Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
February 26, 2017
Atambwali sametana~ Crooks don’t shave each other. ~Malawian proverb
This morning I am sitting in the living area of our new house, situated approximately 100 meters from our old house. We moved yesterday. We’ve known since we returned from our trip to South Africa that we had to move, a decision we were not happy about. We liked our old house. We were comfortable there and the avocados were just starting to come in. We didn’t want to move, but when you work for Peace Corps, you’ve only got so much say in any particular matter, safety and living situation included.
We did not feel unsafe in our old place but there were a couple of security incidents and the neighborhood was deemed unsafe for our occupancy. It’s no secret that cities have a higher crime rate than the villages and we live in a city. Most of the crime is petty theft, but breaking and entering exists. The buildings here have security bars on all the windows, that’s standard. In addition, most houses have walls around the yards and most people hire security guards. Malawians do this as well; it’s not just expats. Anyone well-off enough to have anything to steal has window bars and a guard. But the house we were living in had no wall.
Our old house was owned by the college of medicine and the guards were employees of the college. They weren’t paid well and weren’t super motivated. Our day guard, Catherine, was also our maid so her monthly salary was double what the other guards made, so that doubled her motivation, which wasn’t all that high. The day guard’s job is excruciatingly boring. It’s not like there is a ton of activity during the day or the gate to open and close every five minutes. We leave in the morning and come home in the evening and most of their day involves sitting around. Sometimes the day guards in the neighborhood (who were all women) would sit and talk in the road between the houses but mostly they just sat and looked sad. Even on the days Catherine was cleaning for us she was usually done by 10 am and would go back outside to sit. I sometimes thought of doing a sewing class or giving them some kind of craft to do. None of them spoke English, but it would have been great to teach them to read or write. They certainly had time to practice. Anyway, at four thirty in the afternoon, they’d hand over to the night guards, all men.
The night guards all hung out together outside one of the driveways and would run to the house when they’d see us coming home to open the gate. The latest one we had would salute us as we entered. It was a little odd. They’d go to sleep after about eight or nine in a closet outside the kitchen. They would wake up, we noticed, when we’d come in late on the rare occasions we had evenings out, greet us as we passed them and then go back to sleep. I thought, “Well, at least they heard us and woke up. Presumably they’d do that for a burglar.” In the mornings they’d be up around 4:30 and we could hear them showering out back or talking loudly with their friends. Sometimes we’d have all the neighborhood guards at our house having a shower and breakfasting on the guavas in our tree. It was a little annoying, but we never felt unsafe, just imposed upon.
Just before Christmas there was a lot of drinking going on and Simon, the gardener for the college, went on a bender for a few days. He was drunk on the job, rude to one of our volunteers, and got fired. Our yard has looked like crap ever since, and while I wasn’t pleased with him when he took my money for seeds and got drunk with it, he did a great job on the yard, and I missed him. Shortly after that, the same volunteer who was instrumental in Simon’s firing, had her car battery stolen. She was woken up in the middle of the night by her guards telling her there had been a robbery. The guards claimed they were held up at knife point and the thieves had their way with the car. She felt it was an inside job and the guards were in on it. So the decision was made that either the guard situation had to change or we had to move. The college of medicine was not going to pay for a different guard service, so despite our protests (we had nothing to steal!) we couldn’t stay there.
