Sunday Morning~ Blantyre

September 25, 2016

Hi Everyone,

Catharine, our guard, has four children. Her English consists of approximately thirty words, and that’s if you include our names. Our Chichewa is not much better, so communication is sometimes a challenge. She was able to communicate that her only son is named Joseph and he needed a notebook for school. George bought him a notebook and a pen but I insisted that Joseph come and collect it himself. He did and expressed his thanks and I figured he was all set for school. Then one day last week, after I left for the hospital, George was in bed reading on a day when Catharine was to clean our house. When I left, she asked where George was, and I told her he was still home and he would leave by eight okloko. (There are no Chichewa words for numbers over five. After five they use English words. Apparently, until colonialism, there was no need to count higher than five. There were either “many” or “few”. The same goes for distances; it’s either “near”, “far” or “very far”. They don’t really calculate the distance, and when they do, it’s not anywhere near accurate. And for things that didn’t exist before colonialism, like clocks, they have personalized the English, like kloko. But I digress… ) I figured she’d wait till George was gone to go in and start cleaning, but (I heard later) she walked into the house, into the bedroom and handed him a note from Joseph. George was mortified. He was in bed, covered to his waist with the blanket, but a bit of a vulnerable position to be in when your employee is handing you a written request. (I laughed hysterically when he told me this later in the day.) She showed me the note when I got home; George had told her he’d have to talk to me about it. At this time I didn’t know about the bedroom incident. I thought I was the first to see the note, which was written in lovely handwriting and very good English:

To: George and Linda

Date: 05th September 2016


I am writing this letter to you both with an aim of asking you to pay my school fees of which the school is demanding soon after the opening date of the academic year.

Due to the lost of my father, my mum cannot manage to pay my school fees. Therefore, I would love and happy if you take an action on my request and also me going on with my education. God bless you all, thank you.

I am Joseph Banda.

I thought it was a sweet note; Catharine has no qualms about asking for what she needs and clearly, she passed this trait on to her children. I was thinking of the asking-for-honey proverb and wanted to consider the request. When George got home I said, “Hey, wait till you see this.” At which point he launched into the bedroom story, fairly agitated about it. I found this endlessly amusing since George doesn’t get upset with people very easily and she obviously has his number. He’s far more generous than I am. I think she was disappointed she had to go through me. When I read the note I was thinking Joseph’s English was really good, so maybe we could pay his school fees and in return he could give us Chichewa lessons. I wanted him to have to do something for the money. I know people are hard up here, really hard up, and it kills me they have to pay for secondary school, but we can’t be paying for everyone. We are both becoming very fond of Catharine and we decided we would put one kid through school this year so why not have it be hers. George loved the idea of having him do something for the money, so I wrote a note back to him asking him to meet us on Saturday morning to talk about a plan. I gave the note to Catharine to pass on to Joseph.

On Saturday he was here an hour early, so we asked him in and sat down to chat. It took about two seconds to realize it was very unlikely he wrote that note. But his English is still way better than Catharine’s and we were able to get a little story out of him. He is almost fourteen and will be starting form three. I’m still confused about what grade that is, but it doesn’t matter. He told us the name of the school and the district. I asked him to show me on the map where it was. I don’t think he’d ever seen a map before; we didn’t get too far with that. George asked him what he wants to do with his education and he said he wants to be a doctor and help people. Ok, might have had a little coaching on that one since we are living in the College of Medicine housing, but that could have been sincere. Then George asked him ”What kind of doctor?” And he said, “I want to help people who are not right in the head.” Ok, I suppose that could be the biggest coincidence in the history of the world, but since until George arrived there was only one psychiatrist in the country, I think it unlikely he’s been exposed to that specialty, but of course I have no way of knowing that for sure. I could tell he was nervous and we had to repeat everything in very simple sentences, er, phrases, and I didn’t want him to think this was a test, but I also didn’t want to just hand over the equivalent of a month’s salary if he wasn’t seriously going to school. I brought up the idea of doing some work for the money. He had no idea what I was talking about. It was clear he wouldn’t be giving us Chichewa lessons. Scrap that plan. I asked if he thought he could volunteer at the school and do some work there. He stared at me blankly. I wasn’t getting anywhere with this so I said, “Ok, we will meet you at the school on Monday to talk with the headmaster about paying your fees.” I needed someone to translate. I thought the headmaster would love my plan of having him do some work there for his fees. George thought it was brilliant. I was pleased with myself. The next challenge was to find out where the school was because we needed to be there at 7:30 on Monday morning. It was too painful to have him try to explain where it was. He couldn’t read the map and I wanted to get on the road to Zomba. George said he’d ride over to that district on his bike on Sunday and find it so we’d know where we were going on Monday, and we’d meet him there. He seemed to understand that. I repeated the plan, “So we will meet you at the school on Monday morning at 7:30 to talk together with the headmaster.” He said, “OK.” and I considered the matter settled. I left for my weekend in Zomba.

