It’s early, and I’m sitting at the dining room table listening to the wind and watching the sky get lighter over the mountain. Streaks of sunlight are now coming across the porch. It’s chilly; I need to wear a sweater. I have my cup of tea with full milk and am quite content. We’ll leave in awhile to walk to church. I think it will take us about forty minutes, but we’ll allow an hour, just in case.
It’s been a full and busy week!
Last Sunday morning we both woke feeling stiff and sore. George complained that his shoulder hurt and my hip was hurting me. When I rolled over, I thought the springs in the mattress were more prominent than they had been. I like a firm mattress, but this one seemed to be getting harder and harder. I figured we were getting a bit soft from all the sitting and eating during our training, so we got up and walked it off. Later that day, when I was sitting over at the Korean Garden Hotel, a guy named Jack was chatting with us. We were talking about what a pleasant setting it was, though simple, and he said he moved to that hotel from the one we were staying in because the beds had only box springs at our hotel, no mattresses. Then I realized, that was the problem! There was no mattress on the bed! We were sleeping on wood! When we got back to the hotel I checked, and sure enough, no mattress. We’d slept on the box spring. Thinking we’d been doing this all along and sleeping ok until that last night, we went to bed and had a horrible night. Hardly slept at all. At breakfast I mentioned it to a couple of the other volunteers. One woman had twin beds in her room and she said, “Ya, I noticed that one of my beds has the mattress and the other just a box spring. I’m sleeping on the one with the mattress.” Mind you, this is a nice hotel. I know there had been a mattress on that bed before. I went to reception and said, “Excuse me, the mattress seems to be missing from our bed in room 109. Could someone put it back today please?” The two employees at the desk responded as if I had asked for an extra towel. They showed no sign of surprise whatsoever. They assured me they would have a mattress put on the bed. I thanked them, and when I went back to the room on our lunch break, there was a mattress on the bed. We slept much better Monday night. All I had to do was ask for a mattress! For the bed. In a hotel.
Wednesday morning was our swearing-in ceremony. This is a part of all Peace Corps service where we take the same oath of all state department personnel. It was quite lovely, actually. It was held at the ambassador’s residence, the same house occupied by the ambassador when I was here in 1979. It was a morning ceremony with a little reception following. There was a bit of a rushed atmosphere as those of us traveling to Blantyre and Mangochi were leaving that same day (a five hour trip), but we still took time for speeches and some visiting with our Malawian counterparts and a few embassy people. The American ambassador to Malawi is a firecracker. I love her. She is brilliant, funny, involved, and informed. She’s confronted corruption head-on and is a cheerleader for this program. Her insight into the workings of the health department were quite impressive, and since a good bit of money for programs comes from the US, she has a grasp on how it’s accounted for and what needs should be prioritized. She was really a pleasure to talk with and listen to.
After the ceremony we were all herded to the Peace Corps office where we signed for our bicycles, helmets, and tool kits. We were handed our living allowance for the remainder of August in cash, collected our medical supplies, then went to the hotel to collect our luggage for the trip. It turns out the bikes wouldn’t fit on the bus, so they were delivered on Friday.
Eight of us volunteers are in Blantyre and we occupied two vehicles. One huge bus was filled with luggage and supplies and another Land Rover with people. George and I were on the bus. The Land Rover beat us here by over an hour. I had been a little nervous about getting here late in the day, and with a five hour ride, it was sure to be a late arrival. Before we departed, one of the Malawians on our bus asked if we wouldn’t mind praying for a safe trip, so we bowed our heads, and with clasped hands, he said a heartfelt prayer asking God that we arrive safely at our destination. Let it suffice to say that driving here has become very dangerous. Driving at night is out of the question.
I was hoping we’d arrive before dark, but as the sun set quickly well before we got to Blantyre, my stomach sank along with it. We would be arriving to an empty, unoccupied house in unfamiliar territory with no food or living supplies in the pitch dark. We were told someone here would have the keys, but it was a little unclear as to who that someone was. I hoped it would be someone nearby. Well, it turns out that the others got here just before dark and were able to acquire the keys, so they opened up the houses and waited for us. We had all the luggage so no one could move in without us. In the pitch dark, we unloaded and sorted what belonged to whom and dragged it to our respective houses. Three of our houses are close to each other and there’s one other across town. Two of the nurses, Christine and Elizabeth, were going there, but that house was recently vacated by another volunteer and was fully equipped. Our’s were completely empty of everything except basic furniture. It was a bit stark. And we had no food. We had brought some tea and milk and I was thinking at least we’d have tea in the morning, then realized we had no kettle or cups. That was a dark moment. As George and I brought the last suitcase into our house, there appeared a small man beside us telling us he was security and would spend the night with us. I looked at George and asked, “Did anyone tell you we’re supposed to have a security guard here?” He looked away and said, “Nope.” This guy’s English was about as good as our Chichewa, and after a bit of hand-signaling communication, we figured he was legit. He said he was employed by the college of medicine and had a blue uniform on, so we just went with it. We did lock our door though, and heaved an “Oh, God.” as we looked around at the bareness of the place. It all seems so threatening at night in a strange place.
