Sam Chirwa is a man of many schemes. In the US scheme has a negative connotation, it suggests someone who is trying to do something underhanded. In Malawi, scheme means plan. And Sam has got a lot of plans.
At last count: he’s running a bus service, opened a combination nursery, pre-K, and early elementary school, and in his off hours he’s chasing down candidates to be helped by our widow’s fund. I am pretty sure there are other schemes, but Sam has gotten to know Americans well enough that you don’t let them see how much you really have to do in Malawi to get ahead.
His bus service primarily caters to children going to private schools. He drives in a car he got “second hand.” Second may be more of metaphor as I would place Sam’s hand as more like six or seventh. This didn’t stop me from bumming a ride with him a few days ago. Half way up a hill there was a problem. “It’s the wiring,” he said. “It has a hard time going up hill with the headlights on.”
The type of school he started is common in Malawi. Small, private schools dot the city of Mzuzu. What seems unusual is its tuition scheme and hiring practice. Widow’s grandchildren go for free and two widow’s have been hired to run the kitchen. As the children arrive at seven and stay until five food is a big concern. He has hired three young men to do the instruction. One of them I know is an orphan himself.
The last scheme is what I had come to Mchengatuba to see today: the widows. Sam and Grace have spent the last year listening to people, taking recommendations, and doing interviews to find what I would call the most vulnerable people on earth. The widows they found live in houses not quite worthy of the title hut, raising many grand children, and somehow staying alive.
These are the folks who can’t make the nominal school fees, whose diet consists of maize mush. They are the ones I think of when people put out a spread for us to eat. Sam led Ethan and I through a series of yards and side streets, past the house where someone had died and the body was being prepared for burial, and then through a marsh to an area just above it. This was the “dambo.” The dambo is the lowest part of the valley, the cheapest of the cheap real estate.
I asked Sam if it was cheap because it flooded. He said, “No. It doesn’t flood. It is infested with mosquitoes.”
In short order we were with some of the widows who had received iron sheets. Most of the widows were not at home as a funeral was in process. The ones that remained were most gracious and kind to thank us for the iron sheets. Iron sheets are big in Malawi. They are the difference between a house that makes it through the rainy season or one that doesn’t. Sam and Grace had tracked down the ones who needed help the most and worked with them to insure that the iron sheets would create a better house for them.
After meeting the widows we wound our way back through the alleys and back yards and side streets to his house. He had prepared rice and tea for us to share. Sitting in his living room I was struck by its comparative opulence. Sam’s house, while in Mchengatuba, was far from the dambo. It was strange to think that such a distance could be seen in such proximity.
As we ate the rice and tea I spied a silver frame on the entertainment center. On the consul was a silver frame with two pictures. One had Sam standing next to Lorraine Revelle and another had him standing next to Liz Bonisteel. While Sam has been in Liz’s house many times and I was there when Lorraine did her great work with choir, I was still surprised to see them. It was as if the distance of continents disappeared. It was strange to think that in Sam’s house I felt closer to Watertown than I did the dambo just a few hundred yards away.
In a few weeks four women from Canton and four from Watertown will walk the same circuitous path that leads from Sam’s house to the dambo. It’s hard to know what they will see or what they will think. I hope they will find a sense of solidarity and understanding with the widows I cannot. In a real sense I am not allowed to see and know these things. Being a white pastor in Malawi means the widows will only see me as a kind of apparition.