The Sunday morning letters started in January 1979. We were a group of twelve young Peace Corps volunteers who had just landed in Blantyre, Malawi, all eager to see and change the world. One of our first instructions was to write home every Sunday. Our country director held up a thin blue paper that could be folded into thirds, sealed around the edges, and sent to parents to reassure them we were fine and happy. This would relieve the Peace Corps office of having to deal with frantic phone calls from worried parents with exotic fantasies about their children’s whereabouts. I was (and pretty much still am) a very good rule-follower. From that moment on, for the next two and a half years, I wrote home every Sunday, filling the blue paper with the week’s news.
In the late 60’s, Peace Corps had been asked to leave Malawi when the President-For-Life felt the Americans were filling the young people’s heads with ideas of free-speech. We were the first group allowed back in and were warned about comporting ourselves in a way that would ensure our longevity there. We were never to talk politics. The women were forbidden to wear trousers and skirts had to be below the knees. Men were not allowed to have facial hair. To minimize risk of corrupting the young, our jobs were only in health and agriculture, not education.
It was a great assignment. The twelve of us spent three months together in a vacant store building in the village of Salima, learning the local language and cultural norms. We became a family. Then we were launched to different sites to begin our two year commitment. We’d have official family reunions once a year at Club Makokola for discussing our projects and I can’t remember what else. I vaguely remember a lecture on how to brush our teeth correctly, and one on avoiding acquiring an STD, and there were a sundry of other topics that I have no recollection of. I do remember frolicking in the lake during breaks and plenty of drinking at night. And, of course, laughing. Members of the twelve are very funny people.
It’s been over thirty-seven years since we met in Chicago in December of ’78. When we left Malawi at the end of service we went our separate ways, traveled different routes home, and settled across the country. We made lives for ourselves, married, and had families. We stayed in touch through Christmas cards and a newsletter that a few of the more creative put together. There were years when the correspondence was thin, but the ties were always there.
I was a public health nurse then, fresh out of school and bursting with excitement. During my nursing training in the 70’s I was appalled by obstetrics in the US and vowed never to work in that specialty. Fathers were just starting to be allowed into the birth and they had to take a special course to be allowed to do so. Women labored four or more to a room with no one supporting them. They were often screaming. When it was close to delivery time, they’d get wheeled into a delivery room, get a spinal, have their legs strapped onto metal stirrups and the fully-gowned doctor would come in and deliver the baby by forceps. It was hideous. Occasionally a woman would deliver so fast they wouldn’t have time to do all these things to her and she’d be scolded for messing up the routine. I thought I’d never work in obstetrics.
Then I got to Malawi and worked with the nurses there who were all midwives. I watched how they cared for women in labor and what natural birth really was. It was a female centered activity, for sure. They couldn’t believe I would want my husband there for my child’s birth. We had hours of cultural exchanges about this, sitting together in the room where women labored together. It was where the women hung out when there was nothing else to do. It was open and breezy, and though the sanitation at the time left a lot to be desired, the whole process was so much more humane than at home. It’s when I decided to become a midwife. I knew I’d be much more effective in helping women in developing countries if I worked to make birth safer for them. When I left Malawi I went back to graduate school to study midwifery and made a very satisfying career with it; a life change that started in Malawi thirty-seven years ago…
So it’s a little ironic that I’ll be going back there in July to teach midwifery at the nursing school in Blantyre. We got our country assignments this week and, yup, we are going to Malawi. I had wanted a different country. Africa is a big continent and I wanted to experience more of it. I’d lived in Malawi already and I’ve always wanted to go to Uganda and hoped we’d get placed there. But we don’t have a choice in this, so will go where assigned. I’ve been thinking what a full circle this will be, going back to teach in a country that changed my life. I did my Peace Corps assignment in the far north in a village called Karonga. Blantyre is in the south and the largest city in the country. I’ve only been there twice, once when we landed, and once when shopping for supplies to take to Karonga just after training. I’d gotten food poisoning and spent the time there curled up in a ball vomiting. All I saw of the city was the toilet at the run-down guest house. I remember being grateful it was a real toilet since I spent the whole day with my face in it.
We got our country assignment on Thursday this week, and Friday we gathered in Pacific Grove with seven of the original twelve. In the past, I’ve tried to describe the bond we share and always fail to get it right. You really have to see us together to get a sense of our connection with each other. The stories are so close to the surface and we are so eager to recount them, to finish each other’s sentences, to add a vibrant missing detail. Our lives are intertwined and intimate in a unique way. We are not afraid to ask each other anything nor afraid to share the most sordid details of what went wrong in life. We know we’ll be loved and accepted. We eagerly tell of our kids’ lives. We welcome new partners with open arms. This is a unique family. It’s such a blessing.
It was bittersweet saying goodbye this morning. We vowed to do this more frequently.We’re grown up now. We’ve got some money. We can pay for accommodation and meals. It feels important to nurture and sustain the relationships as we move to another stage of life. We joked about how fun it would be to have the next reunion in Malawi, knowing that isn’t going to happen. But George and I will come back with new stories to an eager audience. We’ll be ready to fall into the familiar arms and voices, smiles and hearts. I’ll keep up the Sunday morning letters.
Life, again, is good.