Blantyre is at 3,500 feet and this is the cool season. It’s between 75-80 degrees during the day, but the nights are quite chilly, in the 40-50 degree range. We were pretty well exhausted when we got everything into the house, trying not to fall into openings in the pavement, so didn’t even try to hang the mosquito net. We just put sheets on the bed with the polar fleece blanket I’d brought from home, and crashed. We were lucky I’d brought that blanket. The others were shivering, wrapped up in towels that night. Having omitted supper, I was desperate for tea in the morning, but that wasn’t happening. It was a puzzle finding keys to all the doors and figuring out who the strange people were in our driveway. Turns out it was changing of the guards.
Our daytime guard is named Catharine. As soon as she laid eyes on me she came to greet me and introduce herself. She welcomed us to Malawi and wanted to be sure I knew that she was good at cleaning and has four children to support. I was doing my best to understand her while taking in the morning view and get a daylight grasp on our new home for the year.
It’s quite nice! The house, while very simple, is quite large. We have three bedrooms and three bathrooms, so plenty of space for visitors! (If you’ve been craving an African adventure, now’s the time!) There is a huge living room with a fireplace, two couches, and a coffee table. There is room for at least four more chairs, so it looks a bit empty with the bare walls, but we’ll decorate once we get the essentials. The living room opens into a good sized dining room with a nice table and four comfortable chairs. Both of these rooms have doors and windows that open onto a large, covered porch. The kitchen has a double sink, a fridge, very small stove, lots of empty cabinets, and a huge empty pantry. The kitchen door goes out into a courtyard where there is a clothesline and connects with what appears to be, servants quarters. It’s another separate house back there. Empty (we think).
The yard is fairly large, surrounded by a chain-link fence with grass woven into the links, so it’s a bit of privacy. On one side of the fence is a dirt path to the hospital, and the other side is Anneka and Idil’s house. (They are both physicians in our group. Idil is an internal medicine doc and Anneka is a pediatrician. They’ve both just finished residency and are adorable and fun.) We have a huge avocado tree in the yard as well as a guava tree. This is winter, so they aren’t producing at the moment, but I’ve got high hopes. We’ve got a few poinsettia trees, a rose, a frangipani, and several others I can’t identify. We’ve got a view of the mountains surrounding the city, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
The first thing I had to do Thursday was get to a tailor to have my uniform made. I start working tomorrow and can’t do it without my uniform. Polly, one of the nurses in our group, has been living here since January and knew a tailor, so we traipse into his little hut on a dirt path in a cornfield. This mud-brick room is all of six feet by seven feet and has a little table with his foot powered machine, and a notebook and pen where he recorded our measurements. We explained that we’d be lecturers at the nursing school, which means we need navy blue uniforms with white piping. Yes, yes, he assured us he knows exactly what we need. He could go and buy the fabric for us even! Such service! “Come back on Saturday and they will be all ready.” So George and I bade goodbye to our friends and we went to find a tea kettle, two cups, a blanket, and some cleaning supplies, which made the next night oh so much more comfortable. Hot tea in the morning! Yes! But when I went to make a second cup, the electricity wouldn’t work. We spent some time trying to figure out what to do, wondering if the bill hadn’t been paid. So, only one-cupped, we set off again to find the electric company and pay the bill, as Catharine elbowed her way in to clean the entire kitchen. Unsure if we should let her do that if she already had a job as guard, we were a little confused, but I loved the idea of that kitchen being clean, so we just left her to it. We learned along the way to the electric company that the whole city was out of power. Since the drought they ration electricity and have rolling blackouts. We just need to be prepared for them as they aren’t on any kind of schedule. So, having gotten electricity and water all sorted, we came home to a sparkling clean kitchen. I can feel myself settling in to this very nicely. Friday we bought a few more essentials like plates, pillows, a spatula, and internet service. Saturday, I got my uniform which fits like a glove, picked up our bikes, and finished unpacking. It’s all coming together.
We’ll go to mass today, and tomorrow I start my four weeks of orientation. It’s a short walk to the School of Nursing and I’ll meet up with my counterpart, Estnath, who has offered to take me around to meet everyone. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. None whatsoever. But at least they speak English. I’m just going to get up, put on my blue uniform, drink my tea, eat a few bananas, and walk over there with a smile. Hopefully I’ll figure it out.
Catharine, greeted me at the kitchen window this morning as I was making tea. She’s got a forceful personality. She had Saturday off, and the guard we had yesterday was quite demure and gave us a little space and privacy, but I think Catharine is intent on becoming part of the family. She stood at the window until I unlocked the door, (which, takes a bit of effort) then presented me with a gift. With a smile bigger than life, she handed me a glass jar filled with water. In this water are: stones, approximately eighty tiny fish swimming mightily, a piece of white ribbon stuck in the stones, and a fake red rose. The metal cap has holes nailed in it for oxygen. I thanked her profusely for the new aquarium and it sits beside me at the table. I have no idea where she got the fish or what to feed them. Catharine doesn’t speak much English. I don’t know if they grow big and we’re supposed to eat them? Do people here have little aquariums? It’s in an old mayonnaise jar, it’s not like there’s a filter or anything. What if they all die? It somehow seems a big responsibility.
Oh well, I’ll let you know how that goes.
Off to church as the city wakes up.
Love to all,