Sunday Morning~ Salima
“We help each other in sorrow, we help each other in happiness.” This is what Chifundo told us as she prepared us to live in the village for four days. It was her way of introducing communal life.
Our Malawian team of language instructors began our language and cross-cultural training with a series of skits depicting what they consider “strange” mzungu behavior. Mzungu is translated as “foreigner” but since the most easily identifiable foreigners are white, it’s very much associated with “white person”.
The skits were fabulous. The first started with Robin walking along and noticing the sun. He pointed to it like he had never seen the sun before, and said, “Ah! The sun!” and pulled his camera out and started taking photos of it. The other language instructors, acting as a group of children, see him and laugh hysterically and crowd around, jumping up and down posing in front of his camera, blocking the sun. That was the end of the skit and they turned to us, beaming, waiting to hear our response to their lesson. We were all laughing, not so much at the lesson we were to learn, but at the way they acted it out. They asked what we thought the skit was about? Answers started spewing out from our group, “Children want their pictures taken?”
“Be aware of your surroundings?” I tried, “You think it’s strange we take photos of nature?” Yes! They collapsed into fits of laughter. Then they explained, the sun is always there, we don’t understand why anyone would take a photo.
On to the next skit: Robin, again, walking along, pulls out a water bottle and takes a long swig. That was the end of the skit. The entire room was cracking up. Someone in our group asked, “You think it’s strange that we drink water?” They gently explained, “No, it is not that you drink water. We also drink water. It’s just that we don’t carry it with us. We know that if we need water, we can just go to a house and they will give it to us.”
Next skit: Robin is jogging, he stops to do a series of jumping jacks, then stretches, then starts jogging again. A short distance away, a crowd has to hold each other up, they are laughing so hard. Robin is oblivious. The end. The lesson: Why do you people run if nothing is chasing you? We get exercise by living.
The next one was more complicated: A woman receives a letter in the mail. She opens it and starts reading and a look of horror comes over her face. She puts the letter down and bursts into tears. A group of friends run over to her for support and they ask, “What has happened?” She pulls herself together, and sobbing, she says, “My sister just gave birth to healthy twins!” That was the end, but the actors were laughing so hard by then it took a moment for them to compose themselves. They then looked at us to tell them what we learned. I didn’t get it at first. Was twins a bad thing to them? No! You cry when you are happy! We don’t understand this!
And the last one took more effort: A woman was happily doing her laundry in a bucket. She squeezed the water from the clothing and hung it on a line. She picked up pieces of paper, which were cut-outs of underwear, and taped them on a string strung between two chairs. A village woman walking by sees the underwear on the line, recoils in horror, and takes off her chitenje (sarong) and covers the underwear with it. Lesson: It is culturally unacceptable to show your undergarments to the world, even if you are not wearing them at the time. We were all impressed with how realistic the paper cut-outs looked, which our language instructors found even more hilarious.
So that was the beginning of our cross-cultural training, interspersed with more lectures on safety and language and what to expect in the village. The traditional two-year Peace Corps volunteers spend two months training in the village staying with families, but the village stay for the SEED volunteers is a new thing. We had just four days there, but it was an excellent exercise in understanding the people we will be caring for.
Tuesday morning we packed up all our suitcases to be stored for the rest of the week, while we took only what was needed for our village stay. The village was near Kasungu about an hour and a half north of Lilongwe. We arrived there around 1 p.m. and the village had a welcoming ceremony for us which started with the women dancing and singing a song that said we were very welcome there. One of our group asked one of the language teachers if it would be appropriate if we joined in (only the women) and she said, “Sure!”, so one by one, we each joined the circle of beaming, singing, dancing women. There were four men drumming in the center and I think they did about four different songs with wild cheering between each one. Then we all went into a room in the brick one-story building for speeches. This started with a prayer, then an introduction by the Malawian Peace Corps staff, thanking the village profusely for giving us this opportunity. Then the village chiefs took turns giving speeches, welcoming us. After that, a family’s name was called then the name of the volunteer staying with them, followed by wild cheering as the threesome walked out hand in hand to the family house. I was not quite prepared for this. George and I were staying together, so as our names were called, our mother and father host stood as the crowd cheered, and they grabbed our packs and put them on their backs despite our motioning we could carry them. Absolutely not. They would carry our packs. Then the father took George’s hand, and the mother took my hand and out we walked, through the village, to their house. I was chuckling as I watched George hand in hand with the Bambo and wanted to take a picture so bad. That however, was not possible, as my hand was held tight by my host mother. I felt like we were going off to kindergarten. God, it was funny.
