Sunday Morning~ Blantyre
March 5, 2017
Madzi saiwala khwawa ~ Water doesn’t forget the valley
I’m feeling much better this week, thank God for antibiotics. I’ve been thinking that if we can make antibiotics from moldy cheese we can surely make make a democracy from this shit show of the last year. I can tell I’m feeling better when the optimism starts peeking through. My headache is minimal and I’m getting my energy back. The creepy rash is gone. We are settled into the new house with art on the walls and clothes put away. My first year students finished their clinical rotation, and even though I feel like I should have done more with them and I worry about their future, it seems they all came out of that part ok, and hopefully the patients did too. The coming week is called their “week of peace” (reading week) and the following week is final exams. Those exams have been vetted ad nauseam and this week should be much less stressful (for me anyway). I will have to travel for two days out to a district hospital in Machinga to supervise fourth year students, but after the last four weeks, that’ll be cake.
The avocados we salvaged from the tree at the old house have been pickled or frozen and when George went back yesterday to pick a few more, he found the entire tree had been stripped, so I’m glad we took what we could when we left. There were thousands of avocados on it. It’s astounding how many each tree produces. So the guards who are still there guarding empty houses have had their fill, hopefully. They are practically giving avocados away at the market. There are millions of them around now. I’m limiting myself to one a day. I never thought it would be possible to get sick of avocado, but I said about lobster before I moved to Maine: How can you get sick of lobster? Well, you can.
I’m sitting at my new desk looking south out on our front garden. Our day guard, Chimwemwe, is a full time gardener and I am embarrassed to say, I am getting used to this very quickly. Last week I thought we may have a bit of a territory issue; after all, I’m used to caring for my own garden. Well, let me tell you, I’m going soft. The grass is perfectly manicured as every day he does a little section with a machete, and then takes a big panga knife and carefully edges all the garden beds. The brick walls surrounding the property have flowering shrubs planted along them, hiding the wall almost completely. I know this will change in the dry season and the wall will be visible, but now it is lush and blooming and soft with greens and purples, oranges and reds. It’s pretty darn nice. There is one tall palm tree in the center with hanging baskets full of geraniums attached to the trunk. Just outside, under the window in front of me, tall plants, which I can’t name, are thick, with calla lilies interspersed and a healthy pink rose bush covered in blossoms. There is a bed filled with cosmos, calla lilies, and some tall purple flower I can’t identify. There’s a bird bath in the center with constant avian activity. And this is just the part of the yard I can see from this window. Around the other side is a blossom-covered bougainvillea hanging on the wall like it’s thinking of what to do today. It’s a beautiful little oasis on our side of the wall. The dirt road on the other side dead ends so there isn’t much motor vehicle traffic and the pedestrians are fairly quiet. For a city neighborhood, it’s lovely.
I’ve stopped looking at our kitchen as tiny, and now consider it efficient. One hardly has to take a step between stove and sink and we’ve tucked all the essentials into the small space and we are managing just fine.
We are getting all the keys sorted and that is becoming more manageable. The key situation stresses me out. There are so many locks here! My office is located in a cove along with three others. The outside door has a big iron gate with two padlocks (two keys). Once that is opened and swung out of the way, there is another door to unlock (another key). Once inside there, there is a small hallway with two offices on each side. The office I share with Elizabeth, one of our cadre of SEED Global Health volunteers, has another locked door. These are all big keys. At home, our driveway has a gate with a padlock that sticks (one frustrating key), the front door is a big heavy wooden number with a heavy lock (one key), inside that is an iron gate with a padlock (another key). The back door in the kitchen has the same rig, big iron gate with padlock, and outside wooden door with heavy lock. Then inside, all the individual rooms have locks and keys (we just leave those in the doors), all the closets have locks and keys dangling from them, and some of the drawers have locks and keys, too! I don’t think Sing Sing has this many locks. Oh! Plus, Peace Corps gives us these big blue metal trunks with padlocks for our “valuables”. Since I carry my laptop with me most places and my grandmother’s ring is on my finger, I don’t have anything to put in the blue trunk. I store medical supplies in there.