George then realized he had to be in clinic on Monday morning, so I had to go to the school alone. He made good on his offer to look for the school on Sunday so I’d know where it was, but when I got home from Zomba, George told me he had ridden all over that district looking for the school and couldn’t find it. He asked everyone he saw where it was and no one knew. He looked for a website. He found nothing. We started thinking the whole thing was a scam. Maybe he wasn’t planning on going to school at all and just wanted money?  At any rate, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in the morning until we talked with him again. I thought I’d give Catharine another note to give him. Turns out, that wasn’t necessary.

At exactly 5:50 a.m. on Monday, Catharine and Joseph were at the door. I was already up and rooting around doing stuff when I saw them. I realized that Joseph was there to escort me to the school. Apparently the pre-made plan wasn’t understood very well, but I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to be a no-show. I quickly got dressed and went out the door just after six. Catharine asked where the bike was? I told her we would walk. I couldn’t ride with him on the back of the bike! She said, “No. Too far.” I said, “Well, ok. We’ll take a minibus.” And she nodded and Joseph and I took off. And I mean TOOK OFF. I had to jog to keep up with him. I noted we were walking in the opposite direction of the district he told us the school was in. We walked far and fast and he kept turning toward the traffic looking for a bus to wave down. When one stopped to collect us, we quickly got in and he told the driver where we were going. I asked Joseph how much the bus would cost. “One hundred kwacha”, he said. “One hundred for you and one hundred for me?”, I asked. “Yes.” he said, and looked out the window. I thought, gee, if someone were going through this trouble to pay my school fees I might be a little chattier with them, but this might not have been his idea and he is a teenager.

The bus dropped us off and I handed the guy 200 kwacha. He took 100 of it and gave it to back Joseph. I pointed to the money and Joseph pointed to another bus. Oh! Ok, we are changing lines here on the dirt road and are getting on another bus, was my thought. But I was wrong. We went on a hike through parts of this city I had no idea existed. It looked like some desert cliff dwelling in what I imagined the middle east to be like. And man that kid walks fast. I was thinking, “Jeepers. What time did he have to leave home to get to my house to get me here?” I asked him if the school was near his house. He said, “Yes.” and kept walking. We never got on another bus. We walked on dirt paths mostly downhill until we came to a narrow dirt road with buildings on both sides. He stopped in front of one and pointed to the sign. It said, ST KELMON (pvt) Secondary School in very faded letters.  I laughed at the idea of George ever finding this place without a guide! Joseph disappeared up the path next to the building that was just wide enough to accommodate a single person. I followed him, winding around to the building above and behind and had to walk in a drainage ditch, then up some steep stairs around another corner where some boys were perched on a porch hanging onto the hill. I saw Joseph with them and he pointed to the door. So I climbed up onto the porch and looked in the room. I turned to him and asked, “Is this the headmaster?” He nodded. I thought, “You are kidding me!” when the snazzily-clad headmaster said, “Come in. You are most welcome.” So I went in.

The room was small and dark and, honestly, looked like it had been bombed. There were big holes in the walls and hunks of cement missing. There were small couches, in terrible condition, along each wall and a desk in the center. Every available seat was taken with students and parents and the headmaster was explaining the philosophy and rules of the school. Two people moved enough to provide a spot for me to sit, so I did, then quickly realized there was moisture seeping into my skirt. The couch was wet. I’m not sure I concealed my grimace. The headmaster was a youngish man dressed in a blue buttoned down shirt with brown pin striped pants and snow white shoes with pointed toes. He looked dapper. He asked if he could help me. I said, “Joseph has asked me to pay his school fees so I came to understand the school better.” He smiled and said, “Ah. You are most welcomed.” and then continued on with his orientation. He passed out an application sheet containing the rules and regulations. He read each one out loud. I was so, so sorry George had not come. It was really a sight to behold.

