July 1, 2008
I think we’re reaching the end of the honeymoon glow. We’ve just hit the 3 week mark and our time in Malawi is becoming real life. Things are marching along to their own beat and I’m feeling out of sync. While the McGills were here things ran at 110 kph (which is very fast considering the shape of the Malawian roads). Now that we are on Garry “Summertime” things are slow and nebulous. Everyday Ethan asks “what are going to do today?” And everyday I say the same thing . . . we have no plan (well Fred has the whole aiding thing going on, but I have no real plan). The only “plan” I had was that the boys would go to school and now that has ended. Ruth has been with us since Friday and we are all doing really well together. So far she is the one still going to school and if the consulate appointment goes well this week she will probably stop after Wednesday.
Life at the house here is quiet. I’m trying to find my place, which is difficult. I was very excited about the cook, the housekeeper, and the gardener aspect but now after three weeks I’m ready to take back my role. I love gardening and I get satisfaction out of the whole cleaning-organizing thing. And laundry, I find the whole washing and folding part therapeutic. I still don’t miss the cooking but I do miss something about it. Maybe the feeling of freedom- I feel like an interloper (though our cook, Dada Nyasulu, is very gracious and wanting to help).
There is a strange guilt to being here in the house while people are working. On one hand they really need the salary you pay them and if they didn’t work for you they would have to find other employment. Yet, I’m here and I have no sabbatical “job” other than to see and experience Malawi, which we are. We have gone on safari, been to the lakeshore, dined at people’s homes, attended a prayer house dedication, been to Mchengatuba church each Sunday but there is still a lot of down time.
What is my role? That is the question.
Chambo and Chips
There is something very good about the lakeshore. Sitting on the veranda of our bungalo, listening to the waves, the fisherman started beating their canoes to tell the people in the surrounding villages that the catch of the day has arrived. Children herd cattle along the beach while little Dave wades in the water. All of this while I sip tea and listen to Bob Dylan.
It’s about a two hour drive from Mzuzu to Bandawe. We have the boys, Chelsea Schultz, and Ruth Chiumia with us. Chelsea is the daughter of Chris who met Jim McGill in grad school. About two months before our departure, Chelsea sent us an email asking if she could spend some time at the house while we were there. Her father was coming to Africa for some geological work and the timing worked well. We said, “jump in.”
Ruth Chiumia is Grace’s daughter. Ruth is ten and a delight. When we arrived at the lake I asked her if she had been to Bandawe before. No. Had she been to the lake before? No. Is this the first time you’ve seen the lake? Yes. How can you be a Malawian and never have seen the lake? She didn’t know what to say and Kathy gave me a glance that suggested I can blunder in any culture I find myself.
Not long after I finished my second cup of tea Rev. Gondwe came by to say hello. It took us about fifteen minutes of chit chat to get down to business. There would be three Sundays I will be in Bandawe, but only two at his church. This seemed fine to him.
I explained the groups people who will be coming and their purpose. At first I suggested that the widow’s group use this time to simply process their experience, but Gondwe had other plans. “In fact we have a widow’s organization.” The widows are running two pre-schools and are now developing an effort to combat AIDS. “The drugs,” he said, “they are making people believe they are fixed and can do what they want.” “The drugs” are the antiretrovirols we are pumping into Malawi. Every story I hear about them says they are much more a curse than a blessing.
This was the second time though that AIDS and widows were connected. “We are losing a lot of people. Pastors are doing three, four funerals a week.” These are young people they are losing and the young people are leaving widows and orphans. Now the connection to AIDS seemed a bit clearer.
And then we shifted gears and spoke of politics- church politics. Rev. Nkhoma is retiring in August and the selection of his successor is just a bit of a topic.
As we spoke I couldn’t help but feel the lakeshore winning. Perhaps that is why I love it here so much. After each challenge we would look around and smile as if to say, yes but at least there is a lovely breeze as the sun is setting and here we are enjoying the veranda.
