Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Ladies Take a Field Trip

As I mentioned in my last blog, the call of adventure beckoned my friends to leave Mwazisi earlier than they had planned. They decided they wanted to do something nice for the community before leaving, which developed into the idea of renting a Matola and taking the women of Mwazisi to Vwaza Game Reserve to do a game drive, and have a day outside the village to be free of the monotony of their usual daily activities. We just invited women because we knew they were much less likely to have an opportunity like this, and we also knew that the dynamic would change if men also came along, the women wouldn’t feel so free and open to enjoy themselves.

We left late and our number of women was reduced because of a funeral at a near by village. But I was happy that the journey carried on anyways, and the 23 women who did come were abuzz with excitement as the truck pulled out of Mwazisi. All of the ladies were dressed in their best dresses, kept beaming smiles, and sang songs the entire way. One often repeated verse was “Tizamuwona zovu lero” (“We will see elephants today”). My name was also featured occasionally in the songs, which I always acknowledged with a grateful smile. We stopped in Kapenda to pick up Willard Nshanti, the Parks and Wildlife official I asked to escort us. He came out of his house wearing his parks uniform, a bright red sash across his body, and had an M16 rifle. He also came out with a huge grin on his face that gave the scene an element of comedy. I caught Leslie’s eyes and could see that she found it every bit as funny as I did.

We powered through the sandy patches in the road where Matolas tend to get stuck and reached the park close to 9:00 am. Unlike the last time I biked to Vwaza there were no elephants sitting at the gate waiting to greet us, but plenty of baboons instead. Before we started the game drive the park director addressed all of the ladies outside his office. He talked about the problems caused by people coming into the park to collect firewood, and the importance of starting our own tree nurseries, and planting trees near people’s homes to ensure that firewood is available inside the village, and people don’t need to be so dependent on the surrounding forests’ resources. I was happy to hear him say “Chonde mukupanda blue gum na milina chara” (“Please don’t plant eucalyptus and milina trees”). These are two very invasive trees that do more harm than good for the soil, but are the most common trees planted by Malawians because of how fast-growing they are.

After the talk we loaded back up on the Matola to go to Kazuni Lake, where animals can usually be seen at the water hole. Within just a few minutes of driving the women in the front of the Matola started calling out “Wona nkhumba,” pointing at two warthogs running through the woods, frantically being chased by three small piglets.

The next animal we saw was my favorite; a massive sabel. I was immediately reminded of my friend Tony’s animated description of what a sabel looks like, in the way that only Tony can describe something… He jumps from his chair to give himself room for the depiction. “Man you’ve never heard of a sable? It’s the most bad-ass animal in Malawi bro. It’s built like a freaking elk, man, but has a hump on its back like a bull-moose,” as he tucked his shoulders back and curled his neck to replicate the stout muscular neck of the beast. “And it’s big man, real big,” which he indicated by waving his hand high above his head. “And it has two long spiraling antlers” as he outlined the antlers over his head with his index fingers. “Most bad-ass animal in Malawi bro… So when one of the women pointed at one gracefully gliding through the woods I couldn’t help but smile, Tony’s description was dead-on, it was the most bad-ass animal I’ve seen in Malawi. We watched as it glided around each tree and over high shrubs with the fluidity of water running around stones in a streambed, despite having the muscle mass of a bull elk.

We saw scattered herds of bush-buck that could of just as easily have been white-tales grazing through fields of clover somewhere in eastern Wyoming. Then we pulled over by Kazuni Lake to get out and take a closer look at a herd of hippos under the supervision of Mr. Mshanti and his M16. He kept encouraging us to get closer and closer, which surprised me because I’ve always heard that hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. We were made bold by the guns under the park official’s arm, and inched within 30 feet of the huge and dangerous animals.

I especially enjoyed watching the women who I have only ever known in the context of Mwazisi. It was awesome being able to watch them having so much fun, and losing themselves in their wonder and amazement when one of the hippos opened its huge jaws to let out a yawn revealing its massive teeth for tearing and grinding the flesh of its unlucky prey. After the hippo closed its mouth and dipped under water to swim away the silence was broken by the women looking at each other still with wide excited eyes, chattering and laughing high on the adrenaline of the moment. As we walked over to a good place to take some group pictures, I continued to watch the women who were really feeling free and having a ball, carrying balls of dried elephant dung on their heads, and laughing the whole time. We spent a long time next to the lake just taking picture after picture, more of the ladies than of the hippos. I’m glad we caught all of those smiles when they were at their most magnificent.

