Sunday Morning ~ Ntchisi Forest

Sunday Morning ~ Ntchisi Forest

Zengelezu adalinda kwaukwau. ~ If we delay the consequences will affect us. 

~ Chewa proverb

July 7, 2024

Hi Everyone,

Yesterday was Independence Day here but the holiday is observed tomorrow so we have a three day weekend. I read that independence from British rule is the most celebrated holiday in the world––sixty-five countries. I spent the fourth, my own holiday, finally giving the speech I’d written two months ago for the midwifery celebration which had been postponed three times. The midwives role in preventing climate change has just been sitting here on my laptop waiting to be spoken. I wanted to begin and end with a Chewa proverb, so Gaily, one of my colleagues, helped me find two that could relate to the climate crisis. One I used for today’s blog. It can be applied to a good many aspects of life but seems especially poignant regarding saving the planet from our excesses. 

So this was my third International Day of the Midwife celebration in Malawi. The first two, 2017 and 2018 were held in Lilongwe and included a parade with a live band and a formal celebration and exhibit at a hotel. I was surprised to learn this one would be in Dedza, a beautiful town, but no formal setting or government presence. But, I love Dedza, so was happy to spend a couple of nights there. I booked a room at the Pottery Lodge for Wednesday night but they were fully booked on Thursday night, so I brought my tent and camped in a field adjacent to the rooms. It’s a great system here; most lodges will let you camp if they are full. For four dollars you get a safe space, bathrooms with showers, and access to the restaurant. It was cold, but no colder than camping in Maine, so I was fine. 

Thursday I got a ride to the venue, which was an open field in front of a village primary school––a pretty setting with mountains surrounding us, but not exactly a spot to bring national recognition. Nothing was set up. The parade was supposed to begin at 9 and there was no sign of anything organized, even by 9:30 people were just starting to set up chairs. It looked like this was the place for speeches not a parade. At ten, we drove down the main road to another primary school about a kilometer away. From there we got organized for the parade: placards were handed out, music blared  from a loudspeaker on a flatbed lorry, police stopped traffic in one lane of the M1, and we set off at 11:00. It is astonishing to me how things can go from abject disorganization to full blown party within minutes here. 

The parade was fun. I had nothing else to do that day so really didn’t care it was starting late. I had my speech in my pocket ready to read whenever that happened. We paraded along singing and dancing in the left lane of the main highway while eighteen wheelers went around us. Seemed a little dangerous to me but I trusted they knew what they were doing. We arrived at the village without any casualties at the original spot where the chairs and tents had been set. It was…rustic. I didn’t know if this was because the midwifery organization was out of money or what but it was much simpler than my last experience when the minister of health gave a speech before a formal luncheon.

The program began with a prayer by a local bishop followed by a few opening remarks. I was fifth on the program and while waiting, the MC came over and asked if I was doing my speech in English or Chichewa? Everything had been in Chichewa up to that point and I started thinking it shouldn’t be me giving this speech. I told him English, and he said, “Ok, well maybe someone can translate.” and walked away. The villagers are not fluent in English and the speech wasn’t written for this audience. My colleague Estnath was sitting next to me. I handed her a copy of the speech and asked if she would be willing to translate. She was running for president of the midwifery organization and I thought she might like the exposure, not that the villagers would be voting. She agreed and read it over while I looked around at the setting. Large mountains were in front of us. Local villagers were seated under one tent, midwives were under another (which had to be re-erected after a gust of wind blew the tarp off), and dignitaries and village chiefs were under another. My speech, which was scheduled for 10:00 began at 12:20. The microphone battery held out and when I finished (getting a laugh from my Chichewa proverb) Estnath summarized in Chichewa. I have no idea what she said, but she had no paper and was very animated and passionate and talked way longer than I did. She was cheered and we sat to enjoy the rest of the program. There were skits, dances, speeches from district authorities, and I assume it had to do with the theme of midwives and climate change but I understood almost none of it. The whole thing was supposed to end at 12:30 but it was 3 before we broke up and found a place for lunch. It was nearly dusk when I returned to the lodge to set up my tent. 

