I dip my fingers in the water-filled bottlecap that lays flat on my chest, parallel with my limp body. I then smear my forehead with the liquid that has clung to my fingertips, akin to the way Rifiki smears fruit juice across Simba’s face in my favorite childhood movie, the Lion King. My fingers continue down my temple and trace the back of my neck. On top of my bare body rests a water-drenched chitenje, doing its best to put out the flames errupting from my pores.
It’s hot season in Malawi, and I have stopped at nothing to keep myself cool. Yet, my efforts are fruitless. At 8:00pm, temperatures are still north of 85 degrees and living in a house with a tin roof only exacerbates the problem. I feel like a bee whose hive has been flooded with a repressive smoke. I am crippled and can no longer think clearly. I decide that I cannot remain indoors. I laboriously erect my body, schlep my reed mat outside and lay beneath the stars. It’s not cool by any means, but there is a marked difference in temperature.
I think back to New Hampshire summers when as a child I was tortured by only a handful of 80 degree nights. I would deck out my room with all sorts of cooling technology: My overhead fan would be shaking frantically on HIGH, while a huge floor-level fan also blasted me with air. I would put a bag of ice across my forehead (which was usually too cold and actually gave me brain freezes), and a damp towel across my chest. One year I even had an extra hand-held, battery-run fan. I would also strip my mattress and relocate to the floor, as I had learned that heat rises and the difference in temperature between my bed and the floor was to me, unmistakeably palpable. These lavish attempts to stay cool in the Northeast now seem absurd in comparison, but also inspire jealously in my older, Malawian self. If only I had some ice, or even just cool water, I constantly muse. Or what about that cute little pink fan with the green rubber blades? How amazing would that be right about now?
During the daytime, the scorcher is of course even more intense. I walk into the sun and my arm hair seems to turn brittle as if I had just gotten too close to a hot fire. My face starts to melt off and my recently wetted hair is already dry. Two days ago, a friend informed me that it was 124 degrees in the sun in our district. As my grandmother would have said, “UNBELIEVABLE!!” And indeed, it is unbelievable. The heat affects me in ways that I could never imagine. I have even lost my apeptite, a situation strikingly more rare than me deciding to work on Wall Street. I’ve also been inundated with headaches, experienced throbbing edema-laced feet, and succumbed to complete exhaustion. Yesterday, after foolishly biking 45 minutes in the sun, I produced a once-in-a-lifetime show for a concerned Malawian audience by vommitting outside a grocery store. #whitewomanpuking. Luckily, I had my amazing counterpart, Gift, to bring me refreshments and watch over me as I rested on the curb for more than two hours.
The heat is certainly not something to take lightly. Even the already slow pace of life here loses steam, which is telling of its great influence. Women sit or lay in large groups under the mango trees attempting to stay cool for much of the day. Many people sleep outside at night. Some businesses halt. When I first arrived here, I didn’t believe the grotesque descriptions of hot season but they have proved to be more than true.
One of my child friends claims that he’s unaffected and that hot season is “actually not that bad”… but I’m calling his bullshit.