Sunday Morning ~ Zomba
June 23, 2019
Mau n’poyamba potsiriza n’mang’ombe (nkhani). ~ The real words come first, after that is the singing of a chorus, just small talk.
~ Chewa proverb
I’ve just woken up from an uncomfortable dream. I dreamt I found thousands of dollars in small and large bills, rolled up and hidden in a box someone gave me. It was a box of odds and ends: half-used tape rolls, old aspirin tins, half eaten zip locked bags of dried fruits, film containers, a metal roll of athletic tape, the kind where the inside roll snaps into the outer covering. All these things were stuffed with dollar bills. It was U.S. dollars, all of it. I don’t know who gave it to me the person was kind of fuzzy, but the box was something they didn’t want. I took it as a favor, really, not sure how I would pack it with what I was carrying. But as I pawed through the stuff I started discovering all this money and I didn’t know what to do with it. This is the uncomfortable part… I tucked it all back where I found it and pretended it wasn’t there. I didn’t go back to the person and tell them, I didn’t ask if they knew about it, I thought, “Well I don’t know what to do so I won’t do anything.” but in the dream I was upset about it. It felt like a huge responsibility and one I didn’t want. I woke up from the dream, sweating under this huge down comforter I’m wrapped up in. I laid awake pondering what it meant and tried to relate it to what’s going on in my life. I’m perplexed. I looked out the window and saw the sky getting a little lighter, so decided to light a candle, get the laptop out, and start writing.
I’m staying for the weekend in the Zomba Forestry Lodge, a place I’d wanted to visit the whole time we were living in Blantyre and just never got here. I don’t know why we never came, it’s fantastic and only a little over an hour away. I planned to take a minibus after work on Friday, but there was transport going to Zomba from the college early in the morning, so decided to catch a ride with them and extend my lifespan by a few years. I brought the laptop so I could work here instead of in my office. I arrived in Zomba town way earlier than I’d expected and still needed to get up the plateau but they weren’t expecting me until much later and I thought I should get some work done first. I went to the African Heritage Center where they have electricity and good coffee and sat there working for awhile before deciding how to get up to the lodge, ten kilometers up the plateau. They sent me detailed directions and I considered walking up but got a little worried I’d get lost, so hired a taxi to drive me. Half the journey is on the paved road and half on a narrow dirt road which is carved into the side of the plateau. It was ten bucks for the taxi and supporting a local business, so it seemed money well spent. But it is very straightforward so I’ll enjoy walking back down later this morning to catch a bus back to Blantyre. It was cold and so beautiful when I arrived Friday afternoon. I walked the last remaining section of indigenous forest on the plateau, then came back to the lodge and curled up in a blanket and read The Tyranny of Experts, a book Jordan sent me,about the history of international development and it’s original goal of keeping countries dependent on the west as colonialism’s future was dying. It’s interesting and an important read, I think, as I decide what I want to do with my life from here on out. It also makes me think of the woman that took such offense to my presentation about the midwifery ward project and how she was relating what I was doing to perpetuating colonialism. It’s making me think.
Anyway, here I am in this simple, remote lodge, tucked into the side of the plateau, in the midst of a gorgeous section of forest, surrounded by hundreds of birds, being served tea and delicious meals in front of a fire, while others in the village huddle to keep warm. I recognize what privilege I have. The lodge employs a lot of the local villagers, and that is a good thing. When the couple leased this place seven years ago to turn it into a profitable business, the first thing they did was take out the vegetable garden. I asked them why, thinking growing all the vegetables you serve would be an attractive thing for a lodge (it’s certainly my fantasy), and they said they would rather buy all their produce from the village and give them a reason to grow a diverse selection of vegetables. Interesting and smart. The idea of supporting responsible tourism alleviates some of the guilt I have about being able to be here in the first place.
I just opened the windows because there was steam on them. It made me think it might be warmer outside than in and I was right. Now I can hear all kinds of different birdsong in the vegetation just outside the window. I can also hear the staff rumbling around in the kitchen, which means there will be a pot of tea and warm muffins shortly.There’s no electricity here, so as soon as the battery dies on this laptop I’ll be putting this away but it’s still got some life so I’ll keep at it…
Yesterday morning I left the lodge after breakfast and walked seven kilometers up the plateau to the top. The trail was the old road to the top and easy to follow so I was confident I wouldn’t get lost. I passed about fifty women and girls carrying huge loads of wood on their heads, coming down. Some of the wood was dead branches gathered from fallen trees others were dead branches they cut off living trees. There are huge swaths of the plateau that are now pine plantations, replacing what was once a very varied mix of rainforest vegetation. When we came here in 1979 the plateau was covered with one huge rainforest. Much of it is bare now. There are small protected sections like the one where I’m staying, and there is a huge effort by the forestry department to replant, partly in trees that can be used for lumber, like the pine. They grow fast and can be used for building and their harvest is managed by the government.
