January 29, 2017
Well, another week has passed and the civics lessons keep coming. Relentlessly. I think about the time spent here thirty-eight years ago when the country was ruled by a dictator, or more politely referred to as “President for Life” and the “democracy” was one party. And there were no elections. We had to whisper if we wanted to ask any questions about him and that was never done in a public place. A Malawian always looked over his shoulder before answering. There were “Special Branch” men scattered throughout the communities to listen, especially at bars, to peoples’ conversations to make sure no one was speaking negatively about the president. He was referred to as: His Excellency, Doctor H. Kamuzu Banda, or fondly, as just Aiche Eee. I discovered at our Chichewa lesson this week that the word muzu is a small root used in traditional medicine. H.E.’s mother named him “Kamuzu” because she took this root from the local medicine man to ensure the pregnancy would be a healthy one. It seemed to have worked; the small root grew into a very powerful man. We couldn’t write anything about him in our letters home as they were subject to censorship. Some of them were blatantly opened, read, and resealed with tape before leaving the country.
In Banda’s time, women were not allowed to wear trousers; we had to wear skirts and those had to be below the knee. This was a law. Men had to wear collared shirts and facial hair was not allowed. We were warned, in great detail, about how to comport ourselves and the future of Peace Corps in this country depended upon it. We were the first group allowed back here after the Paul Thoreaux years, when some unflattering things were written about H.E. and in order to “protect” the youth, Peace Corps was asked to leave, and Thoreaux became a “prohibited immigrant”.
Banda’s claim to fame was peacefully “breaking the federation” and it was part of every one of his speeches. One of the missionary priests we knew at the time said of those speeches (in a hushed voice), “Yup, if you heard one, you heard them all.”
There was widespread famine in the country then, and when H.E. was visiting a region, the stores would be stocked with bags of maize before he visited, to hide from him the fact that food was scarce. As soon as he left, the maize would be removed from the shelves and brought to the next location. His speeches would repeat, “No one is hungry in the southern region.” Next stop: “No one is hungry in the central region.” Then, “No one is hungry in the northern region.” I always wondered if the starving, malnourished people who attended these rallies felt better after being told they weren’t starving.
Women were ordered to dance for him. They’d leave their families for weeks at a time to surround him with worshipful dances when he was speaking someplace. This was inconvenient, and sometime dangerous for families, but accepted as the way things are. Men had to allow the women to go.
The government health system worked inefficiently, we thought then, and the mortality rate for under five children was 40%. Kids died of malnutrition, diarrhea, and measles. HIV was unknown then, but, soon after we left here in 1981, it went on to devastate this country. H.E. was forced at that point to face reality, but it took the catastrophe of half his population being decimated to face the truth. Willful ignorance is so deadly.
The U.S. PEPFAR program–––The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief––is what turned the tide for that disease here. This was started under GW Bush, believe it or not, and it’s a real possibility it could end now. We’ve been trying not to go down the road of what will happen if this funding ends, but more and more, as the outrageous news trickles in, we wonder….how it came to this? This program works.
Our friends Pat and Stacy arrived this week from the states and will be here working for three weeks. I’ve been looking forward to their arrival and hearing their take on the situation at home. I somehow thought it would make me feel better; that I’d learn it wasn’t as bad as it seems from here. Well, it does feel better to have someone to talk to about it, aside from George, who has been thinking my handwringing’s not healthy or productive, but it doesn’t sound like my perception is far off base. We’ve had some distraction, though, and taking a break from news stress has been a relief.
Friday night, the Scottish community here put on a Robert Burns Night dinner, with plenty of scotch, which, makes the haggis palatable. It was a rollicking good time with lots of laughs as speeches were made addressing: the Haggis, the Lassies, and the Lads. Very funny. As I listened to the distinctive accents and saw the joy and humor they possess, my mind kept going to their Scottish history and I marveled at how a people so decimated by invaders could ultimately survive with such a healthy sense of humor? Or is that what saved them? I can’t stop my mind from heading down that road.
Saturday, George had to work on test questions, so I took Pat and Stacy on a walkabout the city. We wanted to do a Sunday day-trip to Mt. Mulanje. I knew we wouldn’t be able to climb it, but wanted to at least show them the natural masterpiece and sit in it’s shadow for awhile. I calculated the minibus schedule, cost, and fatality rate and decided to look into renting a car. I’d seen the sign for “Silver Line Car Rental” on a dingy wall in the corner of the parking lot at the bus station, and we were in that neighborhood, so thought I’d stop in and check it out. It was 12:30 p.m. on Saturday and they closed at 12, but Mr. Molinje was still sitting at his desk. We entered the dark six-foot square office and squeezed in between the three desks. After the customary greetings I told him why we were there, “I wanted to find out about renting a car for one day, tomorrow, Sunday, but I see you are closed on Sunday.”
He asked me, “Where do you want to go?”
I said, “We want to go to Mulanje.”
“Ah, ok. 27,000 kwacha.”
This, it turns out is a pretty good price, since four of us on the minibus round trip would cost about 28,000 kwacha. (It’s a little over $30.)
So I said, “Ah, that would be good, but since you are closed on Sunday we’ll have to do it another time.”
He asked, “Where do you live?”
I told him, “Near the hospital.”
To which he replied, “Ok, I can take it to your house at 8.”
I said, “Wait, I thought you were closed on Sunday?”
He said, “Yes, the office is closed, sure. But I can bring the car to your house and pick it up Monday.”
I asked, “For the same price?”
“Sure, sure.”, was his reply.
So for thirty bucks, the guy dropped the car off at our house this morning, never asked to see a driver’s license, showed me the milage and the fact that it had no gas, spent an inordinate amount of time showing me where the jack and spare tire was, handed me the keys, took his backpack out of the back seat and started walking away. He was late for church. A little nervous about how much time he spent showing me the spare tire arrangement, I asked, “How are the tires?” He said over his shoulder, “They’ll get you to Mulanje and back.”
I cling, again, to acts of human kindness. I vow to pass it on.
We’ll get through this.
Off now for gas and an adventure…
Love to all,