Published: May 18th 2007May 18th 2007
…when a mazungu comes to visit.
Without question, the most incredible experience of my trip to Malawi was the day and night I spent in the village of Njobvu. This is a “real live” African village which Central African Wilderness Safaris has helped establish a small tourist programme. A couple of huts have been built, in the local style, as accommodation for tourists, with associated “facilities”. A guide, Enoch, shows day and overnight visitors around the village, introducing them to the traditional healer and various villagers who demonstrate their crafts and skills, showing them round a typical home, and arranging for children and young people to sing, dance and chat to them. At present, however, they are only getting a couple of tourists a month, and I couldn’t over-recommend a trip if you are visiting the country (check out www.njobvuvillage.org).
I was met at the ferry crossing-point opposite Mvuu Main Camp by a couple of dampas - as became customary, one for me and one for my pack - and we set off down the dirt track, winding first through the palm trees fringing the Shire River and then on past fields of sorghum and maize, before turning
off onto a narrow, shoulder-width path that took us through the high grasses and crops and on to the village.
At the village’s main meeting hall, I was met by Enoch, a quietly-spoken, cheerful and intelligent young man whose main role is promoting the village’s tourism project. Although he comes across as well-educated, he has not yet completed his secondary education but, to his credit, is trying to do so by correspondence, although the cost is a very real issue. In Malawi, primary education, to standard eight, is free, but the four years of secondary education are not; in another context, I learnt that it costs MK3,500 per child per term (approximately Â£12.50), with a three-term system. Clearly, Enoch has done well in improving his language skills in his interaction with tourists and he was a very helpful interpreter.
Enoch formally welcomed me to the village and outlined the afternoon’s activities, before showing me to my accommodation. My hut was in the standard (for this village) brick-walled and grass-roofed design, with a low dividing wall creating two rooms inside. In the further room, a mattress, with bedding made up and a mosquito net already lowered, had been set
up with a pot of flowers for decoration. In the first room, a reed mat was set out onto which I could unpack. However, the baked-mud floor was so thoroughly swept that I wouldn’t have had a problem unpacking directly onto it. I did burn a mosquito coil that night, though the under-eve ventilation/24/7 air-conditioning meant that this was unlikely to be wholly successful.
The “facilities” were in a separate pair of structures a few yards off. A tiny round, mud-walled, thatch-roofed hut contained a long-drop toilet, complete with toilet roll (although Enoch pointed out that this had been obtained for me specifically: it is too expensive a luxury for the villagers to use themselves; they improvise). A reed-walled area contained the washing facilities: a large wooden pail would be filled with warm water late in the afternoon and first thing in the morning by “the ladies”, the “bathmat” was a small brick platform, there was a bar of soap, and, for those tourists who couldn’t master the self-splashing method, a mug had been provided. Enoch showed me the mug’s perforated bottom: this gives the user a makeshift showerhead, and, from experience, I can vouch for the fact that
the village band
Check out the improvised instruments...
it is of valuable assistance in hair-washing! Outside, there was a pail of water standing beside a short dead tree. Again, a perforated-bottomed mug was provided, this time with fewer perforations. The idea here is that you fill it with water and hang it up on a twig: thus you get a “running tap” under which to wash your hands. I was amazed by the ingenuity!
I’d asked Enoch at the outset if I should change my clothes: I was wearing shorts and didn’t want to cause offence. In true Malawian must-be-agreeable style, he said that I would not cause offence… but that I might be “more comfortable” in trousers or a skirt. I took the hint and turned my Â£5-on-Oxford Street “pashmina” into a sarong for the afternoon. Duly re-clothed, I returned to the main meeting area, a half-height grass-walled and thatch-roofed structure, sections of whose walls could be moved. Opposite the two chairs that had been set out against one wall, one for Enoch and one for me (though I quickly asked if I could sit on the matting instead: I didn’t like the isolation created by the chairs), the facing wall had been taken away to
reveal the dancers and the band, as well as the other children and young people gathered round as further audience.
The band was really impressive. There were two guitarists, one using a simple Spanish guitar donated by a previous visitor, and one using a homemade instrument, ingeniously made out of wood and rectangular in shape, and a drummer whose kit included half oil-drums and cymbals made out of two of the cogs around which a bicycle chain usually runs. I’d like to put him in front of the likes of Phil Collins: the kid was certainly giving it his all and had an excellent sense of rhythm. There was also a singer, but he needed professional mixing and a microphone to boost his performance: it was the instrumentalists that took the biscuit for me!
The dancers comprised a quartet of girls aged approximately 8-11 and a young boy, maybe 6 years of age. He was the clown of the group, every so often, and to great hilarity, breaking out of the synchronised steps to do his own thing. This meant, however, that he had to concentrate hard to get back into step with the others when he’d finished
his own piece, something that often took a while!
The audience of, perhaps, thirty included the first of several young girls that I was to see in the village who had a young sibling strapped to her back. Often the carrier would only be four or five years older than the carry-ee. But the girls were clearly used to this, bending down and adjusting the baby and retying the cloth with practised ease.