The rest of the trip was botched up by Mshanti bringing us on a wild-goose chase that led us down a long bumpy road to the other side of the park to try and see a new animal sanctuary that it turned out we couldn’t even get clearance to enter. But it didn’t really matter the whole trip was worth the first couple hours of smiles.
We stopped off at a local market on the way back to hide from an oncoming storm, and eat lunch. The frustration of our misguided adventure to the sanctuary fell away as we shared fried corn on the cob, and bananas we bought from the market, and rice and eggs the women carried. As we sat in a storefront and talked about the days events those smiles came back. A mini-van full of teachers returning from a nearby school passed through the same village on its way back to Rumphi, which was our final destination after the field trip. The women told us we should take advantage of the free ride, and they would head back to Mwazisi after the rain had passed. So I loaded our bags while the ladies said their final goodbyes to Leslie, Annie, and Sarah knowing that they would most likely never see them again. My American friends insisted on hugs which surprised the ladies, who awkwardly embraced their new found friends. I could see they were sad to say goodbye to these foreigners who flashed into their lives and brought them to see a place just down the road from them but they had never had the chance to enjoy. They giggled as they gave into the hugs and I was happy to see the smiles flash again as we hopped in the van.

First Visitors

It never fails…when you’re late, everything goes wrong. I spent most of my morning looking for a lost ATM card so I could withdraw enough money to get to Koronga to meet my friends who had flown in to Dar Es Salaam and taken the train through Tanzania to the Northern border of Malawi. When I finally got on the mini-bus I sat for an hour and a half while the conductor waited for more passengers to board. Despite my persistent pleading, “Tiene, tiene chonde nachedwa” (Let’s go, Please I’m Late) he refused to start the journey until the bus was full to capacity. We finally started pulling out of Mzuzu when the side door suddenly fell off the overfilled minibus. All I could do was laugh as I looked at my watch to see that it was a half an hour until the time I agreed to meet my friends at the Chitimba roadblock, which was still one and a half hours drive away. While the driver and conductor put their Malawian ingenuity together to reattach the door I had visions of my friend’s good will towards me fading as they sat in the hot African sun on the side of the road surrounded by Malawian children with outstretched hands repeating the primary English phrase they learn from their friends in areas where tourists pass; “Azungu, give me my money”…A heck of a way to spend their first day in Malawi. I felt I was already failing as a host in Malawi.

The ride from Mzuzu to Chitimba is beautiful; it skates around the southeast corner of Nyika Park and affords spectacular views of dense green forests, with baboons wandering out to gawk at the cars as they wiz by. Then as you make your way down the escarpment Lake Malawi suddenly appears before you. Being the third biggest lake in Africa, its sheer enormity always gives a thrill when it comes into view. It was my first time taking this road but I couldn’t enjoy it fully with my waiting friends weighing heavy on my mind. Two and a half hours past the time I said I’d be there the driver told me we were approaching the Chitimba roadblock. I climbed out of the hot, packed minibus with my apologies all planned out, and found my friends sitting under a palm tree with smiles on their faces as they enjoyed a fruit picnic and chatted with one of the English speaking roadblock officers. They all greeted me with big hugs and warm salutations. Not a complaint was uttered and when I brought up my late arrival, they just shrugged their shoulders, and said “Eh we figured you would be here a little late so we only got here a half hour ago. We’re on African time now, just glad to be here.” I was relieved and excited; right away I knew this was the way things were going to go for the next month. There was no need for me to ever worry about having to entertain anybody, the ladies were always game to go with the flow and enjoy any experience that came their way. They were open to anything and everything and were never phased by the common frustrations that seem to come with life in Malawi.

Sarah, Leslie, and Annie had been on rugby tour with the Missoula Maggots for a few months, and were tired and ready to spend some time in my village. Mary’s only destination was Africa, but she was also content with spending time in Mwazisi where she could do what she loves and does best…teach. The plan was for them to stay with me for a month while they helped the form four students (high school seniors) prepare for their MSCE exams, the most important test most Malawians will ever take. A students entire scholastic carrier boils down to whether or not they do well on this month long series of exams. Unfortunately, by the time my friends arrived, the time for teaching and studying was pretty much over, but we were able to put together a few mass cramming sessions, that turned out to be very helpful, according to all the students who came. An opportunity to practice in the eleventh hour would make a difference. The secondary school teachers view the second half of the third term as the beginning of their vacation, so some of the teachers leave to go to Mzuzu or Zomba to work on advanced certificates while others spend the remainder of the school days sitting under a mango tree, and leave the form fours to study on their own. Form one and threes spend their time idling in teacherless school blocks.

