A Village in Mourning

The days intent was ambitious: wash dishes, install a larger drain pipe in my indoor bathing room, visit a comrade from a local NGO on her lunch hour, cut and sort firewood and get a head start on a community assessment report. I awoke to the consoling chirping of songbirds, the barely audible chattering of folk scurrying back and forth on the nearby road and to the sun shining through the windows, lighting the red brick in a conspicuous yellow hue that filters through the thin, threadbare drapes that hang precariously from nearly dry-rotted string and rusted tacks. With an exaggerated stretch and yawn, I slid out from under the mosquito net and started to prepare water for a much anticipated cup of coffee. The morning was redolent, void of any idiosyncrasies and generally welcomed. In a few short hours, I would be experiencing a much different morning — one characterized by grieving and ceremonial rituals.

The Malawian equivalent of going out to the end of the driveway in a robe and slippers to fetch the morning newspaper, waving undecidedly to your neighbor, is to step out from your door with a roll of toilet paper in hand and wave, swatting at a tenacious mosquito and giving a shout at a goat who ponders at entering through a small, overlooked hole in the fence, assuredly determined to nibble every standing plant sowed just a few weeks prior. My neighbor is busy cultivating ridges to plant beans, his wife tending to a fire and his five small children scattered about the dusty yard, amusing themselves with rusting batteries, a dull knife, and for the youngest, a plastic bottle. We exchange glances as I round the corner to the pit latrine — the act I was about to battle through is a very private endeavor and no words are ever exchanged during this morning sacrament.

I find my neighbor in the front of the house with a large rock and chisel in his hands. We exchange the morning’s humdrum salutations and with me now awake, he can now get underway on the work he started the afternoon prior. His mission is to have the burglar bars installed in the veranda by the afternoon.

My neighbor is also my landlord. His name is Bikili but he goes by Sampson because, “Bikili is too political.” ‘Bikili’ is the first name of the president who died in office just a few years back. Sampson is a preacher, an upright and conservative man and as such, distances himself from the political realm as much as possible. He is 42 years old, tall and slender, with a naturally athletic build of which — no doubt — is the consequence of many years of working acres of land by the sweat of his brow and the passion of his desires. He is a learned man and keeps a tight shift with regards to his family and his garden. In terms of conservation and improved agricultural best practices, Sampson is many notches above many other Malawians. His wife is pretty and all his children well behaved (though I’ve yet to witness any behavioral outbursts from Malawian children that are archetypal of many American youngsters). He lives in a much smaller dwelling than me, just 75 meters from my house. He and his family’s acquaintance is much appreciated and their hospitality most blessed.

I leave him to his own devices, turning on my hand-crank radio to listen in on the morning news, which is typically broadcasted in English first and then followed up by a version in Chichewa. Instead, the room is filled with an up-tempo beat, indisputably in a language other than Chichewa. It is familiar and I recall the artist being Nigerian. I give the radio a few cranks and perch the radio in the window. I hear Sampson whistling along to the music. I catch a glimpse of him doing a little jig and I chuckle to myself as I head out to the back to stoke the fire.

I clean out my French press and find that my large, tin coffee mug is swarmed with a colony of tiny ants. I sigh and dig out two smaller plastic cups from a large basin on the floor that serves as my kitchen cabinet. I dash a bit of sugar into each cup and pour the steaming coffee, watching as it swirls. The aroma is fantastic and I’m delighted that I had brought the French press along with me from America. It is a guilty pleasure that gets me going each day.

With a cup in each hand, I jauntily stroll to where Sampson is pounding away at the hardwood of the window frames. He is elated as I am about the coffee and in a giddy click of the heels, he swoops down and claims the morning’s bounty.

A neighbor friend walks up despondently, and I can sense even before he speaks that something disagreeable is burdening him. He quickly salutes me and turns his attention to Sampson. Sampson’s demeanor changes promptly as the man quickly parleys to him in hastened Chichewa. The man stops and looks at me and Sampson gives the flourishing garden a thousand-yard stare. Before Sampson can translate, I break his trance by muttering, “Funeral.” Sampson and the man both affirm me in Chichewa. Sampson lays down his tools and thanks our friend for the unfortunate news.

During the first three months at site, Peace Corps encourages new Volunteers to concentrate on community integration. They insist that Volunteers attend all community events with the intent to really embed oneself into the community through constant interaction and recognition. It is important for the work that Volunteers do to be seen as community members and not just as a foreigner that arrives in a white Land Rover rearing gifts of fertilizer and watering cans, only to disappear to the capitol and not be seen for a few months. Since everything in African culture is generally seen from a collective standpoint, every gathering becomes a community event. This includes weddings, baby births, illnesses and funerals. I assure Sampson that it is important that I attend the passing of the village member. He indicates that I should be ready for half past ten o’clock. I oblige and head back into the house to begin preparations.

