Your First Wedding: Malawi Style

You timidly approach the family compound, unsure if you’ve arrived at the right time, unsure who to greet first and unsure if you were actually invited (you think that’s what they were saying in Chichewa). You observe multiple groups of women, clustered around various homes, cooking nsima. You’re beckoned by one group, out of which you recognize only a handful of women. Regardless, a warm welcome is extended and you are invited to take a seat on a reed mat positioned in the shade. One woman greets you in typical Malawian fashion:

“How are you?”

“I’m fine, how are you?”

I’m fine also, thank you.”

…and then ten others follow suit with the same exact exchange. After repeating your well-being eleven times, plates are then hastily arranged in front of you with prodigious amounts of rice, meat and nsima. Free food! You accept it with alacrity, rinsing your right hand in a bowl of water and digging into the bowl of rice. Around you, the chaos of a Malawian wedding is unfolding. Women arrive to the bride’s home like family members to a Thanksgiving feast, bearing massive containers of nsima, rice, beans, goat meat, chicken and eggs. Other women run around frantically, in what appears to be a search for clean plates to serve their guests with. Meanwhile, you sit on the mat and stuff yourself with food, unable to understand most of the conversation around you but content with simply soaking up your surroundings.

You eat communally, scooping up rice with your fingers from a bowl that three other people are also eating from. The girl next to you picks up a slippery piece of potato, slurps it out of her fingers and then plunges her sauce-stained hand into the shared pile of nsima. On the other side of you, one woman holds down a bone while her friend pulls up on a parcel of meat and tears it off. (Since only the right hand is used for dining, employing a friend to help you consume meat is essential). With curiosity, you inquire what type it is but are only responded to with “kaya” and an insouciant shrug (“who knows”). One of the ladies deliberately places a greyish hunk on your side of the bowl and rattles off something in Chichewa, throwing her head back in laughter. You laugh at her laughter, realize it’s intestines, and then eat it. It’s not that bad.

Your attention is then turned to a disorderly group of young boys, assembled five feet from the mat. In the center of the crowd, a long pole-like arm extends towards the sky, hoisting up what appears to be a plate of nsima. The food doesn’t remain untouched for long, though, and is soon bum-rushed by fifteen greedy hands that dive-bomb the plate like vultures. Nsima flies in the air, and a few lucky boys who secure a piece for themselves happily trot off.

After finishing your own nsima, you wash your hands in the original water bowl (now used by five other women) and attempt to chat in Chichewa. With enthusiasm, the amayis answer your questions all at once. What’s more, all seem to believe that your understanding is correlated to the volume of their voices. You feel overwhelmed and slightly uncomfortable, but loved.

The chaos continues when one woman, without so much as one word, does a drive-by drop off. Into your lap falls her baby and when you look up, the woman has disappeared. You become the child’s pseudoparent for the next half hour. (That is, until she pees on you and must be re-swaddled).

The official wedding ceremony has already occurred in the early morning, but you are then ushered to the “after party” where huge speakers, run by a generator, are blasting Malawian beats. Hundreds of men, women and children surround the site, all watching the dancefloor. The emcee encourages everyone to “kusupa” or toss money into a container that will later be given to the new couple.

As always, you are surrounded by hundreds of people that know you, but you can only pick out twenty people that you know. Kids swarm you, amayis smile and shout indiscernible things at you, and a sea of Chichewa and dust envelopes you. After dancing, chatting and “kusupa”-ing, the sun starts to set and you realize how mentally and physically exhausted you are. You say “tiwonana” to your friends and return home, greatly satisfied with your first real Malawian wedding and happy to be living in such a wonderful community.

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Good Vibes

The past two days have been absolutely amazing. Before I arrived in Malawi, I stressed about the possibility of being lonely, depressed and too far removed from comfort. But those feelings have yet to arrive.

Yesterday, I received a fantastic package stuffed with all sorts of goodies and three page letter from one of my best friends. I was also visited by my Peace Corps “boss,” who I had the pleasure of introducing to my Malawian friends and counterparts. Hearing positive feedback from the community and those I’ve worked with was reassuring and encouraging. To top it off, I received a call saying that I’ve been selected to go to Senegal for a two-week malaria training in August! Lastly, I found a great chitenje with the help of some ladies in the market who thought my indecision at selecting something as commonplace as a chitenje was hilarious.

The good vibes continued into today when I received five letters from home! (Including one from my beloved fourth grade teacher, Mrs. H!) I also received eight applications for an “assistant youth group trainer” that I had advertised, which I am beyond excited about. (More details to come). Lastly, I’m about to go a neighbor’s house to learn how to cook tobwa, (a local corn-based drink which happens to be my favorite Malawian delicacy).

