Community

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. A combination of my twelve kilometer cycle to the nearest electricity source, the fact I need to climb six feet in a mango tree to get decent cell service, and my lack of desire to do anything other than binge watch Gilmore Girls when I do have a charge on my laptop has culminated in me neglecting this blog entirely.

However, this month deserves some recognition. March marks my one year anniversary in Malawi. I’ve seen and done a lot of things this year that I couldn’t have imagined before I stepped off that plane. Aside from the traveling and friendships I’ve developed within the Peace Corps community, what really stands out about this year is how at ease I feel within my village.

Old Maula and the people in it have become my everything. Alimony, Innocent, Jessie, Martin, Etton, and the other iwes in my coloring crew are my little friends and helpers. They knock politely on my fence when they want to play, and giggle and run if I want to be alone and chase them off with a broom. They’ll collect my water if I ask them too, and all I have to say is “guys, I REALLY like avacados” and they show up with a bucket full of fruit.  Their older siblings, of the high school variety come over and hang out too sometimes, to chat in half-English half-Chitonga or watch movies. But my presence causes so much commotion at school that when I come they pretend not to know me. Pretty much a typical big sister relationship.

Some of my favorite friendships in my village are with people who don’t speak any English. These relationships feel like an accomplishment, as someone who flunked high school Spanish I’m incredibly proud of my ability to converse effortlessly in a second language. There’s Ada Mwenda, one of my lead farmers who’s orchards are one of my favorite places on earth. Sometimes I walk over just to chat with him, knowing I’ll go home with a backpack full of pineapple and passion fruit, and we’ll spend the day laboring in the cassava fields or weaving fish traps out of reeds. He has these wide cheekbones and lovely almond shaped eyes that remind me of the Cheshire cat when he smiles.

There’s also Zambouya (grandmother) who’s name I’ve never been told. She’s just Agogo, a title of respect for an elder woman. There are many people who come to my house to chat that make me feel uncomfortable. They look at me as a curiosity, and their presence feels intrusive. But Agogo and I co-exist effortlessly. She speaks slowly in Chitonga for me, never chastising me when I get lost. She teases for me for my cooking habits, and will sit for long quiet cups of afternoon tea, watching the way the tree dappled sunlight plays across my yard. One time when my dog was sick she helped me to tie her in a chitenje, like a baby, across my back so I could carry her to the vet. When we got home, she had brought food to my house, like Malawians do when a friend is ill. Recently, when I returned from the funeral of a dear friend and didn’t want to face the swarm of people looking to wish me well (as is customary in Malawi) she drove them all away. She sat with me in my house instead, and held my hand as I cried and babbled in English she couldn’t understand. Friendship and grief, I suppose, are both things that don’t require translation.

And then there’s Danford, my counterpart, Malawian father, confidant, translator, best friend, and absolute rock in Old Maula. On days where all I want is to go running back to America, he’s the one thing I know I can’t abandon. Every project I want to start, he finds a way to make it happen. Anytime I need something done, he does it. He scolds me for leaving windows open when I leave and calls me Ada (Sir) when I wear trousers and a ball cap. He snuggles my dog when I’m away and fills me in on all the village gossip. Every morning he comes to greet me and coordinate work schedules, but we have an arrangement that I don’t speak Chitonga before coffee so most discussions start with “have you taken coff?”.

We spend hours hiking through the woods for work, teasing each other and having wide ranging and fascinating discussions. We can even talk about taboo topics like the nuances of spirit magic, which he doesn’t believe in, and homosexuality, which most Malawians don’t believe in. Even though he is deeply Christian and like most Malawians believes homosexuality is a sin, he listens to my view on things and accepts our differing opinions as differences in culture. His English is amazing for a man with a third grade education, and he can speak at length on topics such as tribal history, political corruption in Malawi, or mining economics in Zambia. He’s worked as a trader, carpenter, mortician, and now a forest guard. He was married at 17 and has five daughters and one son, and he alternates between calling me his daughter or his sister. We’re so comfortable with each other that one time when we were getting our axes sharpened in town, and a woman asked if we were married he told her in rapid Tonga that we were co-workers. Then he turned around and told me in English that he had said that we were married and expecting a child any day now, to which I quipped back in Chitonga “you dirty little liar!”.

