We awakened at 3:30AM to the sound of waves breaking on the beach. At 4 we were up and on the beach with cups of tea, watching the dawn break in Africa. Tiny lights from fishermen’s dugout canoes dotted the lake. Everything turned rosy, the slipper of moon faded, and, eventually, the red ball of sun began to rise. One by one 4 other GHSP volunteers spilled onto the beach, jogging and birdwatching. We saw an immense Sea Eagle which was being attacked by two falcons. And Lake Malawi stretched out like the sea; Mozambique, the other shore, was not to be seen.
We had spent the night at a beautiful upscale resort on the shore near Salima, a chance at renewal after 4 nights on the floor of a mud brick, thatch-roofed hut in a tiny village, Chisizema, north of Lilongwe. The latter was a wonderful, taxing experience. Our host family were Mwine Mwale and her husband, Mackiwell Nyilende. We stayed in a tiny two room hut in their compound which also had their tiny hut and those of two daughters and numerous grandchildren. Outside the fenced compound was a tiny bathhouse with a brick floor and a thatched roof and another mudbrick structure, the chimoze. The chimoze is a pit toilet capped with concrete and a raised center with a 6×6” hole in it for your business. Using it properly requires good aim. It was odorless and the entire compound was spotless. The dirt floor of the compound was swept each morning with a homemade broom by Mwine.
Mwine and Mackiwell were very gracious and welcoming. We had bread fried in grease, bread with peanut butter, or bread dipped in egg and fried, all with tea, for breakfast. Nsima, steamed corn meal patties, with relish for lunch and supper. Often with supper there was meat, chicken or beef, or scrambled eggs and a vegetable dish of greens, onions, and tomatoes. All was served and eaten with our hands. Before and after each meal Mwine would place a basin under our hands and we would wash them with soap. The food was generally tasty, if lacking variety. The Peace Corps gave us each a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter for our use or to share. We gave it immediately to our hosts and then ate it for breakfast for the next 3 days. We might have done better to give it to them as part of our going away gift package.
Personal space is a very relative concept. Certainly in Malawi if you are alone, people feel sorry for you and sit with you. Since we were such unusual guests, people always gathered in our compound in the late afternoon and early evening to meet and visit with us. The difficulty was that our daily language lessons were just ramping up and most of the villagers spoke no English. Meals were pretty silent. Mackiwell actually knew a lot of English words but couldn’t make sentences. In the district there were nearly a million people and only three secondary schools. Girls, if lucky, get 4 grades of primary school. In any case, the children loved to visit and stare at us and then sit next to us. We taught them Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and they then would sing us a whole variety of their songs. We invented a game one evening with a two gallon water bottle, tossing it and two balls made of plastic bags filled with plastic bags to the children in a circle. Eventually 23 little children were involved and it got so wild and out of hand we had to stop it. But it cemented our rep in the community and as we’d walk to class a little voice would ring out from one of the houses, “Georgie” or “Linda”. The children were absolutely darling, if ever-present. Sometimes we’d just retreat to our room to rest, to be alone. But we could write in the courtyard and not engage with them and they would patiently sit for a long time, wanting to be with us and, no doubt, hoping for a little excitement.
We observed a netball game and a soccer game at the village field. Netball is a girls’ game and was it wild! Adolescent girls toss a soccer ball, wearing skirts and no shoes, to their teammates down the field, advancing it until, with luck, one of their team was underneath the hoop where she would get an unopposed shot. The hoop was a 3” strip of metal in a circle about 14” in diameter nailed to an upright pole. When a girl had the ball she couldn’t run with it, so they threw it with great force and often great accuracy. The leaps and abandon were remarkable and it was clearly wildly enjoyable to them and the spectators. There was no net. The soccer game was fun to watch as well, but not novel. Serious athleticism and determination, however.
Since it is the dry season there is no real farmwork for Mackiwell to do, so he mostly hung around. The land he farms—maize, groundnuts, cassava— is a 45’ walk each way for him during the planting and growing season. Our hosts let us know a couple of times that drought and flooding had left them without enough food or money to get through this year, clearly hoping we’d pony up. But when we didn’t, they were still warm and friendly. It would be so easy to drop $100 (76,000 Kwatcha) which could make a great difference to them. But we have been told it would set a precedent and might create difficulties for them in their village. We are giving to Malawi in another way, as medical and nursing volunteer faculty, and will do well to stick to that. It is difficult, however, to imagine them hungry in January and February, the “hunger months”, when crops are planted but not ready for harvest and last year’s maize has run low or out. An estimated 6-8 million Malawians are facing famine this year.
As part of our village stay we visited a district health center. The Clinical Medical Officer, the equivalent of a Physician’s Assistant in the US, is the ranking professional. He sees between 300 and 400 patients per day, serving a catchment population of 47,000. Since some of his patients come from as far as 28 kilometers away, pregnant women are asked to come in their 8th month and wait until they go into labor. They sit outside the clinic on the ground, cooking, and talking with other mothers each day. There are one midwife and two “community midwives” (1 year of training) to deliver over 200 babies per month. And the clinic formulary is so limited the Clinical Medical Officer can only treat malaria, HIV/AIDS, and some STD’s. They sometimes have Valium if someone comes in with a seizure, but sometimes they do not. An ambulance to the District Hospital generally takes 4-5 hours to arrive. Talk about stretched resources.
We also visited a Traditional Healer. There are Spiritual Healers, who use masks and drumming and potions but ours was basically an herbalist. It was difficult to assess the scope of his practice but I think he treats cancer patients. He had an old wine bottle with a large plastic pigeon inside it—I couldn’t imagine how he got it inside!—that he uses as a diagnostic tool. He stated, “It’s my xray machine, my MRI.” Hm.
Then, the day before we left, we had a ceremony with speeches, presentation of certificates of completion to the host families, and wild drumming and dancing. The latter included two cross-dressing men who did remarkably lewd dances. A good time was had by all.
Sadly, we didn’t get to say goodbye to Mackiwell the next morning. In the middle of the night he had to locate a vehicle to take one of his daughters to the hospital with a probable breast abscess. It brought home, again, the precarious circumstances of these lovely, smart, generous people who depend on the weather for their livelihood. People everywhere want food and job security, decent and affordable health care, and freedom from violence. It doesn’t seem too much to ask, really.