After a number of dances and songs, the performance concluded, the dancers dripping with sweat in the mid-afternoon heat, and Enoch escorted me to my next appointment, this time with one of the two traditional healers in the village. I’ve only met a traditional healer once before, and that was in the Gambia. There, the healer looked suitably wizened and had a gratifying number of (admittedly plastic) bottles holding iffy-looking liquids and things that one didn’t want to inspect too closely. The Njobvu guy didn’t quite come across in the same manner: he was middle-aged, wearing a football shirt and sporting a designer-looking gold watch (I tried to see if it was actually working and telling the right time - I did see the second
hand moving, but couldn’t quite see what time it was telling). Appropriately, however, he had a dozen or so ingredients set out in front of him, mainly parts of plant/tree roots and bark, and the purpose of each was explained to me, variously to tackle urinary infections, breach-position babies, problems with expelling afterbirth, erection and fertility problems, and prolonged fever/swelling. In each case, the medicine would take the form of a tea created by stewing the relevant ingredient. I asked if he had anything for people suffering from HIV/AIDS (a major problem in this country) and, intriguingly, he told me he did, and that he had a certificate from the government confirming he was a provider of HIV/AIDS cures, but he explained that the government could not publicise this fact owing to international political sensitivities. I didn’t pursue the point. Interestingly, he’d learned the skills from his mother (a time-consuming process, so he had not had time to go to school) and was teaching his daughter in turn: it seemed unusual to find such a gender-unspecific occupation.
Next on the agenda was visiting a “typical home”. Unexpectedly, the home we visited comprised a mini-compound, walled with the ubiquitous reeds
to create a private area onto which all of the buildings debauched. The main hut, like mine, was divided into two rooms, though I don’t know how many it was supposed to sleep, but I was very taken with the decoration: simple children’s drawings of local animals. I particularly liked the unexpectedly colourful elephant! There were also a kitchen hut, with the remains of two fires evident on the mud floor; a goat hut, with branches stacked against the doorway to prevent the goats’ escape (though, interestingly, the smell of goat was refreshingly absent, in sharp contrast to the Himba village I’d visited in Namibia last year); and a fourth hut which I assume slept more members of the family. There were ablution/toilet facilities in one corner. The overriding impression was of homeliness: yes, there might not be every creature comfort, but this was a home in which its occupants had evident pride, and I was charmed by it.
On our way back to the main meeting area, we passed a smoking hole in the ground and I was introduced to “African bread”, a mixture of maize flour, banana and, presumably, water, that was being baked in a deep
roasting tin on top of smoking coals and covered with banana leaves. I bought a couple of slices (“cubes” might be a better description!) and shared one piece around some of my unofficial entourage and wrapped the other one up for lunch on the bus the next day. The taste was of a nuttier (and, frankly, much nicer!) version of our banana bread.
Back at base, Enoch described the evening’s activities and told me that “the ladies” had brought me some warm water. I took the hint, and went off to ablute.
Much refreshed - I do love washing under the late afternoon, sunset skies - and mozzie-repellant-ed as much as possible, I made my way to the somewhat incongruous, but nevertheless neat, hedged area where a cooking fire and a fire-for-warmth/light were burning, the former distinctive by the three stones placed to support cooking pots over the embers (no iron tripods or potjes here!). Here I had my first lesson in African village life: how to make nsima, Malawi’s “staple diet”, a stiff porridge made out of maize flour (though I later discovered that it could also be made out of various other ingredients, including rice flour
and powdered dried banana). It’s an interesting exercise. Water is brought to the boil, a few handfuls of maize flour added (memories of making paste for papier mÃ¢chÃ© at school…), and the whole lot stirred thoroughly and cooked for a while. When it is deemed ready (the precise test for which is clearly a closely-held secret, or at least not shared with me), more handfuls of flour are added and beaten in. As the mixture becomes thicker, it obviously becomes harder and harder to beat it… as I discovered. My teacher was beating one handed; I needed two hands simply to stir the mixture in the pot, never mind beating it into submission! (This inferiority of muscle on my part was also demonstrated the next day when I was shown how to pound maize to de-husk it: I’d asked my teacher there how long it took her to pound the maize, and she explained that she could do about 50 kgs’ worth in a couple of hours. When Enoch saw my (lack of) prowess at this, he suggested I would take three days to do this amount!) When even my nsima teacher was struggling to beat more flour into the
mixture, she deemed it ready, and served it onto dinner plates using a dampened side plate to scoop it out and form small heaps of the mixture. These plates were then covered and taken away for “relishes” to be added. In due course, the plates reappeared… and they had multiplied. Not only did we (Enoch and myself) have a small hills of nsima and a delicious pumpkin leaf mixture on one plate, but we also had a second plate each, piled high with rice (in case the mazungu didn’t like nsima, I guess) and a stewed bean mixture, also delicious. But there was more than enough for us, so we shared our food with Enoch’s unofficial sidekick, Doctor. Enoch showed me how to form a ball of nsima and dip it in one or other of the “relishes” before popping it into my mouth, a process very similar to eating rice and curry in India. However, after we shared our meal with Doctor, I was entertained to see that the Malawians were using the teaspoons to eat, whereas it was the mazungu who was still using her hand!
