Backpacks

For two years my best friends were eleven little kids; Jess, Chiygo, Innocent, Johnny, Vitu, Jamuse, Sam, Etton, Alimony, and Martin. Etton, the youngest, was just a little when I arrived but started school my second year. I watched Jess, the only girl and a bit of a diva, grow from a spunky kid to a confident young woman. Alimony is my little sweetheart, always around to sit and read quietly, play with Popo, and help me with small chores around the house. If Chiygo grew up in America he’d be an Olympic gymnast, how many 7 year olds do you know who can do a standing back tuck? Sam and Innocent are a a bit older, starting to get serious with their studies, and I saw their English improve enormously in two years. They always came to borrow books. James has the most infectious smile. Vitu is just a nugget and painfully shy, but he loves to pet Popo. Johnny is trouble. He stole (and returned) my pocket knife twice. And Martin is my little m’puss, the little monkey. Energetic, mischievous, prone to scaling buildings and dangling from trees by his knees, he’s the little ring leader of the iwes. My kids were always around for adventuring to the lake, collecting guavas, or just baking some bread on a Sunday. I could give them money to run to the market for me and they’d always bring me back exact change. They just wanted to spend time with me, coloring or doing chores, it never seemed to matter. I kept a library of books, art supplies, games, and cards for them to use. Kites and bubbles blew their minds.

So as I approached the end of my service I got to thinking about parting gifts. I’d heard horror stories about volunteers giving away too much or two little, and the animosity that created in their community. So I decided to only give to the children, which was by extension giving to their parents as well. I asked Danford for a roster of all the children in elementary school, which was a good idea since the iwe pack always fluctuated with children coming and going to stay with other relatives. Then I swore him to secrecy, I wanted my idea to be a surprise.

Primary school education is supposed to be free in Malawi, but it oftentimes isn’t. The government doesn’t provide enough money to pay teachers so they ask fees from the community. When a family struggles to feed itself, these fees mean kids don’t go to school. This doesn’t take into account the cost of school supplies, notebooks, pencils, and erasers. In the average primary school classroom there are 200 learners to one teacher, and maybe a textbook per classroom if they’re lucky. In my opinion, lack of access to quality education is the number one contributor to systemic poverty in Malawi.

Luckily the Mwasee family is better off than most, and the children benefit from the carpentry and minibus businesses. The kids are expected to attend school every day instead of working in the fields, and they always manage to save money for books and pencils. All eleven tromped down the path to school every morning, a bobbling line shaved heads and blue and yellow uniforms, with their small notepads and singular pencil in a plastic shopping bag. I wanted to do something nice for them. Give them a practical gift, something they could have for a long time. So I decided on backpacks filled with school supplies. A luxuary their parents couldn’t afford for their kids, that would help them in school, and selfishly, something that would make them think of me every school day.

So for a few months I scouted out book bags. Prowling through the markets of Mzuzu and Chinteche I’d sift through piles of used bags on the side of the road. If you have patience you can find great quality things.  Under heaps of cheap bags in peeling Chinese lettering, I’d find a lightly worn yellow janesport, or a Spiderman bag bound to make all the other boys jealous. Then I’d pull a poker face with the vendor and haggle it down to less than two dollars. A few times I got better deals if I bought more than one. I searched for Jess’s bag for the longest. As the only girl, and such a clever student, I wanted her to have something special. I settled on a pale pink corduroy pack with orange and brown pom-poms, something feminine that she wouldn’t grow out of. Then I stashed them under my bed where the kids wouldn’t find them, and stocked up on school supplies so each iwe would have several notebooks, pens, and pencils apiece.  All in all it cost me about a half month of Peace Corp’s stipend, well worth every kwatcha.

My last few weeks in the village were incredibly emotional. For months I’d been preparing my little friends for my departure, telling them “ndizenge ku Malawi, I will return to Malawi” and they would tell me how upset that made them. But in the last few weeks, when I confessed to Alimony how sad leaving made me he’d hold my hand, look up at me with those big sweet eyes, and say “muzenge ku Malawi, you will return to Malawi”. So I planned my gift giving for two nights before I left.

The day before I recruited Martin to be my little helper one last time. First, I swore him to secrecy. “Ukambi wanthu vosi cha enge kupanda mukonwenge sonu, Don’t tell a single person about what you are about to see now” I warned. Martin solemnly swore not to tell a soul, sealing the deal with a sign of the cross and a pinky swear. When I opened the door and revealed the brightly colored bags arranged on the floor he covered his mouth to cover up a squeal of delight, and then quickly composed himself for the task at hand. I asked him to choose a bag for each of his relatives, so they each had one that suited them and there wouldn’t be any bickering. Martin lifted each bag individually, inspecting the insides, assessing their qualities, and letting a smile slip every couple seconds. He declared and rationalized each decision with due pomp and circumstance. Chyigo got the lime green one because it’s his favorite color. Sam and Innocent the cross body bags because they’d start secondary school next year.  Alimony got the biggest black one because his dad is really tall, so one day he would be too. Etton was to receive the Spiderman bag with the twisting plastic buttons because he’s the youngest. Martin left his own bag for very last. I knew which one it would be, because his eyes kept flicking back to it the whole time. Dark grey with good straps and a burgundy iron man printed on the front, he nodded seriously as he handed it to me and I labeled it with a post-it note with his name. He left my house with a second pinky swear and a quick hug, and I felt tears well up in my eyes as he darted back into the night.

I’ll let these photos show how the gift giving went. It will always be one of my favorite memories from Peace Corps.

And then I made them line up for pictures.

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These are my iwes, and I love how these photos capture their energy and their eleven distinct little personalities. Later that night the mothers and children came to my door to thank me formally for my gift. They told me how much it meant to them, and how grateful they were that I’d been there for two years and had been so Malawian in my gifts. I choked up as I thanked them for their hospitality, their patience, and their generosity in allowing me to step into their families. Their children taught me how to speak Tonga, start fires, and gave me a space to be a goofy kid. They filled my quiet hours with laughter, looked out for me in the community, and insured I never went swimming alone. I’m more indebted to the Mwasee family than I’ll ever be able to express. And every day it makes me smile to think about that line of eleven kids tottering off to school, now in a line with their very own backpack.

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