Moving is such a pain. We don’t have a car and loved that we lived so close to work–– a five minute walk. Our house was big and comfortable and we were both busy and moving seemed like a major hassle. We decided to be proactive and find a place we liked. Housing is scarce and the Peace Corps staff was happy to have us do a search. They’d just have to come down from Lilongwe to do a security check. We had met a guy named Ian from UK who lived around the corner from us and I knew he was going home in January, so we gave him a call to see if his house was available. The location was perfect, the same distance from work, but with a brick wall surrounding the property. We came to see the place and was a teensy disappointed in the house, which is half the size of the one we had. But the yard is gorgeous and it has a big vegetable garden growing beautifully, and the guard is also a full time gardener! That pretty much sold it for me. The kitchen is tiny, not much bigger than the pantry we had in the other house, but I’m focusing on the garden making up for that. The landlady was thinking of selling the place when Ian went back to UK, but when we came along unadvertised, she thought, “Why not?” Because of the surrounding wall it passed the security check so we got the a-ok. So at least we didn’t have to give up the nice location. We refused to move until after Pat and Stacy left as we didn’t want to spend our weekends with them moving, so yesterday was the day. Our landlady took us to dinner Friday night so we could discuss the guard arrangement, and she has been absolutely lovely and accommodating. She had the whole place painted and new screens put on the windows. The furniture is a million times nicer than the stuff we had at the other place and though the rooms are much smaller, it’s laid out well and it’s cute. There are three small bedrooms and only one bathroom, (another downside) but it’s fine. The other place had three bathrooms so I have to get used to sharing again, but it isn’t the end of the world. The toilet is in it’s own little closet, which would be convenient if it had a little sink in there, which it does not. Poor design. The kitchen sink is really small and it feels a bit like being on a boat, though the oven is new and full sized. It takes up about half the room. It’ll be an adjustment, but again, compared to how most people live here, more than adequate.
Our new day guard and gardener is named Chimwemwe and I like him a lot. He speaks really good English, (a plus) and is devoted to the garden. He wanted to know what vegetables we liked so he could get busy planting them. We learned he is also a plumber. There is something comforting about having a plumber at your house all day. I realized I’m more afraid of plumbing problems than I am of thieves. Currently the garden has beets, carrots, lettuce, and lots of herbs to pick. He’s just started beans and onions and cabbage, and I have cherry tomatoes seeds to plant. I expect lots of those; it’s perfect tomato climate. There is a lime tree covered in limes, a guava tree, two mango trees, and an avocado tree with no avocados on it. There are beautiful roses and bougainvillea, cosmos, and geraniums and a sweet little front porch with a view of the sunset. It’s all good. We’re happy here. It’s much more private and for all our bellyaching about not wanting to move, this really is a much nicer place.
We have two night guards, one named Bernard and one named (I kid you not) Cabbage. They seem ok, though it’s hard to tell from one night. The difference is that we are their employer now instead of the college of medicine, and we will pay them a decent wage and make it more desirable to have this job. I don’t anticipate any peeping tomism. I’ll fire him on the spot if that happens here. It feels better to have a little more control over the situation. Now we have to find someone to do our laundry and maybe clean a couple days a week and we’ll be all set. That’s on the list of things to do for this week. Catherine was very upset about losing the housekeeping portion of her job. I felt badly about that, but we assured her we’d still pay for Joseph’s schooling. She said she considers us her mother and father and while it was a little touching to hear, I had a gut feeling of…please don’t say that; I have enough kids.
So, kind of a dull week. I got sick with what I think is rickettsia. I had some bites on my legs that turned into a horribly itchy rash and spread up my thighs. The next day while doing a skills lab on catheterization I started getting really bad stomach pains. I took some antacid and it got a little better, but during the night it got so bad I got up and started taking some Cipro (an antibiotic). I thought, “Oh God, this better not be my appendix because I am not having surgery at this hospital.” Within an hour of taking the one dose of Cipro I started feeling better, but I slept almost the whole day Tuesday and I’ve been washed out all week and have a nagging headache. I switched to the right antibiotic for rickettsia (a disease spread by ticks) and am slowly improving but I just don’t feel like myself. I dragged myself to work the rest of the week but wasn’t very enthusiastic. The university graduation was on Wednesday in Zomba and I thought I might not make it through the ceremony feeling feverish in the robes sitting on that stage for a long time, but I made it through and only nodded off to sleep a couple of times. I do thank God for antibiotics. They are used way too much, but you know, when you need them, they really are very, very nice. Thank you moldy cheese.
Love to all,