Sunday Morning ~ Blantyre
Banja ndi gombe, silicedwa kugumuka ~ Relationship is like a riverbank, it can be ruined any time.
February 3, 2019
As I was walking to the college this week from my sweet bungalow on a hill overlooking the city, I was thinking about my role here and thought maybe I had become one of the consultants I always hated. In the times I’ve worked overseas I’d see consultants come in for their five day stint, all peppy, full of energy and ideas, putting forth ways to do it better/faster/brighter and it always made me want to smack them. I laughed at my eagerness to get this project off the ground and wondered how I appear to the people here in the trenches just trying to get through the day. I also laughed when people walking by smiled so brightly when I greeted them. The guards told my landlord here that my Chichewa is very good. That also makes me laugh. I can greet people very well, I will admit that. If they ask me a follow up question, though, I’m usually stumped unless I can recognize a word, like “work” or “home” and I say something about either of those two things, like “Yes, I am going to work” (a sentence I am very proficient at), or “My home is good” (equally fluent). Those often don’t answer the question asked, but the people walking by keep going. I only get into trouble when it’s someone who knows me and stops for a more in-depth follow up. Then I am stumped and it shows. Then follows uproarious laughter and knee slapping all around, hand shaking, and follow up conversation in English. I’m having fun.
I arrived last Sunday after a long flight. My friends, Peter and Caroline, greeted me at the airport and delivered me to this gorgeous property where I’m renting a newly built cottage. Holy smokes, I had no idea this place existed within this city. It’s spectacular! It has to be at least five acres with stupendous gardens, a brick walkway that circles the entire property (my hostess tells me it is half a kilometer but seems bigger) through tropical plants surrounding and overhanging the path. There is a pool in front of the main house where the owners live, but I don’t feel comfortable going over there. I’m not a big swimmer anyway and I’m quite content tucked into this hillside in my hexagonal cottage with a view. It is a mile from campus, but a nice walk and so far I’ve been lucky with the rain. I heard they had two weeks of constant rain before I arrived and the gardens are using that as an excuse to show off. Blossoms are exploding everywhere, surrounded by stunning greens of every shade. I feel like I am living in a terrarium. Lots of oxygen and soothing shapes. Since I’ve been here it has rained two afternoons but not during commuting times.
In many ways it feels like I never left. I’ve only been six months away, so there aren’t a lot of changes here. That wouldn’t even be evident in six years, but it’s interesting to slide into the same routine, meet the same friends, and walk the familiar paths. My office remained untouched. Everything was as I left it including my pens and sticky notes. My dean handed me the keys and I was back at my desk as If I’d just been on a short holiday. That’s been nice. What has changed is my role. I’m no longer just part of the faculty with lectures to give and students to supervise around the district. I’m left out of meetings and student check-offs. That feels weird. I’m here to hopefully give this project a booster shot and set a timeline to get the ward open. I’ve been instructed to be realistic by SEED, and I’m trying really hard at that, but it’s challenging for me when I want something this badly. One of the drivers saw me through the window sitting at my desk and he came to my office to greet me. He said, “You are back! Please tell me you are here to stay.” I told him that was so sweet for him to say, but I was only here for a short time. I hope to come back but it is still uncertain. I really can’t come here to do a job that a Malawian can do. He said, “Ah! But you are a Malawian!” Which, made my day.
I had an ambitious list of things to accomplish in these two weeks and after the first discouraging day, I’m cautiously optimistic. The first day was basically spent greeting people, handing out the small gifts I’d brought and trying to get a local SIM card for the phone. There was no power at campus (had been out for two weeks) no internet, and the place I’m staying doesn’t provide that either. I walked over to the store to buy the SIM card, walked back to campus, and spent an hour trying to get it to work. Went to the IT office to ask for help. Oh, he had gone to a funeral. His assistant tried to get the number working then told me I had to go back to the store to register the phone. This is new. Every cell phone now has to be registered. Why, I don’t know, but it’s the new rule. I walked the mile back to the store where the woman smiled and said, “I told you when you bought that you had to register it.” If she did say that I had no idea what she was talking about so ignored it. Either that or I didn’t hear it, but here I was, waiting in another line to get it registered. That required digging out my passport and all kinds of computer input by the guy behind the desk. I just handed him the phone and asked, “Can you just do this all for me? Set the number up, get the data, sign me up for What’s App, everything?” I knew it would take me forever to figure it out and was running out of steam, still a bit jet lagged and frustrated that the day was almost gone and I’d gotten nothing done. Very kindly, since there was no one in line behind me, he set it all up, so I was communicado again. It’s insane how reliant I am on that phone! But the dean had been sending me messages asking where I was, and the landlady at the house had been trying to call me, so I felt better being trackable. By then it was about the end of the day, but I did meet up with two of my colleagues to discuss a plan for the week. So that was it for day one. When I got back to my cottage I dropped my things and turned around to see one of the guards at my door with a little handwritten note on handmade paper in a little handmade envelope. It was from the owners, asking if I’d had a nice day and inviting me to tea. Now, how sweet was that? She’d been trying to figure out how to contact me and did it by a hand-delivered, hand-written note. How eighteenth century! I loved it.
