As 2016 comes to an end, I’d like to share my top 5 village moments of the year. Although living in an isolated community far from friends and family can be incredibly taxing, it’s moments like these that make it all worth it.
1). One of my favorite moments I shared with my best little friend, Malizani. He is a boy in 3rd grade who comes over almost every day to read, draw, appreciate any new growth in my garden, or just chat. Malizani is incredibly polite and has a timid, quiet voice. (I’m guessing this is why I was drawn to him compared to all the other crazies). About a month after meeting him, he entered my fence (with permission of course), saw my face, and was overcome with astonishment. His eyes grew twice as big as he attempted in vain to prevent an embarrassingly enormous smile from spreading across his face. Apparently, every time he had seen me prior to this interaction, my hair had been affixed in a ponytail or bun. That day, I had shampooed and brushed my near-dreads and was letting my freshly conquered locks dry. Malizani slowly approached with a look of wonder and amazement. “Chiri…..” he cooed, wordless. He reached up and touched my hair shyly. “It’s beautiful…” he murmured, full of admiration. It was hands-down the cutest, most genuine compliment I’ve ever received.
2). Another favorite moment involves my landlord’s daughter/ good friend, Harriet. Harriet and her friend had come over to chat during the time I typically prepare dinner and asked what I would be cooking. I showed them my jackpot of carrots, green peppers, and green beans that I scored at the market. These types of vegetables can only be found on certain days and most community members aren’t accustomed to cooking them. Therefore, Harriet and her friend seemed quite apprehensive when I told them I was going to chop them up, mix them together, and fry them with an egg. I sliced off a bit of carrot for them to try, which they accepted cautiously, giggling with eachother and turning it over in their palms before finally tasting it. Their expressions immediately soured. Disgusted. Harriet spit it out. We all burst out laughing because I was clearly incredibly excited to be cooking my prized vegetables, while they were repulsed. The same pattern repeated with the green beans and peppers. They were incredibly hesitant to eat them raw, and even more grossed out to learn that I was going to cook them. In an attempt to persevere their image of me as a good cook, I brought out some soy sauce, which I figured they would appreciate due to their love of salt. “You see, the vegetables will taste good if I pour this over it!” I tried to explain. But again, they were repulsed. Another round of laughter ensued. Culture sharing can be wonderful, but other times you just have to agree to disagree I guess.
3). Another top memory of 2016 happened on my birthday in January, when I was still living in Maganga. I chose to celebrate with my best village friends, Ethero and Alakwanji, along with their younger siblings. Together, we made spaghetti and birthday cake, in addition to the traditional Malawian fare. We ate the spaghetti with our hands, lifting the slippery strands high above our mouths and letting them drop down. Having never experienced spaghetti before, everyone thought that the way the strands wiggled around in the air was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing at how the spaghetti was “dancing.” It was all gone in a quick 20 minutes.
4). This next one is a bit longer than a “moment,” but I’m counting it anyway. Last year when I lived in Maganga, a student named Elijah volunteered to help me with a certain project. Flash-forward eight months and 110km apart later, (with no communication between us) and he randomly showed up on my doorstep one day! Apparently, his family is originally from a small village in the mountains 10km away from my new home in Kasinje. He had finished school in Maganga, returned home and heard that an azungu named Christina was living somewhat nearby so he came to investigate. He walked 10km from his home, asked around, and found me! What’s more, after catching up and eating lunch together, I told Elijah that I was lacking a counterpart that day. Mine had bailed and I was doing the same exact project that he had helped with in Maganga (Modern Malawians). He graciously offered to stay for a few hours and help. It was such a great surprise to see him and continue our work together!
4.5). This is a continuation of my story with Elijah. One day, about three months after his visit, I decided spontaneously that I would visit him at his home. I remembered the name of the village, Bonogwe, because it’s the word for a local vegetable. After asking my neighbors, they showed me the path to follow and I set off, quickly gaining elevation on a steep mountainous road. I passed only about ten men on bikes for the entirety of my journey. Most were dismounted, strenuously managing incredibly heavy loads that they were in the midst of transporting down to Kasinje. After a lot of sweating and heavy breathing, I arrived in a little village. A few huts dotted the landscape but as I continued, I found myself at the center of what I believed to be Bonogwe. It was a beautiful, forested little village nestled in the mountains, (the type that I wish I lived in!). I asked a man on the road if he had heard of a guy named “Elijah Ngwenya.” After a consultation with some kids nearby and repeating the name multiple times with different pronunciations, we finally understood eachother. “NGWENYA! Yes, follow me!” I trailed behind the man on his bike and we rode to a borehole. There, I was passed off to a bucket-bearing woman, who I was told was Elijah’s aunt. I had made it! We walked together to a Jehova’s Witness Church where I was passed off to yet another woman. Of course, the whole service was interrupted as I neared the door. I sat down as inconspicuously as I could, but everyone turned around and was staring at me. The pastor noted my presence and the children whispered. I had no idea why I was there. When the service ended, fifty people greeted me on their way out. I was then led to a house nearby by the woman who I later found out was Elijah’s other aunt. Over the next four hours, I met what seemed to be every member of Elijah’s extended family. The clan occupied a whole hill in Bonogwe, probably around thirty houses. I ate nsima with Elijah’s uncle, laughed with his young cousins, watched his grandfather make a hoe, and helped his aunt cook lunch. Yet, when the day was over, I never saw Elijah. It turned out he had moved to another village the month before. I loved this moment because it really does prove that you will be welcomed anywhere in Malawi, even if you don’t know a single soul in the entire village.
5). My last favorite moment comes again from an interaction with my friend Harriet. I was relaying a story to her (in broken Chichewa) and we couldn’t stop laughing. I told her that earlier that day, I had been lying in my hammock wearing *gasp* inappropriate clothing (shorts and a sports bra). All of a sudden, I heard the @&#_@#! goats that are always breaking into my fence and eating my crops. I practically fell out of the hammock trying to get up as fast as possible and started sprinting towards the fence where I could hear them knocking against it. “CHOKA! TIENI! TIENI!” I yelled in my scariest, deepest voice. “GO AWAY, LET’S GO, LET’S GO!” (There may have also been some inappropriate language in there). All of a sudden, as I neared the fence in a full sprint with my hands waving frantically, I realized that it was not goats at all, but Harriet’s father who had come to do some repairs to the thatch. Our faces were a mere foot apart with only the sparse, sagging fence between us. Instantly, I froze, shrunk down, and ran inside, pretending that nothing had happened. While I did not appreciate what had occurred in the moment, telling the story later to Harriet gave us quite the laugh.
Malizani, my best little friend featured in #1.