Sunday Morning~ Nkhata Bay
July 23, 2017
Everything in it’s own time. That’s what Fr. Richard said to me Friday when he asked about my kids. He told me he’d written to Matt and hadn’t heard back. I told him I wasn’t surprised, and was actually relieved Matt hadn’t responded with some vulgar message like the one I got. Richard said he considers Matt his baby since he baptized him and was with him so much his first year. He said he’s sorry Matt struggles so much and prays for him every day. I told him I have been doing that for years. “Everything in it’s own time,” he said.
I had walked an hour to the Father’s house, on a hill outside of town in Mzuzu, a quick visit on Friday, knowing Saturday he’d be so busy we wouldn’t get to talk. Friday was frenetic too, and we only had a few minutes for tea before he drove me back to town. There were at least a hundred people constructing an outside altar for the ordination of the new priest. Richard said he expected between two and three thousand people to come. He was worried about his young coffee plants being trampled. There were little bamboo fences around each one with a sign on a piece of styrofoam saying, “Please Be Careful. COFFEE!” written in red and green. It looked like a Christmas card.
We sat in a little thatched sun shelter behind the guest house drinking our tea. Every few minutes someone came to ask him a question about logistics and supplies. I’d stayed in that guest house many times years ago when I was a new mother and we ventured from our remote site in Karonga to the big city of Mzuzu. Richard wasn’t there then, he was still in Karonga where we’d met. Other White Fathers lived there back then and most have passed on now. The place is familiar to me. I was glad the timing worked out for me to make it to the celebration. I’d been asked to consult on a course being taught on women’s health to sisters in training. Unfortunately I’ll be on home leave when the course is taught, but was happy to give some input to the content. I timed it to be there for the ordination, and Wednesday took the twelve hour bus ride from Blantyre to Mzuzu. I’m staying with Kat, one of our volunteers teaching pediatric nursing at St. John of God College. The affiliated hospital is a fantastic facility with a focus on mental health, a service desperately needed here. There is also an amazing vocational school where they teach landscaping, cooking, sewing, bricklaying, and carpentry. Kat’s house in on the campus there and it’s comfortable and convenient. It is, however, a good long walk to Fr. Richard’s place.
Yesterday, the mass was supposed to start at 9 a.m. I left the house at 7:30 and arrived at 8:45. Like I said, it’s a long walk. I figured the mass would take three hours so added two hours to that and told Kat I would meet her around 2 pm. Hah! When I arrived they were still decorating the altar. Only about two hundred people were seated and I took a spot near the front to wait. I made myself comfortable, sorry I hadn’t brought a sweater. It was breezy and cool and after sweating from my long walk, I was chilly. I saw the Bishop arrive, then priest after priest after priest. The area filled with hoards of people who obviously knew the mass had no intention of starting at nine. I was actually amazed at how ready they were by 9:30 considering what the place looked like at 8:45. Only a half hour late, the drums started and the whooping followed, then an incredible procession, lasting a full fifteen minutes, came down the center aisle led by the altar boys carrying the cross and candles. After them came Ngoni dancers dressed in animal pelts with spears and shields. Fabulous. Following them were eight little girls in First Communion dresses wearing neon-yellow one-size-fits-all polyester gloves, and plastic woven pastel Easter hats. They were dancing their hearts out. It was adorable. Behind them were eight little boys in dark pants and matching shirts made from the official chithenje of the day. They looked a little bored (or maybe scared) but their dance was cute. In between each set of steps they tapped each others ankles then started the next set. Cute. Then there were dozens of dancing women wearing the official chitenje, then dozens more altar servers, then the seminarians (about twenty of them), then about fifty priests from all over the world wearing beautiful stoles and vestments, and finally the Bishop with his side kick, also a priest (I think). It was great. The music and dancing went on forever. It was almost two hours just to get through the gospel. After that, Peter Nyirenda, the seminarian to be ordained, was escorted down the aisle with his parents on each arm with the Ngoni and family dancing around him. I was in tears. It was beautiful. The actual ordination took another hour, then each priest blessed him, two of them dressed him in vestments, each of the fifty priests filed by him and gave him a hug and a head bump and then the mass continued. I was impressed with how they orchestrated three thousand people getting communion! Not a hitch! Before the closing prayer, newly ordained Fr. Nyirenda sat in front of the altar with a woman next to him holding a huge basket. Then hundreds of people filed down the aisle with gifts. And I mean gifts. Mattresses, blankets, chickens, cases of drinking water, cabbages, money, oh it went on and on. The music was fabulous and they all danced down the aisle to the basket. I couldn’t see where they were putting all the stuff. There must have been someone up there putting it all away somewhere; they were going to need a lorry to transport it to wherever he was going. The finale was when Fr. Richard and his parish council came dancing down the aisle with a live goat, tied and carried by the hooves with a big ribbon around his belly. That was a classic.
