Hi all! This week, a friend from home asked me what Malawi was truly like. An incredibly broad question, huh? One in which I did not know where to start. Do I explain the reoccurring conversations I have each week about why I don’t have children? Do I discuss the strange Malawian obsession with setting anything and everything on fire? Do I tell her about the deeply rooted rumor that nsima makes you strong? Instead of listing all my Malawian facts and observations, as I often do in my blog posts, I decided to write a short narrative about a girl named Lidia. This way, the quirky parts of Malawian life that I have become accustomed to, may be realized by my readers.
Lidia is a fictional character. A conglomeration of the many young girls that I chat with everyday. Ones that I’ve gotten to know and have come to understand. I hope that this anecdote about Lidia, which follows a very typical Malawian day for a child here, gives some insight on “what Malawi is like.” The culture I describe is what I have observed around me in Salima, but of course varies from district to district and is not representative of all Malawi. Enjoy and please leave me with your thoughts and questions so I can further elucidate Malawian life!
Lidia is jostled awake by the clucking of her family’s chickens. He mother is up already, shooing the feathered creatures out of their house now that daylight has come. Judging by the soft light seeping through the window, she guesses it’s around 5:00 in the morning. She grudgingly lifts herself off the reed mat, steps over her sleeping siblings and sits on the stoop outside. The sun is just beginning to show itself so the air is still somewhat cool. She hears the soft swishing of women sweeping their yards. Using their stubby, handle-less brooms, the women are bent at the waist, all performing the same rehearsed motions. Swish, swish, swish. Loose dirt and debris are swept to the side, leaving only compact soil behind. However, over the next 24 hours, this loose dirt will slowly reclaim its territory and have to be swept once again. Lidia thinks deeply about sweeping. She thinks about how it won’t be long until she has to sweep outside her own home. Maybe five, ten years at most. She’s only eleven years old but this this vision is getting closer with each and every day. Last week, a girl in Standard 8 got married. Age fifteen.
After waking herself up on the stoop, Lidia gathers last night’s dishes and starts to scrub them with a scrap piece of maize sack. She does so while bending over a big basin in the backyard. When it comes time to clean the pot in which nsima was cooked in, where the sticky substance has hardened like old lasagna to a pan, Lidia splashes some water inside and mixes in a handful of dirt. The grains of the sand wash away last night’s stubborn scraps after she does some serious scrubbing. Once the dishes are completed, Lidia fetches water at the borehole for her and her siblings’ bucket baths. Meanwhile, her younger sisters are sweeping inside. Their mother is hunched over a three-stone fire, cooking cassava and tea (although they are out of tea, so it’s really just hot water and sugar). Breakfast is not an everyday occurrence, especially during hunger season when her family’s supply of maize is dwindling and finances are tight. Therefore, Lidia is happy to smell food cooking over the fire. Sitting with her siblings, she eats in haste to assure that she consumes her fair share of cassava. Just as the pile of disappears, she spots her friend Alakwanji walking down the dusty road to school and calls out her name. Come February, her view of the road will be completely obstructed by thick, green cornstalks. Today, however, she can clearly see everyone and everything that passes by; goats, dogs, ox carts, trucks of chanting soccer fans, wobbly toddlers running after their mothers, men carrying straw on their heads, women in matching chitenjes, herds of cows and many, many bikes. And of course, her friend Alakwanji.
Lidia stuffs her notepad and pen in a reused plastic sugar bag and trots off towards her friend. Alakwanji isn’t donning her blue uniform. It must be laundry day, Lidia decides. The two girls walk to school, making harmless jabs at each other and laughing loudly, just like their mothers. When they reach the primary school, hundreds of kids are buzzing around like fireworks gone awry, exploding with laughter and running every which way. Others sit under the mango tree talking. Others play jump rope. They all wait for the all-school assembly to mark the commencement of classes. It’s complete chaos, just like every other day.
Inured to his absenteeism, Lidia is relieved to see that her teacher is present today. Often, the students are told to retreat home when, for one reason or another, the teacher decides not to come to school. But today, crammed in a classroom with 125 other Standard 5 students, Lidia learns Life Skills, Math, Chichewa, and English. The boy next to her doesn’t have a pencil so he just sits there, helpless. Lidia, on the other hand, heedfully safeguards her school supplies, knowing that if she loses something, her family will not spend their money to buy a replacement. At least not now. Not during hunger season. Instead, they are buying food and fertilizer.
Once school has ended, around 12:00, Lidia returns home to eat nsima with her family. The nsima is made with the maize grown in her family’s farm located 2km away. The maize was harvested, the ears were shucked, the cobs were stripped of their kernels and the kernels were grinded at the maize mill. Lastly, the corn flour was boiled in hot water and then formed into patties. A long, arduous process but more than worth it to Lidia’s family. The only potential costs associated with nsima are maize seeds, fertilizer and access to the maize mill. (Unless a family saves their seeds from last year, uses compost instead of fertilizer, and pounds the maize with a mortar and pestle instead of paying at the mill). To accompany the nsima, Lidia’s mother has picked moringa leaves from the tree behind their house and boiled them with a pinch of baking soda to cut the bitterness. Cooking different types of leaves is common for Lidia’s mother and the other women in their village as another form of cheap (free) food. On days when her mother sells a fair amount of tomatoes at the market, the family might also splurge on the sardine-sized fish caught in Lake Malawi known as usipa.
Lidia and her sisters share a plate of blistering hot nsima patties. They tear off chunks of the white blobs and use them as vessels to pick up the moringa leaf paste. More precisely, they form the nsima into a ball in their right palm, push it towards their fingertips, and dip/scoop up the moringa to bring it to their mouths. It’s a messy process and by the time they finish, pebbles of nsima will be squished into their reed mat. Seated inside their mud & thatch home, Lidia looks up and analyzes the roofing. Yes, it looks okay from here but no, it might not last through the rainy season, she thinks. With her father being away in Johannesburg, (like many other men in the village), Lidia’s brother was given the task of re-thatching their roof this year. Next year your father will build us a strong, brick house, her mother says. He’ll bring back money to buy a tin roof, she says. Next year, next year. Ever since her father left, her mother has been running the household while holding her breath for not only the return of her husband, but the arrival of much needed funds.
After lunch, Lidia spends the rest of the day playing with friends, chatting on the white woman’s porch and watching her siblings. She eats mangoes, she braids her friend’s hair and she jumps rope. She wanders through the village, chats with more friends and lays on a mat. She has no homework, no after-school activities and no books to read. At dusk, she returns home to bathe, eat more nsima and sleep. Tomorrow, she’ll repeat the cycle again.