Chimwemwe and Home

2 September 2018

[Above photo: “Want to see how fast I can close it?” ” Yes, those are leeches in my mouth. They add the taste of licorice to a meal.” A large croc on the Zambezi.]

This is the season I like the least in Blantyre—and Malawi. From August through early November it grows increasingly hot, very dusty and very smoky. The numerous streams running through the town are sluggish and fetid. The smoke is from the terrible practice of burning leaves, maize stalks, plastic bags, and any refuse at the roadside. Composting, anyone? Plus, inhaling the plastic fumes gives this lung cancer survivor pause. There is dust everywhere these few months. At last, in mid-November, the rains come, the air clears, the maize grows, and everyone relaxes, assuming that famine will be averted.

As I walked to Queens this morning to explore neuro-rehabilitation options for Chimwemwe, I passed a man standing silently at the roadside. There was a small plastic bowl on the ground across the road from him with stones keeping a few bills from being blown away. Then I noticed about ten potholes he had filled with crumbled bricks and dirt. He’s trying to do something constructive to stay alive. I turned and put some money in his bowl, thinking, ‘And the government doesn’t fix the roads but the legislators and their retinue ride around in shiny, new black uber-SUV’s.’ A bit further on I saw a younger man, with a beard, running into traffic and intentionally bouncing off the cars, slapping them as they passed. He was drunk, I think. I might have gone to try to “save” him but he was big and pretty belligerent. So I trudged on, holding my breath through the thick smoke from the fires, across the College of Medicine campus to Queens and the Louis Marchesi Center, a physiotherapy training site. Lines of people were waiting so, feeling pressed for time, I plunged ahead of them and got enough information to let Chimwemwe’s family know how to obtain services.

Ian Pennington, whose house we assumed when he returned to UK 1 ½ years ago, and I drove to the village of Chamusa, where we parked.  We then walked up a steep and rutted dirt path through a village, passing women who were washing clothing in the disgusting water of a stream.  We arrived at Chimwemwe’s parents’ compound where his father, in clean pressed slacks and shirt, welcomed us in perfect English. When we entered the house, I greeted his mother, sister, wife, and two cousins, and we sat down. Chimwemwe was largely silent but recognized me, I believe. I got him to speak a little. He can move his right arm and leg slightly but cannot elevate his arm, grasp anything, or stand. This bright, fit, creative, hard-working man has been so reduced by his injury. He had a large healing scar on his occiput.

We talked some, I gave his mother some money, and I gave them instructions about frequently exercising his speech and muscles. ‘No, TV is may be entertaining but it won’t really help him.’ Ian suggested they sing together, which I thought was a great idea.  His sister will go to the Marchesi Center Friday to book an assessment for him. I had to stop myself from bursting into tears on numerous occasions, seeing the shell of the man I knew. He tired easily and we left after about an hour. The family is so sweet, appreciative, and gracious it just breaks my heart. I think of all the little people in the world, those with little power, and then of the greedy few with vast power. How are we constructed so stupidly? Of course, relatively, I am one of the rich and shall leave for my rich country in less than 24 hours.

The frangipani trees are in leaf and bloom-ready and another tree, a marula, which I don’t think I’ve noticed before, is in full, fragrant flower. It is a large tree; the blossoms look like small lilies and are white on some trees and streaky pink on others. Magenta bougainvillea and abundant deep golden-orange flowers on green vines tumble over a number of the brick walls, softening the razor wire, broken glass, or electric fencing on top. I’ll miss the huge, old jacaranda blooming purple in the tea fields in Thyolo and around Mt. Mulanje and the flame trees on Kamuzu Highway by the Polytechnic.  Nature does its best to soften the harshness but the fact remains, I’m ready for home with all its imperfections.

I was anxious for several days about getting everything home, including several beautiful wood carvings which weigh mightily. Hastings drove me to Chileka Airport and waited, lest I needed him to return anything that couldn’t accompany my flight. I weight about 140#. I think the airlines should give us a “total” weight allowance, not the same for each passenger, since others weigh considerably more.

I had the 3 suitcases wrapped in industrial-strength saran wrap to prevent thievery and since the latches on the largest suitcase were all broken. At the check-in a woman behind me in line greeted someone behind the counter and moved in front of me. I was initially irritated and thought about saying something to her but restrained myself. What if it was her brother or boy-friend, eager to demonstrate their care for her by exerting a little harmless power on her behalf? As it happened, my restraint was followed by good humor when I got to the counter. All my bags were well over the weight limit. And I couldn’t bring Linda’s wooden carving as a carry-on. I was looking at $670 of excess baggage charges but a kind supervisor came by, eyed me up and down, told the checker to let two of the bags pass, suggested I have the carving bound to the third bag with wrap, and was exceedingly and ingeniously helpful. My excess baggage charge was $280.

On the flight from Addis to Toronto, the long leg, a very nervous woman sat next to me. She was from Cameroon, going to visit her engineer daughter in Calgary, her first time on a plane. She didn’t speak French (Cameroon is Francophone), having dropped out of school in 4th grade when both her parents died. I reassured her that I would help her make her connecting flight, whereupon she calmed considerably. I walked with her after we landed in Toronto, feeling good-samaritanish and seeking more good karma.

It happened to come back at me quickly, as all three heavy bags emerged promptly at the baggage carousel and Priscilla and Tim, the manager at Alamo Car Rentals at Logan Airport, knocked themselves out to get me a car although I didn’t have a credit card nor the PIN to use for my debit card. Tim even chased around and got me a luggage cart!  Life would have been considerably more complicated for me if they hadn’t done both. They were tickled when I gave them each some kwatcha notes.

Launched toward Woods Hole in a new minivan, all bags aboard, I fretted initially about not having a phone but figured my luck would hold. It did. On the shuttle from the steamship parking lot to the ferry dock, I loudly asked if anyone would let me call my friend on the Vineyard for a 1000 Malawi kwatcha note? Bobby, sitting next to me smelling of cigarettes with tatoos crawling up his neck and down his arms and legs, was the only one who responded, saying, “Sure.” and in a moment I arranged for Jeff to pick me up at the terminal at Oak Bluffs.  Bobby, who is a gas line installer and extremely rough around the edges, was garrulous, “These fuckin’ people on this island are such snobs.” And, “What is the world comin’ to? You punch someone in the face and it’s a felony and you’ll do time.” Etc. He said his wife would “really like me”. Why? “Because you talked to me. These fuckin’…”. It almost made me cry. I could see he would be a hard sell for most of the upper middle to upper class folks vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, yet I liked him, despite his roughness, especially for how thrilled he was to show me pictures of his 18 month old son and how excited he was to see him after a 3 day absence. “I needed to work; we need the money.”

It is wonderful to be home, even if everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. The Vineyard is lush, over-ripe with greenery. Jeff’s home is large and quiet and I got to meet his son, Michael, of whom Jeff is justifiably proud and his calm, intelligent, pretty girlfriend, Lacy. Tonight we’ll go out for Japanese and a film. If only Linda and Bonnie, Jeff’s wife, were here and I was certain that both my kids were ok, it would be perfect.

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