Yet, the best moment of the lakeshore is in an order: chambo and chips. This is fish and french fries. Chambo is the mainstay fish of lake Malawi. It tastes a bit like bass. The chips taste like chips. There is a moment at the end of the movie the Blues Brothers where John Candy’s character asks the law enforcement officers with him, “orange whip? Orange whip? Orange whip?” When we drove up to Sambani our first order of business was to order, “chambo chips or chicken and chips?” The first go round there was only one other taker beside myself for the fish. By six o’clock and dinner hour the number had leapt to six “chambo and chips.” There is something lovely about the lakeshore.
I am supposed to be walking in Africa, but instead I’m driving. In fact I am driving more in Malawi than I do in Watertown. This might be a good thing if I enjoyed driving, but alas, I do not.
Today, though, we were sans vehicle. There was a strange calm that came over me. This came as a surprise as while I do not like to drive I don’t like not having the option more.
True to form about 1:00 as I realized that I could just sit for a time (read nap) on sabbatical, the phone rang. It was David’s school and he was faining a stomach ache. So off I walked. Less than half way there I was spotted by Mr. Myungu.
I had been warned about him by Jodi McGill and given strict instructions that he was not allowed in the gate. A few hundred yards with him by my side I got the reason: he never stopped talking; I mean never. He had a plethora of health problems that all needed to be handled before he returned to gainful employment in a month’s time. I thought, man, that’s a pretty good line.
He slipped a bit when he said, I can tell that you are the sort of person who will help me. “You can tell that by just looking at me,” I said with an incredulous lilt. Soon and very soon I bid him farewell.
Halfway home with David in tow I began to feel really good. It wasn’t the walking, though, it was the seeing. What I love about Malawi is how life is just out there for everyone to see. The people walking, the vendors selling, the cyclists peddling, random people just seated on the side of the road.
So inspired was I that I decided to press my luck and walk into town to use the internet (our phone lines have been down for five days). As Kathy I walked down to the market area there was a weight being lifted.
I know I have been cranky, I said. But the driving here is just unnerving. The people are darting everywhere, the bikes swerve and the oncoming traffic always look like they are trying to clip you. You never know what is going to happen. I am frustrated because I can’t just gawk the way I have before. With a driver I was free to just look around. Driving myself I can’t take my eyes off the road for a second.
The more we talked about this the more it came clear: if I am going to be here this long and have Malawi be something more than a few week tour I am going to lose the joy of just watching from the van. Then the walking came clear. Walking wasn’t to meditate as it is in the states; walking was for seeing and enjoying the stream of bizarre images that I have come to love in Malawi.
“I must confess a real love for the chaos here,” I said to Kathy. “I love the way everything just kind of blends into a bit of madness, but its everyday life at the same time.
Later that day as the sun was waning we walked the central market in search of fruit and vegetables. As the vendors were closing down and hawking the remains as fast as they could and others were closing down their shops and people like us were trying to get out before darkness fell I was happy again. We drove down as the car was returned and the children needed a moment out. But walking the market in the swirl of fishmongers shouting closing prices while I carried two dozen eggs in an open flat trying not to trip on the muddy, twisted paths that divide the shops I thought: how good is this?
Mzuzu has become a bit small.
When Kathy questioned the logic of walking the two miles into town down hill and then walking those same two miles up hill I said, someone will pick us up. Indeed before we left the market area we were flush with people who could have given us rides.
I meet people all the time who have heard about our time in Mzuzu. Now I know I stick out. Yet there are more white people in Mzuzu than when I usually visit. Malawi during June, July, and August has a fair amount of tourism now.
The tourist are easy to spot and I have already begun to look at them with a bit intolerance. “They ain’t from around here.”
It does help when you preach in front of thousands of people and have the ability to go from place to place that comes a car. You need to remember that the overwhelming majority of Malawians do not have a vehicle. They walk, they hope for rides, they pay seat on mini-buses.
During our church service in Bandawe on Sunday I was approached by a Scottish missionary who said, you must be Fred. I’m David. I think they want us to move our vehicles. Later as we chatted during the service it was clear that even though I was more than an hour and half away Mzuzu was a bit small.
Without sounding too terribly romantic, that is the good part about it. Mzuzu lacks the slow, ponderous life of a village, but it also has something close to a grocery store; Mzuzu is not a physically attractive city as it a bit of ramshackle feel, but the streets are paved; Mzuzu is not big enough to require more than twenty minutes of driving to see the highlights, but in twenty minutes time you will most likely encounter someone who offers tea, a meal, or just a lovely converation.
