Friday, July 13, 2012

Malawi: Part Two

In my first Malawi post I described a little bit about the setting, the cast of characters, the who, where, why, when, if you will.

This post is about the meat and potatoes, heart and soul of the trip, the week-long Habitat for Humanity build in a little village a couple of miles outside of the town of Mulanje. This build was why we were all there, what we had all come there to do. And it was without question the part of the trip that will stay with me the longest, until I'm old and gray and senile. Even then I think it will be there, clear and strong in my memory.

After a dependably delicious and massive breakfast (omelet bar, sausage, potatoes, cereal, toast, fruit, did I mention how well we were fed?) we loaded up onto our bus, decked out in our various takes on "work clothes." There was a lot of North Face, a lot of REI. We all had at least ten zippered pockets a piece and enough Cliff bars to feed a small army (note to self for future trips: do not bring Luna bars because they melt, Cliff bars are far superior). We also had enough Wet Wipes to bathe an entire army (those things are so glorious when you are dirty and have no access to running water). I had done one other build before (not through Habitat), so I had a better idea this time of what to wear-long, breathable pants (I have a pair with mesh netting that runs down the inner legs, so breezy!), inexpensive t-shirts (my clothes in Haiti all came home caked in a layer of dried cement), a good hat, and a sturdy pair of work gloves (needless to say these trips are the only time in my life I have ever worn work gloves).

Once we got off the mountain, we turned and drove through town. From the bus window we got our first really good daylight view of Mount Mulanje, complete with lush, green tea plantations at the base of the mountain.

We drove through scenery like this along a paved road which was also the area's main pedestrian pathway. Kids in various uniforms smiled and waved at us on their way to school. Women in colorful wrap skirts walked by with baskets of fruit on their heads or large buckets of water. There were a handful of shops along the main road out of town as well as a large number of government buildings and offices for various international NGO's. And everywhere there was produce sold on mats on the ground. It must have been tomato season in Malawi because there were the most gorgeous tomatoes absolutely everywhere, all stacked in perfect little pyramids that were in themselves impressive feats of engineering. I gazed longingly at them, because I was still in phase one of the international trip diet. In this phase you do exactly what your travel doctor told you, because the last thing you want is to eat something chock full of bacteria, and get sick with the whole trip ahead of you. So that means that a harmless tomato takes on nefarious properties, and you feel the obsessive need to cross yourself, hang a chain of garlic around your neck, and wave incense around at the mere sight of that red devil. Needless to say phase one never lasts more than a few days for me. I simply love food too much, especially fresh delicious food, so within reason I usually chuck all of that nanny panny medical wisdom out the window and start eating what looks good, which is usually everything (as a health care professional in training I feel the need to state that I in no way recommend ignoring the guidance of medical professionals while traveling, unless of course ignoring it means eating something really, really delicious).

After fifteen minutes of driving, we turned off the paved road and onto a narrow dirt lane. And in a moment everything changed. Gone were any signs of electrical wires. Gone were sturdy buildings and cars. Houses were sparse and spread out, but mostly all around us was open space, often filled with long rows of maize. After a few minutes rattling our way down the road I felt like I was in a completely different Malawi. I don't know if I need to state that a loud bus kicking up clouds of dust and containing  thirteen Westerners did not go unnoticed in this rural town. By the time we arrived there was a crowd of people waiting for us, all with expressions of bemused curiosity. As I stepped off the bus I took in my surroundings. The landscape was undeniably beautiful, with glimpses of Mount Mulanje in the distance, and hilly, wide open plains in every direction.

welcoming committee

There were dirt paths winding around small houses, all in a similar style. They were made with simple, clay bricks. Most did not have windows and nearly all of the houses had thatched roofs. The large spaces between the houses were filled with life. Roosters strutted in circles around trees. Chickens led clusters of baby chicks in a sort of endless loop, pecking at the ground for food. There were dogs and tiny kittens that sat in the shade next to houses. Goats tethered to trees stamped their feet impatiently and looked at us with wide, bored eyes.

 But the most noticeable aspect of the village as soon as we stepped off the bus were the people. The crowd who greeted us consisted mostly of women and small children. The women all wore traditional skirts and nearly all had identical hair styles, almost a "buzz cut." The idea of a town full of American women with buzz cuts may not sound that attractive, but all of these ladies were absolutely gorgeous, all with smooth skin the color of coffee and bright, white teeth. They grinned at us and laughed, and even though we couldn't speak the language their tone was warm and friendly.

