If you never ask for honey, you will only eat wax. ~ Malawian Proverb
George said he’d have to spend the entire weekend preparing lectures for next week, so I decided to go to Zomba for an overnight. I finished my orientation on Friday and felt like celebrating with a little trip. He wasn’t super pleased about me going off alone, but I reminded him I’d been doing that for years before I met him. But he didn’t know me then and therefore wasn’t worried about my safety. I find this to be both a blessing and a curse. For years I’d go off on solo adventures and think, “Gee, no one would even know if I fell off this cliff, or got crushed in this crowded bus.” And it was a little lonely. I sometimes wished I had someone to worry about me. But yesterday morning when I was leaving, his concern annoyed me. I thought, “I don’t have to ask permission to go! Why should I have to worry about someone else’s anxieties about my activities? I didn’t sign up for this!” And, I might add, when we were talking about getting into a relationship, I did say I wanted to maintain my independence and he wholeheartedly agreed. That’s what I signed up for. Need to find some balance with this one. On the list to work on.
We had words. I went anyway. It’s gorgeous here. I’m sitting under a thatched roof in the soft light of the foothills of the Zomba plateau, a beautiful alpine forest at 7,000 feet. I thought I might stay up on the plateau, but by the time I arrived here by bus from Blantyre I thought I shouldn’t chance getting up there without a reservation. (See! I’m not foolhardy!) I walked the town and found a lodge but it was $40 a night, certainly not expensive by US standards, but that’s a third of our monthly allowance and I didn’t want to splurge that much just to sleep. I found this neat backpackers lodge for $10/night and aside from the critter (I think it was a mouse) running up and down my mosquito net during the night, it’s perfect. It has a bar and simple restaurant and the most beautiful setting. I’m in a dorm room, but they provide sheets, blanket and (thank God) mosquito net and I’m the only one in there. Couldn’t be better. They have wifi, but it’s broken, so I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to send this later. For now I’ll just write.
Once I found this place and dropped my stuff, I walked to find the Cathedral and seminary. I had the name of a priest who is teaching there and wanted to see if I could find him. I asked someone how far away it was and he said, “Ah, very far. At least one kilometer!” And I thought, that’s not very far, I’ll walk. And I walked, and walked, and walked. Miles later I saw the cathedral and thought I’d just bag trying to find the seminary. I heard a choir practicing and needed to sit in the shade and drink some water. I thought I’d just listen to them and rest a bit. One sweet woman named Mass, came to talk with me. I told her about myself and she wanted me to meet the entire choir. She made them all state their name and greet me. I thought this was a little awkward, but believe me, there is nothing Malawians love more than greeting each other. It’s very important. After that she walked me up to see the secondary school, even though I told her I’d been walking a long time and was a bit tired and still had to walk back. She thought it was something I should see because, “It is very beautiful.” Which, I will agree, was true. The campus was lovely. Bougainvillea dripping everywhere with the backdrop of this high plateau. Stunning. When she walked me back to the road, I saw the seminary right across the street, so I went over. The priest I was looking for wasn’t there, but I met another one, Fr. Cosmos and he welcomed me warmly. He showed me around the (again) beautiful campus and we sat and had a Coke. I was parched and relished that cool Coke in that perfect glass bottle. Ah, simple pleasures. Coke here is so good, not so sweet. Fr Ignatius, who I had hoped to meet, was due to arrive that evening. He’s been on holiday in Ireland. I explained to Fr Cosmos where I was staying and that I planned to do a hike up to the plateau in the morning before getting the bus back to Blantyre, but he would have nothing of that! He would collect me after he was finished saying mass at around one and drive me up the plateau. He insisted. I accepted. I’ll go to mass at a church near here in a bit and then come back and wait for him.
The week. My final week of orientation was spent in the postpartum ward. I vacillate between wishing I could become hardened off to the women’s suffering and hoping that never happens. Monday mornings are difficult for me in a new ward. I have to wait awkwardly for the sister in charge to greet me and take me around the ward, something she has no time for. She does this anyway and then leaves me standing in the bleak, dark hallway looking for something to do or someone to follow around. I watched the health education talk, which a student midwife delivers while walking up and down the ward with six women seated on each bed. It’s a big open room with metal beds lined up next to each other. There are 56 beds and 76 patients. Some of the women take the mattress off the bed and sleep on the floor. It’s scary for them to be so high; they’re not used to it. Others, are either in the bed with their babies, or in the bed with another mother and her baby. They bring their own chithenje to cover the bed and it is very colorful in there. It reminds me of a scene from a civil war hospital with the beds lined up like that, except that there aren’t bandaged heads and limbs, but color on the beds and bottles of Fanta near each one.