In Peace Corps, you reveal different parts of your true self to different people. You make white lies to best integrate into your community. Most people in Maula think I’m a Christian virgin who has never “taken beer”. Some friends you can let in on the secrets. A few of my women friends knew I had a boyfriend, and I’ve gone out for a drink with some of the more modern guys from work. But Danford is the only person I can really be myself with. It took a year for us to learn to trust each other; he also had reservations about the white woman coming to live with his family, but now he is the lens through which I filter everything else to the community. He nags me when I doodle in the dust during tribal meetings, and praises me when I do something well. When I was going through a breakup he told me “all men are stupid, of course. But you deserve a better one.” and then spent three weeks teaching me how to build a dugout canoe to distract me from it all. Out of everything I’ve been blessed with in Malawi, I am most grateful for Danford and his true friendship. He’s the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had.

Equally important to these deeper relationships are my casual friends, the people I work with or stop to chat with in the market who make me feel like I’m just another part of the community.  There’s Arther, the tall Agriculture Extension Officer with a big laugh. He’s from the fishing tribe on Likoma island, and is fascinated by shipwrecks on Lake Malawi. Nancy and Sophie are my two English speaking female friends. Nancy is from Zambia and I go to church with her on occasion, something I avoid because of the large number of exorcisms. Sophie lived a bwana lifestyle in Blantyre until her husband took a younger, second wife. So she left his ass and now runs a bean shop. She swears like a sailor and one time beat a man who tried to grope me in the market.

There’s Mr. Cassabala, Mr. Banda, and Mr. Livingstone from the school, Catherine, Force, Solomon, Sam, and Radio from work. There’s Mr. Banda who lets me go usipa fishing on the lake at night. There’s the lady who sells me tomatoes, the one who sells me bananas, and the one who yells “GOOD MORNING ANYA MWASSEE” every time I walk by her house. There are the kids who follow me shouting my first name “Megani, Megani, Megani!”, the ones who use my local name “Anya Mwasse, Anya Mwasse, Anya Mwasse!” the ones who shout my dogs name “PoPo, PoPo, PoPo!” and the one that just shouts “EWWWAAAALLLD!”.

I love and respect these people more than I can say. A year ago I was afraid to set foot in my market, scared of speaking Chitonga and screwing up my tenses. Now I feel totally at ease reading a book in the market while I wait for my phone to charge in the barber shop, or sitting with my neighbors and peeling cassava. I can snap back and dole out jokes in Chitonga, threaten to tell the mothers of children when they get a little annoying. The one time a teenager threw a rock at me while I was running I chased him the length of a football field and told my chief, who beat him and made him chop firewood for me.

Furthermore, I’ve learned to look past the many cultural differences that I couldn’t have a year ago. Many of the men and women in my Fish Conservation Committees are HIV positive. One of my best farmers has three wives. Most of my students believe in witchcraft and wear amulets around their necks on test days.  One of my friend’s neighbors regularly preforms exorcisms for profit. And everyone seems to agree that the hippo in the river is probably our old chief reincarnated so it had best be left alone. These are just normal parts of life in Old Maula, everyone excepts my American eccentricities in the same way.

There were many times this year where I wanted to quit, just run away from it all. But in retrospect I now realize that it took a year to learn how to exist in Old Maula. It took me one year to feel safe, to feel integrated, to feel at ease. This next year is when I’m going to get things done. I’m going to keep myself busy, planting trees, protecting fish, empowering girls, and maybe even building a library at the school. Maybe I’ll even get around to blogging about it all. Regardless, it’s a wonderful feeling to have, looking at these next twelve months, and knowing there’s absolutley nothing else I’d rather be doing, and nowhere else I’d rather be.

 

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