Sunday Morning ~ Martyr’s Day~ Dedza

Sunday Morning ~ Martyr’s Day, Dedza

Kukula mphuno sikudziwa kumina. ~ Having a big nose does not mean you know how to blow it clean.

~ Chewa proverb

March 3, 2024

Hi Everyone,

When we applied for Peace Corps shortly after getting married in 1978 my husband and I were offered positions in Malawi, a country we’d never heard of. We walked to my hometown library in Maynard, Massachusetts, and pulled an encyclopedia off the shelf. Under M, we found a paragraph describing the country as a former British colony led by President for Life, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. It described the government as a one party democracy having gained independence from the British in 1964. It gave the location and the square mileage saying it was roughly the size of Pennsylvania. It described Lake Malawi as its defining feature. It may have said something about the great rift valley through which the country runs and its mountainous topography. It had one sentence declaring it the Switzerland of Africa, but that was about it. We looked in other encyclopedias as there were several sets to chose from. They said almost exactly the same thing. We didn’t learn more about this country until we arrived a few months later in Blantyre and moved with our eleven co-volunteers to Salima for three months of training. I went on Wikipedia this morning to see what was there and there is quite a lot. I laugh to think of how hard it was to find information in my youth. This morning, I barely needed to get out of bed.

March third is Martyr’s Day here, a national holiday commemorating the death of peaceful protesters demanding independence from the British. In 1959 the colonial governor declared a state of emergency because of growing resentment and organizing over colonial rule. African Congress leaders in the movement were arrested, including Banda. On the third of March there were peaceful protests by Malawian (then Nyasaland) citizens and over fifty were killed by British troops. This event was a link in the chain leading to independence five years later. Today is the day Malawi mourns for those who died. It is a solemn day not a celebratory one. It is believed there can only be a celebration for those souls after the bodies are recovered and families receive compensation––or an apology at the very least––for their deaths. They were unarmed civilians shot by armed militia and they never received a proper burial. In the days of Kamuzu Banda, the day was so solemn no one was allowed outside. It was for quiet mourning and the streets were silent. Things have loosened up since those dictatorial days and people may spend the day as they wish but there are no public events.  

I’m spending it in Dedza, 140 miles north of Blantyre, about a four hour drive. The road is narrow, littered with pot holes and large trucks, and the going is slow. That didn’t stop me from getting a speeding ticket, however, on a straight unmarked stretch of road where I was going 70km/hour. That’s not very fast. The police officer told me it was a 50km/hour zone. I asked him where it said that? He told me the sign was before the bridge we crossed a kilometer ago and asked for 20,000 kwacha. I didn’t even argue, just gave him the money, he gave me a receipt, and we went on our way. It’s the equivalent of about twelve dollars and I’m just chalking it up to the price of travel here. 

Dedza is beautiful. It’s situated at about 5,000 feet elevation with taller mountains surrounding the town. It’s cool here even in the hot months. It’s the location of rock art dating back 10,000 years for the Pygmy art, and 2,000 years for the Bantu. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  Hiking to see the rock art is spectacular, though, I’m happy just to walk along the dirt paths at the base of these mountains. The friend I came with has an injured ankle so we couldn’t do a vigorous hike, but it has been fun nonetheless and we did get to some sites on easier trails. We’ll head back to Blantyre tomorrow and get psyched up for the next week of classes. 

I survived my first week with the class of 256 students. I wasn’t worried about the content of the lectures but I was nervous about logistics. On Wednesday morning I was there bright and early to be on time for my 7:30 a.m. start. The students had rearranged the room slightly moving desks closer together so the people in the back could move forward. There were not enough chairs for everyone so they pushed two seats together and three people sat there. At the back of the room students sat on desks, which, is uncomfortable for hours at a time but at least they were elevated and could see the slide screen. The projector worked. The microphone worked. The students were attentive and responsive and were polite and respectful to each other. They asked appropriate questions. I really enjoyed it actually. The class is four and a half hours long, ridiculous really, especially when the room was as crowded and hot as it was. My blouse was soaked with sweat. They had a half hour tea break at 9:30 and we picked up again and went until noon. Just before wrapping up I told them I was glad to be there, I understood how uncomfortable it was to be so crowded, and I appreciated how attentive they were. I told them I’d be doing the next day’s lecture as well, and would see them tomorrow. And they cheered! It was so sweet. I left exhausted but smiling.

The next day wasn’t as great. The class was from ten until noon, and since they start at 7:30, they were already tired when I got there. The microphone did not work and I had to yell for two hours. They were more fidgety and I had to keep stopping to ask them to be quiet especially when one of the students was speaking. It’s impossible with a class that big to do creative activities like role playing, which, Malawians love. Their acting skills are beyond belief and I’ve seen students cry real tears when acting out a role. I still ended the class by thanking them for being there and staying engaged as best they could. I left exhausted and not smiling. 

My head is spinning from all the political news at home. I found today’s proverb quite apropos.

Love to all,


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