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A sojourn to Malawi builds on foundation laid by my grandmother

A phone call from my grandmother, a leader in the Grandmothers to Grandmothers branch of the Stephen Lewis Foundation for AIDS in Africa, presented an exciting opportunity. Doug Miller, a retired professor, was taking a group of Bishop’s University students to Malawi for a month. My grandmother anticipated a life-changing trip for me, to Mnjale village in central Malawi, which we’d been supporting as a family for several years. The community-based organization had flowered and extended its reach into dozens of villages and had sought NGO status under the Theresa Foundation, named for my grandmother, Thérèse Bourque-Lambert.

Part 1

Being awoken by an abrupt landing with my face partially submerged in yogurt was, undoubtedly, the climax of my three gruelling flights to Malawi. I had finally managed to do what, for 36 hours, my nerves denied me – I had fallen asleep. It was only later, after I had squeezed into a minivan that would be our transportation for the next month, that I realized I was in Africa. I fell asleep again, only to be jerked awake midway to Makupo as we reduced our breakneck pace on the immaculate main road to stop in front of a dapper policeman. He inspected us and decided to test our Chichewa, Malawi’s other official language (the first is English).

In Makupo, village elders wear brightly coloured skirts and smile often. Photos: Alice Abracen

“Muli banjo?” asked the officer, meaning, “How are you?”

“Ndili Bwino,” I replied. “Kaya inu?” meaning, “I am well, and you?” After he tested every member of our party, our driver, Osmond Makabula was allowed to continue. Mountains puckered out of the horizon and the remains of maize coated the dry landscape. A few trees, the pitiful remnants of deforestation, dotted the plains. We swung wildly onto a path toward the village.

The entire village turned out to meet us; everyone shook our hands and hugged us. A girl of about 13 picked up my colossal luggage and placed it easily inside the living room of our tin-roofed house. There were spiders, and I would have happily exchanged the blood-sucking fiends for the newt who took up residence next door (we called him Morris).

The village is populated by the extended family of the Sakas. The women wear brightly coloured skirts, dresses and head coverings. They cooked while talking and laughing.

Children coming home from school grabbed our hands and walked with us. We were given a brief introduction and welcome by Chief Japheth Chiwanda, an agriculturalist. Chewa is in the direct line of the eldest mother of the village, according to the matrilineal system, and was elected by the mature women of Makupo.

After a tour of the village, we visited the Chilanga Primary School for the Blind, one of three nearby schools; the others are the Chilanga primary and secondary schools. The School for the Blind has the most funding of the three and the smallest population. The classrooms are not overcrowded, which makes it is the most sought-after school.

The children’s voices reached us from a hundred feet away, astonishingly beautiful and haunting, coupled with a lively drumbeat. We were invited into the small choir room where the children were seated on benches. A blind boy, about 11, moved to the beat as he drummed, oblivious to our presence – as were most of his fellow students, who wound their way through the intricate harmonies. There were also several albino students (albinism is often accompanied by blindness).

In the high school, we discovered that a classroom, which would hold about 30 students in Montreal, had 150 here. Some of the luckier classes had desks. High school is not free in Malawi. For many rural Malawians, the fees are the kiss of death for an education. Pressure is put on girls, who are required to work their families’ fields or a trade to support younger siblings or ill parents, to end their education and perform domestic chores.

A thriving village in the distance was founded by the former dictator of Malawi, Kamuzu H. Banda. His 30-year reign in the wake of independence produced an abundance of political prisoners and exiles, as well as the famous Kamuzu Academy, the “Eton” of Malawi.

* * *

That night over dinner, we discussed potential projects, including putting together a package promoting scholarships for the higher education of the students at Chilanga Primary School, which would be promoted at Royal West Academy, my alma mater and a beacon of light in the world of high-school fundraising; and a PowerPoint slideshow on the progress of the wells being constructed in villages near Makupo, whose funds had been supplied by Royal West under the leadership of the school’s Social Justice faculty adviser, Katharine Cukier.

