Archive for September, 2011

Crossing the Shire

At 4:00AM, I awoke to the sounds of drummers and women singing.  Confused and sleepy, I ignored the noise for a few minutes because it was seemingly far away.  When it was obvious to me that, not only had the singing/drumming moved closer, but it was actually immediately outside my window, I was both intrigued and admittedly slightly scared.  So I dragged myself out of bed to look out the window, and saw a pack of 50+ women in  the space behind our compound dancing in circles, singing, drumming, cheering, and whistling.  Five minutes later, they started moving as a pack away from our compound, and the sounds faded again.  Unsure of what just happened, I went back to sleep and somewhat forgot the situation.  In the morning, however, as I drank tea in my neighbors’ living room, the sounds came again.  When I asked what all the noise/dancing was about, my neighbor simply said — “Chinamwali.”  After a few minutes of my trying (and failing) to understand a lengthy Chichewa explanation of what that meant, I finally decided to just go look the word up in my dictionary.  As it turns out, the Chinamwali happens once per year and is a celebration of young girls’ transition to womanhood.  Over the next two weeks, I have observed these celebrations going on at various different times throughout the village, each variation of the festivities filled with the same level of pride and excitement.  These celebrations happen throughout much of Malawi (from what I understand), but I had the privilege to experience them in my new village, Ntagaluka, near the main town in Mangochi District.

EWB does this wonderful (yet challenging) thing where they let African Programs Staff figure out our own housing in whatever town we are assigned to live/work.  This allows you to live in however nice or sketchy, public or private, central or distant location as you want.  As a result, I showed up in Mangochi four weeks ago entirely homeless and unsure of what to do.  I spent my first few days wandering aimlessly around town (which is quite big compared to most District capitals) and trying to discern one dirt road filled with shops from another seemingly identical street.   On my second afternoon, I wandered in a new direction out of town and came to a stunning sight: a beautiful clock tower roundabout leading to a bridge over the Shire River (which flows south from the base of Lake Malawi) with stunning, jagged mountains in the distance.  My first thought was, “I want to walk over this every day.”  So I ventured over to the far side of the river, through a bustling local market, and out into the villages that line the shores of the river.  Needless to say, the random azungu (white person) wandering through the village asking in broken Chichewa for a “place to live” caused quite a commotion, and multiple people took time out of their day to drag me to various locations where I might have been able to stay.  After a few semi-promising, but not perfect locations, I found the one.  I was led by some kids into a compound owned by a richer family in Ntagaluka (now my neighbors) who rent out three rooms in a separate building in the back their house, all of which have a shared courtyard, water tap, and latrine.  I was greeted by the smiling faces of my adorable 3 year old neighbor (Yankho), her mother, and the 70 year old landlord who speaks little-to-no Chichewa (the language that I’m still struggling with at this point) and was immediately joking about the need to teach me Chiyao instead (the local language here).  I realized that here I could have my own room (to escape and have alone time when need be), but still live the village lifestyle, be surrounded by Malawians all the time, and have cheap rent (literally $10 per month).   In addition, the place is very close to the market, within walking distance to my work, and even has electricity!  I was immediately sold.

My next few weeks were filled with my getting to know the neighborhood, making friends with my neighbors (i.e. anyone and everyone within about 500 meters of our place), trying to understand my role at the District Water Office for work (which is going great, but I’ll explain more about that next time), and simply getting settled into a routine.  My neighbors within the compound, Amai Yanko (meaning “mother of Yanko”) and Kenneth, have somewhat adopted me — we cook together, eat every meal together, watch horrible Nigerian movies and other ridiculous things on their TV at night, etc. — which makes my life even nicer/simpler.   In exchange for their hospitality, I bring home food to cook a few times per week and bring Yanko to nursery school in the mornings (which is on my way to work).  My other neighbors in the compound, Esnta and Tom, are a couple close to my age who have a beautiful 3 month old son, Fortune.  Kenneth works at the fish market and Tom is a primary school teacher, while the two women spend most of their time around the compound cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids.  There are always people in and out of our compound (Amai Yanko sells charcoal so women are constantly coming to buy form her) or hanging out next door at our landlord’s house.  There are kids playing, young educated people close to my age, old ladies who only know Chiyao, and every other type of person around.  I can focus on integration and improving my language skills with the women, have actual intelligent conversations (rather than hilarious half Chewa half sign language conversations) with the English speakers, or just retreat to my own space if need be — I have access to the best of all worlds.

Pictures:  1. The view crossing over the Shire River on the way to my village (this does not do it justice though — it is stunning in the afternoon/evening light!);  2. My room;  3. Our courtyard and building — my room is the door on the far left, Yankho and her parents are in the center, and Fortune and his parents are on the right;  4.  Amai Yankho putting charcoal into small bags to sell

Despite having only been here one month, Mangochi already feels like home — from the comfort I feel when I walk into my compound each evening, to the jokes and routines I share with Yankho, to the random kids around the village changing their greeting from “Azungu – bo!?” to “Elisa – bo!?”.   I am continuously reenergized by what I do and the experiences I have my day-to-day life here, as well as the confidence I now have in circumstances that would have seemed daunting to me three or four years ago — like finding a home on my own in a random Malawian town, starting to learn my third African language, and/or dancing along with passing Chinamwali ceremonies.   Such things just seem like part of life now, not something to be confused or scared by.   And since I still have at least seven months to spend in Mangochi, I am endlessly excited by the fact that this month was just the beginning of my life here.

Peace, love, and 4AM drumming



** Title credit for this post goes to JF Soubliere (one of my friends/co-workers) who drew a hilarious rendition of my “activities on an average Monday” as part of a check-in at our last team meeting, and titled the drawing “Crossing the Shire”  🙂


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