The village was actually not unlike Shamwana, except that the people were happy and fed, and it was about a half mile from the busy main road. There was a small market that had some fish and a few vegetables. There were lots of children playing and they appeared healthy. Peace Corps gives the families some food supplies so they don’t have to bear the financial burden of feeding us. They also provided us each with a water filter and a solar light and charger. We each had a mattress, pillow, mosquito net and blanket. Other than that, you could barely tell us apart from the villagers. Oh, well, except we were all carrying water bottles.
Our family did not speak any English and we’d had all of two hours of Chichewa instruction. Oh man, that first day was long. They showed us to our room, which, was a separate little hut with a door and two small windows. The thatch had big gaps in it, but it’s the dry season, and they had a thin piece of plastic hung as a ceiling. It was made from unfired mud bricks, so the nails to hold up the mosquito net went in pretty easily. They had laid a bamboo mat on the floor of the small entry-room where we had our water filter, and it was actually quite pleasant. The walls were whitewashed with lime, so looked more finished, and the mud floor was painted black, which, kept it sort of clean. While we were setting up our net and giggling to each other, our mother was making our tea. We were called when it was ready, and the four of us sat in their hut on a bamboo mat and had tea with powdered milk (they were a little shocked we did not take sugar) and an entire loaf of white sliced bread was served to us. I wasn’t sure if this was the evening meal, even though it was only four o’clock. We hadn’t had lunch, and had become accustomed to being fed every two hours, so I was kinda hungry. I ate three pieces of the bread, which, was a lot of plain white bread, and it took some time with pats on the tummy to explain that I was full. George was doing pretty much the same thing; trying not to eat more bread. Even if that was supper, I couldn’t eat more plain white bread.
Dear sweet George, decided that he wanted to help our mother because she works so hard, and told her in English (with some hand gestures) that he wanted to help her carry the water from the bore hole. Fortunately for everyone involved, she didn’t understand a word of it. I freaked when he started saying this. I snarled at him through gritted teeth, “You will not be able to carry that water. Don’t even think of it.” I was imagining his good-hearted intentions ending with him being a laughing stock (best case scenario) or a broken neck and the end to this Peace Corps training (worst case scenario). He argued, “No! I really want to help! I can carry the water for her!” Ok, my tone wasn’t working. I changed to a more pleading note, “Sweetheart, I know you want to help, but we are guests here. Pleeeeze let’s observe things for a bit and see if it’s appropriate for you to do that (which it is not).” He reluctantly agreed, thank God. I’ve tried to lift one of their water buckets in the past and couldn’t even get it off the ground.
After tea, the four of us, hand in hand again, walked over to a field where the girls, barefoot and skirted, were playing a game called netball. It’s a version of basketball with no basket and no dribbling. There was a tire rim tied to the top of a cut-off tree and the teams would pass the ball to each other and shoot from just under the rim. It was brutal! The girls were perfect specimens of strong, agile bodies, and it was fascinating to watch. Most of the village was there, and every time they got a basket a group of little kids jumped onto the field chanting and wiggling their butts. It was great. On the other side of that game the boys were getting ready to play soccer. There was a goal made out of sticks with no net, on one end of the field, and the same thing just behind where the girls were playing net ball. This meant that when the boys kicked a goal, it went into the girls game. This seemed to bother no one. When the soccer ball intruded into the girls game, someone merely threw it back to the boys.
When it started getting dark, we walked back to our new home and sat outside our house on a mat as one relative after another came to greet us. We shook hands with at least forty people and did the same greeting over and over. “Muli bwanji? Ndili bwino. Zikomo.” Over and over and over and over. But at least we knew how to say that. I was trying to remember some vocabulary from way back when, and would point to various things like a chicken and someone would say, “Nkuku!” Ah! Right! Nkuku! This killed another hour or so, and people finally started leaving. We were then escorted back into mom and dad’s hut and sat by ourselves on a mat for a long time not knowing what was happening. A while later, supper was served, and we had the ritual hand washing and the plate of nsima was uncovered. Ah, good old nsima, I have missed you. Nsima is a staple made from maize flour and water and I really like it. It’s super bland, but when you eat it with the “relish” (which is whatever they serve to go with it), it’s quite tasty. They had one little LED light in there, so it was really dark, but we each had our own plate and using our hands, scooped up our nsima and relish from the common plate. One eats nsima by pinching off a piece, poking a little dent in it, and pushing some relish in. That first night the relish was chinese cabbage greens with tomatoes and onions and lots of cooking oil and salt. It was delicious. As we ate, our hosts pointed to things and told us the Chichewa word, and we’d repeat it. Let me tell you, this gets tiring after awhile. I was so glad when we finished eating and could go to bed.
