[Above photo: San (Bushman) paintings in the Chongoni Rock Art Area of Malawi: >2000 years old]
After the excitement of the prior week’s break-in and battery of our friends, Linda’s hectic and ambitious schedule, and the conclusion of another 6 week medical student rotation, we were ready for a break. And we took one, spending two nights with our friends, Peter and Caroline, at the Dedza Pottery Lodge. We hiked Dedza Mountain one day, getting a total drenching for an hour on the return. It was a 9 ½ mile hike with about 2200ft elevation. We thought we had done it last year; the same guide took us about ½ way up. Linda asked why he didn’t take us all the way on that trip. “You were tired.” We probably thought we’d arrived at the top and were tired. It was a really beautiful hike up the mountain and across the top through flowered fields and past thick woods.
Today we hiked up to one of the San rock art sites—Namzeze—and saw ancient geometric drawings and paintings of animals. They were in a tall but shallow cave, far up a hill, where the artists lived with their hunting and gathering families. It is wonderful to imagine them there, well protected, as they were high over the valley and could see anyone approaching. Apparently, they were a very small people; the Bradt Guidebook says that they would ask a Chewa or other normal-sized person if they had seen them approaching. If the other said, “No, you are too small.” the San would instantly launch a poison dart into them. Talk about a Napoleon Complex!
On our return to the car Linda paused at a house where a number of people were cleaning and bagging their potato crop. “How much is a bag (huge, 50kg)?” “15,000 kwatcha ($20).” We said it was too many potatoes. “7,000 (less than $10) ?” We felt guilty and gave them 10,000MWK if they would carry them 1km to our car which we had parked before hiking across the badly damaged bridge. [We actually gave them another 2000MWK just for good measure.] We split them with Peter and Caroline and now have 50+# of potatoes, most of which we’ll give to our 3 guards. As we drove the several kilometers back to the Pottery Lodge, children would stand by the road and shout, “Mzungu, bye-bye!” Mzungu is the plural of ‘White European’ (azungu).
I finished The Essex Serpent, which is beautifully written and portrays characters and their choices in a way that struck me as true. The ambivalence of all relationships, the painful struggle for truth and honesty in relationships which often bumps up against kindness and chemistry, and our fundamentally irrational natures which leave us easy prey to mob-think. It seems pretty apropos for this moment in the US.
Now I’m on to Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s account of his trip overland—often by the most difficult routes—from Cairo to Cape Town. He has spent a lot of time in Africa; he basically got the Peace Corps thrown out of Malawi for writing unflattering things about the government when he was here as a PC volunteer. He certainly has a gift of description and a knack for finding adventure and interesting people. He also is pretty cynical and speaks from a superior and elevated position that I find unpleasant much of the time. However, I am drawn to it in anticipation of our planned trips to Mozambique in a few weeks and to Zambia-Botswana-Namibia in July and August. He is a pretty adaptable and intrepid traveler, I must admit.
We have seen the most incredible sunsets here, as I’ve often commented. I’m not sure what the atmospherics are that enable them, but the colors and the cloud formations are the stuff of fantasy. We passed a rainstorm on the drive home and there was a striking rainbow. In the 15 seconds it took me to find and ready my camera for a shot, it vanished. I recall concerts at the Filmore in the ‘60’s when they’d pour different colored oils on a glass plate, or between two glass plates, and project it onto a screen. That plus the music plus some herbal encouragement and it was pretty outrageous. With no electronics and no music and certainly no intoxicants, sunsets here are even more breathtaking!
It was fascinating and exhausting to conduct 8 hours of oral examinations for our 27 students on Thursday. Some were just outstanding and two girls, who seemed in clinic and elsewhere to do creditably, came up short. They didn’t correctly identify Delirium Tremens from a very simple and clear anecdote and when we gave them the diagnosis, they didn’t know the correct treatment. It’s serious business, as it is likely the most common form of delirium they’ll see and untreated it has a 20% mortality rate. So they’ll repeat the rotation next year. One was pretty much a cipher during the rotation, the other seemed like she was learning very well. I’m not sure what happened but often we learn that they are scrambling for their school fees or someone important has died and they are unable to concentrate on their work
At the Feedback Session on Friday, one of the girls who flunked was present, which was brave. Those who have gotten a call the night before rarely show for the feedback. Fortuitously, the student sitting behind her in the auditorium had just completed the rotation for a second time and, standing, made an eloquent statement about how upset he had been to flunk and how glad he was that he has repeated it. “We sometimes just try to pass through this or that course, to get by. But this is now inside of me and I’ll remember what I learned whenever I see a patient.” It was just the ticket.
The students noted that they felt heard and understood by us. They were very appreciative, which always feels nice. One student criticized Stefan for being so short and angry one day in clinic. He’s gotten the identical message at other times from students. I could, and should, let him know the same; he gets too scattered and, then, rude and abrupt. He has been under a lot of stress from all sides recently. He’s putting on a major research conference in Lilongwe this week for graduate students and faculty from all over Africa and many from UK. He’s let me know some of the difficulties he’s had getting very simple, basic things done in preparation, so I feel sympathy for him. After this week, his life should be much easier.
I’m weary and feel like sinking into our bed. This offering feels less lustrous than any Malawian sunset!