Life in Malawi has mostly leveled into a cozy plateau of normalcy, but there are still little surprises – the best of which are the moments when all the joints pop into place, all the hinges swing open, and I’m left internally chanting, “I live here. I am doing this. I can handle anything.”
One such moment: I’m waiting on the road for a lift to the post office. It’s a slow day, I’ve been standing in the midday sun for nearly 45 minutes, and a minibus finally appears.
“How much to Chikangawa?” I ask in Chitumbuka, feeling sixteen pairs of Malawian eyes swivel onto me (and up me, and down me, and back again).
“400 kwacha,” the conductor says, shamelessly giving me the mzungu price.
“Pssh. Ah-ah. 200.” I scoff, sunburned and impatient, feeling crisp in more ways than one.
The conductor nods in assent. I step aboard.
The entire minibus erupts in applause, accompanied by excited murmurs of “She knows it! The girl understands! She is Malawian!”
I get congratulatory high-fives from six people.
Experience and common sense have carved out a special category of exceptions to my “chat with anybody and everybody” rule: men yelling at me from bars. On one particular Sunday afternoon, when a slurring gentleman beckoned me to come closer, I pulled out all my signature moves. I avoided eye contact. I didn’t smile. I kept walking. I said, in the vernacular, that I was busy and going home.
But this one was persistent. He stumbled across the market and caught up to me. It had all the characteristic signs of a confession of love and/or commentary on my appearance and/or inquisition about my lack of a husband at the ripe old age of 23. I slowed down anyway (a little huffily, I’ll admit).
But this is why the benefit of the doubt is so great: people surprise you.
“Madam, you are teaching one of my children,” he said. “And I just wanted to tell you…thank you. You are doing a great job. Thank you so much.”
And then he shook my hand graciously – chastely, even – and staggered back to the bar.
During a listening exercise with my Form 1s, I read a passage about Nelson Mandela to my kids, asking them to write down the important details. They seemed confused.
“Nelson Mandela,” I repeated, surprised that they hadn’t heard of him.
“Nelson Mandela – he was the president of South Africa.”
A wave of recognition passed. “Ooohhhhhh. Madam, you mean Nail-sohn Mahn-day-luh.”
“Right, Nell-sun Man-dell-uh.”
Uproarious laughter. “Nooooo, Madam! Nail-sohn Mahn-day-luh!”
“Nail-sohn Manh-day-luh,” I said in my best African accent.
And the class burst into a sort of half-laugh, half-cheer, which is one of my favorite Malawian idiosyncrasies, and which makes it impossible not to fall in love with this place a little more every time I hear it:
“AHahahaha [pause for breath] EEEEEEHHHHH!”
Near the end of the first term, news broke that several kids had dropped out of school to get married. A special assembly was held to address the issue, which is actually quite a widespread problem in Malawi.
Picture yours truly undermining that seriousness in front of the whole school. Tears pooled in my eyes from holding in the laughter as my headmaster announced in total earnestness, à la Mean Girls, “If you get married at an early age, you will die.”
I’m walking with purpose and a puppy, scanning a long mental to-do list. A man on the road calls out to me with a common question: “What is the name of your little dog?”
“Chalo,” I say.
“Madam, I could sue you!” he shouts in mock outrage. “You have stolen my nephew’s name!”
I pause in the dust – here’s somebody with a set of jokes I’ve never heard before. “Oh, please don’t! I don’t have a lawyer!” I plead.
“You need to get one. How long has your dog had this name?”
“About four weeks,” I reply.
“Ah, my nephew has had his name for five years. You are sure to lose in court, Madam.”
The charade gains momentum and keeps rolling, building into several minutes of rapid-fire smack-talk about an imaginary lawsuit. But then it occurs to me that there has been a misunderstanding.
“Oh, but sir – do you mean Charles? This dog is a Tumbuka. His name is Chalo. You know…like chalo,” I explain, gesturing to the soil at our feet and the hills on the horizon.
The man nods in understanding.
“Ah, I don’t have a case then,” he says dryly, tipping his hat to me and boarding a passing minibus.
I loaned a six-month-old copy of Scientific American to one of my best Malawian friends, Blessings – a security guard who also happens to be one of the most intellectually vibrant people I’ve met in a long time.
When he finished it he came to me breathless, in part from dashing to catch up with me, but also from the sheer thrill of what he had read. “Madam. MADAM. That book – I must tell you – I have loved it so very much.”
Between gasps, he spouted a string of statistics from the article, and I was reminded why we are friends. For twenty minutes, we nerded out over neurons, evolution, and super-computers, talking about the scope of human potential, reveling in shared amazement at how far we can go and how much we can know – but also at how much we still don’t know – and feeling quite big in light of that smallness.
When Blessings turned back to his post at the main compound, I spent the rest of the walk home in a misty-eyed haze for reasons that came from all directions:
- partially because mutual nerding-out in a completely noncompetitive, pure-hearted way is my absolute favorite way of bonding with another person
- partially because it’s a pretty rare thing to find in general
- partially because I don’t get enough of it here and I miss it terribly
- partially because, in a country where books are scarce and reading for pleasure is considered a bit odd, it’s truly extraordinary
- but mostly because of the sheer poignancy of finding such unassuming curiosity in a person who, for reasons beyond his control, never finished high school.
Blessing’s story is, unfortunately, all too common in this country. Orphaned as a teenager, he moved in with grandparents; they could not afford to pay his school fees (equivalent to about $15 USD per term), so his education was put on hold for more than a decade. Just this year, at the age of 33, he took his secondary-level exams, but he is now dangling in a crucial limbo, waiting to hear about the national exam scores that will ultimately decide whether he can start pursuing the dream he won’t stop talking about: enrolling in university correspondence courses. In the meantime, he spends his days posted at the front gate, devouring every book he can find.
He just started reading A Brief History of Time. I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say about it.
Update, as of November 17, 2012:
The national exam scores have been posted.