Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fatuma's House

I went for a walk yesterday through Mchengatuba. This is the ramshackle “suburb” of Malawi’s most major northern city, Mzuzu. There are approximately 5000 folks living along the rutted dirt road that crisscrosses the clusters of small homes.

The homes are very modest. While all are benefit to city water lines, sewer lines are not yet a reality. There is electricity, which I’ve come to find out is more of an episodic utility. (There is no power on Sundays for instance.)

Walking with me were two of the members of the choir that came and toured the North Country last summer. Sam Chirwa and Rev. Norman Hara were my escorts. I felt like a foreign correspondent walking through an exotic location as I queried them about what it means to live in Mchengatuba. The road we walked had no sign to name it. You could hear choirs practicing in various houses. Cars drove on whatever side had the least potholes.

We walked past “the bishop’s house”. And then a few doors down we came to Grace Chiumia’s house. Inside her front yard a new choir called “Revival” was practicing. Two members from the choir that came to us were now members of this one. Mestard, the smiling, ever happy young man was one. He came right over and shook my hand again and again. He seemed to want to communicate with his hands as his English was never very good. The other member was Fatuma came and shook my hand as well. Fatuma was the youngest member of the original choir yet displayed a level of maturity beyond her years.

The Revival choir was bid to make an offering. “Make it a really good one,” I said. In short order they exploded into a dancing, swirling, Tambuka songfest. It was a really good one. The translation was called for by Rev. Hara. A young man named, Happy said, “this song means: if we fail to trust in the Lord it opens the door for the devil to do us harm.”

Although it wasn’t planned, I knew Fatuma’s house was a few doors down, so I asked if I could meet her parents. She said, of course, and went off to warn them.

Now joined by Mestard, Sam, Rev. Hara and I headed down to Fatuma’s house. It turned out only her father, Mr. Mkandawire, was home but we were greeted warmly and bid to take a seat. I started in. “I have come to thank you for giving us your daughter, for intrusting her care to us last summer. She and her friends did a great work in the North Country of New York and we are all very proud of her. Many families in America see her as their daughter now.”

Mr. Mkandawire sat with a stoic look as I offered my pleasantries. When it was his turn to speak he said, “yes, Fatuma has returned much different. Now when she prays there is substance to her words.”

What happened next threw me a bit. My intent this summer is to ask each choir member, what has their time in the US come to mean to them? Yet each time I asked Fatuma a question, others gave the answers for her. She was left to nod her approval or twist her face into an expression that said not quite. The only thing she actually got in was that Niagara falls was great.

Later that night I would ask our missionary hosts if this was an anomaly or what they would expect. Actually I asked if this was because Fatuma was young or a woman. They said, “both.” At the moment of the conversation though I didn’t know how to take her inability to speak for herself.

A part of me just wants to call it sexism that kept Fatuma quiet. And in Malawi there a culture that devalues women in ways that seems shocking to a Westerner. But I have been here enough to know that is way too simplistic.

Fatuma’s silence was not what I wanted, yet as I walked away I remembered what her father said about the change he noted in her: when she prays her words have a quality that is significant. So does he value her voice in places of eternal value?

You can look to the humble dwelling of the Mkhadawire family and write off the parts of life here that are “less” as just a lack of “development.” You can until you realize that Mr. Mkhandawire is an electrical engineer who is spending his retirement offering his services to his country trying to pioneer renewable energy sources.

Abiding in Mchengatuba wont be dull.

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