In between choruses of howling dogs (which I thought were hyenas), I slept pretty well in our little hut, tucked under our net. There were some critters in the roof, but the plastic kept them from dropping on us, and it was pretty cozy! Well before sunrise, I heard our mother get up to make a fire in the outside kitchen area. Then just as it was getting light, they knocked on our door, and we got up and went out. She had prepared baths for us, and showed us to the bathing area, which, was a little mud enclosure with a curtain for privacy. Inside were two large buckets of warm water with a plastic cup floating in each one. Ohh, his and her bucket baths! How nice! It was a hoot. The morning was cool and the warm water felt great as we were feeling really grubby from all the dancing and sitting in the dirt the day before. Then we scooted back to our hut to get dressed before we went back to their hut for tea and bread for breakfast. When we were done with that, our mother handed us fried dough she had prepared for us to take to our classes for morning tea time, and then they both took us by the hands again, to walk us to “school”, an empty building near the market.
Our classes continued while staying in the village. We met each day with our trainers and language teachers in a common building and would go home to our hosts for lunch. The first morning was pretty funny as we shared stories of our first night. When we asked each other how the night was, we got answers like, “Long. Humbling. Awkward.” Our language teachers and staff were great at helping us with our anxieties about making cultural faux pas. The whole thing was an incredible experience. We visited a health center and traditional healer and had many hours of language lessons. We could communicate better each day with our host families and they would help us practice. The evening ritual of family visits continued with everyone quizzing us on the day’s lessons. On the second evening, the grand daughter of our hosts came to greet us. She was a beautiful young woman with a young baby. She knew a few words of English and spent a half hour or so talking with us. Then she handed the baby to a friend, walked off, and came back a while later with a huge bucket of water on her head. George and I were awestruck at her gracefulness as she reached up and lowered it, first to her knees, then the ground without spilling a drop. Then she came over to our mat, put her baby on her back, shook our hands, and walked off with her friend. We were alone for the first time in the little courtyard, and George got up and said, “I want to see if I can lift that.” He went over to the bucket, squatted and tried to pick it up. Couldn’t even budge it. He looked at me, bug eyed, and said, “Holy shit! You were right! I couldn’t carry that!”
Friday was our last day there and in the afternoon the whole village gathered for more dances and farewell speeches. We’d gotten some gifts for the family and spent the evening taking photos and playing with the hoards of kids who’d taken quite a shine to George. It was sweet.
Saturday morning we loaded up the van and waved goodbye to our wonderful hosts and drove four hours to Salima, the village where I did my Peace Corps training (gulp) thirty-seven years ago. We visited a cultural center near there, then spent the night at a hotel on the lake; the one we used to bike to on Sundays way back when. It’s much bigger, and nicer, and has a new name, but was quite a walk down memory lane for me. The lake has receded a lot since the old days. There is a huge beach now, and we walked it as the sun set, then showered and sat together at the outside bar and had a couple of greens (beers) before dinner. I wanted a Malawi gin and tonic, but the luxury hotel had no tonic. Ah, some things never change.
I woke at 3:30 this morning when I heard waves on the lake and went and sat outside. It’s so beautiful here. There was a tiny crescent moon and the lake was rough and the lanterns in the fishing boats were bobbing, and I was happy. I tried to go back to sleep, but couldn’t, so an hour later, we made tea and went out to the beach to wait for sunrise. Just at six the big red globe rose out of the lake like it does every morning and I laughed at the idea of taking a photo.
We’re going to a nearby game reserve today, then back to Lilongwe for another ten days of training before heading to our sites. They are keeping us busy! So far it’s all fun.
Hopefully I’ll be able to connect to the sketchy internet at the hotel to post this. When we get to our site we hope to get something reliable.
Love to all,