“And at the end of the day your feet should be dirty, your hair messy and your eyes sparkling.” – Shanti
We’re coming up on two-and-a-half months in Malawi. As we were driving back to base today I was sitting in the back of the truck with the warm African sun on my face, covered in mud, surrounded by new friends, which feel like old, and feeling the sensation of happy exhaustion. These past months have been such a good experience but it’s hard to find the right words to sum it up neatly. Instead I will try to describe what a day here is like.
At 4:30 am I’m aroused by either my alarm, the groundskeeper Kawmindo sweeping the leaves, or one of the many animals on base, which include: cows, guinea fowl, chickens, dogs, a cat or donkeys (that sometimes pound at the front gate). At first it felt like a massive feat each morning to untangle myself from the mosquito net at this early hour, but it is now routine to wake before the sun. After a quick breakfast and coffee (if there’s time) we quickly load up for the day. The drive to work is simply beautiful. Watching the sun rise over the mountains and shine it’s golden light on the fields brings me a sense of peace and calm each morning.
We bump our way along the dirt road while winding thru guinea fowl, oxen, goats, pigs and bicycles carrying huge sacks of maize. I feel grateful that we are no longer cycling to work on this tortuous road as we were the first weeks. Every day was a guaranteed adventure as our bikes consistently broke down and we got stuck in the sand.
Malawi is known as the golden heart of Africa and you quickly learn why. Kids cry Azungu (foreigners/whites) so excitedly that at times you are baffled at how they’ve maintained their excitement to see you after so many weeks. But their enthusiasm is contagious and you arrive to work having smiled and waved to more people than I normally would have in a month were I back home. This has got to be good for the spirit and for my fascial muscles as well.
Monday morning meeting
We park under our favorite mango tree at Chinyanje, the farming scheme I work on (Mukumba being the other), and start our morning at one of the chitsime (wells). I’ve worked at Mkumba but Chinyange is my home. I know the people here and feel invested in their future. As we trapse thru the maize and bananas to start our morning we call out to our friends, some of whom have pretty unique names. Mwadzuka bwanji (good morning) Promise, Trouble, Nowadays, Texan, Black Bonnet, Christmas and even a guy they call Two Meter (real name is unknown).
We start work by first pumping the madzi (water) out of the wells so we can excavate. Sometimes while trying to simultaneously keep the pumps going (before they break or clog which requires troubleshooting one of a dozen problems), sweating in the sun (which is my body’s new favorite activity) and practicing the local language Chichewa – I stop and take stock of what my current life is and just sort of laugh.
My vocabulary is fairly useless in travel situations, but on site I can ask for the doha, fosholo and chingwe (bucket, shovel and rope). And I can compliment the woman who carries a treadle pump on her head for over a mile (with her malaria-ill baby on her back) as wamphamvu (strong).
For the most part we work with teams on the most challenging wells and joke that every well is a “hell well.”
There’s usually too much water, or it’s too dry, too smelly, or has cave-ins. The process start-to-finish is never dull. We are few in number but try to keep their spirits up. They are usually better at this than we and will break out in song and dance.
The women love to give us girls a hard time and teach us to be more ladylike. Crossing legs, sitting properly, baby and husband status are all important conversations while pulling up bucket after bucket of mud. They greet us warmly each morning and there are multiple rounds of zikomo as they graciously thank us for the help. Sometimes they let us know they are hungry or have malaria or a toothache. Your heart goes out to them but then just as quickly they’ll switch the subject to what your marriage status is. One of the more colorful characters Christina will tell me that Ezra is amunanga (her husband). We have this interaction down like a science. She jokes and pretends to claim Ezra and I act mad and run after her while shaking my fist. Then we laugh and hug and I know we’ll repeat this interaction about 1-3x next week. We joke that she has arms like Madonna and so it’s quite comical that I run after her with my fist in the air. A pathetic little muzungu.
Christina on the left
Calvin with a Green Bay Packers tee
We take breaks and they thank us with what they have, which are cups of a sweet maize drink called thobwa and with “mango time.” Everyone has gone mango crazy. Locals walk with large sticks to knock the juicy gems from the branches, kids skip school, and people will either wander off (or not show up at all) so they can collect bucket after bucket of the ripened fruit. Mango fever has officially taken over. Because this is my favorite fruit, it all seems quite reasonable to me. I’m all about stopping and kupuma (resting) for mango time.
