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Mark Theisen is a native Missourian and a missionary in Malawi, Africa. When he was 6 months old, Mark’s family moved to Malawi as missionaries. He spent about 14 of the first 19 years of his life in Malawi. Mark was taught by his mother while in Malawi and double majored in English and Vocational Ministry from Harding. He received his Master of Arts degree in Religion from Harding Graduate School of Religion. In 1996 he married Era, a Ukrainian, and has 2 children, Eric, age 8, and Dana, age 4.
What was it like living in Malawi when you were younger?
Well, it was a great place for a boy. It really was because we lived far away, out in the country and we had a lot of free range to travel, and run around in. My brothers were hunters. We had a lot of bush wilderness area and they were out hunting nearly everyday. I’ve never been a hunter but I enjoyed just running around the village paths with my friends, exploring. When I got a little older, I started climbing up on the mountains. We lived in a beautiful valley between some mountain ranges so it was a lot of fun growing up in Malawi. We did without a lot of things then; we didn’t have electricity, we were 55 miles away from the nearest sizable town and even there you couldn’t find many things that you needed. We were really back woods, but for a kid, I didn’t mind, it was just a fun place to be. The people there were really nice and I had a lot of friends, so it was a great place to grow up.
What was it like going to your home country after living so long in Malawi?
Well, I think there was a difference between the expectation and the reality. Living in Malawi where we lived without many of these conveniences, I thought America was something like heaven. You know, a paradise where there would be electricity, all these neat candies, foods, and neat toys. We always dreamed about it for months ahead of time, “We are going on such and such a month to America.” However, coming here, I think, was always a bit of a let down. At first it would be exciting but being raised in Africa we were really very different as kids. Especially when we enrolled in the public schools, we really didn’t fit in. That was kind of a traumatic time, especially in Junior High. So, always, long before our furlough was over, we would be ready to go back to Malawi. I think there was an understanding that all of these things like electricity, the comforts of life, and tasty foods didn’t really bring fulfillment into our lives as much as being in the place with all your friends and where you feel like you need to be.
Do you think that growing up in Malawi was better for you than growing up in America?
Really, I think so. I think that we, my brothers, my sisters, a I, were happier than most kids were growing up in the states. I think, in America, there is a lot of artificiality here. People are into the computer games and the TV. I’m not saying those things are necessarily bad, but in a way, that is all there is here. Whereas in Africa, I always felt like it was closer to real life, actually interacting with other people, spending time with other people and for a kid, it was a delightful place to grow up.
Do you think your growing up in Africa has helped you in your mission work?
I think it has especially for the African context because I know how people relate to each other there. America is a much more fast-paced culture. If I have some business I have to do with you I might say, “Hello”, but then get right down to business. However, in an African culture, you won’t do that. First, you would sit down and ask about their family so you might end up sitting down for 10-15 minutes talking about background material as a sign of respect. Only then will you get to the business. Since I grew up there, I kind of just imbibed this; I breathed it in. I am able to relate to the people in a way that would be non-offensive. Whereas if I just come straight out of America, in our fast-paced culture, I wouldn’t know how to relate to the people and I wouldn’t be able to get as far along with the people as I have. In a way, growing up there allows me to relate to people from that culture in a way that would be more appropriate and maybe more productive.
Could you tell me more about your mission work in Malawi?
Where we are now is at a place called Namikango Bible School. The mission has been there for more than 45 years so it is well established and with a lot of different ministries. The main work we are focusing on is training church leaders. We have a Bible School where we train men of all ages, who come and go through an intensive program of Bible for 6 months out of the year for 4 years. So they do a total of 2 years full time study. Our main goal is training leaders who are faithful and know the word, but who will also be good leaders. I am the director of that Bible School, I oversee it and help in the planning, but also I serve as a link between supporting churches in America so they will know what is going on in the Bible School.
How did you meet your wife?
When I was growing up, I was always fascinated by the former Soviet Union. When I was at Harding, the Iron Curtain came down so, you could go into eastern Europe. I went on a couple of campaigns over there and liked it and decided I wanted to be a missionary there. I moved to Ukraine and that is where I met my wife, Era. I met her in 1996 and we ended up doing mission work in her home country for four years.
After you got married to your wife, Era, what did you do from there?
We continued to work in Ukraine and also I finished up my master’s degree at Harding Graduate School. Because I had not yet finished it when I moved to Ukraine, we moved back to Memphis, Tennessee, where Harding Graduate School is located. Era got a job at the Harding bookstore. That was a good experience for her to interact with Americans and improve her English. I completed my studies there but after a total of four years in Ukraine, I was ready to go back to Malawi again. The opportunity arose and the door opened and we moved back to Malawi in December of 2003.
What did your wife think about moving to Malawi?
She was actually excited to move there. My wife is really gifted, as far as adapting to other cultures and learning other languages. She had done so well in America and she was really open to moving to Malawi. She had heard a lot about it, she had seen pictures of me growing up there. When we moved, she loved it from the beginning; we were in a nice place, we had 90 acres of land, a nice big house and she liked the people so she adjusted quite well.
With you having grown up in Malawi and the states, and your wife, Era, having grown up in Ukraine, were there any cultural problems that you encountered in your marriage?
A lot of research has been done to indicate that there are problems in most cases where people from two different cultures marry and some people had said that we might have those problems. But we never did really. I think it is possibly because I am a third culture kid, I grew up interacting with people from different cultures, and possibly it is because I was able to handle the subtle cultural differences that might be there. However, I think it is mainly Era. She was just very adaptable; she’d watched a lot of American TV shows and movies. She really admired American culture and she really picked up on it when we got here. There has never been an issue where our differences in cultural background have caused friction between us.
So now after being in the states for a while, are you ready to go back to Malawi?
Not yet. We just got here a couple of months ago and we are still enjoying being here for now. We are going to go back on July 23rd and I suspect we will be ready to get back by then.
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