Before dinner, Enoch had explained that the people would like to
talk to me, effectively a “Q&A” round the fire after dinner, and had agreed a cut-off time with me (otherwise, I gather, conversation could go on until the wee sma’ hours!). I’d imagined a great influx of people, from his description, but, in fact, people - largely young people and children - came in dribs and drabs as they finished their own dinner. Whatever I’d expected by way of questions from the villagers, I was in for a shock. It started off predictably enough. I kicked off by asking Enoch and Doctor about their initiation ceremony (the existence of this had come up in conversation earlier) and I learnt about circumcision (following which, I was told, the 12-year old boys are supposed to have sex to ensure that the wound heals properly: this seemed a touch improbable, both physiologically and from the point of view of who on earth would they have sex with, but I didn’t pursue the point), and the “rules of life” in which the boys are instructed. At present, these largely relate to treatment of, and help and respect for, their elders, but we discussed whether the initiation ceremony could also be used to educate the boys about HIV/AIDS. Lacking an old enough young woman, I didn’t find out anything about the female initiation ceremony, but I was told that the girls were circumcised too. This surprised me: I hadn’t appreciated that female circumcision took place this far south in Africa, and, certainly, expats here do not believe that it takes place in Malawi, but I have no further information on this.
Then the kids’ questions started. Opening gambit: do you believe in God? Do you go to church? Whack! Not exactly a gentle start, but I tried to explain agnosticism. Talk about an own goal: the next question was, if you don’t believe in God, how do you think the world was created? Remember that all of this discussion is being conducted through Enoch as interpreter. Malawians tend to be a relatively religious lot: Christianity is, nationally, the majority religion, and Njobvu is 50/50 Christian/Muslim. Yikes! From there, we covered slightly more predictable topics: farming and fishing practices in the UK, the UK’s system of government/politics, and sport.
HIV/AIDS provided a lengthy topic for discussion: do people in the UK use condoms? (cue me trying to do my bit for AIDS awareness and safe sex practices); do people in the UK have access to ARVs (anti-retroviral drugs)?); and, from me, what happens about HIV/AIDS education in the village? (answer: very little).
As discussion continued, I became aware that several of the smaller children were starting to curl up on the mat and on the ground and close their eyes. As it happened, there was a hiatus in questions and I suggested that we draw things to a close to let people get to their beds. I was on brain-overload from the day’s events and, once I’d prised open my mosquito net (it had been tucked very firmly under the mattress), I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, the quiet mutter of neighbours’ ongoing conversations notwithstanding.
The next morning, I dressed and abluted briefly, only to meet Enoch to be told that the ladies had put out more warm water for me. A girl could get a complex about this regularity of cleaning hints! Joking apart, though, it was an unexpected luxury to be able to start the day scrubbed and hair-washed. Breakfast was taken in the village meeting area, and comprised, as I’d been told the previous afternoon, boiled sweet potatoes (though in a now-customary generous portion), but with the further unexpected accompaniment of tea. I’ve had infinitely worse, and infinitely odder, breakfasts: sweet potatoes were actually very agreeable.
The afternoon before, Enoch had pointed out the school for local orphans, those kids whose parents have died and who are being raised by grandparents. The school was simply a clearing under a large shady tree. I was enchanted to be taken along, and very humbled by what I saw. Here were 15-20 five-year-olds (at least, they all seemed to introduce themselves as being five, but it begged the question of where orphans of other ages were educated) chanting, both in groups and individually, their way through the alphabet, the months of the year and the days of the week - in English. They then went on to “introductions”, answering the English questions put to them by their teacher as to their name, home and age. I later “introduced” myself with the same questions. I’d hoped that the children would ask me the questions, but they seemed too intimidated by this mazungu to do so, so I questioned myself and the teacher went on to reiterate, explain and clarify my answers. I’d described my home as being “London, England” and that it was about “ten thousand kilometres away” (Chichewa, like Xhosa, uses the English words for numbers so this was a phrase they could understand), and I could see the teacher trying to explain, in Chichewa, the enormity of this distance in terms of the number of times one of the children would have to walk from home to school and back again. This caused great hilarity as her gesticulations became faster and faster, yet still continued, mapping out 10,000 kms’ worth of distance in locally-comprehensible terms.
Some of the kids were late to school and were supposed to recite, in English, “sorry I am late, madam”. When they didn’t - and each of the late arrivals seemed muted by the public exposure - and when a child messed up any of the other recitations, the other children, led by the teacher, chanted, in Chichewa, “you’re stupid”. However iffy this might be from a western, touchy-feely, psycho-sociological teaching perspective, at least it was countered by chants of “well done, well done” when this was merited.
I was reluctant to leave. I had been made to feel so welcome, this mazungu dipping into their lives, and it was a world that was, somehow, timelessly remote from everything else in my life, yet very appealing. But two dampas, one already loaded with my pack, and the Mvuu ferry were waiting for me, and it was time to move on.