I hoped to research the growth of the Malawian music industry, and, by means of collecting stories of Malawians struggling with AIDS, to promote the ratification of Bill-C393 in Canada, soon to be put before committee, which would oblige major drug companies to release quality medication to Africa. And, of course, I was to visit Mnjale in my grandmother’s place and report on the progress of the Theresa Foundation. This was my agenda for one month.

The Chilanga Community Day Secondary School requires 8850 kwacha (the Malawian currency) per semester, roughly $45 Canadian – a considerable sum for rural families. There are 400 secondary school students, but 1,200 in primary school. At the School for the Blind, there are only 73 students.

* * *

In the town proper, we discovered music stores that blasted the music of Lawrence Mbenjele, a celebrated Malawian musician who performs and transforms traditional music to his own rock style. We passed numerous second-hand clothing stores, the goods having been donated by rich Western countries. We walked by carpenters and metalworkers, the Kasungu Catholic Parish, and the food market. There was no sidewalk per se: The cars were free to park where people walk and careen along roads, the horn serving to alert people to their presence. We also passed the hospital, where voluntary counseling and testing for AIDS is offered.

* * *

Another day, we climbed a three-humped mountain, pushing through the tall grass at the base until we could look out across the plain. It is largely golden, with dark spots cast by clouds. Smoke billows from where the ground is burned (this is an outdated method of cleansing a field for future planting that agricultural researchers are encouraging an end to, but change is slow).

Royal West helps raise funds for wells so Makupo childen will have clean water.

When we reached the top of the mountain, we were gifted with a panoramic view of the full plain, the odd forest of green, bushy trees speckling the horizon. The trees atop Mount Kasungu were leafless, bearing bright orange flowers.

And there to greet us were Rastafarians, who raised their flag and tried to recruit us. They got a fire going, and they prayed and sang. We were told to remove our shoes out of respect for the sanctified ground, and were told about ja, and about hash.

According to Peter, a man from Makupo, criminals from a nearby prison are obliged to climb the mountain and harvest the wood at the top and carry it down all day as a utilitarian punishment.

* * *

We visited the group village headwoman of Bwanali, Alice, whose village will receive one of the two wells furnished by Royal West Academy. The 2,000 people using the village’s well are desperate for a new one. It is unusual for a woman to be in her position, which gives her authority over six or seven chiefs and their villages. Her ascendance has occurred because of the absence of uncles.

Alice asked for Walafana, her granddaughter, to make us a gift of hundreds of peanuts (called Malawian nuts in Malawi).

* * *

In the evenings, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer. Malawi is home to many faiths (although I seemed to be the only Jew). Mosques and churches line the same streets; Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses worship down the road from Catholics and Presbyterians.

I attended a church service in a cavernous room filled with people and warmth. I sat with five delegates from the village. Although it was a Presbyterian Church, the worshipers were of different denominations. Beria, a girl my age, informed me that she’d chosen to be a Seventh-Day Adventist, a denomination different from her parents.

The service was conducted in Chichewa. A dozen choirs took turns singing hymns, vibrant and swift-moving songs. They swayed and danced in the aisles while clapping their hands. We listened to the lengthy sermon while Bwerezani whispered a translation. A little boy in a nearby pew stared at me and grinned, blushing whenever I caught him at it.

Everyone gave to the collection. I was uncomfortable with giving publicly, but we passed our donations to one of the children anyway. Those who had no money gave special offerings, such as maize.

Everyone shook our hands as we left the church.

* * *

The days began to relax into a pattern. I awoke early, wandered through the village, took notes in my journal, and visited the schools. I spent a few hours playing with the children every day. We played catch, football and had the occasional tickle war.

In the cool evenings, when the stars dotted every inch of the sky and the constellations were unfamiliar, I was drawn outside to hear the women sing. Their voices were indescribably warm, warmer and more comforting than the heat of the fire they gathered around. It was like being home.



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