There are horseback riding stables at the top of the plateau and I’d made arrangements to go riding yesterday afternoon. I got up there early enough that I had a few hours to kill, so thought a two hour walk to some waterfalls would be a nice way to pass the time. There is a big curio market near the hotel at the top and milling around there are guides looking for work. It’s always good for me to go with a guide (refer back to statement about getting lost) and Rodrick was quick to show me an official guide association card so I negotiated a price with him and we set off, leaving behind about twenty other guides with sour faces. It’s not hard hiking up there, not like on Mt. Mulanje, and there are trails, all unmarked, that go in all directions. I guess if I lived up there I’d be a little more comfortables with wandering on my own, but I was glad I had Rodrick with me. I asked if he were a carver and made the curios as well as guided people on walks? He told me no, he could not call himself a carver, because he only did the sanding and finish work. His father was a carver. He said, “I am a finisher and seller.” I told him I have a photo of me, taken in 1979, under a waterfall on the Zomba plateau. I don’t have any recollection of getting to that waterfall, but I remember swimming in the pool it created and standing under it washing my hair. Rodrick said he knew where it would be. We wound our way along the stream on an overgrown, poorly maintained trail and came to a dirt road that we followed for about a mile. Then we turned down another path, steep but more obvious, to Williams Falls, and I said, yup, that’s it. He said, “Let me take your photo here so you can compare.” I did not get in the water this time, but stood in front of the falls while he snapped my picture. I’ll have to spend some time when I get home, looking for the slide of a skinny twenty-two year old washing her dark hair under those falls.
When we got back to the curio market, I went to pay him and realized I didn’t have the correct change for the 5,000 kwacha fee. I gave him six thousand and asked him to give me something from his shop worth one thousand. He tried to get me to spend a little more, but I didn’t want to carry anything heavy, so he chose a small, crudely carved giraffe, handed it to me with an air of disappointment, and pointed me in the direction of the stables.
I walked about another mile (I walked sixteen miles yesterday!) to the stables and found Anne, the young German girl, getting my horse Duchess ready for the ride. Anne spent many of her growing up years in Malawi as her father worked for a German NGO and she became good friends with the couple who started the riding stables on the plateau. In Germany she took riding lessons so is very comfortable around horses. It seems like the dream job for a young woman, taking people on rides around a gorgeous landscape. It was always my fantasy anyway. I was the only one riding yesterday so she said we could do whatever I wanted. She wanted to know what my skill level was. The choices were: Beginner––never ridden a horse before; Novice––comfortable walking on a horse; or Competent––able to walk, trot, and gallop. I took an unreasonable amount of time deciding which category I fell into. I’m not a beginner, but I also didn’t want to be a novice, after all I went on a camping trip in the Andes on a horse up mountain trails, but we weren’t galloping. Then I thought of the time in Iceland when my horse bolted on the way back to the stables and Margie was screaming “Make him stop!” and I couldn’t and we all almost died, and I thought, maybe I shouldn’t check the competent box. Then Ann asked me if I were more comfortable with English or Western riding and I didn’t know the difference. I checked “Novice”. I explained my dilemma to her and told her the stories of past rides. She said we could suit it to what I wanted: nothing crazy, but also not a hand-led walk. She handed me a riding hat then one of the stable hands brought Duchess to the step where I got on. One little lesson about holding the reigns and we were off. It was a blast! I can’t believe I hadn’t been there to do that before! We went for two hours around trails all over the plateau, chatting and meandering as the clouds lifted and we could see Mt Mulanje in the distance. What a great afternoon. I loved it. When we got back to the stables a little before five a taxi was waiting for me. It wouldn’t be possible to walk down in the dark, so Tom, the proprietor of the lodge had arranged for a taxi to collect me and deliver me back to this sweet refuge. God, I love it here. My butt is a bit sore though.
In a bit I’ll get up and have breakfast then walk the ten kilometers down to the town and catch a minibus back to Blantyre to head into my last week here for awhile. The past week was productive, not quite as exciting as the previous week, but we still made some headway.
On my walk to work Monday I passed a house surrounded by a wall, like they almost all are. As I walked past the gate by the driveway I heard a man and woman arguing on the other side. I slowed my pace and then stopped not sure what to do. The argument was escalating and sounded like it was becoming violent. It was all in Chichewa, so I don’t know what was being said, but I definitely heard a slap and more yelling. A well-dressed man ahead of me also stopped walking and stood listening. He said, “They are arguing.” I said, “I know. I don’t know what to do.” He walked over to the gate and called to some other men walking by. It sounded like the woman was being taken into the house and it definitely sounded like she was going against her will. The well-dressed man said something to them through the gate and there was no response. I watched as he and the other men from the street went in through the gate which was unlocked and I walked on, hoping they would help the situation, whatever it was. I liked the good samaritan sense I got from the well dressed man. He looked like he knew what to do. Or maybe it just alleviated my sense of helplessness. I wondered what I would have done if I’d heard that happening at home.
