Swamp Music (Part 2)

Read Part One here.

We arrived at a port forty-five minutes later where a large group of people were loading piles of raw sugar cane into a small fleet of canoes. The group was buzzing with excitement and general hilarity as they watched us disembark from the boat. After jumping from the bow of the adjacent boat, we all had a good stretch on the shoreline while greeting the locals. We gathered up our WMDs (Weapons of Mass Development — our bikes) and rolled further into the marsh.

We followed a bumpy path through many small swatches of simple dwellings. I would like to note that I marvel at these ‘simple’ dwellings. Though simple by any Western definition, these houses are really quite intricate and take skilled craftsmen to complete. Coming from a construction and home restoration background, I can appreciate fine craftsmanship when I see it. The homes are all made of poles, thatch, and mud using a machete, a hoe (called a khasu — a cross between a shovel and a hoe) and clever ingenuity. They are easily able to withstand high winds and remain relatively waterproof during rains. The construction of these dwellings are a stark contrast to the brick dwellings with a thatch or tin roof that is conventional in many inland villages including the one in which I live back in Mbangu. I presume the reason these houses are more ‘temporary’ than those found inland is because the marsh floods and thus would effortlessly decimate them. Also, construction materials are easily accessible, using what the environment provides in close proximity rather than dealing with the logistics of getting more durable materials into the area of the marsh we now were in. We passed many fine dwellings that were constructed to be two stories high with the intent to circumvent any issues related to flooding. The upper level was the house and in some cases the lower level was used to shelter livestock. Lampson remarked that the water can rise a meter or more in a rainy season and the waters are often treacherous to navigate.

We continued down the bumpy path until we came upon water, the trail continuing on the other side approximately twenty meters away.

“So. . . this is the end of our adventure. Might as well call it a day. We’ve simply ran out of runway.” I carried on, “Actually, wait. Bob has his sandals and socks on. He can just lift us all above his head and his magic socks can wade us across.”

I was a bit annoyed. I wore shoes and trousers because I anticipated that we would stay mostly dry and I wanted to be culturally correct (men should wear trousers and shoes in public). Would I have known that we would be fording across water, I would have worn shorts and my Chacos.

I had taken off my socks and shoes and rolled up my pants when a man and women — whom we had passed ten minutes earlier — came walking up. They giggled and took a side path hidden behind a bush. I didn’t hesitate a moment. I stuffed my socks in my shoes and tied them off on the handlebars and slid myself behind the reeds, tailing the two locals.

I came out on the other side dry and without incident. Bob had crossed the murky water — socks, sandals, bike and all — and Cody followed close by (he wore waterproof boots — a smart lad). I greeted them with a mischievous grin, like the Grinch after he stole Christmas.

I didn’t bother putting on my shoes and socks. I figured we would probably come to another crossing and this time I wouldn’t be so lucky to find a dry path.

We passed a school — a stick frame pavilion — that had been built a meter and a half off the ground. We came upon a small shop — that was particularly well-built I may add — and Lampson stopped and spoke to a handful of locals that were playing a game called boa (better known as Mancala in the United States) under a blue gum tree.

Lampson is an ANAMED guy, trained by a health sector Peace Corps Volunteer sometime back and now is helping Cody as a Malawian counterpart. Action for Natural Medicine (ANAMED) is a movement initiated by a Christian man named Dr. Hans Martin Hirt to have folks living in tropical regions return to practical natural medicine practices instead of relying on Western medicine. It is a call to empowerment of a people and land that have been exploited by Western powers for too long.

The book that environment Volunteers were given at Pre-Service Training is Dr. Hirt’s magnum opus and is called, “Natural Medicine in the Tropics: Tropical plants as a source of health care. Production of medicines and cosmetics.” In the preface, Dr. Hirt gives a scathing indictment of Western medicine. His tone is aggressive and passionate. He writes with authority and profound familiarity with the subject.

An excerpt:

“The ‘Third World’ has every reason to be proud. It provides the rest of the world with nature-oriented guidelines on how to cultivate this earth and protect it against destruction. It presents the means by which our globe could easily survive for another few million years. The creator of the expression ‘Third World’, President Nehru, in fact wanted to describe the third way, the better way!”

I urge you to find the rest of the preface. It is a good read.

Lampson’s intent was to locate a local ANAMED guy, one that had been trained by Volunteer efforts. He came back with no sight of him. We continued on our journey, down the dusty, bumpy trail.

After some time we reached another water crossing where a host of locals were escaping the sun under a keshya tree. This time, though, we were in luck. A lone ferryman was busy ushering an elderly women, helping her unload a large bag of maize on the opposite shore.

Lampson greeted the man navigating the vessel and arranged for our quick hop to the trail continuing on the other side.

We unloaded, gathered ourselves and once again continued our journey.

We arrived upon the site where we were to have an ANAMED training session, co-facilitated by Bob and Lampson. The locals surrounded us, all the children both simultaneously amused and pleasantly apprehensive by the three azungus (foreigners) that had trekked onto their stomping ground. It may be a safe bet that this was the first time many of these children had ever seen a white person and now before them were three! It is a very humbling acknowledgement and when I initially realize myself in this situation, I become more cognizant of my body language and general poise.

After meeting the local chief, we did what I’ve now coined “The Dance of the Chairs”. Just as seating around the family table at Thanksgiving or Christmas has meaning in America, this similar acknowledgement of respect and power is given here in Malawi. The head chief usually sits in a chair with a back attached (typically the most ornate chair in the village) flanked by benches where other subordinate chiefs and general council sit. Women usually sit on the ground in a tight group with the little ones. Your place relative to the chief is a sign of influence or power. I have always found this custom frustrating because I know that I’m getting a chair or a bench because I am an azungu and thus am believed to have influence or power. Truth be told: I really have little of either. I’d be more content amongst the crowd, sitting on the hard packed earth. But as a NGO colleague once told me, “Get over yourself and take the damn seat!” So I took a damn seat and amused the children while waiting for the session to start.

Meetings always start with a prayer led by a prominent local preacher. We all introduced ourselves and Lampson gave the audience an introduction to ANAMED. Bob busied himself with setting up his lesson plan and quickly referring to papers he had crammed into the tent bag he had packed full. Bob spoke on three topics regarding uses of the moringa tree, blue gum (eucalyptus) tree and aloe — all of which are naturalized to this region. Each has various medicinal properties. For instance, the moringa leaves are packed with nutritious vitamins and minerals, the blue gum leaves can be used as a tooth paste and aloe has healing properties for dry and burned skin. With each topic, Bob spoke in broken Chichenglish (Chichewa + English) while demonstrating how to produce and use the medicine. He was like Santa pulling out the items out of the tent bag. Every four or five sentences Lampson would expand on the main points in Chichewa. When the bag was finally finished, we took a couple sucker truncheons from an aloe plant and demonstrated how to plant one properly. It was a riot getting the village to agree on whose yard would benefit from the plant! Good job, Bob, you old sailor. YTM.

We said our good byes and reversed our trip back to Cody’s place. What an awesome experience! Some point in the future I plan on going back to the marsh and doing a training session with Cody.

Thanks for reading and thanks for all the fish.

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One response to “Swamp Music (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Swamp Music (Part 1) | Circle of Life Malawi | A Peace Corps Chronicle·

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