Paul hospital. And now that he was earning money, he felt able to go to Malawi and marry the girl his family had picked out for him. Together they returned to Minnesota so he could finish his final year of residency. “But as soon as he got his final license to practice in the U.S., they went home right away,” Emily Day says. Her daughter adds: “I always thought that the fact that he returned to Malawi after his training rather than stay in the States showed his deep levels of commitment and loyalty, as well as his true grit. Trywell is a great name for him.”

In Malawi Nyirongo first joined the staff of a Presbyterian mission hospital, but soon moved north to a place near his home village to start the Kasambala Medical Center in N’ChenaChena.

By now it was 1974. It had taken Trywell Nyirongo thirteen years from the time he applied to the UUSC’s predecessor for a chance to spend a year at an American high school until he was able to fulfill his ambition to serve his people as a physician. Today more than 55,000 people rely on the Kasambala clinic for their healthcare—care more crucial than ever now that the AIDS crisis has hit Malawi.

In St. Paul, the committed people of Unity Church launched the “Malawi Project” to help build the clinic. Medical supplies, clothing, books, and cash have flowed in a steady stream from Minnesota to Malawi ever since. In 1998 and again in 2001, container shipments that were shared with Life Nets, a nonprofit organization in Indianapolis, provided large quantities of medical and office supplies, together with used clothing, a computer, a printer, fax machines, a wheelchair, six bicycles, even food staples. The congregation continues to send shipments of medicine and other supplies, as well as supporting the clinic’s operating budget.

But one thing worried Dr. Nyirongo’s backup team in St. Paul. Nearing 60, he was still the only physician in his clinic. What would happen once he could no longer carry on? Would there be a successor?

They asked the Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs to go to Malawi to find out. They realized that as lay people (and mostly women) Nyirongo was not likely to discuss his plans with them; the appropriate way to proceed, they decided, was for “our chief to talk to their chief.” Eller-Isaacs agreed to go in June 2002, and a physician in the congregation accompanied him to provide medical expertise.

“Trywell met us at the airport and drove us up into the mountains,” Eller-Isaacs says. “We spent a few days learning about their lives and the operation of the clinic and got to know the teachers at the local school, which our church is now also helping to support.”

Finally, they asked the crucial question: Who is your successor?

“My 18-year-old son Thomas,” was the reply.

And so it was that, after many delays caused by U.S. visa problems, Thomas Nyirongo started to relive his father’s experience. Once again a host family had been found to provide room and board and pocket money, and Arlene West and her daughter Lillian Bevis met him at the airport on January 24, 2003.

They were puzzled that Thomas Nyirongo seemed rather distant, but of course he’d had a long trip and was very tired. But that evening, after a rest, when dinner was served at the West-Bevis home, he seemed reluctant to sit down. What Arlene West found even more puzzling was that he never seemed to respond to anything she said. Her husband, Kevin Bevis, on the other hand, found the young man—though shy and deferential—to be very trusting and anxious to join him in whatever he might be doing. “He’s a very hard worker and takes direction very well. If I ask him to do something, he does it right away,” explains Bevis. “Then we realized that in Malawi, where women are not considered equals, men and women don’t eat together. He wasn’t sure of how to behave.”

Gradually Thomas Nyirongo overcame his culture shock. Even though he had a high school diploma from home, he enrolled in the local high school to get a sense of what American education is like. During summer vacation, again like his dad, he got a job in a YMCA camp and, being around female fellow-counselors, gradually became used to the way men and women mingle in the United States.

“We began to cast about for opportunities for Thomas to get the college education he so badly wanted,” says Eller-Isaacs, “and about fifteen church families are together raising $15,000 per year to help pay his tuition and give him some spending money.” The bulk of his tuition, however, is covered by a generous scholarship from Lawrence University, which was eager to recruit students of color to help diversify its enrollment.

Actually, Nyirongo is not as much of a rarity as his father was, since he found that there are also other international students, from Jamaica, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe. And while he admits that there are moments of homesickness, “I get over it in about ten minutes,” he says. “College is fine. Things are good.” He does not go in for long explanations.

He shares his father’s adaptability. When told that the West-Bevis family enjoyed ice skating, he asked to come along even though he had never skated before—he’d never even seen ice—and did OK. West and Bevis are encouraged, therefore, that Nyirongo will do as well as his father, and while their original commitment was to host him for one year, they’re prepared to extend their hospitality for as long as he’s going to college. He returned to their home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Determined to go on to medical school, he has signed up for classes in biology and other pre-med courses, and while he agrees that, at 19 , he has time to change his mind, he doesn’t think he will. “I want to go home and help my father,” he says simply, and he has a committed congregation to help him achieve his goal.

When Eller-Isaacs returned from Malawi, he told his son, Jonah, about one the things that had especially fascinated him: the songs the people there sang to communicate health education messages.

Intrigued, the younger Eller-Isaacs, who is an intern for Minnesota Public Radio, developed a proposal for a project he calls “Music Is Life” and applied for a Fulbright fellowship to underwrite it. “I’ve always been interested in the dialogue that music creates,” says Jonah Eller-Isaacs. Now he is going to Malawi in May for a month to do preliminary research, staying with Trywell Nyirongo. Later this year, assuming his grant is approved, he plans to spend three months each in Malawi, Kenya, and Uganda to tape examples of sung healthcare messages.

“In Kenya,” he explains, “a lot of the music to combat AIDS is through radio, often on independent stations run by 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old kids.”

Jonah Eller-Isaacs expects to come back with hours of raw tape, and he already has a commitment from a senior public radio producer to provide him with studio space for post-production. The producer, Brian Newhouse, is also a member of Unity Church. If all goes well, “Music Is Life” will then be syndicated on National Public Radio. It could also be used for AIDS education in this country.

“There is a sense of reciprocity,” concludes Robert Eller-Isaacs, “in Trywell and his family opening their home to our son, as we made a place for him in our congregation.”

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