I had the privilege of spending a recent afternoon getting to know Josie Chinkono. Josie and Norman Chinkono are members of our congregation who left their home country of Malawi, Africa as young adults and came to the United States. Josie spent the afternoon telling me part of their story which I’m going to share with you in multiple parts. It’s a story worth sharing.
Part 1: Malawi
Malawi is a tiny country in south eastern Africa (population 16 million). It is a poor country in which about 25% of the people work in what we would consider traditional jobs while the remainder of the population farms. They’ve had the same president for 31 years. Norman says about 2% are wealthy and 98% are very poor. There is no middle class. The main religion is Christian with some of the Islamic faith.
Norman is one of twelve children who was born in a poor rural village to Moses Chinkono and Manesi Lungu. His parents and five of his siblings have passed and his remaining six siblings and their families still live in the same rural village. There are no paved streets, running water or electricity. The houses are typically one room brick with roofs of plastic or grass. Children do attend school but the cycle of poverty is extremely hard to break. Norman is the only one of his family who left the village and finished school and university. His father wanted him to quit school after 8th grade but he refused and went to live in town with a friend. From there he went to secondary school and because of his extremely high marks on the national exam, he was selected to attend university.
Josie is one of five children. Josie’s mother (Petrolina Tilsley) was poor but worked in a hospital as a nursing assistant until she remarried a British pilot (Eric Tilsley) who worked for the president of Malawi. He was very supportive of all the children and sent Josie to boarding school from 5th – 8th grade because he was worried that she was so shy and didn’t have any friends. At boarding school, she made friends, gained confidence and came back a different person. She was sad being away but grateful because it changed her life. Josie also went to boarding school during secondary school.
Josie’s family lives in a city and their homes typically have 1- 2 rooms. The roads are paved and they have running water and intermittent electricity. The electricity is controlled by the government so they cook outside and buy food daily so it doesn’t spoil. Josie’s mom is better off since her husband was a pilot so they have a 4-bedroom home. They would be considered wealthy.
Josie and Norman met when she was in 10th grade in boarding school and Norman was at university. Norman traveled several hours to her school with one of his friends to visit the friend’s girlfriend. Josie went outside with her friend and met Norman. Norman said nothing to her but when he returned to university, he sent her 3 separate letters. Josie didn’t respond to any of them because she didn’t want to have a relationship. Every month for two years she received 3 letters and she would tear them up. Her friends would tease her about having a boyfriend and she would tell them “No, No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
When Josie graduated, she changed her mind and thought “maybe” and gave Norman her home phone number. Her parents were very strict so Josie didn’t tell them anything about Norman. One day he called and her father answered the phone and was shocked to hear Norman on the other end. When he asked Josie about him, she didn’t know what to say so she told him Norman was a friend. Her dad was very agitated and told Norman not to call back. The next day, Josie called Norman and told him to forget what her father said the night before and that’s how they started dating.
Since Josie’s parents were so strict, dating wasn’t easy plus Norman was in university several hours away. She was only allowed to have an outing on Sunday to church. To see Norman, she would go to church for less than 30 minutes, sneak out and then meet Norman in town for the next 90 minutes before she was expected back home. Norman would travel several hours by bus to see her. For two years, they would see each other on Sunday and talk on the phone through the week. Josie’s parents wanted her to finish university and have a job before she started dating anyone. After two years, Norman wanted to get married but Josie’s parents still didn’t know anything about him.
While Josie and Norman were falling in love, Josie’s dad was making plans for her to attend university in London and study nursing. She had been accepted and he was making housing arrangements and neither one of her parents knew a thing about Norman.
Finally, Josie confided in her aunt who then told her mother. When her dad found out he was very upset. Two weeks later they met Norman for the first time. Not only did they not know about the relationship but they also didn’t know about Norman’s plan to come to America and start a life here! They were married September 5, 1998. In November, Norman moved to South Bend, Indiana and the following July, Josie joined him.
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Coming up — Part 2: New Life in America