The list included:

  • Student must put on school uniform and uniform must be tucked in.
  • Once fees is paid it is nonrefundable.
  • The following are intolerable: strange style of haircut, leggings, huts,  lipstick, drunkards, blasphemy, drugs, fighting, vandalism, radios, phones, hair pelting, entertaining visitors in class.
  • Tantalizing/ tormenting/ bullying are illegal.
  • The degree of punishment shall be taken upon backbiters and scandal mongers.
  • Students must participate in one or some of school activities.
  • School should be told if student has a mental problem.

There were more, but those are the highlights. Then there was information about the fees which could be paid in two installments. Then, my very favorite, the school motto at the bottom was

~work like a slave to live like a king~

I thought Joseph should be in the room to hear all this, so I stood and stepped over people to the porch to call him in. I also wanted to get off the wet couch. The headmaster asked him what level he was and Joseph said, “Form three.” The headmaster asked where he went to primary school and if he had brought his grades with him. Joseph told him the school, but said he didn’t bring the grades.  I think I rolled my eyes here. The headmaster said, “Oh, sorry. If you had brought your grades you could just go to class. Now you have to take the entrance exam. I looked up, “Now? Right now?”  The headmaster nodded. I asked how long that takes? He said an hour. I thought, “I’m not sitting on that wet couch for an hour!”  but wasn’t going to pay if he didn’t pass the exam and didn’t get in, so I said, “Ok. I’ll wait.” Then Joseph asked me if I had a pen, and really, I had to stop myself from lighting into him about being prepared. I reached in my bag and handed him a pen. He went off to another dark room to take the exam with a few other kids. This freed up a dry seat so I settled in to wait. It was quite an experience sitting there for an hour. I watched as parents came with their kids, handing over clumps of bills that had been wrapped in a knot in a chithenje to pay for their kids education. I thought, “God bless these people, please.” The kids seemed bright and eager and certainly respectful. My initial reaction was that this was some fly-by-night operation, but I gradually realized it was a school with hardly any resources in a very poor part of the city. When the room had cleared out I asked the headmaster about having Joseph do some volunteer work for the school. He looked at me like I had three heads.  He said, “I don’t know what you mean.” Okaaaay, I guess that idea wasn’t as brilliant as I thought. I said, “Never mind. I’ll have him do some work with my husband.” (Side note: George is not my husband, but I sometimes refer to him as such because it’s more convenient.) I thought George could have him do some volunteer work at the orphanage he’s involved with. I’d deal with that later. I was also thinking I would drag George’s ass in here to see this!