From talking to a few Peace Corps Education volunteers I gathered that the essay portion of the exams was the most difficult section for most students. So in the weeks before my friends arrival I took over some of the other teacher’s open slots with the form fours and gave them the best tutorial I could come up with on essay writing. The day before I left to go to Chitimba I had the form fours write an essay that I took from an old test paper. When the ladies got to the village we looked them over to see what common mistakes we could shore up at the last minute.

The essays showed that we had a lot to teach in only a few days. Most of the students, even after my previous crash course, had no concept of how to structure an essay. They wrote in bullet points and rarely made a complete sentence. The best way for us to help was to set up a workshop, where we reviewed the structure of a good essay: thesis, support, support, support, and a conclusion, with an emphasis on the importance of answering the who, what, when, where, and why in any question. We then gave them three practice questions to choose from and allowed them 50 minutes to write the exam, to simulate the actual tests, which have a strict time limit. After they finished we went over some basic vocabulary and grammar in small groups. Mary was swarmed by students looking for help in math, which she handled with the grace and professionalism that inspired the phrase that the rest of us probably repeated a thousand times over the next month, “Mary’s so fricken amazing!”

We spent the rest of the afternoon marking papers, and giving extra help to students with more in depth questions. My friends fully embraced the task; I was amazed at the thoughtful detail with which they marked the papers, and the encouraging comments they gave. Especially Leslie who works with the Boys and Girls Club of Denver, I was impressed to see how quickly connected with my students, and how comfortable they became with her.

One example that sticks out came near the end of their visit, Leslie came to work on English with the form three class to organize a pen pals exchange with the students she works with in Denver. It was the first time she had met the form threes and I didn’t have time to help in that class because I had two periods of physical science to teach with the form one class next door. I brought Leslie into the class for a quick introduction, and explanation about what she would have them do, then I hurried over to my class and taught for the next 2 hours straight (cramming in as much review as possible to try to get them ready for final exams the following week.) When I left my class I found that she was still teaching…well, sort of. When I walked in all of the students were gathered around Leslie looking at her camera, roaring with laughter. Apparently she just recorded some of them doing their best Malipenga dance, and they were watching the replay. After she helped all of them write their letters, she just hung out with the students and chatted for a long time. The whole house had a glow when I peeked in; the students all had grins from ear to ear. They were obviously not used to a teacher staying after a lesson for casual conversation, and certainly not for singing and dancing. When I entered the classroom Leslie was finalizing plans for the whole group to reconvene at one of the girl’s house for a dance party. I asked “hey why haven’t I ever been invited to a dance party.” I have to say I was a bit jealous.

In addition to teaching, the ladies also had a chance to be students. They came with me to my regular Chitumbuka lessons with Nya Bowe (Mrs. Kayera). She was ecstatic to have a full class, and not just working one on one with me. I could tell she spent some time organizing a lesson plan and presented the lessons from my Peace Corps language manual as well as any of my Peace Corps trainers. Sarah was the most serious about learning Chitumbuka, and was Nya Bowe’s star student. She took detailed notes in class, and spent any down time studying through her little notebook, or bouncing her pronunciation off me to make sure it was correct. When she greeted people out on the street they stopped surprised and said “Ehh, Wamanyeko.” Everybody was very impressed and appreciative that Sarah was putting forth so much effort to learn a language she wouldn’t be able to use anywhere outside of the Northern region of Malawi. The older people around the village would say, “That Sarah, she works very hard, and is so cheerful. The others, Ahh Watondeka.” Which means failing, but really they were probably doing much better than I did in my first couple weeks, but paled in comparison to Sarah.