So the mass ended around 2:45. A mere five hours. There was a reception following, to which I had been invited, but I knew it would be hours before that got started. There was a photo shoot happening and I was already late meeting Kat so didn’t plan to stay. I mingled around chatting with the few people I knew and was introduced to a few more. Brother Michael, an Irish St. John of God Brother, is also a nurse and is the one I was working with on the course. He said, “Five hours! At home if you’re a half hour late you’ve missed mass!” He introduced me to an American Jesuit who is a surgeon teaching at the medical school. I asked him if one of the other mzungu priests there was a Fr. Fiacre, another Irish priest I knew from my Peace Corps days. When they processed in thought it might be him but since it’s been 38 years since I’d seen him, I wasn’t too sure. I knew he wouldn’t recognize me either, if he remembered me at all. I’d tried to find him when I was here in 2008, but he was on home leave then. Anyway, he pointed and said, “Yes, that’s him over there.” I went over and introduced myself. I said, “Hi, Fr. Fiacre, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Linda Robinson, I knew you from Karonga when I was in Peace Corps there. He said, “Yes! I remember you are the one with the nice legs!” I cracked up! I knew exactly what he was referring to. That was back in the days of Kamuzu, the president for life, who forbade women to show their legs or wear trousers. One time, I was at home wearing shorts in the house and Fiacre stopped over for a visit. I greeted him and he was shocked at the sight of my legs. He covered his eyes, saying, “Oh my! I am not used to seeing this!” (Nothing racier than that.) So anyway, we had a laugh and shared some quick updates on our lives. He said he’d heard I had come looking for him nine years ago. That was when I was traveling here from Congo and stopped at his parish. He wasn’t there but I spent some time with his colleague who told him I’d come. It was fun to be remembered. He wasn’t staying for the reception and I asked if I could grab a ride into town with him. We could have talked for hours and I was a little disappointed to arrive at St John of God. I told him I’m leaving next week for three months, but will be sure to visit in December when we take another trip to the north. He said he’d be there and we’d stay in touch. That unexpected meeting made me very happy.
I’m writing this while sitting on the side of a cliff in Nkhata Bay. The sun is just coming up. Kat is still sleeping. Her birthday was yesterday and she wanted to celebrate at the lake so we hopped in a shared taxi and came down from Mzuzu late yesterday afternoon. She’s leaving next week for adventure travel before heading home to figure life out. We arrived at this funky backpackers lodge and enjoyed happy hour and a fish barbecue for her birthday. Last year her birthday was the day we arrived in Malawi and she spent a good part of it in the crummy airport at Addis Ababa. This place is unique, I’ll say that. It’s a hodgepodge of simple chalets built right into the cliff overhanging the lake. Last night I worried about an earthquake. All this cement, stone, and brick would go sliding right into the lake. But here I am intact this morning, so that was wasted energy. Getting to and from the composting toilet is a challenge. It’s a steep hike up rocky steps. I was breathless when I got there. I can see why the clientele is young; you have to be in good shape to brush your teeth. The place has a reputation for being a backpacker’s party site. I’m shocked there haven’t been fatalities here. Drinking heavily in this place is dangerous but watching the sunrise while the fisherman make their way out in their dugout canoes is pretty darn nice right now.
So today we will hike around in the hills of Nkhata Bay and go back to Mzuzu late this afternoon. I might try to go up and see Richard again when we get back. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him yesterday. Tomorrow I take the 6 a.m. bus to Lilongwe to collect my passport and work permit. Then Tuesday back to Blantyre to tie up loose ends before I leave for home on Friday!
Next Sunday’s blog will be on daylight savings time!
Love to all,
PS. As I was walking to catch the bus to Mzuzu on Wednesday morning a man fell into step beside me. He asked why I was walking and not driving my car. I told him I don’t have a car. Surprised, he said he thought all mzungus had a car. I said, “Nope. I don’t. I walk like you do.” He said, “We have a proverb about that.” I thought, “Oh good! I need a proverb for this week’s blog. Perfect.” I asked him to tell me the proverb and he said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And then explained that since I am in Malawi I am walking like Malawians walk. I said, “Yes. I’ve heard that one before. We use it, too.”