The women were everywhere and seemed to do everything. We saw them carrying buckets on their heads back from the water pump, sweeping out houses, laying kernels of maize out on huge mats to dry, grinding that same corn into flour to make the main staple of the rural Malawi diet, a white, grits like substance called nsima. They hushed crying babies, scolded older kids who were out of line, and breast fed openly and freely. I was so impressed and humbled by the women of the village, by all the women in Malawi. They do so much under such tremendous adversity, with the constant threat of disease and hunger, and from what our coordinator, Jacquie told us, they have little protection. Their husbands can leave at the drop of a hat, for any reason, and have no obligations to his wife or to his children. And so it becomes the responsibility entirely of the woman to keep her household together, to keep all of those mouths fed. They do this all, and face this all, and yet every woman we saw in that village always had a smile on her face. Not only that the women would spontaneously burst out into song. I am so in awe of them, their strength, and their joy.

And of course the kids. Aren't the kids always the best part on a trip like this? It was the kids in Haiti who absolutely stole my heart, whose boundless energy, easy laughter and open, honest expressions of interest and curiosity, tied me forever to that country. Malawi felt much the same, although at least in this village the kids weren't all sharp angles and sad eyes the way some of the kids in Haiti were. These kids were content and safe and well taken care of in the warm cocoon in a village full of families. That was obvious immediately.

 It's hard in a place like Malawi because you feel yourself struggling to reconcile our Western standards of what it means to have a good life with a lifestyle that is entirely foreign to you. By our standards these kids were dirty, had torn clothing that was obviously worn nearly every day, had no shoes. They weren't hungry in the emaciated, enormous belly kind of hunger that you associate with African children. But there wasn't an extra inch of fat anywhere on anyone except for the babies (oh the miracle of breast milk). When I got home I immediately read a memoir by a boy from Malawi (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind-go read it, I cried throughout it because it was so just darn inspiring and beautiful), who was raised in a very similar village in Malawi. And as he explains it, in villages like these, where nearly everyone is a subsistence farmer, when things go well, everything is okay. Everyone raises enough corn to last from the harvest through the next growing season. Hard work is involved and things like chicken or rice are once a year treats, but no one goes without. But the cruel side of subsistence farming is that when something goes wrong, it rains too much or too little, it's too hot or too cold, and a crop fails or does badly, then starvation can become a very real possibility. Especially in a country like Malawo where the government, while not as corrupt or ineffective as some other African nations, is still not always there for its people, especially farmers in rural areas.

So when thinking of these kids, it's hard not to think about that, to want to pity them because of how fragile their lives are, of how easily they could catch malaria (the number one cause of death in Malawi), of how unfair it is that if they did catch malaria or tuberculosis or cholera or any other number of tropical disease, medicine may not be available or easy to come by and they could die more from lack of access than from anything. It's hard not to pity them because of how hard it is for them to get an education past primary school, how so often that doesn't happen, especially for girls who can get pregnant and start families as teenagers.

But then there was also something, a huge something, about these kids and their lives that was perfect and right and utterly lacking in American children. They didn't have TV or internet, no video games, no fancy toys. They had none of the things children at home have. And as a result we didn't see a single one of these kids sitting indoors preoccupied with a gadget. Instead they were outside, all day long, playing the way kids at home I don't think even know how to play anymore, with just each other and their imaginations. They were engaged and curious, willing to lie on their stomachs in the dirt and watch us foreigners build houses for hours on end. They sang and danced and begged us to play and sing and dance with them. They were from who knows how many different households, but it was hard to know who belonged with who, because they were always together, playing with each other in one big mass of tangled arms and legs and voices. Six and seven year carried babies as easily as if they'd been doing it for decades. They were sweet, good kids, who listened to their mothers and wanted so eagerly to help us. We would ask for ten bricks and within ten minutes we would have 500, carried in by a dozen children who would keep bring more and more until we asked one of the builders to translate no more to them before there was nowhere left to stand. Some of the teenage boys were in a more official capacity on the build team, and they would spend all day mixing dirt and water (not an easy thing to do in large quantities), shoveling it into buckets or wheelbarrows, and carrying it to us if we even looked in their directions.

They were full of life and sound and energy, and it is such a struggle, because I want nothing more than the modern world to step in and give them better medicine and education and safeguards against starvation, but I also want the modern world to do this in a way that still leaves them alone, because in so many ways their lives are so good and so happy because that modern world has stayed away. So many of the bad things we have in our lives, greed and unhappiness from wanting more money or more stuff, jealousy or stress from wanting what our friends have or neighbor has, the inability to sit still or go 24 hours without a screen of some kind, the lack of stillness or quiet, families scattered all over the place, reckless ambition without thought to others, not looking out for our neighbors or even knowing their names, all of these things that keep us up at night or over medicated or stressed, none of that exists in a village like the one I was in. In some ways I am deeply envious of what those kids have, of what I have never known and will never know.

sweet, little Ruth, my favorite

So that is what greeted us, a colorful little village filled with life and love and joy, a place where people had and will face hardships I will probably never be able to even understand or fathom, a place that would come to mean so much to me in the five days we spent there.

My original intention with this post was to write about the build in its entirety, but I feel I've babbled way too long just setting the stage so I will stop here for now. I promise the delay between Part 2 and Part 3 will not be as long.

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