Friday here was Martyrs Day, a public holiday. It’s the first three day weekend we’ve stayed home; we felt like we needed to get settled and catch up on menial things. We had been trying to explore a bit on the long weekends but we have both been busy and gone long days and it’s been nice to nest a bit. This isn’t a bad place to hang out, actually. Martyrs Day honors those who died fighting colonialism. Back in the day, when we were traditional Peace Corps here, it was a very solemn day. There was no public activity at all and we were warned not to walk anywhere or look like we were enjoying ourselves. Our first Martyrs Day in 1979 we were still in training, young, and cooped up all day. I’m not sure whose idea it was but we decided to go into the basement and have a dinner party where no one could hear us. To this day I think that is the drunkest I have ever been. We went around the table making toasts (several times) and I can’t remember what we were drinking but it wasn’t all beer. We were in Salima and not far from the lake, where we rode our bikes the next day and sat up to our necks in the water waiting for the hangovers to resolve. This year it seemed like business as usual. Stores were open, pedestrians chatting, no big deal. But we did get a day off.
George was away for an overnight this week out to a remote village on the Mozambique border. There was a report of mass hysteria in that village and a request went out for a psychiatric evaluation. So he and a couple of his colleagues went. It was too far for a day trip so they spent the night in a local hotel. George is still recovering from accommodation induced PTSD.
I had never heard of the phenomenon of mass hysteria, but apparently it’s a thing among young girls, often in boarding schools, and happens world-wide. The girls, approximate ages six to sixteen have little fits and fall down (not hurting themselves) and revive a few minutes later. It’s very disruptive in school, as one can imagine. There is worry about evil spirits and witchcraft and the whole thing freaks people out. I actually, would have loved to have seen it. George was incredibly amused by the experience (the hotel being the traumatic part). They met up with a medical officer from the nearest district hospital and took their ambulance to this village. When they arrived they had a meeting with the village headman and families. During the meeting, several girls got up and fell over, their eyes fluttering, laid on the ground for a few minutes, got up, then acted normally. George said the little girls were the cutest; they’d only stay on the ground a few seconds before getting up, a bit proud of themselves. The medical team did an evaluation and spoke to some of the girls privately who denied there was any stress or unhappiness in their lives. There was then a lot of explaining to the villagers that this was not possession by evil spirits and the cure was to stop paying attention to it. If a girl had fits she should stay home and away from other girls. The mothers complained that in the village it is impossible to isolate children; they see each other at the borehole, etc. So the suggestion was made that they be sent to relatives in Mozambique. Once the village was reassured that it wasn’t demonic possession and the girls were physically healthy, the entourage departed. As they were driving away, five girls collapsed on the road and the ambulance drove around them and continued on their way. The photos are pretty good. I personally wonder if being possessed by demons is a protection against rape. If all you have to do is gently fall on the ground for a few minutes every once in awhile it seems a clever strategy, but what do I know? I wasn’t even there. I would have liked to talk to the girls myself, though. I’m thinking this might be a good project for my fourth year midwifery students. They have to do a community health project, so I’ll keep it in mind.
I received an obituary today from Amanda whose mother, Janet, was a good friend. Janet died on the last day of January with Amanda by her side. I’m feeling sad and guilty for not being there.
When we got back from Malawi in 1981 we lived in western Massachusetts in a crummy rental with no insulation. The pipes froze regularly. The rent was cheap; we’d heard our house was hard to rent because of a tragedy that happened there. My then husband was a student and I was making $6.12 an hour as a visiting nurse in the slums of Holyoke. Matt was a year old and I was pregnant with Jake. Janet and Bob lived next door in a dilapidated farmhouse and Janet was pregnant, too. Amanda was born three months before Jake and during our four years as neighbors that family became the most important people in our lives. I’m not sure we would have survived those years without them. Our house was freezing. We couldn’t afford to fill the oil tank so heated with a wood stove too small for the drafty place. We had to put Matt to bed with a hot water bottle to keep him warm. We used to go over to Janet and Bob’s to warm up; their wood stove was bigger than ours.They certainly weren’t rich, but shared whatever they had. I asked Janet once if she knew anything about what happened at our house. She said she’d tell us if we ever moved away. Janet was incredibly talented and well read. She chain smoked without apology. She taught me to do upholstery. She was my compass. She and Bob made us laugh. Our kids grew up together. When I noticed a sprinkle of freckles on Jake’s nose I grabbed him and ran to Janet’s. “Hey! Check this out!” I said, and pointed to his nose. She smiled, and gasped as if it were the stigmata. That’s the kind of friend she was. God, I loved her. When I went into labor with Zack I walk next door to tell Janet, who hugged me, took a puff of her cigarette and told me she loved me and knew I’d do fine. I felt like I couldn’t go off to the hospital without her blessing.