Considering the floods earlier this year changed the course of the river, and their water supply, you can see how eating takes priority. They have high hopes for these wells. Instead of one harvest a year, now they hope for two or even three. These pictures show what wells and irrigation do for lead farmer, Joseph’s, land.
They’ll be able to sell their veggies at the market and some even hope to the bigger stores in Blantyre. One of the first bricked wells is already being used for irrigation which is really exciting. However, all this extra digging just further fuels their hunger.
Most of the family representatives are teenagers, women with babies, or a quite elderly bunch. The men work in the sugar cane factory and so we are a rag tag bunch. It would be comical (ok sometimes it is) if it weren’t so sad. Hopefully this will give them extra security both for food and livelihood. Each well has a team lead and we gave them an All Hands t-shirt. They were so happy they clapped, multiple times, and wear them proudly. It’s the sweetest thing. I wish desperately that I spoke Chichewa. They are a hilarious bunch. If only I could understand what they were saying!
It’s pure excitement when the 4×3 meter wells are finally excavated (each takes a few week to complete) and it’s time for the masons and their apprentices to start bricking (they’ve started an apprenticeship program). Sometimes we need to pump like mad with four treadle pumps to keep the water out so they can lay the first footings. We’ve enlisted two older gentlemen, Stanford and another man with a club foot whom we call Machete Man (I think you can figure that one out on your own) to guard our cement until the masons are ready for it. Cement is a very expensive commodity around these parts. Think $14 a bag!
We work with the local farmers and its been a been a balancing act of trying to share our collective experience while learning their local knowledge. I am new to wells and development work and so I try to keep my ears and eyes open. I’m finding that consistent and clear communication is our greatest tool while their knowledge of the terrain in indispensable. We are the coordinators and schedulers and donors and helpful diggers. But they are the ones with the skin in the game. Every time we think we know something I do a quick mental rundown of how often we’ve thought we’ve known but they’ve known better. I’m learning just how tricky development work can be.
The afternoon lunch hour is spent under one of a few favorite mango trees and we while away an hour with our peanut butter sandwich and snacks and whack down a mango or two.
Another couple hours are spent in the field with just us volunteers and it can be challenging to stay motivated and hydrated in the blazing afternoon sun. Sometimes kids follow us around and help us with wheelbarrows and bricks.
We watch out for snakes in the field (including the dreaded mambas – both black and green) but fortunately there’ve only been a few sightings. I’ve personally only caught the tail end of one before it slithered back into the bananas.
the remnants of a mamba
Once back at base we have a few precious hours to sit on our front porch or hit up the local “bar” over a Coke or Carlsberg (known here as a Green).
The best part of the day is taking off my boots and being rewarded with an outdoor shower while trying and failing to scrub my hands and feet completely clean. Keeping them clean is a completely different feat. I pray there’ll be power in the ever expanding cuts so I can sit in front of my fan. I’m having a love affair with my fan. It seems that most days the electricity is off more-often-than on so we use a generator at dinner, or candles, and I pray to the Malawian power gods that we’ll be graced by those magical sparks during the night. Mostly we are rewarded with at least a few hours and I will savor each gust from my whirring machine.
Celebrating our first anniversary.
On Thursdays there is a small market, otherwise we wait excitedly for dinner.
It’s a great night when its potatoes or rice. Although the local dish nsima (a dense maize based porridge) is definitely not my preferred choice, I have become a master of choosing an array of condiments to spice up even the most boring of foods. The boiled egg, beans, rice and nsima seem repetitive, but I don’t take a mouthful for granted. How could you when others are hungry. Our lunch of a peanut butter sandwich, nuts and crackers is an absolute treat that our staff travels 3 hours to the main town of Blantyre to buy (6 hours if going by local bus). This is the case for all supplies such as toilet paper, buckets and any other necessary tools. This is a remote part of Malawi.
After dinner we retire to our rooms or occasionally frequent the World-Famous-Matlawi Bar named after Matt, one of the originals here. He dug the fire pit, we made the benches and that’s all there is to it- a bar was born. Sundays we have off and now are adding Saturday to the mix as we continue to get more and more tired and the sun continues to get more and more hot. We made a trip to the river and saw the effects of the flooding earlier in the year. It is a pretty desolate stretch of land and there is hopes to help rebuild schools next year after the rainy season.
Otherwise we sit on base and literally watch as the cows come home thru the front gate every evening. Or we listen to the chickens, guinea fowl, dogs, donkeys and goats all create their racket.
Then it’s to bed by 8:30 and wash-rinse-repeat tomorrow.