Outside of the central market Gabriel spotted us. We were driving the McGill’s van and you would be amazed by how many people approach us on account of this vehicle. Gabriel was one of Jodi’s long-term projects. He is a schizophrenic who tries to cope by self-medication. Gabriel was looking for recognition from me: if you are driving the van, you need to know me. What I really knew at this moment was that Gabriel was lit.
I told him I cannot help you right now, but you will find me again. I said this to him as he stood in front of the door to the van blocking the entrance. The chances are good I will help you but not right now and not while you are blocking the door. He got the hint and took off.
On both accounts I was very serious: now is not a good time and you will find me again. Gabriel will find me no matter what vehicle I am driving because Mzuzu is just a bit small. It’s still a place were people know one another and people are known.
It does help that I am driving a rather distinctive van (the McGills much to their credit have purchased a mini-van that is ready for the African bush). Yet, even when I was walking the same thing happened. I was seen and called to by friends and acquaintances.
I am always surprised by how much people crave privacy and anonymity and yet at the same time have their entire lives on the internet (like a blog). There is a deep contradiction here. It is as if we want to be free from the Gabriels yet live in a place that is a bit small.
Pottery for one and all
The beach at Nkotakota is magnificent. The sand is pure and the waves are about twenty feet away breaking on the shore with a roar. Tea has just come.
Ruth and David have rolled up their pants and are tempting the fate of Lake Malawi. David has no fear of a two hour ride damp from losing the battle of inching closer and closer to the waves; I am not sure Ruth knows the inevitable claim her compatriot will make: “I didn’t try to get wet.”
We are here to buy pottery. Nkotakota is famous for the mugs and plates and pitchers. They are not famous enough, though, for Kathy and I not to argue. Throughout our marriage few things have divided us. On the whole we are two bookish people who enjoy conversation on a long drive, movies with a point, and the power of silence. For the most part this has made our life very harmonious. But there are three maybe four things that definitely divide us: I am salt, she is sugar; I am prone to names with flair, she to names that will not leave a scar; and in terms of china patterns there is no way to describe our differences except to say there is no place of agreement. There isn’t even room for compromise our tastes are so different.
I left the pottery factory to watch the children and my parting words were “get what you want.” This was after Kathy had made clear how much she had compromised already.
I know people may think this is rather mundane and even bordering on the profane given where we are and what we are doing, but in fact, that is the whole point of the sabbatical here: to see the mundane to be a family here.
Believe it or not people in Malawi have marriages wherein disagreements of patterns or furnishings or purchases occur on a regular basis. I’ve heard it in the small talk, or the comments made as husband and wives step into an awkward moment. I’ve seen it on their faces as they describe one another. It turns out marriage is marriage no matter what your longitude or latitude.
Finding our place in the mundane here was a great hope. It took about three weeks and a ceramic dutch oven to achieve. Of course there will be more to the sabbatical. Yet, this is really what the Malawians plead each time you are with them: feel at home, be at home. For me home is the mundane.
David succumbed to fate as I wrote this. He didn’t anticipate the water being as high behind him as it was in front of him so he sat down in the water. He then proceeded to cover himself in sand as a way of drying off I believe. Ruth, to her credit, remains all dry save her feet and ankles. The more time they spend together I wonder who will influence whom. Yet that is the fun of a life together, the joy of the mundane.
In 2004, First Presbyterian voted to make a three-year commitment to the village of Chivumu. The funds that were given were to be used to build a school.
In 2005 a group of eight were sent from First Pres to Malawi for a visit to the school site and meet the people who were heading up the effort.
Upon our arrival in Chivumu it was clear: this was a great project and the people working on it could be trusted. Key to the project was the leadership of the local pastor, the traditional authority chief, the village headmen, elders of the church, and the leadership of the larger church. Needless to say we felt we were part of community project.
In 2006, I returned with a group from the Presbytery of Northern New York to view the progress. In less than a year one block (two classrooms in one building) was complete and a second was well on its way. Although our time in the village was brief the connections of our last visit were significant and intact. During the time of speeches, one of the chiefs stood and gave an impassioned sermon. In his conclusion he declared that the children of Chivumu were now my children, and that a father will fulfill the needs of his children. I took the words to heart.