Not to brag, but life in Africa is pretty damn good. I feel so lucky to have such great friends and family back home supporting me and am so thankful for this experience. Miss you. Till next time.

Free Time

If you’ve been following my blog, you are probably aware that my main duties right now are community assessment and integration. And if you thought about it, you probably deduced that, while these tasks are highly important, they are not exactly time consuming. Especially considering my three month timetable. So what, you ask, have I been doing?

Much of my personal time recently has been devoted to home improvement. While many volunteers moved into houses that were previously lived in by other PCVs, my site was completely new. It was a roof and five rooms. No bowls, shelves, spices, decorations, furniture, books, or buckets were left behind. I therefore have been sewing curtains, buying and making furniture, painting, collecting useful houseware, and doing my best to decorate. Below is a picture of my living room.

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I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time working on my garden. I utilized a technique which I learned during Pre-Service Training called double-digging.

It’s a method used to loosen two layers of soil, thereby increasing aeration and drainage. While I’m sure it’ll be worth it, double-digging was no easy feat as the soil around my home is rock solid and every swing of my hoe felt like a test of my horticultural faith. To say it was a long process would be an understatement. (And I purport this to be the reason why most Malawians don’t believe I have a garden).  While digging, I also added a few layers of compost underneath the soil, alternating between moist food scraps and dry plant matter to increase the soil’s nutrients. I’m hoping that I’ll see the fruits of my labor (literally) and that these preparations were worth it. Last month, I planted in the first bed: cilantro, basil, tomatoes, carrots, and eggplant. Unfortunately, after leaving the gate to my fence open one day, I came back to discover that a dumb chicken had ate half of my sprouting crops! It was a tragic. Since then, I’ve replanted part of the first bed and started the second bed. In the works are: summer squash, pumpkin, cowpeas, zucchini, beets, peppers and the other aforementioned vegetables. Watching them sprout and slowly evolve has been so exciting! Below are some before and after pictures of my yard.

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Screenshot_2015-07-21-08-44-26 I’m hoping that my vegetable garden will show my neighbors that indeed, a variety of foods can be grown here – not just corn. There is a serious, perplexing lack in crop diversity in Maganga and as I’ve written before, most people just eat nsima accompanied by a “relish” (bean leaves, pumpkin leaves, cowpeas, or some other scavenged greens). This limited diet therefore does not supply them sufficient vitamins and nutrients, let alone calories, for proper growth. I hope that in the future I can use my garden as a teaching tool and inspire alimentary creativity in my fellow Malawians to combat malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies.

I also have planted a few avocado pits and a banana tree! To acquire said banana tree, I biked fifteen minutes towards town, pulled over at the first one I spotted, and then used my machete & hoe to dig up a baby banana sucker. It was a laborious process but I’m excited at the prospect of having bananas right outside my house! Even though they’re commonly grown in a nearby area called Nkhotakhota and can be found for sale in Salima (the closest “city”), it seems that the people of Maganga have made no efforts to grow them here. (The one that I found stood alone in a random field). I’m hoping that my tree thrives and that it can serve as an example of another type of nutritious food whose benefits can be reaped locally. (I swear these food puns just came to me).

In addition to gardening and decorating, I’ve also spent time making preparations to keep chickens! I have an empty structure behind my house that I adjusted to shelter them, adding wire where needed and a proper locking door to keep out chicken thieves and other non-human predators. In addition, I built a roost and a nesting area. On Friday, the day finally came when I was able go to town to pick up my new friends. Although I originally wanted point-of-lay hens (older, egg-producing birds), I couldn’t resist the cute fluffiness of the baby chicks. So, here are my five new housemates:

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Right now, I’m keeping them inside because it gets a bit chilly at night (remember, it’s winter here) and I of course don’t have an electric heat lamp. Instead, I’ve been putting a recycled peanut butter jar of boiled water into their basin that I replace once or twice during the night. The conducted heat manages to keep them warm until the sun rises around 6:30am and they break their huddle. In about 18 weeks, they should be producing fresh eggs every day! Because I don’t plan on consuming 5+ eggs daily, I definitely foresee a surplus which I plan on distributing to members of the community who have kindly fed me nsima, given me tomatoes, and shown an interest for my well-being.

Other highlights of my week include:

-Celebrating Eid (the end of Ramadan) with my Muslim friend and her family

-Teaching a group of women how to make peanut butter (and even starting the fire with ease under pressure)

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-Talking to my dad on the phone while he was on a trip in Johannesburg

-Playing 2 v 2 soccer in my yard with my favorite iwes

Zeee-Lommm-Bo!