After the health education talk, the women are given their charts and they line up on a hard bench in the dark hallway to wait to be evaluated. And wait and wait and wait. When it is finally her turn, she takes her baby into the one exam room and the baby gets weighed, has it’s cord cleaned with “spirits”, and it’s temperature taken. If mother is more than 12 hours postpartum, she goes home if everything is ok. If not, she goes back to the ward. It takes hours. A woman came in without her baby and the midwife asked, “Mwana ali kuti?” (Where is the baby?) The mother explains that the baby died that morning and she starts to cry. The midwife says, “Pepani, pepani.” (Sorry, sorry) and then tells her to get on the table and spread her legs so she can check the episiotomy. It seems so cruel. I feel so helpless. I feel stupid as I stand there, an observer of this. The examination ends and the sad mother wraps her chitenje around her waist and goes without her baby. I ask the midwife what will happen, will the family take the baby for a burial? She calls after the woman to ask her the question I have posed. I’m horrified. The midwife turns back to me and matter-of-factly says, “Yes. They will take the body home for burial.” And the next woman comes in.
On Tuesday morning I was standing in the hallway trying to glom onto someone to follow around for the day. The sister in charge walked toward us and told the staff that we’ve just had another maternal death, then she turned and walked away. It was another half hour before the wailing started. Eerie, haunting wailing. It echoed through the hallways into the open rooms filled with beds of women and babies. It got louder and I wondered if they were coming toward us. It was piercing. Everyone, of course, knows what it means. I wanted to ask why she died, but there was no one to ask. The medical intern was going bed to bed pushing a cart with a box of gloves on top. He was checking on all the women who have had a c-section and there are a lot of them. He didn’t seem to notice the wailing, but of course he did. He continued as if it didn’t exist, looking at his watch between each patient. The ward was silent otherwise. Occasionally a baby cried, oblivious to the mourning going on. The women looked down, the guardians tended to babies, no one spoke to each other. Women quietly answered the intern’s questions. The wailing continued. I had a thought of the telltale heart; there was no stopping it. I looked out the window and noticed it was very windy. I hadn’t noticed that before. Leaves were blowing off the trees. The wind just kept on blowing as if this family wasn’t wailing and wailing. Every once in a while a scream would punctuate the wailing. I wondered if each new scream was another family member finding out, but there was no one to ask, and I wouldn’t have anyway. I watched as the midwives went about their work as if it were a group of church ladies singing.
She was thirty two years old and had a postpartum hemorrhage. I found this out later that day. Second baby. She’d gotten a pint of blood, but needed more and there was none in the blood bank. She later had a seizure and they couldn’t revive her. They opened her abdomen post mortem to find she was bleeding internally. I don’t know if the family took the baby when they took the mother home for burial.
I went over to the nursery to check on the orphaned twins and their family had come. I was happy to see this. They had buried their mother and came to discuss taking the twins home. When I got there the family was in a meeting with the social worker. Until that moment I didn’t even know we had a social worker, but I could see them talking together in a room with huge windows. The midwife said the social worker would evaluate them to make sure they would care for the babies, otherwise they would go to the orphanage. When I went back to the nursery on Friday, I found that the family had taken them home.
Now that I am done with my orientation I will start at the college of nursing. I am looking forward to having a role and preparing for classes which start in November. I’m not exactly sure how my days will unfold from here, but I guess I’ll find out. We will be taking next Friday off and going to Mt. Mulanje for a long weekend. I will turn sixty next Sunday and decided I wanted to spend my birthday hiking, which always makes me happy. There are huts on the mountain we can stay in, and since we joined the mountain club, will have access to the sleeping mats and cooking utensils. George has taken care of all the arrangements: hiring the guide and porter, joining the club, arranging for transport to the mountain, and collecting the key to the storage rooms. We’ll climb up on Friday and stay at one of the huts, then walk across the plateau on Saturday and stay at a different hut, then back down on Sunday. The huts all have their own caretaker and provide water and firewood for us. We’ll do our own cooking. I think the guides and porters cook for themselves. Next week’s blog might not get posted until Monday since we usually don’t have power on Sunday nights. I’m beginning to see a pattern with the blackouts.
…I just got back from mass. I’d gone to the closest Catholic church about a half mile from here. The sign said mass was at eight and I got there just before and waited outside until the previous mass was finished. When the people poured out, a woman came over to me and said the next mass is not for some time. I told her that the sign said eight. She acknowledged that but said that on this Sunday it wouldn’t start until later, something about a procession. She said she’d drive me to St. Mary’s secondary school for girls where there was a mass starting just then. I said, “Are you sure? I don’t want to trouble you.” She said, “It’s Sunday; there is nothing else to do!” So I got in her big black SUV and she drove me a few miles to the school where there was a little chapel. Her name was Mary, and she had retired to Zomba because she liked it there. She’d worked as a police officer for many years. At the chapel she bade me good day and I went in. The singing had already begun. The mass was beautiful. The chapel was full to the gills with healthy girls and nuns of varying ages, three girls were playing drums and they were all singing and dancing their hearts out. I thought, hooray for girls’ education! I didn’t want to leave. I imagined teaching at this school someday.
I can’t keep my mind from fantasizing about different roles I might try on.
Turning sixty has a lot to do with that, I guess. It’s not that I feel old, aside from struggling with technology here and there. These age milestones are interesting. Fifty was the last time I took stock like this and I’ve had an incredible decade, really. I’ve been on some great adventures and have more blessings than I can count. I’m not sure what the next decade will hold, but I’ve eaten my share of wax in life and I might ask for honey a little more often now.
Ok, now to find a place with internet…
Love to all,