In 2007, we were able to see not only the two new blocks completed but also the arrival of the desks funded by the YMCA. It was a shocking transformation from the original stick huts with grass roofs that had been the Chivumu school.
On this visit, we were joined by the Rev. Nkhoma who is the general secretary of the Synod of Livingstonia. Rev. Nkhoma was the driving force behind the project and the one who insured that funds coming to Chivumu went to Chivumu. This can be a nebulous guarantee in Malawi.
Gathered under a tree the speeches carried on as usual, but this time there were plans. A fourth block was called for, thus completing a classroom for all grades, a small office and teachers’ lounge, and a house for the headmaster. Although these seemed a bit grandiose at first, I have come to see these future plans as essential for the development of the school.
In February, the Outreach Council of First Pres. voted to continue the funding of the school with $5000 for 2008. My recommendation was that we keep contributing this substantial yet modest amount each year until the school is complete.
Yesterday, we toured the grounds of Chivumu. It was a real delight to introduce Kathy to the people who have become a part of my heart. True to form the foundation of the fourth block is complete and the masons will now start working on the walls. Our 2008 contribution is reaching its intended purpose.
Each time a block goes up it is an elaborate process. The traditional authority chief must be asked if a building can be constructed on “his land”, the church must be consulted to see if such an investment is consistent with the larger picture of need, and the villagers themselves must be inspired to make the bricks and volunteer to help in the construction. To bring this all about in a timely fashion a building committee is ever busy.
Despite the progress of the fourth block we were there to visit the opening of yet another building on the school grounds. Rev. Nkhoma has been busy this last year seeking support for a “prayer house” and a series of “sky loos” to be installed on the school grounds. His efforts were successful and now there is a lovely church and a series of high end toilets. The construction of the prayer house on the school grounds with the toilets was brilliant. Already the impact is being seen. The villagers now see the school as a place for them as well. The most profound impact is that Chivumu now boasts a preschool for orphans. The prayer house doubles as a center durig the week. This will provide a service to the village that is hard to imagine in the U.S.
In the States childcare is mostly about convenience, work opportunities, or simply socialization for a young child. For Malawi, childcare is a question of life and death. The orphans who come to free childcare receive porridge and modest early education, but what the village receives is a respite from the impact of AIDS. The orphans who are fed and taught are straining the daily lives of extended families to a breaking point. The preschool provides a break that makes all the difference in the world.
At another point, I will describe the actual service of dedication for prayer house itself-which moved freely between bizarre and profound. Yet, the moment that seemed most bizarre had an impact upon the school. A date had been set for July 18th for the widows group to come and present gifts to the children and it seemed right that we have a service of dedication, recognizing the amazing work that has transformed Chivumu when they were present. Despite knowing this, the guest preacher and moderator of the synod decided that he would dedicate not only the prayer house, but the school as well- since he was here.
All of sudden there were looks of consternation. Quiet pleading with him persisted, but he had made up his mind and he in essence had the floor. So after the three and half-hour worship service dedicating the prayer house, an impromptu three and half minute service was led by the moderator to dedicate the school. A random piece of quartz was dragged over and as he handed it to me pictures were taken to suggest this was “the corner stone.”
As he walked away I turned to the headmaster Frasier and said, “you need to keep this some place safe as we know what an important rock it is.” His smile told me he appreciated the humor as he took the special stone from me.
I have no concern about credit, recognition, or even the plaques Malawians are so devoted to placing to honor their donors. I would much rather the praise go to God, Nadia Boudia, and the villagers who gave of their time. Yet I did mind the “hijacking.” I mind because it is not the sort of partnership of which I want to be a part.
Politics in Malawi is profoundly challenging arena. I have blundered in them again and again. Yet in each blunder I find something good. I will look, but so far, I haven’t found the good in our three-minute rock ceremony.
The newest plan for the school is a “football field.” In the states we would call this a soccer field. I have shared with the headmaster that Chivumu needs to have not only the best classrooms in the Chinteche area but also the best field complete with uniforms and good “footballs.” What we need, I told him, is a YMCA director coordinating good competition so not only does one community gather to Chivumu, but all the communities. The best part of this is that I’ve started to say, “we.”