So, I sat and watched and waited. Finally, Joseph came back in and some other guy (I think he was the assistant headmaster) started grading his essay, which was titled “An Unforgettable Day”. I stood to watch the grading process which, didn’t take long. He read the essay and wrote 13/30 in red pen on the side. I looked at the headmaster, and asked, “Is that passing?” He replied, “Oh, sure sure! It’s just that that he didn’t make paragraphs.” I quickly noted that the handwriting was nothing like the one on the note we were given. I picked up the essay and read it while Joseph stood in the doorway. His unforgettable day was about a boy named Brian who witnessed ten men attacking another man. Brian had to run away to escape the men, who then came after him. He finally escaped, which made the day so unforgettable. It took my breath away. I looked at the tiny, tight, perfect handwriting and asked the headmaster if I could take it home to show my husband. He was a bit skeptical but I told him I’d bring it back the next day along with my husband. He agreed, and I handed the registration form to Joseph to fill out and got out my wallet to pay for the registration fee, and half the tuition since it didn’t need to be paid all at once. Then realized he needed a uniform, so paid for that. I asked the headmaster if we could come in a month or so to see how he was doing, and he agreed that would be fine. I don’t think they have parent/ teacher conferences in this place. When Joseph handed the registration form in I saw on the line that said Parent or Guardian, Joseph had written “George and Linda”. I got a little choked up. Then the headmaster said, “Ok, you can go to class.” and Joseph walked out. I was pleased that we were doing this. I bade the headmaster goodbye and said I’d be back in the morning to bring back the essay; I was pretty sure I could find the place again and was dying to show George this school. When I got down to the street, Joseph was standing there and said goodbye to me.  I asked him, “Why aren’t you in class?”  He said, “I’m going home.” I said, “What? I just paid for you to go to school! Why are you going home?” And he replied, “To get my notebook.” Mind you, school had already been in session for two hours by now. I said, “Can’t you do without your notebook until tomorrow?” He said, “No.” and started to walk off. I saw a group of boys up the road looking at us and thought he might be going off with them. I said, “Ok. I’ll go with you to your home.” He nodded and started walking. Twenty minutes later, drenched in sweat, and out of breath from trying to keep up, I thought I may have made a poor decision. We went through neighborhoods so desperate I nearly gawked. We crossed dangerously rickety bridges over water that would gag a maggot. We climbed paths so steep I had to use my hands to get up. I kept asking, “Is it far?” He didn’t answer, just pointed ahead. He could have been taking me anywhere. There was no way I could have found my way out of there and had no choice at that point but to keep going. Finally, he pointed up a hill and said, “There.” I asked, “That? That’s your house?” and to myself saying, “Please God let that be his house.” We scrambled up another hill and came to a level area that had three tiny houses on it. He pointed to one and said, “My house.” and went in. There was a small child sitting in the dirt and a young girl washing clothes who didn’t greet me, which is very unusual. She was probably wondering what the hell I was doing there. I greeted her and she ignored me. I was overwhelmed by how far Catharine has to come to work everyday. She must leave before sunup. Joseph has a hefty walk to school as well. It took us over thirty minutes to walk there from the school. I heard him rummaging around in this one-room house which couldn’t have been more than ten feet by fifteen. I wondered how many people lived in there. Compared to the rest of the area, this little compound was well kept but dirt poor. There were small little gardens planted with vegetables around the houses. I wondered if the girl was his sister. After about ten minutes, Joseph emerged with the notebook we had given him and a pile of other papers. He walked, business-like by me, and said, “We go to the school.” and I started following him back, down the hill and through the ghetto. I was so glad to get back there. I’d had the equivalent of two day’s exercise on an empty stomach and wanted to walk at my normal pace. When we got to the school I said, “You still have my 100 kwacha for the bus.” He said, “Yes.” and nothing else. I thought he’d forgotten about it and would hand it back to me since we never took the second bus but he made no move. I asked, “Are you keeping it?”  He said, “Yes.” I asked, “Why?” And he said, “For lunch.”  I just laughed at that point and said, “Fine. Good luck at school.” and walked up the hill a long way back to the main road. While finding my way out I looked for landmarks to guide me back the next day. I saw a pole that had a sign on it that said, “Dish Installer” with a phone number. I made a mental note to turn left at the sign that said “Dish Installer”.

When I got back to the main road a man started walking beside me and we started chatting. He asked where I was from and why I was in Malawi. I told him where I was from, where I’d been and what I’d done (we had a long way to walk; there was plenty of time for story telling) and he just said, “God bless you for doing this. You Americans are very kind.” That made me feel like this was all worth it. I had started feeling guilty for not trusting Joseph, but then realized I wouldn’t have had that adventure otherwise, and it really was worth it. I had a whole new level of respect for Catharine. I wondered if the young girl was having a chance to get an education or they had to choose between them. She looked primary school age but certainly wasn’t heading to school that day.

Catharine was waiting anxiously for me. I told her he was in school and it was all good. She started beaming. “Oh, thank you! God bless you!” she said, and pulled me into a big bear hug. I left again to go to the college to find out what I was supposed to do next as far as an actual job was concerned, but couldn’t find a soul. Every office was empty. I went into another building and found a secretary who told me everyone in my department was away at a meeting in Lilongwe. I decided to take the rest the day off and do errands. I went to the market and bought two hard boiled eggs and a coke and sat on a bench to eat that. I needed strength in order to go to the bank and wait in line for two hours.

That evening, after regaling George with stories about my morning adventure, he informed me my plan to bring him there the next day was not well thought out, as he had to be in clinic in the morning. Me bad. I tried to convince him we’d be there and back before clinic! I was sure I could find the school no problem, and if we rode our bikes on the main road as far as the dirt road it would be about a two hour expedition. We could leave at six and be back by eight! But I actually couldn’t guarantee that, therefore couldn’t sell the idea, so the next morning I set off on my bike, alone, to bring back the essay. Good thing he didn’t come. I could not find the school and he would not have made it back to clinic in time and I would have had to eat major crow. Where I turned left at the post that had “dish installer” on it (sure I was on the right path), none of it looked familiar. Another half a mile on dirt paths pushing my bike uphill (I was sure I was supposed to be going down) I came to another post with a sign, “dish installer”, and then another, and another, and finally realized that almost every post everywhere has a sign that says “dish installer” on it. By then I was hopelessly lost and started asking people where the school was. No one had heard of it. Finally, I found two little kids who said they knew where it was and I followed them, down then up again, on tiny dirt paths, pushing my bike trying to keep up with them. I thought, “It could be worse. George could be with me.” They deposited me at the school a half hour later, where I ran up the path to the headmaster’s office. The secretary greeted me and asked, “Where is your husband?” I just said, “He had to work. I’ll bring him another time.” and put the essay on the desk and left. By this time I was quite late getting over to the college. Good thing there wasn’t much going on that day.

