Notes From a Trump-Identified “Shithole Country” — Domwe Island

15 January 2018

[Above photo: The sunset last night rivaled the one described below. To the right is the sun dropping beneath the mountains across the lake, to the left is a squall and shower coming our way.]

We have fallen into Paradise. I doubt we earned it through Good Works. In college I learned that Jonathon Edwards, a famous Connecticut Valley preacher, didn’t think good works saved you from falling through the rotten floor on which you were walking, into the flames of Hell below. Karma is a more convivial view of Fate. In any case, after a 30 minute boat ride we arrived at the only habitation on Domwe Island in Lake Malawi,     1 ½ miles off of Cape Maclear.  The camp is invisible, even with binoculars, from the fishing village of our departure, so well are the structures concealed.

The camp is set on a mountain slope among trees over a beach of brown, granitic sand. It is stretched out and up, so that no structure is visible from another. Everything is built with natural post and beam construction and thatched roofs. There are two 12’x14 feet large tents with sisal mats, double beds, and wrap-around balconies, three or four covered platforms for one’s own tent, a dining “room”, a kitchen, two self-composting toilets and an outdoor shower. Bring your own food and cook it yourself or pay Ashley a pittance and he’ll do it for you. The other staff were gracious and helpful, as well.

Wild bush pigs visit outside the kitchen each night for slops, birds are everywhere, as are water monitor lizards, rainbow skinks, civet cats, and dassie. Our tented platform, with hammock, is at the end of one line, 50 feet over the beach and looking out towards Thumbi Island West, a mile away. At night the lights of fisherman are strung like pearls in the distance, the air is soft and warm, and the only sounds are waves lapping at the beach, a rare disgruntled bird’s chirp, the occasional barking of a baboon, and crickets or cicada.  We haven’t seen a mosquito!

Sunset last night was the most magnificent I have ever seen. Of course, we were on the beach and I left my camera at our tent and didn’t want to miss a minute of the light show to get it. It was like the wedding at the end of a blockbuster Indian Bollywood romance or the Hallelujah Chorus from Beethoven’s Ninth. The sun set across the lake over the Dedza Hills in a blaze of huge dark red rays. Clouds of different formations—-cirrus, cumulus, minimus (tiny, my coinage)—and at different altitudes turned grey to black or white to peach to rose and at the very end there was a show of lightening to the north. It was breathtaking and I’ll have my camera with me on the beach this evening in case there is a repeat. All the while we are watching six gorgeous bee eaters, with green caps and capes, bright yellow bibs, black eye-masks, and pale abdomens, fly a loop, eat an insect or two, and land on the low branches of trees at the beach’s verge.

Yesterday morning we hiked to the top of Domwe Peak for a view of all Creation, then snorkeled along the beach surrounded by a myriad of colorful cichlids. Linda is wary of the water but gamely got into it and snorkeled all around. Today’s snorkeling in the opposite direction led us to fabulous rocks and passages and seemingly limitless numbers and variety of fish.  While lacking the power of a salt-water reef, it was enthralling. After sunset last night we grilled on the beach a filet of beef and eggplant from our garden and ate that with a salad, also from our garden (including the first avocado from our tree), sitting in the dining “room”, watching the afterglow. This morning the fishermen paddled and putted home from their night’s work, some singing, all waving to us. Linda has organized and prepared the food with her customary apparent ease and skill.

We are refreshed after the grit of only 10 days in Blantyre.  And, yet, I like the town and feel pleasure plunging into the noise, color and chaos of the huge public market, to buy a Mother’s Day chitenje with “We Love You, Mum” on it beneath a picture of a woman holding her baby and wielding a machete. I’ll use it to spruce up my Pediatric Mental Health consulting room.

I had an interesting exchange with two of our three Psychiatric Nurses last week. I had previously announced in our clinic meeting that there was up to $4000 in grant money available from Seed Global Health for improving education through the Colleges of Medicine and Nursing in Blantyre. They wondered about it; I quickly said it couldn’t be used for salary or stipend. They then proceeded to say that they weren’t allowed to apply for holiday per diem work or to go to off-campus workshops. Somehow the Health Ministry has allowed some nurses to receive generous per-diem stipends for these workshops. Our nurses’ view is that people think since they have two azungus (Europeans, white people) in the department, we are giving them money so they shouldn’t get the workshop stipends. I assured them that I was a volunteer and couldn’t subsidize their $160/month salaries. (In the US nurses can make $6000 and upwards/month with less responsibility and much better working conditions.) But, I could see about getting a hot plate and electric kettle for Room 6. And I plan to put on a two afternoon workshop, together with tea, samosas, and stipends, to improve their skills at seeing children. I’ll include the two Registrars, although their salaries are so good (from a British educational foundation) that they don’t require a stipend.  It is tough; the nurses work hard. I could afford $20/nurse/month and it would make a difference. But I’ll leave in 6 months and it will set a difficult precedent. There are so many here who need a bit of help.

Linda’s students were doing their routine health education for the women in the post-natal clinic last week. They sang the lesson, as is common, getting the women to clap and sing along. When Linda asked what the Chichewa meant, they said: “If you have a lot of babies, the men will run away. Men are not responsible. Get family planning”. She nearly fell over laughing at their truth.

I cannot say I am laughing as I read Fire and Fury but it is confirmatory, even if a few facts may be interpreted alternatively, of the shallowness, chaos, and mendacity of the DT White House. I know that the “Eastern Establishment” and both coasts have often quietly scorned and disregarded the needs of the poor and working people in our country.  But replacing educated men—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, whatever their faults, were thoughtful and inclusive—with an impulsive racist who is a multiple-time failed businessman and who cannot, or at least doesn’t, read—really an ignorant man—is about the dumbest, most fanciful act I can imagine.

We await with both anxiety and excitement the news of Linda’s Model Midwifery Ward and my Fulbright application.  Our planning for next year is contingent on both of those. If our health holds, all answers look good to me.  Oh, and the Ugandan conference presentation in February I applied to do. That will just be frosting!

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