Tales from Malawi: Blog #5

Earlier in 2017, Lucy and Gussie visited Malawi. Here is Lucy's fifth blog about what they got up to on their visit:

This morning we got up and put on our chitenges (2-metre pieces of patterned fabric that the women wear here as a skirt). Gussie and I bought ours at the Mitundu markets and have been wearing them most of our time in Malawi. Actually, these colourful pieces of fabric are very multi-functional, and many women wear them as a skirt or girls as a dress, or as a headscarf, and they are also used as a sling to carry babies on the backs of mothers or siblings. Often, they are used by girls and women to sit on or lay things on in the street, too. No fastening is used when wearing them, not even safety pins, so we have a special way that we have to tie it so that it doesn't come loose during the day.

We had breakfast at our lodge, as usual (bananas on cornflakes and a fried egg on toast), and then we were picked up by Ann at 8.30am. Our first stop was in town, to buy some pencils and stationery for the school we were to visit. We stopped in the centre of town and went into a small stationery shop, where a small Indian man was taking orders from a large Indian woman, who shouted at him in Arabic. We bought about 350 pencils, with Gussie and I paying about 14,000 Kwacha each. We have finally started to get our head around the seemingly enormous numbers that the Malawians deal in with their currency (the Kwacha). Most things, when translated back into NZ dollar terms, are relatively cheap (although some costs are surprising)!

We drove on until we hit the muddy, bumpy road leading in to Kalumba village. The school sits right at the centre of the community, and as we drove in, we were quickly swarmed by children. Some had met us previously, when we visited on Saturday, but others remained shy and flashed embarrassed smiles when we waved at them. By the time we walked from the car to the first classroom, we were followed by at least 50 children! Some were dressed in a maroon tunic, marking them as uniform-holders, but most were dressed in mufti or casual clothing.

It was hot, and the sun was beating down, so we were pleased to move in to the cool of the standard 7 classroom. Here, we met the principal and 2 of the teachers who were to be teaching the year-7 equivalent class of students. We told the teachers we would be happy to help in anyway, but they each had a lesson plan and launched straight into lessons which was great. The pencils we had provided were used by the teachers immediately as incentives for class participation. All of a sudden, all the students had hands in the air to answer questions, and the tradition seems to have been to click fingers in the air to attract the teachers attention. The kids were stoked to receive a pencil for answering questions correctly, and it was fun to see them engaged in each class.

While highly disciplined, the students here were also very vocal - laughing loudly at anything remotely funny, responding to the teachers "Do we understand?" with a "Yes!!", and clapping hands once, loudly, when a fellow classmate got an answer right. Gussie and I did a silent head count from where we sat in the classroom, and there were 76 children in the one classroom (and many more listening by the window). There were no desks or chairs, so students sat in the floor to write down their exercises, but mostly the teaching was done orally, with the teacher asking the students to repeat back. Our class changed seamlessly from English (on phrasal verbs) to maths (working out discounted amounts), and then to science (on worms, as part of a study into invertebrates). Gussie and I agreed that we learnt much more about worms today than we ever have before!!

At the break, Gussie and I explained why we were there, invading their classrooms, and we talked to the students about why we think education is important and why we are interested in investing in girls education specifically. Then we had some time to meet some students, ask about them and whether they enjoy school. It was fun to chat to them, and as many of them tried out their spoken English skills, others laughed and corrected them. They vied for our attention and to ask us, again and again, what our names were. We had bought some bubbles so we blew some and then everyone had a turn to blow bubbles while the rest either cheered (bubble success!!) or laughed (bubble failure!!). Then, all of a sudden, it was time to go, so we said our goodbyes.

Tdale, Grieve's son, walked us the few kilometres back to Grieve's house. Grieve and Ann had decided to give us the real Malawian food experience, and had us learn how to make nsima. Nsima is made from the staple of the Malawian diet, maize, which is ground up into a flour called ufa. We brought a pot of water to the boil, before adding the ufa flour and stirring it over the heat. This was all done outside in an outdoor kitchen, over a fire with a grate. Smoke billowed everywhere and made our eyes water as we stirred the stodgy white-ish mix. Next, we chopped up some Chinese cabbage leaves, and diced a tomato and an onion. We let this steam in a separate pot, and added some salt and ground nuts. When it was cooked through and soft, we served it up with the nsima- which was now a starchy porridge-like substance.

Tdale showed us how to roll bits of the nsima to scoop up the cabbage mix with (no cutlery used here - hands only!!). He had served up some beans with our meal as well, so we had those and the greens to add flavour to the otherwise bland nsima. I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would and ate it all up. While I'd never probably eat the dish or cook it by choice, it was fun to be a bit more involved in the culture of this country and to cook over the fire. We thanked Tdale and then Ann took us for a walk down the road to the women's co-operative.

The co-op was started, as I've mentioned in a previous blog, to give women training and employment. It was established by Build-a-school, who named the co-operative "Tickbird". This name has a cool story actually, with the metaphor alluding to the tickbirds who perch on the backs of rhinos and buffaloes, and eat the ticks off them. The birds get something from taking from the larger animals, and likewise the large mammals benefit from allowing the birds to eat the ticks. The idea, as described by Grieve, was that in providing a place for the women to be trained and employed, the community would also reap the economic rewards. In other words, "Tickbird" means a win-win outcome. Ann took us to Tickbird today, to see how the women make the soap from distilling plants and herbs on the site. We got to see the process, and how the soaps are moulded for selling. We bought some soaps and some lemongrass tea, and it was great to see another facet of the work Ann has been involved in.

Next, we visited Chief Kalumba. This man, who we had been instructed to call "Agogo" (meaning "older man"), welcomed us into his tiny office opposite the maize mill. We had met with him earlier in the week, but this time he wanted to show us some Malawian dancing on the TV in his office. He pulled up some green plastic garden chairs for us, and village children peered through the door and window as he fiddled with an ancient DVD system. Then a 90s-era doco type film started, showing scenes of Zulu dancers in their traditional wear. We had seen these dances in South Africa, but the chief beamed and belly-laughed as we watched what we thought he would have taken seriously!! Dance after dance showed, all with really close angles to the dancers, and loud music. I glanced at Gussie and could see that she, too, was withholding laughter (although the chief wasn't). It was a hilarious, once in a lifetime experience to have the chief of the village usher us into his office to show us traditional dances so ridiculous that even he had to laugh!

We returned to Cakes Lodge (by the way, the name is apparently an amalgamation of the names "Catherine" and "Kent" - nothing to do with the pudding!!) and had dinner, which was beef and rice for me, and chicken with rice for Gussie. Another fantastic day in The Warm Heart of Africa (Malawi)! We look forward to tomorrow, which will sadly be our last full day here.

Lucy TothillComment