They are a lovely couple whose families originated from India, but he was born in Malawi and she was born in Uganda. Their house is something to see, let me tell you. Gorgeous sprawling brick structure with a huge veranda furnished with plush wicker chairs and sofas. Chai tea was served on a coffee table the size of my bathroom. He’s a retired businessman and built these two cottages to rent to keep himself busy. He’s also an amateur landscape designer and has gone bananas with the landscaping of this place. It’s reminiscent of the botanical gardens on the big island of Hawaii!
From Tuesday on, the week became very productive. It is so heartening for me to see how positive people are about this becoming a reality. From both the college side and the hospital side, there is tremendous support. I have been clear that the enthusiasm is great, but we need to translate that into some action. No one is going to fund a project that doesn’t have a clear path to sustainability. I wouldn’t support that either. I mentioned that maybe we should look at a year from now as a start date? I asked if that would be realistic? The response was unanimous that we can’t wait that long. We have to show that it is moving forward. I was like, “Ok then! Let’s get to it!” (Refer to the first sentence in this blog) Ursula and I have been hammering away at the policies and procedures that need to be in place. It’s not a job I enjoy, but I am thrilled that we’re making progress and now believe we’ll have a draft done before I leave. Yay. One task will be checked off. We’ll be having a conference call with the architecture students this week to hear/see what plans they’ve come up with for the renovation. The consensus here is we should start with what we’ve got, just to get going and show we are doing something, then to expand as we get funds. That needs to be a discussion, which we’ll have this week when the SEED country director comes on Thursday to meet with us. We’ll have a discussion about how they can support this (including having me come back hopefully) with resources to get this established. In the meantime, the faculty is going to solicit funds to buy equipment from the local businesses, and I will look into development grants that focus on improving maternity care. I’m leery of having a grant that funds salaries because historically as soon as that money dries up so does the position, so there’d have to be some kind of commitment that the salary would be taken over by the college in however many years. I’ll have to do some work on that one, but I am finding this exciting. To see how everyone believes in this is good for my soul. I really believe this is the right path, which feels good, even if there are inevitable setbacks.
There is a new farmer’s market in Blantyre which takes place on each first Saturday. I went yesterday to see if it’s a possible venue for the Tiyamike women’s group to sell their jewelry. There were loads of people there and I think it is a possibility if the quality of their products has improved. I heard from Ursula they are still meeting, but they are floundering. They now meet in a village at one of the women’s houses, so tomorrow I will meet up with one of the group who lives near my old house and we’ll take a minibus, then walk into the village. I contacted the artist who originally was teaching them to see if she’d go with me but she is two hours away and I’m not sure if she’ll make it. I’ll need a translator and she knows them and maybe could help with a plan to get them some guidance, but if she doesn’t show I’ll wing it. Apparently, the plan I left them with fell apart, so I don’t know what it’ll be like, but I’ll see what’s up when I get there. Afterward I am going to try to visit Chimemwe, who still isn’t able to return to any kind of work. I heard he can walk with assistance, but the brain damage is severe. It’s a miracle he’s alive. That man is so strong and I miss him. I’m preparing myself for what I’ll see. He was such a help and support to us and I really care for him so much. If he’d had half the privilege I’d had in life, I can only imagine what he’d have accomplished.
After the farmers market I took a minibus to Zomba, about 70 kilometers away to visit friends who’d rented a house there for the weekend. When I wedged myself into the already overfull bus, the guy collecting money told me it’d be 250 kwacha for the first leg of the trip. I only had a 2,000 kwacha note and passed it forward. Other passengers were handing him various sized notes and he collected them all, then one by one started handing back change to everyone. It is astounding to me how they can hustle and remember who gave what and who got what change. Every single person received their correct change, handed back through the bus, person to person. I thought how remarkable they are and how they have developed these systems that work. Yes, the minibuses are sometimes unsafe and they are overcrowded and some, but not all, of the drivers take risks. But in general it is a very efficient means of mass transportation. The fellow passengers are friendly and polite and I find it all very entertaining. I got there safely and had a great visit in a beautiful setting where we swapped travel stories and caught up on life. I’m blessed. Mindful of caring for the riverbanks.
Love to all,