Unsure of where the funeral would be held and whom would be attending, I make the safe bet that I should dress especially dapper. I dig into my disheveled walk-in closet (which is nothing more than a spare room with my tent constructed and my clothes inside) to find my Sunday’s best. The shirt I pull out could use an ironing and my dress shoes a nice buffing but with the lack of an iron and shoe polish, the sun and a bit of elbow grease will have to do.

Sampson doesn’t tend to knock on the door when he intends to get my attention. Rather, he walks up the steps and gives a deep-gutted, “Hello?” through the mosquito-netted window. I still haven’t got used to this. At any rate, Sampson gives his customary yawp and I come hurriedly, wiping my beard of any residual moisture from the cold bucket bath I rushed out of. I haphazardly tuck in my shirt and with a sheepish grin, I ask Sampson how I look. He laughs and we head out to the back gate.

The day is already very warm. I am not even a 100 meters from the house when I feel my trousers clinging to my sweating legs. The handkerchief I have tucked away in my front pocket becomes drenched in one clean swipe of my forehead.

We make our way through an area I’m particularly familiar with due in part because that is where the borehole is located. I’m fortunate to have a very close borehole. Three amayis (ladies, mothers) are busy filling their respective water jugs. They stare at me as I come nearer and I try in my best attempt to not focus on them until I’m closer. The amayi pumping the borehole lever asks me how my morning was going. I respond in Chichewa and as Sampson and I walk away, I hear the three giggling. They really get a crack out of an azungu (foreigner) speaking their native tongue. They giggle not out of ill-feelings but out of appreciation and that alone is worth knowing the language.

From the borehole, the scenery became new and I was keenly aware of where I was. My eyes darted back and forth, absorbing landmarks and making mental notes of what I was seeing. Entering a new village area is always exciting! Meeting new people is fun and learning their stories is a pleasure. I also am curious to relate what I see to my work — I scope the landscape through a conservation and agricultural lens: What is currently being done? What could be done better? What do I have to learn? Who are the future conservation leaders within this community?

I must have looked content and deep in thought because Sampson did not say a word until he greeted a group of amayis sitting in the open around a fire as one stirred a large pot suspended over the flames. I greeted the group and in one solemn concord, they all murmured one back. I can’t help but think that I saw a bit of surprise in their eyes.

Fifty meters away, tucked in a small grove of trees, were all the men. They sat in a half-moon, some sitting grouped on benches, others individually in kitchen chairs but most on the dusty, hard-packed ground. At the center of attention was a traditional wooden coffin. It sat solidly on four bricks, about four inches off the ground. It had been painted a clay-red color. A handful of men were busy tending to the coffin, various carpenter tools scattered about.

I became preoccupied with greetings but I was very curious to get back to observing the men at work on the coffin. Among the ranks of men were many folks I had encountered at the nearby village market. Many were chiefs from neighboring villages I had met at a joint Village Natural Resource Management Committee (VNRMC) meeting recently held. None of the men were younger than 20 years old.

After greeting each abambo (gentlemen, father), I intended to sit on the ground but I knew I was going to face strong opposition — I always do. The frailest man of the bunch is asked to sit on the ground and the chair is brought to me. I have two options: refuse the seat and disrespect the entire village or accept the seat and swallow my disdain for such a practice. I accept the chair and mutter, “Zikomo” (thank you) under my breath.

The men get enthusiastically animated when a large pail of white liquid is brought over. Cups are dipped into the liquid, called thobwa (pronounced TOE-BWAH), and distributed to each willing onlooker. This concoction was consumed at the VNRMC meeting and in any case is consumed at ceremonial events. It is a non-alcoholic maize drink, sweet in taste and a delight to have but only in small quantities. I kindly refuse a cup – a warm, thick beverage on this hot day just doesn’t seem to get my pallet raging.

The men working on the coffin are gathering different materials, one of which are batteries. With a hammer, the man cracks the batteries open and deposits the material (presumably battery acid) onto a short, wood plank. He mixes in water and begins to smear the black substance on the coffin’s bottom edge. I’m called over. I’m hesitant but oblige out of respect. I am given the substance and demonstrated how to paint it on the coffin. I can smell the coffins contents — a 40-year old man who died of malaria — as I smear the makeshift paint on. I am quickly humbled by the whole experience.

After I’m done thoroughly washing my hands, I make the nod to Sampson that I must go — I have to be in the main trading center by noon. I give my well wishes to the closest abambos near me and I am quietly on my way.

On my way out, the women are sobbing vociferously. Unfortunately, I know this won’t be my last funeral while I’m here.

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