Sunday Morning ~ Coming Back Around
Bodza limabwerera mwini wake. ~ A lie returns to the one who started it.
~ Chewa proverb
January 31, 2021
I don’t consider myself the most patient person in the world, but living in various cultures where waiting is the norm, I’ve become more accustomed to accepting waiting as part of life. We’re spoiled here. As a young nurse in Peace Corps I never went anywhere without writing paper or a book to read. I’d sit under trees for hours waiting for mothers to arrive with their children for mobile clinics. Our team would arrive in a village, hang the scale for weighing children from a tree branch, and wait. At first I was jumpy and worried we would not complete our mission to immunize these kids. I’d worried about the measles vaccine getting warm in our crude cold boxes. No one else on the team seemed to care. They sat and chatted with each other, went off to the village to do I don’t know what, or just looked around. Eventually, and by eventually I mean hours, the clinic would start just as I thought we should be heading back to the hospital. There was no cutting off the singing or the health talk. It did not matter how behind schedule we were, we’d start from the beginning: say the prayers, sing the songs, deliver the health talk, weigh the kids, give the shots, say the goodbyes, and then share a meal with the chief after they caught the chicken, killed it, then cooked it. A two hour clinic took all day, ten hours at least. Sometimes twelve. I learned to wait.
This waiting became a rich time for me. I talked with my Malawian colleagues in a way that became more relaxed and comfortable. They taught me more of the local language. We shared stories about our cultures. They would laugh when I explained how we have individual appointments for vaccinations and if people are late they might not get seen. This would evoke howls of laughter. They wanted to know how we could possible see everyone who needed to be seen in this fashion? It would take years, they marveled! I’d explain that we have a system where people can make an appointment any time during any day convenient for them. “Hah! Really?” they would exclaim in utter astonishment, “How can that be? People can choose whenever they want? How can you manage that?” I’d start thinking about the way we do things and as I sat there, it seemed more and more ridiculous. So inefficient. As more women started arriving with their babies and children I’d watch them interact with one another, motioning to me, the strange mzungu. The children were afraid of me initially, some cried when they saw me. My colleagues laughed, explaining they tell their kids the white people will come and take them away as slaves if they don’t behave. I was horrified. The nurses laughed at my reaction. I’d look around and watch the women settle themselves on the ground, chatting, laughing with one another. The young kids would play around them, the babies sat on laps, suckling, or quiet. Rarely were babies crying and if so, then only for a moment as the breast was so ready and available. They sat and waited. No one got up and complained about having to wait, it was part of life. They chatted, they sang. I watched with respect. I wanted to show them somehow that a white person could be respectful and decent.
I wrote a lot during those waiting times. I wrote hundreds of short letters on thin blue air-mail paper. It would be folded in thirds and stamped with Malawian stamps bought after waiting an hour in line at the post office. I’d mail them and the recipient would wait three weeks for it to arrive. I admired the team I worked with, midwives and nurses, ambulance drivers and community health workers. I started looking forward to the waiting times. I have no idea how they felt about me as we didn’t talk about that. I just looked forward to time spent with them. If conversation lulled or I ran out of paper to write on, or I’d finished my book, I’d daydream. I’d go through long scenarios of building a house, designing the kitchen, imagining children growing up there. I’d imagine a career as a midwife (I was a public health nurse then), traveling overseas again, writing books, raising kids. Skiing. I could entertain myself for a long time doing this. It’s fun when everything turns out perfectly in my mind. I’d get so absorbed in my fantasies I’d come to believe some of them.
When my kids were teenagers and our family crumbled I cried for hours to counselors and friends about what it was doing to them. The kids were angry and most of that was directed at me. I wailed and declared emphatically that it was so unfair, that I was not the one who left, that I didn’t deserve all this. Calmly, whomever was absorbing my grief and wringing it out, would say, “Give them time. In ten years they will see how you managed this, how you held it together.” At the time waiting ten years was unthinkable. It was like saying never. But, I gave it up and waited ten years, maybe a bit less, and they were right. Over time the truth became evident and the clarity was healing. It’s hard to wait for an outcome that feels so urgent, so critical, so life depending. Waiting was effective and less damaging than the battering ram I’d wanted to employ. Justice takes time and waiting for it is not fair or easy. In the meantime, we can write and dream and try to understand each other. The lie always comes back around eventually. Just wait.
Love to all,