Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
November 26, 2017
Patse salira totolo ~ The one who begs does not ask for a heap
~ Malawian proverb
The evening curfew was lifted this week; we can be out and about to visit friends or whatever after dark. Last weekend we sent a letter to the Peace Corps director, as a group, begging to be let out for Thanksgiving. We didn’t ask for much, only for the volunteers to be allowed to come to our house for the evening meal. Since there haven’t been any more incidences of violence and peace is “holding” we are allowed to be out after dark. We still can’t go outside the city limits but it feels good to be able to move about, limited as it is. We’d invited sixteen for dinner, some volunteers, some local friends, and some visiting psychiatrists from UK. Several had never been to an American Thanksgiving, so pressure was on, but given that everyone has been living with extended power outages, expectations were realistic.
Our oven has been broken for weeks and Tuesday we got a call that they’d found the needed part and would be there Wednesday morning to fix it. Yay! Just in time. Wednesday I went off for my 7:30-12 lecture hopeful I’d have an oven to roast the Thanksgiving chickens in. George didn’t have to be at work until nine, so was home to greet the electrician at the promised hour of eight, and… he never came. That was a disappointment, but I figured it’d been too good to be true anyway, so wasn’t all that surprised.
I planned to cook the chickens outside on charcoal and forget about trying to find an oven big enough to roast them in. I enlisted Chimemwe’s assistance, explaining that this is a big holiday at home, a celebration of our harvest. He was eager to help. The servants quarters has an outside fireplace for cooking but it was piled with ash and broken bricks. He cleaned it all out and it looked like it might work. It was small, but I thought I could get four chickens on there. The rest of the meal I figured I could do on the stovetop, which was working fine. It was only the oven fuse that blew. I had already done a lot of prep, so the chickens were my big concern. I knew the electrician wasn’t coming Thursday. Didn’t even consider hoping for that.
Thursday was a regular work day here and I had a morning lecture to give. I then planned to take the afternoon off to come home and cook. My lecture on Thursday was on the respiratory system. I start each class with a writing exercise and this new group is incredibly enthusiastic about it. Last year’s class was very skeptical, but this class writes with gusto and reads their stories in theatrical voices. They’re great. I also think their English is better than last year’s class. Thursday, I told them we would write for six minutes and to start their story with “A time I couldn’t breathe”. I also participate in this exercise and as soon as I set the timer I began writing about an experience in college when I thought I’d confront my fear of drowning by taking a junior lifesaving course. My gorgeous, poised roommate, Maliz, worked as a lifeguard in the summers and it seemed a much more romantic job that the dreary summer jobs I hobbled together. I thought maybe if I, too, were a lifeguard, I’d be popular and beautiful. Weird how nineteen year old minds work, but anyway, I took this course. I was rather proud of myself for being alive at the end of each class, and Maliz was very supportive and encouraging. She was the best roommate ever. Her horror when she learned I was using the soap dispensers in the showers at the pool to wash the chlorine out of my hair was comical to me. She made me promise never to use that stuff on my hair again. It was such a loving gesture. She wanted the best for me. I spent six minutes writing about how I finished that experience.
The test at the end of the course involved endurance and strength. I amazed myself when I passed the endurance part, but when we had to dive to the bottom of the deep end of the diving pool and pick up a heavy weight and bring it back to the surface, I couldn’t do it. I kicked my way down to the bottom with great effort, grabbed onto the weight, and made it about halfway up before I thought my lungs were going to explode. I really wanted to pass this test. I really wanted the cool work study job of lifeguarding at the pool (who was I kidding?) and I remember the exact moment when I knew I had to drop that weight and get to the surface for air. I’m not sure if it was pure survival at that point or the fear of embarrassment if they had to jump in and rescue me, but I dropped the weight, felt like a feather as I kicked my way to the surface, got out of the pool, showered, washed my hair with real shampoo, and never went back.
I wrote about that as a moment when I really couldn’t breathe. I’ve never had asthma, but have fallen and had the air knocked out of me, but the burning I felt in my lungs that day when I felt like I could die there. When the timer went off, I had the class begin to read their stories. One after the other read about a time they’d learned someone had died: mother, friend, uncle, aunt, mother, sister, father, and what it was like to hear the news and be unable to breathe. Three wrote about being unable to breathe while waiting for exam grades to be posted to see if they would be going to university. Only one out of the twenty students wrote about bathing in a river and getting caught in a current and being unable to catch his breath.
I looked at all these young people and my heart about broke for all the pain and suffering they had already experienced. They were all well-dressed, attentive, and eager to learn. I wondered how much emotion and fortitude those young bodies contained. There was no power on campus so I had to read the whole presentation off my laptop. That seemed deadly boring, but I got through the bulk of it then broke them into groups for case studies. It seems like we are always pushing everything uphill and they are all such good sports about it. It’s humbling.
I left to hurry home and get things ready for dinner to find there was no power at the house either. I sent George a message to bring home more charcoal as more than chickens were going to have to go on the fire. He asked if we should reschedule the whole thing? I pointed out the pilgrims had no power so I wasn’t going to give in! Plus, no one had power so it wasn’t like we were going to be judged! Polly had to get up in the middle of the night to bake her pie! Her power was only on for two hours between two and four a.m.! Elizabeth had to go to a neighbor’s who had a gas stove and explain that this holiday was important to us! She baked her pie there! And the mango drinks were all ready to assemble and I hoped if I kept the freezer door shut there’d still be some ice left for those. And so we pulled it off, sweating and fanning the charcoal as the sun set. Catherine arrived for her night guard duty and stirred the gravy in a clay pot on the coals after the chickens were done. I put the sweet potatoes and squash in clay pots and stuck them right in the coals and they cooked perfectly. We piled a roasting pan with hot coals and put it in the bottom of the broken oven and that heated it enough to keep things warm. People arrived and we had mango cocktails on the front porch. We managed to assemble a long table in the living room to seat everyone at an equal level and the conversation flowed with the wine. It was a great meal. I brought plates out to the guards. I missed my kids and my mom, but I loved the community spirit and the great energy shared by a unique group of people thrown together in an exotic setting making do with what we had. Thankful.
I hope all of you had a wonderful and safe holiday as well. Sending love and gratitude for all of you in my life.