Thursday, 14 July 2011
Yesterday we met Tom at our hotel in Lilongwe. I was very impressed – whereas Constance and I only bumble along in English here (luckily for us, many people speak at least a little), Tom greeted the hotel clerk in Chichewa, the language spoken most commonly in Malawi. Not only could Tom greet in Chichewa, but he was having a full-on conversation with the clerk, and it seemed like he was even making jokes! I was very jealous – this is the first trip I’ve ever taken to a place where I am 100 percent unable to communicate with the people. Of course, pointing and using body language and hand gestures helps one to get by, but I want to learn more. So, as we walked about Lilongwe this morning to visit the bank, eat lunch, check out the market, etc., I was busy asking questions. For instance, it bugs me that people greet me in Chichewa, and although they’re almost certainly saying ‘Hello’, or something else like ‘How are you?’, it’s not entirely clear how to respond. So I learned the basic greeting, ‘Muli bwanji’, which means ‘How are you?’ The standard response is ‘Ndili bwino’, which means, literally, ‘I am good’. The ‘n’ is basically not pronounced. I haven’t yet learned how to respond if you are not, in fact, good, but let’s not get crazy just yet. Another very important word is ‘Zikomo’, which means ‘thank you’, but also seems to be a polite way of ending an encounter. We also learned the meaning for ‘Mzungu’, which is ‘white people’, as in ‘Mzungu trap’ (the name for the deep, uncovered ditches filled with rotting garbage and fetid water that swallow unsuspecting tourists in larger cities and towns such as Lilongwe). I have heard that term quite a bit, and was relieved to learn that it is not at all derogatory. There are many formalities and rules in this language; for example, there are different greetings that should be used when meeting someone you haven’t seen in, say, two or three days, versus someone you’re seeing for the third time in a single day. I only hope that in the short time we have here in Malawi, we are able to grasp better the intricacies of communication, but I’m not expecting much… I’ll be happy if I can just get ‘Hello’ right!
Today’s journey from Lilongwe to Tom’s site in central Malawi began very well. We caught a mini bus from the old town, near our hotel, to the main highway that runs north towards Tanzania, and got dropped off at a busy stretch. From here we hitched, and after not even 10 minutes of waiting were picked up by a very nice Afrikaaner man in a pickup. As it turned out, he was going all the way to Kasungu,a medium sized town north of Lilongwe where we would need to take a second minibus to Tom’s village. Thanks to the hitch, we arrived ahead of schedule in Kusungu, so we decided to pick up some supplies and have lunch in town before finding a minibus to take us to the village. As usual, after boarding the minibus, we had to wait for it to fill up, and, as usual, just when you think the bus is full, they find space for an entire additional row of people. This time, they piled people into the trunk space of the bus – 6 people in the trunk! By far the most uncomfortable minibus yet. Making it worse, a fuel shortage has caused gas prices to soar, well above what they are in the U.S., and so the driver, in an effort to save fuel, was traveling at about 20 kph, almost a crawl; there were old men on bicycles overtaking us! The driver was even shutting off the engine going down hills – this was going to take forever! And of course, at one point, to make matters worse, we ran out of fuel, or the engine overheated, or both (actually I think it was both, and I think so because the driver both purchased fuel from a passing motorist and poured one of our water bottles over the engine block).
Nevertheless, we finally made it to Tom’s village, just a kilometer or so off this main road. The walk from the road to Tom’s hut was amazing. The scenery was absolutely stunning, with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, and even of the nearby Nkhotakota Game Reserve, which I learned is home to a decent number of animals, including elephants and even a few lions. We passed some of his neighbors, and said our awkward ‘Muli bwanjis’ and ‘Ndili bwinos’, and as usual passed tons of children who are almost flabbergasted when a ‘mzungu’ waves to them (actually, Malawi is chock full of children, with over 50 percent of the population under 15 years of age). Finally, after a typically exhausting day of travel in Africa, we arrived at Tom’s mud hut.
This evening we dined with the chief of Tom’s tiny village, and his wife. Their names are Ambros and Catherine, respectfully referred to as ‘Amfumu’ (father) and ‘Amai’ (mother), respectively. Catherine prepared nsima for us, which is the staple food here, and is served invariably at all meals throughout the country (and region). Nsima consists of maize (corn meal) and water, which is boiled and cooked until it reaches a consistency of thick dumplings. One eats nsima with the right hand, so before the meal a bowl of water is passed around for washing. With right hands washed, nsima is passed around, followed by bowls of sides, usually pumpkin leaves or mustard greens, and often beans. Meat is almost never eaten, although tonight we prepared some instant ‘Tasty Soy Pieces’ to supplement the meal. Small chunks of nsima are taken, rolled into a ball, flattened, and used to scoop up bits of the sides and then eaten. This is a practical, if messy way of eating, and we enjoyed it very much. The chief and his wife were very friendly and welcoming hosts, and we had a nice time asking about their house, children, etc., with Tom of course doing his best to translate. This was one meal I’ll not soon forget. The chief’s wife agreed to show us how to prepare nsima tomorrow, hopefully we’ll pick that up quicker than we have Chichewa!