Sunday Morning~ Staying afloat

Sunday Morning ~ Staying afloat

Bololo sakonda madzi. ~ The bololo insect is not affected by the water.

~ Chewa proverb

March 24, 2019

Hi Everyone,

I’ve heard from many people wondering about the fate of my friends and colleagues in Malawi where the recent cyclone has had an impact. I find it incredibly heartwarming to think that so many people are aware of this beautiful and peaceful country, and care about them. That fills me up. I’m in Maine now and only getting information second hand, but I have heard from my colleagues and friends and all of them are ok. The most devastated areas of the country are in the lowlands south of Blantyre. Blantyre, where we lived, is at 3,500 feet and got pummeled by rain, but from reports I’ve gotten, have been spared the flooding. Mozambique got the worst of it, and the most impacted parts of Malawi are on the Mozambique border. Life is so fragile there in the best of times, it’s hard to see them face more devastation and suffering. Most people (82%) are subsistence farmers and their lives depend on the one crop of maize each year. This is a crop they plant by hand, hoeing the rock-hard ground in October–– the end of the dry season–– into hills. They plant the seed corn by hand, and pray for a good season of rains, which, have a pattern to them that people have come to rely on. The rains start around the end of November and last until April. It rains almost every day, usually late afternoon or evening, and through the night. Then it is hot and sunny during the day until late afternoon when the pattern repeats itself. People settle into his rhythm and rely on it to know they and their families will eat for the coming year. They allocate one room of their houses for storage of maize to last throughout the dry season. The rains are a signal that life will go on so to have this sacred element ravage their crops and meager homes is so cruel. But there is no control over what nature throws at you, at least from the villagers point of view. They aren’t driving big cars or flying around the world on jets. Their contribution to climate change is cutting trees for fuel to cook their simple but staple meals. Over time, as refugees from neighboring wars have arrived, it has taken it’s toll on the landscape and certainly affect how the land reacts to flooding and rainfall. But they need to eat and this is all they know. When I look at what they consume and how they contribute to climate change, it is minuscule compared to our lifestyles, but impacts them much more harshly. No one has the right to pass judgement. 

I just finished reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind  by William Kamkwambaand plan to watch the movie tonight. I wanted to finish the book first. It is an amazing story about a boy in Malawi who couldn’t finish school because his family didn’t have the school fees. It’s a beautiful illustration of village life in Malawi and the incredible obstacles they must overcome to get even an elementary education. It’s also a poignant reminder of how perseverance and luck direct our lives. Highly recommend it. 

I have been clearing off some shelves I haven’t touched in ages and found some journals I wrote many years ago. I’m grateful I kept journals that describe my life at different stages. It lends some perspective on how I saw things back then. I consider how that perspective has changed as life changes and responsibility grew. I found a journal I started my senior year of college. The first page says: I will be writing in this journal every day for the rest of my life~ and every page after that is blank!  I kept turning the pages looking for something, but…nothing! I’m not sure what to do with it. It seems such a waste of paper. I found another from my early time in Malawi in 1979 which had every page filled. It started when we were in training in the village of Salima and were taking daily Chichewa lessons. I started looking at it and realized the next few hours would be consumed with a walk down memory lane. I made tea and sat to read it. In training, we had four language teachers and the one who coordinated the classes was named Innocent Banda. He was an incredibly intelligent man and I remember being captivated by his philosophy of language learning and how it impacts how we get along in life. He was a poet. I’d copied a poem he’d written into my journal:

Last Night A Baby Passed Away Unseen, Unheard

In the village

where mothers have grown

to learn the signs

of the cruel hand of fate,

the coming of a child

is met with heavy hearts.

Here the mother must

impose upon herself

a retreat

fighting the unpronounceable thoughts;

to save life;

here the simple miracle of creation

is a profound mystery

never taken for granted

never accepted

at the first signs.

But when at last the work is done

and the new baby born

suffers her first breath,

the mother smiles

and the neighborhood breaks into song.

In the village

where women have grown to see

the pain of expectation

break into the agony of mourning,

nothing is there

until all is done:

so often the midwife

gone a bundle in one hand

a hoe in the other (to the graveyard)

her head bowed in painful shame

of the work undone––

the prospective mother

doubled in shame

at work undone,

that it has become natural

to hear people whisper 

the unholy news.

At such times

a woman may writhe in anguish

but never mourn,

for there is no rain in the clouds

until we see it fall

until we touch the water

that falls from them.

In the village

where women have learnt

the pain of life

men’s hearts are heavy

at the first signs

of the miracle of birth.

In the village

only that which is given

is accepted

the promise is in the hands

of the gods until the day of fulfillment.

You will not mourn then 

my friend

but wait again

for the signs.

And though the anguish

may burn your soul

stand firm

until you gaze again into the morning dew

––crystal ball of ages

your head reeling

with expectation.

Now while the agony grows

only think

that I

feel for you

the agony of those that share.

I can only share

and that way

may I make you strong.

~ Innocent Banda

So I found this in my journal, written in January of 1979 in my tiny handwriting. I even have the tilde before his name. I’m trying to remember how I came to be in possession of this poem. He must have given it to me. Was it typed? Was it written on scrap paper in his script? He was a little older than me. I was 22 and I think he was 26. I remember thinking he was one of the wisest people I’d ever met. I wonder what became of him. I wonder if he is still alive. I wonder if this was a signal diverting me, shifting my career. I wrote nothing else about him or, for that matter, what this poem meant to me or why I copied it so carefully into my journal. I was a bit breathless as I read it. It felt like a beautiful gift I’d neglected. It means more to me now than it ever could have then, young and childless. Forty years later, on this cold Sunday Maine morning in March, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to read these words today which speak to me about how to help someone suffering. I can only share, and with that comes a prayer that I can make you strong. I love the way he has captured the helpless feeling of watching someone you love struggle, knowing you can’t take the burden away, but wishing you could. Praying that the caring and sharing will make them strong enough to stay afloat until the water recedes. 

Love to all,


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