Later that day a group of us met on the Ward 1-A, the future home of the midwifery ward, to look at the space and show the Boston team what we had to work with. Ursula and I walked together from the college campus through the covered corridors of the hospital. Looking ahead, Ursula noted they were transporting a dead body to the morgue and coming toward us. Student nurses, gloved and masked, guided the gurney carrying the shrouded deceased while the family followed behind, some wailing, others silent. Two were supporting an elder as she wept and stumbled along. As they approached, mothers grabbed children out of the way, housekeepers stopped mopping the floor, guardians held their bundles aside to make way. We all stood in silence and respectfully bowed our heads. Ursula and I stood in the overhang of the laundry area to give them room to pass. When the final family member went by, we resumed our walk and I thought, “People at home can go an entire lifetime and never encounter a dead body. Here, there is rarely a day when we don’t.”
I’d brought the architectural plans but there wasn’t really an opportunity to show them to the gathered group. Several of us had already looked at them but I’d hoped we could go over them again to get a sense of what was possible. Individuals made comments about how they envisioned it set up with little or no renovation. There is a bit of a sense of urgency that we can’t wait for the space to be upgraded in a real way. I’ve cautioned against that, fearing working in a compromised way reduces the chances of long term success of the place, but ultimately it won’t be my decision. My friend Chris, the architect, met us there and I asked him to answer questions anyone had about what a renovation would involve. I explained that one of the plans had been given to a construction company to get a rough estimate of having it exactly as we’d like, but that would just be a rough number. After that we will have a sense of how much can be accomplished and what the timeframe would be. The breakdown of tasks leading to the completion of this has stopped at discussion only, but we have to start somewhere. This was an informal meeting as seeing the physical space is helpful envisioning the final goal. I keep picturing myself working there. After a quick walk through and a few questions the matrons went back to their responsibilities, the midwives on the existing ward resumed their tasks, Ursula had a class to teach, and part of the Boston team went back to their meeting. Kelly is the program manager from Boston and before Ursula left for her class, she told her an MOU between the hospital and the nursing school is probably the most important first task to accomplish to get this renovation started. Ursula agreed and walked back down the long corridor to the campus. Chris and Kelly and I stood outside the ward looking at the exterior and discussing a possible new entrance. I really like that idea as it would allow women to enter the ward without coming down the congested corridors. Just after I was explaining my thoughts on this, we heard more wailing coming toward us. Kelly asked, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s a death. This procession is a common occurrence as they transport them to the morgue.” She said quietly, “Oh my God.” Chris then said, “Yeah, you know, at home hospitals are hermetically sealed. All this is shielded from view. Here, the corridors are these throbbing living landscapes.” I love that description. It’s so true that there is such and ebb and flow of humanity pulsing around you at all times.
Tuesday on my way to work I took the short cut through the College of Medicine campus and ran into a man named Chiwoza who George worked with here. He is a psychologist and teaches at the college, has his own private clients, writes a weekly article for the newspaper, and I don’t know what else. He is a bit of a celebrity around here and highly respected. He’s written three books about mental health and I recently saw them for sale here and bought all three. He greeted me and asked about George. I told him he was doing really well, happily teaching in Myanmar, and as far as I could tell, was loving his work. He asked me to pass on that the child study group that George started was thriving. He said he’d been with the group the previous evening and wanted George to know it was ongoing and really helpful. (I think George already knows this from other members of the group he stays in touch with.) I’d also seen one of the psych nurses who asked me to tell George that the child psychiatric clinic he started was still going, run by the nurses, and they were all grateful to him. When George first started here he noted how the children brought to the psych clinic were being traumatized just by being in the waiting area with some of the sicker adults. He started a weekly child clinic in a separate building where the environment wasn’t as threatening or scary. It’s nice to hear these things and know that even though it seems our contributions are tiny in the great scheme of things, sometimes something’s helpful and sticks. I hope the midwifery ward is one of them.
Well, it’s broad daylight now and looks like the cloud has lifted. It’s not windy and it’s warmer than it’s been in days. It was 44 degrees when I got up here Friday but feels at least ten degrees warmer than that now. It’s chilly when you didn’t bring winter clothes. The owners of the house where I am staying in Blantyre are away for a month and I’m hoping they left their router on so I can go near the house and post this when I get back. I noticed a drastic reduction in the number of gardeners and guards around since they left. The five big dogs are still there to greet me though. They surround me like body guards as soon as I come through the gate. They do bark a lot at night though.
Well, I wrote all this and still didn’t figure out the dream. Oh well.
Home next Sunday. It’s flown.
Love to all,