“Odi! Odi! Odi!!”

Someone was outside my house, repeating the Chichewa word for “knock knock.” I rolled my eyes and sauntered grudgingly towards the door, expecting to find an eager group of children wishing to chat with me who I didn’t feel like entertaining. (They can be quite demanding and persistent!) As I approached the door, the voice became louder and seemingly more distressed. When I turned the handle, a wide-eyed agogo (grandmother) plowed past me and quickly fumbled to shut the door. I had no idea what was going on. Was this little old lady a security threat? I could probably take her, I thought, although it looks like she’d put up a good fight. Malawian women are unbelievably strong. Hmm.

While this inner dialogue transpired, the woman grabbed my arm. Standing a full foot shorter than me, she looked up and with great fear in her eyes, whispered, “Zeeee-lommm-bo.”

Yup. Still nothing. What was happening?

The agogo then peered out my window and pointed down the road. “Uku,” she whispered. I craned my neck and descried that indeed, something unusual and ominous was advancing. It was the Gule Wamkulu. Two figures dressed in raggy outfits, donning grotesque masks and yielding machetes were walking in our direction. They were shouting things in Chichewa, swinging the machetes and clearly instilling fear in those around them. I tried to ask a question but the woman pressed her index finger to her lips to signal silence and pulled me away from the window.

As I had learned in Pre-Service Training, the Gule Wamkulu is a prominent, immemorial feature of the Chewa culture. While in the past, they were dangerous and certainly to be avoided, they are now mainly a form of entertainment. The Gule is comprised of men that have undergone a highly secretive initiation and that is not even shared with family members. They participate in dances at important events such as funerals, holidays, special meetings, etc. The identities of the Gule members are never revealed; instead of actual people, they are thought to be “spirits” that emerge from the forest.

When the two Gule were out of sight that day, the woman thanked me for providing a safe place to hide and went on her way. Naturally, my curiosity was stimulated. I wanted to see more. I crossed the street to a friend’s house to discuss what I had just witnessed and discovered that she was just as frightened as the old woman. After much protestation, however, she agreed to escort me to where the Gule were performing.

The surrounding area was buzzing with excitement. We walked past countless clusters of congregated community members, zealously discussing the nearby Gule Wamkulu. At one point, a shriek announced the spotting of a “spirit” wandering through the trees. The clusters of gossipers instantly broke up and scattered like a exploding fireworks, sending everyone back into their houses. My friend frantically searched for the closest home and pushed me inside. Again, I waited in silence until my fellow neighbors deemed it was safe to leave. This act became a pattern, repeating itself multiple times. As we finally approached the dance, I could sense my friend’s perturbation. She sheepishly handed me over to a slightly braver woman who tenderly took my hand. Still, the woman’s hands were shaking and her expression exuded seriousness. Her fear was palpable. It seemed, however, that most of this fear was derived from the burden of bringing me, the azungu, so close to the Gule Wamkulu. It made me feel so incredibly fortunate that this lady, a complete stranger, cared so much about my safety. She was truly troubled, as if she were leading me to certain death.

Finally, after all the hype, we arrived at the dance. And I was permitted to stay for a grand total of two minutes. The other amayis were apparently too concerned with my presence, fearing the Gule would grab me- and so I was whisked away.

I wasn’t able to enjoy the dancing that day, but I certainly had fun running around the village. While I know the Malawians did not take the presence of the Gule lightly, it brought me back to the days of playing Manhunt with my neighbors as a child. I felt lucky to be able to have an authentic experience with Chewa culture and fortunate that my neighbors care so much about my well-being. I’m sure I’ll see many more “zilombo” or Gule Wamkulu, but will never forget my first encounter.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Gule, click here.

Other random happenings from this week:

If you were concerned about me not having enough to eat, don’t be! My neighbors just told me how happy they were to see that I was getting fat. (Here in Malawi it’s a sign of wealth). Meanwhile, I didn’t even noticed that I had gained weight.

I made my counterpart cake for his birthday! Baking over the fire for the first time was a struggle, but I was so proud of my unburnt, delicious goodie. However, when I gave it to my counterpart, he one-upped me and returned the container full of French fries and a (cold!) soda, saying, “Here is my birthday present to you! Hope you like it!” So much for my wonderful cake…

I am getting a bedframe! No more sleeping on the floor with the mice.

 

That’s all. Catch you on the flip side.

 

 

How I baked the cake (coals on top and below the pot):

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