A Day In the Country

23 October 2016

I suppose it’s difficult to think of a day in the country without recalling the wonderful Jean Renoir film (Honestly, before I looked it up I thought it was Rene Clair.). Ours had no courting or seduction. There was some comedy, some drama, good music, and a lot of hard work.

Linda befriended a driver from the College of Nursing who took her and a number of other nursing faculty to Lilongwe to conduct exams last week. When he learned that Linda was Catholic, he invited her to his church. She accepted.

We got on our bikes at 8:30AM today and set off down a shortcut—-a rough dirt and rocky road, along a rutted path to the College of Medicine Sports Complex, and out onto the highway, avoiding a lot of bad traffic. Then we rode, mostly downhill, off the plateau on which Blantyre sits, for an hour to Chadzunda, a little trading center (rather than a town) on the road to Chickwawa. We had a tailwind and realized it would be a slog heading home, especially in the heat of early afternoon.

We met Mark, a welcoming mustachioed man in slacks and a white polyester polo shirt, in front of the In and Out Market. The owner and Mark carried our bikes up steps to the side of the market, where we locked them. And set off through the dirt paths of the village to the St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. We could hear it, wonderful singing, before we saw the building. It was a simple brick structure with a tin roof in the shape of a cross. Inside we sat on benches without backs and kneeled on the concrete floor when that was indicated. The church was full, men on the left, women on the right, mixed men and women in the middle section.

The mixed choir sat mostly out of sight in the left transept.  Their voices reflected off of the slanting tin roof and projected with force and clarity into the nave. They sang with passion, and rhythm, often swaying as we clapped in time. Periodically a woman would ululate, adding a curious and foreign-sounding (to me) element to the music. Their rhythms were complex and difficult to imitate. Their harmonies were otherworldly, as well. It turns out that they are locally well-known, sing at other churches in the area, and have recorded a CD.  We bought a copy for MK1000 (about $1.30), although we don’t have a CD player here.  Eddie Izzard has a piece about rich WASPs’ church music—-painful, pinched, lugubrious—and poor African Americans’ church music—joyful, exuberant, uplifting—and who deserves our sympathy more?

After a lengthy service in Chichewa, during which Mark noticed I wasn’t genuflecting or otherwise participating in the well-practiced rituals and asked Linda if I was Catholic, we got to the part I especially like. We shake the hand of everyone in reach, saying, “Peace be with you.” Of course, I said it in English and they said it in Chichewa but the smiles and handshakes communicated it all perfectly clearly. Great music, peace be with you—not a bad start to the day.

Mark then walked us to his home, which was formerly his father’s home. Chadzunda is his village, where he was born and grew up and where his father and grandfather come from. Actually, since he works in Blantyre he usually stays there but has come home periodically because some people were stealing his father’s land. His mother died when he was 9yo, from what he isn’t sure. His father died 3 years ago at 80+ years of age.

The house is very nice, brick with stucco interior and exterior, sitting amidst trees on a hill overlooking his fields. We sat on very comfortable furniture and chatted, mostly about his history here and as a driver. He had wanted to go into the military but because he couldn’t afford the school fees had to drop out of secondary school in 11th grade. You must be a secondary school graduate to enter the military. He is married to a nurse who works in Zomba, an hour the other side of Blantyre, and their three children are with her. He’s been a driver with the College of Nursing for 18 years and sees that as his future, even though “I never wanted to be a driver”. The story of family dislocation is a common one here; jobs are scarce and people must go where they can make a living.

His sisters were preparing lunch and I said, “Wonderful, I love nsima.” Cultural gaffe. “You like nsima?” he asked anxiously. Then jumped up and ran to the kitchen to get nsima patties from one of his sisters’ homes to add to the lunch. It was delicious, and I apologized profusely. And then proceeded to clean my plate. I would have eaten both nsima patties, even though I’m a one patty guy, if it killed me.

Mark was clearly delighted that we were there, as was his brother, Lyson, and his sisters. It feels strange that because we are white and teaching at the colleges that we would be celebrated for that. Yet, I guess people flock around Henry Kissinger or Brittney Spears in the US for similarly specious reasons.

He suggested we lie around until the heat died, which would be 4PM. Since we had things to do and dinner guests at 6PM, we made our apologies and he walked us to the road, pushing Linda’s bike. He is clearly really taken with her. I get it!

Then the long, uphill, into the wind bike ride home. We were drinking water like camels and stopped to get more at a gas station en route. Linda got a pounding headache, so we took it easy on the way back, which suited me just fine. I need to break no records at my age; nor bones. Much of the road had no designated, paved shoulder and cars and trucks whipped past us at terrifying speeds. 150 feet ahead a car swerved across the opposite lane to take a dirt road down a hill. How it missed being crushed by the pickup it cut in front of, we’ll never know. Drinking is a common part of Sunday afternoon for males and the driver must have been blind drunk.  A very lucky blind drunk.

One of the things that always strikes me is how many people are walking along the roadsides, in town or in the country. They may be purposeful, they may carry or push something, or they may just be aimlessly meandering along. There are many, however.

Linda just asked if I had shoes on, because there was a large cockroach scuttling down the hall. I did and he died. Not very Buddhist of me, but I am not eager to share my dwelling with roaches or rats. The mosquitoes, plentiful at ankle level after dark—Where the devil are they hiding during the daylight hours?—are pest enough.

Stefan, my boss, and his long-time girlfriend, Lucy, came for curry and naan. And a mango-apple tart. Linda is a wizard in the kitchen and loves to do it. Instead of ice cubes, she puts water in the bottom of our “glasses” (the cut-off bottoms of plastic water and tonic bottles) and freezes them. Excellent for gin and tonics. Lucy is an investigative journalist and was just awarded a position as a Resident Journalist with the Wellcome Trust, a large British biomedical research charity. She is tickled, as it is an honor and will allow her to travel and examine how the grant money is being spent.  She is especially pleased since she didn’t apply for it!  We had a lively conversation over wonderful food and now, after one more edit, I’ll to bed.

Not the stuff of French cinema, I think.



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