I met with my counterpart, Esthnath who is a lecturer in midwifery and had gotten back from Lilongwe. She is a lovely woman, very gentle and soft-spoken. She gave me the outline for modules that need to be taught this year and the list of who is teaching what. She said they had no one to teach Fundamentals of Midwifery to the first year students and I told her I was happy to do that. It’s 160 hours of lecture and 200 hours of practical, so it’s going to be a full time job to teach that course. I feel much better knowing what I’ll be doing for the next eighteen weeks. Second semester gets figured out later. I received the keys to my office, which, is the size of one of our bathrooms and I share it with another faculty member.  It has windows on two sides and a nice breeze so I was happy with that. The view is of the hospital laundry clothesline, but it isn’t bad. I can see blankets with “stolen from pediatric ward” printed on them flapping in the breeze. The office fits two desks and nothing else, not even a bookshelf so I guess I won’t be bringing students in there to conference, but it is adequate to do my office work.

I am extremely fortunate that the entire midwifery department from both the Blantyre and Lilongwe campuses were meeting together this past week to plan for the academic year. The timing couldn’t have been better as I was done with orientation and could spend the week with them. There were eighteen midwives in all and it was fabulous. We met each day at the new campus for the nursing school, which, isn’t finished or opened yet. It’s about a half hour drive from the old campus, in an open space surrounded by mountains. It’s beautiful. I can just picture the campus swarming with eager students. I’m not sure if we’ll be moved one there in my time here, and the commute would be an issue, but it was a very nice week.  Each morning at 7:30 the Blantyre faculty met at the local campus and a van took us over to the new campus. Even the ride over was fun with these women. There was chat of recipes and hair styles and power outages and just girl talk. When we arrived the first day and met the Lilongwe midwives, there was hugging and kissing and whooping for a while before everyone settled down to business. Each morning started with a prayer (everything starts with a prayer here, including bus rides). There was an ambitious agenda for the week and I was impressed with the zeal that persisted for getting through the agenda. Each business topic was prefaced with an inspiring oratory from one of the members about how we have a calling to this profession and though we have many obstacles and too much work for too few midwives that we mustn’t forget the women who depend on us. There was an opportunity to discuss problem students and how we could help them. One midwife said, “We must consider them like our own children and love them like that!”  There were more orations about helping and supporting each other and keeping up enthusiasm for our jobs. One midwife said, “Excuse me, does Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN) have a policy that we can not resign? No! Therefore if we decide to stay in this profession we must agree to maintain our passion! We must support each other in this! I make this plea to you.”  There was so much respect for each other. Although everyone introduced themselves to me by their first names, during the meeting they referred to each other by title and surname. (This was very confusing for me just trying to figure out who everyone was.) Every woman who spoke started with, “Thank you madam chairwoman.” or “Thank you madam dean.” or “Thank you madam chair of the department.” I loved being part of it. I loved watching the love and respect they had for each other and for this profession. I was so proud to be part of them. They included me and made me feel welcome. They thanked me for anything I had to offer. They said they needed to do more professional writing and try to publish. They asked if I could help with that. I’m excited about working with them. It was a great week.

Whew, I feel like I’d better wrap this up as it’s going on and on. We’re adjusting more and more to the power outages and can work our lives around them. The whole country is experiencing this now.  There was a big fire in Lilongwe on Friday and the fire department didn’t have enough water to put it out. Apparently much of the central market was destroyed. I can’t even imagine how devastating that is to the poor people who make a meager living there. It’s interesting living among such hardship, I find myself relishing the beautiful aspects of living here. I can see the suffering and abject poverty and the destruction of the environment. That is evident every day. But the beauty is also highlighted. I’m consumed with the gorgeous jacaranda trees in bloom everywhere. I had no idea that’s what they were, but last week all these trees just exploded with purple blossoms. They are everywhere! They line the main roads and drape over the market. Their blossoms fall to make the most beautiful carpet. I don’t think they have a fragrance, not that I can smell anyway, but the way they have transformed the landscape is stunning. I love walking home at dusk, the street full of pedestrians chatting, moving toward home in the soft orange light, now with a purple tinge. It’s where I want to be right now.

Love to all,