Friday, the Malawian Midwifery Association had their business meeting to hold elections for new officers and make a plan for the next year. It was scheduled for 8:30-12:30. I was leaving to drive to the Ntchisi Forest Lodge and GPS said it would be a three and a half hour drive. If I left as soon as the meeting ended I figured I’d make it in good time. I packed up my tent, went to the restaurant for breakfast, and headed to the venue at 8:25 to find only a few people  waiting outside…and waiting and waiting and waiting. At 11:30 they were just getting the projector set up and people were trickling in and I knew I wasn’t staying for the meeting. I figured I tried, and left. My biggest fear here is being on the road at night, and night comes early, so having another hour cushion was fine with me. I headed north. 

The Ntchisi Forest Lodge is situated in one of the last remaining indigenous forests in Malawi, now a protected area. Women are allowed to collect firewood on Saturdays but only dead wood already fallen. The lodge itself is an old colonial house, simple but well designed with a veranda that looks out to the lake in the distance, which, we can’t see it because of all the smoke from fires burning at this time of year. The drive here was slowed by road construction so driving was on a dusty dirt side track for most of the way. That took up time. Then the twenty-six kilometer dirt road up into the forest was more like a mountain trail way harder than I expected. I bottomed out once and worried I’d damaged my vehicle but it chugged along and made it here beautifully just before sunset. Thank God I’d left an hour earlier than planned. When I pulled in and poured myself out of the car, Hudson and Montfort came to greet me and carry my bags. There’s nothing quite like a Malawian welcome. I was so relieved to be here I handed them my unorganized belongings and followed them in. They showed me to my room, deposited my stuff, and I went directly to the veranda for the sunset and a gin and tonic. 

The lodge was originally a vacation home in colonial times, then became a government rest house after independence. I’m not sure what year, but at some point it was sold to a South African woman who continued to run it as a lodge. It has changed hands a few more times and currently a German couple own and run it, though I haven’t seen them. 

Yesterday I went for an eight mile hike though the rain forest, which, (and I know this is ridiculous) looked just like the exhibits in a botanical garden. Or I should say the exhibits I’ve seen are darn good representations. I boldly went without a guide as the guys here told me it was a trail well marked and easy to follow. They were right. It was shady and cool and a clear path that wound up and around the forest-covered mountain. I passed several women with large bundles of firewood on their heads, their weekly harvest. It’s sobering to think most of Malawi was once like this. I saw plenty of monkeys, no snakes, lots of birds, and loved it. My heart and legs felt it. There were plenty of very steep stretches. Switchbacks are not a thing here. 

I got back and spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool and chatting with other guests. This is a popular place despite the difficult road to get here. I can see why. The setting is gorgeous and the meals are fantastic. They grow most of their own food including the coffee. And guests support the forest preservation.

Guests here are all expats living and working in Lilongwe and one couple traveling and passing through. German, Dutch, Swiss, and British, all expressing concern about our election. The general sentiment was ––what’s wrong with Americans that they can vote for trump? I tell them I know it is hard to believe but propaganda is powerful and when that’s all you hear, you may believe it. I looked at the woman from Germany and said, “I’d expect you’d understand that, right?” She looked down and nodded. It’s a matter of educating the ignorant effectively. We’ve got to figure it out since the NY Times seems to be owned by the rapist himself. They asked me if I thought Biden should step down and I told them no. I know the calls for that are coming from fear of losing but it is not a guarantee democrats would win with a different opponent, though God knows we must do whatever possible to make sure the democrats win. The most likely alternative candidate is Kamala Harris and she is already on the ballot. I understand everyone’s concern. It’s the whole world that depends on us keeping our democracy. I told them I believe we won’t let them down. I have to believe that. Failure is not an option. Women will not let that happen.

Tomorrow I’ll go to Lilongwe, Tuesday I have a few meetings scheduled and will see about possible funding for our project. Wednesday it’ll be back to Blantyre. I’ll keep moving forward with faith in the overall good of humankind. Failure is not an option. 

Love to all,