Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
Zinapangana zinaulukira pamodzi ~ They agreed amongst one another and flew away together.
~ Malawian proverb
March 25, 2018
I am reading a book called A Heart for the Work, Journeys through an African Medical School by Claire Wendland. She worked in Malawi as a medical student, then came back several years later as an anthropologist. In the prologue she reflects on what it must be like to be a medical student here without having experience in the land of a million resources. She writes: “Would they, like me, at one moment want to stay forever and the next count the days until they could leave, while feeling guilty for counting?” I read that sentence many times. It’s a dichotomy I struggle with often.
Week three of clinical rotation is finished and the coming week will be a short one because of the Easter holiday, for which I want to get on my knees and thank God. I’ve had to leave the ward several times because I could not bear to watch what they were doing to women there. They clean open gaping wounds with “spirits” which is just plain alcohol. You know when you get a little alcohol on a razor cut when shaving, or on your finger when you’ve got a paper cut, and it hurts like hell? Well, they scrub out open abdominal wounds with this stuff and I swear it’s like being in Guantanamo. The protocol is to medicate them a half hour before but often the medication is “out of stock” and they just rip the bandage off and do this while the women cry and scream. It’s ghastly. I can’t teach this. I can’t tell the students this is how to clean a wound, so I found myself retreating down the corridor with my head hanging and feeling like a complete and utter failure. I met with the students every afternoon last week from three to five in our clean(ish) classroom, as far away from the ward as I could get, to discuss this and let them vent. They hate doing it too, but will be tested and graded on how well they perform this task. I was honest that I don’t believe this is the way to treat wounds but I know it is the protocol they must follow, but also that they have the capacity to change things when they graduate. It felt like a cop out. Here’s my colleague having a discussion about whether they should scrub in a circular motion or in a linear one and the students burst out laughing at the expression on my face. Horror. It’s one of those moments when I feel like I’ve got to get out of here. Thursday afternoon we’ll be on the road to Mozambique and I hope to come back from that ten day break with an attitude adjustment.
On Friday the Tiyamike women came to discuss plans for the future and what to do with the money earned. I was totally stressed at work and had to be on campus for an 8 a.m. exam vetting meeting. I was clear I had to leave by nine to meet with these women and wanted the meeting to start on time. It was 8:40 by the time everyone arrived and I was irritated. I left shortly after nine even though it was not finished, only to get home and wait until almost ten for the women to arrive. I should have known. Then Eneless sent a message that she couldn’t come, but “good luck!” I then had a panic attack because if Peter, the other teacher didn’t come the whole thing would be a bust since the women don’t speak English and my Chichewa just isn’t that good. Fortunately, he came though and was able to translate, as I had a lot I wanted to say to them. As soon as everyone was seated under the mango tree I started by telling them how proud I was that they were so dedicated to the class and how impressed I was by how fast they learned a new skill. I told them I wanted them to have a discussion about how to move forward but wanted them to understand what everything cost. I laid out all the materials and told them what I paid for it all. I also explained how much time I spent searching the market in Limbe for the supplies. If they wanted to continue, it would now be their job to do that. I wanted to give them the skills to continue on their own. I shared some ideas I had for selling their creations in the salons and guest houses. I asked them to think of new ways to market their products (Don’t do it the same way as all the men). I asked if they wanted to continue as one group or form smaller groups closer to their homes. They all said they wanted to continue as one group but would meet in a more central location. They might search for a community space or church to use but wanted to avoid paying rent. (This all seemed incredibly well thought out.) They said they wanted to meet once a month at my house to show their goods and maybe get another lesson. All this was great. Then money talk got complicated.
We made a total of 104,500 Kwacha at the sale. We needed to decide what to do with the money. That conversation didn’t go as smoothly as the where-to-meet one did. Several of the women wanted to buy more supplies and open a bank account. There was long discussion about that but it two women didn’t agree. One thought the money should just be divided up equally among the group and that’s it; everyone goes off with 10,000 Kwacha. Lots of animated Chichewa was flying around, clearly in disagreement. They have a distinctive scolding tone when someone is behaving, in what they consider, to be inappropriate. One member was crunched up in a corner, pouting. She was being scolded. I asked Peter to tell me what was going on. He said there was disagreement and the discussion wasn’t moving toward resolution so there would be a vote. I said, “Ah, ok. That seems fair.” Then the vote happened and it was eight to one in favor of buying supplies and opening a bank account. I thought, Well then. There. That’s settled…But no. That’s not how this works. If everyone doesn’t agree then it’s not settled. Lots more discussion. Lots more. Lots more scolding. Exasperation. Angry words. I asked Peter to translate again as I watched the pouter turn further into herself. Peter pointed to her and said, “This one does not agree to save some of the money. She wants her full share.” That got my back up a little. I said, “Really? Her full share? When the others want to buy supplies and put some in the bank?” I told Peter I’d like to say something and wanted him to translate. One of the women had taken a tailoring course. I asked her to tell the group how much she paid for the course. She said it was 70,000 Kwacha for the year but they have shorter ones for 15,000 Kwacha. I looked at the women and said, “So she had to pay to learn a new skill, right? I have given you this class as a gift. I did not ask you to pay. I have paid the teachers and bought the supplies. It was my gift to you. I did not expect that we would make this much money, so now we have the chance to receive another gift. You can save some and create a business together so you can have an income. That will give you more money in the future than if you take it and spend it all now.” Most of the women were nodding in agreement. Lots of affirmation murmuring. The pouter took her arms away from her face and nodded in agreement. Peter turned to me and said, “Now she understands.” So they figured out how much it would cost to buy more varnish, glue, twine, and other needed supplies like scissors. It came to 30,000 Kwacha. That would be enough for them to make a lot more jewelry. I suggested they put the same amount into a bank account and split what was left over for their transportation costs. That was all met with hearty agreement. So they all took 5,000 Kwacha (about $6.50, and the equivalent of a week’s salary) for their personal use, they chose three women to go shopping for supplies, and two to go to the bank to open an account. We agreed to meet again on April 9th. Then one of the women asked if we could hold hands and pray. We formed a circle and held hands while she said a lengthy prayer of thanks. It was very moving for me. No matter what happens, this has been worth it.
I have to scramble to find someone to come talk to them about handling the business side of this. It is way more than I can handle right now. I asked our Peace Corps liaison if there were a traditional volunteer around who was working on forming women’s cooperatives. Waiting to hear back on that one.
In addition to all this, there was a half page story in the Malawi newspaper about the group and I heard there was a story on the television as well! I don’t have a TV so I am hoping there is a tape of it somewhere. The newspaper link is: https://www.times.mw/women-get-art-skills/ and I’ll work on finding the video. Enelless just sent me a screen shot of my face on the television.
Next week from the coast of the Indian Ocean! Can. Not. Wait.
Love to all,