The farmhouse they lived in was a wreck but the yard was spectacular. There were huge beds of iris and every June Janet would have an iris luncheon. Another friend and I were invited and the kids ran naked in the yard while we sipped champagne and ate spanakopita in our sundresses and hats at an elegantly dressed table surrounded by irises. Every once in awhile we’d check to see no kid was face down in the plastic wading pool.
Four years later we were moving to Cleveland for me to go to graduate school. We were happy to leave that house but knew leaving our friends would be hard. We were sure the friendship would last, but it’s different when you don’t live next door anymore. We could not have asked for better neighbors. We didn’t think we’d ever be as lucky again. As we loaded the truck together we pretended it was just another project they were helping us with. Saying goodbye was pushed out of our consciousness. Our thoughts were consumed with whether the beds would fit in the truck, and if we’d be be able to get the crayon marks off the wall to get our security deposit back. (We didn’t) When we slammed the U-haul door down, finished, we stood in the driveway and said, “Well? What happened here?” Janet said, “Blew her head off with a shotgun.” We asked, “Where?” She said, “Your bedroom. It took forever to clean the ceiling.” We said, “Okaay then. Thank you for not telling us that till now.” Then as we were forced to hug and say good-bye with a resolute smile, little Amanda who was four, said, “Wait! I don’t want them to go!” And Janet and I looked at each other and started bawling. Totally ignoring Amanda we fell into each other’s arms and mourned the loss of a relationship that we knew could not be the same again. We’d always be friends, we knew that, but it’s different when you don’t live steps away anymore. We’d been able to run to each other when Amanda burned her hand or Zack fell off the table. We were always there for each other when life was pretty hard and that was going to change.
Our Chichewa proverb for this week was about water remembering the valley. Our teacher asked what we thought it meant. I volunteered that it had something to do with water always running downhill? Is that it? No, that wasn’t it. A few others gave suggestions, also inaccurate. Then he explained that when you meet an old friend, someone you haven’t seen for a long time, but someone you knew very well, when you meet again it’s as if you were together just yesterday. That’s what this means. When we meet someone we haven’t seen for a long time, this is what we say, madzi saiwala khwawa, water does not forget the valley.
I thought of Janet when he said that. We didn’t see each other a lot after we moved. Once a year for a few years, then every few years. I took all the kids out to visit them when my twins were four weeks old. Janet and I piled all six kids (the twins in car seats) into the back of Bob’s pickup truck and drove two miles to the lake to take them swimming. (Thank God I had kids when I did. I’m sure they would be taken away from me in this day and age.) Janet, Bob and Amanda came to Maine a few times, each visit with more years in between. It didn’t matter, the water doesn’t forget the valley. The last time they visited together as a family we had stomach pains from laughing. We vowed to visit more regularly. As they walked to their car and we stood there waving goodbye, Janet turned and came back to me and said, “Linda, I have a confession to make.” I was startled. I said, “What?” She said, “I was secretly hoping you’d be fat. I’m sorry.” And, her confession made, her sin absolved by our fits of laughter, she gracefully walked to the car and waved goodbye. That was years ago.
Amanda got in touch with me last year to tell me Janet was not well. I made it out to visit once before we came to Malawi. I knew then I might not see her again, but I guess I didn’t want to believe that. I wish I’d been with her in the last weeks. I wish I’d given her the same blessing she gave me when I went off to have Zack. I feel like little Amanda saying, “Wait! I don’t want you to go!” But she’s gone. And I wasn’t there to say goodbye.
Love to all,