All of my friends immediately fell in love with Nya Bowey, with her infectious smile, and outgoing nature that is so uncommon among Malawian women around foreigners. They decided that we needed to have Nya Bowey bring her whole family over to my house so we could cook dinner for them. The girls were excited to cook ever since they discovered my friend Mr. Mwasa’s garden where he has been growing a variety of vegetables from the seeds my friends and family have been sending from back in the states. They were like kids in a candy store running around the plot picking fresh basil, green onions, romaine lettuce, beet greens, Swiss chard and bush beans. “Why didn’t you show us this earlier,” they asked me bitterly, “we should have been eating this the whole time.”

After there first experience with cooking in the village over a three stone fire my friends quickly understood why I pay my neighbor Nya Funi to cook a little extra of what ever she is making for her own family. Between carrying water from the borehole, improvising utensils, and suffocating in a smoky kitchen, cooking in the village becomes quite an undertaking. We also cooked a big meal for Nya Funi’s family on a different night, which we started preparing around 11:00 am by making corn tortillas from scratch, then made a roasted corn salsa, a pot of beans that took half the day itself to cook on the fire, and a vegetable fry-up that gave my Malawian friends an opportunity to sample foods that they had never seen before.

It was a time consuming undertaking, but we had a blast seeing what we could put together in a group effort. We all worked well together, once we found our rhythm, with Leslie and Annie generally the brains behind the operation, and the rest of us carrying out their orders. Annie really held the whole thing together with her level head and her ability to make the most out of everything that was available to us. We joked that it was practice for our future self-sustaining community back in Colorado or Montana, when we get tired of our wandering ways and finally set roots. The idea of communal living back in America was a common topic of discussion throughout the girls visit, it seemed to start out as a joke, but lead to more serious discussions about the ideal place, and whether it was possible to be self-sufficient in a big city like Denver, and by the time Sarah was leaving we had some of my Peace Corps friends getting into the idea and asking if we had started thinking about a year when it could start coming together.

Both meals were a big success. Many of my other friends ended up dropping by and tasting our creation. It was certainly like nothing they had ever tasted before. Some of it was a little to alien for the Malawian tongue, which is used to only the blandest of foods. But sometimes as soon as Nya Funi put the spoon to her mouth, her eyes would show that she was experiencing an epiphany of flavor. She looked almost shocked as she pointed her spoon at the bowl of vegetables declaring “kunowa chomene” (very delicious). When the Kayira family came over we lingered behind my house under the stars long after our bellies were full to capacity, chatting and laughing. With encouragement Sarah broke out the guitar and we started singing American folk and country songs, to repay all the singing and dancing Nya Bowe’s daughters had done for us. Leslie encouraged me to get up and dance, so that we could lure out some big laughs from the Malawians, so she could sneak a picture or two. The resulting snaps will surely transport anyone of us who were present back to that night of contented companionship.

There are too many great cultural exchanges to relate from the girls visit without writing a book. Even though they didn’t stay in my village as long as we originally planned, their impact on the community far exceeded my expectations, and will certainly have a lasting effect. One day they came with me to Football training. I think its fairly safe to assume this was the first time anybody in Mwazisi had ever seen a women in shorts let alone playing football. When the ladies first showed up ready to play, the guys roared with laughter and bounced around slapping high fives with excitement, probably mostly from seeing my friends in shorts. But when we started playing pass and defend their jaws dropped as Annie, who played soccer at the University of Montana ran circles around some of the best players. Apparently word of the ladies training with the team spread through the village, because before I knew it a crowd had assembled around the pitch, as big as the crowd for most games. What made me most happy was seeing all of the young girls who were also watching as the village heroes of Gan United running their absolute hardest and calling out a women’s name to pass them the ball, and then joking around with them the same way they would with any other teammate during a lull in the action. This is very significant in a village where men and women seem to live in separate worlds, in most cases barely speaking to each other beyond the expected formal greetings (although there are certainly exceptions.)

Eventually the itch to strap on a backpack and continue the adventure of exploring the world became too strong for my friends to keep wading around in the calm pool of village life in Mwazisi. An itch I can relate to, and I’m glad they acted on it because it brought them to one of the great wonders of Africa, and rafting on the big waters of the Zambezi river; separate adventures that you will all have to get from them if you ever get the chance to buy one of them a beer. I just count my blessings for having the friends that I have. Not many people would be willing to embark on a trip like theirs and experience life in Africa the way they did. They are four remarkable women and I’m glad we had the opportunity to share the experiences that we did, and now when I write to them about Mwazisi, they can put it into context in a way that nobody else can, that is until you come to Malawi and see the Mwazisi valley for yourselves.